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.