Friday, May 16, 2014

Falling Waters

On my final evening and then day in Florida I camped at Falling Waters State Park, which is north of Panama City, off Interstate 10, almost to the border of Alabama.  It is the highest state park in elevation, 324 feet above sea level, and has the tallest waterfall, 73 feet.  Although, the water falls down into a sink hole!  There are several sink holes in Falling Waters State Park, not far from this water fall.  I took pictures, but not sure they will relate the feeling of dread you can experience looking into these things.  We have all heard recently of sink holes that open up and swallow houses, people, and expensive cars.  The reasons they form are various, but at this location in Florida, it is from rainwater eroding away the underground limestone, resulting in pockets or caves, which eventually collapse.

Here are still pictures of some of the dry sinkholes.

And here I am, standing on the viewing platform at the waterfall.  Two fellow travelers were kind enough to take my picture.

The previous evening I camped, leaving my rain guard off, as the night was clear and comfortable.  This park gave me the quintessential camping experience that I'd like to share with all the people who caution me, or express worry when I tell them I will be camping alone, in a tent, at a state park.  Within 30 seconds of having arrived at my spot, surrounded by older folks in their travel trailers, I received a couple of offers to help me set up my tent, which I declined because my tent sets up so very quickly, and then an invite to come over and have something to drink.  Friendly people!  That is what I have always found in state parks, from Minnesota, to Texas, to Wisconsin, to Florida!  It is one of the safest places to spend the night.

In the morning a thrush of some kind welcomed the morning.  Cardinals searched all around mine and the surrounding campsites for any crumbs left on the ground.  I got a hot, private shower in the facilities, packed up my things, found and explored the waterfall above, then had breakfast at the picnic facilities, by myself, and watched a family of mockingbirds attend to their nest.  Probably 'mom' was the more protective of the pair, coming in with insects, and waiting, and giving me a hairy eyeball, before slipping off and around the tree to disguise her approach to the nest.  'Dad' took no such caution, and just flew direct.  The nest was rather high in the branches, so I couldn't harm their young even if I had wanted to.  As I left the park, the two rangers helped me solve a small problem I had . . . what to do with the remaining 2 bagels I had and cream cheese.

I enjoy roadtrips, especially along paths I have never been.  I am always open to explore anything interesting along the way, if there is time to stop.  On my way to Falling Waters I stopped at a roadside attraction where I could have purchased citrus, any kind of souvenir related to citrus, Florida souvenirs, and got to photograph the only gators I saw my entire time in the state.  They were just babies!
The following morning, I backtracked about 10 miles to go check out the very well advertised location where I could see (and purchase) Bonsai trees.  It was free to come look.  I did only get to see one side of the garden/shop as the other side was closed off, and was being patrolled by a rather driven German Shepard.  He was rather adamant on his side of the fence that I had better be on guard, and that he would entertain no funny business from me if I showed even the slightest inclination to come into that half of the garden/shop.  I was more interested in seeing the trees on the other side, and more worried about the fire ant hills all around where I was walking.

Again, rather than post picture after picture, I'll wrap up my vacation with a slideshow of Bonsai trees.  Most of these trees are older than me, even with my birthday coming up in a couple days.  I only got to see one corner of Florida during my visit, and tried to focus more on the less commercial side of the state.  It was an enjoyable Spring Vacation, and a nice chance to see and visit with my sisters.


Monday, May 12, 2014

Gainesville, Florida

Because I would be spending more time in Florida than my sisters, prior to my trip I began to search around for things to do. I came across a link for the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. They have a permanent Butterfly Rainforest display.  It would be a long drive from Panama City, about four hours, but I decided it would be worth it.  I do enjoy seeing some of the beautiful and delicate end results of evolution, and not just the rugged and blood-thirsty (raptors). In my continued search I also discovered that Gainesville has the Kanapaha Botanical Gardena.  Well, put that on my list of things to do as well.  In fact, I went to the garden first, to enjoy it in the early morning light, and would go to the butterfly display in the afternoon, after it was warm and the butterflies were all up and moving around.  However, I'm presenting my pictures here in reverse order. The link above for the Butterfly Rainforest also has live webcams, if anyone is interested to see those.

