Friday, January 17, 2014

Our Plan from Here...

We're visiting a relative of Thayer's near Tampa, then we'll be heading north up the west coast of Florida and along the lower US on our way towards Texarkana, Arkansas.

 Look for an upcoming entry for details.

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Everglades

Southern Florida is where hard core northwesterners meet their match. Even though the temperatures are not high, only in the 70's and low 80's, the humidity makes it feel much hotter and very clammy. Sweating does nothing to cool you off, just makes you stickier. People must be able to acclimate to it because the folks who live here love it and wouldn't/couldn't live anywhere else. Go figure. That's evolution for you!

The Everglades are an amazing ecosystem, covering a huge area of Florida. Over time it has been reduced to 1/5 of its original size. The digging of canals to drain the waters, and the development of agricultural and residential areas have nearly destroyed the functioning of the massive wetlands. The yearly cycle of flooding and "drying down" has been reduced to a fraction of historic levels. For years, in an effort to control flooding, create farmable and buildable land, and reduce mosquitos, canals were built to drain away the "excess water". Turns out that it isn't excess water at all to the plants and animals that live in the broad shallow river that is the Everglades. The Everglades are one of a kind on our planet, they are the most studied ecosystem in the US.

Fortunately, efforts are underway to restore some of the waters to the Everglades. Whether these efforts will be in time or enough to save the wetlands remains to be seen. Many governmental agencies, conservation groups and community groups are working together to protect large areas of land that are important to the Everglades. They are building bridges to replace roadways that impede water flow, blocking old canals to redirect the water back to it's original course, and trying to educate people and businesses to improve the water quality of the water flowing into the system. It is vastly complex and costly but it gives me hope that this special place can be improved and protected. It is sad to think that it will never be what it once was. I guess that is true of any place that mankind touches for any length of time.
River of Grass with dormant cypress trees
Herons everywhere!
Most or all of the roads and paths in the park have been created by dredging a canal to build up the road or path, which results in a canal, large or small, running along the way. The park has tried to minimize this effect but the pools of water have become habitat for many animals and visitors have access to the park. Needs must be balanced. 
Sunset at Royal Palms
One of MANY gators!

We explored several areas of the park, the "River of Grass" overlook at Pa-Hay-Okee, the Royal Palms boardwalk where we saw our first, very exciting alligator, and the Shark Valley bike loop and overlook. The tall overlooks are important because the elevation change in the park, from high to low amounts to a whopping 14 feet. That doesn't seem like much but it is the only thing that makes half the state of Florida a river, not a swamp. It flows very slowly but it is always moving. At one point we drove over Rock Reef Pass, the signage proudly announcing the elevation of 3 ft. From the overlooks you can see what looks like grasslands stretching to the horizon, dotted with groves of trees. These grasslands, in fact, have their roots in 6-12 inches of water that flows steadily to the south. The groups of trees are called hammocks and they are slightly higher than the river, only a few inches, just enough for trees and shrubs to grow. Each additional inch in elevation supports a new level of plants and animals. There are birds in every direction, herons, egrets, storks, anhinga, cormorants and so many more. What is sad is that the populations of wading birds are 1/10 of their former populations. I kept trying to imagine what 10 times more than what I was seeing would look like. 
This was something new!
Baby gators
Foundation of the food chain-algae!
So cute! Can we keep him?
The pathway for our bike ride in the Shark Valley was actually reclaimed from an old oil exploration road from long ago. Our excitement and awe of the gators was diminished fairly quickly after passing about 100 trailside lounging gators in the 7 miles to the lookout tower. They ranged from about 4-12ft and they were just everywhere, even blocking the pathways. We also saw 6 baby crocodiles. The birds were fantastic, wading through the shallows, perched in trees, swimming underwater and riding the thermals. At the overlook there was a large pond filled with large fish, gar, a favorite food for the lounging gators. We could see at least a dozen gators dozing in the shadows from the overlook. There were turtles swimming about as well. On the way back we saw gators by the dozen and hundreds of birds.
Crocodile smiles!
My fish!
As we drove westward out of the NP we entered Big Cypress National Preserve, another invaluable wetland and important ecosystem of South Florida. It is different from the Everglades in that it is dominated by forests of Cypress trees. Water flows through the forest similarly to the Everglades but the trees tower over the clear waters. We went to the visitors center but didn't have time or energy for a walk into the forest. From the boardwalk at the center we were treated to views of our first manatee. These wonderful mammals are like watching slow motion water ballet. They just drift along, turning, spinning and surfacing quietly once in a while. They like coastal areas and warm water, salt or fresh. In the winter when the sea is cooler they move up into the rivers and fresh water inlets for some warmth. They really like the output waters from electric plants but we haven't visited one of those yet. By waiting patiently we saw several more manatees feeding on grasses in the river.

