Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Trip 11: Alexander Springs run

State Parks visited: 8

I am going to preface this post by saying, I have been asked by Rob not to beat myself up too much in this entry.  I had a bad day and still feel badly about it, but we all have those days.  Just keep that in mind.

So, I noticed a couple of months ago that some geocaches were published along the Alexander Springs run.  It is the river that comes from the boil at the Alexander Springs State Recreation Area (not a state park, mind you, so no stamp)...not sure if it has a real name or not.  Not sure how far it goes, either, but the route we planned, in an attempt to find the 4 caches accessible only by watercraft, was roughly 5.99 miles.  I suggested putting in at the downstream end, paddling upstream to the last cache on the run, and then turning around and coming back with the current.  Easy, right?

We arrived at the launch bright and early, amazed at having seen a black bear on the highway during the trip there.  All of us, having lived here for so long, had never seen a bear like that before.  It was amazing.  Chris, Randy, and Xandra...our paddling buddies for the day...were delayed in their arrival...read: 'lost'...and we got to know our surroundings a little bit:

In this last picture, Olivia was trying to catch one of the little fish in the river. She was singing 'The Itsy Bitsy Spider' to entice them, and it was so sweet.  They came pretty close to her, too!

So, everyone arrived, gear was sorted, and we launched.  Upstream we went, and I anticipated a leisurely paddle, hopefully calm and shaded:

Don't get me wrong...it started and ended that way.  What we had in the interim was more like this:

The only way I can describe it is a sea of grass.  Lilypads, too.  Some of the going was clear, but lots of it was...to me...having to really dig in to make forward progress.  And the current wasn't even that strong!  At this point let me point out that my paddling technique is less than stellar.  I know.  At no point should my hands or back have been hurting, but it didn't take long for that to happen.  I am very tense in a kayak because of my fear of the water.  But keeping that in mind, I made a concerted effort to ease my grip on the paddle and loosen up, period.  By then, though, the damage was done and I just had to deal with the pain.

I also had to deal with another pain:

Let me 'splain it to you like this:  Olivia is petrified of spiders.  I knew she didn't like them, but I had no idea she'd scream like....wow...like a little girl if one got near her.  And wouldn't you know that every single blade of river grass and every single lilypad came with its very own spider?  And wouldn't you know that they kept getting into our kayak??  Every single time it happened she screamed as if her leg was getting cut off (thanks for that one, Rob!).  And let me tell you, it gets on the nerves.

And so onward we paddled.

And paddled.

And paddled.

There was some geocaching mixed in there too.  Of the 4 caches on the run, only one had previously been found, while the other three had not.  We passed by the first one because we had taken a different channel. The plan was to find it on the return trip.  The next cache was a First to Find, the next one we found had previously been found, and we did not find the final cache on the run.  It was late in the day and we were all hungry, so we called an end to our search and headed downstream to a bridge over the river for lunch.  Oddly enough, while we were there, some of my geocaching friends launched their canoe and went upstream to find the cache we just missed.

Xandra makes a great PB&J.

Chris caught another minnow for Olivia:

We managed to miss the day's only rain while we were eating.  Gotta love that.  Like Rob says, we didn't want to get wet. ;)

After lunch came the return trip...and the meltdown.  While Olivia and I were both mollified by lunch, it didn't change the fact that we had 5.99 miles the paddle back, plus one more cache to find.  The shrieking banshee that is my child went back at it. My mood tanked.  And may I add, on the trip upstream, she had been terrified when a fish...a fish!!...jumped up out of the water and hit her in the neck.  As if the spiders weren't bad enough, now she's going to need serious therapy later on because of a fish.

So, Olivia was whining.  I was tired. She was cranky.  I was sore.  She whined.  I cried.  She cried.  I yelled.  She whimpered.  I cried. She cried.  I screamed.  Sometime then I told everyone how I really felt:  I had had enough.  I wanted to be off the river right then, and we had to do everything in our power to make it happen.  I had crossed that sacred threshold and was no longer able to hold it together.  I was done.

We continued paddling, and the most amazing thing happened.  Olivia stopped crying.  I calmed down.  It was rough going for awhile, and then it was better.  I felt like everyone hated me, and then we were back to our laughing and joking selves from the morning.  The final geocache was nearby, and searching for that helped ease some of the tension.  So did the fact that Olivia actually got out of the kayak to go potty in the river (and thanks so much, Xandra, for helping her when my fears kept me from being able to).

And then we were done.  I guess there were no hard feelings for my temper tantrum, because we were all smiles at the end.  Chris even had a little fun with the rope swing at the launch site:

One thing I haven't mentioned is the wildlife.  It started with the black bear on the way in.  Then we saw an otter while we were waiting for the gang to show up, and another while out paddling.  Our journey was marked with numerous birds, turtles, and alligators.  While searching for the furthest geocache, we had the funniest conversation with a woman and her child, who had kayaked down from the spring.  When her child...and at this point, I can't remember age, gender...started poking around in the lilypads on the opposite bank, Randy warned them that we'd been hearing a gator send out its warning croak to let us know it was there.  We said it sounded like a bullfrog.  The lady said, "Oh!  We've heard lots of bullfrogs today!"  That's when pretty much all of us told her, "Those weren't bullfrogs!"  She was ready to head in after that.

