Friday, December 14, 2012

Swimming (well, Paddling) With the Manatees

We're at the Crystal Isles Encore Superpark RV Resort in Crystal River, FL. We got here on Dec. 1 and immediately began to wear t-shirts and shorts almost all the time. That's what the weather was like, 60s at night and high 70s/low 80s during the day. It was nice. (Was is the operative word there; the last two days have seen the lows be down at 50 and the highs in the 60s, but that's now. Let's get us up to this point.)

Crystal River is a fascinating area. We didn't know where we were coming other than having seen it on the map, knowing it was in Florida on the Gulf, and that there would be lots of water around, which is what we wanted. But we didn't know what would be IN the water!

Crystal River (city and river) is right in the heart of Manatee country. In fact, we are in an RV Park that is adjacent to a canal that flows into the river and right near King's Bay and the manatees swim out of the Gulf waters as they turn cold and seek out the warmer waters of the bay and the springs that feed the bay. The springs flow at a constant 70-72 degrees and the manatees are looking for the warmth of the water.

Manatees are a large ... VERY LARGE ... marine mammals. One brochure describes them as "over a ton of tenderness." Yes, that's right. Manatees can weigh over a ton, even up to 3,000 lbs! In fact, one of their closest relatives is the elephant. Yet, they are very gentle with no predators other than humans. They may swim with you quite literally since they are not afraid of people and will come up to human swimmers and boats. Many people do swim in the water with these gentle giants. We just paddled around with them in our kayaks.

We took the kayaks one day and just headed out into King's Bay from the Crystal River city park. We were just paddling around for the fun of it. We had heard of the manatees and had been told that some areas were cordoned off as "resting areas" for the manatees. That meant that we should not kayak in those waters. It didn't take long to find some of these areas.

Completely by accident one of the more interesting places we discovered was the area know as the Three Sisters Springs. These are the fresh-water springs (three of them in one area) that feel the Crystal River. They are also warmish water (compared to the Gulf) and therefore are favorite places for the manatee to rest. We got there in the middle of a day and there were no manatee in the spring but there sure were a LOT of fish. The water is perfectly clear. People can snorkel in it and paddle their kayaks and canoes but not fish or scuba dive. Although there were no manatee in the springs, just outside the springs in a protected area were several manatee resting on the bottom. We did see one large one swimming just a few feet from our boats.

One evening we went to the bridge on King's Bay Road and, standing on the bridge, saw at least two dozen manatees swimming in or out of the area. We also lucked out by being in Crystal River on a weekend that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opened up access to the area around the Three Sisters Springs and we could actually walk around in an area completely closed to the public and look down into the springs from the land around them. We talked briefly to a representative of the Fish and Wildlife Service about the possibility of being workcampers with them in a future year where we could volunteer three days a week in exchange for a free spot to camp for the whole season. That might be fun but we'll see what comes of that.

One of the first days we were here, we drove out to the end to the road where our resort/campground is located for sunset.  Actually, we drove out there twice for sunset but the first day underestimated the length of time it would take us to get to the end of the road and so missed most of the sundown show. So, we went back the next day just a little earlier and got the full effect of sundown over the Gulf of Mexico. The Fort Island Gulf Beach County Park is out there where the road runs into the water (at a boat launch ramp, of course). It has white sand beaches, a swimming area, lots and lots of birds, and a great view of the setting sun.

On another day, we went to the Crystal River Archaeological State Park. This is home to a pre-Columbian ceremonial mound complex used by Native Americans for religious and social ceremonial purposes. There are six mounds on the site and they are mostly built up from oyster and other shells discarded by the original peoples of the area. The earliest use of the area was some 10,000 years ago but the most significant activity began about 2,500 years ago and lasted up until about 500 years ago. A few days later, we also took a boat tour of the lower portions of the Crystal River that focused on the ecology and historical heritage of the area (hence, it was called the Heritage-Eco boat tour).

In the same area as the archaeological park is the Crystal River Preserve State Park. The area is unique in that it is a spring-fed estuary which leads to a coastline of salt marshes instead of sandy beaches (although those can be found in the area as well). There are lots and lots of birds around here that we don't ordinarily get to see including egrets, great blue herons, pelicans, and others. The locals think that it is great that they get to see some whooping cranes. We think it's great too, and Baraboo, WI, where we lived for six years, is home to the International Crane Foundation which has worked for the preservation and encouragement of these magnificent birds and has pioneered in the use of ultralight aircraft to teach young cranes how to fly to Florida for the winter.

