Life is a journey, and we are all pilgrims traveling its varied paths.
Every year for the past five or six years we have made a pilgrimage to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park and I didn't want this year to be an exception.
"It'll be fun" I told Chris. "We can go out for four days and get some great night shots, you can play with your radios and we can have some time just the two of us," I said.
After an uneventful drive, and a quick supper, we arrived at the Ranger's Station at 9:40 and called the ranger on duty to let them know we were there and hiking out on the prairie. There was no answer so we left a message. We drove around to the parking lot, placed a note stating "Anderson party of two arrived at 10:00 pm. Hiking out on the prairie. Will return tomorrow 2/12/15 for formal check-in and parking permit" on the dashboard and headed out.
The route we ended up using is called Military Trail and it is a sugar sand road that cuts a straight path through the prairie. The roadbed is raised high enough that it has always been clear of water for us. We were going to use the road for about two miles, then take a side trail that would lead into the primitive campsites. The road itself wasn't so bad. The sand was compacted into a firm surface and was easy to walk on. This part of the trail was not entirely uneventful because we picked up a bobcat about 75 feet off the trail. It only tracked us as we walked by, but it was a little disconcerting as bobcats can be really aggressive and, unlike the coyotes so far, very quiet.
After about an hour we reached the trail and took the left turn that would take us to the campsites and ran into more water. Here the terrain is more grassy and open; so we could walk through the thick grass on the left side of the path. It was still squishy with the water coming up around the bottom of our boots, but much shallower than the mid-calf depth of the trail. We slogged along until we were just shy of the turn to camp and it dried out enough that we could actually walk on the path. We were encouraged and started talking about setting up the tent and starting a fire to dry our socks and boots.
Our hopes were crushed as we made the left hand turn guiding us into the primitive camping area and saw something we had never seen before. Water was in the campsites and the whole area was flooded. We finally made it to the pavilion in the main campsite by 12:30 Thursday morning, exhausted and now worried. We took off our packs and Chris looked around the campsites hoping to find a dry spot for the tent and a place to build a small fire while I rested. He came back to the pavilion with me.
"Let's just 'S.T.O.P.' a minute and think." I looked at him "You know we're not lost; we know exactly where we are." S.T.O.P. is a code that we teach our scouts to follow when they find themselves lost or in a bad situation. Stop and Think through your Options then come up with a Plan. He smiled, "Yes, I know, but here is the situation. Everything is under water, including the fire rings. We only have two options, the first one is to set up the tent here on the pavilion, tough it out tonight with no fire to dry out our gear and hike out in the morning or we can hike back out tonight. Whichever one you feel you can do best".
Great, I thought, no pressure there. But I was cold enough and wet enough and with no way to dry our shoes out; it didn't matter. The reality was only one choice. "Let's get a quick snack and an energy shot then head back to the parking lot." He sat down across from me at the table and grabbed a handful of trail mix, "Are you going to be okay? Can you make it back out?"
I paused, knowing his concern. This was my first big outing since my surgery about four months ago, but there really was no decision. A night out there would have been sleepless, cold, and very miserable so I told him, "I have to be. Going back is really our only move." We ate a little bit more, took our energy shots with a water chaser then geared up for the return hike.
We slogged back along the side of the path until we hit Military Trail where we had agreed to take a brief stop. The whole night I had been looking at the stars and thinking it would be a beautiful night for stargazing so when we stopped I turned off my headlamp and had Chris do the same thing and we both looked up into the night sky. It was simply breathtaking. The stars looked as though you could just reach up and touch them and directly above us the arm of the Milky Way stretched like a line of fine red sand tossed across the sky. Even without our headlamps the starlight made it bright enough we could see the dim ribbon of the dirt road stretching off in both directions.
As we turned to the east for the final stretch we saw the moon rising above the horizon. It was a huge, blood-red, waning moon that shone dimly through the fog that was now starting to blanket the prairie and a sight that made everything else just disappear. We pulled one of the cameras out and took a few pictures then started down the trail. We didn't see the bobcat again but a fog had rolled over the prairie and made for a little "entertainment". Our visibility varied anywhere from 20 to 120 feet and hung about eight feet above the ground. In some spots it was at eye level and we could see our headlamps bobbing above and below it; in other spots it was so thick we had to hold a flashlight down at arm's length to see. We arrived back at the parking lot at two o'clock in the morning and debated on if we wanted to just go on home or spend the night in a hotel. We decided on going on home after Chris pointed out that we would have to unload and reload the van and home really wasn't much further down the road from Okeechobee anyway. We stopped by the ranger's station on the way out and left a note on the door stating:
Anderson party of two arrived at 10:00 pm hiked out to primitive campsite at 12:30 am to find it COMPLETELY FLOODED. Departed parking lot by 2:00 am departed Kissimmee State Prairie. Will call later to talk with you.
We drove home stopping briefly at the McDonald's in Okeechobee to get some coffee for both of us and a hamburger for Chris. We arrived home at 4:00 am, unloaded, showered and made it to bed around 5:00. We had been up for about 24 hours at this point and we were exhausted.
Chris called the park late Thursday morning to speak to the ranger's office. "Good morning Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park how may I help you?" the lady answered cheerily.
"This is Chris Anderson".
"Ooooh, yes. We just read your note." she replied, not quite as cheerily. After a lengthy, but plesent conversation which addressed our concerns with what happened, Chris was ready to say good by and hang up as the lady asked, "Does this mean you aren't coming back for the weekend?"
"Umm, No." Chris replied.