Sue and Mo at Harris Beach

Sue and Mo at Harris Beach
Sue and Mo at Harris Beach

Thursday, February 27, 2014

2-27-2014 Traveling North from Key West to Fort Pierce and a flat tire!

Key West_063Our last day in Key West was a day of preparations for traveling north.  We took the opportunity to stock up on some groceries at the commissary, bought supplies at the Exchange, and filled both the MoHo and the Tracker with gas.  The car wash near the camp ground was reasonably priced as well, at a buck and a quarter for several minutes, we cleaned off all that lovely salt air on the MoHo and had time to wipe her down to a nice shine.

Must mention a side note here.  After more than six years on the road, the MoHo paint is as shiny as new, with no oxidation or discoloration.  Something called whole body paint rather than decals makes a big difference, I believe.  Mo uses a simple combination cleaner/wax when washing the rig and we have never put any other kind of wax finish on it.

Alison visits_004Other errands for the day included taking Abby to the groomer to get all that long hair trimmed back.  She was visibly cooler and happier when we picked her up and the price was reasonable as well. Good thing I didn’t read the reviews but it was the only place available and all we needed was a haircut.  The name of the place was “Doggie Style”.  Hmmm. 

I spent the afternoon cleaning the interior and doing laundry, taking a shower, and enjoying the beautiful day before we ambled off to the Sunset Grill for Happy Hour.  Hoping for some coconut shrimp, I was disappointed that that particular menu item wasn’t available, but settled instead for some nice peel and eat shrimp, better for me anyway.

Happy Hour at the Sunset barWe spent some time listening to folks laughing and partying, watching the view of the sun toward the west, but decided that waiting another 90 minutes for the sunset just wasn’t high on our agenda. So glad we left, because walking around the campground we came upon some folks we met earlier in our stay who had managed to snag a great waterfront site after just two days in the park.

Happy Hour at the Sunset Bar at SigsbeeTom and Judy were gregarious folks who know how to make friends quickly and carry on a lively conversation.  We enjoyed every minute of our sunset time with them and exchanged emails and addresses for future get togethers.  Judy’s sunset conch blowing brought out the neighbors with their own conchs and they all created a lovely harmony with the big shells.

The next morning we were on the road early, traveling north again along the Overseas Highway.  I especially loved being high enough in a motorhome that we could see over the road barriers to the gorgeous water.  On this last morning, the skies were cloudy and storms were brewing all along the route, with a few momentary downpours, but nothing extensive.

on the way north_007The route was straightforward, and we had already decided to use the Florida Turnpike to miss the most extensive area of traffic around Miami and Fort Lauderdale. I had no clue what the final cost would be, but checking the website for our Florida SunPass it was about $30 for the route from Homestead to Fort Pierce.  The transponder worked just fine and all four axles were documented with no overcharges or undercharges.

Our reservations at Alexander Springs allowed for one overnight stop somewhere along the route, and with a point on the map, we picked Fort Pierce. Another reason for choosing Fort Pierce for our overnight stay was the convenient access to a Cracker Barrel restaurant at the point where we planned to exit the Turnpike and get on I-95 to continue north.  I called the restaurant and they confirmed that we could stay overnight in the RV parking area so we took a little extra time to explore the small town of Fort Pierce.

on the way north_003There is a small historic area downtown, and a nice Manatee Center near the wharf and beach.  Again, we discovered several parks on the beach that prohibited dogs, but closer to the main beach there was an access area that said not a word about no dogs, so we took Abby out for a run.  The water was rough, the winds strong and the temperatures were quite chilly.  That encouraged the kite surfers, however, and they were out in force.

We arrived at the Cracker Barrel in time to get a nice level spot along the edge of the parking lot and decided on an early supper.  By the time we landed, it was raining misty, so a warm home cooked supper was nice.  Cracker Barrel seems to focus most on home style farm style kinds of food, with things such as meat loaf, pot roast, and mashed potatoes on the menu.  I laughed because we had both green beans and carrots and they were very tasty, but not “tender-crisp”.  They were well cooked and highly seasoned mid-west style, the way our mothers did.

on the way north_011When we walked back out to the MoHo, I noticed a tire seemed low, and a closer inspection revealed a more serious problem. Our passenger side inner dual tire was completely flat!  Whew.  No idea that it was low as we traveled a couple of hundred miles along the turnpike.  We choose not to have sensors because my trucker daughter insists that they cause more problems than they solve.  Don’t need a discussion here, I know lots of readers feel differently.

