Hot, tired and thirsty, I wondered how a "swamp" could have no water.
"I should have brought that extra water bottle," I told my friend, Aaron Freedman. "At this rate, we'll never make it."
We had left the Oasis Visitor Center on Highway 41 at 9 a.m. with our overloaded backpacks later than expected, yet we still hoped to hike halfway (15 miles) across the wilderness called the Big Cypress National Preserve by nightfall on the first day of a two-day trip.
It was February, but the ranger told us to bring at least 1 gallon of water each per day since the backcountry pumps we would encounter could no longer be counted on to add to our supply.
By 1 p.m., we had gone through our first day's ration. Time to make a decision. Press on and hope to find water but risk dehydration and heatstroke? Or play it safe and turn back, then return another day, better prepared?
A winter walk
The "Big" in Big Cypress Swamp describes the vastness of this 2,400-acre national preserve, not the size of the dwarf cypress trees that dot the South Florida landscape. The name "swamp" is actually a misnomer since the area has a variety of habitat, including forests of slash pine, hardwood hammocks, cypress domes and wet prairies.
Fifteen years ago, I hiked the same section of the Florida Trail that runs from the Tamiami Trail in the south to Alligator Alley in the north but had to turn back because much of the path was covered by 2 feet of water.
Most backpackers who travel this trail do so in the dry, cooler months when most of the surface water has either evaporated or been soaked up by the limestone rocks that lie just beneath the soil.
But an unseasonably warm winter had left the land parched. In the middle of the pines, tiny frogs were skipping along the forest floor in search of water. Most of the ponds had dried up. In some spots, pits, the size of a manhole covers, had formed in the middle of the trail.
Fat cats, skinny dogs
Big Cypress is known as one of the last refuges of the endangered Florida Panther. This is also bear country, and backcountry travelers must take care to hang or hide their food so these opportunistic omnivores don't rummage through their camps in the middle of night in search of food.
Jeep trails snake their way through the preserve, and if you are not careful, it is easy to find yourself wandering around in circles. At times, the Florida Trail follows the old "roads," but hikers must keep a keen eye out for the orange blazes that signal a turn.
"I think we are lost," I told my four fellow travelers. "I haven't seen a trail marker in 10 minutes."
We had been preoccupied following animal tracks down of the muddy paths. It was obvious that deer, wild turkey and possibly, panther and black bear use the roads as an easy way to get through the bush.
"Do you think this track was made by a cat," I asked them. "Whatever it is, it has big feet."
Ten minutes later, back on the trail, we discovered the source of the mystery footprints — a lost hunting dog.
The skinny hound look famished. So I gave it a piece of beef jerky and let it drink some of my precious water out of a tin cup. As we debated what to do with the canine, a whistle echoed through the woods and the dog took off running.
Dying for a drink
Historically, an average of 60 inches of rain falls on Big Cypress each year. The wet season usually begins in May when thunderstorms roll in from the Gulf of Mexico every afternoon like clockwork. By the fall, the rains taper off and the ground gradually dries out.
But in recent years, the level of rainfall has been far below normal. The drought has taken its toll on the landscape and wild fires have become a danger. Along the trail, you can see evidence of past uncontrolled burns.
Walking through the scrub on an unseasonably warm winter's day, one understands why water is the lifeblood in an ecosystem such as this. The "swamp" is dry. So are we.
We decide to drop our packs, pitch camp just 7 miles in and explore some side trails before the sun drops below the horizon. We hike back in the coolness of the following morning. The Florida Trail will always be there. We can return with more water on another, colder day.
Too bad Big Cypress' other residents cannot do the same.
Counties: Monroe, Collier
Start point: Loop Road terminus
End point: Big Cypress Seminole reservation
Trial heads: northern end at Interstate 75 rest area (mile marker 63); central access at Oasis Visitors Center; southern end at Loop Road
Designated campsites: Eight
Trail partner: Big Cypress National Preserve, visitors center, (239) 695-1201, www.nps.gov/bicy
More information: Florida Trail Association, 1-877-HIKE-FLA, www.floridatrail.org; Friends of Big Cypress, (239) 695-0376, www.friendsofbigcypress.org
Source: Florida Trail Association