Our Escape to Lake Louisa

Like many of you, I’ve done my share of whining during the past three months. The pandemic has left me stressed, angry, and bored. If you’ve read many of my past writings, you know the one activity I’ve missed most is travel.

Herb and I felt disappointed when the Florida State Parks closed in March. Later, when they reopened on May 4 we were excited until we learned the campgrounds would remain closed. In spite of this information, I reserved a site for Memorial Day weekend at Lake Louisa —a short thirty minute drive west of Orlando. We were ecstatic when the campground opened on May 21, one day before we were scheduled to arrive! We packed our clothes, food, and beagle into the jeep and hitched up our Viking trailer for our great escape.

The weather was hot, after all this is Florida. But we didn’t let the weather phase us. Like all happy campers we couldn’t stop smiling. We set up camp before a tremendous rainstorm hit. Did that bother us? Not in the least. Snug inside our tiny trailer we munched our homemade cheeseburgers and laughed about our good fortune.

Our little home away from home.

The ninety-five degree temperatures continued on Saturday. Fortunately, we were able to cool off under the shade of our awning and a large beach umbrella we brought along.

We made Buddy more comfortable by setting up a fan at either end of his pen.

Ahh… this is more like it!

Over fifty campsites sit upon a strip of land between Dixie Lake and Lake Hammond. As night fell we were treated to a beautiful sunset above Lake Dixie.

And of course, no campout is complete without a campfire.

Even so, the warmer temperatures made it necessary to sit farther away from the flames.

Sunday morning we hiked on one of the park’s lovely trails. Buddy had a great time exploring the area.

Hmm… Who has been here before me?

We measure our distance, and when Buddy has walked one mile, Herb carries him in our doggie backpack. What a good Dad!

Wow! I can see new sights from up. here! I always wanted to be tall.

Although we’ve camped at Lake Louisa before, we noticed a new addition. Three Luxury Carefree Campsites are for rent.

These air-conditioned tents are furnished inside like a hotel room. (No private bathrooms, however.) Sad.

No trips to the real Florida are complete without a gator. Herb took this photo of a baby below the dock on Dixie Lake.

If you are looking for an escape, and don’t mind the Florida summers, consider camping. No face masks required.

The Rare Animals of Ochlockonee River State Park

Every time I visit a Florida State Park, I learn something new. While some parks commemorate events in Florida history, other places are well known for their diverse plants and wildlife.

Recently Herb and I drove to the panhandle of Florida towing our little Viking camper behind us. When we pulled up to the Ochlockonee entrance, we were greeted by a smiling volunteer. “You’re going to love this park. Be sure to watch for our white squirrels. You might even see our piebald deer during your visit.” The nice volunteer marked the place where and when we might see the beautiful deer on our park map.

“Thanks.” Herb took the map and we drove off to find our campsite, wondering if we heard her correctly. “White squirrels?” We found our site and busied ourselves setting up camp before sunset.

The next morning we were blessed with good weather and decided to take Buddy, our beagle on a short hike along the river. Herb took hold of Buddy’s leash. “Today is white squirrel hunting day. Buddy should be able to help us find one.”

We hiked a little over a mile, but saw very little wildlife. Even so, the view of the river was gorgeous.

When we returned to the campsite for lunch, I saw something white running on the ground. Is that a cat? I looked closer and saw another furry white animal. “Herb, come quick. “The white squirrels are here.”

Herb grabbed his camera and took some great pictures. Buddy stayed asleep in his doggy bed. I’m glad he didn’t scare the squirrels away.

Our story doesn’t end here. At dusk we drove our jeep to the pine flatwood area to look for the unusual deer. We waited and waited but had no luck. I rolled down the window and peered out into the thicket. “Maybe the joke is on us. Maybe the volunteer sent us on a snipe hunt.”

On our third day in the park, we left the campground and set out to see the Gulf. As we were driving I couldn’t believe my eyes. “Look!” A large white animal was grazing in the open meadow by the road. “Could that be the deer?”

Herb pulled the car over and got out. I followed along with my binoculars. “I don’t believe it. I’ve never seen such an unusual deer. The animal’s head is brown and its body is white.”

Later I read a park brochure which described the white squirrels and the deer as “piebald.” Although these animals are mostly white, they have some patches of color. This is due to a mutant gene which regulates melanin. The piebald animals are very rare, and are different from albinos since they do not have pink eyes.

This white squirrel has a small patch of gray on the top of his head.