We couldn’t have had the problem in a better place, all settled in for the night in a safe spot off the road.  I called AAA RV in Oregon, and was routed to a Florida agent who then said someone would be out within an hour.  After the designated time came and went, I called again and was told that there was no one in the vicinity who knew how to do RV tires who was available.  Daughter Deanna, who drives this route often said, “Mom, the Pilot, the Flying J, and the Loves are all right there within a mile of you and they all do truck tire fixes”.  I could have called them, but then I would have had to pay and try to get reimbursed from AAA and didn’t want to do that.

friends 002Instead we just waited, and finally at 10:30 PM, in the rain, our truck repair guy showed up, traveling all the way from Miami, a two hour trip. Yon was all smiles and I couldn’t understand a word that he said, even though he was speaking English.  I also couldn’t imagine how he was going to jack up the rig with just the little bit of equipment he had on his pick-up.  Yon’s smiles came and went and he fought with the jack in the rain, and finally hauled out some kind of hydraulic jack that operated on his air system and got the rig up.

He was also expert at hoisting those tires around, and immediately knew we had a valve stem problem.  I did understand those words.  He was right, and once he got the rig hoisted, within minutes he had the tire off, had the valve stem replaced, and the tire checked and re-inflated and reinstalled.  Quite a guy.

Mo bought all new tires just before this trip, but the tire in this position was the spare, one of the vehicles original tires, and the stem had cracked.  We fell into bed at midnight in the rain, happy that all ended well and our tire repair happened so easily in such a good place.  That kind of good luck with what could be a serious situation just seems to follow Mo around.  Pretty nice.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

02-26-2014 Key West, a Different Perspective…or Two

Current Location: NAS Key West Sigsbee Campground 78 Degrees F, 87 % humidity

hibiscus in bloom in the truman annexFirst, let me say that this is not a travel blog about Key West.  There are plenty of places to go to read all about the delights and attractions of this historic town.  I am writing about Key West and how I felt about being here.  The history and delights are well documented elsewhere.

I am relaxing in the MoHo this morning under high overcast skies and warm temperatures.  The generator is going again, but the air conditioner isn’t on.  The breezes are lovely, and sufficient for cooling the rig as I write.  I took a morning walk down to the water to check on conditions for a kayak to discover a surface smooth as glass.  Might have been nice to slip those boats in at just that moment, but those little details of living life now and then get in the way of recreating.

DSC_0039Today will be our last in Key West at Sigsbee Campground and we need to make a much needed shopping excursion at the Commissary and the Naval Exchange for some supplies.  In addition, we finally managed to snag an appointment for a haircut for Abby.  (Mo has yet to be successful in this endeavor and her hair is quite lovely with all that wild humidity contributing to her wild curly look)

When we first arrived last weekend, I attempted to find a groomer for Abby, leaving messages as directed.  So far not one groomer has returned my call.  I would imagine that they prefer repeat customers when appointments are at a premium.  Yesterday, however, on our route home from town, in an attempt to avoid the construction on Highway 1, we took a side route.  Lo and Behold!  A small local dog groomer was just closing his doors and we begged for an appointment and got one for 12 noon today.  Hence skipping the morning kayak in favor or an afternoon sojourn on the water.  Hopefully the weather will continue to cooperate.

DSC_0041It is a bit humid, but for me that isn’t intolerable, different for sure, but not intolerable.  We couldn’t be in a better place right now for balmy temperatures and no storms.  Looking at the national weather maps this morning, I saw all the rain hitting the southeast with the Floridian Peninsula completely out of the path of that bright green radar.  Southern Florida seems to be spared for the time being.  We have been sleeping with a very light cover and all the windows open, even the front door, and the Fantastic Fan running.  It is another nice thing about being in a military campground, it feels fairly safe.

I have learned an invaluable lesson on this trip to Key West.  Several lessons actually.  For one, sometimes returning to a location for the second time after an amazing first visit can be a bit of a disappointment.  The second big lesson is that there actually ARE some places that are less fun in motorhome with pets than they were at a delightful little B&B within walking distance to town.  We first spent a short vacation in Key West in 2010, (post here).  At the time, I couldn’t wait to get back with the ‘freedom’ of our own motorhome to enjoy the area and with our bikes and kayaks and snorkel gear along with us.

