by Mandi Sorg
I get a phone call as I am heading out of work on a Thursday. It’s Brian, suggesting an evening hike. He sounds as exhausted from the day as I felt. Never being one to turn down any sized adventure, I drive home, strap on my hiking shoes, and set out for the Black Hammock Wilderness Area. Would I be equipped with a magical sense of premonition, I would have put on my galoshes instead.
Black Hammock is a unique segment of land, nestled in its own corner of Oviedo, hugging Lake Jessup. You can find yourself under a canopy by the lake, drinking a refreshing beer and eating gator on the dock of the Black Hammock Restaurant. Venture to the boat ramp, and you’re being guided on an airboat ride through the waters of Lake Jessup. Perhaps you’re driving through this secluded Florida countryside, passing wondering horses, sprawled out ranch lands and palm tree farms. Or maybe still, like us, you’re driving down a long road, under the reaching arms of a hundred oak trees, until you dead end in to the Black Hammock Wilderness Area trailhead.
Upon meeting each other, we step out of our vehicles on to the dry and barren seashell rock ground. At the edge of the lot stands a wooden kiosk with a sign-in sheet, trail map brochures, and preservation information. To the left, an opening between the split rail fence where you’re met with a path leading into the blunt, unknown thicket. Just steps in to the rabbit hole, and you realize you’ve been transcended in to pure wild Florida. Sun rays filter down between the towering sabal palms, showering the floor with a dancing light. Smells of wild magnolias intertwine with that of damp, decomposing leaves and swamp muck. And you’re left feeling perfectly wanted in nature’s embrace.
A four and half mile long looped trail, you are taken through a myriad of wetland terrain. With the help of mossy boardwalks, you pass over deep swamps, in which you could only imagine house cottonmouths, alligators, and mosquito towns, oh my! As we hike deeper into the wilderness, we begin seeing evidence of the previous years destructive hurricanes – mostly by huge fallen oak trees that pulled up chunks of earth with them.
Mosquitoes become overbearing the deeper in you wander; and it doesn’t help that it had been a rainy day. Long sleeves and pants were definitely a great idea! The trail meanders through the wilderness, forcing you to limbo below tree limbs, and fandangle your way through webs of giant spiders. We pass over a dead rattlesnake, and watch as a coral snake carelessly slithers between us on the path. Due to rainy season, there is an abundance of wild mushrooms, and each patch we stopped to analyze and marvel at.
Up ahead we see a large opening at the end of a forest tunnel with a circle of golden light awaiting us at the end. On the other side was a striking contrast. A vast open meadow, with tall green and brown grass, and a wide trail-like road. It is the golden hour of evening, and the sky rains a light that matches the yellow milkwort that lines the trail like the yellow-brick road. This is the loop at the end of the trail. As we walk we see wild boar track, and pray we don’t run in to one personally! Luckily, the only large creature we come across was the ever patient gopher tortoise, who I named Frank. Don’t ask why, I don’t know either.
The unfortunate, but not surprising, bit of this loop was the almost knee high flooding we came across. This is where some galoshes would have come in handy! With walking sticks in hand, having found them on the grass outskirts, we quite literally trudged through dark high water and mud that stuck like concrete to our shoes. Having not worn the correct socks with my hiking shoes (never again!) I developed a terrible blister on my left ankle. Now, with the sun setting much earlier than expected, another flooded path to cross, and two and half miles left to go, I find myself with a short strided limp. Brian, yards ahead of me, turns around every now and again to encourage me to pick up the speed. We are, after all, about to walk back into the forest in darkness if we don’t hurry. In the end, Brian offers a classic piggy back ride, which I graciously accept.
As we enter back into the brush and canopy, I use my walking stick as a spider web deterrent, swinging it in a circular motion before us. Unfortunately, this did not stop a spider from jumping on to Brian’s face, ensuing a comedic reaction. I felt like I was riding a bull in a western bar. Spider gone, and selves put back together, we make it through the wilderness without a hitch, and back to the lot before the sun had finished setting. Another successfully explored Florida trail in the books!