After dropping my sisters off at the airport on Sunday afternoon, I drove late into the night to arrive in Gainesville.  I stayed at an inexpensive hotel, which wasn't much more than a clean bed and a shower, but that was all I needed.  In the morning I found a Paneras (I found several in Florida, much to my delight).  After breakfast, my day was spent with flowers and butterflies.

The Butterfly Rainforest is open air, with a stream running through it.  At any given time there are about 1000 butterflies in the enclosure, representing about 75 species.  The enclosure also has butterfly-friendly birds, finches and quail that won't eat the butterflies, and some turtles in the water.

Rather than display picture after picture of the many I took of the butterflies, I searched out and created a slide show for my blog.  Enjoy!  I may go back sometime and try to identify some of them from the info I picked up at the museum, but for now, it was rather time consuming just loading up these images.  These are exotics, coming from all over the world.  The museum receives them as pupae, then incubates them and hatches them out.  They explained that they only release the males into the enclosure, which is tightly sealed to prevent escapes, and they do not have the kinds of plants that the caterpillars would want to eat.  This is to prevent any accidental introduction of an invasive species.  The butterflies live out there lives in the enclosure, about two to three weeks, then die, but are replaced daily with new ones that hatched.  I was present for a release, which happens every day at 2 pm.
My morning was spent at the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens.  I don't know a whole lot about plants, but I do enjoy flowers.  However, much of the garden was well past the Spring bloom.  After all, it is in Florida!  Spring probably happened in February.  As I put together this blog it is just getting going here in Minnesota.
Again, I put together a slideshow of some of the closeups of flowers.  Enjoy!
Some pictures need to be enjoyed more than a few seconds.  The sign on the tree below said it is a Coral Tree.  The hummingbirds loved it.
It is very GREEN in Florida!

There is Spanish Moss on a lot of the older trees.
I really like the effect of the reflected image off the water.
The water that flows through the multiple springs and creeks and ponds is reclaimed from the city, so the brochure tells me!
There were Dragons in the garden as well.  A couple stone ones . . . 

And countless REAL ones . . . although I think they might have been babies!

One of them even threatened me!

It was a magical morning in a beautiful Florida garden.

The last thing I did prior to leaving Gainesville was to enjoy a little local cuisine.  I had researched to find someplace that I could taste some Cuban food, but my Tom Tom just did not want to recognize the address I gave it.  Then, quite by accident, I drove by the very place I wanted to find.  Mi Apa Latin Cafe delivered me a fabulous roast pork (Lechon Asado) with yellow rice (Arroz Amarillo), black beans (Frijoles Negros), and stuffed potato (Papa Rellena), complete with a Passion Fruit smoothie.  Tasty!  Wish we had something like this here local.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Spring Vacation

Sometime late last year my sisters informed me that they planned for a Spring Sister's Weekend in Florida.  My oldest (living) sister, Janet, has a friend and co-worker who owns a vacation home in South Port, Florida, which is a northern suburb of Panama City Beach.  She offered her home to us for the long weekend.  I've never been to Florida, and it has been a little while since I've spent any time with my sisters.  It sounded like a wonderful idea.  Also, Spring has been slow to arrive, again, here in Minnesota.  I was looking forward to a Warm and Sunny Florida.

Because my work schedule is a little more flexible than my sisters, and because it was a lot more affordable for me to arrange my flight accordingly, I booked my tickets to leave out on a Tuesday, and to return on the following Tuesday.  The rest of the time in the state I would travel and camp.  I very much enjoy travel, especially in a vehicle that I can stop along the way and check out anything interesting.  I sometimes wish my life would allow for a lot more travel . . . but the comforts of a stable home base can't be beat either.

