A Night Alone in Big Cypress

“I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately… and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach.” — Henry David Thoreau

Sitting in my office during the week, I often day dream about getting into my car and driving off into the South Florida wilderness. When the day dreams become obsessive and intrusive (as they all eventually do), I know it’s time for my next adventure. As the cool weather settled over South Florida, I set a date for a random Thursday (I prefer mid-week adventures), submitted a day off request (Reason: personal), and I was westward bound into one of my favorite places — Big Cypress.

Although I had a general trajectory for my expedition, I didn’t have set plans, as I like to leave room for spontaneity, but I packed my camera gear, enough food and water for a day, and my camping equipment before setting off into the wild.

Leaving the density and noise of the city and entering the Everglades from Tamiami Trail (US Highway 41) always feels spiritually cleansing to me. Watching civilization fall away in my rear-view mirror as I drive in and out of cellphone service into the river of grass, it reminds me of how lucky I am to live so close to such beauty and it fills me with excitement of what may be out there, yet to be seen and experienced. Alligators appear suddenly in my periphery and vanish just as quickly as I drive parallel with the canal that spans the mossy-tree laden length of the road. Woodstorks, herons, and osprey fly overhead, weaving through the bald cypress and mahogany hammocks, keeping my head on a swivel.

This drive normally would take me to Fakahatchee Strand, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, with a potent energy of primitive times preserved — although it was almost lost to housing development & logging operations in the 40’s and 50’s, which makes its existence all the more precious. However, as I approached my exit to Fakahatchee, I decided not to stop and hike there, but instead I turned and headed northward up State Road 29 to Bear Island.

I hadn’t been exploring Bear Island yet, but it has been pinned on my map for months, so I thought it would be a great day to check it out. I arrived around 1:30 pm to a gate that required me to get out, open it, drive through, get out, and close it behind me. This was new and exciting and filled me with anticipation of what awesome wildlife lay just on the other side of this barrier separating worlds: the constructed from the natural.

My journey into Bear Island was cut painfully short when, after passing through the first gate off of SR 29, I encountered a second — and this one was locked. The gate allowed for pedestrians to walk around it, but prevented cars from entering. As I was inspecting the lock on the gate to see if I could somehow bypass it, a woman was walking along side her son driving his mini jeep on the gravel road that forks between the Bear Island entrance and her property. I spoke with her briefly and she advised that I would have needed to arrange entry with a park ranger to enter with my car. Bummer.

But instead of being entirely disappointed, I was more so blown away by the fact that she and her family lived on this property, tucked in between two gates and abutting Big Cypress. What an incredible place to have a home! She agreed, but also told me that she gets plenty of strangers walking up to her front door asking for a key to open the gate despite the private property signs conspicuously placed to avoid such intrusions. She told me the trail was beautiful and worth exploring by foot, but I decided to come back another day when I could drive through to where I had intended to go, which was several miles away from the entrance. I said goodbye as she and her son walked down to the first gate and shut it for me as I set off south again down SR 29. When I hit Alligator Alley, I turned east.

https://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-1013375114-recreation-area-i75-alligator-alley-florida-everglades

Driving on Alligator Alley (I-75) is awful compared to the lightly-traveled country road I had just come from. It cuts right through the middle of Big Cypress, but rather than the 2 lanes & swampy scenery of Tamiami Trail, it is a 4-6 lane highway with invasive plants lining the length of the road which obstructs any views of the Everglades along the way. Nevertheless, there are beautiful trails that branch off perpendicular to Alligator Alley into Big Cypress, one of which I had clearly in mind as my road trip terminus.

My on-foot adventure began at the far end of the Collier County Rest Area where the Florida Trail intersects and hikers can head south into the swamps or north into the pines. I went north towards the Blue Trail and my ultimate destination: Carpenter Camp.

