Saturday, February 28, 2009

Biking Florida's Nature Coast State Trail

Florida's "Nature Coast" is one of the least developed sections of Florida, encompassing the northernmost Gulf Coast area from above Clearwater to the Ochlockonee Bay and covers nine counties with over 980,000 acres. Native American sites, wildlife parks, antique shoppes, antebellum homes, and pioneer museums dot the coast from Pasco County to Ochlockonee Bay in Wakulla County. The area is home to west Indian manatee, Florida black bear, bald eagle, Florida sand hill crane, red cockaded woodpecker, least tern, gopher tortoise, Florida panther and many other mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

The Nature Coast State Trail runs for 32 paved miles in three spurs. We parked at the Fanning Springs trailhead right along Highway 19/27/89, just north of the intersection with highway 26. It is a gravel lot. This is the view from the parking lot...

If you bike to your left, you reach a spur after a mile or so. To the right, the trail follows close to Highway 26 to Trenton. If you take the left spur, you pass over the Suwannee River via an old railroad trestle, seen here. This spur is the most scenic.

If you bike across 19/27, you pedal 9 miles to Chiefland and the photo below summarizes the whole ride -- very nice trees lining both sides, blocking most views of the Old Fanning Road on the one side.

Like all of Florida's rail-trails, it is wide, paved, in good condition, and provides shaded rest benches every so often as seen below. After the strenuous and concentration-intense singletrack mountain biking in the Ocala National Forest last week, this easy, flat, paved trail provided a nice respite and recovery ride.

More info on the trail can be found here.

Kayaking Cedar Key, Florida

Monday we launched from the beach in front of our condo building and paddled the mile across to Atsena Otie Key, which was the original home of the town of Cedar Key until a hurricane demolished it in 1896. The residents then rebuilt on the next key towards the mainland, the present home of Cedar Key. A light wind created some 6 inch waves but we made it over easily and took a group photo on the pier...

This island, along with 12 neighboring keys, is now a wildlife refuge under the management of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Atsena Otie Key (then the town of Cedar Key) was the terminus for the famous “1000 mile walk to the gulf” by naturalist John Muir in 1867. We hiked the trail inland to the cemetery populated with gravestones dated prior to 1896. A sign honored a Timucuan Indian buried there, and carbon dating had determined his remains to be 4000 years old -- a true Native American!

After lunch on the beach, we paddled the 2 miles to the neighboring Seahorse Key, battling a 12 mph wind and 1 foot-plus high waves -- a tough paddle -- and after a 30 minute rest, we headed the 3 miles back to our start, now encountering 15 mph winds and 2 foot-plus waves -- strenuous and a bit scary for those of us who have never been in such conditions that far off shore. Our leader, Greg, of Adventures in Florida, tried to make us feel better by saying we could now claim we were “open-ocean intermediate kayakers.”

Day 2 found us on the road at 5:30 am to swim with the manatees in Dunnellon, Florida.

This was a highlight of the trip, and more details and photos can be found on my post here.

After a lunch along the river, we paddled yet another beautiful river, the Rainbow River, formed by the fourth largest spring in Florida, that runs nearly 6 miles from the Rainbow River State Park to the South Withlacoochee River in Dunnellon.

Wednesday we walked to the Cedar Key Cemetery and explored the gravestone dates and inscriptions. The earliest I found died in 1818. The sad part was all the children who died young. One stone ended with the words "Architect, Mentor, Jester." What nice words to summarize a man's life. After lunch we drove to Indian Shell Mound and launched into the estuaries of Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge and paddled 2.5 hours, to and around Deer Island, and back. Most was in backwaters, but a bit was in open ocean which was far more hospitable today than Monday with only mild rolling waves.

Then we hiked the Shell Mound which is the largest in Central Florida at 5 acres and is 28 feet above sea level -- composed of oyster shells, whelks, fish, turtle, deer bones, and household refuse -- and is over 6000 years in age and took 3500 years to accumulate to that size. It was used to escape storm surges and as a high point to catch Gulf breezes in hot weather.