Some wildlife highlights:

Oh, and before I forget, I just had to share some pictures of Chris and his mad skillz:

Okay, so after ten hours on the water, we were done.  We loaded up our gear as the sun was going down.  And despite it all, I'm grateful for the experience.  I know how much I can handle, and how much I can't.  I know that we all have bad days, but we aren't bad people.  I know that when a fish hits you in the neck, all you really want is a big hug from your mommy.  And when you hear croaking 'bullfrogs', keep your eyes peeled and your fingers out of the water. 

And just maybe, you'll leave the river with a smile on your face:

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Trip 10: Colt Creek State Park

State parks visited: 8

Our visits to the parks have kind of fallen by the wayside.  Nothing on purpose, mind you...just...life.  Between Rob and Chris's work schedules, various local festivals, and our Campayakarama 2010 trip, we just haven't had a chance to make it to any state parks.  The great news here is, we haven't replaced state park time with time on the couch.  So far our goal of getting out of the house has been successful!

And so, we found ourselves with Sunday free.  Me, Rob, Olivia, Chris, and our friend Randy, who had joined us on the kayaking trip.  I looked through the state park book and decided on Colt Creek State Park in Lakeland.  It is almost two hours away by car, and so we tried to get an early start.  We made a detour in the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve to complete the requirements for an earthcache.  It was muggy, and the horseflies were out in force, but we got the information we needed.  We also saw something strange:

These are Eastern Tiger Swallowtails...about the size of my hand...and they are feasting on feces.  Beautiful butterflies, gross meal.

After our time in the Green Swamp...and after seeing a 4 foot alligator relaxing by the side of the road...we made our way to Colt Creek State Park.  It is a former limestone quarry, purchased from the owning family in 2006.  In 2007 it received the state park designation, which is significant for one major reason:  Right now, three years later, Colt Creek has just now received funding.  I never realized how long a process like that takes, but it really helped explain the massive amounts of silt fencing and bulldozers we saw on the property.

We stopped by the ranger station for our stamp and a chat with the ranger on duty.  Ranger Caroline Eckert was extremely knowledgeable and provided us with a detailed trail map...maps so new that the trail markers were written in by hand.  She even recommended a nice path to take. Before we could head down the trail, though, we stopped by the restrooms.  I'm glad we did, because they were the nicest bathrooms I've seen at any state park:

They were clean and air-conditioned.  When it's over 90 degrees and humid outside, it is awesome to take a break here.

So, down the trail we went.  There are several ecological zones at Colt Creek, and we wandered through various ones...scrub pine, swamp, etc.  There was a lot of evidence of wildlife on our hike:

We even managed to see a few of the real things...a gator swimming in Mac Lake, an armadillo creeping into the underbrush, and a rat snake.  The snake was odd...it was in the middle of the trail, still, and it seemed to not even notice our presence.  It had a zig-zag curve to its body, and our honest thought was that it had eaten another snake:

Our pace was pretty steady, but recent rains created several flooded areas of the trail.  We did the best we could and covered about three-and-a-half miles in a few hours.  There were butterflies all over the place, zebra swallowtails, spicebush swallowtails (giggity), and little metalmarks, and trying to catch pictures of them added their own challenge.  Still, it was a fun challenge:

Trying to get a colorblind man to help identify them was even more fun.  Just sayin'.

A few other afternoon highlights:

After our hike we settled down to a nice picnic lunch.  PB&J, tuna salad, jerky, chips, nuts...all my picnic favorites.  It was so relaxing to just sit there and take in this...well, this park in bloom.

For, you see, that's what it is to me.  Colt Creek State Park is a brand new park, just opening itself up for the world to see.  There is so much potential, and we saw evidence of great things to come.  And I can't wait!  Whenever we finish this quest we're on...and we will finish it...we're heading back there to see the great park Colt Creek is bound to become.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Trip 9: Campayakarama 2010!!

State parks visited: 7

A month or so ago, Chris planted the idea of taking a weekend kayaking/camping trip.  He had mapped it out, and the plan was to kayak from Tomoka State Park up to Gamble Rogers State Park, camp overnight, kayak part of the way back down, and visit Bulow Creek State Park and Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park along the way.  Or something like that.  Sounds like a lot, right? Especially when the mileage...powered by the current and one's own arms...was somewhere between 15-20 miles round trip.  I think.  Needless to say, I felt overwhelmed at the thought and immediately decided against the trip.  Rob and I had several serious conversations on the matter, and my interest eventually grew into a full-fledged desire to make the weekend happen.  Only, there was a problem:  the weekend in question included Memorial Day, and all the campsites at Gamble Rogers were booked.

Well, one great thing about being in Florida is not having a shortage of bodies of water.  We just found a different river.  Enter....Campayakarama 2010!!

