Life's Pilgrims

Life is a journey, and we are all pilgrims traveling its varied paths.

Family Trips :
Backpacking with the family.

By Karen Anderson

Original Article March 30, 2014 - Updated April 29, 2018
Ten years after my first backpacking trip, we are getting ready for our first outing of our 2014 season, heading to the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve for the long holiday weekend in January. The Park is located about an hour north of Okeechobee, Florida and just across the river to the east of the Avon Park Bombing Range. We have been camping and hiking there for about four years now as this area has become one of our favorite places because of its remoteness. It is usually very quiet during the day except for the breeze and insects. At night you can usually hear the coyotes out on the prairie and see the stars scattered across the sky.

To Grasshopper Trail

The trail to the water.

Evening Sunset

Sunset behind a tree that we have watched for may years.

Military Trail

Hiking along Military Trail

The hiking trails wind through open areas of grass six to eight feet high and saw palmettos interspersed with hammocks of massive Live Oaks, Cabbage Palms and sloughs. There is an area for RV camping, but we always hike to the primitive campsite that is a short 2.1 mile hike from the parking lot. We walk one hundred feet from the primitive camp and lose all cell phone service and find the open prairie vistas that give you a clear view to both the east and west coasts of Florida. We often comment about being able to see the curve of the earth out there.

Our first trip was with our two boys and several members of our immediate family. Friday night we hiked out 2.5 miles to the primitive campsite. As we set up our tents we heard a noise that sounded like a buzz saw, but could not figure out what it really was, knowing that there were no roads, woodmills, or anything like that nearby. So we dismissed it as a mystery and went to bed. Early Saturday morning we were awakened by the first coyote howls, the long and mournful hunting howls and barks of coyotes. They sounded far away at first but kept coming closer. My husband and I were now lying in our tent fully awake and discussing what we should do. We had never had experiences with coyotes before, much less a pack on the hunt. As they continued to come closer to camp, we could hear the individual barks of the coyotes and the terrified squeals of the wild hog they were hunting. We sat there breathless as the noises started moving closer, and ending with the kill just short of our campsite. That is a sound I will never forget. After everything quieted down again, our nephew, six years old at the time, asks, “Were those puppy dogs?”
“Yes, those were puppy dogs.” That ended up being one of the toughest trips I have ever been on and set up a few precedents for all of our trips to the prairie.
We set out Saturday morning on a day hike with the intent of reaching a footbridge about 8 miles, round trip, into the backcountry near the Kissimmee River. We decided we would take Military Trail, a three mile sugar sand road that heads west from the main parking lot to the river, and then head south on Cow Camp Trail to reach the footbridge. It was towards the end of October when the weather starts getting cooler. That year, we were in the middle of a drought and the cold front that was supposed to come through didn’t; that left the temperatures into the upper 90’s to low 100’s and absolutely no wind that day.

If you had asked me later, Military Trail was 100 miles long because the saw palmetto flats never seemed to change and there was no shade until we hit the intersection to Cow Camp Trail. We all stopped for lunch exhausted and out of water. Chris was annoyed at himself, he had packed our ceramic Katadyn filter for the weekend, but left it in camp because “we wouldn’t need it and at three pounds, it was too heavy for a day hike”. Luckily for the group, our cousin did have his Katadyn backpacking filter (a newer fiber filter) so he and Chris took off looking for a water source and saying something about how they did not want a “Crocodile Dundee moment” trying to fill up with water.
They came back about thirty minutes later with only half of the water our group needed. The pond the water came from had been an ankle deep mud bog and to top it off, the water filter broke. We divided up the water as fairly between everyone as we could and decided to head back to camp instead of pushing to the footbridge. From camp we would load up all the water bladders and Nalgene bottles and two of us would make the 2.5 mile hike back to the parking lot to refill everything for the night.

The water filter was our first piece of gear to break at Kissimmee Prairie and would not be our last. Over the years, for whatever reason, this place is the hardest on our gear. Every year we have had something fail, break, get lost, or just not work. Things that have worked for years will all of a sudden break. We have laughed, and call this our acid test for any gear. I am happy to say that Katadyn replaced our cousin’s water filter, free of charge, with a new one after he sent the broken one back to them.

