Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Not All Who Wander Are Lost
January 17, 2017 - Florida Keys

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

On Monday we moved on to Kelly's Countryside RV Park in Callahan, Florida located between Jacksonville and the Okefenokee Swamp. Our friends John and Janie had recommended we visit the swamp, so that's just what we did on Tuesday. It was a great day!

The refuge covers 630 square miles in southeast Georgia. The swamp is even larger with parts in both Georgia and Florida. We paid our $5 daily admission fee and headed to the visitor center. There is an adventure outfitter where you can rent canoes or kayaks or sign up to take a 90 minute guided boat tour. It was pretty hot, so we opted for the guided tour where we wouldn't have to work hard and would hear all about what we were seeing.

While we waited for the tour, we looked around in the visitor center and watched their movie. The movie had beautiful photography, but very little narration. It would have been much better if they had talked about the refuge. I thought this shirt was pretty clever.

The swamp is the head water of two rivers, the St. Marys which is the border of Florida and Georgia and the Suwannee River, which flows to the Gulf of Mexico (we were at that end over 250 river miles away last week.)

We boarded the boat and headed out into the 11 mile Suwannee Canal which was dug in the 1890s. A developer had the idea to dig the canal to drain the swamp for logging and farming. He ran out of money and abandoned the project, but the canal remains and is used by boaters to get out into the swamp. We saw dozens of alligators all along the canal. This guy was right in front of the boat. As the boat got closer, he just sank out of view.

This one was posing very nicely for us.

There was a large fire in the swamp in 2011. It was quite obvious where the fire ended and we entered this eerie looking area. We learned that Spanish Moss is not from Spain, nor is it a moss. It is an air plant growing on the cypress trees.

Our guide gave us lots of information as we slowly made our way along the canal. Then, he took us into a swamp prairie/pond area. We saw lots of birds, more alligators and many plants. This great blue heron had just caught a snake. Eeewww!

I managed to catch this egret in flight.

The swamp is a peat swamp where huge islands of peat sometimes come to the surface and actually form mounds where plants and even trees begin to grow. The lily pads were just beginning to bloom. There were also interesting looking plants called Yellow Cane or Never Wets, as the locals call them. The yellow stem is actually the flower. Water just rolls off the leaves; hence the local name.

There were lots of birds in this part of the swamp, egrets and ibis.

We thoroughly enjoyed our boat tour, but our day wasn't done. We drove along Swamp Island Drive. We saw evidence of the Longleaf Pine Restoration Project. These trees once covered 90 million acres in the southeast, fewer than 3 million acres remain.

We stopped at the Chesser Island Homestead. The Chesser family settled on a small island in the swamp in the mid-1800s. The homestead that is open to the public was built in 1927 using yellow pine and cypress wood. They grew sugar cane and processed it right on the property to make money. They also grew their own food, had livestock, and beehives. Electricity was never brought to the island while they lived there, but they had a propane refrigerator and gasoline washing machine. I'm always amazed how industrious people of old were.

Our next stop was the Chesser Island Boardwalk and Owls Roost Tower. The old boardwalk burned during the fire, so a very nice new .75 mile boardwalk has been built. It goes through the swamp to the 40 foot Owls Roost Tower, where you can get a great view of the swamp.

Seagrove Lake was behind the tower.

You can see a small black spot near the bottom center of the picture above. Upon closer inspection, it was an anhinga with some turtles next to it. Just above it was a large alligator.

We really enjoyed our visit to the Okefenokee Swamp. There is a state park with camping available, but we didn't get a chance to check that out.

On Wednesday we drove into Jacksonville to do some exploring. We drove through a historic area called Riverside/Avondale, but weren't all that impressed. The houses were old, but not as grand as we've seen in many other historic cities.

We stopped at Friendship Fountain along the St. Johns River in downtown. The fountain was huge and beautiful. It is lit at night, and I'm sure is even prettier then.

Across the river was a tourist area called Jacksonville Landing with shops and restaurants. There is also a river walk over there. We found the River City Brewing Company so stopped for a sampler for Kevin and a hard cider for me.

