Friday, February 29, 2008

Jacksonville-Baldwin Bike Trail

After leaving the Elderhostel, we biked 16 miles on the Jacksonville-Baldwin Trail which I had previously biked. The western trailhead parking lot was empty and had a big pile of window glass, so fearing a break-in, we drove to the eastern terminus and biked from there. The first few miles are long a nicely landscaped power tower corridor, but after the power lines leave, beautiful forest takes over. A hunting range can be heard to the north as you progress along the trail.

Official web page

Suwannee River Canoe, Hike, & Folklore Elderhostel

The host of this Elderhostel is the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park out of White Springs, Florida, along the banks of the Suwannee River. In keeping with Elderhostel's strong educational component requirement, we began with classes on folk foods, folk life, and folklore of the region. Then we were led on a forest hike in Big Shoals State Park to Florida's only class 3 rapids ...

... at Big Shoals, which was roiling from the 5 inches of recent rain.

The first 2 evenings, we had spectacular "home cooked" meals of pot roast and chicken pileau catered by local cooks Willonese Tillman-Adams and Ruby Shaw. The second evening, we were entertained by Les Hebeaux String Band (the hoboes) comprised of local musicians...

... and taught local square dances. What a wonderful evening!

A class in the process of gathering and distilling turpentine came next, followed by trips to the gift shop and museum.

Wednesday we enjoyed a performance by Florida folk song writer and singer Pete Gallagher, followed by an 8 mile paddle on the famous Suwannee River. Despite the temps in the 50s and the stiff wind with gusts over 35mph, it was a wonderful paddle, and included a picnic lunch at the park's gazebo.

In the evening, we were treated to another "home cooked" meal by Willonese and her sister Sonya (lasagna this time) followed by original music performed by park ranger Kelly Green and Pete Gallagher (below) and then more music from professional touring musicians Fred Gosbee and his wife Julia Lane (together known as Castlebay).

Thursday saw a ranger-led interpretive hike to Blue Hole Spring in Ichetucknee State Park, following which we paddled 4 miles down the magnificent Ichetucknee River. From the head springs, the river begins as a narrow 5 foot wide stream, and as you pass the other 7 springs, it broadens out, but the entire run is spectacular. We did it the end of February and had the river to ourselves, but we were warned that the summer months sees a horde of 2500 people daily in tubes and rafts floating the river.

Thursday night we were treated to a dinner at a local Baptist church -- BBQ chicken and the fixins', followed by a performance by local fiddler Lloyd Baldwin and then a history of White Springs by Barbara Beauchamp.

Friday we had a demonstration by Ranger Stan Christian on how to harvest "heart of palm" to make swamp cabbage, a local delicacy. Then we dispersed to attend various folk arts/crafts of the Suwannee Valley, and I watched Carl Dowell's flint knapping and then Roy Balthazard blacksmithing (below.)

Both were quite interesting and provided another view of life in this area over the last few centuries. The Elderhostel ended with a farewell luncheon called "Florida Cracker Fish Fry" featuring fried catfish, grilled grouper, baked beans, hush puppies, and grits -- and also some of Ranger Stan's swamp cabbage! What a wonderful ending to a truly memorable Elderhostel program. This is my 20th Elderhostel, and this group of people and the staff bonded like few other programs have. The group photo is below:


More photos available at my web gallery.

Chuck's other Active Outdoor Elderhostel programs (with photos)

Small world after all!

As we were finishing lunch, I noticed 2 bikers enter and start eating the remains of our lunch. It seems they had just arrived at the park to camp and since the sign said "Nelly Bly's Kitchen" they thought it was a restaurant open to the public. Since there was extra food, Ruby invited them to eat. I then realized it was Dottie and Bill, whom I had met on a biking Elderhostel in Arizona last year, and we sat down and reminisced and got caught up. It was a wonderful reunion and a great end to a spectacular week.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Big Shoals Public Lands biking

We were disappointed that the heavy rains yesterday prohibited our return to the Ocala Mountain Bike Trails, but today we managed to get in 11 miles (95 minutes) on the trails in Big Shoals outside of White Springs, Florida. First we warmed up on the 3.4 mile paved trail, a lovely ride through the pine forest.

