Thursday, March 31, 2011

Silver Springs -- Nature's Theme Park

I was staying at the Days Inn across the street from the entrance to Silver Springs and was curious what the park was. A few years back, I had been on a kayak program that had paddled up the Silver River so I'd seen the springs and the wonderful  landscaping and the smiling people on shore, but didn't know anything about this attraction. I checked their website which exclaimed: "There are plenty of rides and attractions that will make you laugh, fill you with wonder, and provide a glimpse into what life was like here more than 10,000 years ago," so I decided to spend my free afternoon there.

It is designed as a place for families and I was solo, but I still enjoyed the afternoon, especially the scenery from the three different glass-bottom boat rides, though only the boat that leaves the main dock concentrates on the actual springs and the underwater views. Silver Springs is a magnitude 1 spring that pumps out 550 million gallons of sparkling-clear water every day, enough to supply the entire city of New York.  Silver Springs’ popularity flourished after Hullam Jones invented the glass bottom boat here in 1878.  By installing a glass viewing box on the flat bottom of a dugout canoe, he created a window to this underwater world teeming with fish, turtles, crustaceans, fossils, and several sunken vessels. Of course the boats are improved now as seen here (and all are propelled by electric motors)...

The "Lost River Voyage" cruise leaves from a dock built next to the shack (photo below)  used by Lloyd Bridges in his "Sea Hunt" television series which filmed over 100 episodes here from 1958-1961. In fact, dozens of movies, television episodes, documentaries, and commercials have been filmed here including six of the original Johnny Weissmuller "Tarzan" movies, two James Bond films, and the TV show "I Spy." (All are listed by year on their website.)

Colonel Tooey, a concessionaire who operated the Jungle Cruise boat ride (now Fort King Cruise), established a troop of wild rhesus monkeys on an island in the Silver River to lend authenticity to his jungle cruise, but he didn't do his homework because the rhesus monkeys were excellent swimmers and they quickly escaped forming wild troops along the river, 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.

This cruise used to feature exotic animals but they were sold off some years back and now the shore has historical replicas showing Silver Springs’ history including an archaeological dig site, a Seminole Indian village, the 1830s Fort King Army stockade, a late 1880s riverboat dock and train depot, and an authentic Florida pioneer “Cracker” homestead.

Owners of this park over the years included American Broadcasting Company which added 3,900 acres of surrounding land, but in 1993 it was sold to the state of Florida and since then a string of private companies have been managing the park under a long-term lease agreement.

In 1972 Silver Springs was declared a registered Natural Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior and the National Park Service and in 1973 Silver Springs began a Wildlife Rehabilitation Program designed to rescue and rehabilitate animals injured in the wild. The park abuts the Ocala National Forest's 383,000 acres.

In addition to the magnificent scenery of the river and the beautiful landscaping of Silver Springs’  botanical gardens that  feature more than 138 varieties of native and exotic plants, my favorite aspect was the animal collection, including a number of seldom seen critters such as this East African Crowned Crane...

...and  the rare White Alligator (they have two of them) among the rarest reptiles in the world. Known as the "Swamp Ghost", these eerie and fascinating creatures are a natural phenomenon devoid of color pigment yet protected from the sun.  Legend has it that those who gaze into the pink eyes of the white alligator will be blessed with good luck for the coming year and prosperity will surely follow.

One of my favorites was seen from the jeep-tram "Safari" ride.  She is a Belted Galloway Cow named "Oreo" for obvious reasons...

Big Gator Lagoon is a one-acre cypress swamp habitat featuring more than three dozen of Florida’s largest alligators, most 11 to 13 feet in length! Guests observe these large reptiles from the safety of an elevated boardwalk and many photographs were being snapped of them during my visit!

The "World of Bears" features a number of black bears as well as three Kodiak brown bears, earth's largest land carnivore...

