Hontoon Island State Park, Florida
6th November, 2016
One of only a dozen or so of Florida’s 174 State Parks that I have been able to reach more than once is the secluded and secretive Hontoon Island.
Located near Deland, or about halfway in between Orlando and Daytona Beach, this park is only accessible by boat. So if you don’t have a boat to get there, sorry, you are screwed.
Not to worry, as the park offers a “ferry” to help you cross the St. Johns River and reach the island park. The cost of the ferry is free and the ride lasts for about three minutes.
Also, this is one of the few parks that does not charge for admission either. I do encourage you to donate however to help support the park, as every dollar helps.
Boarding The Boat
After being highly surprised at what this little park had to offer during our first trip, which was little more than a stopover on a park marathon, we made it a point to return and camp.
We carried our tent, a single backpack, and a paper bag stuffed with some food and cooking supplies up to the dock to wait for the next ferry to arrive.
The ferry schedule is as follows: You walk up to the dock, wave 30 feet across the river at the ranger/boat captain, and he drifts the boat over to the other side of the river.
So, certainly not as long of an excursion as some other trips, yet I believe the boat was still bigger than the one that took 80 people to Cayo Costa. We were the only two on this boat.
During the drive through the Ocala National Forest on the way to the island, we had passed numerous bear signs along the highway. Yes, there are black bears all over Florida if you were unaware.
I pointed and laughed at a few of them, because whoever the hell designed these particular signs has no
idea what a bear looks like. I’ve seen bear highway warning signs before, and they did not look like this.
The shape on the sign looked more like a sloth or a possum or something that was definitely not a mofo bear. Nevertheless, I was careful to look out for any bear sized possums in the road during the drive. Holy hell that would be terrifying!
Risks of a Capsizing Ferry
“Attention Folks, there are lifejackets located above your heads. In the highly unlikely event the vessel begins to sink, leave them behind and quickly walk to the shore before the gators get to you,” the captain announced.
Indeed, this boat could hold probably 20 people, was fairly new and well built, and was about a quarter as long as the river was wide.
“We’ve got black bear cubs roaming on the island somewhere. They haven’t been around lately but if you are real lucky you may see them.”
I thought this was fairly ironic considering I was mocking the signs on the way to the park, in addition to the fact that seeing a bear on any given day here is fairly unlikely.
What Number is Your Campsite Again?
“You guys have been here before and are coming back? Well we must have done something right then,” the boat captain said. “Wait, are you staying in campsite 11?”
“Yep, that’s us,” I replied.
“Oh. Campsite 11….” he repeated with the slightest hint of mischief in his voice.
We came to the end of the short boat ride, and another park ranger or volunteer of some kind was near the dock and helped tie the vessel up.
“Are these the folks that are staying in campsite 11?” he asked.
“Yep. Campsite 11.” said the boat captain.
The volunteer turned to us, “Campsite 11, huh. Did you pick that one on purpose?”
“Yes I did” I replied back.
Alright, what the fuck is wrong with campsite 11?
Sarah and I were looking at each other with grave concern while simultaneously trying not to bust out laughing.
After stepping foot onto the island, we immediately went into the small park store, located just 30 feet away from the back of the river. The store was just large enough to fit three people inside simultaneously.
We purchased some firewood and walked outside to find the “tram” that would take us to the campsite.
Yes, this is not exactly roughing it in the wilderness. A very old and large white Ford van was used for shuttling campers and their equipment between the dock and the campground.
The interior of this van was about half destroyed, and we never surpassed 3.6 mph during the ride to the campground. We could have easily gotten to the campsite by walking on all fours just as fast. No matter, as we only needed to travel about 500 yards.
The van dropped us off near the campsite, where we unloaded our small stock of supplies and got to work.
The campground was as beautiful as I remembered it from the first time, completely covered by a palm canopy.
The campground consisted of only 12 tent sites, as well as six cabins. Several Florida campgrounds have well over 100 tent sites. We picked site #11, as you probably figured out at this point. It appeared to be the most isolated of all of the tent campsites, one reason being it was on the end of the loop.
The campground was one decently sized circle in the middle of the forest. The entire area was completely shaded by trees. Yet somehow, there was still plenty of room around that you weren’t bumping into tree trunks everywhere.
To this day, this is still probably the best sabal palm hammock I have found in the state of Florida. Everywhere you look above you, there are full and lush palm trees stretching to the sky and rubbing leaves with each other.
The Tent is Erect
The tent was setup and the evening was ready for enjoyment. I opted to leave the rain-fly off of the tent for the first time since we bought it. The air would be warm all night and there was virtually no chance of rain.
We would be able to see the undersides of the palm trees and peaks of the night sky in between the trees.
Feeling hungrier than initially anticipated, which is what always happens on any trip, we made our way back to the camp store. Nutritious ice cream bars and organic cheese crackers were purchased with conscientious digesting in mind.