With our water running short and temperatures running high, we headed back to the east on Military Trail returning to camp. As we reached the halfway point we heard the same strange sound we had heard the night before. Turning back to the west, we saw two A-10 fighters gracefully wheeling and spinning in the sky as they ran practice strafing runs. Just west of the preserve and across the Kissimmee River is the Avon Park Bombing Range. We stood there and watched them commenting on how different they sounded here from the way the guns sound at the air shows. 

We were not sure if we ever wanted to go back when our cousin suggested a return trip the next year. Chris and I agreed that you never make a final decision based on one experience, and made the trip. On our second trip, the weather was much nicer this time, lows in the 50’s and highs in the mid 70’s and a constant breeze on the prairie which we now know is normal. Still hoping to reach the footbridge, we decided to follow Grasshopper Sparrow Trail, even though there is a section about three-quarters of a mile that is always under water about knee deep. This did not make Chris’ father and uncle very happy, they were concerned about getting wet, but mostly they were concerned about alligators. After several assurances that alligators were not in that part of the prairie, we set out on Saturday morning. 

At the water’s edge, we changed out of our boots and into water shoes and converted our pants to shorts. While we were adjusting our gear the swamp buggy tour, loaded with tourists drives past us. This made Chris feel a little better as he felt the swamp buggy would scare off any snakes or alligators. We put on our day packs and headed out into the marsh, wading through the knee-deep water that was speckled with the water bugs stirred up by the buggy’s passing. All of a sudden there were hundreds of tiny little birds flying over the water, dive bombing then skimming along the surface swooping up into the sky just to turn around for another run. I wondered what kind of birds they could be but they were moving too fast for me to get a good look at them. I made a mental note and asked about them at the ranger’s station the next day. I found out that they were Grasshopper Sparrows and they only live in that section of the prairie, nowhere else, and they are endangered.
We continued about 100 yards further up the trail when Chris’s uncle got one of his shoes stuck in the mud. As he wiggled around trying to work it loose the FRMS radio he had borrowed from his son-in-law fell into the water. He got loose with both shoes on his feet and we continued to the end of the water where we dried out our water shoes the best we could and had a quick snack.
We kept going until a little after lunch when we found some shade where the Grasshopper Sparrow Trail intersects with the Cow Camp Trail. We ate lunch and rested in the cool shade, debating amongst the group who wanted to find the footbridge. Those who wanted to get back to camp won, and so we took the Cow Camp Trail to Military, and back to base camp.
The third year the family went together, our cousin suggested bike riding on the trails to make it to the footbridge. That year was another extreme on the prairie. It had rained for a solid month before we planned to go, but we loaded up our mountain bikes and headed north. When we checked in the ranger told us to take Military Trail from the parking lot to the cut off to the primitive campsite (where we normally base camp) because the entire prairie was flooded. So, it was 11:00 p.m. on a chilly Friday night that we headed out on Military Trail riding our bikes at first, then walking them through the thick sludge of wet sugar sand because we couldn’t ride them without getting stuck. We hadn’t gotten far when I stopped, listening carefully.
“Chris, do you hear that?” It was a series of quiet little barks and whines that had caught my attention.
“Yeah, I hear it. Must be the coyotes. Sounds like they are following us. Just keep going, they are far enough away it’s not a problem.”
It was a little unnerving, being out there, knowing the coyotes were following us as we continued to push and fight to get the bikes down the trail, but they left us as we made the turn west towards camp.
Saturday morning Chris and I got up, ate breakfast and headed out on our bikes determined, once again, to reach the footbridge. No one else wanted to try riding their bikes out that day. We didn’t make it 100 yards down the path when Chris’ rear tire simply shredded apart, the tube making a loud pop and hissing noise. We didn’t pack any spare tires or inner tubes. There was nothing to fix it so we headed back to camp. We stayed in camp until lunchtime and then walked the bikes back to the van. Luckily, I had packed my camera for the weekend so we took pictures for the rest of the day.

Over the years Kissimmee Prairie has worked its way into our hearts. The extreme conditions, the challenges, the wildlife, and the solitude make it a place unlike any other that we have visited. We had all talked about making a fourth extended family trip out but we have all had other obligations to fulfill, so there have been no more trips. I often say that life sometimes gets in the way of living. I hope we will have family trips again in the future with with our own boys as they move forward with their lives, but we have yet to reach that intersection of our life's trails.

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