Friday, February 20, 2015

2015 Biking Venice: Art, History & Culture with Road Scholar

This Road Scholar biking program, officially titled "Adventure on Two Wheels: History, Art, and Culture in Venice, Florida," was based in Venice at the Hampton Inn. Though Florida was experiencing an uncharacteristic cold snap this week, we dressed in layers and hit the roads and trails, and with a few optional rides, I managed 87 miles for the four days of biking.

Monday began with Sue Chapman of the Venice Area Historical Society portraying Bertha Palmer Potter, a wealthy Chicago businesswoman and socialite who first visited the Sarasota area in 1910 and was so enamored that she purchased 80,000 acres, and four years later added another 19,000 acres to her land holdings. The performance revealed the lifestyle, grandiosity, intelligence, business acumen, civic-mindedness, women's rights activism, and idiosyncrasies of Bertha as she took her inheritance of eight million dollars and more than doubled it.

Then we biked through the Venice historic district, stopping at Centennial Park, the old San Marco Hotel and Kentucky Military Institute building, and over to the arboretum/park.  After some free time, we re-grouped for a ride to the Venice Pier, and then back to the hotel.

On Tuesday, we biked to Clyde Butcher's Venice Gallery and Studio.  Clyde is called the "Ansel Adams of the Everglades" and we admired his black and white masterpiece photos.  Then his protege, Paul Tilton, gave us a tour of the studio and explained the extraordinarily technical and laborious process by which Clyde creates his photographs using large format film cameras, and then enlarges, masterfully improves every section of a photo by burning and dodging, and finally prints and mounts his photos. Here's a picture of part of his studio and some of his dozen-plus enlargers...

Next we biked to the Venice Train Depot where George Miller from the Venice Area Historical Society spoke to us about the history of Venice as well as the history of the refurbished depot...

Then it was on to Caspersen Beach pavilion for a picnic lunch after which we walked the beach looking for shark's teeth and watching the endangered gopher tortoises...

...after which we biked back to the hotel via the Venetian Waterway Trail alongside the Intracoastal Waterway...

...and enjoyed the murals depicting the history of Venice on the back wall of Venice Gondolier's print shop along the trail, just north of the school complex. Here's the first mural featuring early influential citizens (including Bertha), the turpentine industry, the railroad's arrival, and the Kentucky Military Institute's winter home. The second mural commemorated the airfield, circus, and train depot.

On Wednesday, we biked the Legacy Trail north and then turned west to visit Historic Spanish Point, and after watching the visitor center video, we explored the 30 acres of lovely gardens and historic structures located alongside Little Sarasota Bay. Then after biking to Casey Key for lunch, we biked back to the hotel. Here's a photo of the sunken garden at Spanish Point...

Thursday we boarded a motor coach for Myakka River State Park, part of the original land purchase of Bertha Palmer Potter. She passed away in 1918, and during the 1930's, the government purchased 17,000 acres for the state park as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal. It is one of eight Florida state parks developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930's, and it has been expanded to 37,000 acres.

At the state park, we boarded one of the two large airboats for an hour boat ride on the Upper Myakka River where we saw a number of alligators and wading birds...

After a picnic lunch at the pavilion, we biked back to the motor coach for the short ride to the Spanish American Riding School, home of the "Original Herrmann's Lipizzaner Stallions of Austria." Founded in the 16th century by the Hapsburg Royal family of Austria, the Lipizzan breed was first established by Archduke Charles at Lipizza.  The breed was saved from extinction and given protected status by General George Patton as World War II was nearing its end, when riding at night and hiding by day in a clandestine mission, Colonel Herrmann and his father (also named Colonel Herrmann) smuggled the horses from behind enemy lines. The story was dramatized by Walt Disney in the 1963 film "Miracle of the White Stallions" which we viewed before visiting the 200 acre ranch. Below is Herrmann's daughter who runs the business now.

Austria's original Spanish Riding School website (which celebrates its 450th anniversary in 2015)


Here's a photo of our intrepid bikers who prevailed over cold and windy weather  in usually warm Florida:

Front row (l to r):  Larry D., Kay C., Larry C., and Beth
Middle row: Julia, Carol, Kathy, Margaret, Nancy, and Marion
Back row: Richard, Chuck, Dick, Bob W., Marty, Bob T., Kay W., Grant, Allan, Trudi, Susan, and Gary
Not in photo: David and Louise

And our leaders, Mary and Larry...


