The Blue Spring Experience

Salutations! It’s me, the poet on blueberry street.  I ‘ve upgraded to a new domain. All part of growing as a writer, I’m told. To those of you who have been following me, thanks. You’re in the right place.

Welcome back to part two of our camping season finale. In last week’s post, I shared how Herb, Buddy, and I arrived at Blue Spring State Park after driving three hundred miles out of our way. I have to say Buddy, our beagle, did very well in the car. He’s a good traveler. IMG_3707

Our campsite was dry, but not level. The fire ring looked like it was sliding off into a ditch. Herb did the best he could with the leveling jacks on the Viking, but when I sat at the dinette to eat, I felt like I was sliding off my seat. Oh well, we thought, at least we can sit outside without swarms of mosquitos buzzing around our ears.

We like to hike in the mornings when we’re on a campout. At Blue Spring we walked the Pine Island Trail with Buddy. The trail coursed through a beautiful shady hammock into an open field. When we returned to the campsite, we sat down to enjoy our second cup of coffee and discuss our plans for the day.

“How about renting a canoe?” I asked. Herb thought that sounded like a good idea. When I changed into my swimsuit, I noticed a tick on my leg. “OH NO!” I panicked.

Herb tried to get the tick out with tweezers. Unfortunately part of its body was still attached to my leg. I felt upset with myself.  I realized I’d let my guard down regarding hiking in Florida in the summer.

I wasn’t wearing clothes sprayed with Permethrin.

I didn’t spray my legs with insect repellant.

I didn’t check myself right away when we returned from the hike.

I didn’t take a picture of the tick.

I was a bad hiker.

So where did all those mistakes lead me? To the ranger station, of course. I walked up to the window and told a ranger about my problem. “You better get medical attention,” he said, “You could get an infection if the rest of the tick isn’t removed. We’re also seeing something new in the southeast now. People are getting the meat allergy disease from ticks.” He directed me to a walk-in clinic in the area.

Herb and Buddy waited in the car while I sought out help at the clinic. Can you believe it was my first day on Medicare? Luckily I had my card with me. I signed in at the desk and told the receptionist about the tick. “Glad you came in,” she said. “Have you heard of the meat allergy? It might not be all bad, you could become a vegetarian, and be hip.”

I liked her humor, but I didn’t laugh. I filled out the forms and waited. Two hours later the rest of the tick was finally removed. No, it didn’t cost me an arm or a leg in the process, thanks to Medicare. The nurse practitioner prescribed an antibiotic. So far I’m still eating hamburgers with no adverse reactions. Follow this link for more information about ticks. This trip was not our first experience with ticks. The pests tend to be more active during the Florida rainy season.

It’s not really fair to only write about ticks without sharing the beauty of Blue Spring. The campground is a five minute walk from the spring. One morning we saw a manatee. Campers have access to the area before the park opens to daytime visitors. Our last day in the park I rose early. When I arrived at the water’s edge the sun was beginning to light up the scene. The water changed to a brilliant emerald color.  Every time a fish surfaced ripples radiated through the still water. All was quiet except for the call of a great egret on a limb.  This sight helped me forget all  of the bugs, heat, and humidity of the past few days.

IMG_3786I can’t leave without sharing the photo of the egret.

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I’d love to hear from you. If you enjoy nature, or want to share any tips about ticks, leave a comment.

Our Season Finale in Florida State Parks

With the onset of summer, Florida campers face new challenges. Mainly, how to stay dry. If you’re not wet from the rain, you’re soaked with sweat. And you stay that way until October. Summer came early this year.

I joined my husband Herb, and our dog, Buddy, for our last scheduled trip of the season. In case you’ve just started following my blog, we’re a retired couple who aim to camp in every Florida State Park.  On May 30 we embarked for Little Talbot Island State Park, located north of Jacksonville.

While we were driving I called my mom. “I know rain is in the forecast, but don’t worry about us,” I boasted. “We’re professional campers now. After all, this is our fourteenth trip in the Viking.”

“I hope you have rain gear,” she responded. Mothers are always mothers, even if their children are sixty.  The funny thing is…many times they are right.