Key West 001Most people who stay here at Sigsbee ride their bikes to town rather than dealing with the traffic in a car.  For us, a ten mile round trip in the heat isn’t all that exciting, in addition to competing with the crazy traffic that includes all sorts of motor scooters, motor cycles, bicycles, and lots of cars and crowds of people.  We followed John Herr’s advice and found free parking down by the Coast Guard Cutter and walked the mile or so to downtown with Abby on the night we decided to watch the sunset at Mallory Square. 

DSC_0026Our walk was fun, and we took the back routes toward the square before negotiating our way through the heavy crowds toward the famous point for sunset watching.  Getting there an hour early was perfect, since we got a place to sit along the seawall where Abby could rest and be comfortable.  The sunset was interesting, quite lovely part of the time, and then a cloud obscured the horizon as the sun descended and no one seemed to know exactly when to cheer.  I missed that big group chorus to honor the setting sun, but loved watching the sky change and shift.

DSC_0020Our plan included trying to get into the Hog’s Breath Saloon for dinner, one of the few places we could find in town that had a patio for doggie dining.  Once we arrived, however, the crowds and the noise were completely overwhelming and we couldn’t get out of there fast enough.  We walked back toward Whitehead Street, past our favorite old haunt for happy hour, Kelly’s.  I asked if they allowed dogs on the patio, and nope, not an option. 

Giving up on my fantasy of great gulf shrimp for supper, we wangled our way through the traffic and construction back to the base and slipped into Five Guys.  It was our first experience with this burger chain, and it was pretty darn good, although it wasn’t exactly my idea of the kind of food I was hoping for during our time in Key West.

Another lesson, is that number three? that I have learned is that Key West is not necessarily “The Keys”.  The middle keys and upper keys are much more quiet and quaint, with lots of wildlife, trails, secret kayaking coves and beautiful beaches.  Reading back over my own blog I was surprised that I hadn’t remembered that my best meal in the keys was not in Key West, but back on Islamorada.  Karen and Al and several other blogging couples are camping in RV parks at various locations along the Keys, and choose to come to Key West for a day or two of entertainment.

DSC_0038I do know that Randy and Pam and Carol and John love staying at Sigsbee, but maybe that is because they are here for extended stays rather than just a few short days.  Hence the title, two perspectives.  For a long term stay in Key West that is affordable, this is the very best option.  I probably will never return for a short term stay, but that in no way diminishes the excellent experience of other friends who love this place.

I also thought that perhaps our timing was a bit off, and that the folks who love staying here and spending more time are visiting in November, December, and possibly January.  We are here right after President’s Week (did you know that is now a week, not just a long weekend?) and right before Spring Break.  Might have something to do with it as well, so keep that in mind if you want to come to Key West.

DSC_0040A friend made a comment suggesting that perhaps they could change the policy for the campground and allow fewer people into the sites.  I would hate to see that happen.  If this park became a reservation park, it would end up like all the others in the Keys where it is nearly impossible to find a place to stay.  At least if you drive several thousand miles to experience Key West, it is a given that there will be a place to park at the end of the line, right here at Sigsbee.  That was so reassuring as we drove the long distance to get here.

Key West_050Another great treat was the Atlantic side beach for military personnel inside the gates at Truman Annex.  We drove there yesterday, having learned some side routes to avoid traffic, and settled in to a great shaded table overlooking the turquoise water.  The skies were a bit overcast so the photos didn’t catch the amazing color that I saw as I swam south toward the rocks.  I snorkeled a bit but didn’t see anything, but the water at 78 degrees or so felt fantastic.  The water was clear and clean and beautiful, with no sign of the dreaded Man-o-War jellyfish that could plague the beach later in the season. 

Key West_067Mo sat under the shade and read with Abby, since there was a sign proclaiming no dogs on the beach.  After a time she came down to take a photo of me swimming and took a chance and brought Abby down to cool off.  No one seemed to mind and Abby loved swimming in the warm water as much as I did.

We thought that around 2 would be a good time to once again try the Hog’s Breath Saloon, thinking it was before happy hour and after lunch.  What we didn’t realize was that Key West is a big cruise port, with 1 to 3 ships in port every single day.  Have I been under a rock somewhere to not know this?  Looking back at our photos from our last visit I was right, there were way fewer people on the streets last time than we found this time.  The place was a horror of crowds and weaving our way through the throngs with Abby on leash was not a bit fun.