We drove down to the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. There we really got a great glimpse of the manatees. They have an underwater observatory called the Fish Bowl where one can watch fish and manatees in the freshwater spring. In addition, there are educational programs on manatees, alligators, Florida wildlife, and the one hippopotamus that is a permanent resident of the Park. The wildlife park was once a private tourist attraction with many NON-Florida game animals but they have all been removed and relocated since the state took over. All except the hippo which was such a crowd pleaser that a former governor of Florida declared the hippo an honorary citizen of the state so he could remain in the park for the rest of his (LONG) life.

We also visited the city of Inverness (the county seat of Citrus County). The old courthouse there has been turned into an excellent museum with displays about the area and its history. We also visited Fort Morgan State Park which was the site of a major standoff with the Seminole Indians during the Second Seminole War. No fort remains. It was made of wood stakes which long ago deterioriated, but there was a good trail for taking a walk in the woods, seeing the Old Military Road (there seems to be one of them in almost every state we visit), and just enjoying a beautiful day.

Everything in our life is not let's go see something new every day. Sometimes we have to stop having fun to do such things as the laundry, washing dishes, and buying groceries. We are accumulating quite the stack of grocery store savings cards since we ask for one wherever we go (if we don't already have one).

We are at about mid-point in our month in Crystal River and shortly will take a brief hiatus from being snowbirds. We'll fly back to WI to see some friends and our kids/grandkids and especially to meet our newest (and first) granddaughter, Zamaya, born to daughter Karla and her friend, Jonah, just this week. We'll then return to Florida and Crystal River for a few days before it's time to move on to our next adventure at Cedar Key (which is just a little bit north of Crystal River). We hope that all of you have a Merry and a Blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Thanksgiving and Beyond

It's been two weeks since I've posted anything! I'd apologize for that, but we've been having so much fun that I'm not even going to apologize. I'm just going to be grateful for the opportunity to be enjoying ourselves so much these days and hope that it continues to be that way.

We celebrated Thanksgiving at the Styx River Resort in LA (I remind you that mean "Lower Alabama," NOT the more common alternative of a California city).  The resort cooked turkey three different ways (deep fried, oven baked, and smoked) and the rest of us brought a dish (or dishes) to share. A good time was had by all and we enjoyed sharing the meal with a new extended family. And then there was so much food left over that we came back together for supper and turkey sandwiches. No one went away from the day hungry! Thanks, Styx River staff, for cooking the turkeys!

We did a lot during the week after Thanksgiving. Let's see how many of them I can remember!

The day after Thanksgiving, we went to Fort Morgan. It was the fort that guarded the entrance to Mobile Bay.  It has been turned into a museum and to the old military historian in me it was very interesting. Here are some pictures from our visit that day.

We went to Alligator Alley, an alligator "rescue" farm. Alligators may not be very pretty (an understatement), but they sure are interesting! We even got to hold a two-year-old gator ... with his (or was it her ... they can't tell at that age) jaws taped shut with ordinary electrical tape. It seems that alligators have almost no real strength for opening their mouths, but once they are opened, WATCH OUT! A full grown alligator can bite down with a full ton (over 2,000 foot pounds) of force!

We also went to the National Naval Aviation Museum at Pensacola Naval Air Station. This was an interesting trip through time, nostalgia, and aviation! We had two different tour guides for two different parts of the trip through the museum. Both were retired Marine pilots. One was from WW II. He had flown torpedo bombers in the Pacific. The other was from the Korean Conflict and Vietnam War era. He had flown a variety of things. I couldn't help but think of grand-nephew Jakobh Coleman when we went past one of the helicopters that served as Marine One (flying the President of the U.S. A. from the White House to the air field where Air Force One awaits as well as taking the President to other locations requiring shore flights. Jakobh was one of the ground crew serving with Marine One for a while. I won't try to describe all the fascinating aircraft we looked at or into or learned about, but if you're interested in such things, the Museum is well worth a trip. And admission is FREE!