We arrived at our Little Talbot campsite in the pouring rain. Suddenly I had an ominous feeling. I felt like we were making a mistake. I slipped on my rain jacket, and stepped out of the car. Mosquitos swarmed around my head and hands. Yikes! It was only two in the afternoon. What would these blood suckers be like in the evening?

After dousing ourselves with bug spray, we decided to walk Buddy around the campground for his initial inspection. Maybe we would find a site with less vegetation, more open to the light…maybe there would be some place with less mosquitos.

We came upon a site that looked better. One side had no trees. I took a closer look. What’s out there? I wondered. “Oh, it’s wetland. Great, we’d be right next to where the mosquitos breed. A literal ground zero.”

After our ten minute walk with Buddy, we returned to our trailer to reassess our situation. We were shocked to see water rising around the Viking. While were away, two inches of rain had accumulated. Time to set sail, just like the Vikings in days of old.  This was our adventure to unknown parts. Fortunately we had not yet dropped anchor–the Viking was still hitched to the car.

We drove over to the ranger station and informed the ranger of our decision to leave. He kindly refunded our money. By this time it was after three. What should we do now? Drive all the way back to Orlando? The reality of unpacking everything wasn’t very appealing. Herb suggested camping at Anastasia near St. Augustine. I agreed. We could make it to Anastasia by four-thirty.

But Anastasia had it’s own drawback. I thought about our recent trip in April.  “Remember our friends, Donna and Geren? They had a terrible time with raccoons. We’ll need to keep a close watch on Buddy.”

I called Anastasia to see if they had any sites available. A lady answered the phone, “I wouldn’t recommend coming here,” she said. “A lot of our sites are flooded.”

A wave of dread washed over me. I regretted my boasting.  I no longer felt like such a professional. We had already been driving since ten this morning and had no where to go.

“What about Blue Spring?” I asked Herb. “Can I at least call them?”

At this point Herb was ready to head home, but he relented. “OK.”

After a short conversation with the ranger at Blue Spring, we learned they did have sites, and none were flooded. However, we must arrive before the park office closed at eight.

We made it at seven fifteen. We had driven over 350 miles to get to a state park located forty miles from our home. Was it worth it? A picture is worth a thousand words.

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This is part one of a two part series. Stay tuned for the Blue Spring experience. Until next time…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lake Louisa: Florida’s Secret State Park

Did you know there’s a wonderful state park less than an hour drive west of downtown Orlando? Most Orlando residents have never heard of Lake Louisa State Park.  I just discovered it and I’ve lived here for almost thirty years.

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Lake Louisa is the southernmost lake in the Clermont Chain of Lakes.  These waters comprise one of the most recreational lake systems in Florida, providing a haven for water sports and fishing.

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Lake Louisa offers guided kayak trips. Visitors can rent kayaks or canoes at the Camper Canteen located near the campground.

The Lake Louisa campground is one of the best we’ve visited. We parked our trailer in the Dixie Loop, nestled between Lake Hammond and Dixie Lake. From our site we could easily walk to either lake for spectacular views.

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Sunset on Dixie Lake

The weather forecast was accurate for this trip. It rained often. Unlike many places we’ve camped, our site had terrific drainage. The site was paved with a gravel top and bordered with concrete. Even after a night of heavy rain the ground outside our trailer was dry. Another advantage, many of the campsites are pull-through and contain full hookups including sewer.   IMG_3615

Fortunately, it didn’t rain all the time. People often ask me what we do when we go camping.  We usually spend our mornings hiking with Buddy.  His beagle nose takes in all the smells and direct his little feet forward. Most of the time he’s tracking some critter beyond our limited human awareness.

IMG_7639Once in a while, Buddy will encounter something that warrants further investigation, like this little turtle. A few extra sniffs and we’re on our way again.

 

 

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Trail rides are offered at Lake Louisa. Buddy tracked a horse on one of our hikes. But when we followed it to the corral, he became more interested in whatever trash he could grab with his mouth.  Sum it up to life with a beagle.

After a morning hike, our family of three relaxes in the shade. Herb and I both enjoy reading.  I write, or think about writing. Buddy dozes.