White squirrels and a white deer living in the same park. Wow! Well, at least these animals are safe from hunters as long as they stay in the park. After all, they’ve lost their camouflage.

After enjoying a few days at the park, we started the long drive back to Orlando. “Stop!” I shouted.

Herb slammed on the brakes of the jeep. The piebald deer was only ten feet from the front of our jeep. Once it safely crossed the road, a brown deer followed close behind.

I caught my breath. “Boy, that was a close one. We almost killed the park’s mascot. While the piebald deer is safe from hunters, cars still remain a problem.”

If you are interested in wildlife, check out two of our other Florida trips: Florida manatees and Our Paynes Prairie Campout. Do you enjoy seeing animals in the wild? Leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

Posing with another one of a kind animal.

Tracing the Florida Crackers

Have you ever read a book you could never forget? A Land Remembered is one of my favorites. I am not alone, as the book has been ranked #1 Best Florida Book eight times by Florida Monthly Magazine.

Author, Patrick Smith tells about the life of Tobias Maclvey, a cow hunter who battled storms, rustlers, and mosquitos to build a kingdom out of a swamp. I enjoyed traveling back through time with Tobias as he rode his horse through the Florida scrub to round up free range cattle. Smith’s words inspired me to visit the cow camp at Lake Kissimmee State Park, where history comes alive.

Read on as we venture back in time to the Florida of 1876.

One hundred fifty years ago, Florida had few roads, no railroads, and none of the modern conveniences we enjoy today. Pioneer families survived by hunting wild animals. The early settlers discovered the land contained thousands of free range cattle and horses originally brought to America by the Spanish. A market for beef developed in Cuba and soon Florida cow hunters traveled by horseback through the wilderness, catching cows and herding them to Punta Rassa, near Fort Myers.

I meandered down the trail to the cow camp surrounded by huge live oaks draped with Spanish moss.

The camp consisted of a holding pen for the cows and a primitive shelter for the men.

Not exactly where I would want to spend the night.

My husband and I joined the group around the fire. Rick, the one and only cow hunter on the premises served us black coffee he had brewed over the open flame.

I took one sip and handed my serving to Herb. How can a place with so many cows, have no cream?

Rick explained that unlike the cowboys of the west, Florida cow hunters used trained dogs to drive their cattle. The many marshes, hammocks, and flatwoods of the Florida landscape prevented the use of the lariat.

The cow hunters carried a whip, known as a drag. The loud crack of the drag moved the cattle along. Because of this the cow hunters became known as “crackers.”

Rick emphasized that the crackers did not whip the animals, the drag was only a noise maker.

Once the cattle were delivered to market, the crackers were paid in Spanish doubloons. Gold became the common currency of the south Florida frontier.

The cow camp is open every weekend from October 1st to May 1st. For more information go to Lake Kissimmee State Park.

Doggie Dangers

This Halloween I wanted to get away from the hundreds of trick or treaters who descend upon our neighborhood. Some are respectful, while others drop candy wrappers, and treats along the sidewalk near our home. For days afterwards, our beagle, gobbles as many discarded goodies he can find, including chocolates.

In order to avoid a potentially dangerous situation for our pet, my husband and I decided to take Buddy camping at Johnathan Dickinson State Park in south Florida. Herb suggested I bring candy to the campsite. “After all, some trick or treaters might show up at the park.”

As any good wife would do, I packed a bag of assorted miniature chocolates. (Even though I knew we would be eating all of them.)

Our first night at the park was special. The campground was located near the Atlantic and we appreciated the cool ocean breeze. Although the sparse trees gave little shade, we marveled at the beauty of the night sky.

When our campfire was reduced to embers, we took Buddy for his last walk of the day. Outside the community shower-house we noticed a huge toad sitting in front of a Pepsi machine. “That toad looks like it’s trying to decide if it wants to drink Pepsi or Mountain Dew,” Herb chuckled.

By the time I snapped a photo, the toad had hopped around to the side of the machine. It was very sensitive to our presence.

Soon a neighboring camper joined us. “Keep your dog away from that toad. It’s poisonous.”

Lucky for us, Buddy didn’t approach Mr. Toad. Still, we were thankful for the information and walked on.

The next day we asked a ranger about the toad at the Pepsi machine. She informed us several Bufo toads live under the machine. They come out at night to catch the insects attracted by the light. They are very dangerous and dogs can die within minutes of licking a Bufo toad. Although the park staff has tried to get rid of them, they keep coming back.