The walk to the camp store took around ten minutes, and we spent probably another five minutes inside of the tiny store. We bought some sort of styrofoam bowl of chicken and beef flavored noodles or some shit in addition to the aforementioned snacks.
…I’m not well-versed in microwave foods.
We began to make our way back to the campground. It was about six minutes into the walk when we arrived at the beginning of the camping area, the opposite corner from where our tent was located.
One of the park ranger/volunteers appeared to be randomly walking up to us.
“Hey you guys are in campsite 11 right?”
“Good God, what is with this campsite 11 shit!?” I wanted to react.
“Yes we are,” I responded as a matter of fact.
“Hey just to let you know, the bear was over here sniffing your tent and trying to get in. We scared it off for now but it may come back. Just keep any food away from your tent. Let us know if you have any problems.” the camp ranger causally explained to us and then walked off.
The fucking WHO was doing WHAT??
Campsite Number 11
Alas, this must be what all the “Oh, campsite 11, huh?” taunting was about. Apparently campsite 11 was the bear’s campsite. Now those bear signs on the highway were mocking me back.
Furthermore, why did the bear decide to visit our tent in plain daylight during the 17 minute period we were not even close to the campsite?
There were plenty of other people in the general area that you would think would keep the bear at bay. According to the boat captain earlier, the bear was “somewhere else” on the island, and unlikely to be seen by anyone.
Nevermind the fact that we noticed large and deep scratch marks on every tree surrounding us. After careful examation, we unscientifically concluded that there was a hungry bear in the area.
No matter, surely we would have another chance to witness Mr. Bear. I just hoped I would not wake up with him next to me in the tent.
Time for The Swamp Hike
During our last trip, we took a very small portion of the island’s featured trail. It was previously closed due to it being completely underwater during our first visit. This time it appeared we would be able to walk the entire trail.
The trail is a loop trail and is three miles in length. The trail leads through a dense palm tree forest, and winds next to the Hoonton Dead River. Eventually, you end up on top of a large ancient Indian shell mound at the end of the trail.
During the walk, we traversed a narrowing trail in the dense palm forest that became damper the further we went. Around one and half miles into the trail, we were teetering on the edge of a small swamp.
There were several swamp crossings that consisted of one or two long planks placed on the ground beside each other. They were rotting and very rickety, wobbling from end to end as we walked across the wet areas.
Just past the two mile point in the trail, we were now walking along the Hontoon Dead River, and very gradually appearing to go uphill. The river itself was virtually still, covered nearly entirely with a thin layer of green moss.
There were numerous cypress trees growing out of the banks of the river, one of Florida’s iconic environmental scenes. The trees have ‘knees’ that stick out of the water in order to breathe. They grow out of the trees, and are scattered all around the tree’s base.
We suddenly found ourselves around 25 feet above the banks of the river, and with piles of shells underneath our feet. This must have been the Indian Mound. We were reaching the end of the trail, or at least the point of turning around and heading back to camp.
Misleading Trail Sign
Right next to a very large Cypress tree, perched into a steep slope on the end of the mound, was a sign that said “End of Trail.” The sign was mounted above a rouge bench. This was somewhat bizarre, as the trail was a true loop, with a separate route for returning.
The return route was somewhat vague, but a few seconds of observation indicated the only way (besides backwards) was to make a 90 degree left at the sign, and to go down the very short but steep (for Florida) slope.
The return trip offered wider and much drier trails right off the bat as compared to the trip along the swampy river. Around half a mile into the return, Sarah came to a dead stop, crouched down and was flailing around but wouldn’t speak.
At first I thought a ghost had instantly taken possession of her, so I didn’t know what the fuck to do. However, it appeared she ran into the largest spider web in Central Florida, complete with largest spider landing on her face.
After this brief near-tragedy was averted, I made sure to stay a foot in front with my eyes wide and arbitrary arm waving and flailing motions in order to defend against the hidden demon spider traps.
The last portion of the trail was wide enough for ten people to walk side-by-side, this area was a pine flatwoods prairie forest.
Yes, Florida has mundane yet beautiful ecosystems that involve skinny pine trees with very few branches scattered evenly across the landscape. The openness of the forest is enough to be considered a prairie. This is most often referred to as “pine flatwoods.”
There were a few different trails through the pine flatwoods portion of the island. They ran completely straight and intersected perpendicularly, and were about the width of a truck.
We followed the main pinewood trail back towards the campground. This trail led us right back to our tent, as our site was on the backside of the campground. We approached the campground just as dusk was turning into full night.
Fuzzy Forest Visitors
After a typical struggle, the fire was finally going and we prepared camp dinner. While eating in the night, we started hearing more and more rustling coming from the trees behind our tent.
“It’s a bear!!” I pointed the flashlight to see a small set of possum eyes. Not the bear.
We turned the flashlight off and continued eating. The rustling returned even louder.
