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Day 87 – Gulf Coast Drive Along the Florida Panhandle Part 4

I walked through this

Another travel day logged on the books…from the Florida Panhandle to Gadsden, Alabama.  I didn’t pass anything of interest…some fields, some farms, mostly brown winter grass…definitely an uneventful drive.  I’m glad I took my friend Don’s advice and spent the morning in WaterColor, Florida, a cute town east of Destin.  A few miles down the road from WaterColor, lays Grayton Beach State Park.  The dogs and I stopped there forour morning jaunt.  The 1.25 mile nature trail weaved around sand dunes, through low, overhanging trees and past a pine forest. The shining sun and the brisk breeze granted a lovely morning.  After trail walking, the dogs rested in VANilla while I strolled along the empty beach looking for shells.  What a tranquil feeling…a beach all to myself!

In WaterColor, I stopped at the Shrimp Shack for an early lunch…raw oysters on the half shell.  The order at the counter restaurant served its patrons on a screened in porch or on an outdoor deck by the beach.  I can only imagine the ambience in the summertime.  It must be great, especially given they can get away with charging 92 cents for cup of tap water!  Actually, the ambience ofthe whole beachside town seemed lovely…can upscale, quaint and touristy be used in the same sentence?  That is how I’d describe it.   Beachside restaurants lined the south side of the main street as mobile food carts flanked the small white post office situated across the main street in front of the town square.

For the rest of the day I just drove.  I had hoped to visit Noccalula Falls Park before sunset as it is situated only a few miles from the Walmart parking lot of choice; however, the highway was under construction and the northbound exit Gina my GPS directed me to take was closed.  The next exit was 17 MILES AWAY!!!  34 miles later, I arrived at Walmart in the dark!  I’ll visit the falls in the morning. ETB

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old pier website copy

Day 86 – Gulf Coast Drive Along the Florida Panhandle Part 3

I made it to Destin around 6:30 last night.  As I passed all the bear crossing signs around dusk, I thought I might spot one until I realized this freezing weather probably sent them into hibernation!  Actually, it made me wonder if all bears hibernate.  It seems like Florida bears could just travel south for the winter. In addition to looking for bears, I kept an eye out for mileage signs to Destin.  I only saw signs for Panama City which I thought I heard Dottie say over my cell connection was about an hour east of Destin.  I was moderately perplexed as my GPS estimated my time of arrival to Destin to be the same time (in my mind) that I reached Panama City.  I kept contemplating what I could have misunderstood when I realized I had crossed into the Central Time Zone!!  I haven’t been on CST for months…I’m getting closer to home!  Sadly, however, I have to admit that I always thought Florida was in the Eastern Time Zone.  It magnified the fact that while I’ve visited all over Florida in my lifetime, I’ve never been to the western part of the panhandle!  I sure have missed out.  I should have used my high school graduation present, a week stay at Dottie’s condo, years ago.

The dogs and I enjoyed a lackadaisical day.  We spent the morning lounging around the condo, blogging, and waiting to see the bomb house in Escondido, CA get burned to the ground.  We also caught a few blurbs on Wikileaks and debates centering around the Bush tax cuts and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.  I figured if I was going to walk on the beach in Florida, I wanted it to be above 49 degrees which was forecasted to take place around lunchtime.  We headed to the beach to quickly find out dogs weren’t allowed to enjoy the white sandy beach reflecting sun so bright I walked with squinting eyes; crystal clear waters that changed colors between aqua marine, turquoise, and navy blue with the depth of the Gulf of Mexico; and pelicans and gulls staring intently into waves gently lapping onshore hoping to catch a fish.  The scene looked like a beautiful, spring day until beach walkers passed by in pants and jackets.  I spent just a short time absorbing the view before we set out to find a dog friendly park or beach…no such thing in Destin and the surrounding area!  We stopped at the only two parks listed on my GPS, both with signs posting the rules, one being “no dogs allowed”.  We returned to the condo and took a leisurely stroll around the complex, past the marina, the putting green, two pools, and the canals dug by the yellow and white condos built on stilts to withstand high waters caused by hurricanes.

