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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Nature’s Classroom at Faver-Dykes State Park

Camping during the Florida summer is not for wimps. Our trip to Faver-Dykes State Park challenged us in ways we have never been challenged before. Located in a remote area fifteen miles outside Saint Augustine, the park is known for being “off the beaten track.” We pulled our Viking trailer over the bumpy dirt road to the entrance of a small campground. As the campsite was not level, my husband, Herb made several attempts before he successfully parked our trailer in the soft sand. Soon a park vehicle stopped nearby and a ranger stepped out to welcome us. The ranger took an interest in our dog, Buddy, the best beagle ever.

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Early the next morning we decided to hike the 2.6 mile Hiram-Faver Trail. Guess what? The trail was named in honor of Hiram Faver, who donated the land to the state for a park. Go figure!  On our way to the trailhead we walked by the park office. The friendly ranger who  welcomed us yesterday came out of the office to say hello. He asked where we were headed. I told him the Hiram-Faver trail. “Oh,” he said, “you better watch out for ticks out there.”

“We’re prepared, ” I boasted. I wore long sleeves and long pants and tucked my pantlegs into my socks. I also sprayed my legs with bug spray. The ranger focused his attention on Buddy. “I always put a tick collar on my dog. Then the ticks never bother him.” Suddenly I realized that Mr. Ranger was more concerned about Buddy than we were.

“Buddy is on special medication to prevent ticks from harming him,” Herb responded. At the time I wondered, how bad can it be out there?

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We began hiking with Buddy in the lead. July is hot in Florida. Herb and I kid each other that real Floridians can handle the heat. But we forget that we aren’t real Floridians. We’re actually transplanted Buckeyes from Ohio, and Buddy hails from North Carolina.

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As we approached Pellicer Creek, we felt a delightful cool breeze off the water. We saw a bench and sat down to enjoy our granola bars and bottled water. Buddy had a drink, too, and relaxed in the grassy area at our feet.

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I took out my cell phone to take pictures.  I noticed I had phone service. (Something not always available at the campsite.)  Herb looked across the river and spotted a cell tower. What luck! We had a great time sitting on the bench, texting pictures and checking our email. I even posted a couple of photos on Facebook.

After about twenty minutes, I noticed something crawling on the front of my shirt. “A tick!” I yelled. Herb rushed over and brushed it off. Then I spotted a tick on his pants. I brushed it off him. “Let’s get out of here.”

We hiked back toward the campsite. I still wasn’t very worried. So we saw two ticks. Big deal. We’re only a mile from the campsite. All will be well.

When we reached the campsite, we sat on the ground with Buddy and examined his belly. I lost count of the numerous ticks attached to his legs and stomach. I felt terrible. What did I do to my dog?

I grabbed the tweezers from the first aid kit and Herb and I combed through his fur with our fingers. It wasn’t easy to remove the ticks from Buddy’s skin. They were small, brown, shiny, and wanted to stay put. When I pulled the first tick out I didn’t know what to do with it. It latched on to the tweezers and wouldn’t let go. Then it started to crawl onto my hand. Yikes!

Finally I got the idea of dropping the live tick in a cup of water. It worked. I removed at least thirty ticks from Buddy. We covered the cup with a second smaller inverted cup to keep the ticks from crawling out. If possible, we wanted to keep them out of our campsite. We wrapped the tick filled cup in a plastic bag and dropped it in the nearest garbage can. Hopefully they didn’t escape.

Buddy was a trooper. He didn’t complain, and relished all the attention. Ticks are strange. Unlike other pests, you don’t feel it when they dig in to your skin. No sting, no itch. Unless you check yourself and your family from front to back and head to toe, you don’t know you have them.  I know, I removed three from my ankles.

Hikers beware! July is peak season for ticks in Florida. Nature has many lessons to teach, but we will not attend the July session of the school of ticks again.

 

Our Paynes Prairie Camp Out

Mother’s Day weekend we hitched up the trailer and headed out for Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. The cast included the usual characters, my husband Herb, our dog Buddy, and myself.  Paynes Prairie is a 22,000 acre wilderness in between the little town of Micanopy and the big town of Gainesville. The Preserve was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1974 due to its rich wildlife habitat. On the way to the campground we sighted a beautiful deer.

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IMG_9243The three of us worked as a team and followed  our procedures for setting up camp. Buddy supervised from inside his crate. Herb performed most of the physical work.  I walked around looking important with my clipboard and pen. My job entailed checking off each task as Herb completed it. At this point we still need to consult written directions for hitching and unhitching the trailer, but the process is taking less time.  This was our third trip.  Click on the link to read about our first and second trips.

IMG_9203There are many trails at Paynes Prairie. Most do not allow pets. On Friday afternoon we walked the Lake Trail with Buddy. I think dogs are permitted on the Lake Trail because it’s boring. We walked for quite awhile without seeing any wildlife until Buddy located and started to eat the remains of a dead bat. Herb is an expert at fishing things out of Buddy’s mouth. Whew! I can get along without that kind of excitement.

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On Saturday morning we decided to hike the La Chua Trail and leave Buddy in the trailer. We knew he would be comfortable (and safe) with the windows open and a fan turned on. The trailhead is located on the north side of the park near Gainesville. We followed a long boardwalk around a huge sinkhole. At the end of the boardwalk a grassy path began. We were warned to “enter at our own risk.” Soon we saw a large pond teeming with alligators.

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The months of May and June are mating season for gators. Is this big guy trying to show off for the ladies?

I’ve never seen gators so active. At least fifty thrashed about in the water. Some lifted their heads high as they choked down wiggly fish. But we couldn’t stare at the center of the pond for long.  We had to stay alert, because every now and then another big one would crawl onto the shore not too far from where we stood.

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Look out!

Suddenly I understood why pets are prohibited on the La Chua Trail!  Although Herb and I were fascinated by the “gators on parade,” we moved on.  Gradually the wetland plants changed to tall weeds and grasses.

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What looked like small pine trees, were actually giant thistles.

Fifty-seven percent of the state of Florida is currently in some degree of drought.  Dry conditions were very evident in the campground making it necessary for the rangers to ban campfires. On the hike we saw scores of dead fish in the mud where a pond used to be. Vultures flew in for a meal.

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After seeing (and smelling) this scene, I wondered what might happen to the gators if more ponds disappear. Then I realized gators don’t need a lot of water. This one seemed content in a few inches.

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Paynes Prairie is home to over 271 species of birds of all sizes from large herons, to small red winged blackbirds. Maybe when the fish population runs out, the gators will eat more birds. Large alligators have more options. They eat little gators.

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The trail ended at an observation tower. From the platform Herb and I saw wild horses and bison grazing on the prairie as they did hundreds of years ago.  (I highly recommend binoculars if you hike this trail.) In 1985 the Friends of Paynes Prairie purchased a few Spanish horses from a local ranch. The horses have free roam within the confines of the prairie and fend for themselves. Another “living link” to the past is the American bison. We were surprised to learn bison are native to Florida.  Hunted to extinction in this area, bison were reintroduced to Paynes Prairie in 1975. The park acquired a group of ten bison from a refuge in Oklahoma. Now the herd numbers fifty. Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is a wild place and represents the best of the “Real Florida.”

 

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Florida Manatees: Long Journey up a Slippery Slope

I grab my cell phone and trek down the path to the water’s edge. The dense forest blocks any warmth from the morning sun.  Although I’m dressed in the heaviest clothing I own, I still shiver in the forty-degree temperatures. What would inspire this thin-blooded Floridian to drive for an hour and brave such cold?

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I reach the lookout platform and gaze into the crystal blue water.  Fat gray shapes lie deep beneath the surface.  I hear a snort as one rises for a breath of air. What appeared to be a boulder is actually a living thing.  My eyes adjust as the swirling water becomes smooth again.  Soon I recognize many similar shapes, and stare in unbelief as scores of manatees migrate into Blue Springs to escape the colder water of the nearby St John’s River.  I realize I have something in common with these gentle giants. We both want to be warm.

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Manatees cannot tolerate water temperatures below sixty-five. So they do what any tropical animal would do, seek warmth in order to live. How do these marine mammals know the water is a constant seventy-three degrees at Blue Springs? How do they communicate this news to each other? I’m amazed whenever I see God’s natural provision for this unique animal.

Over  the past forty years  the population of Florida manatees has rebounded. On March 30, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changed their status from endangered to threatened. It is  estimated that 6,620 manatees live throughout the coastal waters and rivers of Florida. In the 1970s only a few hundred existed.*

Florida organizations like the Save the Manatee Club have worked for decades to raise public awareness about the plight of the manatees. One might think the change of status is cause for celebration. Quite the opposite. According to club director, Patrick Rose,   the federal government’s decision is premature and will undermine the manatee’s long- term survival.

As I take a closer look at those manatees swimming near the viewing platform, I can’t help but notice the scars on their skin from collisions with watercraft.  These incidents happened while the animal was considered endangered and where speed limits for boaters were posted.  What can we expect if protections are weakened?

The lives of these gentle giants hang in a delicate balance. A two thousand pound manatee has no natural predators.  Alligators move out of their way by staying close to the riverbank.  The only thing manatees need to fear is man. As Florida increases residential development, people and wildlife contend over limited natural resources.  Man always has the last word.

As a crowd gathers on the viewing platform, one child excitedly points to a manatee mother swimming with her calf.  I snap a photo of the pair and feel grateful for the individuals who continue to value the preservation of a species still so dependent on the protection of man.  What will the future hold for the manatee? The answer is up to us.

*Susan Salisbury, Palm Beach Post (April 2, 2017)

River of Inspiration

Moving metaphor below,

without one thought you flow

over stone

and I see

life’s not hard like land at all

but a living river of possibility

whatever you might be.

A River Poem is displayed on a plaque above the Hillsborough River. The author is anonymous.  From this spot people can see rapids as they bubble around outcroppings of Suwannee Limestone.  I love the depth of meaning in the poem’s simplicity. Life’s not hard for a river. It creates beauty in the process of overcoming obstacles.

The Hillsborough River flows through Hillsborough State Park on its course to the Gulf of Mexico. Recently Herb and I walked the River Rapids Trail with our dog, Buddy. The scenery is quite beautiful.

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The path meanders along the river bank through forests of ancient cypress trees. The tree pictured below is estimated to be four hundred years old.

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Although its base is hollow, the tree is still alive.  Some scientists think the stumpy looking knees around a Cypress tree serve as anchors in soft muddy soil. The knees also carry oxygen to the roots. I’ve heard the taller the knees, the higher the water has risen around the tree. The base of this tree is probably underwater during the rainy season.

On our walk I noticed a significant amount of poison ivy on both sides of the trail.

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Doesn’t it look pretty? These leaves of green terrify me! I’m very allergic to this wicked weed and suffer for weeks if the oil gets  on my skin. So not only did I need to keep my eyes on the path, I needed to make sure our dog wasn’t walking through it. So far so good. Whew!

Unfortunately, I was so focused on watching my feet, I missed something. Herb sighted a bobcat running across the path ahead. I think I’d like to see a bobcat, but on second thought I might get scared and try to escape by running through poison ivy. Out of the frying pan and into the fire!

Back to the peaceful river… further down the path we noticed a couple kayaking.

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As they paddled closer, instead of looking calm and relaxed, they seemed anxious. They had good reason to be.

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The river provides a wonderful habitat for alligators. I photographed this fine specimen basking in the sun on the opposite bank. Once I saw the gator, I realized I was not brave enough to kayak or canoe here. I could appreciate the river better from where I was standing. As long as I wasn’t standing in poison ivy, of course.

Since we were camping at Hillsborough State Park, we had another day to explore. We visited Fort Foster. This historic site is a replica of the original fort which was built to  house supplies for  U.S. soldiers during the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842.

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The fort also protected the only bridge in the area that crossed the Hillsborough River. One thing the government didn’t consider, the bridge also made it easier for the Seminoles to cross the river from their camps on the opposite bank.  A few skirmishes happened here, but more casualties occurred from insect related diseases.

Inside the stockade fence, the fort contained a canon, an officers quarters, an infirmary, and a supply building.

The fort could not accommodate the 305 soldiers assigned to the post. Most of them camped outside the fence in palmetto sheds. During the summer of 1836 the fort was abandoned due to unhealthy living conditions. The troops returned in October, to guard the supplies kept at the fort. Eventually the Seminoles were pushed further south to the Everglades.

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The Hillsborough River… an inspiration for poets, a habitat for plants and animals, and a source of history. Like the poem states… “a living river of possibility.”

 

Camping, Then and Now

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The afternoon temperature increased along with my frustration. “Didn’t the service technician say the tongue needed to be raised all the way up before we attach the chains?”

My husband, Herb, turned the crank a few more times. “Yeah, check the list again. I think the sway bars go on next.”

Our dog, Buddy offered no advice as he lay in his crate in the back of the SUV.

Almost an hour later we rolled out of the storage facility lot.  The trailer creaked along behind us.  We constantly checked our side view mirrors to make sure it was still connected to the car. After ten minutes we merged into I-4 traffic, but continued to stay in the right lane. I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, we were on our way to Lake Kissimmee State Park. Our first trip with the Viking trailer, and our first trip with our dog.

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Located fifteen miles east of Lake Wales, the park is nestled between three lakes. We drove into the campground in the late afternoon. Each campsite was walled on three sides by dark green palmettos. Good, I thought, our neighbors won’t see the circus act that is about to begin as we try to park and unhitch the trailer.

