Traveling through Florida’s panhandle in late December and early January had me slowing down to enjoy what some call “Old Florida”. I would call it the laid back, regular people Florida; far away from the glitzy high rises, Maserati-filled streets and gated communities farther south. The panhandle is where people live on the water, gathering at the end of the street with friends and family, beers in hand to watch the sun set; then drive their golf carts back to homes built on stilts rising 20 feet in the air.
I stayed at Ft. Pickens campground which is located on Santa Rosa Island across the bay from Pensacola. It is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The low lying barrier island was chosen to be part of the coastal fortification system to protect the navy yard at Pensacola Bay. Construction was completed in 1834, and at the time was the largest brick structure on the Gulf of Mexico. Its cannons, numbering over 200, were placed so that they could fire in all directions. The remnants of Ft. Pickens dot the landscape and provide an interesting destination for tourists.
While walking on the beach one day, I had a surprise opportunity to watch the Blue Angels practice their formations as they flew overhead breaking the sound barrier.
Watching them fly brought back childhood memories of yearly air shows that we attended as a family when my Dad was in the Air Force. Lost in memories of those bygone days, I suddenly had an olfactory memory, and in an instant returned to the inside of a KC-135 tanker plane that my Dad flew during his time as a pilot. The tang of metal covered in sweat, the earthy smell of canvas parachute packs, and the oily smell of the instrument panel blended together to form what I knew was my Dad’s “workplace”. Some people have fond childhood memories of fishing holes or swimming pools. My memories are of climbing around the inside of a 100,000 pound stratotanker with a 131 foot wingspan- a hulking turbo prop with a maximum speed of 600 mph that supplied fuel to supersonic jets in mid-air. My childhood vocabulary included words like squadron, navigator, boom operator, sortie, scramble and alert (“My Dad is on alert, so we have to have Thanksgiving dinner at the barracks”).
As I was looking up the information about the KC-135, I came to a deep understanding of who my father was. He flew the kind of plane that matched his personality- My Dad was a measured man, thoughtful in his actions and never one to panic. He was a team player that could be relied upon to follow procedure, support his team and be calm in an emergency. He wasn’t the daredevil fighter pilot; he was the guy driving the bus with a ton of fuel on board.
I moved on from Ft. Pickens to Ochlackonee River State Park, home of the White Squirrels that were brought to Florida by Spanish explorers. The park was beautiful with lots of hiking trails, but when it rained all day on Christmas, I had to abandon any outdoor activities as my gazebo tent ended up in 3 inches of standing water. I watched from inside my rig as Gemini’s toys floated gently on the “lake” surrounding the campsite-Ugh!
Rounding the bend on the coastline, I stopped at a great little city park that sits right on the water in the town of Horseshoe Bay. I nosed Flo into site #8 and carefully blocked my front wheels so I didn’t end up in the bay in the middle of the night. I was treated to the most glorious sunset as I sat in my rig looking out the big front window. The winter wind had driven me indoors, but the warm glow filled the room as the sun dipped into the bay.
The city park became quite busy the next day with fishermen launching boats, RV’s driving through the dump station, and locals driving around in golf carts piled high with kids and barking dogs. I talked to a female biologist who was taking surveys of the fishermen returning with their day’s catch. I learned 2 new interesting facts: #1-Fish have a calcium deposit in their brains that biologists use to determine their age. Neat, Huh? #2- Fun Fact- Frigate birds never land on the water, but spend their entire lives in the air except when nesting.
I spent the New Year boondocking in the horse camp at Tidewater Trailhead which is part of the Goethe State Forest. There is an extensive trail system carved into the dense tropical forest, dominated by longleaf pine trees that tower above the thick undergrowth of low growing palms, scattered old growth cypress, water oak, swamp azalea, and other native viburnums that receive constant moisture from water seepage and poor drainage conditions. This creates what is called a Hydric Hammock which are found in north and central Florida.
On New Years Eve, I was enjoying the quiet morning when the silence was broken by a flurry of activity. Suddenly, groups of people with horses, trailers and open carriages began to gather in the open field. Within 45 minutes, 5 carriages were hitched to beautiful draft horses. There were also single riders on horseback, friends that showed up laden with picnic baskets and coolers full of beer. Gemini barked at them all!
As they drove off one-by-one and disappeared into the mouth of the trail to be swallowed up by the thick undergrowth, I heard snippets of conversations about the weather and the need to solder the hitch on the trailer. Then, it was silent again.
Later that afternoon, Gemini and I ware walking down the gravel road and turned in to the trailhead that would take us to another part of the park. We were startled by a woman coming out of the underbrush carrying a flat-edged shovel in one hand and a large animal bone in the other. She was probably early 40’s, dressed in a black tank top and shorts. She had short blond hair with bright pink hair dye on the tips. She was well-muscled and had a prosthetic left lower leg. She said that she was collecting bones to make artwork, “I’m weird that way.”