We've been in Florida Since December 31st, and today we leave the state. Our winter in Florida was great, but I don't think we'll spend another winter here for several reasons. It was very hard to make reservations at many RV parks in southern Florida, the prices were very high, RV parks were tight and small, sand fleas attacked Kevin a couple of times, and it was hotter and more humid than we like. Temperatures this winter were above average in Florida, so I'm sure other years are not as hot and humid as we experienced.  I know there are many people who love wintering in Florida, and that's great for them. We just prefer Arizona. That doesn't mean we won't be back for shorter visits. That's the nice part of being mobile. Never say never!

Today we head to Jasper, Georgia for a week. We plan to explore Savannah for sure. I'm sure I'll find other places to see as well.

Don’t wish upon a star – Reach for one!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Way Down Upon The Suwannee River

On Friday we drove to the Lower Suwannee River National Wildlife Refuge near Cedar Key. It covers 53,000 acres and was established in 1979 to protect one of the largest river-delta estuarine systems in the United States. The historic Suwannee River passes through the refuge on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

We've all heard the famous song by Stephen Foster about this river. In fact, it's the official Florida state song. I always thought of Georgia when I heard the song. However, it is the second longest river in Florida flowing for 265 miles to the Gulf. The start of the river is in the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge in Georgia which we will be visiting today.

We hiked the River Trail over some boardwalks to the river. The refuge is home to 232 species of birds, 72 species of reptiles and 42 species of mammals. We didn't see any of them :)

Our next stop was Shell Mound Park. This is an archaeological site. Thousands of years ago Native Americans lived here and built up this mound with shells, animal bones and other refuse. The elevation helped them take advantage of breezes off the water. Now it just looks like a hill covered in trees. While we were walking on the trail to the fishing pier, we did see lots of oyster shells on the ground.

We met an interesting local man on the fishing pier. He told us that the shells we were seeing in the Cedar Key area on the little mounds in the water are oyster shells. Lots of the ones above water are dried out, but he explained how to cook them if we found some fresh ones. I think we'll pass. We love lots of different kinds of seafood, but oysters if not one of our favorites.

We spent the rest of the weekend relaxing at the RV park, even playing a little pickle ball. This was the first park we've been at all winter that had a court. The weather has gotten warmer again and is fantastic. The only downside has been that Kevin is getting bitten while outside. We think they are sand fleas. It happens mostly when he is setting up or taking down and is on the grass. His arms and legs are full of red spots. Benadryl anti-itch cream, ibuprofen and bug spray are helping. He says they itch a lot.

Monday we left Cedar Key and headed to Callahan, Florida, about 20 miles north of Jacksonville. We're staying here for three nights so we can visit the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and Jacksonville.

Don’t wish upon a star – Reach for one!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Exploring Cedar Key, Florida

On Monday we arrived at Cedar Key RV Resort in Cedar Key, Florida. We're about two hours south of the panhandle, so definitely heading north.  The resort is one of the nicest we've seen. Sites are large with concrete pads and patios. Everything is beautifully maintained. You can see the pride taken in caring for this park. There is a pool, one shuffleboard and one pickle ball court, and some limited activities. A beautiful place to relax.

A cold spell hit Florida the day after we got here. We actually had a freeze warning one night, and highs have been around 60 degrees. We've been chilling out, but on Wednesday we did take some time to explore the small town of Cedar Key. This area has lots of small keys or islands with Cedar Key being the largest and most populated. It's one of the oldest towns in Florida, and has that old town feel. We walked along Dock Street where there are several restaurants and a marina.

We arrived two hours after low tide, and the boats in the inner marina weren't going anywhere. Two hours later, things were looking much better.

The town is home to a number of local artists, so we wandered through a few art galleries. This large and whimsical mosaic statue was outside one of them.

Many of the homes have historic registry markers on them. One of them had an awesome tree stump carving. I like how the artist carved images into the stump, rather than carving the whole stump into something.

The islands in this area don't have any natural beaches, everything is very rocky. The main industry is clam and oyster harvesting and tourism. At one time pencils were manufactured here using the cedar trees that grow in abundance. There is a small man-made beach in town. With the low tide, it didn't look very inviting.

I liked the drinking fountain they had in the park. A place to fill your water bottle, get an immediate drink, and even a dish for your dog. Great idea!

