2-20 to 2-21- 2014 Midway Campground Big Cypress Preserve

Current: Midway Campground at 5am 71 degrees and some dramatic moonlit clouds overhead

Shark Valley_121After a couple of days at Midway, it is amazing how disconnected I feel.  I woke up at 4 this morning worried.  Worried about the Everglades, worried about the gorgeous fresh water springs in Florida, worried about Sherry and David and where they are going to stay next winter.  Worried about…..whatever.  When I wake up like this, I know it is time to just give it up and get up and write.  But then, I feel as though I am in a bit of a vacuum, no connections, no phone again and no way to check in on the world or my kids or my friends.  I sometimes am appalled at my addiction to that connectivity, to simply reading email or blogs or a text to remind me of the real world and my place in it.  Such a lesson.

My worries about the Everglades are directly related to spending a day dipping into the northern part of the park. With only one day to spend, we decided to follow Sherry and David’s advice and see Shark Valley.  Here at Big Cypress there are some wonderful ranger led activities, but our timing was off.  After seeing all the alligators at the visitor center, both of us were a bit leery of doing our first “alligator” kayak on our own, and checked into the ranger led paddle down the Turner River. 

gators at Big Cypress Visitor CenterWe decided that we would attempt to get an extension for an additional night at Midway in order to participate in the Saturday paddle.  First thing in the morning we drove back to the Oasis Visitor Center to use their phone to see if there was an opening.  Reservations are required on this paddle, and we discovered that even with our own boat there was no room for us. Only ten paddlers are allowed on the river at one time.  The next step would have been to use the visitor center phone to try to snag one of the two remaining campsites at Midway for Saturday night.

This was important because in order to do the paddle, we would have to leave Abby with Jeremy in the rig for the day, and with the heat we would have to have the air conditioning going.  The days are about 86 F or so, but the rigs do heat up even with the windows open and the fan going.  No dry camping for us.  And no Abby on the rivers, since the alligators most often ignore people, but DO perk up a lot if there is a dog around.  Lesson learned.

Shark Valley_020It was all irrelevant anyway, since we couldn’t get a reservation.  So the next step was to figure out when the Shark Valley tram tour was scheduled, again the brochure said “reservations recommended”.  With all the people here in Florida this week, I could only imagine how full that trip could be.  We learned that the route was fifteen miles round trip if we chose to bike it on our own.

Arriving at the Shark Valley Visitor Center to a crowd of people loading up a tram, the thought of two hours with all those folks sounded less and less appealing.  When we went inside to check out the tram information, we were shocked to discover that the cost was $22 for adults and $18 for seniors!  For two hours on a tram???  In fact, we could bike the route at our leisure in that length of time if we didn’t get sidetracked too often.

blue heron 1Be sure to click on this one to make it larger and see the chicks!

Once again, we were so glad we had our bikes, and plenty of bug juice (some kind of nice lemongrass/citronella/geranium oil I got from the evil KOA), sunscreen, hats, and water.  I had to make the decision about which lens to carry on the bike since there was no way I could manage the whole setup, so I opted for the heavy telephoto.  Once again, I put on the rather hot but extremely handy Cotton Carrier to manage the camera.  Only problem was that the lens would bump into the handlebars whenever I tried to dismount.  I was about as graceful at that as I am getting out of a kayak.  NOT

What a gorgeous ride!  I can’t imagine that we considered going on the tram.  We could travel at our leisure, (except when there were a few groups of rude people who kept stopping and then passing us and then stopping again).  What is with these people that have on spandex on skinny bikes with helmets and don’t bother to warn of their passing?! They were some of those very fit old and snotty people that make me ….can I say what I am thinking here>>>>want to puke.

Anhinga chicks in the nest.Shark Valley_007

Once we got away from the rude bunch, the ride was magnificent.  Fifteen miles of perfectly smooth, perfectly level paved trail is pretty darn sweet when it is surrounded by the magnificent Everglades.  Midway through the ride is the Observation Tower, high above the landscape and the only way other than an airplane to grasp the vast expanse of the River of Grass.

