Last week, we packed up the car with a big tent for the three of us and scrounged up some camping supplies, and headed off to Green Swamp, a 110,000 acre wilderness preserve dotted with free campsites, trails, and hunting areas.
The trip did not start off particularly well. We ended up going to the wrong part of the preserve, and what was supposed to be an hour drive turned into over three hours by the time we figured out where we were supposed to be. Good thing we stuck it out though, because when we finally found the campsite, it was in a spectacular setting on a narrow bend of the Withlacoochee River, miles away from the main road and not another soul in sight.
It was late afternoon when we set up camp, the sun just starting to set. We put up the tent first, and then gathered firewood and kindling.
I had forgotten that one of the many perks of camping in Florida in the wintertime is that the wild citrus trees are fruiting in their full glory this time of year. Grapefruit and naval oranges were everywhere, and so we of course collected a few to eat and take home.
Starting a fire, however, was not quite as easy as picking oranges. Between my sister and I, we have a couple decades of fire-starting experience, so we did not anticipate how difficult it would be to start a fire in what seemed like almost-perfect conditions. Burning dried palmetto fronds at first as kindling, we thought we had it. But by the time we got back to the fire pit with some larger sticks, the flame had died down. We played this game with it for a long time, getting the kindling roaring hot, and then watching it fizzle out as soon as we tried to build it up. Finally, we took everything out of the fire pit and started from scratch, carefully layering our tinder, sticks, and logs with enough room for oxygen flow, and tried again. It worked! Whether we had just dried everything out enough by now, or whether the new arrangement helped, we now had a blazing fire, and set to heating up our soup.
Unfortunately at this point, we realized our fire pit had not come with a grate on which to set our pot. Not to be deterred, my sister and I built a grate out of green palmetto stalks , which worked just long enough to heat our food before it started falling apart.
For the next few hours, we sat around the fire and talked. It has been a year since I’ve seen my family, so there was a lot to catch up on. And there’s something about sitting around a fire in the dark that just makes it easier to talk.
At a couple points, we stopped at the sound of raccoons brawling across the river — a slightly disturbing noise. And then a small cohort of armadillos also passed through our campsite loudly, visible in our headlamps.
All throughout the night after we’d gone to bed in our tent, the sounds of the swamp came alive. Snap. Pop. Squeak. Growl. Chortle. Hoot. Scuttle. Shutter. Creak. Crash. Crunch. I only slept a couple hours, and in those brief moments of rest I was plagued by nightmares orchestrated by the sounds of the swamp. When I woke with a start, it was dark and silent out, but my heart was thudding thunderously in my chest.
The next morning, it was impossible to get a fire started with our now limited fire-starting supplies and the damp, saturated firewood. So we took the luxury of driving out to the nearest town for breakfast, and then came back to hike in a nearby state park. It was cool and cloudy out — perfect Florida hiking weather.
Pretty exhausted from a sleepless night, my energy was low, but fortunately Florida trails aren’t strenuous at all. Wide and flat, we wandered a couple miles through pine forests and cypress domes, finding wildlife tracks, birds, weird insects and plants, and reading the landscape as we always have when we hike together. That’s one of the best parts about hiking with my mom and sister — we all learned to read the signs of nature together, so we share an equal fondness and fascination for everything we find.
Unfortunately, when we got back to our car where we had parked it at the trailhead, it refused to start. Only a loud click could be heard when the key was turned. Thinking it must be the battery, we called the phone number for the ranger station, and within a short while, a park ranger showed up and attempted to give us a jump start. No luck. We hemmed and hawed for a while, finally called Dad, and on his suggestion we fiddled around with the gear shift and got it running again.
At this point, we decided not to tempt fate with the car again, so we headed back to pack up camp and enjoy the road trip back home.
If there’s one thing a family camping trip can teach us, it’s humbleness and humor. You can’t set your expectations too high, because nothing is going to go as planned. Better to just be ready to roll with it.
Just as we were about to leave, one of the barred owls we had heard all night swooped down onto a branch over the river, right in plain view. It watched us for a long while, probably waiting for us to leave. But it was a perfect send-off from our brief sojourn with nature.