We then waited on the fishing pier to observe another spectacular sunset over the Gulf of Mexico.

Thursday's padle was 11 miles down the Suwannee River from Fanning Springs State Park to Manatee Springs State Park -- a lovely river, especially when you leave the riverside homes of the towns behind -- and after the paddle we enjoyed walking the grounds of Manatee SP. On the drive back, we stopped at the Southern Cross Sea Farms for fresh clams and crab for supper.

Friday began with a visit to the Cedar Key Museum State Park and the restored 1920's era Saint Clair Whitman house. Cedar Key, on Florida's Gulf Coast, was a thriving port city and railroad connection during the 19th century. The museum contains exhibits that depict its colorful history and includes sea shells and Indian artifacts collected by Saint Clair Whitman, the founder of the first museum in Cedar Key. Our leader, Greg, also took the opportunity to pay homage to one of his naturalist heroes, the famous founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir, who here ended his 1867 "1000 Mile Walk to the Gulf" from Indiana...

We then paddled the backwater bayous of Cedar Key, navigating side channels and avoiding oyster bars and sand bars. Large flocks of Skimmers and Oyster Catchers entertained us on the paddle.

After a dinner of asada pork chops and stone crabs (Greg's version of "surf and turf") we drove back to the State Museum for an indoor presentation on telescopes and astronomy followed by a viewing through 6 scopes set up on the lawn. This remote area's clear skies, free from light pollution, makes it a favorite locale for astronomy buffs, and the generally cloudless sky cooperated making for astounding astronomical acuity.

To participate in a trip like this, visit Greg's website Adventures in Florida or check out his dozen or so annual Sierra Club Outings . Just search for Florida under kayak trips to see what's available.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Swimming with the manatees

Today we swam with the manatees with American Pro Diving Center in Dunnellon, Florida, a company with a reputation for promoting a strong environmental ethic. Manatees are an endangered and protected animal. They are mammals and prefer vegetation, often eating up to 15% of their body weight daily. They average 10 feet long and 1,000 pounds, which includes very little fat. An adult manatee spends as much as 8 hours a day eating and the remainder of the day resting or traveling. The are docile, slow, easy-going animals, with nicknames such as "gentle giant" and "sea cow," and they winter in coastal areas in Florida and southern Georgia. They especially prefer the slow-moving rivers and shallow coves and bays where there are warm springs (72 degree water) and lush sea grass beds, and our guide found a number of them in a spring in Kings Bay this morning. This is one of only a few places that permit you to get into the water with them and pet them as we did, wearing wet suits, snorkels, and face masks...

The have adorable faces...

...and sociable traits which leads them to approach you. Many even like your touch on their backs ( thick and wrinkled skin often with growths of algae on them). Several also rolled over and presented their stomachs for petting, and that skin is softer and finer. Forelimb flippers act like arms that allow them to maneuver, to "walk" in shallow water, and to scoop food to their flexible, grasping lips, while a powerful, flat tail propels their massive bodies across the water.

Since they are so trusting and friendly, they are easy targets for those out to do harm to them and also susceptible to propellers of motor craft. Many manatees have numerous scars from prop blades and death rates are high from speeding boats. Therefore, manatee zones are well marked and idle speeds enforced rigorously.

Able to hold their breath for up to 15 minutes while resting, manatees have huge lungs that exchange 98% of their contents in one breath. Their nostrils, located on top of their faces for easy breathing, have tight-fitting flaps that keep the water out when they're submerged. Gushes of strong exhalation at the water surface reveal the manatees' presence.

We swam with them for 75 minutes. The air temperature at 8am was only around 50 degrees, but the water in springs in 72 degrees and the dry suits kept us warm. This activity is one of the highlights of this trip!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Cedar Key, Florida

I've never posted about a town we've stayed in, but Cedar Key, Florida is worthy of special consideration. We arrived for a kayak trip based here, and we've fallen in love with this quaint community. The downtown of several blocks includes a marina, fishing pier, numerous restaurants with nautical themes and old time coastal architecture. Their fishing pier was destroyed by a hurricane 2 years ago and its replacement is all concrete, has room for hundreds of fishermen, and even has washrooms -- as well as lots of pelicans looking for castoffs from the fishermen.

