3-05-2014 Manatee Morning and Snake Creek Afternoon

Blue Springs State Park Currently 56 degrees F High today 76

Blue Spring SP_023I have been thinking about what to write about yesterday for hours.  The day all just blends together in my mind and words seem useless. Yesterday was a experiential visual delight, so much so that my senses are almost overwhelmed with the magic of it all and I am at a complete loss for words.  I may just give up and resort to a string of photos to try to catch the magic.

We are at Blue Springs State Park, arrived Monday afternoon to sunny skies and a nice campsite.  Of course, the big surprise of the day was that we were right next to Sherry and David, with no clue that they were even still here, much less in the site next to us.  What a delight, especially since Sherry has so much knowledge to share about the local treats, including manatees, secret kayak places, and ice cream.

Blue Spring SP_037I was surprised as we arrived in Orange City at how big the area seemed to be, how developed.  I somehow imagined Blue Springs to be as remote and quiet as Alexander Springs was, tucked away in the Ocala National Forest.  Instead, Blue Springs is an oasis of state land in the midst of a well developed urban zone. Today I saw a sequence of aerial photographs that depicted the change in urbanism around the island of protected state land since the 70’s.  Such a gift that  this place was saved.

Blue Spring SP_029After settling in, we took Abby for a walk down to the boardwalk where dogs are allowed, a nice benefit at this park.  Although Abby can’t go on the upper boardwalk to the main spring, we can take here all the way out to the St John River where most of the manatees seems to hang out anyway. On our first walk that afternoon we saw several manatees hanging out, resting and moving quietly.

Yesterday morning, however, I walked through the early dawn light to the boardwalk again, and to my delight found 8 manatees playing near the spring.  As I watched they began moving slowly back toward the river, and I had the moments all to myself, with no sound but the gentle “whuff” of manatee breath now and then. As the morning progressed, a few more people showed up to visit the manatees, including Sherry, and we laughed at the serendipity of our chance camping choices and talked about manatees and kayaking.Blue Spring SP_046Blue Spring SP_056

Blue Spring SP_064Kayaking was a priority for us for the two days we had to spend here and Mo and I were on the river by 11, heading south into the St John toward the oxbow and then into the narrow channel of Snake Creek.  kayak snake creek

This is the point where words just completely fail.  Mo and I decided that this paddle was probably our premier paddle of all time, just beyond perfect.paddling into Snake Creek

The weather was perfect, the skies were perfect, a bit of cloudiness to dress things up and then brilliant sunshine to illuminate everything. paddling into Snake Creekpaddling into Snake CreekBlue Spring SP_046_01Blue Spring SP_032_01

Can you imagine being led into a wilderness by four great egrets, lifting in front of us, flying a bit farther into the channel, and landing.  Waiting till we got close, lifting again to fly further down the river.  They did this all the way to Dead Hontoon River, and then did the same thing all the way back to the St John River on our return trip.Blue Spring SP_047_01

We saw baby alligators and big daddy alligators, more turtles than I could possibly count, saw red shouldered hawks, and heard barred owls and saw wild turkeys on the shore.Blue Spring SP_058

Big Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons, green heron? night heron? cormorants, anhingas, cardinals, and what Carol Herr called “little brown birds”.  Blue Spring SP_073_01

The water was so still, just barely moving, and the forest so silent except for bird calls.  Not a single boat marred the perfection of our 3 hour paddle into that primordial place.Blue Spring SP_106

It felt exactly as if we were in some kind of prehistoric jungle place, a world only imagined and not even in the vocabulary of our gorgeous Pacific Northwest sojourns.  I feel as though I am in a foreign land here in Florida, a magic place full of green and warmth and water and birds. Blue Spring SP_112_01

I am simply out of words.