I did this hike/camp with my family once back in April last year and I mentally marked it as a great spot for my first solo overnight camp for one main reason — I had cellphone service. Despite being armed with my gun, bear spray, and a knife, there’s still comfort that comes with being able to call for help if needed. Although I did put my phone on airplane mode for much of my stay, the option to contact civilization was enough to ease some of my greatest fears. As I’ve told anyone who asks —as a woman hiking and camping alone in the wilderness, the scariest animal I could encounter is another human.

It was about 3 pm when I parked my car at the trailhead and resolved to hike in and stay the night in Big Cypress. I didn’t have a proper hiking pack, so I packed as much of my supplies as I could into my backpack & carried my tent & sleeping back in a large tote bag. This was bad packing planning (and I learned my lesson), but I was dead-set on having my adventure.

I felt so much excitement passing through the gate and shutting it behind me, knowing that I was on my own from then on. I also knew that sunset was only 3 hours away and I would need to make camp before night fall — so off I went.

The hike from the trailhead to Carpenter Camp was 2.7 miles. First, I hiked along the Florida Trail which was a gravel road wide enough for a car that followed a canal full of gators. They were sunning on the banks and didn’t pay me any mind. Hunting is not permitted in this area and is frequented by hikers so they don’t fear humans in their vicinity. Eventually I turned off of the Florida Trail at the marker for the Blue Trail that would lead me to my home for the night.

The bag I was carrying with my tent and sleeping bag proved to be quite burdensome as I navigated the overgrown portions of the trail. Not only was it cumbersome, but it rustled more trees than I would have liked, as I try to stay quiet in hopes of a wildlife encounter. I’ve previously seen deer on this trail, but whether it was the noise I was making or the fact that it was mid-afternoon, I did not see any animals other than a few birds flying overhead and some lizards scurrying into the bushes.

Side note: One of the things you absolutely must get used to while hiking anywhere in South Florida is the endless rustling of leaves caused by lizards. If you’re not used to them, they will have you constantly thinking something bigger and more dangerous lurks in the bushes.

In hindsight, I recognize that I was a little too anxious to get to my campsite and put down my bags, and did not take enough time to admire the beauty of the trail. I was also worried about the possibility of arriving to the campsite and seeing another person set up there, which would mean I’d either need to hike another 2 miles or so to the next campsite, or head back to my car — both of which would take until after the sun had set.

However, as I turned the final corner coming up on Carpenter Camp around 4:30 pm, I could see that it was blissfully unoccupied, and so I was home.

First things first — shelter. I scouted the campsite for an ideal spot for my tent. I noticed since my last camping trip out here that someone had moved the “grill” (i.e., a metal grate over a shallow disintegrating metal ring) to a nook tucked around the back. I also found a pop up tent intentionally hidden in some bushes covered up with some palm fronds. This put me on alert that this may be someone’s part-time home, but I remained hopeful that they’d stay else where that night.

I also surveyed the area to avoid setting up my tent under any “widow makers”- or large dead trees that can drop branches or fall entirely and kill or injure anyone underneath. I finally settled on a nice soft spot abutting some bushes, tucked away where hikers could not see me from the trail. My tent didn’t take long to get up, and the weather was nice so I left the rain tarp off, hopefully giving me a star-filled-sky view from bed.

Next up — fire. I didn’t bring any food to cook with me, but I wanted a fire anyway. It’s good for morale as the sun is setting and with both darkness and mosquitos arriving. I first made sure my fire pit was enclosed with rocks and cleared out any flammable debris on the outskirts. The last thing I wanted was to be responsible for any brush fires, especially since my water supply was limited and I’d be unlikely to put it out if one started. Then I began collecting larger branches and tinder materials & placing them in the pit. I brought one fire starter with me, and luckily it did the job. The fire ignited quickly and I continued to collect and add firewood as its flames waxed and waned through the evening.

With the fire burning and the sun setting, it was time for magic hour photography. I spent the next hour or so taking photos of the westward glare beaming through the trees at eye level. It’s such a beautiful time of day in the pine forests. As it got dark enough to settle in around 7:30 pm, I let the fire smolder out and watched through my lens as its smoke trail rose up in front of the sun’s final flare before extinguishing itself below the horizon.