Big Cypress is also home to the endangered Florida Panther. This big cat would probably be extinct by now without the efforts of people to introduce some new genes into the pool years ago. The native cats had gotten so scarce that inbreeding was affecting the babies. They brought in some Texas panthers for a few years to add some genetic variety and they have been doing better ever since. The foreign animals were removed and sent back to Texas after donating their genes. 
View from Shark Valley overlook
On the hunt...
Unfortunately a National Preserve does not get the same protections as a National Park and Big Cypress is open to more uses. Folks can fish, hunt, there are some homes and fishing camps, and the activity that we disapprove of is the use of swamp buggies that can go out and thrash around with big tires and engines. I imagine that there are only certain areas where they can do this but it seems out of line with preserving and protecting habitat and wildlife. As we drove through the area Thayer got tired of my nearly continuous cry of "Croc!" whenever I saw one or three lounging on the shore of the canal. I did stop after a while.
Shark Valley bike trail
Make way for cormorants!
We stayed with some very nice boondockers for 2 nights outside of Naples. Linda and Paul are completely refurbishing an old Airstream trailer and hope to be traveling for real when Paul retires in a couple of years. We had fun with their little grandsons, Tucker and Wyatt, aged 4 and 2. They brought back many memories of having my two little boys. Their father, Matt, is into "mud trucks" which needs no further description than this photo. Somewhere in the community is a vast mud pit where they meet with friends to compete to see who can go the furthest and get the muddiest. When they get stuck they haul each other out and do it again! We sure don't have this kind of fun in Bellevue.
Matt's mud truck!
Wyatt (2) and Tucker (4)
The bugs in Southern Florida have been very excited and happy to have me visit. They told all their friends and relatives to meet and greet me. It takes every ounce of will power I have to resist scratching my feet right off the ends of my legs! I've included this picture just for those of you who imagine our trip as a total lark with everything always being awesome and fantastic. There is some suffering involved and I won't regret leaving these little Florida vampires behind!
PS--found out several days later that I had gotten into a pile of fire ants! They are really miserable bites but I think I'm on the upswing with them, not quite so itchy today.
Itchy, itchy, itchy!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Florida Keys

We continued into Hollywood, FL. Most of the south eastern coast of Florida is continuous city, hugging the coast wherever the ground is solid enough to build on. We were visiting some of Thayer's close paragliding friends, Sven and Natasha, whom he hadn't seen for some time, and they enjoyed rehashing good 'ol days from the Lake Chelan fly-ins. Natasha brought out old photos and had many stories to tell. They showed us around the boardwalk/tourist areas, and other great places for people watching. We spent two nights with them, a slight change in plan since our friends from North Dakota got stuck in the blizzard and had to cancel their trip. As usual, it worked out for the best. We had a nice visit with Sven and Natasha and didn't have to brave the wilds of Miami trying to track down Carla and Larry. We were very sorry not to see them however. There is a chance we will meet up in the desert somewhere.

Next up was the Florida Keys! It was driving rain and pleasantly cool as we headed south on to the Keys.
Bridge to the Keys
Key West mansion
One of the boondockers from Virginia Beach put us in touch with their parent, John. He lives at MP 21, that is, 21 miles north of Key West. He is a 90 year old retired Navy nuclear submarine captain. In spare time he has written at least 3 books on the history of the Keys and many articles for magazines and the local newspapers. Still very sharp, John continues to write and volunteer time on the Ingham, a 230 ft. decommissioned USCG ship in Key West. He was also a sailor for many of his civilian years and he cruised the Carribbean and Floridian waterways extensively with his wife. We stayed with him a total of 3 nights, treating him with my "homecooked" meals and we had many lively conversations about sailing, the Navy, submarines and the history of the Keys. Our visits with him were really the highpoint of our Keys stay.
Turning point!
One of many fine schooners for hire.