As I sit here assembling my thoughts for this post, it is a Saturday and I am home alone, as Rich is at work.  The windows are open, and a light and fresh Spring breeze cleanses the house.  Our summer avian migrants have been arriving, coloring our feeders with Goldfinch yellow, Indigo Bunting blue, Cardinal red, and Northern Oriole orange, among the various browns of sparrows and blacks of Red-Winged Blackbirds and Grackles.  This morning I assembled a travel canopy on my lawn, and have placed out into it my five chicken chicks, to begin to explore the outdoors in a covered and protected environment.  Soon, next week, Rich and I will begin to construct a more sturdy and permanent enclosure for our future egg layers.  Spring has arrived, and I am contently enjoying it.

After working the weekend of April 25th, 26th and 27th, and a Monday off to get my act together and tidy up the house for my absence, Rich drove me to the Twin Cities in the wee early morning hours of Tuesday, April 29th.  My flight left at 6:30 am, with a connecting flight through Atlanta, arriving in Pensacola, Florida a little after 11:00 am.  After escaping the airport and picking up my rental vehicle for the week (a Chevrolet Cruze) I plugged into my TomTom (definitely my friend for the week) the address of Joe Patti's Seafood, a fresh fish market of local fame which has an attached restaurant.  The seafood basket I began my trip off with was most excellent!
After lunch I stopped at a couple stores to supply myself with a few necessities, soaps and personal items I did not bring with me, to avoid having too many 3 oz bottles for TSA to reject, as well as an ice chest and some snacks and liquid refreshments.  I then made my way to the coast, and East to find my first stop for the night, a Florida State Park called Topsail Hill.  As I journeyed there, the promised inclement weather that NOAA said I would encounter began to be seen in the area.  I arrived to Topsail late in the afternoon, but with just enough daylight to quickly assemble my tent and get settled for the evening.  Because I had been up very early, I had no objection to turning in early and getting a first good night's sleep.  Florida would see fit to disrupt those plans.

It had been raining lightly when I set up my tent, and continued to do so after I laid down.  I have a rain guard, and have never had any leaking, other than just a little mild condensation.  My nice little tent has served me well for many years.  I fell asleep rather fast, and must have slept for several hours.  I woke up and became aware of the storm late in the evening, 10 or 11 PM or so.  I sleepily monitored my situation.  I felt along the edges of my sealed tent (the bottom is sealed to the top, and completely zips up) and didn't find anything too worrisome.  There was a little mild moisture, but overall seemed to be serving the function of keeping me dry.  However, I noticed the rain was starting to pick up, and the lightening was impressive.  It flashed and flashed, and boomed, from a distance, but it was constant.  My camp site was located under a significant canopy of trees, and placed a fair distance down a walking path from where I parked my car.  I continued to rest, but was more alert in case I would need to take some action.  That action came around 1 am.

The first thing that alerted me that there may be a problem was a particular frog, who had been croaking and singing in the night.  I noticed he came a lot closer to my tent, almost outside it.  I understood that the puddles he must have been swimming in were getting larger, and that I might have one increasing in size just outside where I was camped.

Little animated frog arches upward and croaks

Then I started to feel cold, and wet.  I reached for my little flash light, and lit up my environment.  When I place my tent, I always put a tarp down first.  As I touched the ground, it felt like a water bed, so much water was between the tarp and my tent floor.  Time to vacate!  I grabbed what I could, exited in the pouring rain, and fled to the campground's bathroom/shower facility.  Here there was cover and lights.  My car was parked nearby.  My path there was filled with fairly deep puddles.  I got quite wet.  Fortunately, it was still rather warm, compared to what I had been used to in Minnesota.