After one more blog posting, I attended the half price happy hour across the street at Louisiana Lagniappe.  The blackened shrimp and glass of wine hit the spot.  Dani, the bartender, was from Pennsylvania and has camped extensively.  Of course, now being in Florida, she wasn’t fond of the cold weather.  While we were talking, four men came in for dinner, but they ended up sitting at the bar.  I didn’t catch all of their names, but two worked for Elbit in New Hampshire and two worked for Boeing in Albuquerque.  They were here working with the nearby Air Force Base.  After chatting for a while, I called it the night and let them enjoy their dinner.  I’m preparing for a drive to Alabama and warmer temperatures tomorrow. ETB

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rock islands website copy

Day 85 – Gulf Coast Drive Along the Florida Panhandle-Part-2

Well, I survived the 22 degree night in the Walmart parking lot.  In preparation of the cold night, I turned my heat on the highest temperature at full blast while driving to Woodville.  Even with exiting VANilla to do a little grocery shopping and to let the dogs out, the temperature remained above 50 by the time I went to bed…not bad.

The first attraction of the day was the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park.  What a pleasant surprise.  As I paid the four dollar entry fee, I asked the ranger what he recommended.  He said the boat ride on the river because several manatees have been spotted.  I was all about that as I’ve only seen manatees on one other occasion and only briefly.  The ranger selling the boat tours informed me theboat wouldn’t be going out on the river until the temperature raised above 40 degrees, approximately an hour.  She added that the alligators wouldn’t be out due to the cold temperatures.  “What about the manatees”, I asked.  “Oh, well you can see them right over by the dive platform”, she replied, as she pointed out the window.

With only my point and shoot camera in hand, I walked over to the platform that I shared with another couple and snapped some shots of a few solitary manatees.  I needed my good camera and also needed to walk the dogs, so I ventured back to VANilla to check on the mutts and upgrade my lense.  When I returned to the dive platform a few of the manatees glided over the light sandy bottom directly below the platform.  I felt like I was on safari again!  I was scampering from one side of the platform to the other careful to lean forward only when the railing was nearby.  Oh, how I wished for a warmer temperature.  How cool would it be to jump off the dive platform and swim with the manatees.  After 45 minutes of enthrallment, I finally pulled myself away to attend to the pups. Before I left for the trail, I checked with the ranger to see if the manatees would remain nearby.  I found out the 125 foot deep Wakulla Springs that feeds the Wakulla River is located just below the dive tower and the water temperature maintains a constant 68 to 70 degrees.  I thought if I were a manatee in this weather, I wouldn’t venture far from the source of warm water, so I took the dogs for their morning walk and plan to return for one last look.

The leaf covered, nature trail wound through a forest of dogwoods, magnolias, pine, cypress, beech, ash and more.  We crossed a wooden bridge and continued to the one mile marker before turning around.  Upon returning to the trailhead, we inspected the small sink holes nearby for a white cave crayfish known to climb up from the caves to forage for food…no luck…but lots of luck upon my return to the dive tower.  The manatees, now clustered together, were like kids in a swimming hole, chasing each other, barrel rolling, dunking each other below the water’s surface.  For an hour, dressed in a parka and wool hat, I turned in circles snapping pictures of at least fifteen of these docile creatures either playing with or courting each other!  Two hundred pictures later, my nose dripping with snot and my hands so numb that the heat activated screen on my iPhone was unresponsive, I decided to explore another stop along the Florida Panhandle’s scenic drive.  Clearly, I skipped the river boat tour, though had the glass bottom boats been operating, I would have taken the ride just to see mastodon bones lodged in the cave entrance beneath the spring.

I moved on to Leon Sinks Geological Area located in the Apalachicola National Forest.  With three trails to choose from, the dogs and I turned right and shuffled across the sandy trail strewn with pine needles to check out the sinkholes.  I was expecting sinkholes similar to the two small ones at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park (which by the way includes a 1937 lodge offering dinner for two, a boat tour, and room for $99 per couple through most of February), but was pleasantly surprised to see large holes, both wet and dry.  While the dry ones were merely plant covered ground collapsed beneath its own weight due to rainwater dissolving limestone, the wet ones where collapsed ground met with a water filled cave were truly breathtaking.  The cobalt blue Hammock Sink, part of a six room cave system extensively mapped by divers, is large enough to hold a six-story building!

Nearby, the sapphire colored Big Dismal Sink, extending to a depth of 130 feet, is the deepest of the sinks in this geological area. This sink is connected to the Floridian aquifer which provides drinking water for millions of people.  As I peered through the openings in leaf covered trees, to the sink and fern covered land below, I could hear water trickling from the banks into the sink.

Scout, Petey, and I turned back after viewing Big Dismal in order to try another trail that according to the map twisted by swamps.  We reached the first swamp to find a dry pit, full of stumpy roots and trees.  Given we had probably hiked another two miles, we returned to VANilla to explore Carrabelle.