Two of our days were spent in Key West, tourist mecca of the Keys. The first day we rode our bikes around the town and along the harbor. There are many beautiful old homes with wonderful tropical yards and landscaping. There were also a multitude of little funky shacks and bungalows each having lots of character. In the harbor we discovered an armada of large sailing vessels, trimarans, schooners and such, most of which take tourists out for tours of various lengths of time and providing different activities. Most were of the sunset cruise variety, serving lots of booze and blaring loud music. Key West is really for a younger crowd than we comfortably fit into anymore. If you don't drink much or enjoy partying all night the evening activities are limited.

Having bicycles was definitely the way to go, the downtown streets are narrow and crowded. There are city blocks lined with touristy shops which, after six months on the road, are not very interesting. The one and only one I shopped in was the "$5 for Everything" store. Those of you who best know me can easily imagine my favorite kind of shopping!

Although there for three days, we only spent one night actually in Key West, nervously parking in a residential area that turned out to be just fine. They don't welcome RVs all that much in Key West and have many restrictions on campers or vehicles over 20'. But that didn't stop us from having a good time  and we had a nice dinner at a little Cuban restaurant, a local hangout that John recommended.
...and then the hurricane hit the coast....
The Rialta in a few years.

Key Westian
Key West Arts Center
The next day we met John at the Ingham and after he gave us the introduction to the boat we did a self guided tour. It certainly is a fascinating floating museum and a National Historic Landmark. In 1985, the Ingham became the oldest active duty and most decorated Naval ship serving the U.S. She was decommissioned in 1988 after 52 years of service, having cruised the Bering Sea, escorted 31 convoys across the North Atlantic in WWII, sank a U-Boat, led convoys to the Mediterranean and Africa, served in the Vietnam War, rescuing survivors of sunken boats & ships, and finally served as the command ship in the 7th Fleet in the Pacific. She was involved in a lot of actions and earned many citations and awards.
The mighty Ingham
From the bow
The most interesting thing about the ship is that she has been preserved exactly as she was the day she was decommissioned. The Navy simply walked away, leaving all of the original equipment on board. For Thayer it was a walk down Memory Lane. He recognized much of the same equipment he had used during his years in the Navy. The Ingham is now operated by a struggling non-profit and her future is uncertain. It would be a sad thing to send this museum to the scrap yard, but the city of Key West would like to put a marina in its place on the waterfront. Not many cities can accommodate a ship of this size and it simply cannot generate the funds it needs to stay afloat.

After touring the Ingham we had tickets for the Danger!, a 50 foot sailing schooner that was going to take 13 of us out to the Marine Preserve for some sailing, snorkeling and kayaking. Nick, the captain, and Vic and Joe, the crewmen, were very entertaining and knowledgable. As we sailed out to the preserve Joe gave us an abbreviated account of the history of the Key, from Native Americans to modern times. He was funny and engaging and told some great stories of the Keys (which we were able to flesh out a little more with our own reading of John's books the following day). This Marine Preserve is not on the reef side of the Keys, it is on the gulf side which has a very different ecology. It is shallow and warm with beds of sea grasses in the shallowest areas and sponge beds in the slightly deeper areas. We were able to see quite a few fish, eels, lots of sponges of various shapes and sizes, though it was nothing at all like reef snorkeling. They provided good equipment, wetsuits, fins and snorkel gear that worked.

After snorkeling for a while we launched the kayaks and went for a paddle around a mangrove island. We learned about the 3 kinds of mangroves, how they survive in salt water and the wildlife that depends upon them. The "islands" don't really have any land, just masses of mangrove tree roots. They are the basis for a host of living things, fish, turtles, and gobs of birds. We saw osprey, cormorants, egrets, gulls, and many others that I don't remember or were not identified. The mangroves have clever ways of excreting salt and getting enough air for their roots while standing in 2-3 ft. of saltwater. Afterwards, the crew served snacks, soft drinks, wine and beer the whole afternoon accompanied by their lively banter and cheerful conversations. Being the "quiet" boat in a flotilla of noisy sunset cruise party boats, we cruised until the sun finally sank in a colorful display. It was a very enjoyable afternoon and evening on the schooner.
Captain Nick receiving some sailing tips
Much cooler after snorkeling!

Aboard the Danger!