Other critters included llamas, rheas, emus, marmosets, giraffes, numerous types of crocodiles, turtles and tortoises,  cougars,  Florida panthers, flamingos, and many more I can't recall.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Biking Ocala National Forest

Ocala National Forest is the site of the Santos Trailhead, the finest (and my second favorite) grouping of trails of the 120+ I've biked across the country. I biked here yesterday and today for about the tenth time, despite yesterday's drizzle and today's wet surface. This photo below demonstrates some of the beauty of this special area which has been created and is maintained by the Ocala Mountain Bike Association. There must be several dozen trails and 50 miles of trails here and they are still at it, with another mile of new trail developed already in 2011!

But today I was near and ventured into the Vortex area, the place where expert (extreme) riders come to challenge and further develop their biking skills. To get INTO the area, you must prove (qualify) by biking up and over the fence line on this narrow bridge...

I talked with the two young guys who were exiting this area. They are Floridians but this was their first time here at Santos and they were beaming with joy at having discovered it!  When they asked me if I was planning to ride in Vortex I quickly responded with NO!  "I'm 65 and too old for extreme biking and I no longer trust my balance and stamina, but I am going to go in there to check it out!" And this is what I discovered: The area is the floor of a former quarry site where numerous huge moguls in rapid succession have been constructed... well as several jumps from the quarry rim 20 or more feet above down to hill slopes built on the floor.  The tree line above the orange soil has the takeoff (dropoff?) ramp and a search on YouTube will locate some scary footage of riders tackling these jumps...

There are also some expert singletrack trails that take these stalwart bikers up and down the hillsides of the quarry, prominent with rocks and roots and ruts.

Later in my ride I again ran into the two young guys, and as we passed they yelled to me, "We hope we're still mountain biking when we reach 65!" High praise indeed, even if I wimped out and didn't ride any of the obstacles or trails in the Vortex!

Direction to trailheads and downloads of trail maps are available on the OMBA website listed above.

My webpage for the Santos Area.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Biking My Way South, Part 2

Sandwiched around a volunteer project in SC and then back-to-back Road Scholar/Elderhostel programs in SC and FL, I've managed to get over 200 miles on various trails, including 17 miles in Ft. Clinch State Park in GA...

...15 miles on Cumberland Island National Seashore's beach and forest...

...22 miles on Jekyll Island (GA) where this guy was alongside the trail...

...43 miles on 3 rides on St. Simons Island (GA) where historical sightseeing was part of my biking, as demonstrated by the lighthouse  below...

Next I drove into Florida and biked 15 miles of intermediate difficulty mountain bike trail in Guana River State Park...

...and 15 miles on the Jacksonville-Baldwin State Trail...

...then on to Florida's Palatka-Lake Butler State Trail for 21 more miles on its newest section...

...and today 26 miles on the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail...

Tomorrow I head to Ocala National Forest for 2 days on their superb mountain bike trail system (over 50 miles), then to Cedar Key for 2 more days of biking, followed by 2 days in the Apalachicola National Forest's mountain bike trails-- and then go meet my Sierra Club group for a week of kayaking out of theOke

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Kayaking the Tidal Waters of St. Simons Island, Georgia: A Road Scholar/Elderhostel Program

This Road Scholar/Elderhostel program was hosted by The Center for Educational Adventure and featured four paddle trips. The first was out of Darien, GA and after a spectacular seafood lunch at Skipper's, we kayaked up Cathead and Otter Creeks and then meandered through old rice plantation fields, some of which were marsh areas and some now overtaken by Cypress trees which required careful maneuvering  through the magnificent landscape...

The second day we kayaked Postell Creek which looped an hour through a salt marsh...

...before crossing the St. Simons channel where we landed on neighboring Sea Island's beach for an extraordinary box lunch from Sea Palms.  A beach hike was next and I came upon this ghost crab (aka sand crab) scuttling across the beach.  It was my first encounter with one and I watched it, fascinated by its ugly/cute facial features (nothing like this back in Chicago) and soon I was joined by other similarly awed Road Scholars...