I knew a bit about the problems with the Everglades, but the park brochure lines the whole thing out in one page of very graphic detail.  It is the story of water, our need for it, our abuse of it, our thoughtless expansion of agriculture with its chemicals and runoff, with dams to protect people from natural overflows.  There is no place on the planet, not one place, that is like the Everglades, and we very nearly killed it.  I woke at 4am wondering if it is at all possible to change the outcome, no matter how many people from all over the world are trying to do so.  My 4am thoughts were fairly pessimistic.

I took so many photos of the wood stork, my first sighting of this big crazy looking bird, before I knew about its status as an indicator species reflecting the health of the Glades.  I saw a lot of them yesterday, watching them swing their big bills through the mud to catch fish with a reflexive snap. 

Shark Valley_068After we visited the tower, we continued in the counter clockwise direction recommended by the park signs.  The snotty fit folks were complaining a lot about the wind and chose to return via the straight route rather than continue the loop.  Hooray for us!  The sun was hot and riding with the wind instead of against it was nice as well.  The second half of the loop is much more open, with fewer alligators and mangroves but a wider view of sawgrass prairie.

Shark Valley_094The wider expanse of sawgrass, and more open water with a few mudflats yielded a bright pink surprise.  I hollered at Mo, tried to get off the bike without banging the lens on the handlebars, and got another bazillion photos of the one lonely roseate spoonbill swinging his bill through the mud.  Another mile or so yielded another couple of spoonbills, so I saw three in all.  We were almost completely alone on our return trip since most folks opted to return the other direction.  I have no idea why.  The Observation Tower is at 7 miles, almost halfway around the trail, so why not ride the loop?  We spent just a little under three hours biking the loop.

On our way back to Midway, we opted to take the Loop road from milepost 40 on Highway 41, several miles of back paved road along the mangroves and then several more miles of dirt road through the heart of the bald cypress forest and through several “strands”. Strands are areas of deeper flowing water through the swamp. Blackwater Strand was as beautiful as we were told, and several photographers with monster lenses and big tripods were attempting to capture the magic.

Shark Valley_135Speaking of magic…and photography… on our way back to camp between the visitor center and the campground is the Clyde Butcher Gallery.  Stepping into the lobby of the gallery simply took my breath away.  Clyde Butcher has been hailed as the Ansel Adams of our time.  Long ago I studied B/W photography in college, and the Zone System of exposure developed by Adams was our bible.  It is all about exposure, not manipulation of the image after it is taken.  Of course, with modern day photo tools that are available, I have become lazy.  I shoot  and process, and my old gray scale cards are packed away in a keepsake box somewhere.

Shark Valley_134Looking at Clyde Butcher’s photos, I saw all the amazing detail in the darks and the lights that is the goal of truly good photography.  Just simply breathtaking.  His prints go for hundreds of dollars for a tiny one, and tens of thousands of dollars for the big ones.  I opted for a calendar for $20, and then discovered to my delight that the calendar was focused on the fresh water springs of Northern Florida.  Hence worrying about the springs.  The information in that calendar about the degradation of the gorgeous Florida springs is as disheartening as the brochure information about the Everglades.

Shark Valley_136Our campground at Midway is quite lovely, with grassy open sites and paved RV pads.  There is only electricity at the site, but a dump station and fresh water are available in the campground.  Until recently, this campground was first come first served, with folks lining up early in the morning for a spot.  Thanks to Sherry, I learned about the recent change to reservations required, and three weeks ago snagged our spot.  Good thing!  The campground had been full every night. 

Today we will begin the journey south toward Key West, crossing the long bridges with views of gorgeous turquoise water on our way to Sigsbee Field to camp.  I think this Military Family Camp in Key West is probably one of the greatest benefits of Mo’s military service. (She may disagree, of course, because I am sure she has other benefits that mean more to her, such as retirement and health care.  Ha!)  Without the ability to camp at Sigsbee Field, we wouldn’t be visiting the Keys, much less Key West.