Blue Spring SP_111

3-02-2014 Alexander Springs with Alison

Current Location: Blue Springs State Park Overcast and 58 F High today 76F

DSCN6739When I managed the soil survey project in Sonora, California, I had a delightful young woman from Illinois “detail” into my project for two seasons.  With an emphasis on completing millions of unmapped acres out west, my agency would send folks from other parts of the country to help out with soil survey where they were needed most.  I was lucky enough to get Alison.  I don’t think I have ever known a more vibrant, strong, hard-working, constantly positive, cheery person ever, and that girl could dig a pit faster than any guy on the crew!  We all called her “Scoopy” for the way she handled those shovels

Soil sampling with my crew in Tuolumne County, Alison in the cowboy hat

DSCN0684We had great times together in the Sierra Nevada Foothills, and have remained good friends.  Alison took a promotion to Florida, and I have visited her a few times since that move.  Last year I came to her lovely new home just after her baby boy was born. On this trip I planned specifically to be somewhere near Eustis on a weekend so that we could get together again this year.  Alison’s parents are in Eustis for the winter, so they all decided to drive out to Alexander Springs for an afternoon.

Alison visits_016With warm sunny skies, after some snacks and drinks and visiting, we decided a walk to the springs and a swim was in order.  I wasn’t so sure I was warm enough to swim, even in the 72 degree water, but after watching that little baby laughing and playing in the gorgeous crystal clear pool I decided to join in as well.

I just wish there was some way to show in a photo what it felt like to swim out over the roiling water of the spring.  The pool is very deep, more than 30 feet or so, and deeper into the depths of the cave where I couldn’t see.  It is cobalt blue in the deepest part, and various shades of turquoise and pale blue along the edges where the underwater grasses don’t grow.

Alison visits_040Alison visits_047While Mo visited with Alison’s parents who watched the baby, Alison and I put on snorkel masks and swam across the white sands and dark green grasses to the spring. Then the breathtaking blues opened up below us.  I had no idea, just looking at the spring from the shoreline that it held all this complex rocky reef of blues and crystal water. Of course, since I was swimming, I have no photos to document what for me was an incredibly magic moment.

Floating over a spring emitting 70 million gallons a day of crystalline water is a surprise.  Alison and I both laughed afterward about how hard we were swimming and not getting anywhere.  It was a magnificent moment, and a thrilling end to our last day at Alexander Springs. It was also great that after sharing so many good memories of working together in California, Alison and I had a chance to experience this little bit of magic.

Alison visits_044There are 27 first magnitude fresh water springs in Florida, each of them completely unique, and I have only seen a few.  There are rivers and spring runs to keep a kayaker happy for a very long time, so many that we can’t begin to see them all this time around.  In spite of giving ourselves a month in Florida, we have only scratched the surface of the amazing network of Florida’s fresh water wonders.  Still, many of them are either dark and spooky, or the manatee are there so there is no swimming allowed, or they are completely commercialized and artificial. 

Alexander Springs was an afterthought, a piece of the travel puzzle that wasn’t planned.  I am so grateful for the serendipity that brought us to this beautiful gem of the Ocala National Forest.  Alison visits_030

Up next: Blue Springs State Park, Manatees, and Magic Kayaks, and Sherry and David are our neighbors.

3-02-2014 Florida Heaven

Current Location: Alexander Springs Ocala National Forest CG

Alexander Springs RunIt is a little after 9am, and the sun just emerged through the misty fog shrouded trees.  Alexander Springs campground is a forest service campground in the heart of the Ocala National Forest.  I love this forest.  There aren’t many places in the US where several varieties of pines and oaks are interspersed with palms and magnolias.  The trees are huge, many topping over 100 feet tall, and the understory is thick with vegetation of all sorts, dominated by the saw palmetto.

on the way north_068Mo and I walked the Timucuan Trail yesterday, before the fog lifted, and it felt like we were in some primordial space where dinosaurs could emerge at any moment. I guess alligators are as close to dinosaurs as we will get in this lifetime, but the fact that bears also roam these forests is another crazy juxtaposition.  Bears/Alligators = Palms/Pines.  It all seems just goofy to someone well versed in the habitats of the western forests of the US.  Guess that is why I love it, it feels so foreign and unique, and so incredibly lush and full of life.