“THAT’s the bear!”
It was still the possum. This continued several times over for no explainable reason.
Several minutes later, I heard additional rustling from a different direction. It still was not the bear.
It was a raccoon, and he was about 6 feet from our table. He sniffed and shuffled around on the ground for a couple of minutes between us and our tent.
Nearly simultaneously, the possum was digging around just behind and beside our tent. Watching these two fuzzy woodland critters dig for scraps of food was surprisingly relaxing and interesting.
As the night continued on, occasional rustling could be heard from behind our tent. None of it was very loud, certainly not as loud as when we first saw the raccoon.
However, this didn’t stop one of our camp neighbors, located about 30 yards from us, from shining their flashlight in our faces.
I’m not sure if they thought I was the bear or what, but their flashlight kept getting picked up from their table and pointed directly across the campground into my eyes.
The first six times it happened, I hardly thought anything of it. Beyond that, I began to become increasingly aggravated.
Perhaps this would have been acceptable if there was a bear to look at, or if they were even looking in the direction of a potential bear in the first place. The flashlight was always pointed directly at us.
It was an extremely powerful and evil flashlight that illuminated our entire tent and the two of us as we were sitting by our otherwise relaxing fire. The beam of light was not even illuminating the dense woods located behind our tent.
I tried to ignore this at first, but it didn’t work. After around 17 times of this happening, I finally opted to wave furiously back and stare with a scary sarcastic grin, as if to say “HI!!! STOP!!!” Soon afterwards the flashlight activity ceased.
Creepy Noises in The Night
It was probably around 11pm before I finally went to bed for the evening. The view through the open screen of the tent was spectacular.
Just from lying on my pillow, I could see the silhouettes of three different palm trees draped in front of a clear starry sky.
There was virtually no sound at this point other than the peaceful chirping of crickets and the last crackles of a dying fire.
That would change drastically a few hours later when I awoke to disturbing noises just outside of the tent.
My watch read 2:25am when I awoke to the loud rustling immediately outside of the tent. I convinced myself it was the raccoon, but the rustling was louder, slower, and with slower footsteps than before.
Just then, I heard what sounded like a licking or slurping sound from just outside the tent.
Indeed, it was a now a loud and undeniable smacking of lips. The noise was *just* behind my pillow.
“The bear is right behind me!” I yelled in my own head
Too Close for Comfort
The tent rustled a bit as the creature brushed up against the fabric as the lip smacking continued. I became quite excited and a bit nervous at this moment.
I tried to wake Sarah, saying, “Hey..babe..hey…Mr. Bear is here…..he’s here…..Mr. Bear…” but I don’t recall being successful.
I really wanted to see the bear. However, it did not seem prudent to jump out of an otherwise silent tent in the middle of the black wilderness night, only inches away from the presumed bear who was loudly smacking his/her lips.
Certainly it wouldn’t be wise to play a game of peek-a-boo with a Mother bear and her cubs. Not to mention I was still too tired to get up. Nobody wants to climb out of a tent in the middle of the night for any reason. (Somehow I’ve managed to prevent myself from pissing in the tent all these times.)
It was still surprisingly exhilarating knowing that a bear was eating 7 inches away from my face, separated only by the thinnest $29 Walmart tent fabric.
It wasn’t quite as exhilarating as a tornado, but still highly exciting nonetheless.
The Next Morning
The following morning we made our typical oatmeal breakfast. I relit the fire and brought our pot of water to a rolling boil. Sarah opened about eight of the laughably small sized packs of oatmeal.
During and after the meal, we made jokes about the sneaky and elusive bear. We kept repeating the park volunteers from the day before. “Campsite 11, huh? Did you pick that one on purpose?”
Bear Magic Tricks
We joked about how the bear clearly was hiding right behind one of the trees near the campsite during the entire stay.
Clearly, the bear waited for us to avert our gaze, whether it was to go to the camp store, the trail, or bed.
Once we left, the bear immediately sprang into action by dancing around our campsite, scratching the palm trees, and tossing berries high into the air and catching them with his mouth.
We packed up our tent, which is my absolute least favorite part of camping. I hate trying to cram that damn thing into the bag, especially when it’s still a bit damp.
Luckily, it wasn’t too damp on this trip. At least not the soaking wet it had been in the past.
We successfully packed everything up, and set all of our packed supplies on the picnic table. I called the phone number the ranger had given us to have our stuff picked up in the morning.
We rode back to the river and boat dock area. Before we left, we spent some time walking around by the river and sitting in the rocking chairs by the camp store.
It was quickly time to get on the puddle jumper boat and load up the car to go home. We told the boat captain of our experience in “Campsite 11”.
From now on, I won’t be making fun of the highway bear signs quite as much. We can’t wait to go back to campsite 11.
Have you ever been shockingly close to a bear or similar animal? Have you ever been on the outside of an inside joke?