After dinner, we like to sit around the campfire and talk.  All three nights of this trip it rained. No chance for a fire, so we sheltered in place inside our one hundred square foot trailer. Good thing we get along.  Avid board gamers, our favorite game at the moment is Splendor.  For details follow the link.

Our last morning at the campground we met a couple of neighbors. The camp host, Kevin, invited everyone for coffee.  We love meeting other campers and sharing stories of our experiences in various Florida state parks.

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Pictured left to right, Kevin, Bob, Suzie Q, Herb, and Buddy.

Campground hosts volunteer to help maintain the campground and give information to campers if needed. They are also called upon to offer assistance in case of late night emergencies.  In return, they camp for free. Most live in their RV’s fulltime and move within the Florida park system as needed.  I don’t think Herb and I are interested in the position yet. Not until we upgrade beyond our one hundred square feet of living space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unhappy Campers at Anastasia State Park

Florida’s weather changes right along with whatever storms affect the Atlantic seaboard. This was evident at Anastasia State Park last week. While camping at the park I met a couple who were almost ready to literally throw in the (wet) towel and go home.

Donna and Geren set up camp on Monday with plans to stay for the rest of the week. At that time the sun was shining. By nightfall a steady rain began pelting against their tent. They huddled under their blankets, hoping it might let up. It didn’t. In the middle of the night they were disturbed by the sound of wild animals rummaging through their camp. When they peeked outside they saw fat furry bodies scampering into the underbrush.  Sleeping was impossible. Both the tent and air mattress leaked. By morning, they were laying on the hard ground under wet blankets, and it was still raining.

Desperate for coffee, Donna opened the tent and looked around. Through the pouring rain, she noticed the ground was littered with wrappers. During the night raccoons invaded their camp. These masked bandits were so experienced they opened sealed Tupperware containers and gorged themselves on the contents. They ate a brand new box of Granola Bites which had never been opened.

Donna and Geren worked together to clean up the mess left by the raccoons. To add insult to injury their coffee maker didn’t work. No hot coffee. Geren stumbled off to the shower house where he learned (a little too late) that there was no hot water in the men’s shower and he forgot to bring a towel.

Upon Geren’s return the couple got in their car and drove to the nearest McDonald’s in St. Augustine. Over breakfast they assessed their present situation, and made plans for what to do next. They made a trip to Walmart where they purchased cots, a new coffee maker, and another awning. By the time they returned to Anastasia to reestablish their territory, the rain was letting up some.  That afternoon they dried their bedding at the campground laundry, and put their food in the car, except for their cooler. After visiting some friends for dinner, (who by the way camp in a trailer), Donna and Geren returned to their tent just after dark.

They were shocked to discover the raccoons had struck again! This time the little rascals opened the cooler. Once inside they got their paws on an egg carton and opened it, too. The thieves sucked out the liquid and threw the shells on the ground. The raccoons made off with a whole package of ham and a loaf of bread. For some unknown reason they weren’t interested in the gluten free English muffins. At this point Donna and Geren were so tired they could have slept standing up. They managed to put the dirty cooler in the car before collapsing on their new cots. The raccoons must have finally filled their bellies because they didn’t return.

For the rest of the week the couple experienced restful sleep and beautiful weather. They enjoyed all the natural beauty Anastasia has to offer. Donna and Geren haven’t given upon tent camping. In the future they’ll be upgrading to a new waterproof tent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going Dark at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve

There are times when everyone needs to escape the hustle and bustle of life. For nature enthusiasts who long to get away, I recommend camping for a few nights at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. Located outside of Yeehaw Junction, the park is five miles from the middle of nowhere. Since the phone signal is weak,  you have a really good excuse to not return any texts, calls, or emails. It’s the perfect opportunity to “go dark.”

IMG_3295The preserve protects 54,000 acres of Florida’s dry prairie. Looking out over the sweeping vistas of grassland, I’m reminded of the great plains of the Midwest. In the late 1800’s Florida cowboys, known as crackers, drove herds of cattle through here to markets on the  coast. This rare prairie ecosystem hosts an abundance of wildflowers, birds, and animals.  During our stay, my husband, Herb took some amazing wildlife photos.