The next morning we were treated to a 2.5 hour bus/history tour of St. Simons Island by local historian Jenny Strauss, including a stop at the lighthouse in the downtown or "Village" area...

We also saw the home that Margaret Mitchell lived in while researching for Gone With the Wind and we drove through the huge plantation upon which the Tara estate was based.  It was interesting to learn that Scarlet and Butler were two wealthy local families whose names she borrowed for her main characters.

A tour of the remains of Fort Frederica and a visit to Christ Church concluded the tour. The church was started during the 18th century by John Wesley, the minister of the colony, assisted by his brother Charles, and they later returned to England and founded the Methodist Church. I've visited the church two previous times, but this was a special treat because it was my first opportunity to enter the beautiful structure which was constructed of valuable rare lumber and built by shipwrights.

Our third paddle was from Brunswick on the mainland after a tasty seafood lunch at popular local restaurant, Spanky's, and then we put-in next door at South East Adventure's dock into Clubs Creek where we paddled the salt marsh.  The original plan was to cross the sound to Jekyll Island, rest, and then paddle across to St. Simons lsland, but a 20+ mph wind was churning larger than usual waves, so instead we headed directly across to St. Simon, fighting growing waves that eventually hit 2.5 feet and more in height.  We rested a bit on the beach before heading out again to get around a sand bar and over to the take-out. My rudder pedals broke and I had no place to brace my knees, so when we turned broadside to the high waves, I capsized and lost my underwater digital camera to the Atlantic, so no photos of the day's paddle (though there is footage in the movie below.)

Our fourth and final paddle was 10 miles up Lower Satilla River (with the tide but often against the wind) seeing only infrequent cabins and no roads or cars or bridges until the takeout. Lovely greening trees and azaleas made for scenic viewing as we progressed up the river, stopping for another tasty sack lunch on one of the few sand beaches.

After quick showers at the hotel, it was back on the bus for a final dinner together, this time at Gnat's, yet another wonderful St. Simons Island seafood restaurant.

Lectures on "Barrier Island Dynamics" and "The Shrimping Industry" rounded out the week's educational offerings.

Our final event was Friday morning when Tony, our superb coordinator, brought reptiles from his other job as education director of Driftwood Education Center. His three friends were a kingsnake, a large slider turtle, and this corn snake...

Here's the entire crew of intrepid kayakers (minus three who left early):

Here's a movie of our week paddling tidal waters of Georgia...

Here are additional photos of the week.

For more of my Elderhostel/Road Scholar adventures, go here.

Florida's Palatka- Lake Butler State Trail

Managed by the Florida Office of Greenways and Trails, the Palatka to Lake Butler State Trail corridor stretches nearly 47 miles from the vicinity of SR 238 in Lake Butler to west of US 17 in Palatka along the former Norfolk-Southern Railroad right-of-way (though only a portion of that 47 miles is currently trail.) Construction of the 12-foot-wide, multi-use recreational trail along this corridor is being completed in phases and I biked the entire segment from Grandin to Keystone Heights along highway 100, making a 21 mile round-trip ride.

As with many rail-trails, the trail is lined with trees on both sides for much of its distance, providing shade in sweltering summer weather and shrouding the trail from highway noise, though the trail moves away from Highway 100 for most of its distance.  Occasional breaks in the trees remind you of the rural character of the trail with vistas like this...

The trail surface is asphalt in very good condition, especially the newest segment just recently opened.

There are plans to connect St. Augustine to Lake City by way of this trail system making the total length of the Trail over 100 miles, a portion of which will be designated as part of the 1400-mile Florida National Scenic Trail. 

No official trailhead parking exists yet, but parking is  available along the main street of Keystone Heights as well as the eastern end at Grandin and Highway 100. You can also park at Twin Lakes Park east of Keystone Heights off Twin Lakes Road, and washrooms are available there. Several places in town can also be used for cold beverage and snack/meal purchase if needed.