Sunset in Key West

Fearless crew: Joe, Vic, Nick

We stayed at John's that night and planned to leave the next morning but when he invited us to stay for another night we jumped at the chance to have a beach day. Contrary to my preconceived ideas about the Keys, there are very few sandy beaches and even fewer that are open and free to the public. The mangroves dominate the shorelines and the beaches are far and in between. We borrowed several of John's books on the Keys and found Veteran's Beach about 20 miles up the road. It is a small but lovely beach and we had a perfect day and a shady spot to enjoy it. The waters are very shallow so it isn't really a swimming beach but I wandered around finding some fish and several large sea slugs of the non-decoratvie variety. The pelicans were actively diving for fish out beyond the shallows.
Booking and beaching at Veteran's Beach
John, our wonderful host

I read John's book on the history of the Keys while Thayer focused on the sea story collection. The Keys have a colorful history, many cycles of boom and bust, good ideas, bad ideas, greed, shipwrecks, pirates, smugglers & indians, naval battles, struggles for power and control, and people who busted their asses to survive and prosper in a difficult land. With very few fresh water sources but an endless supply of biting flies & bugs, the challenges for any enterprise were significant. Anybody who had a good idea, worked to get it off the ground and began to make a go of it was invariably wiped off the map by a hurricane. Most folks in the early shipping days made their living off of the shipwrecks that occurred very frequently on the eastern and southern reefs, for a time earning them the highest per-capita income in the US. It was a culture of greed and corruption at all levels. Channel markers, current tables and GPS technology has virtually eliminated shipwrecks so tourism is the main source of income for pirates these days.
Turn around point!
Petrified coral at a quarry

After one more night with John we said our fond goodbyes. It seems that we have reached the turning point in our trip – we are almost 6 months into it, now at the farthest distance from Seattle (3,581 miles taking the short-cuts or 12,011 miles the route we came), and have begun heading back in a west and northerly direction. We hope this second half will be as wonderful as the first half has been!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Back to the Coast

Sheila is a great story teller
Our uneventful trip across North Carolina found our first destination to be the little town of Brevard. That evening we had a good time listening to some true-blue, authentic Blue Ridge story tellin' and music by Michael Reno Harrell and Sheila Kay Adams. They related whimsical stories from their past about Christmas that were both very funny and touching. Shelia is a National Heritage Fellowship award winner and Michael has won the Recording Industry Association of America Platinum award. But sitting with them and listening to their tales was almost like casually being in a country kitchen or sitting around a fire – trying to discern just where the facts were buried beneath the BS er, ...fiction. It was very entertaining!

Andrew & me
The following morning we drove the short distance to Laurel Park (near Hendersonville) to see my ol' dear college sailing friend Andrew. While there, over the next 6 days, we enjoyed many wonderful family Christmas traditions with him, his wife Teresa and daughter Michelle. I also enjoyed the attending the rehearsal and performance of their church's youth Christmas program. Andrew volunteers as the driver for a bunch of lively kids who probably wouldn't attend church without the ride. The rehearsal was a little rough with shepherds dozing, angels wiggling and little lambs racing around, but they pulled it together for the big performance and did a great job telling the story of the birth of Jesus.

I probably won't get the rest of the events in order but we did a variety of other fine and festive things, including visiting Carl Sandburg's home. Nowadays, the Nat. Park Service continues to breed and raise the goats that Mrs. Sandburg became famous for. She took a very scientific approach, concentrating on three types of goats, and was mainly interested in improving milk production and quality – eventually  breeding goats that produced record quantities of milk. The estate now covers about 200 acres and is still very beautiful.

Eating was a main theme at Andrew's
While at Andrew's, we replaced the Rialta's house batteries, which sounds easy but really wasn't. The old batteries were getting a bit tired and we had purchased some new ones a few days earlier. The replacement batteries are a just teeny bit longer than the old one and Thayer had to do some delicate "modifications" with a BIG hammer and hacksaw to get them in. It is so nice to have such skilled technical staff traveling along! Now we can play on our computers and run our lights for much, much longer – important when we're confined inside on dark, rainy days & nights.

We did all the good Christmas gift stuff and, of course, the eating part. The Thompsons' follow a Danish tradition of making lots of cookies, appetizers, munchies and candies and then browsing all day long on Christmas, thus eliminating the thankless job of preparing a giant meal. But we also did that too on the following day when we were invited over to their friend Charlene's house. We had a wonderful meal followed by exchanging and receiving gifts. I was also happy to learn that the Thompsons enjoy reading Patrick McManus as much as the Sykes family, and we had some spirited reading and laughter that only comes with good old Pat and his gang of frightened wieners.

