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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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)

 

 

 

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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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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