Our adventure began bright and early on Sunday.  We loaded a tandem kayak, borrowed from my dad, onto the roof of my trusty little Jeep.  It really looked at home there:

We then headed to Ray Wayside Park in Ocala.  Waiting for us were Chris, his friend Chris M., and one of Rob and Chris's coworkers, Randy.  We unloaded kayaks and gear, and then Rob and the Chrisses drove the vehicles about a half-hour down the road to our planned take out point.  There, they were met by another coworker, Erika, who drove everyone back to Ray Wayside where I was waiting with Olivia and Randy.  And from there?  We launched!

Our plan, orchestrated by Chris, was simple.  We were going to paddle upstream on the Silver River, just far enough into Silver River State Park to possibly find a geocache hidden on the river and also to see the monkeys that live in the trees there.  Yes, monkeys.  We got probably a quarter- to a half-mile upstream when our plans kind of changed.  See, I am somewhat phobic about water.  And here I was, in a tandem kayak with Erika, and started to have a panic attack.  I was having a hard time dealing with the movements of another person in the kayak, and I kept feeling like I was going to tip.  Plus, the Silver River, being spring-fed, is crystal clear, and I don't want to know what's in the water.

I sure picked the right hobby, huh?

And so, we pulled up alongside a fallen tree, where I managed to get up from my seat, switch directions, and get into a single kayak.  Chris had stepped out onto the tree...where, by the way, a snake was sunning itself...held things steady for me, and then stepped over into my empty seat in the tandem.  I calmed down immediately, and I really appreciate Chris's patience and help with that situation.  It would really have sucked to abandon the weekend that soon into it.  This was, however, pretty much when we decided to abort the plan to continue upstream.  It sure was pretty on the Silver River, though...even if I am afraid of the things I can see:

From the Silver River, we paddled downstream and met up with the Ocklawaha River.  The water here is brown, tannen-rich due to cypress tree run-off.  The current is decent, and once we got away from the launch area of Ray Wayside we didn't see too much boat traffic.  One thing I learned, though, is that I really don't care for jet skis:

Onward, we paddled.  Chris and Erika were in a tandem, Rob and Olivia were in a tandem, and the rest of us were in single kayaks.  We looked for wildlife, moved around, chatted, spread out, and just enjoyed ourselves.  There were turtles out everywhere.  I had seen one alligator at the launch, and there was one other sighting on that first day.  Rob took pictures for awhile and then passed the camera to me.  A few highlights:

After awhile we found a nice little beach and stopped for lunch.  We had all packed some snacks, but Erika provided an awesome PB&J spread.  So, we sat around feasting while enjoying a little swim.  Chris even caught a minnow for Olivia, which we (thankfully) talked her into releasing before we moved on.

After our little siesta, we got back to work.  Our plan was to continue paddling until we reached a good place to camp for the night, hopefully about halfway or a little further.  The great thing about the Ocklawaha River is that the banks are state property, and camping...with fire...is allowed.  We also knew of an actual campsite with facilities, Gore's Landing, and were really hoping to find a spot there.

Our afternoon paddling was relaxed but had purpose.  Still, we all managed to enjoy ourselves and the Mother Nature's beauty surrounding us.  Randy stopped to fish several times (though he didn't catch anything), and Chris M. even jumped into the river and trailed his kayak for a little while.  Olivia...somehow...actually managed a nap:

Some other afternoon photo highlights:

Soon after this we came upon Gore's Landing Park.  There were sites available and...after paying the $5 fee...we set up camp for the night.  We hung out, relaxed, got to know a few of our neighbors, and reflected on the day.  According to Chris's GPS, we paddled about 12 miles.  I had an immediate sense of accomplishment, even though our trip wasn't completed.  Here I was, afraid of my surroundings, in awe of them at the same time, and I was happy.

Our evening was spent around the campfire, eating, talking, trying...and failing...to avoid the bugs.  The next morning we had breakfast, broke camp, and continued on down the river.  We knew it was going to be a shorter journey, only about 6 or 7 miles this time.  If there was a way for us to be more relaxed, we discovered it.  We weren't in a hurry and really spent the day taking in the scenery.  Chris even enjoyed a rope swing:

A few other highlights:

Soon after this, we were done.  Rounding a curve in the river, there was our take out spot.  We had been on the water about 4 hours, adding about 6 miles to our first day's journey.  We paddled roughly 18 miles in two days.  It was an amazing trip.  I got to know Florida in a way I never had before, and I couldn't be more grateful.

I'll leave you with this thought:  Imagine, if you will, that Florida is a living, breathing entity.  What draws you in first is our beautiful skin, our beaches.  We accessorize ourselves with theme parks and nightclubs and cities that love to party.  The sweet breath of our tropical breezes keep you enchanted.  But far beneath the beautiful, seductive exterior is our vast heartbeat, the great Florida aquifer.  From that pumps our life's blood, the springs and lakes where you come for enjoyment.  And finally, our veins...the rich rivers which flow throughout this great state and tie us all together.

That is the Florida I got to know.  And I can't believe I waited until now to really start living in it.