Another thing we did was to have a face-to-face meet-up over coffee with some fellow RVers at the Starbucks in Foley, AL. It was a delight to get acquainted with Millie, Bill, Don, Cookie, Shirley and (here I must DEEPLY apologize for forgetting a name!) and Shirley's Significant Other. I do enjoy making the acquaintance of other people in our RV lifestyle world. We generally share several points of interest (as well as having several views on which we may never agree but we just don't talk about those).

After one final trip to the Gulf Shores beach, we left the Styx River Resort on Friday, 30 November, heading into Florida. We spent one night at the Econfina River Resort located near Lamont, FL. It is a Passport America park and that gives us a significant discount on the overnight price of a site. It was quiet and pleasant and we'd stop there on another overnight. I'm not sure I'd use it as a destination park since it is really oriented toward fishing in the Econfina River and the Gulf of Mexico.

On Monday, December 1, we arrived at Crystal Isles RV Resort, an Encore park, where we are staying for the whole month of December (other than a brief, flying trip to WI for Christmas with the family and friends). I'll get to work telling you about our stay in Crystal River the next time I stop doing things around here long enough to write!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sweet Home, Alabama!

My Daddy was from Alabama. Bridgeport, in fact, in north Alabama. We've made many visits over the years to the state, visiting family mostly, but they were usually short visits, one or two days with a couple of longer trips thrown in over the years. But Mary and I are making a very intentional visit to the state. We've now spent more time in Alabama than I've ever spent at one time ... and it's been fun!

Right now (Nov. 25), we are parked in the Styx River Resort near Robertsdale, AL, just north of Interstate 10. We've been here since Nov. 14 and will be here until the 30th. I'll come back to the Styx River later.

On Nov. 7, we arrived in Florence, AL. I have some cousins in Florence and we stopped there to visit them, but it was much more than just a few minutes visiting family. Florence is an interesting small city in northwest AL right on the Tennessee River. That river provided some beautiful sights, interesting scenes, and downright enjoyable hours while we were there. Great blue herons were regular companions through our days there. Tug boats and barges chugged by (I don't know why we didn't get any pictures of them). Lots of fishermen and women along the banks. Beautiful fog shrouded sunrises were part of several days (and since we weren't having to drive anywhere on a time schedule, the fog was pretty and not a hazard).

Downstream on the Tennessee River from McFarland Park, Florence, AL
The view across the Tennessee River at McFarland Park, Florence, AL
Great Blue Heron in the slough at McFarland Park
Larry Gautney was a magnificent tour guide. He took us around Florence, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia, introducing us to interesting sights and places. Larry's retired from TVA so he knows a lot about the river and could point out lots of interesting places and tell interesting stories. Actually, Larry knows a lot about all sorts of things and used his knowledge to entertain and instruct us. Thanks, Larry! And thanks to Nancy (Larry's wife and my cousin) and her sister, Ellen, for being lovely hostesses and sharing in our delightful visit to Florence.

Other than the great fun we had with Nancy, Larry, and Ellen, four things stand out about our visit to Florence. First was a visit to "The Wall". More properly, it is the Wachahpi Commemorative Stone Wall. It's located over near the historic Natchez Trace in NW AL. For over 30 years, Tom Hendrix has been building a stone wall in memory of the journey of his great-great-grandmother Te-la-nay along the Trail of Tears and back. She was part of the great removal of Native Americans from North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama to the Oklahoma Territory in the 1800s. She walked to Oklahoma. And then walked back to Alabama because the rivers in Oklahoma didn't sing and the Tennessee River did. It's quite a tale and Tom Hendrix is quite a story teller. We got to see his wall and to listen to Mr. Hendrix tell the story of the wall and of Te-la-nay's journey and life. At its simplest, it was inspirational, interesting, and motivational, but there are much greater depths to the story than a simple blog entry can tell. The Wall can best be experienced. And it is a spiritual experience, to be sure. There were no pictures taken of The Wall, by the way, because it was something that had to be experienced and could not be captured through a lens. But Mr. Hendrix has written his story (and the story of the great-great-grandmother) in a book, If The Legends Fade.