 

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Whitetail Deer

 

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Migrating Meadowlark
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Crested Caracara
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Herb, the photographer, posing with the prairie buggy.

Few roads exist in the preserve, but there are one hundred miles of multi-use trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.  Visitors can access remote areas of the park on the prairie buggy tour. These tours are conducted during the fall and winter seasons, when the park is more populated. We took the last tour offered on March 31.  Our guide explained that in Florida an extra inch or two of elevation creates the right environment to establish a hammock of palms or oak trees.

IMG_3193And of course, lower, marshy land makes a great home for Great Blue Herons and everyday alligators.

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When we parked our trailer at campsite five, we noticed a familiar RV at site four. We were surprised to discover our neighbor was someone we camped next to at Highlands Hammock in January. John is a snowbird from Traverse City, Michigan. This winter he camped at numerous parks throughout Florida to escape the ice and snow of the frigid north. His wife Vicki recently joined him for a few weeks. She spent the winter at their home in Michigan. As a quilter, Vicki finds it difficult to work in a trailer. Kissimmee Prairie Preserve is their favorite place to camp. They love it because it’s quiet. With no interstates or airports nearby, one doesn’t hear any traffic.

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John and Vicki Keeling relaxing outside their RV.

We met another interesting camper during this trip. Amanda Kincaid pitched her tent before nightfall at site one.

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Amanda Kincaid with all of her gear.

A long distance hiker, Amanda started her trek on March 10. She’s walking from Gainesville to Big Cypress, near the Everglades. By the time she arrived at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve she hiked three hundred fifty miles. She has two hundred miles to go on the Florida Trail to reach her goal. I offered Amanda a cup of coffee which she gladly accepted. She shared that she began backpacking with her dad about five years ago. Her experiences on the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail were cut short at four hundred miles due to injuries. This time she has high hopes of reaching her goal.

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Amanda Kincaid loves the special moments hiking offers.

Amanda is a member of Trail Angels, an organization that offers advice and provisions to hikers along the trail. She must plan carefully to have access to safe drinking water. Amanda averages between fifteen to twenty miles a day. With spring temperatures climbing, hydration is an issue. The Trail Angels place bottled water at locations she will pass  through.  Even with all of the hardships, Amanda loves backpacking and meeting people.

When the sun goes down, the stars come out at the preserve which is known for it’s “dark skies.” A section of the park is designated as the “red light district.” Here only red lights are used by campers, and no campfires are permitted. There is little or no light pollution at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve and stargazing is superb.

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Of course no one can douse the moonlight.

 

 

 

Camping at Highlands Hammock

Highlands Hammock is a popular place to camp. Many people come to see the ancient trees of the hammock.  Eager to escape the frigid north, snowbirds migrate south in their RV’s. They camp in one state park for a week or two then move on to another. Highlands Hammock campground contains one hundred thirty-eight campsites. We were there midweek and every site was occupied. The developers of Highlands Hammock capitalized on the high demand for campsites by crowding as many sites as they could into the area.  As you can see in the photo above there’s not much privacy between sites.

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Buddy stands guard scanning the environs for squirrels and stray cats.

Our own site was difficult to navigate. My husband skillfully parked our trailer between two trees and in front of an electric pole. (We’ve owned our Viking for one year now, and he’s getting better.) At least we didn’t have anyone camped behind us, but our neighbors on either side were fairly close.  We got to know our neighbors. Buddy, our beagle, always draws everyone’s attention. IMG_2588

The close proximity of our campsites promoted more interaction among the campers. One morning a group of volunteers served a delicious and reasonably priced breakfast for everyone at the recreation hall. We enjoyed meeting other campers, talking about our adventures, and trading tips on the best campgrounds we’ve visited. There was a great feeling of community here. Proceeds from the breakfast help support the park.