Then we ventured out onto the old (closed) forest roads, some of which still had water from the rains of the last 2 days. The section of forest to the right have been ravaged by the southern pine beetle, and timber operations to remove the infected trees has made the area extraordinarily unattractive, but the proceeds from the sales will be used to restore the areas.

Then we got onto the Palmetto Trail which is open to biking and which travels alongside the Suwannee River for 1.5 miles of twisty, turning up-and-down trail -- a great ride!

At Big Shoals Rapids, we had to turn around as no bikes are allowed on the hiking trail, and the bike trail is closed there due to logging, but returning on this fun segment was absolutely no problem. The rapids were really roiling from the recent rains as seen below.

Big Shoals website

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Sierra Club "Naturalist Kayaking" Outing

The famous explorer and naturalist, William Bartram, was to Florida and its rivers what Lewis and Clark were to the Missouri River in the Northwest, as he paddled Florida from 1773 to 1778. We followed in his paddle strokes as we kayaked first the Upper and Lower sections of the Wekiva River, seen below...

.. enjoying the abundant wildlife exemplified below by the large alligator, one of dozens we observed, as well as by the hundreds of birds along the banks and in the sky.

Next we paddled the Big Econlockhatchee River, a twisting, turning obstacle course with much deadfall in the water. A group in front of us experienced many capsized boats, but we fared far better with only one. This river ran behind our base lodge at Big Oaks Ranch which has been honored by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as a "Green Lodging" facility.

Inclement weather chased us off the local rivers on day 4, so we traveled to the coast to visit the Merritt Island National Wildlife Sanctuary near Titusville and were amazed at the number and variety of species in residence. Below is an Anhinga, and more photos are available on my web photo gallery.

A bonfire helped the ranch dispose of unwanted deadfall, and our leader Greg dutifully protected the surrounding area with hoses.

Our final day began at Blue Springs State Park watching the manatees, and then we paddled the St. Johns River to Hontoon Island State Park where we hiked.

We paddled 36 miles on our four days, had delicious meals, great conversations, much instruction in flora and fauna of the area, as well as history and folklore of the state. In short, it was yet another wonderful Sierra Club Outing run by Greg of Adventures in Florida.

Kneeling: Greg, our leader

Front row (l to r): Debbie, Christine, Mary, Allie
Back row: Joe, Paul, Chuck, Ellen, CJ
Not pictured: Gigi and Don
Photo by Duane, assistant guide

Chuck's other Sierra Club Outings (with photos)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Kayaking ...

... With a Sierra Club outing on several Florida rivers. Photos and
info will be posted next weekend, so check back!

Sent from my iPhone

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Little Econlockhatchee Bike Trail

Orlando is blessed with numerous bike trails, and today we biked 14+ miles on the Little Econ Trail which follows its namesake river through a number of parks and along a greenbelt area.cThe Econ Trail is located one mile north of State Road 50 on Dean Road and runs along the Little Econlockhatchee River. Nearly 5 miles long, the trail begins at Jay Blanchard Park and extends to Goldenrod Road. This unique trail offers riverside recreation such as fishing, canoeing and picnicking.

Though I framed these photos to exclude people, the trail and parks were quite crowded with folks and many children on this glorious Sunday afternoon.

The Little Econ River and its freshwater swamps provide an ideal habitat for a wide array of reptiles, amphibians and birds. Catch sight of some amazing wildlife while hiking the trail or paddling the river in a canoe. Birds, like Osprey and Red-Shouldered Hawks, as well as turtles and alligators may be seen while using this trail. And smaller, 4-winged friends can be found in the butterfly garden, which is also located along the trail.

We report to our kayaking Sierra Club Outing in a few hours, but wanted one last ride before we went there, and this trail was perfect. After biking a number of Florida's longer trails through magnificent dense forest, it was a refreshing change of pace to see people and parks.

