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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Florida Caverns: A Refuge for All Seasons

We pulled into Florida Caverns State Park at dusk, checked in at the gate and drove a couple more miles to the campground. Great, we need to set up camp in the dark. I turned on my flashlight and guided Herb as he backed the trailer close to the hookups. Now it was dark, very dark.  There were few lights or campfires in the area. After all, it was a Wednesday in December, with temperatures expected to dip into the forties that night.  The distant sound of dogs barking added to my apprehension.

Fortunately, we brought an extra light which Herb attached to the side of the trailer. He could see well enough to unhitch and level the Viking. We were tired after six hours of driving from Orlando to Marianna, located in the Florida panhandle. Our mission: experience the only caves which exist in Florida.

That’s right, there are caves in Florida. Millions of years ago Florida was submerged under saltwater. During that time shells, corals, and sediments accumulated on the sea floor. As the sea retreated, all of these materials hardened into limestone. Groundwater eventually dissolved crevices in the rock and shazaam! Caves were born.

Our first night in the park was eventful. Herb stepped in dog poop in the dark. By the way, it wasn’t Buddy’s. Later, I forgot to turn on the overhead stove fan when I cooked dinner and set off the smoke alarm. Buddy responded with a panic attack and tried to run out the open trailer door. After everything calmed down, and Herb left his shoes outside, we relaxed in our warm trailer with a hot meal.

The next morning Herb gave Buddy some anti-anxiety medication, and made him comfortable inside the trailer. We met a guide at the mouth of the caverns for a tour.

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During the tour we learned the Civilian Conservation Corps enlarged the passageways during the 1930’s. Known as the Gopher Gang, these young men worked for a dollar a day to dig out trails and chisel tunnels through solid limestone. They also wired the caves with electricity.  Without light, none of the calcite formations would be visible.

 

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It takes one hundred years for one cubic inch of calcite to develop. These stalagmites formed from water dripping year after year in the same place on the cave floor.

Colored lighting in several of the rooms created unique special effects.

 

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The Christmas Room

 

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The “Heart” of the Cave

The temperature inside the caverns is a constant sixty-eight degrees. With fifty degree temperatures outside, we enjoyed the warmth the rooms provided. In the summer, tourists visit to take refuge from the heat. However, during the summer rainy season, some passageways are flooded. The caverns do contain animal life. Bats flew over our heads. Blind crayfish scurried about in pools of water near our feet. After five p.m. a guide leads flashlight tours. When the lights are off, the rooms appear like they did to early explorers.

Herb and I have traveled all over the country to experience areas with different elevations and climate. Now we know we can drive six hours and feel like we are in the foothills of Appalachia.IMG_2021

When Britain ruled Florida between 1763 and 1783, this area was called West Florida and extended all the way to the Mississippi River. The Apalachicola River, located east of Marianna, divided East and West Florida. The river still marks the division between Eastern and Central Time zones. Florida Caverns is on Central Time.

The park is located in a temperate hardwood forest. Unlike most of Florida, this area is far enough north, and high enough up (two hundred feet above sea level) for the plants and animals to expect chilly winters. The forest experiences four distinct seasons and many of the trees lose their leaves in winter. We enjoyed seeing the fall colors as we hiked through groves of beech and maple trees.

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We stayed at the campground for five nights. As the weekend approached more campers arrived. A special note: Unlike other Florida State park we’ve visited, the shower house has central heating, which we appreciated on these cold December mornings. The campground also features sewage hookups at each campsite.

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Buddy in his “exercise pen”.

Florida Caverns, a refuge for all seasons, and an experience to remember.

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Trailers, Trash, and the Black Bears of Wekiva

Wekiva State Park is only a thirty minute drive from our home in Orlando. Although we’ve canoed the beautiful Wekiva River, we hesitated to reserve a campsite because of the park’s reputation as a black bear habitat. Part of our concern involved our beagle, Buddy. When we discovered dogs are permitted on the trails, we decided to go after all. If it was very dangerous, surely the park wouldn’t allow pets.

A friendly ranger greeted us at the entrance. “Be aware, the bears are very active right now.” My husband, Herb, nodded his head and we continued to the campground to set up camp. “What does that mean?” I asked. “Are bears roaming through the campground?” Herb didn’t answer.

After we parked our trailer, my husband drove less than a mile to the nearest Publix to buy firewood. I walked Buddy around the campground, and met a lady on the road with her pet.

“Hey, what’s going on with the bears around here?” I asked.

She kept a tight grip on her dog. “Last week a bear approached the campground dumpster. The rangers killed it.”

I sighed. “Oh, that’s too bad.” It seemed like I should feel sorry for the bear. After all it was probably just looking for food. I walked over to the dumpster to judge its location in relation to our campsite.  It was not a pretty sight. Have you ever seen a pretty dumpster?