We had lunch at Tony's in downtown. I had read multiple reviews about the excellent award winning clam chowder they serve. In fact, they won the award for best clam chowder at the national contest in Vermont three years in a row. I ordered a cup, and I have to say it was delicious. They actually sell it in the grocery stores around here, so I'm going to see if I can find some to take home.

After lunch, we went to Cemetery Point Park and walked along the boardwalk. This whole area consists of many salt marshes and mud flats.

There were lots of these mounds with what looks like oysters growing on top. Not sure what that was all about.

In 1867 at the age of 29, John Muir set out on a 1,000 mile journey, walking from Indiana to the Gulf. He arrived in Cedar Key in October suffering from malaria. The townspeople took him in and helped him recover. He left Cedar Key in 1868 and headed to California where he was eventually instrumental in establishing Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Club.

At the RV park, I've been seeing a lot of Woody Woodpecker. I discovered its actually a pileated woodpecker. He really does look a lot like Woody!

Don’t wish upon a star – Reach for one!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

One of the reasons I chose to come to this part of Florida was to see the manatees I had read about on several sites. There was lots of information online about boardwalks and underwater viewing areas where you can see them up close. Plenty of other opportunities are available for boat encounters and even swimming with the manatees. I just wanted to see them up close. Kevin's just along for the ride. He really didn't care about seeing manatees :)

We went to the boardwalk and underwater viewing area at the state park. There were lots of large fish, but only two manatees in the river. I've heard over and over again that due to the above average temperatures in Florida this winter, the manatees are not coming into the rivers and canals as much as usual. The gulf temperatures have been around 72 to 75 degrees. The manatees seek warmer waters when it gets down to about 68 degrees, so they are staying out in the gulf waters more.  The only wild manatees we saw at the state park were this mom and baby. In the second photo, it looks like the baby is nursing.

 Included in the $13 admission price are three different programs put on a few times a day. The first one we went to with about 400 elementary kids on a field trip was about manatees. The park has three resident female manatees that were rescued in the wild and now live at the park. There is also one male currently there for rehabilitation, but he will be released soon. They are kept apart for obvious reasons.  We went back to the second manatee show later in the day when the students had left. This time they were feeding the females romaine lettuce. Each manatee eats over 100 pounds of vegetation a day.

Before the park was taken over by the state in the late 1980s, it was a privately owned zoo. Lots of exotic animals were kept there. In fact, the TV show Gentle Ben was filmed here. One of the stipulations for the state to take over was that all the exotic animals be sent away, and only native Florida animals would be kept. All of the animals were sold or sent to zoos except the hippo. No one wanted Lu. Floridians had become attached to Lu and signed petitions to keep him. The governor at that time declared Lu the hippo a Florida citizen, and he has lived here ever since. He is now 59 years old, and pretty much sleeps all day. I did get a picture of him with his eyes partially open.

We went to the hippo and alligator show and learned about Lu and the seven alligators in the neighboring pond. Lu did swim around a bit, but wasn't interesting in the food the presenter had for him. Then it was back to sleep. Did you know that alligators don't eat for a few months during the winter. In fact, if they were force fed, the food would just rot in their stomach and they would die. This guy was really big!

There were lots of birds in the park. Many of them are rescued, and can't live in the wild. They had three bald eagles. Every one of them had damaged wings from being shot at or cars hitting them. They sure are beautiful.

These flamingos were also so pretty.

Whooping cranes are endangered, and were almost extinct. Today, it is estimated there are only between 400 and 600 in the world. A few years ago, we saw a small group of them in Texas in winter. There were also a few at this park.

Panthers were hunted almost to extinction in Florida. Now they are protected, and estimates say there are a few hundred; mostly in southern Florida. For some reason, I always thought panthers were black; but everything we've seen in Florida regarding panthers shows them as tan or brown. The park has two of them that were rescued as kittens when they became separated from their mothers.

Back at the visitor center, I got the best view of a manatee I've had all winter. Isn't he cute!

We parked at the west entrance of the park, so had to take a tram or boat to get to the main area. We took the boat both ways. It was a relaxing and pretty 15 minute ride. This baby alligator was sunning himself on a log.