A second outstanding moment was a visit to the Coondog Cemetery. Yep, a coondog cemetery. It's located in the hills of NW AL west of Florence and started as one man's tribute to his championship coondog upon the death of the dog and has become the burial ground of many beloved coondogs (ONLY dogs that can be proven to be authentic, real coondogs; no other breeds allowed!).

Coon Dog Cemetery, AL
Coon Dog Cemetery

Troop, the FIRST Coon Dog buried in the cemetery

The third interesting moment was a visit to the Tiffin RV factory in Red Bay, AL. Yes, we own a Fleetwood motorhome. And we've toured their factory, too. But I've long heard of the Tiffin Company in little Red Bay and the high quality motorhomes they build so since we were less than an hour away we drove over to Red Bay and took a tour of the factory. And we definitely saw some fine motorhomes. There could be a Tiffin in our future. Or maybe not. We'll see. One of the interesting things was the contrast between the extremely time conscious assembly line of the Fleetwood factory and the much more relaxed line at Tiffin. There was an emphasis on quality at both factories but they sure did go about attaining it differently!

And, fourth, in our moments of interest was a visit to Huntsville and the US Space and Rocket Center there. WOW! What a place!

Space Shuttle at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL
"Blackbird" (A-12) at US Space and Rocket Center
BIG Rocket! (I didn't write down the name)

Eventually, we had to leave Florence. It was time to head south for the winter. We had "won" a free week of camping in a membership campground, the Styx River Resort outside Robertsdale, AL, down in LA (that's Lower Alabama if you don't recognize the acronym). So we drove down to Baldwin County, the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. We're north of Gulf Shores and its beautiful beaches. By the time we leave here, we'll have spent two weeks and two days at the Styx River Resort. Our Thanksgiving Dinner was a potluck here at the resort with many of the other guests. The resort cooked turkey three different ways, deep fried, baked, and smoked, and all of us brought various dishes to share. There was LOTS and LOTS of food, so much in fact that we came back for supper and turkey sandwiches and other leftovers that evening. We'll be back to this park, I'm sure, and to some of it's sister parks located in various places, including on the shores of Guntersville Lake in north Alabama and Abita Lake in Louisana.

While we've been here in LA, we have walked on the sandy beaches of Gulf Shores, AL, toured the battleship USS Alabama, moored here in Mobile at Battleship Park (and the submarine USS Drum at the same site), toured Fort Morgan, a Civil War site, and had a couple of "meet-ups".

USS Alabama, looking backward from the bow of the ship
USS Alabama from the shore
Pelicans at Gulf Shores
The Sandy Beaches of Gulf Shores
We met up with some RVers who have just started full-timing and with whom I've chatted on facebook. It was fun to get to know William Roach and Loretta Perno. I suspect we'll cross their path again sometime. They were camped in Gulf Shores and headed for Arizona. And this next Thursday, we'll meet some other RVers I know from facebook as we get together for coffee at Starbucks.       
We met up with Bill and Loretta at Lambert's Cafe,
the home of "throwed rolls"

The most fun get-together was meeting up with my High School classmate Judy Gordon Simpson who lives in Daphne, AL, another eastern shore community. We took a short tour of Mobile with her, learned enough about Mardi Gras in Mobile to make us want to come back sometime for that, and then were treated to dinner at Ed's. Thanks, Judy, for taking time to get together with us!

Ed's Seafood Shed, Mobile, AL

Sunset from Ed's Seafood Shed, Mobile, AL
We haven't found any alligators yet and we aren't in a big hurry to find them either, but we know they're around. 

While we've been here, we have also visited Gulf Shores United Methodist Church (a fine example of how a church should be working and doing ministry), met briefly with a fellow coach (and my coach for a while), Jim Robey, and toured Fairhope, AL, a pretty, artsy town on the eastern shore. It's been a fun time and we STILL have a few days to enjoy the area. TTYL.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Catching Up!

I left off writing with us parked in Elkhart Campground, Elkhart, Indiana. We spent three days there while we visited the RV Hall of Fame, saw the Elkhart carpet of mums (as in chrysanthemums), and toured the New York Central Railroad Museum.
Elkhart, IN, Carpet of Mums
Marching Band Sculptures, Elkhart, IN
The New York Central Railroad Museum, Elkhart, IN
Leaving Elkhart, we headed back to Wisconsin and Hidden Valley RV Resort in Newville. We had to take care of such mundane things as a doctor's appointment, a visit to the dentist, a haircut, family/friend visits and birthdays, and a couple of Red Cross activities.