We talked about rescue dogs-she had a pitbull mix in her car, and then, I steered the conversation to my fear about running into bears on the trail. “Oh, Yeah, there are bears out here. Do you have any protection?”
I pointed to my dog who was lounging comfortably on the ground with his paws crossed, looking bored with our conversation. She began to describe the variety of wild beasts that might accost us including wild pigs that will slash you with their tusks, packs of coyotes that will boldly take down your dog, and snakes, lots of snakes!!
“Do you have a machete?” she asked.
“No. I have a tree saw that I bought the other day.” I squeaked.
She advised me to make a lot of noise as I walked, to be aware of my surroundings, and definitely don’t walk the trails at dusk (when the pigs hunt) or after dark (when the coyotes hunt). I said goodbye, and she said Good Luck, and we headed down the trail. I took my ear buds out and turned the volume up on the podcast and started scanning the underbrush.
I don’t know if the “This American Life” podcast playing at full volume scared away any bears, wild pigs, coyotes, or snakes, but the walk was uneventful. Huge sigh of relief!
New Year’s Day found me at the Florida Manatee Tours in Crystal River, Florida. I booked a snorkeling tour for the next morning and settled in to their parking area for the evening- free camping under a 50 foot Oak tree covered in Spanish Moss.
Crystal River is at the heart of the Nature Coast on the Florida Gulf about 100 miles north of Tampa. The city is situated around Kings Bay, which has over 50 fresh water springs that feed the bay and keep it at a constant 72 degrees year round, which is very attractive to the 400 manatees who migrate to warmer water as the Gulf cools in the winter. It is also the only place in the U.S. that people can legally interact with this protected species.
The 3 hour tour started at 11 am on a very cloudy and windy day. For 25 minutes the boat driver, Vince, maneuvered the boat down the Crystal River and into Kings Bay while grumbling under his breath about how hard it was to control a flat bottom boat in the wind. The guide, Adrian, reminded us of the rules of interaction with the manatees-NO Contact. Passive observation only! Vince and Adrian prattled away in easy conversation between themselves trying to engage a group of strangers. They answered questions about the manatees and told stories about their own encounters. Vince was an affable guy in his 30’s who handled the boat expertly, cracked bad jokes to a dull audience, and has tongue stud, and 6 kids at home. It’s amazing what you learn about people when they are trying to fill awkward silences with noise.
We motored into a small cove surrounded by houses, docks and sea walls and anchored near the entrance to the natural spring. We donned our masks and snorkels and slipped down the ladder into the 75 degree water–Brrrr!
Even though the water was only 4 ft deep, we were told to swim or float and not walk on the bottom, so as not to stir up the sand and cloud the water. All of a sudden, out of the murky water came a huge shape bumping into us and pushing its’ face into our masks. Then it began to suck on the life jacket of the woman next to me and body block me out of the way-so much for no contact, passive observation only.
When it swam away, Adrian explained that it was a baby and was very hungry. We found the mother grazing on sea grass 10 feet away. She was unperturbed that her baby was frolicking with strangers. I was concerned that the mother’s instinct would kick in and she would become aggressive, but the guide assured us that, “No. She won’t be aggressive. She thinks of us as babysitters. She needs to eat 100 pounds of sea grass every day to produce enough milk for her baby,” she explained, “She appreciates the distraction!”
After a few more minutes of Baby Manatee antics, mother and baby settled on the bottom and began nursing. We watched the mother come up once for air and then settle back on the bottom. Adrian suggested that we move on and let her nurse her baby in peace. Amazing!!
We made one more stop in a large cove that was filled with human activity. Vince had to carefully pick his way through other tour boats, kayaks, see-through canoes, water bicycles, and swimmers all looking for the elusive manatees. We had to swim the last 50 yards to where a manatee was rumored to be “resting”. Nope. Not there. Then a shout, “It’s over here!” The group turned and like fish in a school swam to the dock where the lone “sea cow” rested in about 8 ft of water under a dock. It was about 10 feet long and covered in barnacles. Manatees have the ability to control the volume of air in their lungs which allows them to maintain a horizontal position (necessary for feeding and resting), and remain submerged for up to 20 minutes.
As we rode back to the marina, bumping along on the choppy water and drinking hot chocolate, I was lost in thought about the marvelous creatures that I had the opportunity to interact with-so ugly in in physical features but, oh, so gentle and beautiful in soul.
Gemini and the cats and I are going to be hanging out at my sister’s house in Bonita Springs for awhile. She has some projects for me, and I hope to get some maintenance done on Flo. Here are some pictures of Gemini hanging out at my sister’s house.