Out on the trail, hiker Gretchen Matt is known as "Dirty Bowl."
Gretchen Matt at the start of the Florida Trail. | (Katie Klann)
It's a long-standing tradition among serious hikers to adopt a nickname. (Matt's harkens back to her days as an Outward Bound instructor who was lackadaisical about cleanliness.) And Matt is a serious hiker. In her 28 years she has completed two of the most intimidating and respected hikes in the U.S. — the Appalachian Trail (2,190 miles) and the Pacific Crest Trail (2,659 miles). In January 2017, she decided to attempt the lesser known Florida Trail — one of the country's 11 designated National Scenic Trails.
Florida's tropical climate makes the 1,100-mile trail one of the ideal winter thru-hikes and the biodiversity the route offers as it snakes through the heart of Florida and around the pan handle is unrivaled.
But the Florida Trail can push a hiker's endurance and nerves to her limits. Those 1,100 miles rely heavily on painfully long stretches of road walking — taking hikers through busy towns and along car-packed two-way roads. And if hikers go south to north, which is recommended, they start with the toughest piece of trail — nearly 40 miles of waist-deep, alligator-populated bog known as Big Cypress Swamp.
But Matt was up for the challenge. She would give herself 40 days. She booked a flight from her home in Spokane, Washington, and used an online hiker forum to get a ride from the Miami airport to the trail's southern starting point. She would be hiking alone.
In January 2017, Katie Klann was looking for a photography project that would acquaint her with her new state. The Midwesterner had moved just eight months prior from Ohio to Florida for a job as a staff photographer at the Naples Daily News. An outdoorsy person, Klann was delighted to discover that Florida was a bit of a hidden gem for hikers.
"I was like, 'What?' There's no hiking in Florida!'" Klann said in an interview.
Klann decided she'd document a hiker's journey on the Florida Trail. All she needed was a hiker.
Snooping around the same online hiker forum as Matt, Klann found her ride request.
"I messaged her: 'This is out of the blue, but ... I was wondering if I could tag along,'" she said.
Klann didn't hike the entire trail. But she started with Matt in the swamp, met up with her again in the middle, and joined her at the end of the trail in March.
Klann had dabbled in hiking herself, but being loaded down with gear and starting without physical preparation were daunting challenges.
"[Gretchen] is one of the most badass women I've ever met," Klann said. "I was worried that I wouldn't be able to keep up. I didn't want my being there to alter her plans at all."
Matt also turned out to be an incredibly fast hiker. She has a long stride and wears skirts and dresses so she can extend her long legs without hindrance. "She does something like three miles per hour," Klann said. "It's really fast. I couldn't last more than a couple days."
Luckily, a couple of days was really all that Klann wanted to take from Matt's hike at any given time. But spending nights and days with the speed-walking hiker was crucial to capturing those quieter, personal moments.
"A picture of a hiker is something anyone can envision," she said. "I really wanted to focus on the smaller things that happen on thru-hikes. Things that were slightly out of the ordinary."
Klann was up first in the mornings, to catch Matt packing up her tent. The photographer would also run ahead — or drive ahead, if logistics allowed — to catch Matt thoughtfully alone. But she also kept her eye open to the world around her.
And it was this kind of clarity that allowed her to catch some of the most memorable images: the happenstance of the setting sun's hues matching Matt's jacket as she looked back; the slowly fading footprints in the reflective waters of the swamp; the perfectly spaced alignment of three hikers walking along the side of a road.
Getting the chance to undertake such a long-term project, which was first photographed for the Naples Daily News, is exactly what Klann hoped to do in her career. "To spend time with someone and get to know them and telling their story becomes so much easier," she said, "it means a lot more."
Matt finished her hike in 40 days, just as she planned. As hard as the Florida Trail is to start, the end is a magnificent, breezy 30-mile stretch of beach. Matt nearly missed the trail's ending marker.
"I would love to go back on the Florida Trail," Klann said. "I'd do it differently: a little bit less gear and a little bit more free time."