Shark Valley_010We know that we will be dry camping at Sigsbee, with hookup sites in a rotational system that we won’t be there long enough to get.  We will be loading up on water and fuel to run the generator for the five days we will be camping there.  Usually the temperatures in Key West are moderated by the surrounding water, so we hope that it won’t be as hot as it has been here.

John and Carol gave us lots of tips about camping at Sigsbee, about where to go near the campground, and where to park in town for free since we do have Abby and can’t bike that far with her any more.  Next on our buying list is one of those baby carrier biking things that Mo can pull behind her bike so that Abby can go along.  She does so well with the leash and the bike, but only lasts for a short distance now.  Don’t want to wear the old girl out before her time.

Shark Valley_104On another note, reading comments from the last couple of blogs, folks are repeating a refrain, “Think I won’t come to Florida ever”.  Or to that effect.  Just gotta say here, saying “Florida” in one big catch all, is a bit like saying you didn’t like  the California desert so you won’t ever visit Mt Shasta.  Florida is a large state with all sorts of variety and there is a huge difference between north and south, east and west , Gulf and Atlantic.  Being from the west, I understand how different a state can be from one part to another. 

I suppose states in the midwest and east are probably fairly uniform throughout.  Not here.  I would probably not return to southern Florida, even though it is one of the more unique environmShark Valley_032ents in our country.

I might still return to northern Florida someday.  I love the springs and rivers even more than the beaches.  Remember all those wide open roads with no cars that we traveled earlier this month?  Remember all those state parks where we had no problem finding reservations? Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water when thinking of Florida because of what I have said about southern Florida.


2-19-2014 John and Carol share J.N.Ding Darling NWR with us

Currently: Midway Campground at Big Cypress Preserve  71F at six AM and no internet

sunrise at the KOAThe sunrise at our KOA campground was incredible, so I was definitely frustrated that I could find no open sky to actually photograph it!  Giant motorhomes were everywhere and even walking to the end of the campground yielded nothing. 

I had been in contact with Carol and John, of “Our Trip Around the Sun”, since last summer when I first knew when we would be near Sanibel Island.  They are NWR volunteers who suffered through a summer season at the J.N. Ding Darling NWR and as a result were considered and selected for the primo winter positions.  John does heavy maintenance and Carol is responsible for several administrative duties, in addition to giving talks about the alligators and crocodile in the park.

we meet Carol as she is giving her alligator talk at Ding DarlingWe knew Carol’s talk was at 11AM so planned our morning route with enough time to arrive at the park an hour early so that we could see the beautiful Visitor Center before meeting Carol.  Oops.  We knew there would be traffic, but didn’t plan for the congestion to be as bad as it was.  Even with our 8:30 AM departure, it was just a bit after 11 when we walked up to the kiosk where Carol was beginning her talk.

Still makes me smile to remember how warmly Carol greeted us, she seemed genuinely delighted to have us there.  Her talk was wonderful, and I learned more about the Florida alligators and the salt water loving croc that lives at Ding Darling.  Carol is deservedly proud to be working at this primo refuge and does a great job sharing her knowledge about it.

Having a park volunteer offer to do a tour is a genuine treat.  Carol was laughing because she knew I wanted to see spoonbills and she was all worried that she wouldn’t manage it until she saw the spoonbills on my blog that Judy found for me.  Phew…no more pressure!KOA and Ding_045

We didn’t see spoonbills, but Carol took us around the wildlife drive, knowing the right places to stop to see the birds.  Carol is a “real” birder, and when I only watched a bird for a few minutes and gave up on getting the proper pose she laughed and said, “Well, you aren’t a “real” birder yet, but you are close”.  Ha!

snowy egretWe laughed and talked and walked and shared bird sightings until the afternoon got a bit too warm and the birds all went under cover.  Carol invited us to do the same at her shady patio with drinks and snacks while we waited for John to get off work.  Before long, John joined us on the patio and we all decided that a trip to the beach was in order.

