Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Trip 51: Bioluminescent kayaking

State Parks visited: 41

Well, here's my challenge:  We took a couple of nighttime paddling trips recently, and I didn't take a single picture.  I have no images to share with you of some of the most magical moments I have ever spent in my entire life...and I am rather happy about it.  For you see, now I am forced to use my creativity and paint you a mental picture.

First of all, allow me to explain bioluminescence (as I understand it).  Basically, millions of microscopic critters live in our coastal brackish waters during the hottest months of the year.  These critters, called dynoflagellates, light up when they feel threatened.  Think of fireflies, only underwater and on a much smaller scale.  Neat, right?  What's even neater is that they consider anything that disturbs them to be a threat, whether it be a fish swimming by, or waving sea grass...or a hand...or a paddle. 

So, we got a group together and met up in Titusville for a nighttime trip to a small island.  Rob, me, Olivia, Randy, Xandra, Chris, and his brother Matthew...we launched as the sun went to sleep for the night, and no moon to guide our way.  Fighting mosquitoes and jumping fish (that's what I told myself the sounds were since I couldn't see anything...), we paddled around the edge of this little island less than a mile off shore and let the darkness settle around us.  We had packed a cooler of beverages and just sat there, relaxing, socializing, losing Randy, and having a damn good time. 

Eventually we started sweeping our hands through the water, hoping to see things light up.  And eventually, they did.  Imagine, if you will, a 4th of July sparkler, with a greenish tint, held underwater.  That's what it looked like to me:  One swift splash brought out some sharp points of light, only to fade away until the next splash.  Xandra showed us how she made something of a whirlpool in the water, quickly agitating the dynoflagellates until eventually there was one big flash.  Static electricity-esque, I guess?  It's how I see it in my head!

Pretty soon we tired of the fun and headed back to shore.  It was extremely neat to see such a phenomenon, but the experience seemed to be incomplete.  There are many companies here that offer guided tours to see bioluminescence, and I got the feeling they saw something greater than what we had seen.  And so, I started doing a little research.  I found what appeared to be a better location for greater 'bio' sighting, and we started planning another trip.

The next trip, a couple of weeks after the first, was very different.  This time it was Rob, me, Olivia, Xandra, Chris, his coworker Tony, Tony's wife Candace, and my friend Denise and her fiance James.  Mind you, Denise and I haven't seen each other since the day we graduated high school (just a couple years ago, right?!?), so there was something of a reunion when we met at Bairs Cove boat ramp at the Canaveral National Seashore.  After a whole slew of introductions, a little kayaking instruction, and lots of bug-spraying, we launched.

This time we paddled around the channel, hugging the shore until we came to a little cove.  Along the way we saw some of the wildlife Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is known for (Roseate spoonbill?  Check. Gator?  Check.).  We paddled into the cove and waited for darkness to fall.  We waited...and waited...and waited.  The mosquitoes were pretty bad the closer we got to the mangroves surrounding the cove...but we all got so caught up talking that we didn't realize the current was taking us so close to them.  It was so much fun catching up, telling stories, laughing, hanging out. 

Once it got pretty dark, we started testing the water.  Knowing the animals present, I didn't keep my hands in the water too long.  Just long enough to sweep through and look for the fireworks I remembered from the last trip.  And for the longest time...nothing.  I started to get worried that our outing was a bust.  I was starting to feel kind of guilty when...I saw it.  It felt like my eyes were playing tricks on me, but there it was...bioluminescence. 

It wasn't like I had seen before, and maybe that's what was throwing me off.  Still, once one person started seeing it, we all started seeing it.  Imagine seeing ripples in the water on a moonlit night, only you look up and realize there is no moon.  Every touch of the water...your hand, your paddle, the water dripping from the tip of your paddle...creates this green mist...only within the water itself.  It isn't a bright light.  Think of the dim glow of those glow-in-the-dark stars and moons we stuck on our ceilings as kids.

And then we all became children again.

At least, we all started giggling like children.  We all realized the magic of what was happening around us, and it seemed like our cares just melted away.  It was serendipity, and it was ours. 

Fish had been jumping all around us.  Once we started seeing the bio, we started seeking out the fish.  Scaring a school of mullet was like watching heat lightning on a hot night:  First the glow of the fish streaking through the water, then a small flash of it leaping out.  Another flash when it landed, and another streak as it sped away.  Only...ten-fold, twenty-fold.  Amazing and magical, and yet I was 35 the first time I saw it.  How does that happen?