I highly recommend the Tram Tour.  Ranger Kevin took us for a tour through the more remote wilderness areas of the park.  IMG_2616Kevin drove us through three different ecological communities. The palm hammock, pine flatwoods, and cypress  swamp. Along the way he stopped to describe the plants and animals.  He told us that alligators often lose body parts due to fights with other gators. Yet, they never die from infection. Alligator blood contains antibiotics and may be helpful as a remedy for MRSA. Scientists certainly have enough specimens to study in these parts.

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Juvenile alligators are camouflaged by their striped hides.

The cypress swamp teemed with life. Scores of alligators, snakes, birds, and turtles abounded in this beautiful place. Herb zoomed in on this delightful turtle.SNQQE3053

Ranger Kevin plucked his favorite flower from the swamp. The floating bladderwort is not only pretty, but helpful. This plant is carnivorous. Its underwater leaves bear small “bladders” which trap and digest mosquito larva.  MXST1689And like all good conservationists, Kevin placed the flower back in the water after his demonstration so it can continue its work.

IMG_2518Highlands Hammock State Park is proud of its history. The park is one of eight in Florida  developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930’s.  The CCC constructed the visitor center. concession building, roads, and bridges. A museum displays memorabilia, photographs, and examples of CCC workmanship.

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During the past year we visited two other parks built by the CCC, Florida Caverns and Hillsboro River. In the museum we viewed a map of all the public works initiated by this organization. We were amazed to learn they established 800 state parks throughout the country. The CCC built 13,100 miles of trails, and planted billions of trees. These men worked hard and were happy to earn a dollar a day.

And where was Buddy during all of our educational touring? Inside the trailer, of course. He learned something too. How much he misses us when we are away.  Luckily beagles are quick to forgive. IMG_2609 (2)

 

 

 

Long Live Highlands Hammock

What is a hammock? I always thought of it as a shady place to rest. While hiking at Highlands Hammock State Park, near Sebring, I walked through the oldest hammock in Florida.  A hammock is a stand of trees growing in an elevated area surrounded by wetlands. Think of it as ecological island where plants and animals abound.

While camping at the park, Herb, Buddy, and I traversed trails through wild orange trees, ancient live oaks, and towering Sabal palms.

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These wild oranges look almost ready to eat. Early Spanish explorers brought orange seeds to Florida.  Seville oranges can be found throughout the state from Jacksonville to Key West. Wild oranges contain a large amount of seeds and taste sour. Yet, they are a valuable ingredient in orange marmalade, and can also be substituted in recipes which call for lemons.

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Herb, posing with an oak tree estimated to be one thousand years old.

The park contained many old oak trees, living and dead. The center of an old oak often rots away from disease, parasites, or fire leaving a hollow space with little skeletal support.

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Tree surgeons attempted to save this oak by supporting it with cement blocks. It didn’t work. The tree died, but an artifact remains for now, until the wood decomposes.

IMG_2581My favorite tree is the Sabal palm. In Highlands Hammock many of these trees grow between  seventy and one hundred feet tall. Upon my arrival home, I researched information about the life span of palm trees. I discovered palms do not have rings, so their age is determined by their height, rate of leaf production, and visible scars from fallen leaves.

According to botany professor, Barry Tomlinson, palms may be the longest living trees if you consider the age of actively dividing cells in their trunks.  In most long-lived trees the trunk is composed of rings of woody tissue, but only the cells of the inner ring actively divide. Each year these active cells are replaced with new cells and another ring is added to the tree. That’s why oak trees not only grow taller, they grow wider too. An  oak tree might be one thousand years old, but its active cells are much younger.

In contrast, the tissues in the trunk of a palm are laid down in vascular bundles with the oldest cells in the trunk and the youngest in the top. However, the oldest cells flourish at full capacity throughout the life of a palm tree, continuing to transport water and nutrients to the top leaves for centuries.

This reminded me of Psalm 92:12 which states:

The righteous (faithful) will flourish like the palm tree.

Good food for thought.  Compared to other trees, palms are unique because all of their cells are flourishing throughout their old age. I’m delighted when science confirms the word of God. How did the psalmist know that the cells of palm trees flourish?

Like all baby-boomers, we have more years behind us than ahead. As we approach our “golden years”,  don’t we still desire to flourish like the palm tree?

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