Key West_074The Hog’s Breath was again jammed and loud and Mo said, “I’ll wait here on the bench while you go find your Key Lime stuff.” I had to get at least a slice of key lime pie and also bought one of those key lime pie slices on a stick covered in chocolate.  No clue if we would get dinner since I didn’t take anything out of the freezer expecting to eat a late afternoon lunch. 

We continued walking along Duval when suddenly a cool, shady path leading back to a quiet restaurant beckoned.  I left Mo on the street, walked back to talk to the waiter, and sure enough, dogs were completely welcome on his patio.  There wasn’t another soul in the place, the birds were singing, the trees shaded the table, and he brought water for Abby.  Our food turned out to be pretty darn good, and I got some nice pink gulf shrimp cooked Cuban style, with Cuban rice and a green salad with fresh fruits added to the classic tomato and cucumber.  We decided that Cuban food was excellent, especially in a shady patio with the dog.

Jungle cafe and barAs I was writing this blog, I had no idea of the name of the place, and had to hunt and hunt using Google Street View to find it.  It is called the Jungle Café, but there are other reviews for another place called Jungle Café that is NOT this place.  Then I did find a review or two, very outdated, that said it was closed.  In case you want to find it, it is right next to the Diamond International just a door or two down from the Smallest Bar on Duval Street.

Key West_073Something else I should comment on: Several people have suggested that we do some of the wonderful things to do here.  The Dry Tortugas are beautiful and remote, and we loved taking that all day boat trip the last time we were here.  We also climbed the charming Key West lighthouse and loved the museum there, and visited the Hemingway House, another great treat.  Didn’t feel we needed to do those things again on this visit.  On this trip, we found the great Higgs Beach Dog Park, a bit of a misnomer because it is a dog park near Higgs Beach, not a beach dog park, but still quite nice for a morning playtime for Abby.  The dog park here at Sigsbee is quite nice as well, although not as shaded.

Key West_062We had parked the car a couple of blocks north of Duval, in front of a lovely old church, no charge and no signs prohibiting parking except for Sunday and Wednesday afternoon. On the way back to the car, I stopped in at my favorite place from the previous visit Pelican Poop Shop to purchase something I had daydreamed about since the last time I was here.  The brilliant turquoise fish sculpture is all wrapped up in bubble wrap so there won’t be a photo till I get back to Rocky Point and hang it in my tropical themed bathroom.  Last time I refused to pay shipping to buy it, so this time I didn’t have to since we had the MoHo along.  Another one of the good things about having our rig along on this visit.

I also found a nice little shop, a bit less crazy than the tourist shops on Duval, that had some nice pastel visors that I wanted.  I found a perfect one for Mo’s birthday, coming up shortly.  She had been looking at my Hell’s Canyon visor with a bit of envy so it was a good present.

sigsbee 004We kayaked from the rocky shore here at the base on our first day, and plan to do so again this afternoon.  That is the other good thing about having our rig, bikes, and kayaks along.  The water is beautiful and clear, but there is a lot of boat traffic that requires vigilance to avoid.  We heard there was a manatee hanging out in the channel we explored the other day but we didn’t see him.  Today we will know what to look for and maybe we will find him.

This has been a difficult post to write, trying to capture the good parts of being here and not let the disappointments overwhelm overshadow the delights.  I am so glad we made it here, and glad we experienced Sigsbee camping, glad we were in the keys when the weather was so awful elsewhere.  Still, I will have a better idea when we get back to Northern Florida and the fresh water springs if my disappointment is directly related to Key West, or if I am possibly just a bit worn down from moving too quickly across the landscape.  However, moving out of Key West tomorrow may not come quickly enough.  I am ready.


Monday, February 24, 2014

02-22-2014 to 02-26-2014 Days in Key West

Current temperature at Sigsbee NAS Campground 83F Humidity 74% Partly Cloudy

Key West_049At the moment, we are holed up in the MoHo with the generator on and the air conditioning running full blast.  Being in the dry camping area at the NAS Key West (what used to be called Sigsbee Field) the air conditioner is imperative, even with our lacy shade trees overhead.  At the moment Mo is trying to get our CO2 sensor to quit beeping.  We don’t have a special stack for the generator as suggested, however even if we did, all the other generators going at the moment in these tight quarters might set that sensor off anyway.

