A Day in Bradwell Bay
It's easy to get lost in this wilderness. You spend so much time looking down, blazes can be missed. In a couple of burnt-out areas "forest fire of '98," says Kent there are NO blazes at all, just a faint footpath, or a bit of string.
Looking down, you see the subtleties of the swamp. Delicate sundew plants, glistening with droplets on reddish-orange leaves; a box turtle, its shell rotten with algae. Three hikers manage to wade by a baby snake, its slight black and red frame drawn back into a pose saying, "don't mess with me, I mean business!" before I point it out, ready to strike at ankles. Another more colorful box turtle cowers in a mudbank. Oddly veined in deep crimson, bladder-like cups of green line one section of trail. "Pitcher plant," says Linda. Delicately fringed bursts of white bog buttons break up the greenery of the marsh.
Kent points upward. "This is what's special about this forest." Towering above, a centuries-old loblolly pine, from its height and circumference likely one of the oldest in Florida. Around it, many similar neighbors. "The loggers never made it back here," Kent says.
After four hours of slogging, wading, slipping, we reach the hammock another victim of the forest fire, but lively with young shrubs, yellow flags of Carolina jessamine, vivid buttery sprays of polygala. Lunch. Relax. Pour water from boots. A pointless pursuit, it turns out.
Tom's bummed that we're no longer knee-deep in water, the lush hammock the only place hikers can safely stop and camp in this section thick with sweetbay magnolia and the elusive black titi. Small puddles begin to appear in the trail; he stomps through them like a happy child, spraying squishy mud on Linda, Kent, and me.
"Bet your mother never made you write 'I will not stomp in mud puddles' one hundred times," I grouse, as he gleefully stomps onward. Water deepens, rises over boots again. This part of the swamp is different, though-these stretches are clear, the bottoms a solid limestone base; white sand sparkles through water tinted in hues of iced tea.
We reach the pinewoods. No more swamp! Collective sigh of relief. Only two more soggy obstacles ahead the branches of Monkey Creek. Water flows swiftly through the first crossing. "Watch out for that dark spot!" Kent warns. "It's a deep, deep hole!" I stop mid-stream in the current to take a photo, fascinated by the layers of color in the water, hues of brown, golden orange, yellow, like a parfait.
In the uplands, fringe trees turn the distant woods to a white mist, a brilliant backdrop for the sand pine scrub. We follow an old road, pausing frequently to muse at bear scat.
"Bear aren't stupid," Kent says. "Looks like this is a bear highway, all right. Would you crash through palmetto when you could amble down the trail?"
It's been a good hike, a tiring hike. Unlike last year's crew, who lost a cell phone and a watch in the murky waters, the only tribulations today have been the loss of a water bottle "Aaaaaaahhh!" yells Tom, falling in a hole. Glug. Bottle sinks to bottom and a forgotten camera, retrieved by the hiker who'd left it behind at lunchtime. Still, my muscles ache. My boots feel like lead.
"You earn every step here," Kent said.
And I did. Whew!
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication