Scrub-Jay Way

I like the last week of December.  The stress of the Christmas season is winding down. The resolutions of the new year have not yet begun. It’s a good time to slow down, reflect, and revisit memories.

One of my favorite December memories took place during a trip I made to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Located near the Kennedy Space Center, the refuge was established for the protection of migratory birds. Fifteen hundred different species of plants and animals inhabit this wilderness of 140,000 acres. The land features coastal dunes, marshes, scrub pines, and hardwood hammocks.

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The best time to visit Merritt Island is in the winter. If you drive on the Black Point Wildlife Drive you can see waterfowl, wading birds, alligators, bobcats, snakes, and raptors. The drive is seven miles one way. Make sure you have gas in your tank, and plenty of time to explore. We got out of the car frequently to photograph the locals.

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The refuge features several hiking trails. My favorite is the Pine Flatwoods Trail. It’s a mile round trip through a rare community of oak scrubs. This area is home to the threatened Florida Scrub-Jay.  Their survival is threatened due to a loss of habitat. Fewer than eight thousand Scrub-Jays remain in the world.

Scrub-Jays can become hand-tame if they have contact with people. A fellow hiker shared that once we found a family of Scrub-Jays, we should stand still with our arms outstretched and see what happens. About half way through the hike, I came across a bunch of scrubby looking plants. Sitting on top of a branch was a pretty blue bird. That’s it, I thought, the Florida Scrub-Jay! 

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I signaled the rest of my family members to freeze. We looked at the grass around our feet and saw several peanut shells laying on the ground. Someone clearly had been feeding the birds, but we didn’t want to actually feed the wildlife. (It’s against the rules.)  Still, we were very curious about the rumors we’d heard.

I whispered to my son,  “Let’s stand with our arms outstretched to see what might happen.” As an extra enticement, we put an empty peanut shell in each palm. Wow! I was amazed. The Scrub-Jays didn’t hesitate to light on our palms. One even sat on my son’s head!

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Each Scrub-Jay didn’t sit for long. It was clear to them that we didn’t really have any food. My husband shot this amazing photo of a Scrub-Jay leaving my hand. I laugh every time I look at it.

Fellow Floridians, we live in a unique state with more to explore than the space between Mickey’s ears. If you are interested, visit Merritt Island and see the real Florida.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going Bananas!

The summer heat and humidity of Orlando can drive you bananas! So why not see a bunch in their natural state?  One morning last week I strolled through beautiful Leu Gardens. This lush respite from city life made me feel like I was in a real rain forest!

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A variety of plants thrive in the tropical stream garden. The path is quiet and shady with benches to sit and breathe in the beauty of your surroundings.

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I’m not a botany expert, but I like plants, especially flowering plants. I was amazed at these colorful blooming bromeliads. Some bromeliads shoot out tall spikes to show off their flowers, but some have tiny flowers deep inside that you can only see if you look really close. In the photo below the blossoms are those minute lavender triangles inside the center cup that retains water!

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Many insects and other animals depend on the water that is stored in the cup like center of a bromeliad. (By the way, bring insect repellant!)

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These bromeliads are growing out of a “host” plant.

 

The most well known bromeliad is the pineapple. Did you know they were named by early European explorers who thought they looked like pine cones?

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While in the tropical stream garden, I learned that bananas don’t grow on trees! Instead they grow on stalks. Each flower spike develops a “banana heart”. After fruiting the spike dies, but new offshoots grow out of the base.

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Some banana stalks are only ornamental.  The ornamental bananas have colorful flowers but their fruit is inedible and full of small, hard seeds.

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Ornamental Banana
The Tropical Stream Garden is one of many places to visit within Leu Gardens. It is a lush oasis of rejuvenation and refreshment in the marathon of life!

Rabbit Trails and Romanticism

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Are you a romantic? Do you believe in the importance of nature and its effect on your creativity? There is a word to describe the connection between art and nature. It’s called romanticism! I don’t intend to bore you with facts about romantic writers. But if your imagination is sparked by nature, many writers throughout history felt the same as you. Wordsworth, Keats, and Emerson to name a few. There is a real connection between walking in nature and writing. Many writers have trekked miles in the quest for inspiration.  For me, walking clears my head of mental stress and gives room for my imagination.

I want to emphasize the importance of being outdoors. Walking on a treadmill does not relax my mind. I keep looking at the clock and wondering when will this session be finished?  How can anyone be inspired by a clock, a wall, or a TV?  I’d much rather look at the sky, a tree, or a lake.  Near my house there are walking paths around neighboring lakes. One path in particular is a terrific habitat for birds and bunnies. Would that be a rabbit trail?

Many of my vacations have included hiking in national parks, most of which are located in the western United States. One of my favorite trails is called The Watchman in Zion National Park, Utah. This trail is considered moderately strenuous. Of course when you’re in the mountains, moderate means there will be an  increase in elevation! But the Watchman takes you up 378 feet slowly. I like that! Since the trail is located at the mouth of Zion Canyon, the increased sunlight nurtures a host of beautiful wildflowers.

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The trail also affords spectacular views of neighboring rocky peaks. The Watchman, pictured above, seems to be always visible around every bend.  The trail ends at a great viewpoint of the road into the park.  You can look down and see everyone coming and going from the canyon. Was this a lookout station where sentinels lit signal fires to warn canyon inhabitants of possible invaders?

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When I look at this photo I think about the native people who entered the canyon on foot. They might have been tracking an animal when they stumbled into one of the most beautiful places in America. In the early 1860’s  Mormon pioneers named the canyon Zion after the hills of Jerusalem. They thought of it as a sanctuary in the desert.

Geologic wonders are awe-inspiring. But the reality is I am a flat-lander, who spends most of my time in the semi-tropics of Florida. Mountains are few and far between in these parts. Still I take my walks and sometimes find inspiration on the rabbit trails.

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Trust and Obey

 

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Have you ever looked back on an experience in your life and wondered, “How did I do that?” Those are my thoughts as I look at this image of myself taken while riding a mule out of the depths of the Grand Canyon. The words of an old hymn come to mind: “Trust and obey, there is no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” On this trip, I needed to do both in order to succeed and survive.

A few months ago, my husband suggested that we take the mule ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Given that you can only get to the bottom by foot or mule, I thought the mule idea was a better one.  We made our reservations for April 30, 2016.

When we arrived at the South Rim, we were surprised by the cold temperatures. It actually snowed on April 28! The day of our mule excursion, it was pouring rain. After receiving instructions, and nervously mounting our mules, we proceeded down the Bright Angel Trail on a five-hour journey to the Phantom Ranch. The canyon was filled with fog. We couldn’t see any farther than twenty feet in front of us. The decreased visibility actually helped me forget about the canyon drop-offs and focus on one thing, getting to know my mule named Olga.

Mules are hybrid animals, the offspring of a male donkey and female horse.  Mules resemble horses in terms of height, but have short manes like donkeys.  Olga had a reddish-brown coat and soft, gentle-looking eyes. Her big ears stuck out on either side of her head. Each ear curled forward as she plodded along, almost like a swimmer with hands cupped, to pull back water with each stroke. Olga had made this trip many times. She knew the trail, the guides, and the other mules. This was Olga’s territory.

I have never been at the mercy of an animal before. My job was to hold on to the saddle horn with my right hand and keep the reins in my left. A “motivator” (whip) was hanging from my right wrist to use if necessary in case Olga slowed down. I’m sorry to say, Olga slowed down frequently, and my feeble attempts to use the motivator didn’t have much of an impact. She responded better when Josiah, our guide, called her name.

I was amazed at Olga’s strength and courage.  After we stopped for lunch, the clouds lifted to reveal the splendor of the canyon around us. As we rounded a narrow hairpin curve, Olga’s head lurched forward into space and my stomach flipped like I was on a ride at a theme park. What a thrill! Olga didn’t lose her balance, and I stayed on the saddle. Two good things! As the hours passed, I began to trust Olga. She navigated the trail like a pro. By the second day, I could actually relax enough to take some pictures.

Our guides, Kevin and Josiah, were experienced wranglers and very knowledgeable about mules and the canyon. I obeyed them regarding the use of my phone, and kept it strapped around my neck as directed. We were allowed to take pictures whenever we wanted. But I must say it was easier when Olga stopped. Down in the canyon there was no signal. We could not send or receive calls, text, or email.  We had gone back in time 100 years!  Kevin and Josiah carried walkie talkies for communication with the outside world.

Safety was a priority. Our guides insisted we wait for their assistance regarding mounting, or dismounting our  mules. That wasn’t a problem for me! I was too short to climb up on Olga without help.  After a couple of hours of riding, my feet and legs were numb. I needed support to  dismount  and stand up!

After our mules crossed the Colorado River on the Black Bridge, we turned in at the Phantom Ranch for the night.   The next morning we began our ascent up the South Kaibab Trail.  This trail was shorter and steeper than Bright Angel.  Along the trail we stopped periodically to rest the mules. Josiah instructed us to line up our mules in a row and look out upon the canyon to witness the art of God.

The layers of  rock so distant and faded when seen from the rim, exploded in vibrant colors of pink, red, and green!  Pinyon pine, juniper, wildflowers, and wild grass flourished in a place I had considered barren. A kind of holy hush whispered on the wind. This was a place like no other. A place wild and free.  A place accessible through obedience and trust.

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