I found the whole situation to be rather laughable.  I faced it with good humor.  I was never in any danger, though I was unsure what else the night may bring.  Along the wall of the bathroom/shower facility were several other species of frogs, stuck to the walls and on the floors.  Another fine fellow like the one next to my tent was singing away in a large puddle off to the side of the bathroom.  A very large cicada droned on and on.  During a small lull in the deluge, I got into my car, started it up, enjoyed the heated seats, and searched the radio dial for some information on the storm.  I do not have a smart phone, and wasn't going to call and wake anyone else up at this point in time.  No radio station was very helpful with weather information.  I snoozed lightly, fretted about there being any hail to fall and damage my rental car, worried about my tablet which I had left back in my tent, although in a bag on the top of my pile of stuff with my camping gear, and waited for dawn.  I was not going to risk running back to my tent for the tablet as there was just too much lightening.

As dawn approached, I texted a co-worker who had teased me about going to Florida.  He provided me with comic relief over the next few hours regarding my situation.  Thanks David!  When it became light enough that I could see, and the storm seemed to have abated for awhile, I returned to my tent to salvage what I could.  I removed all the rest of my belongings, dragging them to the bathroom one by one.  Fortunately, my tablet was sitting high and dry, but just about everything else under it was soaked.  Thank goodness I had left my luggage with all my clothes in the car!  I wrung out all my towels and blankets and bags, packed myself up, and made my way up to the ranger station.  I drove through some large flowing water doing that . . . although I would observe that the flooding got worse as the morning went on.

The rangers at Topsail Hill were quite friendly and helpful.  They were at a bit of a loss themselves, as this much rain was not normal for them either . . . even during a hurricane!  One observed that the rain gauge had topped out over 10 inches.  Later I would learn that where I was at received about 12 inches of rain overnight.  Pensacola, not far away, received over 24!  One ranger offered to take me via one of their transport vehicles to retrieve my tent.  While doing that, we toured around the park and saw all kinds of flooding.  Topsail Hill is located along the coast, and has access to a beach.  By that definition, it is downhill, so all that water was going to flow that direction.  The flooding observed was only going to get worse!

Now, to demonstrate the power of water, I'm going to share some pictures I'm 'borrowing' from other locations.  Here is a map of Topsail Hill.
In the middle of the map you will see a body of water called Campbell Lake.  Off to the right is the boardwalk to the beach.  The ranger I was with informed me that normally Campbell Lake drains off in a shallow and slow creek into the ocean.  When we stopped by the boardwalk, we saw this devastation.
That's some fast moving water!  Here is another picture.  You can see how it has carved out a lot of the dunes around it.
These pictures were lifted off Topsail Hill's Facebook page.  I myself did not take these.  When I was there the sea was storming and the wind was blowing, and it was not safe to stay there.  The Ranger and I observed, and then left.  If you would like to see more pictures, follow this link:

Topsail Hill Flash Flood
Once I had retrieved my tent, wet as it was, I packed myself up and made my way into town to try and figure out what I was going to do.  I was supposed to camp at another State Park that night, but my tent was unusable at this time.  Also, it would prove to take me quite a large portion of the day to make it out of the area, many roads were closed and flooded.  I saw more than one car off the road and floating.  I was to meet my sisters for the first day of our long weekend on the following day, but fortunately, Janet's friend, and our long distance hostess was willing to let me come to her vacation home a day early.  I thankfully did this, got the power on, got myself cleaned up, washed and dried my clothes, then took myself out for a pleasant dinner, then warm and safe sleep.  The next day I would pick up my sisters from the airport.

I made it just in time to Florida to experience a record-breaking flash flood.  I did search the Internet and found a video that gives a feel for what the area experienced.  Specifically, it has satellite clips that show the amount of rain that fell.  Please disregard any speculative 'fringe' thoughts on the video.  The rest of the images seem to report the events rather faithfully.  I did note, a week later when I left, that I did not see a whole lot of standing water as I flew over and away from the area.  Again, being on the coast, all the water ran off into the sea.  However, at the time of the storm, it was rather impressive!

Pensacola Flash Flood 4/30/14

Now . . . on to the rest of the trip!