The beach is white "sugar" sand and the views apparently endless...

...and our rental condo building, Park Place, is across the street from the city park and public beach (from which we're launching our kayaks today to paddle out to some other islands, or keys, one of which is seen in this photo on the far right in the distance...

Our unit is on the upper (third and fourth) floors and is a delightful loft home, owned by a private party as all the units are, and rented out by the association when the owners are not using the unit. The living room opens onto a covered deck overlooking the park and ocean...

...and the kitchen/dining area has everything needed to set up housekeeping...

The bedroom is 12' x 17' and an open loft overlooking the living area, but with privacy closures if others are sleeping on the sofa couch down below.

As in other coastal communities, the sunrises can be quite picturesque...

...and the sunsets drop-dead magnificent... breathtaking, it would seem, that the pelicans pause to enjoy the spectacle, too...

This condo is quite a nice upgrade from the tent we often sleep in on these paddle trips! We even entertain thoughts of purchasing one of the available condo units and making this a base of operations for future winter trips.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Cross Florida Greenway Trail

Since a 12 hour mountain bike race closed the Santos Trails in the Ocala National Forest where we biked yesterday, we drove over to the Cross Florida Greenway Trail a few miles away, which is connected by trails to the Santos trails. We parked at the Land Bridge Trailhead (see link above for trail maps and trailhead locations) lot and biked for nearly 2 hours, exploring the area. These are "blue" or intermediate difficulty trails, probably due to the numerous short sandy sections, a number of brief ups and downs, the multitude of very tight turns, and lots of narrow passages between trees, often only a few inches wider than your handlebars -- all of which added to the enjoyment of the outing. Here's Ellen heading back up after a downhill in the Canal Diggings section...

... and another uphill later...

As is obvious, the scenery is drop-dead gorgeous and despite it being Saturday, we had the place nearly to ourselves (perhaps due to the bike race just a few miles east on the trail.) A loud rustling we heard was this armadillo that scampered (he thinks) out of sight off the trail, though only his head is in the hole...

The Land Bridge -- so-named because it has land atop it to allow bike riders, hikers on the Florida Trail, equestrians, and wildlife to safely cross I-75 -- is seen here from the interstate. Notice the trees and bushes in place of traffic on top...

...and here's a look down from the bridge onto the expressway...

The Cross Florida Greenway Trail is named for conservationist Marjorie Harris Carr, Florida's first female wildlife technician, whose efforts led to creation Of Paynes Prairie Preserve and whose lengthy battle stopped the construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, a mammoth, multi-million dollar project to traverse central Florida that threatened the area's ecosystem.

For trailhead info and maps, see here.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Santos Trails again

We said goodbye to our new Elderhostel friends and drove to the Ocala Mountain Bike Association's trails in the Ocala National Forest. This was Ellen's 3rd ride here and my 8th, and we keep returning because it is the finest non-mountain mountain bike venue I have found.

As we reached the trail beginning, I noticed 2 fellows loading bikes on a car with Illinois plates, and also noticed the dealer's sticker said "Gurnee." I stopped and asked, "Did you come all the way from Illinois to bike these trails?" They chuckled and replied they had, to which I said, "So did I, neighbors," because they live only a dozen or so miles from my house. Small world, especially when the conversation revealed one was also a retired teacher and cross-country coach, like me. We had even coached opposing teams several times at large meets.

Ellen and I then enjoyed the magnificent forest scenery and perfect sunny 60 degree temperature for two hours as we pedaled trails like this...

