Yesterday I visited a new-to-me park, Seaton Creek Historic Preserve in northern Jacksonville (Florida). There was ample parking at the trailhead, although the parking lot looked as though it may sometimes be muddy and impassable.
I had downloaded a trail map, and planned to do a figure 8:
- Take the 2.3 mile Houston Creek Trail (yellow) to it’s end-point.
- Continue northward on the 1.7-mile Legacy Loop (red).
- Backtrack Houston Creek Trail (yellow) to the 1-mile Long Cut Trail (white).
- Backtrack on the Houston Creek Trail (yellow) to the main entrance.
Since this is a new trail, I did bring a handful of snacks and a bottle of water. I also had a hat, insect repellent, an emergency whistle, pepper spray, a folding knife, and toileting supplies that would allow pack-out of used material (there are no facilities at the park).
The yellow trail was an easy and pleasant hike.
There were occasional benches and picnic tables and, at the kayak landing (at the end of the yellow trail) a scenic view with a covered picnic table and hitching post for equestrian use.
Overall, the trail I’d followed had been well marked and easy to follow. My guard was down as I started the Legacy Loop (red trail). I passed a dilapidated and overgrown bench, and then suddenly came to a 3-way junction marked only by a yellow and white post. I could turn left, go straight ahead, or go back the way I came. I decided to go straight.
The trail continued, but was less maintained. Just before it became a well-packed dirt road, I made an interesting discovery.
There was a section of bone laying in the path. From its size, it might have belonged to a young pig or newborn fawn.
As I walked, I wondered if I might be on the service road (marked in blue on the map), since it seemed to follow the correct direction. Thinking I’d somehow missed the red trail, I decided to take the road back to the car and call it a morning.
Along the roadway, I spotted a cocoon of Antheraea polyphemus, a 4-6 inch moth, and stopped to take a picture.
A few steps later, I opened a package of dried mango – or mango jerky as my husband calls it. When my gaze returned to the road, there was a large feline in the distance, swaggering confidently in my direction.
Shit! That’s not a – panther?
It stopped. Seemed to notice my presence.
As the animal regarded me, I realized it was too small to be a panther. It could be a coyote, but the ears looked too small.
I slowly lifted my binoculars. A very large bobcat.
It sniffed the road and marked the center of the path. It then turned and walked the opposite way.
I followed at a distance.
Here and there, it listened for movement in the roadside brush. Sometimes it wove in and out of the high grass, always returning to the road.
I was more relaxed now, and chewing the mango. The package in my hand rustled loudly. The cat’s ears tipped back as it monitored my presence.
I finished the snack and put the wrapper away. A few moments later, the cat turned to face me. It sat down and watched me from the edge of the road. Its ears were forward, and the long hairs on its face seemed to cascade across its shoulders. It reminded me of my own cat’s behavior when it feels uncertain; decides to observe.
I was unsure what to do as well. The animal was so beautiful that I wanted to stare through my binoculars, but I also know that staring is confrontational in cats. Instead, I pretended to look into the adjoining fields.
Still the bobcat sat.
I considered backtracking, but turning my back might look like retreat. It could invite stalking.
Instead, I felt for the emergency whistle in my pocket – step one in startling a predator. I then twisted and unzipped a pocket in my belly bag, which held step two – a small canister of pepper spray. If a predator makes actual contact, my last resort is the knife.
The cat stood, then bounded into the shrub where the road made a sudden turn. It hadn’t seemed particularly frightened. Was it waiting for me to round the corner?
I decided to backtrack and find another way out of the park. On the way, I noticed a sign (going in the wrong direction), advising the limits of the park boundary. I’d been wandering an adjoining property.
I continued trying to find the red trail and my bearings. But there were multiple intersecting trails and no markers (or, as I later realized, markers obscured by overgrown brush). I tried one trail after another and went various directions, but continued passing the same landmarks – the bone I’d discovered on the trail, the dilapidated bench, a mole tunnel, a tortoise burrow. Over two hours, I must have made a half-dozen loops and always returned to the same spot.
I’m usually good at judging time and direction by the position of the sun. But these trails were winding, making it was impossible to maintain a directional path. One moment the sun was on my left, right, behind me, or in front of me.
I checked my sports-watch. I’d walked over nine miles and my water was becoming depleted. The air was hot. I hallucinated a sign, which my binoculars assured me did not exist.
I came to a junction with a red trail marker pointing in either direction. I removed my cell phone from my backpack. Time for something more drastic.
I downloaded a hiking GPS onto my phone. The generalized image didn’t show the trail, but it did point in the direction I was headed. By turning my body I knew this new path ran north/south. I wanted to go south, and so that’s the direction I followed.
I walked for a time, and finally encountered other hikers – a younger couple with a small dog. I asked them if I was headed in the right direction. They indicated I was, and gave me some directions.
I found myself back at the kayak landing and on familiar ground. I continued going south, but eventually came to another 3-way junction. I was debating which to take, when the young couple called to me. They had decided to forgo the red trail after hearing about how I’d gotten lost. They pointed me in the right direction and offered to walk with me.
I told them that my knee was giving out, and my muscles were seizing. I wouldn’t be able to walk fast. They might want to go ahead.
They said they didn’t mind walking slowly and, frankly, I was grateful for their company.
My leg became more painful and started to stiffen as we walked. The last half mile or so, my intestines cramped. I began to feel nauseous. I didn’t tell my companions; stayed focused on reaching the car. Once in the vehicle, I checked my tracking watch. I’d traveled 11.5 miles and had been out seven hours.
When I got home, it was hard to eat. I was thankful I’d pre-cooked some oatmeal – an easy meal full of protein. I sat eating and hydrating, gradually gaining enough strength to fix something more substantial.
I kept a heating pad on my leg throughout the night, which kept the muscles from seizing up. Today is a recovery day.
I’m also inspired to try the All Trails hiking app. I’ll post a review in a few months.