The Biltmore really is built more!
Edible bears
Andrew and Teresa took us out one day to show us the sights around Asheville, most notably a peek at the Rockefeller estate, the very grand Biltmore, but with a $45 entry fee we limited ourselves to the visitor information center and the video. We continued on to the Grove Park Inn, a massive hotel built of large, rough hewn granite boulders. We wandered the lobbies, admiring fantastical and prize winning gingerbread houses (and Pandas) on display. Entries to the annual contest and constructed by people of all ages, I don't know how anyone could single out the "best" one as there were so many stunning creations.

Near the inn are some historic buildings that showcase the crafts of the city. Ashville was once known for their fine woolen fabrics and had a booming weaving industry. Several of the building were stores carrying beautiful hand crafted glass art, pottery, fabric and paper arts, and amazing fine crafted wooden furniture. We thoroughly enjoyed our time with Andrew and his family and were a bit sorry to be moving on.

Congaree swamp
Traveling eastward again, we stopped at Congaree N.P., learning about the amazing swampland ecosystem of the Congaree River that covers a beautiful 26,000  acres. It was nearly destroyed by early logging, but the swampland was too difficult to manage and had so it had a better chance for preservation. It is the largest area of old growth bottomland hardwoods in the US and there are at least 80 species of trees, some towering 170 above the swamp. The seasonal flooding is the heartbeat of this unique park, bringing nutrients to the plants and animals of the swamp.

Farther  down the road, a short visit to the Charles Pinckney N.H.S., homestead of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence;  and to Fort Moultrie, which gave us a look at yet another fort. I think we're becoming experts on early America forts. Just ask me a question!

Grits are good for you!
It is hard to pick out a favorite
We rode our bikes around historic Charleston, NC, and found easy parking on the southern waterfront. It is a lovely city just drenched with beautiful homes, colorful streets and interesting historical sites. Spending some time in the crafts market, I especially enjoyed watching men and women weaving beautiful baskets. The Hominy Cafe was recommended by a gentleman we'd met earlier, so we enjoyed a good southern cooked meal. The next day we found a local swimming pool and took full advantage of a long swim and a longer shower for only $2, ...a darn good deal by our standards!

We then "quietly" spent our New Years in Savannah, GA. The town had a street blocked off with some live music and lots of fun people to watch. We both mingled with the Georgian partygoers 'till about 10:30, and then retreated to a dark Walmart for a very quiet night.

My first attempt at Gumbo
Inspired by a book I just finished that included a gumbo recipe, I began gathering the ingredients and advice necessary to give it a try. I even had to ask a woman in the store to identify okra for me because I had no idea what it looked like. She gave me some good advice and during the next day, which was rainy and dreary, I gave it my best shot. I included shrimp and sausage for the meat, and lots of vegetables. The spices I'd bought previously in Charleston gave it a delightful spicy taste. Not bad for a beginner, and voted 'two-thumbs-up' by everyone who tasted it!

Cape Canaveral
Next up as we worked our way down into Florida was Canaveral National Seashore. Sadly, it was raining sideways during our brief visit. I was happy to learn that they'd had a banner year for the number of sea turtles nesting in the park, almost double the usual number of nests were laid. That adds up to almost 8000 nests! I explored around an old Native American shell midden, which is a large hill of shells shucked from 1000's of years of oyster feasts. The midden has created a lovely little ecosystem that provides habitat for all kinds of plants and animals. I also discovered a tree just loaded with large, just-out-of-reach, oranges! Dang!

The next day we continued through the Merritt Island N.W.R., observing thousands of birds and a whole lot of wetlands. These parks were created after the land was gobbled up by NASA for Cape Canaveral and then given back as a wildlife refuge. They've done good things with the land, making a multitude of environments supporting an incredible amount of wildlife. There are so many opportunities to see birds wintering over here in Florida that I may just skip over the details.

We also had nice visits with a shirt tail relative (Cindy Sykes' cousin), and Mark and Beverly, a Stuart, FL. boondocker couple. Mark is an auto tech teacher at a high school and is both very accommodating AND a good cook! We are still hitting 100% with the boondocker crowd, and have yet to met one we haven't hit it off with instantly. A pretty good average, we think!