Signs indicated there was a big race being held here tomorrow, thus preventing our planned return to bike here prior to driving to Gainesville. This also happened to us several weeks ago as we drove south into central Florida. So tomorrow we'll drive a bit west and pick up another section of the trail away from the race course.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

2009 Elderhostel - Explore Wild Florida by Canoe

Elderhostel's "Explore Wild Florida by Canoe" is hosted at Deerhaven Retreat and Conference Center within Florida's Ocala National Forest. I attended this Elderhostel program three years ago as reported here, and a testament to my esteem for the program is demonstrated by the fact that this is the only repeated program of my nearly two dozen Elderhostel trips.

The first day's paddle was an instructional class in basic canoeing -- a brief shake-down paddle on Deerhaven Lake located on the grounds. We also were treated to a narrated fauna tour on a pontoon boat on the St. John's River, replete with numerous wildlife sightings such as this Great Blue Heron.

The next day was Alexander Springs Run, a lovely 7+ mile paddle from the springs to take-out. The storms washed out the road to the take-out, so canoeing is next to none now which has allowed the river to fill with water-vegetation, making it a challenge to navigate far from the source spring. The photo below shows the mass of vegetation floating to the right of the canoes, and this was mild compared to farther down river.

Day 3 is normally on nearby Lake Norris beginning from the Boy Scout camp, a paddle through the Cypress Strand requiring paddlers to negotiate the edge of the lake and winding between cypress trees while enjoying the osprey nests in the trees above. Unfortunately, the strong winds created whitecaps on the lake, requiring "plan B" which was a paddle up the Silver River. Upriver means against the current, and we were also against a stiff wind most of the way, making for a good workout. It proved worth it because it was an extraordinarily magnificent river to paddle, and provided another highlight -- seeing the wild monkeys populating one section, supposedly leftovers from filming "Tarzan" here 70 years ago though actually they had been placed on an island at Silver Springs as a stimulus to get people to ride a "Jungle Cruise" boat ride. But Colonel Tooey the concessionaire didn't realize they were good swimmers and all escaped downriver, and I saw a number of their offspring when I kayaked the river and got this shot. Their numbers had reached a high of 1600 so the Ocala National Forest set up feeding stations with food augmented with birth control, and the numbers now are estimated around 400 monkeys.

The paddle back down the river was a real joy, with current and wind at our backs!

The final paddle was to be the famous serpentine Juniper Springs Run through lush wilderness. We saw a movie of the huge effort that was required to re-open this run following the three hurricanes from a few years back -- without the use of power tools since this is designated wilderness area. Unfortunately, thunderstorms again necessitated a change to plan B: paddling the St. Johns River, from which we quickly turned into some backwaters and then down the lovely and narrow Snake Creek seen below...

Each morning, Dave led the early risers on a daily brisk 7am exercise hike on forest trails, often through areas burned by the 2008 lightning fire that threatened Deerhaven Center and the neighboring Deerhaven Community, both of which were saved through the Herculean efforts of firefighters, staff, and residents.

Perhaps the animal most exemplary of Florida is the alligator, and here is one is one of many gators we saw this week...

More photos of our week of paddling can be found in my web gallery, along with other wildlife photos from Florida and elsewhere.

Elderhostel programs are required to have educational components and each night we had presentations -- the hydrology of Florida springs, the efforts of the Ocala National Forest to restore trails and waterways after the three hurricanes, and a video on efforts to revive the Wekiva River. A special treat was a presentation by one of our own Elderhostel participants, Bill Clark, on William Bartrum's life and his naturalist expeditions in this area. And the final night, another of our participants, Willie Staggs, played guitar, sang with his wife, Barbara, and led us in a sing-a-long. Here's the entire group on the final evening...

All in all, it was another wonderful Elderhostel experience, ably led by the coordinator, Brenda Dillon, and her husband, Bruce.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Political Correctness -- part 2

Due to the climate of political correctness now pervading America, Kentuckians, Tennesseeans, and West Virginians will no longer be referred to as "hillbillies" but rather as 

Furthermore, women can no longer be referred to as a "babe" or "chick" but as a "breasted-American." Similarly, they are not to be called "easy" but "horizontally accessible" and not said to have "been around" but "a previously enjoyed companion." And women do not "nag" but are "verbally repetitive" and are not "two-bit hookers" but "low cost providers."

