Wandering the tropical terrain of Florida is a man who says he's a chronic Appalachian Trail hiker.
The Walton Sun recently spoke with Andy Niekamp, 57, of Dayton, Ohio, who had around 120 miles left to hike on the Florida National Scenic Trail, a path a that extends a little more than 1,000 miles from Big Cypress National Preserve to Fort Pickens.
Niekamp was making a pit stop at his aunt and uncle's house in Seagrove Beach.
What made you want to hike the Florida Trail?
Our nation has 11 national scenic trails and they're authorized by Congress, and the Florida Trail is one. ... So, I've always wanted to hike the national scenic trails, and the Florida Trail is one of the few trails that you can hike during the winter months. ... I was looking for a long-distance hiking challenge in the winter time and an end-to-end hike is roughly 1,100 miles, which takes about two to two-and-a-half months, which kind of fit my time frame too. Plus it gave me an opportunity to explore Florida.
How did you prepare for the trek?
I try to stay in backpacking shape, but I continue to do day hikes in Ohio, and I've done long backpacking trips before, but I ordered the guide books, I ordered the maps, I downloaded the smartphone app for the Florida Trial to help me navigate, and I mailed some boxes of food ahead to post offices along the way so I could pick them up when I came through town.
What's a typical day on the trail like?
Roughly 20 mile of hiking, and most hikers are up before sunrise. Our day is kind of aligned with the daylight ... we're usually on the trail about 6:30 in the morning or 6, and we hike as long as we can and try to have camp set up around sunset.
Are you hiking by yourself?
Yes, I'm doing this solo and there's probably right now around 30 other people scattered over several hundred miles, so I'm kind of bumping into a few people along the way and maybe hike with them for a day or two and have some trail camaraderie with them. Most nights in the Florida Trail, I'm by myself, in the back country at a camp site by myself.
How does this fit into your life right now?
It fits into my life very well. I am retired from Hewlett-Packard. I had a 27-year career where I sat in a cubical doing information technology work, and I retired early and want to pursue my passion of long-distance hiking.
Where have you been spending your nights?
Most of the time, we try to shoot for a campsite, and that is a back-country, primitive site, that may just have a bench or picnic table, a fire ring and a flat spot, that's all there is. Once in awhile, they'll have a shelter, a three-sided shelter with a roof, and then sometimes we just have to disperse camp and just camp wherever we happen to be. ... And then every week or so, we go into town for a resupply and maybe we'll get a night in a motel or a bed and breakfast and take a shower, do laundry and buy food.
What's the trip been like so far?
It's been an awesome journey on the Florida Trail. Being from the Mid-West, when we mention the term Florida, everybody automatically thinks about the beaches and the sand, but there's way more to Florida than that. A true hike through the Florida Trail is about discovering Florida. ... I've learned so much, and I've seen so much about Florida that most people don't get a chance to see.
How long is the trek and how long is it expected to take?
The journey is approximately 1,100 miles, and it takes hikers anywhere from two to three months to do it, and I'll do it in about two-and-a-half months.
What kind of wildlife have you seen?
I've seen five poisonous snakes. I've seen countless alligators. I'm lucky I have not come across a bear, a lot of hikers do see bears out there. And I see lots of deer and lots of small game out there.
What are the best and worst things about the trip so far?
Absolutely the best thing about this trip has been the people of Florida, the trail angels along the trail that are willing to offer support and assistance to long-distance hikers. We call that trail magic, and it's just been phenomenal. ... The hardest part, or the worst part of this journey, has been navigating the Hurricane Michael damage, and the wet trail and the high-water levels in some of the national forests that involve wading through puddles, miles of puddles, sometimes knee deep.
Will you miss the trail once you're done?
There will always be a part of me in Florida after hiking the Florida Trail. I'll definitely miss the daily adventure that I see in Florida, but all long distance (hikes) kind of have to come to an end. You can't live out here forever. You can't hike on a trail forever. So, in that regard, I am looking forward to finishing this hike, getting to Fort Pickens and declaring this trail complete. But, I'll definitely miss Florida because I've seen a part of it that most people never see.
Any long-distance hikes planned in the future?
Nothing firm, but I call myself a chronic Appalachian Trail hiker, so I'll probably find myself back on the Appalachian Trail sometime in 2019.