The next day, Thursday, I was joined by my two sisters, Janet, the oldest who lives in Mansfield, Texas, and Jennefer, the middle sister who lives outside Peoria, Illinois.  They both flew into the local airport within about a half hour of each other.  After getting them settled in, we did the female sister thing . . . we went out and got a pedicure.  Here are our sandy toes, taken on the beach on one of the following days.
That evening I took them back to the restaurant I had gone to my first night in the area, a chain restaurant called PoFolks.  The food is good and plentiful, and really affordable.  It's sorta like a Florida version of Cracker Barrel, only not as famous.  Our waitress took our picture.  Janet is in the middle in this picture, Jennefer on the right.
It was a quiet evening as they were both tired from their travels, and it was fairly wet and gloomy outside.  In fact, the sun would not come out until Saturday.  One of the locals referred to the rain as 'liquid sunshine'.  When the real sunshine arrived, it was much appreciated.

The next morning Janet made breakfast, some rice pudding.  We each would take turns cooking a meal, either a breakfast or a dinner.  We then headed out for some shopping and site seeing.  One of our first stops was at an antique store.  Janet and her daughters like going antiquing.  She found some books there that one of her daughters may find interesting.  We made our way East, along the coast, searching for access to more remote, and thus less crowded beaches.  We found several.

At one of our stops, a little town called Mexico Beach, we walked out onto a long fishing pier.  I photographed this handsome fellow, who did not seem to be the least bit concerned about us.  It (frankly don't know if this Great Blue Heron is a male or female, as the sexes are monomorphic) let me approach quite close to take his picture.  However, with that beak, I don't think he has anything to worry about from little ole me.  This is definitely a case of where the beak would be a lot more dangerous than the feet.  People often ask me if I'm afraid of my hawks biting me.  I inform them you have to be more careful of the feet in raptors, although some beaks can deliver a sharp pinch.  This beak below is definitely the weapon with this bird.  I think he was hanging out hoping either for fish scraps, or possibly even to steal a fish not carefully guarded by the angler who reeled it in.
All along the beach, and throughout our stay, a regular local are the Laughing Gulls.  I did observe some mating behavior between a pair, but as soon as I got my camera out, they had finished what they were doing and one of them flew off.
There were also many terns (I did not identify them), and sandpipers (also unidentified).   In fact, even sitting here with my Sibley Guide to Birds, I could not tell you exactly what these two birds below are.  They do not appear to be in breeding plumage, which you would expect from adults at this time of year, and it seems too early for juveniles.  I'm just not very good at identifying birds of the shore or lakeside.  If they are not obvious, or have a distinctive song, I'm stumped.
Speaking of birds, I did get to do a little bird watching, but there is just too much cover in Florida to get more than a glance without effort.  The overwhelming representative of the buteo family was the Red Shouldered Hawk.  I saw a few, and heard quite a few more.  Because they prey on small rodents and reptiles and amphibians, you would expect them to do quite well in tropical Florida.

We continued our journey along the coast, coming to a town called Port St. Joe.  We checked out their downtown shopping district, looking for a place to eat lunch.  There was a restaurant I had looked up on the Net, but it would not open until that evening, and we wanted to eat THEN.  Jennefer had noticed a roadside Bar-B-Que stand, Paul Gant's, that seemed to be pretty busy, so we went and checked it out.  Yep . . . turned out to be some mighty tasty ribs and pulled pork.  We sat out back under a big umbrella, in the rain.  If you happen to find yourself in this area, eat at Paul Gant's!  It was fabulous!
Refreshed with lunch, we continued to drive on down the road, out onto the peninsula that juts out into the Gulf Coast.  This is the location of the second state park I was going to camp at, but just didn't get to because of the weather.  Too Bad . . . it looked nice!  Pictures were taken and shells picked up, but again, it was rather rainy and gloomy, and not very beach friendly weather.  Stopping back in Port St. Joe on our way back we checked out a coffee shop, No Name Cafe, had some coffee, and bought a few gifts for folks back home.  Here is where I found the Weird Florida book for Rich, to join his Weird Texas and Weird Minnesota and Weird Wisconsin collection.  I also found a very beautiful coffee mug to join my collection at home.  Which, by the way, I enjoy sharing with friends who come by and visit.  Pick a pretty mug from the collection and let's chat over coffee or tea.
It says on it:  "Walks along the Beach" . . . which is what we did!
On our route back home, we stopped at a fish market.  (Actually, I think we went to the market the day before - but I'll blog about it here.)  Are you sensing a trend here??  I do so love fish, especially fresh fish.  This market also had live crayfish, called 'crawdads', which we played with.  I teased my sister with them.
Janet does not really care for seafood of any kind.  Here she expresses her disgust.
I bought a pound of them, and Jennefer and I enjoyed them that evening.
I had also bought some Vermillion Snapper, which looked absolutely lovely.  Jennefer took pictures of them prior to their time in the oven.
She then artfully arranged her plate to display the finished dinner.
I would eat fish several times a week if I could get it as fresh as this!