Additional photos (which can be downloaded)

Here's a video of our week's activities:

Friday, February 13, 2015

2015 Biking South Florida's Gulf Islands with Road Scholar

This was a repeat Road Scholar active outdoor adventure program for me, and as good as the program was three years ago, this "revised" program was even better!  We were based in Naples for the first three nights and then boarded a bus for Sanibel Island for two days of biking and one night of lodging, before returning by bus to Naples for the fifth night.

Although the on-and-off rain canceled  Monday's first day of biking, we still managed to visit much of what we would have reached by bike in Naples, including the Naples Museum in the old train station, the historic Tin City shopping area, and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, where we went on a tour of their remarkable wildlife hospital, a boat tour of the mangrove canal, and a lecture on raptors, including a visit by this red-tailed hawk, Horatio. Despite the rain day, we still managed over 70 miles of biking the other three days!

On Tuesday, we biked 29 miles, first visiting the historic Naples Pier (which we missed yesterday due to the rain) and then continuing biking north against a wicked 20+ mile per hour headwind to Bonita Springs' Barefoot Beach Preserve with their protected gopher tortoises and crashing waves.  Our leader, Mary, also led us on a naturalist walk on Saylor Nature Trail...

That evening we had a lecture by the knowledgeable and entertaining Bob Nesmith on the hydrology and water flow of southern Florida, and how it was disrupted to allow development of the southern Florida, the repercussions of that disruption, and the efforts to restore the natural flow of water. Bob's easy going style and ability to talk in non-technical-jargon English was exemplified by this simplified  explanation: A marsh is a grassland that is under water, and a swamp is a forest that is under water.

On Wednesday, we boarded the bus to travel to Sanibel Island, where we hopped on our bikes for 23 miles as we toured the island on its marvelous bike paths.  Our first stop was a talk by Charles LeBuff  as he recounted the history of Sanibel as well as the stories surrounding its lighthouse. He lived on the island for much of his life and actually lived in the cottage next to the lighthouse for 22 years while working 32 years for the "Ding"Darling National Wildlife Refuge as a refuge biologist.


Then after biking to lunch, it was over to CROW, Sanibel's Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife.  After perusing the displays, we were treated to a visit by the raccoon Trouper who at eight weeks of age was beaten with a golf club and left for dead.  Through the tireless efforts of Miss Dot, the blind and brain-injured Trouper (held in her arms below) has been given a home and rehabbed as much as possible.  Trouper has his own website and serves as an ambassador for preventing animal cruelty and educating school children to respect wildlife.  We were also given a tour of their clinic and the organization's grounds.

After spending the night at the lovely Sundial Resort on Sanibel, we were treated to this sunrise during breakfast.

Then we biked to the "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, one of over 560 such preserves across the country.  After a tour of the visitor center and a talk about the tireless efforts of editorial cartoonist, Ding Darling, which led to the ultimate creation of this wildlife refuge, volunteer Patsy took us on a guided  bike tour of the four mile Wildlife Drive, where we enjoyed the wildlife sightings along the way and the information about the types of mangrove trees and their importance to the environment.  We also hiked the Calusa Trail.

After biking to lunch, we continued on to the Sanibel Historic Village which consists of a number of buildings moved to this site from elsewhere on the island to preserve examples demonstrating what  life was like here in the earlier days.  As a retired teacher, I'll show you the interior of the old Sanibel School, which though smaller than the school I attended in Chicago in the 1950s, still is very reminiscent of my old schoolrooms albeit on a smaller scale here.

Here's a photo of our stalwart group of bikers and our two leaders:

(l to r):  Ruth, Linda M., Jim, Edda, Emilie, Larry D., Chuck, Allan, Lee, Barb, Linda T., Trudi, Rick, Bill, and Connie

Seated in middle: Our leaders, Mary and Larry 



Here's a video of our week's adventures:

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary (Blair Audubon Center)

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary conserves 13,000 magnificent acres, and not only protects a fragile 500-year-old forest of bald cypress trees which had been slated for timber sale (like its neighboring forests had been), but also provides vital habitat for migratory and permanent wildlife, some of which are on the endangered and threatened lists. In addition to the cypress forest, Corkscrew contains strangler figs, native grasses, pond apple and red maple trees, as well as the seasonal ghost orchid plant.  Egrets, heron, ibis, anhingas, and other migratory birds call this home, as well as gators, turtles, deer, and owls.

A 2.2 mile boardwalk protects the delicate environment as well as the visitors as they wend their way through the cypress forest, pine flatwoods, swamp, and wetlands.  Various side branches of the boardwalk take you to other points of interest, including a raised platform overlooking the prairie.

Here's the map of the property...