Key West_033Jeremy decided to add to the humid, quite warm ambience of the MoHo by adding something of his own.  Albeit in the cat box, still requiring a nice kitty bath to make it all ok again.  Very indignantly, he is trying to lick himself dry now.  Nice to be able to not worry about him catching a cold.  The last few times I have given him a bath in Mo’s collapsible bucket he seems to enjoy it, at least for the most part.  I think his favorite part is getting all swaddled up in the bath towel and cuddled until he is at least partially dry.  He doesn’t complain.

the Overseas HighwayThis is our second full day in the campground, having arrived in late afternoon on Saturday.  The campground office was closed, but after reading several accounts of the procedure, and an emergency call to John (our recent new friends at “Our Trip Around the Sun”, we had an idea where to go and how to proceed.

Within minutes of calling the phone number posted on the office door, a campground host showed up in his little cart and went over the process of signing up officially on Monday morning and led us to what was to be our site for the weekend.  We were tucked back in a circular area with several rigs around us, all running their Honda 2000i’s to ward off the heat.  I guess one of these generators will power a 30 amp rig, but it takes two to power up the big guys with 50 amps.  Only planning on dry camping for 5 nights, we were content to use the generator on board the MoHo.

Key West_065Camping here is an experience at what is most definitely an inside culture of folks who know how to do it, how it works, and those who don’t.  Lucky for us, most of the folks know how to do it, and we have communicated enough with blog friends who have camped here that we had a basic understanding of the rotation system and didn’t give our host too much trouble.  He wasn’t so lucky with some folks arriving just before we did, with a lady waving her arms and looking disgusted trying to wangle a better site on their first night here.  We did know better than that, and Walter, the host, told us that the rotation at the moment is about 4 weeks with more than 200 rigs signed up on the rotation list.

Trumbo Annex, at the Coast Guard facility down the road, is completely full with long time sites that have been filled since Christmas.  We were told there is no chance of getting into that part of the family camp.  Dry camp in this part of camp is mandatory rotation, but with only five nights here, that isn’t an issue for us.  Tired from our journey across the keys, and the traffic and surprising heat and humidity, we settled in with the air conditioner and the generator going full blast. 

Key West_058We had a bit of a hiccup with the generator, being set for high elevation, and no doubt a bit moist from all the humidity, it coughed a bit and died.  Unsure what the problem was and with darkness falling, Mo decided to wait until morning to check the oil and the altitude adjustment.  All was fine after that, but our first night here was a bit of an adjustment for us as well.  With normally balmy temperatures in Key West, we weren’t expecting mid 80’s and little breeze.  From what I have learned, it happens sometimes, but not usually this time of year. 

During our evening walk around the campground, we ran into the camp host and asked what exactly you had to do to draw one of those primo waterfront sites.  He said, “Well, I have one coming in tomorrow that is too big for the site, so you could move in there after ten AM”.  OK then!

Key West_055We went to sleep pretty tickled, got up early to go explore town and get our bearings in the car before our scheduled move.  Back at ten sharp, we checked the site as instructed, and with it empty, we made our move.  No sooner had we dropped the jacks and opened the slide that another camp host arrived to tell us, “Sorry to tell you this, but you have to move.  This site has come up in rotation and you can’t be here.”

Key West_064Instead of staying in our very hot, very fume filled site however, Buzz led me to a shady site that was a bit smaller and was right by the garbage cans.  Oh thank you for a small rig.  Garbage cans or not, this site is shaded with two lovely, lacy trees that are actually nasty invasive species that are overtaking the Keys.  At the moment, with the shade from those trees, we can sit outside in our site and enjoy the cooling breezes, and the MoHo doesn’t get all that hot during the day with just the Fantastic Fan running and the windows open. 

sigsbee 002There are several hundred RVs on site at this moment, and as I said 200 or so are waiting to rotate into a full hookup site.  Generators are allowed to run between 7am and 11pm, and there is a dump and water station.  We learned that if you try to dump during the dark there is a $15,000. fine.  Yup, you read that right.