Herb and I were shocked. In our efforts to protect Buddy from “dangerous trick or treaters,” we put him square in the path of a deadly toad!

We were successful in keeping Buddy away from the Bufo toads for the rest of our long weekend. As we drove home we congratulated each other for being such good pet owners.

Then Monday came. Herb noticed Buddy licking his doggie lips on their morning walk. He reached in Buddy’s mouth and pulled out a bubblegum wrapper. Sigh

For more information about Bufo toads and dogs click here.

The Love Bug Picnic

Last week my brother Terry and his wife, Mary Ann, camped with Herb and I at Colt Creek State Park. It was a special trip since they live in Arizona, and drove their RV to Florida for a visit. We invited other members of our family to meet us at the campground for a picnic lunch.

The day of the gathering, Mary Ann covered the table with a colorful cloth. I helped her set out the traditional picnic fare. In addition to potato salad, coleslaw, and chips, we included a variety of toppings for hot dogs.

All of a sudden scores of love bugs descended on the table. Mary Ann was quick to cover the open deli containers with clear plastic shower caps. How ingenious, I thought, certainly that will keep the pesky insects out of our delicacies. I was glad she had a lot of shower caps, because the moment I opened a jar of pickle relish, a pair of love bugs landed on the inside of the metal lid. Yikes! In the blink of an eye, another pair dropped inside the jar.

Our picnic table with unwanted love bugs.

While I busied myself scooping the bugs out of the relish, Mary Ann noticed a pair had attached themselves to a hot dog on the grill. Needless to say, these pests succumbed to a fiery death.

The bugs weren’t the only living things having difficulty with the heat. This is the hottest May I can remember, with temperatures rising to nearly ninety degrees every day.

Back to the food, Mary Ann and I stood guard over the table to defend our lunch from the invading bugs. I gently lifted the shower cap from the potato salad just far enough to spoon out a serving before any more bugs could crawl inside. Mary Ann scraped the dead bugs from each hot dog before placing it on a plate. Believe it or not, no one got sick.

Once served, each picnicker hurried back to their chair which we had positioned under huge beach umbrellas. Everyone kept their eyes on their lunch as they ate. Although we were kind of miserable, we laughed because we had never experienced a picnic like this before. It was like no other. No matter what, we were all happy to be together.

One day later I found a screened-in picnic shelter by the lake. Although we took advantage of this new location for our second picnic lunch, the rest of our family had already gone home.

Facts about Love Bugs

This is an unusually bad year for love bugs in Florida due to increased rain. Although they are harmless and don’t bite or sting, the bugs stick to vehicles during highway driving. Unless they are washed off, they can eat the paint of a car.

Love bugs are usually found in pairs and can fly and crawl while mating.

An adult love bug lives only three or four days and those days are filled with mating. Love bug mating season occurs twice a year during the months of May and September. They feed on nectar from flowers and like other pollinators actually benefit the environment. Contrary to local legend, love bugs were not created by the University of Florida as part of an experiment to control mosquitoes. The insects migrated to U.S. from Central America in the 1920’s.

Love bugs are active between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. This is something I want to remember when scheduling our next family picnic.

Don’t Drain This Swamp!

Some swamps are just meant to be swamps. Such is the case with the Everglades. Last week we hitched up our Viking trailer and explored the wilds of South Florida. Herb, Buddy, (our beagle) and I camped at Collier-Seminole State Park, located south of Naples and west of Everglades National Park. In this post I want to give a brief review of the places we visited.

Collier-Seminole

Our campsite

I have to say this was the least scenic campsite we’ve ever encountered. It rained for several days before we arrived. I laughed and referred to our site as “lakefront property.” Luckily it didn’t rain anymore during our four night stay. The pond dried by our last day. Herb and I decided to take the campsite and the mosquitos in stride. After all, the park lies within one of the largest mangrove swamps in the world.

In all fairness, Collier-Seminole is scenic. The park contains one of three original stands of royal palms in Florida. I snapped this photo on the pet friendly Royal Palm Hammock Trail. Buddy enjoyed all the sights, sounds, and smells along the one mile path through the jungle.

Royal Palms can grow to a height of one hundred feet.

I highly recommend renting a canoe and paddling the Blackwater River. The tidal river system hosts a variety of birds and other wildlife.

The scenic Blackwater River at its widest point.
A Great Blue Heron in flight.