Even after darkness sets in, it still takes a little while for the stars to arrive, but once they do, it truly feels like a good friend showing up to keep you company. I believe I actually said, “hello” as they began dotting the navy backdrop. Eventually they all seemed to burst forth at once— every where you looked, even with the half moon shining brightly in the cloudless February sky.

Side note: I planned this trip when there would be at least some moonlight. The darkness of a new moon is something I’ve experienced camping once before with others nearby, and I am definitely not ready to face that kind of fear alone yet.

All evening there had been a continuous chorus of crickets and cicadas, but suddenly, for a short time, they all stopped. Although I had brought my journal with me, I forgot a pen, so I entered this ‘present sense impression’ in my notes app:

“7:30 to 8:15 the crickets were quiet. Cold. Lots of planes flying overhead. A helicopter hovering nearby for a while with a spotlight.”

I sat half-in half-out of my tent setting up a few test shots for the night sky time-lapse I hoped to capture overnight. I use a Go Pro and am far from an expert in astrophotography, but it’s something I continue to practice and want to improve at. The still frame, long-exposure shots of the pines with the star-filled sky behind are eerily beautiful to me — the tangible and intangible wilderness.

I finally was happy with the settings and framing for my time-lapse, which I connected to several back up batteries and placed it outside with a view of my tent, some pines, and hopefully a star-filled sky rotating around me as I slept.

As I settled in, I was comfy, cozy, and felt that I would doze off easily while enjoying the night sky view from my 3x5 home. I did, in fact, start to fall asleep pretty early (I’d guess 10 pm or so), until I heard some rustling in the bushes I had set my tent up against.

Fear — it is never absent out here, but only suppressed into latency until circumstance revives it. I initially wondered whether it was a bear, or worse, a person meaning to do me harm. I eventually dispelled the latter theory, as the rustling was too sporadic and I couldn’t imagine a person would really be in the thick bushes moving that slowly. Plus, sometimes you just have to push certain fears aside when the situation is outside of your control. The former possibility of a bear lurking nearby was far more realistic, and somewhat less terrifying, so I went with that theory.

As mentioned, I didn’t bring much food, but I did have some cantaloupe & granola bars that I brought into my tent with me (yeah, I know). My rationalizing of the situation was that it was sealed up well and wrapped up in several layers, so I figured that would be fine for the night. Laying stiff as a board in my tent, I strained to listen while reviewing the locations of my gun (on my stomach), bear spray (to my right), a knife (in my left pocket), and a whistle (around my neck) that were all within reach in case I needed to use any of them.

I also mentally went over what I would do if a bear became too curious, or worse, aggressive and wanted my cantaloupe. The plan (devised in fear as I lay in the false security of my vinyl tent) would be to grab my weapons, blow my whistle, and try to get under the metal picnic table near the firepit about 20 feet from me, which, I imagined, would give me some physical barrier between me and the attacking bear of my imagination. This scenario, of course, is highly unlikely to happen (or work out), but having that worst-case-scenario plan provided me enough comfort to try to sleep again when the rustling finally stopped and the night quieted again.

Seemingly just as fear and consciousness fell away, I was awoken with cramps. This is a fun thing my body likes to do while I’m out camping, so although annoyed by the 1:30 am wake up call from pain, I had packed my ibuprofen and swallowed a few down with haste. Being awake in the middle of the night in the wilderness alone isn’t super fun. It’s the part you usually want to pass without notice. Out here, you should be scared of the dark.

Waiting for the pain meds to kick in, I could physically feel the temperature dropping. It was around 75 during the day, but when I checked my phone around 3 am, it was 57 degrees! It should be noted here that my trail name is Cold Foot — given to me by my family a year ago at this very same campsite on a similarly cold night, and it grew ever more appropriate on this trip.