With all the complexity, it might seem easier to just go to a regular RV park, but at the current rate of $147 per night at the local KOA, and no other parks around, we decided that paying $13.00 per night to camp here was worth it.  Thus far, after about half our five day stay, we have used about 1/4 tank of gasoline to run the generator.  Pretty inexpensive digs to stay in Key West.sigsbee 004

Next post:  Some of the more delightful aspects of staying and visiting in Key West and why we decided it was worth it.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

2-20 to 2-21- 2014 Midway Campground Big Cypress Preserve

Current: Midway Campground at 5am 71 degrees and some dramatic moonlit clouds overhead

Shark Valley_121After a couple of days at Midway, it is amazing how disconnected I feel.  I woke up at 4 this morning worried.  Worried about the Everglades, worried about the gorgeous fresh water springs in Florida, worried about Sherry and David and where they are going to stay next winter.  Worried about…..whatever.  When I wake up like this, I know it is time to just give it up and get up and write.  But then, I feel as though I am in a bit of a vacuum, no connections, no phone again and no way to check in on the world or my kids or my friends.  I sometimes am appalled at my addiction to that connectivity, to simply reading email or blogs or a text to remind me of the real world and my place in it.  Such a lesson.

My worries about the Everglades are directly related to spending a day dipping into the northern part of the park. With only one day to spend, we decided to follow Sherry and David’s advice and see Shark Valley.  Here at Big Cypress there are some wonderful ranger led activities, but our timing was off.  After seeing all the alligators at the visitor center, both of us were a bit leery of doing our first “alligator” kayak on our own, and checked into the ranger led paddle down the Turner River. 

gators at Big Cypress Visitor CenterWe decided that we would attempt to get an extension for an additional night at Midway in order to participate in the Saturday paddle.  First thing in the morning we drove back to the Oasis Visitor Center to use their phone to see if there was an opening.  Reservations are required on this paddle, and we discovered that even with our own boat there was no room for us. Only ten paddlers are allowed on the river at one time.  The next step would have been to use the visitor center phone to try to snag one of the two remaining campsites at Midway for Saturday night.

This was important because in order to do the paddle, we would have to leave Abby with Jeremy in the rig for the day, and with the heat we would have to have the air conditioning going.  The days are about 86 F or so, but the rigs do heat up even with the windows open and the fan going.  No dry camping for us.  And no Abby on the rivers, since the alligators most often ignore people, but DO perk up a lot if there is a dog around.  Lesson learned.

Shark Valley_020It was all irrelevant anyway, since we couldn’t get a reservation.  So the next step was to figure out when the Shark Valley tram tour was scheduled, again the brochure said “reservations recommended”.  With all the people here in Florida this week, I could only imagine how full that trip could be.  We learned that the route was fifteen miles round trip if we chose to bike it on our own.

Arriving at the Shark Valley Visitor Center to a crowd of people loading up a tram, the thought of two hours with all those folks sounded less and less appealing.  When we went inside to check out the tram information, we were shocked to discover that the cost was $22 for adults and $18 for seniors!  For two hours on a tram???  In fact, we could bike the route at our leisure in that length of time if we didn’t get sidetracked too often.

blue heron 1Be sure to click on this one to make it larger and see the chicks!

Once again, we were so glad we had our bikes, and plenty of bug juice (some kind of nice lemongrass/citronella/geranium oil I got from the evil KOA), sunscreen, hats, and water.  I had to make the decision about which lens to carry on the bike since there was no way I could manage the whole setup, so I opted for the heavy telephoto.  Once again, I put on the rather hot but extremely handy Cotton Carrier to manage the camera.  Only problem was that the lens would bump into the handlebars whenever I tried to dismount.  I was about as graceful at that as I am getting out of a kayak.  NOT

What a gorgeous ride!  I can’t imagine that we considered going on the tram.  We could travel at our leisure, (except when there were a few groups of rude people who kept stopping and then passing us and then stopping again).  What is with these people that have on spandex on skinny bikes with helmets and don’t bother to warn of their passing?! They were some of those very fit old and snotty people that make me ….can I say what I am thinking here>>>>want to puke.

Anhinga chicks in the nest.Shark Valley_007

Once we got away from the rude bunch, the ride was magnificent.  Fifteen miles of perfectly smooth, perfectly level paved trail is pretty darn sweet when it is surrounded by the magnificent Everglades.  Midway through the ride is the Observation Tower, high above the landscape and the only way other than an airplane to grasp the vast expanse of the River of Grass.