A dozen or so  Cypress Trees (which are relatives of the redwoods) have been tagged as "Landmarks" and awarded names of local activists influential in birthing the Corkscrew's existence, national officials with the Audubon Society, and national figures who began the conservation/preservation movement in our country -- namely John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and President Teddy Roosevelt.  Below is the Leopold tree which is over 500 years old, 98 feet tall (despite losing its top to hurricanes), and has a 22 foot circumference at chest height.

Here are some of the birds I was able to photograph. First, an anhinga drying its wings in the sun...

A black-crowned night heron nestled in the undergrowth...

A great white egret...

Some hungry white ibis...

...and a snowy egret (now protected from plume hunters.)

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is located at 375 Sanctuary Road, Naples, Florida, 34120 -- located 15 miles east of I-75 at exit 111  (239-348-9151)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

2015 Everglades National Park Trail Project -- An AHS Volunteer Vacation

Everglades National Park encompasses 1.5 million acres of wetlands in the far southeastern section of our country and is the USA's largest subtropical wilderness.  Its vital importance is demonstrated by its status as a World Heritage Site as well as an International Biosphere Reserve.  One-third of the park is Florida Bay which runs from one to six feet in depth, shallow enough for sunlight to reach bottom and for grasses to flourish, which in turn sustains a flourishing fish population, shark population, and manatee population.

Our project was based out of the campground in Flamingo, the park service's facility which is at the end of the park road, 38 miles from the entrance.  Besides the campground, you'll find a full marina with a store, a visitor center, and a restaurant.  We were supposed to maintain the Coastal Prairie Trail which starts at the campground and runs seven miles through the wilderness, but a rare plant was spotted in the park and all trail work was halted until plans are made and okayed on how to protect the plant.

So instead, we were tasked to help "open up" several vistas at ponds to make for better viewing by visitors and safer access for paddlers.  Below is Chris lopping encroaching branches...

...and in the photo below, our leaders, NPS workers Mike and Gito, cut the higher branches with a power saw on an extension arm.  We then collected all the cut-offs and created huge piles which later were picked up by the park employees and taken for eventual burning by the fire crew.

We also cleared trash from along the Guy Bradley, Bear Lake, Eco, and Coastal Prairie Trails, and as John shows here, we also took photos of various things that we found interesting.

Lunches were lunch meat or peanut butter sandwiches that we made at breakfast, carried with us, and then enjoyed at various scenic overlook areas, and once at the Flamingo  breezeway seen below. There were also plenty of snacks and fruit to eat.

A special treat was when NPS assistant volunteer coordinator Kirrin took us to Big Cypress National Preserve Visitor Center, Everglades National Park's Shark Valley area, and Clyde Butcher's Big Cypress Gallery on Tamiami Trail.  Clyde Butcher is often called the "Ansel Adams of Big Cypress/Everglades," and he is world-famous for his large-format, black and white nature photography.  Below is Chris admiring some of Clyde's photos.  Unfortunately, Clyde was out-of-town that day.  When he is present, he graciously greets and speaks with visitors and autographs copies of his books.

Most mornings and evenings we were treated to magnificent and vivid sunrises (seen below) and sunsets.   On the nice breezy days, we were mostly spared the ubiquitous and thirsty mosquitoes, but most of the time, clothing and DEET were our refuge.

A definite advantage of volunteering in a national park is the daily ranger talks available throughout the day.  We were able to attend three evening programs (traveling in the Everglades backcountry wilderness by canoe, birding, and The Wilderness Act of 1964) right at our campground amphitheater.

Several of us also took a free wilderness canoe trip led by Ranger Daniel, and we also were treated to a free Wilderness Boat Tour up Buttonwood Canal into Coot Lake, and then via Tarpon Creek over to Whitewater Bay.

Another aspect I appreciate of these volunteer projects is the opportunity to spot wildlife.  This week we enjoyed alligators, crocodiles, both black and turkey vultures, egrets and herons and pelicans, osprey, anhingas, cormorants, ibis, this red-cockaded woodpecker in the tree by our tents...

...and this venomous  pygmy rattlesnake asleep on the trail that we were clearing.  His prey, a salamander, was  alongside him.  He didn't appreciate being awakened, so he hissed at us, shook his tail, and slithered into the underbrush.

Also, a number of our group drove to Key West on our day off and explored the town.

Below are our leaders for this project:  (l to r) Kirrin, Suzanne (our AHS crew leader,) and Leslie, the acting Everglades volunteer coordinator.

And here is our entire stalwart crew:

Front row(l to r): Jim, Suzanne, Deb, Amanda, Kenda, and George
Back row:  Mike (NPS), John, Heidi, Chris, Gayle, and Chuck


More photos of our week an be found here (and can be downloaded)

Here's a brief video of our week's project, including our adventures 
around the Everglades.