I haven't said much about it, but Mary and I are volunteers with the American Red Cross, Western Wisconsin Region/Badger Chapter. We are members of a DAT (Disaster Action Team) helping families and individuals who have experienced such tragedies as home fires and wind storms. We are also part of the DSHR system (Disaster Support Human Resources) which could see us deployed to national-level disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. So far, however, our travel schedule and commitments have not worked to allow us to accept deployments so we're still novices. We are also part of a RV-based group of Red Cross volunteers called the DOVES (Disaster Operations Volunteers Escapees [with the Escapees being an RV club to which we belong]). While we were in Wisconsin, we spent several days at a Red Cross training conference. That's where we got to spend our 33rd wedding anniversary on October 20!

We left our RV parked at Hidden Valley Resort while we drove up to Green Bay to visit Mary's sister, Kitty, and then went to Oshkosh for the Red Cross training conference. After Oshkosh, we returned to Newville for a couple of nights and then we headed south.

Our first night out, we stopped in Cerro Gordo, Illinois, at Tom and Carol's RV Park. This was a tiny (maybe six spaces) park but it was a fun stop and, if our travels put us back in Cerro Gordo, we'd stop there again.

From Cerro Gordo, we drove on to Nashville, Tennessee, where we spent two weeks at the Two Rivers Campground near Opryland. Two Rivers is strategically located to let us be tourists in the Nashville area and to visit family in Murfreesboro.

We took a hike at Long Hunter State Park at Percy Priest Lake, seeing the wildlife and just enjoying being in the woods. 

Wild Turkeys, Long Hunter State Park, TN
Heron, Long Hunter State Park, TN
Heron, Long Hunter State Park, TN
We visited Opry Mills (a couple of times), a massive shopping complex built where the Opryland Amusement Park used to be located. We wandered around the grounds of the Grand Ole Opry compound including the Opryland Hotel and it's internal botanical world. 

In front of the Grond Ole Opry House
We also went downtown in Nashville and saw some of the sights such as Printer's Alley, Broadway and the country music venues, the Tennessee State Museum, and attempted to see the state capitol building. It was closed for renovation and we couldn't even get on the grounds. Maybe they don't use the capitol building for anything significant, but it sure felt like Tennessee was trying to discourage its citizens from coming to their center of government. 

Tennessee State Capitol
The sign that greeted us at the Tennessee State Capitol
One of the real highlights was a drive out to the Radnor Lake State Natural Area where we took a 6.5 mile hike through the woods and around the lake, looking at the historical and natural sights of the area. Radnor Lake used to supply all the water needed by the L & N Railroad's Radnor Yards but since there are no longer steam engines needing huge amounts of water the lake is now a beautiful natural area. Thanks to cousin Barry for suggesting this side trip for us!

Deer in the Wood, Radnor Lake
Turtles Sunning on Logs at Radnor Lake
Radnor Lake
Turtles and Goose at Radnor Lake
One Sunday evening, we got together with cousin Clark Kirsch and his wife, Mary. The occasion was opening a bottle of plum wine bottled by my father, John Clark, not long before his death in 1989. The twenty-three or more years since the wine was bottled were kind and the wine was amazingly smooth, kind of like a fine cream sherry. Clark had provided the plums for the wine so we thought it appropriate to share the bottle with him and his lovely bride. Thanks, Clark and Mary, for the evening.
Clark Pouring a Glass of Kirsche Plum Wine
(We had John Clark with us in spirit and in picture ... bottom right)

After two weeks of playing tourist and visiting family, we headed out today, once more pointed south. And so tonight (Wednesday, Nov. 7) finds us at McFarlane Park in Florence, Alabama, on the Tennessee River. This is a nice little city park with a very reasonable rate for us “senior citizens” ($15 per night for a FULL hook-up site).

We'll be visiting some more of my cousins here and taking in some of the local sights, sites, and sounds before we move further south for the winter. Here in Florence tonight, it'll be pretty cold tonight, maybe approaching freezing, but we'll be cosy in our home on wheels (with its two furnaces and plenty of warm blankets).