I knew a bit about the problems with the Everglades, but the park brochure lines the whole thing out in one page of very graphic detail.  It is the story of water, our need for it, our abuse of it, our thoughtless expansion of agriculture with its chemicals and runoff, with dams to protect people from natural overflows.  There is no place on the planet, not one place, that is like the Everglades, and we very nearly killed it.  I woke at 4am wondering if it is at all possible to change the outcome, no matter how many people from all over the world are trying to do so.  My 4am thoughts were fairly pessimistic.

I took so many photos of the wood stork, my first sighting of this big crazy looking bird, before I knew about its status as an indicator species reflecting the health of the Glades.  I saw a lot of them yesterday, watching them swing their big bills through the mud to catch fish with a reflexive snap. 

Shark Valley_068After we visited the tower, we continued in the counter clockwise direction recommended by the park signs.  The snotty fit folks were complaining a lot about the wind and chose to return via the straight route rather than continue the loop.  Hooray for us!  The sun was hot and riding with the wind instead of against it was nice as well.  The second half of the loop is much more open, with fewer alligators and mangroves but a wider view of sawgrass prairie.

Shark Valley_094The wider expanse of sawgrass, and more open water with a few mudflats yielded a bright pink surprise.  I hollered at Mo, tried to get off the bike without banging the lens on the handlebars, and got another bazillion photos of the one lonely roseate spoonbill swinging his bill through the mud.  Another mile or so yielded another couple of spoonbills, so I saw three in all.  We were almost completely alone on our return trip since most folks opted to return the other direction.  I have no idea why.  The Observation Tower is at 7 miles, almost halfway around the trail, so why not ride the loop?  We spent just a little under three hours biking the loop.

On our way back to Midway, we opted to take the Loop road from milepost 40 on Highway 41, several miles of back paved road along the mangroves and then several more miles of dirt road through the heart of the bald cypress forest and through several “strands”. Strands are areas of deeper flowing water through the swamp. Blackwater Strand was as beautiful as we were told, and several photographers with monster lenses and big tripods were attempting to capture the magic.

Shark Valley_135Speaking of magic…and photography… on our way back to camp between the visitor center and the campground is the Clyde Butcher Gallery.  Stepping into the lobby of the gallery simply took my breath away.  Clyde Butcher has been hailed as the Ansel Adams of our time.  Long ago I studied B/W photography in college, and the Zone System of exposure developed by Adams was our bible.  It is all about exposure, not manipulation of the image after it is taken.  Of course, with modern day photo tools that are available, I have become lazy.  I shoot  and process, and my old gray scale cards are packed away in a keepsake box somewhere.

Shark Valley_134Looking at Clyde Butcher’s photos, I saw all the amazing detail in the darks and the lights that is the goal of truly good photography.  Just simply breathtaking.  His prints go for hundreds of dollars for a tiny one, and tens of thousands of dollars for the big ones.  I opted for a calendar for $20, and then discovered to my delight that the calendar was focused on the fresh water springs of Northern Florida.  Hence worrying about the springs.  The information in that calendar about the degradation of the gorgeous Florida springs is as disheartening as the brochure information about the Everglades.

Shark Valley_136Our campground at Midway is quite lovely, with grassy open sites and paved RV pads.  There is only electricity at the site, but a dump station and fresh water are available in the campground.  Until recently, this campground was first come first served, with folks lining up early in the morning for a spot.  Thanks to Sherry, I learned about the recent change to reservations required, and three weeks ago snagged our spot.  Good thing!  The campground had been full every night. 

Today we will begin the journey south toward Key West, crossing the long bridges with views of gorgeous turquoise water on our way to Sigsbee Field to camp.  I think this Military Family Camp in Key West is probably one of the greatest benefits of Mo’s military service. (She may disagree, of course, because I am sure she has other benefits that mean more to her, such as retirement and health care.  Ha!)  Without the ability to camp at Sigsbee Field, we wouldn’t be visiting the Keys, much less Key West.

Shark Valley_010We know that we will be dry camping at Sigsbee, with hookup sites in a rotational system that we won’t be there long enough to get.  We will be loading up on water and fuel to run the generator for the five days we will be camping there.  Usually the temperatures in Key West are moderated by the surrounding water, so we hope that it won’t be as hot as it has been here.

