Wading Florida's Ocean-to-Lake Trail

Florida Trail early days. 054.jpg

The journey I made in Florida scarcely resembled the itinerary I sketched out before leaving. I’d intended to circle Lake Okeechobee and then head north through the Central portion of the trail. But numerous construction sites along the dike - and the somewhat hostile No Trespassing signs, fences and gates that accompany such activity - deterred me. Often I encountered what I came to call the “Corps of Engineers Special”: A fence right before a bridge that I could have otherwise crossed in order to get on the highway and walk the shoulder. But the improvisation I was forced to do in such situations often made for some good adventures, so I shouldn’t complain. And let’s not forget that the Corps is responsible for creating and maintaining this section of the trail to begin with.

I decided to take the Ocean to Lake Trail because I was near to it anyway and, most importantly, it offered the kind of wildness and diversity that I’d been craving through all those weeks in the much more tame and cultivated Lake Okeechobee area. I found a visitor center and then was able to pick up the trail from there. The change happened at once: Tall pine forest, then onto a dirt road that wound in a tuning fork shape around a mine, farmland all around. This felt like a prelude to the actual trail. It started in earnest as tree cover grew denser and I had to wade through water in places.

I liked being in this more challenging locale, away from the too-civilized portion around Okeechobee, because the rigors of the swamp made me feel like finally something was being done about the unanswered dilemma, which was my inability to feel like the world, the surface world that we eat and sleep and love in, while beautiful in places and certainly holding out its treasures and epiphanies, could never quite be enough. If you think like that then you must suspect the existence of something else, something Greater or Beyond, and that little glimpse with your inner eye is what drives you. You can’t be content until you’ve uncovered that other place, until the key is in your hands.

But the Ocean to Lake Trail was brief - I traveled with three fellow hikers, and we made it to the beach of Hobe Sound within four days - and the riddle was still unanswered when we arrived. At the time I was more concerned with a shower and a meal that consisted of something other than granola, dried wasabi peas, peanuts, sunflowers kernels and dried fruit. I got my first Uber experience after my companions talked me through the process. That ride took me back to Okeechobee and my central dilemma,

Probably 90% os the second day’s hike involved sloshing through water. I’d brought crocks along for this purpose, but soon decided to just leave my shoes on and embrace the brutality, as they say. You can’t hike all day in crocks; the rubber plus the wet would blister your feet hideously. And it’s just not feasible to keep changing footwear all day. I filtered water that ranged from green to the hue of dark beer or orange soda. Third day was slightly less water but more mud, the kind you have to constantly fight against because of the suction it creates. We spent the night at the Everglades Youth Camp, where we were able to order pizza and I drank an inordinate amount of cola.

The trail offers spectacular views of numerous lakes and marshes. On day 4 I hiked with my clothes ties to my pack to dry in the sun and lost a few items along the way, among them a pair of my favorite shorts that had accompanied my since the beginning of my adventure. Tent and tarp needed to be laid out in the sun, too, because of heavy condensation during the night. We resupplied at a plaza about twenty miles from trail’s end and then finished up with some brief road walking and then a stretch of sand dunes. Day 6 found us in Hobe Sound with a view of the ocean.