Backpacking for Beginners

On the Myakkka Hiking Trail

Have you been wanting to try backpacking, but have been a little intimidated by the idea? Hopefully this post will help boost your confidence. If you can walk a few miles and carry 20% of your bodyweight, you can backpack.

We’ll start with water. I’m not a proponent of plastic water bottles. Having said that, for a lightweight and perfectly sized bottle, I haven’t found a reusable bottle that can beat a one liter Smart Water bottle. An empty bottle without the neck band and label weighs a mere 1.32 ounces. An added bonus is that it perfectly fits the Sawyer Squeeze filtration system. (More on that later.)

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Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve

How do you pronounce “slough?” It rhymes with flew, not cough or chow. English is weird. Anyway, welcome to one of my favorite local spots! I will say, I prefer this place in the summer on weekdays because in the winter and on weekends it gets crazy busy. Today was a federal holiday, and I think everybody and their sister decided it was a good day for a walk at Six Mile Cypress.

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O’Leno State Park and River Rise

O’Leno was Florida’s eleventh state park, established in 1940. Like many of the original state parks, it was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. This park is full of history and natural beauty. Some of the best hiking trails in Florida can be found here, particularly when combined with neighboring River Rise Preserve State Park’s trails.

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Hontoon Island State Park

Hontoon Island is a sweet little 1,650 acre state park located on the St. John’s River, six miles west of Deland in Florida. We visited in mid-October and had the whole place practically to ourselves. We arrived on a late Sunday afternoon. There were several families enjoying the day use area, fishing and playing on the playground. By Monday morning, the place was pretty much deserted.

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Explore Your World

A walk in nature is the perfect antidote to feeling stressed, fatigued, and generally unhappy. Breathe in the fresh air, and take some time to find something cool and unusual. There’s always something interesting to see, you just have to look a little more closely sometimes. Scavenger hunts are a great way to train your brain to look deeper and seek out hidden nature treasures.

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Wood Storks

If you were to put a big, long bill on a scaly dinosaur head and stick it on top of elegant snowy white plumage, you’d have a wood stork!  


Wood storks are a threatened species of bird that can be found hanging out in wetlands in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.  They are occasionally seen in all states along the Mississippi River and as far north as Ontario.  Mostly they stay in the Southeast though.  

In the 1930’s, there were estimated to be about 20,000 breeding pairs of wood storks in the U.S.  Now, there are around 8,000 pairs, which is an improvement from a low of 5,000 pairs in the 1970’s.  The decline is attributed mostly to loss of habitat and the altering of the water flow in the Everglades. 


Wood storks have a very specific feeding strategy that requires certain conditions to be met to ensure an adequate food source.  The water has to be just the right depth, and the concentration of fish in the water needs to be rather high.  They use a technique known as tacto-location to catch their food.  In water that’s 6-10 inches deep, the stork will keep its bill partly open as it probes the water searching for prey.  When a fish touches its bill, it snaps it closed with an amazing reaction time of 25 milliseconds!


Over the course of the nesting season, wood stork pairs and their chicks require an estimated 443 pounds of fish to be successful.  In order for this to be possible, there has to be just the right amount of rain to make the water deep enough for the fish to reproduce adequately, and then a perfect amount of evaporation of water during the dry season for the fish to become concentrated in water that’s the preferred 6-10 inches deep.  For this reason, only about 42% of nests successfully fledge at least one chick.


The wood stork is a colonial species.  They nest in big colonies, particularly at two protected locations in South Florida.  In Florida, wood storks lay their eggs in the fall and the baby birds fledge in February or March.  During a successful breeding season, there are dozens of nests full of squawking, hungry babies in a rookery during late winter and early spring.  2018 was a phenomenal year for fledglings due to the heavy rains Florida received during the rainy season that year followed by an adequate dry season.  Subsequent years have not been nearly as successful.  It’s incredible how dependent these birds are on rainfall being just right.  Wood storks’ rookeries are shared with anhingas, great blue herons, great egrets, and other wading birds.  It’s an amazing sight to behold!     


Wood Stork Nests
Anhinga Family
Green Heron Chicks. Check out those feet!
Wood stork nest and anhinga family sharing a tree.

Wood storks are one of Florida’s most fascinating birds.  It’s vitally important for Everglades restoration projects to continue forward progress to help protect and defend these and other wading birds in South Florida.  The wood stork is protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but this isn’t enough.  Their roosting sites need to be protected from development, and water quality needs to be monitored and vastly improved to help them continue to live and thrive here in Florida.  This is one of the reasons the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir Project is so important.  You can find more information about this project on Audubon Florida’s website. 


Gopher Tortoises

Turtle or tortoise? If you want to get technical, all tortoises are turtles, meaning they belong to the order Testudines. However, not all turtles are tortoises. Tortoises are land animals, and they can’t swim. Though there are land turtles that are not tortoises, like wood turtles and box turtles. Are you confused yet? An easy way to tell the difference is to look at their feet. Tortoise feet look a bit like elephant feet, which is interesting because they’re called “elephantine.” That just means they’re columnar and not webbed like turtles’ back feet are. Turtles’ front feet are like flippers. Tortoises’ are not.

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Sharing the Trails with Alligators

If you hike near water in Florida, chances are pretty good you’re going to see an alligator at some point. Those of us who are on the trails a lot are used to it, but it can be scary if you haven’t had much experience sharing the trails with these reptiles. Something that’s important to remember is that a healthy, wild alligator will most likely want nothing to do with you; so the best course of action is to just ignore them and let them go on their way. Alligator attacks in Florida are extremely rare. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission there have only been twenty-four fatal alligator attacks in Florida since 1973. Statistically, you’re more likely to be killed by a cow than you are an alligator.

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Ollie’s Pond

When everything was shut down for a Covid-19, I decided it was a good time to check out some local birding hot spots.  Ollie’s Pond is one of those places I put off going to because I didn’t think it would be all that exciting. It’s just a big pond in the middle of a neighborhood.  My expectations were pretty low.  I was pleasantly surprised!  The first time I went, I saw seventeen species of birds. Not a huge number, but it was a fun variety.  Yesterday, there weren’t quite as many birds, but the few I did see were pretty exciting. There were black-necked stilts, white pelicans, and a roseate spoonbill, along with the usual suspects like red-winged blackbirds and osprey.

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Ochlockonee River State Park

A trip through Florida’s Big Bend area and into the panhandle is like a trip back in time.  Urban sprawl has yet to infect this remote area of the state.  Taking a drive across the 220 mile long Big Bend Scenic Byway will take you through miles of longleaf pine forests and along fabulously undeveloped white, sandy coastline.  I didn’t know before I went, but apparently a detailed brochure exists to help you navigate this incredible highway and really take in all it has to offer.  It can be found here:

A drive down the scenic byway is one of many things we did while we were in the area.  We visited several state parks within a couple of hours of Ochlockonee, but here we’ll focus on this one incredible state park.  I realized I was pronouncing it all wrong when a kind ranger gave me a tip to say it right.  He said it’s O-Clock-Knee.  Now you know.

Welcome to Ochlockonee!  Driving down route 319 near the tiny town of Sopchoppy, you’ll end up here at the park.  If you’re planning to camp here for awhile, it may be helpful to know that the nearest Walmart is about forty minutes away in Crawfordville.  The nearest store is a Dollar General, about fifteen minutes away.  There really is nothing around here!

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