I should also mention that Big Cypress is damp. The air is thick with moisture that latches onto the cold as both seep into your bones. I continued to zip my sleeping bag up higher and higher around me until I eventually had my face inside. Necessity also gave me the idea to use my vinyl rain tarp for additional insulation over my legs and feet. (In hindsight, putting the tarp over my tent likely would have kept some of the cold air and condensation out of it). I made another quick journal entry in my notes before finally falling back to sleep for the night:

“Cramps woke me up at 1:30/2 am. Could feel it getting colder. Ibuprofen. Water.”

When I awoke, the sun was up! A tragedy of timing as far as I’m concerned. My punctuated overnight slumber caused me to oversleep until 7:15 am when the sun had already done it’s sky painting and was shining brightly over the sable palms and into my campsite. Although I had wanted to get some pre-dawn photos, it was still a beautiful morning in the Big Cypress pine forest. Birds waking up to sing, all different types contributing their songs in waves. I stretched, opened up the side of my tent to let the outside in, and jotted down my final entry before packing up:

“Slept again 3 am to 7:15. Sun was up already. Can hear the cars whirring to the south on 75. Crickets still going. Lots of different birds. A woodpecker in the distance.”

Sure, being able to hear cars isn’t ideal, but it was only noticeable in the morning’s extreme stillness, and was a small price to pay for the comfort of being in cellphone service range. I sat and relaxed at the picnic table where I ate some of my cantaloupe and prepared for the hike back out. Packing up after camping is never as neat and organized as packing at home. Everything is damp with leaves and dirt sticking to it, so I let my tent dry out in the sun for a bit before haphazardly shoving it into my bag and setting off on the Blue Trail from whence I came.

I would have loved to stay the day and explore the area more, but my adventure time was limited by work later that day. It made me pretty sad that I had to head out so quickly. But so it goes.

I took the hike back slower and more quietly in hopes of catching some deer in the morning fog. No such luck though. I am always keenly aware of how different trails look going in versus going out. It’s an entirely different vantage point, and although there are landmarks I recall, the details are so different from the other side. The density of the Blue Trail eventually gave way as I arrived upon the open, gravel-paved and canal-lined Florida Trail.

As I walked, I was startled as a huge wood stork flew off from the canal bank as a result of me startling his breakfast, which then startled a few egrets out of the cypress trees. A cycle of startle. I continued along when at the last half mile of the trail spotted a huge gator chilling on the opposite bank. I put my bags down to take some photos and videos of him. He consented begrudgingly by staying still, moving only one eye that followed me.

Picking everything back up, I set off on the final stretch of the Florida Trail towards civilization. At this point, I had been awake without coffee for about 2 hours, so I was starting to crave the luxuries that lay beyond the gate. Had I planned better and packed a camp stove, I could’ve enjoyed some instant coffee in the woods as I have before. As the gate came into view, I was half ready to reach comfort, while also wanting deeply to keep basking in the secluded, peaceful, spirituality of Big Cypress.

I had my phone on airplane mode much of the time while I was out there to avoid any early societal intrusions, which came flooding back in as notifications once I turned service back on. I quickly realized that I had missed a telehealth appointment with my doctor scheduled for that morning. Whatever. Well worth the no-show charge.

When I got to my car, I sat on the trunk for a bit, regrouping, reviewing, and reflecting on the short, but substantial journey I had just taken myself on. Firstly, I was grateful for all the natural beauty I had experienced. Secondly, I was proud of myself.

Being brave and courageous does not mean being fearless. If you’re fearless in nature, you’re an idiot. There’s plenty that you should fear, but that doesn’t mean letting it stop you from experiencing what’s on the other side of that fear. Bravery, to me, means feeling the fear and doing it anyway.

So that’s what I’ve been trying to do as I move from one adventure to the next. Feeling the fear that comes with venturing off into the wilderness as a woman alone, but knowing that the self-growth, connection to nature, and exciting encounters are all worth getting to the other side of that fear for. Never letting the possibility of danger which lies outside of my control stop me from living my life as fully as I truly need to. It took me a while to get to this point, and I’m sure it’ll take me a while to surpass the next limits of what I think I’m capable of, and I plan to keep going as long as there’s wilderness in reach, yet to be explored.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store