We paddled around giggling, laughing, enjoying ourselves for, I don't know, 15 minutes or so when I realized we were no longer alone.  From a distance I saw what looked like candles dancing across the water, all in a row.  Not some different kind of bio, of course, but one of those guided tours I mentioned earlier, the chem lights hanging from the bows and sterns of their kayaks serving as an eerie beacon of their presence.  When I saw them coming, I knew we had chosen the right place.

Once the tour group came into the cove they scattered and had their own fun.  We took that as our cue to leave.  As we were paddling to the outlet, a fish jumped into my kayak.  In the darkness it sounded huge, flopping around somewhere behind me.  James turned on his headlamp and saved the day, and the tiny little needlefish found his way back home.   Xandra made a (brave) pitstop on one of the small islands, and that's where our group unintentionally broke up.  It was not something we had really prepared for, and I felt bad for the failure in communication.  Eventually, though, we reunited and found our way back to the ramp.  We packed up, said our goodbyes, and headed home.

As we were paddling out I heard one woman from the tour tell her paddling partner, "I feel like Tinkerbell!"  And quite honestly, I do, too.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Trips 47-50: Our Summer of Hiking

State Parks visited: 41

Our summer has been spent with odd schedules, work obligations, limited transportation, and only a single day here and there to meet up for adventure.  One thing we (fortunately) all love to do, and is abundantly available, is hit the hiking trails.  Many weekends this summer we, or some portion of 'we,' found a trail and started walking.  I wasn't always there...major holidays see me tied up at work...and I know Rob won't be doing the writing here, so I'm going to share some pictures and hope you enjoy!

Jennings State Forest was the destination for Labor Day.  I was working, so Rob, Olivia, Chris, and Xandra made the trip north to add trails for their Trailwalker patches.  They did some geocaching, too...even finding one that was broken apart and partially fallen down a ravine.  Sad Xandra:

One particularly cool thing they saw on this trip was a snake.  It caught their eyes because it was in an upright position, just testing the air and looking around.  We've done some research and discovered it's an Eastern Coachwhip.  Here's the snake and a few other photos from the day:

I was able to join in the next outing, which was hiking a portion of the Florida Trail.  Our goal was to put in several miles and geocache, geocache, geocache, so Olivia spent a very indulgent day with my parents!

The first thing we noticed when we got out of the car were bear tracks down the forest road.  Chris and Xandra, who joined us a little later, saw the bear on their way!  A few photos:

I can't remember how many miles we hiked, but I think we got about 18 caches that day.  I took a ton of pictures.  Here are some more:

Banana spiders...a.k.a. Golden Orb Weavers because of the golden hue of their webs...were everywhere.  Several times we almost walked into them!

Here's a picture of a banana spiderweb from the side, and you can see the color I mentioned:

On our way down a side trail, in search of a cache, we saw something pretty cool!  I guess a bear had come through in search of honey, and we found the remnants of a honeycomb that had been inside a tree:

Aside from lots of animal tracks and tons of spiders, this was the only wildlife we saw.  Thankfully it was a harmless black racer...Chris walked within a few feet of it without even realizing it was there:

One final group photo and our day on the trail was done!


Just a few days after our Florida Trail trip, Chris and Rob had the same day off.  They took off across the state and did some hiking in the Goethe State Forest, again adding trails for their Trailwalker patches.  Male friendship is a simple, quiet thing, really, and photography by said men is equally simple.  They take pictures of funny things:

Things that make fire:

Things that make fire BIGGER:

Things that help them know where they are:

And things that help them know where not to go:


Our final hiking trip this summer was to the Bluffton Trail in the Lake George State Forest.  Rob, Olivia, and I were met by Chris, and this was another designated Trailwalker trail.  While we were waiting for Chris we took some photos:


On the hunt for ant lions!

Eventually Chris found us and we hit the trail.  This one in particular is just over a mile in length, and we were scoping out places to hide geocaches for others to enjoy.

We found a beautiful, shaded trail, well-marked and just the right distance to keep a certain 7-year-old from complaining (too much).

While on our hike we saw a huge owl, although I wasn't able to get a picture of it or identify it.  We also found some great caching hiding places, and pretty soon we're going to start camouflaging our containers.  Another hike is in our future!  On the way out of the forest Robert saw a snake in the road.  We turned around to investigate, and I got a (not great) photo....it was a pigmy rattlesnake!!  One of our handful of venomous snakes in Florida, lazily crossing the road.

The snake is the dark line just left of center.  Once it realized I was looking at it, it took off, its little rattle just a'buzzing!

And there you have it!  We may not have been able to get the adventures we wanted into our schedules this summer, but we were able to get in just the right adventures we needed.