It was a tasty end to a good day, even it it had been cloudy and gloomy.
The next day the sun finally came out!

We three returned to the beach to enjoy it in the warmth and sunshine.
There is not a whole lot to report for this day, as we just moseyed from one beach to another, finding shells, and eventually getting thrown off the beach (the car anyway) because I didn't have a beach access pass for my car.  Hey, at least they just told us to get the car off the beach, and didn't give me a ticket.

The surf along this portion of the Florida coast is very strong, so only the smallest shells survive, but they litter the beach.  There are portions of larger shells, and occasionally the very interesting item.
 Jennefer was the only one of us who found a complete sand dollar.
That evening she also displayed the other cool item she picked up that day on the beach . . . a shark tooth.
After cleaning up her shell haul, she made dinner, with the addition of some steamed shrimp that I picked up on our way back from our beach day.  I could come to love living near the beach.  There are many places you can pop in, select and purchase a pound or two of very fresh shrimp, and they will steam them for you, and send you on your way with a hot, steaming box of shrimp.  Yummy!

Again, Jennefer created a lovely display of our meal that evening.
On our final day together, we went out for breakfast, and then made our way to the actual Panama City Beach.  This whole area is a rather disgusting commercial district, that has ruined what was probably a very pretty beach some time ago.  We drove the strip to see it, to stop and pick up some souvenirs, and to see the water, which is supposed to be a very deep shade of blue.  I found it to be crowded, noisy (that weekend there was a motorcycle rally) and was glad we had found some quiet beaches the last few days to enjoy.  A passerby was willing to take our picture.
While shopping for doodads and whatnots to take home, I came across one of those old-time photograph studios.  Janet agreed with me that it sounded like a fun idea.  Jennefer, not so much, but she went along.  Instead of bar maids, I selected a layout of three proper ladies.  We each had a copy to take home.
Our final hours together were spent cleaning up our guest home, making sure to leave it in a very good order, and then packing up, and then going out to have a drink before I took my sisters to catch their plane.  They had the drink . . . I had tea.  After all . . . I was driving.
It was nice to see my sisters.  We live so far apart, we don't see each other much.  Janet suggested that we make this a tradition, maybe every other year.

After dropping them off at the airport, I got myself onto the road to drive the 4+ hours to get to Gainesville.  After all, I still had two more days in Florida, and plans.  On that note, I think I'll blog my adventures in Gainesville in a separate entry . . . for it is picture rich, and this entry is already over-long.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Florida Vacation

Over the last week I spent some time with my sisters in Sunny Florida . . . that is . . . it was sunny the later part of my trip.  It was rather wet and soggy during the first part of the visit.  I'll return soon to post pictures and attempt to organize my vacation in words and pictures.  For now, there is laundry, and animals to take care of.  Rich has been holding down the home front.  Now its time to take back my responsibilities.

 "My Wife went to Florida . . . and all I got was this hat.  Oh, and this book too!"    ~Rich