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We followed our checklist step by step. The sun was going down by the time the trailer was leveled and ready for habitation. Buddy needed to be walked and fed of course. We put him in his pen by the door of the trailer and transferred our gear from the car. I waited outside with Buddy while Herb drove to the camp store for firewood. Buddy was nervous. He whined when Herb left. I’m sure he was confused and wondered, Why are we here?

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Herb returned and got out of the car. “The camp store closed at five. No fire tonight.”

My initial let down was surpassed by my fatigue. “It’s getting dark, let’s make dinner and relax in the trailer.”

Buddy sniffed out the tiny trailer in ten seconds. He wagged his tail a lot and seemed pleased. We placed his bed under the table for two. He crawled in. What a great location for a beagle.

Relieved that the gas stove worked, I cooked hamburgers for our first meal. We gave thanks for food, safety, and togetherness.

After dinner, we opened the trailer door and looked up. The dark sky revealed the brightest stars we had ever seen.  We took Buddy out for his evening walk and our small flashlight lit the area in front of our feet, but not much further. We took a lap around the campground and chuckled at  folks watching a big screen TV outside. This is camping, circa 2017. As we rounded the bend, ghostly shapes appeared in the middle of the road. People making desperate attempts to receive cell phone signals.

Although the trip primarily focused on “making friends” with our RV, we did some hiking.  Buddy was in his “element” as we hiked four miles on the Gobbler Ridge Trail. Nose to the ground, he loved to track whatever animals may have been in the area.

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We walked through tall grass prairie and shady hammocks to an observation tower. Looking across the prairie we saw some cattle grazing in the distance. I thought about one of my favorite books, A Land Remembered.

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In the book author Patrick D. Smith describes the Florida cracker (cowboy) lifestyle around 1870. The main character, Tobias Maclvey, believed there weren’t enough people or cows in the whole world to fill up the Florida prairie. During this time, wild cattle roamed free until they were rounded up by cowboys and herded to market.  Eventually the crackers bought sections of the prairie and erected fences. They became ranchers and locomotives moved the cattle to market by rail. The cattle industry is still important to Florida today.

Lake Kissimmee State Park brings Florida’s cracker heritage to life with living history demonstrations. An 1870’s “cow camp” is open every weekend from October first to May first.

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The crackers lived a rugged life of survival during a time without air conditioning, refrigeration, and running water. In 2017 are we really camping or just kidding ourselves?

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On Facing Reality

We could have been camping today. If I lean into my imagination I can see the flickering flames of the campfire and taste the toasted marshmallows. Why didn’t it happen?

Reality struck. Have you ever been so blinded by your wants that you lose sight of your needs?  I was absolutely giddy about purchasing the Coachmen Clipper until….

Let me back up a bit.  The Saturday after the RV show my husband and I cleaned the garage to make space to park  our new tent trailer. We live in a townhouse with no yard or driveway. We believed the camper would just fit on one side of the garage with six inches to spare. How clever we are! One of us, can park on the street (probably him.) Now we won’t need to pay for storage. We were all set to pick up the camper later in the week.

Fast forward to Sunday night. A terrible rain storm hit Orlando. Tornados and hail were predicted. My husband realized he better put his car back in the garage. Then he decided he really didn’t want to park on the street permanently.  On Monday, he started to scout around for storage facilities.  He contracted to store the camper nearby.

Friday morning arrived. We dropped our dog off at my mom’s, and drove seventy-five miles to pick up our dream camper.  Only we realized our dream  camper was more of a nightmare.  We endured a three-hour training session of  raising and lowering the canvas top. Both of us were shocked to discover there are twenty steps in that process which must be performed in sequential order. No wonder the technician’s first words were, “Do you guys have any idea how much work goes into owning a tent trailer?”

The canvas top needs regular maintenance. It must be washed every time you use it and completely dry before storing to avoid mildew. That seemed impossible considering our storage situation.  My husband pulled me off to the side. “Do you still want to do this?” he asked.

My stomach started churning.  I felt like a deflated balloon. “I still want to get it, but if you are extremely opposed, I’ll relent.”

“I’m not extremely opposed, but I’m opposed,” He responded.

I need to also mention that while all of this turmoil was going on, his car was being equipped with a hitch and brake controlling device. My stomach was still churning.

Sometimes you have to face facts. How could I continue to insist that we go through with this plan knowing he wasn’t on board?  “Okay,” I said. “Let’s see if they have another vehicle we can buy instead.”

A sales representative showed us a few lightweight hard top trailers.  He tried to cheer us up with a bag of popcorn and some jokes. We came home empty-handed, except for a hitch and a braking device that continually flashes numbers under the dash.

In closing, sometimes the road to adventure includes detours. Take them.