One day we had to make a shopping run, so stopped at Sugar Mill State Park. It's a small roadside park with a picnic area and the ruins of an old sugar mill from the 1800s. Most plantations had their own sugar mills because the cost of shipping the cane was too expensive.  The site had some information signs, but about half of them were missing. These large rollers crushed the cane to get the juices out. Then it was boiled in several different huge vats to extract the sugar.

We could have gone to Crystal River in search of more manatees, but we were ready for some down time. We've just hung around the RV park for a few days. Tomorrow we head to Cedar Key for a week. I think we'll be doing lots of relaxing there are well.

Don’t wish upon a star – Reach for one!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show

Before I tell you about the mermaids, I want to catch up on our last day in Dunedin. Kevin and I biked about 10 miles round trip across the causeway to Honeymoon Island State Park. It was a beautiful trip with water on both sides for most of the way. Sue had recommended it as a nice ride, and she was quite right. Unfortunately, it was quite windy; so we struggled on the way back.

We stopped at the visitor center and watched a short video about the history of the island. It used to be called Hog Island because there were hogs raised on it. In the 1950s cabins called "love shacks" were built to attract couples. After that, it became known as Honeymoon Island. The state park was created to keep much of the island in its natural state, and to prevent overbuilding.

There was information about an eagles nest, so we hiked a mile into Osprey Trail to get a look. We saw the nest, but the eagles were not home. Too bad. I forgot my good camera with the 30X zoom, so was only able to get 4X zoom with my cell camera.

We saw quite a few osprey nests and birds flying around. If you look closely or click on the photo to enlarge, you can see an osprey in the nest.

Next I spent about half an hour walking along the beach looking for shells. I found a few spiral shells and a piece of finger sponge. I had seen finger sponges for sale the day before in Tarpon Springs. I kept the shells, but not the sponge. I believe you have to treat it some way so it doesn't get smelly.

Sue and Alex had invited us over for a cookout in the afternoon with Alex's sister Cookie and her husband Tom. We've all known each other for a long time, and had a great time reminiscing with lots of laughter. Kevin whipped up a batch of margaritas for us to share.

We had short drive on Monday to Homosassa. We're staying at Nature's Resort RV Park. We're in the back in F section. The road to get to our section is long and windy with lots of trees on both sides. The place is much more of a campground, rather than a resort. But, it will meet our needs for the week we are here exploring. There was a stretch of highway with bear warning signs. I never would have guessed that there are black bears in Florida.

There were two main reasons I wanted to come here. One was to see the Manatees that hang out in the springs in the area. The other was to see the Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show. Several years ago I read a novel called Swim To Me by Betsy Carter. It was about a young girl who leaves home and joins the mermaids in Weeki Wachee. Ever since I read that book, I wanted to come see the show.

The Mermaid Show was started in 1947 by stunt swimmer and Navy Frogman Newt Perry using an underwater air hose breathing technique which is still used today. The show is an iconic Florida attraction. It became part of the Florida State Park system in 2008. There are three mermaid shows per day performed in a natural spring pool. An underwater viewing theater is built into the side of the rock surrounding the water.

We watched the first show based on the fairy tale The Little Mermaid. It was cute and entertaining in a very old school kind of hokey way. The mermaids and merman did an awesome job. It takes a year of training before they are ready to perform. Fish and turtles swim with the mermaids. The color was better in person.

 Our next stop was the Florida Wildlife Show. Only four animals were shown; a snake, turtle, tortoise and alligator. It was okay, but could have been better with a few more animals. Here's a king snake.

 And a three year old Florida alligator.

Included in the $13 admission is also a boat ride on a river created by the springs. The water was amazingly clear. You could see lots of fish. We saw an eagles nest with an eagle sitting on top, but it was pretty far away and we went by too fast.

The second mermaid show of the day is called Fish Tales and is about the history of the program. It was very entertaining. If you only have time for one show, this would be the best one to see. The mermaids fed the fish and turtles, so they had quite a gang around them.

One of their featured moves is to grab onto each others fins and swim in a circle. That was pretty cool.

Here's one of them drinking a bottle of soda. Another one was eating an apple. That just seems like it would be really hard to do under water.

At one point a manatee swam by in the background. Bonus!!

I really enjoyed our visit with the mermaids at this classic old school Florida attraction.

Don’t wish upon a star – Reach for one!