Carrabelle, farther west on Highway 98 that follows the southern shore, is home to the world’s smallest police station, a phone booth!  Next to the phone booth, I found my first cache in Florida.  I periodically checked for caches, but they were rarely located in the state parks, probably due to the entrance fee, and always just a few miles too far away.  Obviously, I could have completed some city caching, but I enjoy the natural setting better.

By the time I reached Carrabelle, it was late afternoon, and I had to decide how I wanted to spend another freezing cold night.  A few state parks offering camping were located on barrier islands nearby and the closest Walmart, near Panama City, was about 1.5 hours away.  Neither sounded very appealing – a wind exposed campground or a parking lot 90 miles away.  I continued west, took a quick driving tour of Apalachicola, and called a horse related, family friend, Dottie to see if their condo in Destin was open to visitors.  Indeed, it was!  Normally, I wouldn’t have driven, 140 miles for a house, but I figured it would be nice to have some heat and the Destin Beach would be just as pretty, if not prettier, than the two state parks I was planning on visiting tomorrow.  Thank you, Dottie! ETB

websites:  www.dep.state.fl.us/gwt/guide/regions/panhandleeast/trails/leon_sinks.htmwww.floridastateparks.org/wakullasprings

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sandy dunes website copy

Day 84 – Gulf Coast Drive Along the Florida Panhandle

Florida Panhandle…the first photo and the first two photos by the description of the lighthouse are views from the levee.

Today was close to an 8 hour travel day from Southeast Florida to Northwest Florida.  I think in the last five days I’ve donated at least fifty dollars to Florida tolls.  I imagine I could have purchased the Sunpass and paid for it through reduced tolls already!  I could have avoided the “change provided” toll plazas as well!  So far, Florida and New York break the bank in the toll category.  Along the turnpike, I did see a bald eagle wading in a small marsh.  That was exciting, though I would have liked to snap a photo.

I arrived at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge around 4 pm, so I got to enjoy an hour of hiking before watching a brilliant sunset.  We first took the trail aside the visitor center which was a 3.5 mile road to the Port Leon town site.  We walked/ran for about 30 minutes along the tree covered road to burn off a little energy, but also, to save some time to visit the lighthouse and the lighthouse levee trail 7 miles down the road, also located in the refuge.  Ok, that felt like a sentence in a legal document…going and going.  Needless to say, only spending 30 minutes on the trail, we didn’t make it to the abandoned town, but the dogs were happy to run free of leashes.

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The St. Marks Lighthouse was first built in 1828 of hollow walls.  The construction didn’t pass inspection as the contract called for solid walls.  The lighthouse was rebuilt with solid walls in 1831 and was illuminated by 15 whale-oil lamps.   The solid walls trapped moisture in the tower, thus the walls cracked as the tower settled.  The lighthouse needed iron straps to hold it together.  After a hurricane in 1837, the navy reported the lighthouse was “in a most wretched condition”, and the lighthouse was again rebuilt in a new location set back from the water, this time with hollow walls.  During the Civil War, the oil and lenses were removed and the Confederates used the tower as a lookout, but stopped after being repeatedly attacked by Union troops.  The lighthouse was repaired, raised to 73 feet high, and relit in 1867.  The light guides ships to the opening of the St. Marks River.

A levee which forms a pond was built next to the lighthouse in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corp.  The pond attracts a variety of migratory birds for the winter.  After a walk along the levee, again watching for alligators, I backtracked along the road past several marshes to a site where I could admire a salmon and orange sky as the sun dropped behind the trees and birds flew overhead. ETB

websites: www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=41640,

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Day 83 – Road to Flamingo, The Florida Everglades

The Everglades, Florida…the first 4 pics and the last 9 pics don’t correspond to the paragraphs.  I just had so many good ones, I wanted to post them.  Most were taken on the Anhinga Trail.

After dropping Carol at the airport, I continued on to Wellington for another night at Page’s before heading to the Everglades in the morning.  I passed by acres of farmland, some merely plowed and barren and others planted with vegetables and fruit.  The Everglades in Southern Florida span over 4,000 square miles.  The area is so large that the 1.5 million acre National Park occupies only 20% of the area.  The widest river in the world, 50 miles, slowly flows through the grassy wetlands whose highest elevation reaches only ten feet.

After collecting a brochure from the Main Visitor Center, I stopped at the Royal Palm Visitor Center to explore a few short trails.  Scout and Petey didn’t get to join me on the trails, but they got to walk around the visitor centers and picnic areas along the way.  I first took the Gumbo Limbo Trail, not even half a mile.  The trail is named for the Gumbo Limbo tree, once used for making carousel horses, was imported to the area by Spaniards.  Its smooth bark peels off its trunk like sun burnt skin.