Orange County's Official site

Saturday, February 16, 2008

West Orange Trail

Today we headed west through Winter Garden and Oakland to the western trailhead for the West Orange Trail just off Florida 50, , a rail-to-trail on the former Orange Belt line built in 1866. Signs indicating distances to other trailheads are abundant, as are rest benches, mile markers, and even water cooler jugs with ice water! Even bike shops are located in many of the trail parking areas (called "stations").

The trail goes down the center of Winter Garden's downtown, right in the path of the old rail line. We were told that the downtown had been in poor repair and had few remaining businesses until the trail was developed and run through the area. Now it bustles with activity.

The trail crosses many roads, runs through sub-divisions, and often has large trees along the trail. It is much different from the long trails we've done the last 2 weeks, which ran through beautiful forests. Both types of trails are interesting and the contrast shows off both Florida's environment and its communities.

The trail runs 19 paved miles and is 14 feet wide. Info and map can be found here.

Greg and Gator eat steak

Ellen and I took Greg and Gator to Charley's Steak House in Orlando, the 2007 winner of "America's Top 10 Steakhouses." Gator was a whirling dervish during our 90 minute wait for our table...

... entertaining us and tiring us out at the same time. After finally getting seated and getting our steaks (about 9pm)...

... Gator devoured his steak shish-ka-bob and promptly fell asleep as his rubber band wound down. He was cold and needed a pillow, so Ellen made double use of her fleece jacket.

While it is cute, it also made us a bit jealous, because we were all very tired by then!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Van Fleet Trail

The General James Van Fleet Trail is another of Florida's long distance (29 miles) paved rails-to-trails, and we found it by accident as we drove from the Elderhostel to Orlando today. So we stopped and biked 23 miles on another beautiful Florida spring day. The first few miles of the trail at the north end runs through another unit of the Withlacoochee State Forest, yet another wildlife refuge, though we only saw a vulture and a number of tortoises, but lots of beautiful forest and wetlands. It was 9 miles before we hit the first road crossing!

Rest stop benches appear regularly and mileage is well marked on the pavement. In its entire 29 mile length, the trail only makes one bend, and being an old rail-to-trail bed, it is practically flat.

Another wonderful Florida trail to head for next visit! Here's the state's info on the trail.

Canoeing 3 Florida Rivers Elderhostel...

... out of "UU In The Pines" in Brooksville, Florida. We had a number of speakers, all of whom were excellent. Monday's sessions included the ecology and water of central Florida, info on the Nature Coast and efforts to preserve it, and, with the participants giving rapt attention as seen here... Judi Carter, a licensed raptor rehabilitator introduced her 2 friends, Bee Bop, a Southeastern Kestral...

...and Cocoa Puffs, the Barred Owl.

Tuesday we paddled 8 miles on the South Withlacoochee River, a beautiful day and a magnificent paddle through the Withlacoochee State Forest and a wildlife refuge...

... where we saw many birds and even a number of alligators...

That evening we learned about the whooping crane relocation project, both non-migratory where they raise birds from eggs in a fixed location, and the migratory program, where they lead cranes from Wisconsin to Florida with ultra-light planes.

Wednesday was cooler and rained on us a few times, but since the forecast several days earlier had predicted storm cells with tornadoes, we felt we had gotten off pretty lucky. We paddled 11 miles, some against fierce headwinds, down the Hillsborough River, certainly one of the finest paddling venues I've ever encountered. The scenery was awesome, as much of the paddle was through water management property.

The twisty, turning river with much deadfall to go over or under made us stay alert to conditions, but we were constantly distracted by the hundreds of birds and dozens of gators we observed. Anhinga, Osprey, Great While Egrets, White Ibis, Great Blue Heron, vultures, Roseatte Spoonbills, and too many more to list were all in abundance. Marvelous day despite the conditions!

Our canoe guide extraordinaire, Ken Kramer, spoke to us that evening of the paddling resources available to Florida paddlers, and related many anecdotes from his 4 decades of paddling in Florida.

Thursday had more rain but that didn't spoil our 8 mile paddle down Weeki Watchee River, starting at the springs. The crystal clear water the first several miles was amazing to us after paddling the blackwater rivers...

... and the dozen or so manatees that visited us downriver made the day a wonderful success!