tri colored heronKOA and Ding_056There are several beaches on Sanibel and they picked the one they thought would have the best parking and the least crowding. The beach was lovely, with soft sand and gentle lapping waves, and enough space between chairs and umbrellas that we found a nice place to sit and walk and let Abby swim. KOA and Ding_070 KOA and Ding_076

Of course, the highlight of the day was something other than the refuge OR the birds OR the beach.  Insisting that only tourists tried to leave the island before dark, Carol invited us to what she called a “simple” dinner of roast pork loin, (which John cooked to perfection on the grill), roasted potatoes, and fresh salad with ice cream for dessert.  With some tasty wine and delightful conversation we lingered long past dark enjoying their company and hospitality.Great friends, great dinner, great day


02-18-2014 Schizophrenic Days, Meeting Sherry and David was great, the KOA and Florida Traffic not so much.

Currently: Midway Campground at Big Cypress Preserve  71F at six AM and no internet

Hard to get a photo from the rig of the skywayWe have been in this magical land of Florida heaven for so long now I almost forgot why people say they never want to come to Florida.  Some who have been here say they will never come back.  Others who have never been here have an image of the state that fits perfectly what we experienced on Tuesday morning when we left our idyllic waterfront campsite at Fort De Soto.

When drying to a crisp in western winters, I sometimes think it might be nice to have a bit of humidity.  In some ways it IS nice.  My feet are not cracking, my fingernails are not shredded, and my hair is…well..can you say fluffy?  Not sure that is a good thing, however, but it feels good.

up on the Sunshine SkywayWhat I forget about humidity, however, is the smell.  Whatever smells that are assaulting your senses are multiplied.  Both inside and outside the MoHo we are often overcome with funny smells.  I used an entire can of rug spray cleaner to freshen up the rig (Resolve spray works great for traveling!)  I also was extremely happy to get our bedding dried out.  I forgot about that clammy bedding thing that happens in high humidity. 

I am laughing to myself thinking of all those readers out west who think Florida travels are just insane, especially those who read my blog who are high and dry out boondocking somewhere in Arizona.  Still, it is worth it, maybe a bit like traveling in a third world country.  There are lots of strange smells and lots of weird traffic, but I wouldn’t miss doing it for the world.

Sarasota reflections on this building were funWe left Fort DeSoto around 8 on a gorgeous sunny morning.  Loved crossing the Sunshine Skyway, but it is surprising how unimpressive it seems when driving.  I could see most of Mullet Key below us, and could see a great kayaking spot on the eastern edge of the island that would have been perfect for bridge views.  Sorry Karen, we never made it over there for sunrise or sunset photos.  You have some breathtaking shots of that view that I could never duplicate.  We had no clouds around to make the skies interesting.

Neither of us had slept well the previous night because we were worried about Abby.  She was unable to urinate, and at more than 12 years old it could have been anything, even too much swimming in sea water, or so we thought.  I found a veterinarian on the internet, hoped the reviews were good, and chose one that was south of Bradenton, just beyond the main part of the city.

Sarasota iconic statue, from the MoHo in heavy trafficIt turned out to be a good choice.  At first, they said they had no openings, but when I explained our situation a bit more they suggested that we get a urine sample and wait, for what could be up to three or four hours.  Have you ever wondered how you get a urine sample from a female dog?  Nope, me either.  However, running around behind Abby with a little wheeled gizmo with a plastic tray was interesting.  It worked.  Abby didn’t have an infection, but she did have crystals, and possible kidney stones.  With antibiotics, an anti inflammatory, and some special food, we were happy that our four hour stop was fruitful.  At the moment, Abby seems fine, but will have to be checked again in a couple of weeks.

We continued south toward our surprise destination for the day.  I emailed Sherry, of “In the Direction of our Dreams”, letting her know that we were going to be passing by their camp at Oscar Sherer State Park and asked if a meeting was possible.  Sherry made several suggestions and with a final email we agreed to meet at the beach just a couple of miles from their campground and right off Highway 41 on our route.

visiting Sherry and DavidPerfect!  Except when Florida traffic settles in.  Shortly before we arrived at the beach location, I got a quick phone call from Sherry saying, “We are at the beach, all parking lots are full, and we can’t find a spot to park, much less a spot for the MoHo.”  We agreed to meet them at the picnic ground inside the state park instead.  They were amazed at the heavy traffic, the intense congestion at the beach, and said they had never seen it quite as bad on a weekday during mid day. 