And lest you declare me a chauvinistic pig, please recall that I did a companion piece first regarding men posted here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Trivia #1

1. When is the New Years Day Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, not held on January 1st?

When New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday. Tournament officials instituted a “Never on Sunday” policy in 1893 “to avoid frightening horses tethered outside local churches and thus interfering with worship services.”

2. What embarrassing goof cost jockey legend Bill Shoemaker a sure win in the 1957 Kentucky Derby?

Shoemaker, while leading the field on Gallant Man, mistook the 16th pole for the finish line and stood up to celebrate—allowing jockey Bill Hartack to pass and win by a nose aboard Iron Liege. Shoemaker won the Kentucky Derby four times.

3. How long—in inches—is the typical adult human spinal cord?

About 18 inches in men; an inch less in women.

4. In baseball score keeping, why is the letter K used to indicate a strikeout? Why not an S?

The S was needed to represent a sacrifice under the scorekeeping system devised in the mid-1800s by sportswriter Henry Chadwick. So he used the K, the last and most prominent letter in the word struck, as the symbol for a strikeout.

5. What flamboyant celebrity did funnyman Robin Williams claim made “Liberace look Amish”?

Pop singer Elton John. Williams made the remark in 2007 at John’s 60th birthday celebration in Madison Square Garden in New York City.

(from Page-A-Day Calendars)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Worthy Quotes #19

I think men who have a pierced ear are better prepared for marriage. They've experienced pain and bought jewelry.
--Rita Rudner

Those who can, do. Those who understand, teach.
-- unknown

Faith is believing what you know ain't so.
--Mark Twain

Love is a chemical reaction that makes you stupid.
--Pete Grisaffe

If you want to see what your friends and family think of you, die broke, and see who comes to your funeral.
--Gregory Nunn

Don't let grass grow on the path of friendship.
--Native American saying

True heroism is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.
--Arthur Ashe

At the age of eleven or thereabouts women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later seventies.
--P. G. Wodehouse

By perseverance the snail reached the ark.
-- Charles H. Spurgeon

I am a marvelous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man I keep his house.
--Zsa Zsa Gabor

Refrain from doing what you hate in others.
--Frank Lee Lloyd

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Transition day... as we left the Magic of Disney to begin our next adventure -- one on the water. But first we worshiped at Orlando Community Church, whose pastor, John Christensen, we met last year on my buddy, Greg's, canoe trip down Utah's Green River, described here. John sat with us in the congregation as his son, Josh, also an ordained minister, preached today, and we had a chance to talk before and after the service and also met his wife, Nancy.

Then we biked 17+ miles on the West Orange Trail out of Winter Garden, Florida, a trail we biked last year and blogged about here.

A short drive brought us to the Ocala National Forest for our canoe Elderhostel program, which I'll report on later in the week after its conclusion.

Lovin' Life Homecoming... Bill Gaither's current tour. Ellen surprised me at Christmas with tickets for the Orlando show, knowing we'd be there at that time. The Amway Arena is the home to the NBA Orlando Magic, and it is is a huge arena and had a large crowd...

Though we were seated far from the stage, the sight lines were good, the three huge screens allowed you to see faces and expressions close up, and the sound system was spectacular. The crowd participated often and vociferously, standing, cheering, joining in on songs, and waving the lights given out as we entered.

Bill began the show, singing a few songs and acting as emcee for the dozen or so soloists and groups. And after 3 hours and 15 minutes of non-stop Gospel favorites, interspersed with uproarious comedy, he declared it time for a 15 minute intermission! Another 1 hour and 15 minutes followed before the final number. Talk about getting your money's worth!

One of my favorite groups performed -- Ernie Haase and Signature Sound -- and their high-energy act had the house rocking and singing along...

Others included The Hoppers, The Collingsworths, Ivan Parker, Lynda Randle, The Gaither Vocal Band (which just won a Grammy Award for Best Southern, Country, Bluegrass Gospel Album, their eighth overall), Ben Speer, David Phelps, Russ Taff, Mark Lowry, Gordon Mote, Kevin Williams, and Janet Paschal seen below with Bill as she spoke of her bout with cancer...