Official webpage

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In Memorium: Don Nylin

Donald W. Nylin, 82, of Lincolnshire passed away March 7, 2011.  He was born Dec. 16, 1928 in Decatur, IL.  For the last four years,  Don was a resident at Sedgebrook Retirement Community after thirty-seven years in West Aurora. 

Following a distinguished career as educator and administrator, Don remained an avid student and teacher in all of his endeavors. Seventy-plus classes from Elderhostel proved the former, and teaching others the memoir writing skills he had learned in Elderhostel demonstrate the latter. Furthermore, The Executive Service Corps of Chicago recognized his many years and over 3000 hours of service assisting non-profit organizations in the Chicago area.

I was privileged to know Don the last six years of his life and quickly learned to love this multi-talented and compassionate gentle man.  Briefly, here are two of his many talents:

A skilled wordsmith with a wonderful sense of humor, Don penned this gem he entitled "Ain't Grammar Fun" (here's an except)

1. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
3. And don't start a sentence with a conjunction.
4. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
5. Avoid clichÈs like the plague. (They're old hat).
6. Always avoid annoying alliteration.
7. Be more or less specific.

He was similarly skilled as a wordworker and loved the woodshop at Sedgebrook where he created this rocking horse which he sunsequently donated to Executive Service Corps for a silent auction

(At the ESC silent auction, the winning bid on the rocking horse was $175, which was a steal. He says that he hopes children in the Chicago area are enjoying the ride as much as he enjoyed making it in Sedgebrook’s wood shop.)

Thanks for everything, Don.  (See you later, friend.)


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Biking Georgia's Jekyll Island

Some of the sights I saw today while biking 22 miles on the perimeter trail of this lovely island...

Friday, March 18, 2011

Amelia & Cumberland Islands: History & Nature - A Road Scholar program

This Road Scholar (Elderhostel) program was housed at the downtown Hampton Inn & Suites' spacious 2 room units in the city of Fernandina Beach.  A 2 hour trolley tour of Amelia Island narrated by a local historian began the program, followed by lunch in a local restaurant.  This lovely home appeared as Pippi Longstocking's home in the movie...

A 2 hour tour of Ft. Clinch State Park took up the afternoon and was led by an interpretive ranger dressed and acting as a union soldier serving in the fort during the Civil War.  I returned to the state park on our free afternoon and biked 17 miles on the roads and also the mountain bike trail (photo here.)

We also enjoyed a 2+ hour boat tour on Amelia River and an evening of entertainment by Lynn Wadley who sang and played 7 instruments (chorded dulcimer, hammered dulcimer, mountain dulcimer, modern dulcimer, psaltry, concertina, and guitar.)  We sang along on several numbers and were amazed when she announced she was self-taught on all these instruments!

We also enjoyed a cruise on Amelia River and Egan Creek, seeing birds and this lighthouse...

But the highlight of the week was our 3 days on Cumberland Island National Seashore.  Cumberland Island was the 19th century retreat of Thomas and Lucy Carnegie who, in 1900, built Greyfield mansion for their daughter, Margaret Ricketson. Converted to an inn during 1962 by her daughter, Lucy R. Ferguson, the family still oversees the daily operations of the lovely Greyfield Inn. JFK Jr. and his new wife, Carolyn, as well as the wedding party stayed here.


Our activities included a 90 minute naturalist hike through the forest and back along the beach...

... and also a 3.5 hour truck ride nearly the entire length of the island, up the beach and back down the main road, including stops at the tiny church where JFK Jr. married Carolyn, the Plum Orchard Mansion, and Stafford Mansion. A pre-dawn hike allowed us to enjoy the magnificent sunrise...

On the afternoon off, I used one of the available free bikes and rode for 90 minutes, on the beach, on forest trails, and on the main road and the biking photos are available here.

Additional photos of this program for downloading are here.