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As you can see both dumpsters have secure latches on the side to deter bears.  It does look like a bear tried to raise the lid off the top.

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I read the rules on the sign. Between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. the dumpster is closed. I wondered if the ranger padlocked the opening to keep people from bringing their trash. Then I realized someone must have left their garbage outside the dumpster when it was “closed.” Talk about ringing the dinner bell for the bears. “Come and get it bears, I’m going to make it easy for you. And hopefully, you won’t eat me!”

I was very glad the dumpster wasn’t close to our campsite.

When Herb returned with the firewood, I told him everything I’d learned about the dumpster. He stayed outside with Buddy and I went in the trailer to make dinner. Later, while we were relaxing around the campfire, Herb casually mentioned that a neighbor came by with some news. Earlier that day, two pygmy rattlesnakes were crawling right where we were sitting.

I immediately lifted my feet off the ground. “This place has more wildlife than anywhere else we’ve camped so far. And we’re practically in our own backyard!”

I’m happy to report that we didn’t encounter any bears or snakes during the four wonderful days we camped at Wekiva.

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We did meet a wild turkey!

After we returned home, I researched a few facts about the Florida black bear.  Forty years ago they were endangered, with a population of only three hundred.  Today there are estimated to be 4,350, and they are no longer considered threatened. This fact surprised me. I thought the development of Florida’s urban areas would have the opposite effect. During the era of the black bear’s decline it was legal to hunt them. Now they can only be hunted during specific times designated by the Florida Wildlife Commission. In 2016 an authorized bear hunt lasted two days. During that time 306 bears were killed. Bears are more likely to be seen in forested wetlands, but can be found anywhere in Florida.

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Camping with the Long Key Crabs

Almost one year ago I wrote a post entitled Being.  I shared the value of doing nothing during a trip to the Florida Keys.  Last week my husband and I revisited Long Key State Park with our Viking  trailer for five nights of camping and relaxation on the shores of the Atlantic.

Sure it’s August. Sure it’s hot. It’s hot everywhere in Florida, so folks might as well camp near the water where they can get wet. The word must have gotten out about the constant sea breeze which cools the campground like a giant fan, because the park was full most nights. In fact we felt fortunate to reserve a site.

As in the past, our first day was blessed with a refreshing tropical breeze. We were surprised the second day when the tropical breeze turned into a tropical storm. The rain bands lasted eight hours.  We hunkered down in the trailer, read our books, and played numerous rounds of the card game, Lost Cities. Whenever the rain let up a little, we ventured out to walk our dog…one of the joys of traveling with a pet.

The remainder of the week was dry with a light wind. We enjoyed swimming, kayaking, and a couple of short hikes. With the exception of a day trip to Bahai Honda, we spent most of our time in our camp chairs, just being still and soaking up the beauty of the place.  What is it about the sea that refreshes a person’s spirit?

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One night  when I was preparing dinner our dog Buddy, barked at something. I stepped out of the trailer to see a large crab scurry into its burrow at the edge of our campsite. The crab was at least six inches across. It was grey in color and one claw was larger than the other.

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After that happened I paid closer attention whenever I walked to the campground trash bin with a bag of garbage. I noticed several crabs along the side of the road and dozens of burrows in between each campsite. Later I learned these shy creatures are called blue land crabs, and rank the largest in size of Florida’s semi-terrestrial crabs.  They spend most of their adult lives on or near the beach, but return to the sea to breed.  Blue land crabs burrow several feet underground to allow moisture to seep inside their tunnels.

I found the crabs were more active in the cooler parts of the day, around dusk and dawn.  Primarily vegetarians, blue land crabs eat tender leaves, fruits, and berries.  I felt like I’d really accomplished something when I managed to snap a photo of one with a blue shell before it skittered sideways into its underground home.

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I researched some additional interesting facts about these animals. Their reproductive activity occurs during the full moon of summer. Uh-oh, there might have been some hanky-panky going on at Long Key because the moon was practically full!

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A female blue land crab produces anywhere from 300,000 to 700,000 eggs in one spawning season.  She carries them under her body to release them into the sea. However, most crab larva are eaten by fish and very few survive. It’s unlawful to harvest any blue land crabs in Florida between July 1 and October 31. And of course hunting or capturing wildlife is against the rules in state parks. I have no idea what blue land crabs taste like, but some people consider them a delicacy.

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Female blue land crabs can vary in color from blue to white.

For the record, in mid-October Long Key State Park campground will be closed due to beach renovation for one year.  On our day trip to Bahai Honda we saw some beachside campsites.

Maybe we’ll move our “do nothing” location further south until Long Key reopens.

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