The minute we turned east on the State Park road, we could have been in a different world, the “real” Florida.  The park was lovely, and we met at the picnic ground.  It is always amazing to meet people that have been correspondence friends for a long time and to find that they are exactly as you imagined. 

SherryIt was wonderful walking the nature trail and sharing stories of things we have in common.  They were great trail guides, telling us all about the park and their travels, and sharing some ideas about some of our planned future travel locations where they have spent a great deal of time.  If anyone knows Florida state parks well, it is Sherry.  With so much time in Florida, Sherry is especially frustrated with the difficulty in getting reservations even a year in advance.  She also repeatedly talked about how crowded things seem to be this year.  Maybe everyone came south because of the Polar Plunge events?

DavidA couple of hours flew by and we needed to get on down the road.  Abby seemed to be feeling better already after her walk and her meds so that was a relief. 

When I said that Fort DeSoto was our most expensive campground on the trip, I completely forgot about the Big Pine Island KOA.  I wanted to visit Sanibel Island and even with many months in advance, I could find no reservations that were anywhere nearby that were even close to a reasonable cost.  The one campground on Sanibel, Periwinkle, does not allow dogs in the campground.  We found a few others on the beach near Fort Myers, but they were more than $100 per night, and all the nearby state parks were fully booked back last summer when I tried to get a reservation.

Oscar Sherer State ParkI finally booked the KOA at $52 per night for the two nights we had to be there.  What isn’t shown in the fine print however, are all the Florida taxes and fees that boosted our stay to a whopping $62 per night.  Just plain crazy, and another reason why traveling in Florida might not be something to do very often.  Throw in all the tolls on roads and bridges, and the high cost of food and the taxes on everything, and it becomes a very expensive adventure.  Sheesh!

We arrived at the KOA just before sunset, in time to get set up with our full hookups before dark.  It was rather frightening, actually, to see the big rig bedroom slide just a very few feet from our back bedroom window.  I sort of freaked out at first as we drove down the long rows of sardine packed rigs.  It felt a bit like a refuge camp. Now THIS is what they mean when they talk about a Snowbird Park?  The minute we got hooked up, we turned on the air conditioning, closed up all the windows, put up all the shades and were snug and safe in our little home.1-JPEGS

Sleeping was interesting, though, because of course the window needed to be open and Mo was wakened at three am by sewer smells.  Who knows, it wasn’t ours, but there are so many people packed into such a small space I can’t imagine how the sewage is managed. Remember what I said about the smells?

peering between sites to see the sunriseI will say that our initial reaction to the park was moderated a bit before we left.  These kinds of parks do have their place.  Watching CNN the morning we left, there was an interesting story by Sanjay Gupta discussing loneliness in people and how it contributes to premature death even more than obesity. 

We noticed that most of the people in the park were more on the elderly side, and when the sun rose, people were out walking and talking to their neighbors and visiting everywhere.  I don’t imagine that very many of them are lonely. 

The park is now an Encore/1000 Trails park that has a KOA franchise.  About 100 residents are full time, and a couple hundred are seasonal, staying from 2 to 6 months every year. 

fishing pond at the KOA on Big Pine IslandThe park was filled with huge rigs, park models, and campers with everything in between.  Many folks had gardens and lots of yard art.  The laundry was large and nice and not ridiculously expensive.  The cable was OK, the Verizon signal had the best reception I have had on the entire trip.  The swimming pool was large and well kept, there are a couple of reflective ponds and I guess fishing is the biggest recreational activity, other than talking to your neighbor.

The park served its purpose for us and we did get to visit Sanibel. 

Next:  A long planned and eagerly anticipated visit with John and Carol of “Our Trip Around the Sun” at J.N. Ding Darling NWR