I have a lot to write about, and the only way I can seem to do it is to step into the moment and write about the here and now.  Eventually this particular blog post will work its way backward to the events of the last few days as I slowly write about “now” and let “then” slip into my thoughts.  Gimme a break folks, I am on vacation, and the best vacations allow us to completely lose track of time.  I have done that very well, it seems.

on the way north_056Campsite:  This story is fun, actually.  I originally planned for us to spend three days at Patrick AFB, Merrit Island, but speaking with some new fellow military famcamp friends recently, we thought better of that plan.  (More on the new friends later, I don’t want to get sidetracked)

I picked a site here unseen, with a bit of difficulty, since we needed three days over a weekend, and most campgrounds were already booked.  Alexander Springs is a bit more remote, and there are no hookups here, and I imagine that contributes to the availability of sites. 

on the way north_058When we arrived on Friday night after a lovely day exploring Merrit Island NWR (more on that later, remember I don’t want to get sidetracked), the park was nearly full.  Driving through the campground we were tickled to see private shaded spaces that looked pretty nice.  Until we got to ours.  Space 65 didn’t look bad on the internet, but in reality it is in the center of a large group area and there were already several large families settling in for the weekend.  Before we even set up, there were small children running and screaming through our camp, climbing our lantern pole like monkeys, and crawling all over our picnic table in their shoes.  Hmmmm.

on the way north_063For the first time on this trip, I felt tears come up.  The campground was so lovely, how in the world did I manage to screw up this badly?  I told Mo, “Don’t set up yet”, and sought out a camp host.  Terry was a great guy, new at camp hosting for this park, and an employee of the concession that now runs the NF campgrounds in this area.  He was sympathetic, talked to the families with all the kids (there seemed to be at least 12), and said that while he didn’t have any encouraging news, he would talk with the campground manager to see if it would be possible for us to move.

on the way north_062A bit later, he came back to our site and said we could move to site 56, but would have to move again on Sunday, and that it could be possible that there would be no place for us to be on Monday.  He said for me to come to the gatehouse and talk to the manager.  The gatehouse was just closed, but they let me in.  I was nice as I could be, dripping sugar as I said, “Of course children should have camping space as much as retirees, but it IS just a bit much and we would be happy to take number 56 and then move”.  The manager, Phyllis, took a look at me, and then looked at her employees and said, “Put them in Andy’s site”.

on the way north_065What that meant was that we got to park for the entire three days in a camp host site with power and electric right at the back of the nicest bath house in the park.  Our price for this bit of serendipity is possibly being mistaken for camp hosts, in spite of the black plastic sack placed over the camp host sign.  The US flag still brings some folks our way.  The other funny part is that our parking area looks a bit like a pathway to the bathrooms, and we have a parade of various kinds of people coming through our site on the way to the bathroom.  Makes for some interesting conversations. 

on the way north_067With the little kids, Mo just says, “Please walk over there rather than going through our site”.  With some high school boys, she started talking with them, and they turned into the most polite creatures imaginable, saying “yes maam” and “no maam” and such.  Seems as though they were ROTC kids doing an orienteering weekend in the park.  They turned out to be really sweet kids, who still say hi, but walk around behind the rig rather than through our site to get to the bathroom.

Yesterday morning was Mo’s birthday, we we began the day with her favorite poached egg breakfast in the MoHo before exploring the area and hiking the short trail.  The springs were full of divers taking an instruction class, and the happy children were everywhere on the trails.  The Timucuan Trail boardwalk was quiet, however, and we met only one couple walking.

Checking out the little camp store was nice, and the new manager has added a great inventory of swim and snorkel gear, flotation devices, and reasonably priced snacks.  This is definitely a diving, swimming, snorkeling, and family park.  There is a canoe concession with a great supply of canoes, and a launch that costs $6 per boat.  However, another one of the park hosts, a nice guy who knows everything about the area, told us about the free walk in launch back on the highway on the south side of the bridge.