During intermission and after the performance, the artists appeared at the tables where their CDs and DVDs were for sale, posing for photos and signing autographs. Here's Janet Paschal...

It was a delightful evening, one we will repeat when another chance arises to see a live Homecoming show. I have several DVDs of shows and watch the shows on TV every week, but nothing is as invigorating and stimulating as being at a concert. Each Gospel song is a concise, poignant sermonette conveying some important truth, and the music makes the words even more effective. Give it a try!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Disney World Hollywood Studios visit 2

Our 11th and final day at Disney World was a return to Hollywood Studios to revisit a few favorites and see the "Toy Story Midway Mania" attraction which was too busy the last time. We arrived shortly after the park opened and went directly to Toy Story only to find the wait was already 70 minutes. We got FastPasses but the scheduled return time was 6 hours hence, after we would be gone for a concert in Orlando tonight, so we got in line. Then they announced the ride was closed due to malfunction.

We went to a favorite of ours, "Twilight Zone Hotel of Terror," for our third ride, and managed to get this photo from one of the open doors at the top. The elevator car you ride in randomly rises and falls, but the descent is faster than than the acceleration of gravity (9.8 meters/second/second) because a cable pulls your elevator car down, which causes your body to jump up against the seat belt.

Next was the live musical performance "Beauty and the Beast" which recounts the plot of the movie in song, dance, and acting. The players were spectacular and the costumes brilliant-colored, making for an enjoyable performance. Here are the two main characters...

...and the prince after he is released from the "beast" curse.

We returned to see if Toy Story had been repaired and it was, so we waited the predicted 90 minutes, which actually extended to over 2 hours! The toy theme dominates the waiting line area and includes a talking Mr. Potato head...

This innovative, interactive ride conveys you in a car with both riders having a cannon-like gun that shoots blobs of imaginary paint at targets worth varying point totals. As the car delivers you to a succession of arcades, you compete with everyone else to score the highest total, and your own computer screen shows the results...

Ellen clobbered me in point total, but I had better accuracy. Still, we were nowhere near the highest point totals on record.

We also repeated the "Voyage of Little Mermaid," another live musical production augmented with dancing puppeteers and movie clips as well as rain falling from the ceiling twice to get you in the mood. The "Great Movie Ride" again took us "into" a variety of movies including "Mary Poppins," "Casablanca," "Wizard of Oz," and "Alien." The "Muppet 3-D Vision" was another favorite we repeated...

To see my other Disney World posts, click "Disney" in the sidebar to the right under "Labels."

Friday, February 13, 2009

Disney World - Epcot visit 3

Today was day 10 for us at Disney World and our 3rd adventure in Epcot. We chose to return so we could avail ourselves of second rides on our favorite attractions, including "The American Adventure." The several dozen audio-animatronics characters in the show depict formative events and persons in the development of our country, and the audio-animatronic "people" are far superior technology to the first such creations made by the Disney engineers decades ago. This "generation" is something like number 100 in a long line of improvements and are so lifelike you'd swear they were real.

We also caught the 15 minute choral presentation in the rotunda -- "Voices of Liberty" -- featuring 9 wonderful singers (who are actual people)...

We ran into Donald Duck in the Mexico pavilion...

The Disney theme this year is "Celebrate Today" as seen on this light post...

A second ride on "Spaceship Earth" was another favorite of ours, and the rde is personalized on a screen in front of your seat...

For the first time, we rode one of the Freindship boats across the lagoon...

Other repeats today included the film "Circle of Life," "Mission: Space" with Gary Sinese, and our favorite attraction, "Soarin'." We also had a "taste of Epcot" by sharing small meals from the pavilions of England, Germany, and Mexico. Tomorrow is our final day at Disney, so check back!

To see my other Disney posts, click "Disney" in the "labels" section in the sidebar to the right.