John and Carol gave us lots of tips about camping at Sigsbee, about where to go near the campground, and where to park in town for free since we do have Abby and can’t bike that far with her any more.  Next on our buying list is one of those baby carrier biking things that Mo can pull behind her bike so that Abby can go along.  She does so well with the leash and the bike, but only lasts for a short distance now.  Don’t want to wear the old girl out before her time.

Shark Valley_104On another note, reading comments from the last couple of blogs, folks are repeating a refrain, “Think I won’t come to Florida ever”.  Or to that effect.  Just gotta say here, saying “Florida” in one big catch all, is a bit like saying you didn’t like  the California desert so you won’t ever visit Mt Shasta.  Florida is a large state with all sorts of variety and there is a huge difference between north and south, east and west , Gulf and Atlantic.  Being from the west, I understand how different a state can be from one part to another. 

I suppose states in the midwest and east are probably fairly uniform throughout.  Not here.  I would probably not return to southern Florida, even though it is one of the more unique environmShark Valley_032ents in our country.

I might still return to northern Florida someday.  I love the springs and rivers even more than the beaches.  Remember all those wide open roads with no cars that we traveled earlier this month?  Remember all those state parks where we had no problem finding reservations? Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water when thinking of Florida because of what I have said about southern Florida.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

2-19-2014 John and Carol share J.N.Ding Darling NWR with us

Currently: Midway Campground at Big Cypress Preserve  71F at six AM and no internet

sunrise at the KOAThe sunrise at our KOA campground was incredible, so I was definitely frustrated that I could find no open sky to actually photograph it!  Giant motorhomes were everywhere and even walking to the end of the campground yielded nothing. 

I had been in contact with Carol and John, of “Our Trip Around the Sun”, since last summer when I first knew when we would be near Sanibel Island.  They are NWR volunteers who suffered through a summer season at the J.N. Ding Darling NWR and as a result were considered and selected for the primo winter positions.  John does heavy maintenance and Carol is responsible for several administrative duties, in addition to giving talks about the alligators and crocodile in the park.

we meet Carol as she is giving her alligator talk at Ding DarlingWe knew Carol’s talk was at 11AM so planned our morning route with enough time to arrive at the park an hour early so that we could see the beautiful Visitor Center before meeting Carol.  Oops.  We knew there would be traffic, but didn’t plan for the congestion to be as bad as it was.  Even with our 8:30 AM departure, it was just a bit after 11 when we walked up to the kiosk where Carol was beginning her talk.

Still makes me smile to remember how warmly Carol greeted us, she seemed genuinely delighted to have us there.  Her talk was wonderful, and I learned more about the Florida alligators and the salt water loving croc that lives at Ding Darling.  Carol is deservedly proud to be working at this primo refuge and does a great job sharing her knowledge about it.

Having a park volunteer offer to do a tour is a genuine treat.  Carol was laughing because she knew I wanted to see spoonbills and she was all worried that she wouldn’t manage it until she saw the spoonbills on my blog that Judy found for me.  Phew…no more pressure!KOA and Ding_045

We didn’t see spoonbills, but Carol took us around the wildlife drive, knowing the right places to stop to see the birds.  Carol is a “real” birder, and when I only watched a bird for a few minutes and gave up on getting the proper pose she laughed and said, “Well, you aren’t a “real” birder yet, but you are close”.  Ha!

snowy egretWe laughed and talked and walked and shared bird sightings until the afternoon got a bit too warm and the birds all went under cover.  Carol invited us to do the same at her shady patio with drinks and snacks while we waited for John to get off work.  Before long, John joined us on the patio and we all decided that a trip to the beach was in order.

tri colored heronKOA and Ding_056There are several beaches on Sanibel and they picked the one they thought would have the best parking and the least crowding. The beach was lovely, with soft sand and gentle lapping waves, and enough space between chairs and umbrellas that we found a nice place to sit and walk and let Abby swim. KOA and Ding_070 KOA and Ding_076

Of course, the highlight of the day was something other than the refuge OR the birds OR the beach.  Insisting that only tourists tried to leave the island before dark, Carol invited us to what she called a “simple” dinner of roast pork loin, (which John cooked to perfection on the grill), roasted potatoes, and fresh salad with ice cream for dessert.  With some tasty wine and delightful conversation we lingered long past dark enjoying their company and hospitality.Great friends, great dinner, great day