At first for whatever reason, I wasn’t all that anxious to get on the water.  Seems pretty crazy, since the main reason I came to Florida was to kayak the spring runs!  Somehow photos of the tangled vegetation and low water made me a bit nervous.  I have no idea why I felt this way, but thank goodness Mo didn’t take me up on my tentative comment, “Well, we don’t HAVE to go kayaking this afternoon.”free launch at the bridge

The launch just off the highway was perfect, with hard packed fine sand and only 50 feet or so from where we parked the Tracker.  Slipping into the water was a perfect moment, and I knew that finally I was in my version of Florida Heaven.  heading upstream in the Alexander Spring Run

The water at the bridge was crystal clear, although a dark tea color from staining by the organic matter in the riverbed.  We slipped into the gentle current, paddling upstream toward the spring and took our time going the 1.37 miles or so to the barrier between the spring run and the actual spring.  The sun was gorgeous, the plants were brilliant green with some trees beginning to leaf out.  A single kayaker and another canoe passed us going back downstream, but other than that, it was totally quiet.Alexander Springs Run

I marveled at how different this forest sounds in the breeze.  The palm fronds almost sound like waterfalls, and the splash of turtles dropping into the water is another different sound.  On our morning walk, the birds had been fairly quiet, but this afternoon they were in full song, and I heard a barred owl although we didn’t see him.Alexander Springs Run

When we first got on the water we were greeted by a very playful, and very curious otter, who swam right under my kayak, surfacing in front of me.  He was too fast for me, and by the time I dropped the paddle to pick up the camera he was already swimming away in front of the boat.  We saw a couple more on the lower edge of the run.otter wants to play with us

As we got closer to the spring, the water lost its tea color and turned a gorgeous shade of blue and then to no color at all.  Alexander Spring is another first magnitude spring, with more than 70 million gallons a day of fresh pure water pouring from its depths.

Spring Run kayak_025I loved seeing all the fish swimming beneath us and my favorite bird of the day was a happy little blue heron who wasn’t the least bit concerned about me being close by watching.Spring Run kayak_092

Just thought I would mention here that I decided to skip hauling the big lens on the river and only took the 17-70 for photos.  So this photo of my favorite little bird is without telephoto.  I was literally this close to him and didn’t disturb him in the least.Spring Run kayak_095

We also finally found a small gator, very well hidden in the brush along the bank.  The turtles were wonderful, enjoying the sun.  I guess it is time for me to get up on the different kinds of turtles found in these waters.  I know there are several varieties.Yup

Backtrack writing is still in the works, of course, but I am in the present moment, listening to birds, enjoying the sunshine, and thinking about preparing for a visit from Alison, one of my favorite soil scientist friends who lives nearby in Eustis.  Alison will be bringing her  baby boy Damen ( old time readers might remember the quilt I made for Damen) out to visit us here at the spring.  I can’t wait to see her again.Spring Run kayak_053

We did have a magnificent day, our last day in Key West, and an even more magnificent evening.  While camping at Sigsbee, one of the greatest delights of the place is the friendly atmosphere.  We got lucky our first day there, and met a lovely couple from Panama City, new to RVing, but accomplished sailors.  Judy refers to her RV as their “land yacht”.  The two of them also had new Trek bikes that were pretty darn sweet, and a couple of kayaks with sails. 

friends 001Judy sends down the sun Florida styleSomething about kayaks in your campsite makes for easy conversation, and on our last evening there, Tom and Judy invited us for wine and sunset.  I must say, being a Florida girl from Panama City gave Judy some big points on sunset viewing and she honored us with her conch blowing skills to accompany the setting sun.  Such a great moment.

I have a feeling these are friends that we will see again, whether in Panama City as they invited us, or in Rocky Point where we invited them to visit.  the take out

I can’t keep going back in my mind any more, and writing about our first night at Cracker Barrel in Fort Pierce, visiting the beach at Fort Pierce, our flat tire and AAA experience on a rainy night, and exploring the Merritt Island NWR will have to wait for another post.  Next time hopefully I can get caught up before more stuff happens.  You know how it is when you are traveling and having fun and I just decided the heck with it…I’m not going to try to keep everything in order, it is too much work!