The next trail I took was named for the Anhinga bird.  The boardwalk on the Anhinga Trail provided access to a variety of wildlife.  Herons hunted for small fish.  Anhingas stretched their wings to dry their feathers.  Alligators rested on the shores.  Vultures circled overhead.  I had a heyday photographing this natural world.  The best way to describe the area is to simply post the pictures.

Since I got to enjoy two walks, I thought it was time to let the dogs enjoy one.  The ranger at the Main Visitor Center suggested that the walk around the picnic area at Long Pine Key was lovely.  Lovely is right…we circled a small, aqua blue lake while watching for alligators.  Thankfully we didn’t find any.

Our next stop was at the Pa-hay-okee Overlook.  The boardwalk looped over expansive grasslands that looked more like an African prairie than a wetland.  I reflected on my recent safari in Tanzania, and thought I’d be lunch for a lion right about now, as I meandered by the shimmering sawgrass.  I moved on to Mahogany Hammock, a jungle-like area.  The boardwalk wound past ferns, orchids, palms, and one of the oldest, largest mahoganies in America.  Driving a little farther south, I arrived at West Lake, a mangrove home to alligators and a variety of birds.  I believe it was too cold for the alligators to be out, but I saw a handful of birds hopping along entanglements of exposed roots.

Finally, I made it to Flamingo, the last stop in the Everglades National Park, at least by car anyway.  Flamingo includes a visitor center, boat tours, exhibits, and a convenience store – the only place to get food in 40 miles.  The dogs and I toured the parking lot, passing by a drainage ditch where a GIANT alligator laid sunning.  I think I jumped a foot as the alligator’s eyes opened and rolled around toward the back of its head in an attempt to get a look at us.  We made a quick detour!  Before I left Flamingo and backtracked all the way to Wellington for my final night in a house, I briefly strolled along the Coastal Prairie Trail offering views of the Florida Bay.  I spent some time photographing what I thought was a white heron, indigenous to Florida, but I think it turned out to be a great white egret…bummer!  Carol and I had seen one in the keys, but we weren’t quick enough with our cameras before it flew away.

I really enjoyed the Everglades.  I’m certain the cool weather had something to do with it, as the park wasn’t too crowded and the mosquitoes weren’t biting! ETB

websites:  www.nps.gov/ever/,

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Day 82 – Ocean Reef Outing Part 2

Well, I don’t have much to add for today.  Carol and I didn’t make it very far on the Reader’s Digest Florida Keys drive as North Key Largo was our only stop.  We spent the morning laying out by the pool at Buccaneer Island and tooling around The Fishing Village.  Shakey and Jennalie joined us for lunch at The Raw Bar.

The afternoon consisted of us lounging around the house pool, watching some golf, walking the dogs, and watching some football.  We had such a laid back day, I don’t even have any pictures.  I’ll have to borrow some from Carol.

Carol is a friend I met fifteen years ago while playing soccer.  Over the years, we’ve played on several teams together – indoor, outdoor, women’s, co-ed, 6v6, 11v11, tournaments.  We co-captained a women’s team for ten plus years before relinquishing our duties to join an Over 30 team, as nearing 40 we were competing against players 20 years our junior.  For work, Carol specializes in wellness and is an expert in her field.  I feel lucky to have her as friend, and I’m so glad she was able to join me on my journey.  I’m certain Shakey and Jennalie’s winter home was more enjoyable for her than VANilla.

Shakey’s real name is Joel.  I’m told his fellow fraternity brothers nicknamed Shakey after a game of poker at the University of Texas Kappa Sig house…the stakes were high.  Shakey and Jennalie live in Michigan where he owns a paper company that manufactures high quality paper squares used in animal cages at laboratories.  Pharmaceutical companies, universities, and research companies strive for the most controlled environment possible for their specimens.  They need paper from trees that haven’t been sprayed with chemicals, that can be delivered in precise measurements, and can be traced to each batch produced if necessary.  I’ve never heard of such a market, but Shakey’s product fills the need.  I’ve enjoyed watching the show, How It’s Made, but mostly because I’m fascinated by the machines designed to make the product.  Shakey’s company has six identical machines that specialize in cutting the paper which were modified from a machine used to cut jeans.  The jean material is used in Crane stationery and U.S. Money.  I didn’t know Crane supplied the paper for U.S. money…simply fascinating.

Shakey and Jennalie were such gracious hosts – touring us around the island, buying our meals, taking us fishing.  It was so nice to see them and we had a wonderful visit.  Thanks for opening your home to us! ETB

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purple sky keychain closeup