Everglades National Park

It’s about an hour drive to the Shark Valley Visitor Center from Collier-Seminole. We arrived late in the afternoon, only to learn that Buddy was not permitted anywhere but the parking lot. Alligators love little dogs!

Herb and I took turns sitting on this bench with Buddy. That way each of us could do a little exploring.

A visit to Everglades National Park never disappoints. In the span of twenty minutes, Herb encountered and photographed many animals. Here are a few images he snapped with with his Nikon telescopic camera.

Water is the lifeblood of the Everglades. Today the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan is working to restore the natural flow of water to this area. The results are encouraging and the wildlife is returning.

Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park

In between Collier-Seminole and Everglades National Park lies 85,000 acres of wetland wilderness. We walked the Big Cypress Bend boardwalk with Buddy. We kept a close eye out for gators and stayed ready to pick up our pet at a moment’s notice. The 2300 foot long boardwalk is sheltered by bald cypress trees, many of them hundreds of years old.

The Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk opened up onto a beautiful pond.

We were told an eagle nest existed somewhere along the boardwalk. I became so interested in looking up, I forgot to look look down.

Yikes!

I almost missed this big guy who was not far from where I was standing. So much for staying alert.

After our walk on the boardwalk we drove Jane’s Scenic Drive through miles of wilderness. I could still see parts of the swamp from the comfort of an air conditioned vehicle. I felt happy and safe.

The landscape of the Everglades is like no other. It is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. A place teeming with life which depends on the delicate balance of nature. From the tiny mosquito to the Florida panther, all sizes of animals coexist in this wonderful place.

Grassy Arrowhead

One Campground That’s Gone to the Dogs

This week I learned something about people who camp. In addition to bringing their bikes, kayaks, and fishing equipment, they usually make room for Fido.

Since Herb and I normally include our beagle with us on our campouts, we fit right in at Myakka River State Park. This was our first excursion with Buddy for 2019, and we were ready to explore more of the “real Florida.” Located in the southwestern part of the state, Myakka is the largest state park and the most visited. The beautiful Myakka River flows through vast unspoiled wetlands, palm hammocks, and natural prairies. Visitors enjoy photographing the numerous birds and alligators along the scenic Park Drive.

A view of the Myakka River at Fisherman’s Loop

One morning during our stay we attended the camper’s coffee. Since the event was located at an outdoor pavilion, I thought it would be fun to include Buddy. We were prepared to bring him back to the campsite in case dogs weren’t allowed. Buddy was not only welcomed, he became the center of attention. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by Leeann and Dan Brown, snowbirds temporarily volunteering this winter with the Friends of Myakka. They were excited to meet Buddy and wanted to know all about the red booties he wears on his back feet.

We were happy to share Buddy’s “back story”, and the upcoming release of Buddy the Beagle on Blueberry Street, my first children’s book. (Elk Lake Publishing) Later, Leeann and Dan visited us at our camper to chat and take photos of us with Buddy. They shared his story on their facebook page, RV Companions. All of a sudden I felt like I was on a book tour… after all, Buddy is the real star and Herb and I are only his managers.

Back to the Myakka campground. Our site was located in Old Prairie, which was one of three campgrounds located in the park. Almost everyone had a dog traveling with them, most had two. Of course when there are that many dogs in close proximity to one another, you have a fair amount of barking going on. I felt like a proud mama because Buddy seemed quiet and calmer than the rest. That was until we left him in the trailer for an hour while we visited the Canopy Walkway. Later, during a casual conversation, our neighbor informed us Buddy was not happy most of the time we were gone. His whining escalated to crying. Soon all the neighboring dogs started to bark. Note to self: administer the anti-anxiety medication at least two hours before leaving Buddy alone.

Even though Buddy woke up our neighbor at seven in the morning, he had an easy-going attitude and didn’t seem to mind. Maybe it was because he had four dogs of his own. He did suggest some of Buddy’s loneliness could be solved if we adopted a companion pet for Buddy. We were not interested. Living quarters are already tight inside our sixteen foot Viking. (We haven’t asked Buddy what he thinks about it.)

As night fell, peace also descended upon the busy campground. Some of the dogs were secure and quiet inside their RV’s. Others close to their owner’s feet, dozed by the campfire. The nightly soundtrack of waking insects began to play as the sun set. The smell of grilled burgers and hot dogs drifted through the air. Campers come and go, yet tonight there is a feeling of community among all of us who love nature, outdoor life, and dogs.

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