Thursday night our speaker was from the state fish and wildlife commission and spoke of their efforts, especially at Chinsegut Wildlife Area.

Friday we had one final speaker before we departed -- Margaret Longhill entertained us with folk songs by local Florida artists singing of Florida rivers and environmental concerns. A great conclusion to this fine Elderhostel week.

More photos are available in my photo gallery.

Chuck's other active outdoor Elderhostel programs (with photos)

Monday, February 11, 2008

Suncoast Trail

Today we had the afternoon free, so we drove to the nearby Suncoast Trail which follows the western side of the Suncoast Parkway (toll road) and is paved, and we biked 16 miles. Since it is not a rail-to-trail, it is not flat, and though they graded the tollway so it is fairly level, the bike trail follows the contours of the Brooksville Ridge in this area, one of Florida's highest sections at 140 feet above sea level. Of course, this is Florida so it isn't that challenging a pedal! I assumed that since the trail followed the toll road, that would be the predominant feature along the trail -- and it was -- but it was nicely landscaped in many places and had trees lining much of the western side of the trail. Below shows the tollway to the left...

... and this photo shows trees lining both sides of the trail.

Bridges or traffic lights take bikes/pedestrians safely across the bigger cross roads. Rest benches with canopies appear at regular intervals and trailhead parking areas are beautiful, with washrooms and picnic tables and landscaping. The prettiest segment is adjacent to the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park. This section crosses various rivers and creeks, including the Anclote and Pithlachascotee, and provides views of beautiful natural communities.

Trail map here

Azaleas in bloom here already!

Biking around Brooksville

Sunday we biked 25 miles on the Withlacoochee Trail before reporting to our canoeing Elderhostel in Brooksville. Today we have a morning class on the
Ecology of west central Florida. We have free time this afternoon, so
we're going to bike 20 or so miles on the nearby Suncoast Trail. We
have no Internet access here, so I'll update this entry with photos
next weekend from our motel in Orlando.

Sent from my iPhone

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Biking Florida's Withlacoochee State Trail

Sunday we biked 25 miles on the southern end of the Withlacoochee State Trail, the longest paved trail in Florida at 46 miles, running south from Gulf Junction Trailhead to Trilby. We did the southern section, since it was right near our motel. A large trailhead lot is available just off Route 50 east of Brooksville about 10 miles (and east of I-75 about 1.5 miles) at Croom-Rital Road.  I have done the northern section a few years back. The trail is 12 feet wide and in good repair.

This southern section runs along the river in places and much of the trail goes through the Withlachoochee State Forest as seen below. A mountain bike loop is available in the Groom area near where I-75 crosses the trail. Rest areas are available at regular intervals and trail access areas have washrooms and picnic tables. Since it is a rail-to-trail, it is basically flat.

A map is available here.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail

Today we biked 20 miles on the Pinellas Trail in west central Florida. It was a cloudy, 69 degree day, which was perfect for biking.

Running 34 paved miles from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs, the Pinellas Trail connects numerous county parks, communities, and coastal areas. It follows an abandoned CSX railroad right-of-way and has numerous access points with parking (see website listed below for info.) The photo below shows the trail through Tarpon Springs as it nears its northern terminus by the Anclote River.

A short detour to the sponge docks in Tarpon Springs will reward you with a fine meal at one of the many Greek Restaurants in the area, as we did. Sponge diving began in 1905 when a Greek immigrant began the practice, and today this area is still famous for its sponges, its Greek Community, and its cuisine.

Much of the trail has a wide segment for both directions of bike travel and a narrower segment for walkers/joggers. In-line skaters are also welcome to use the trail. Some road crossings have viaducts or bridges to allow safe uninterrupted travel to users. Other road crossings are protected by either traffic signals or four-way stop signs.

An interesting stop is to view the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary just south of Tarpon Springs. Its cages face the trail about 20 feet from the trail in a copse of pine trees on the west side of the trail.

A high overpass takes riders over Highway 19 in Ozona, giving good views of Smith Bayou.

For more info and downloadable trail maps, go to Guide to the Pinellas Trail