Biking Cumberland Island National Seashore

Cumberland Island, at 18 miles by 3 miles, is Georgia's largest and southernmost barrier island and features pristine maritime forests, undeveloped beaches, and wide marshes, and it is also home to over 9,800 acres of designated Wilderness.

Biking the beach is divine! The sea breeze cancels out the heat, the views seemingly extend forever, and the birds constantly entertain...

...and this oceanfront coastal heaven extends nearly 22 miles, the longest undeveloped stretch of Atlantic seashore on the Eastern coast! The hard-packed sand is as smooth as concrete and fun to bike. Earlier in the month, 4 wayward whales beached themselves (perhaps due to sonar interference from the nearby Kings Bay submarine installation) and though three were rescued, one perished...

Biking north on the dirt shell main road known as Grande Avenue, you travel through the heart of the island under a draping canopy of live oaks, across forest floors packed with palmetto, through tall stands of stately pines, over open fields, near tidal creeks, fresh water wetlands, and lakes. It also takes you near Plum Orchard Mansion and loops through the Settlement at the north end of Cumberland Island including the site of the First African Baptist Church where JFK Jr. married Caroline.  Since there are few vehicles on the island, you are rarely bothered, and the trails not in the wilderness area are also scenic for biking. Just watch for backpackers!

Average temperature during the summer is 80F and the average temperature during the winter is 60F. The most precipitation happens between the months of June-September. There is a consistent 90% humidity yearly average in the morning and 60% humidity yearly average in the afternoon.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Biking Ft. Clinch SP

Had the afternoon free on this Road Scholar program so I returned to Ft Clinch SP (which we toured yesterday) and biked 2 hours/17 miles on the mountain bike trail and roads...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Boardwalk Reconstruction -- An AHS Volunteer Project

The South Carolina Lowcountry Refuge Complex is home to four national wildlife refuges including Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge. With over 115,240 acres, these unique public lands encompass pristine barrier island beaches, rich salt marsh estuary and riverine ecosystems, and forested freshwater wetlands. Our week-long American Hiking Society Volunteer Vacation was tasked with rebuilding an aging and deteriorating boardwalk leading to an observation area for endangered red wolves at the Sewee Visitor Center and Environmental Education Center.

Our first job was to laboriously remove 500+ old deck pieces, lug them back down the boardwalk, render the old nails safe, and load the wood on a trailer for recycling, or when the pieces were unusable, put them in a dumpster. Of course we had to immediately replace ripped up boards to maintain a walkway for our volunteers and for visitors heading to the wolf enclosure, so one crew ripped out boards, another replaced and tacked down replacement boards, and a third crew installed a toe rail to keep wheelchairs on the boardwalk.

Next we replaced the wood with composite decking which will have a longer lifetime...

...both on the boardwalk (above) and the red wolf observation platform (below)...

Here's the toe rail being installed...

Today, the only wild red wolf population is found in northeastern North Carolina in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge region. he four red wolves here are being rehabbed and one pair is mating, after which they will be transported to North Carolina. These captive wolves help to ensure the genetic diversity of the species.

The red wolf's name comes from the reddish coloring of the head, ears, and legs; its predominate coloring may range from very light tan to black. The wolf usually weighs between 45 to 80 pounds -- smaller than the gray wolf but larger than the coyote.

On our afternoon off, we were treated to a ferry ride out to Bull Island to hike around and see Alligator Alley. In the evening we enjoyed an oyster bake, and at noon on Friday, our talented and dedicated US Forest Service leader, Willie, cooked burgers and chicken wings for us. All these activities are on the movie linked to below.

Our intrepid volunteer carpenters (l to r):

Kneeling: Willie and Bob C.
Front row:  Lynn, Sarah, Michelle, Velma, Marilyn, Erin, and Katie
Back Row: Rebecca, Wayne, Mike, Bob W., our AHS crew leader Brian, and Steven.

Here's a video depicting all the work (and play) from our week together...

Additonal photos from the week are here.