John Kucin shows his certificate for completing a 109-mile hike around Lake Okeechobee.
DUNEDIN – At the age of 62, John Kucin knew his limitations as a hiker.
So he sidestepped the temptation to walk the rugged Appalachian Trail and opted for a challenge more suited to his abilities: The “Big O Hike,” a 109-mile trek around Lake Okeechobee.
Kucin, who walks about three miles a day for health benefits, had been reading books about the Appalachian Trail. When he considered the logistics involved and his age, he decided that walking 2,000 miles was out of the question.
However, his girlfriend saw an article in Florida Leisure magazine about the “Big O Hike” and said it was more up his alley. The idea appealed to Kucin.
Basically, the hikers walk 9 to 16 miles a day and are shuttled back to the base camp for an overnight stay. The following day, they are taken back to the point where they had stopped and resume walking again. His group started hiking on Nov. 17 and finished on Nov. 25.
“My feet hit every inch of the circumference of the lake,” he said.
The hike was started by the Loxahatchee chapter of the Florida Trails Association in 1992 and since then hundreds of people have participated in the social event showcasing Lake Okeechobee, the second largest freshwater lake entirely within the United States.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a 35-foot-tall dike around the lake in the 1920s. Trail Association volunteers worked with the Corps to establish the footpath on the dike and since it is the highest point for miles around, they consider the views spectacular and birding superb.
“It was just a real challenge. I had never done a long distance endurance hike,” Kucin said. “The challenge was fun. We got to see all kinds of wildlife. It just seemed like every moment there was a different bird flying by. Little snakes, different things like that. So it’s kind of a nice conditioning type of camping and walking. It was a nice experience – very peaceful, quiet,” Kucin said.
The hikers saw wild boar, river otters, bald eagles, crested caracara and other species.
“You actually hike on top of the dike. Some parts are paved, and some parts are gravel and grass. It’s kind of unique,” Kucin said.
Hikers experienced little shade for much of the trip and were “exposed to elements,” he said.
“For miles, and miles and miles, all you see are cane fields on one side and the lake on the other. And all of a sudden it will switch to cattle pastures – a lot of cows and cattle walking about. It was different.
Mile after mile there was scenery change but no elevation changes or woods,” he said.
Of the group of 73 hikers, 27 finished.
“Some of the people who actually started the hike were husband and wife teams. The husband did the full hike. The wife hiked every other day,” he said. “So it’s not fair to say that everybody failed or bailed out. There were a number of people medically that just couldn’t continue. One fellow wound up with a very bad back from carrying his little day pack,” he said.
Hikers came from as “far away as Oregon,” he said, and enjoyed a Thanksgiving dinner at the Clewiston Inn.
Asked for his advice to anybody who wants to participate in the hike, Kucin said he brought some pairs of hiking boots, bandages and plenty of water and snacks. He suggested that hikers interested in advice on conditioning and preparing for the event visit the trail chapter’s website at lox.floridatrail.org/bigo.
Kucin and his girlfriend both enjoy the outdoors and take advantage of trails in the county and in Dunedin, where they live, such as Hammock Park and the Pinellas Trail. He also said he would consider hiking the “Big O” again.
“I’m in pretty good shape for a 62-year-old guy. The only thing that affected me adversely was I wound up getting blisters on my toes,” Kucin said. “If that’s the worst of it, fine.”