Saturday, March 31, 2012

Everglades


10,000 miles to Maine, and then down to the very end of Florida, the furthest point in the continental U.S. from Bozeman that is possible, in a camper van that once left us stranded in Butte, and now we are finally headed home. Slowly. Florida has been fun and we have immensely enjoyed playing in the warm sunshine. On the way out of the Keys we stopped in the southern portion of the Everglades. We were happy to see that the mosquito level sign (reminiscent of our fire danger signs) at the entrance reported that the level was low. In our Montana brains, we had thought that the Everglades were nothing but swampland covered in gators. We were wrong. Though there are swampy sections, we mostly saw grasslands dotted here and there with stands of small trees. Somehow it reminded us of a miniature-scaled version of African savannah, although having never been there this assessment is probably completely wrong. We took a walk on classic national park style boardwalks on the Anhinga Trail through swampland. The amount of wildlife we viewed on this one walk was amazing. We saw loads of birds, anhingas, great blue herons, white egrets, white ibis, a Florida soft shell turtle laying eggs, red-stripe turtles swimming amongst schools of fish, and at least twenty alligators, including two babies. We were delighted by our deserted, long pine tree campground where we had more space than we had seen in about a month. I hadn't really realized how cramped I must have felt until we got there, nor that I must have missed non-ocean scenery. The following day, we drove to Flamingo over Coral Reef Pass with an elevation of 3 feet (no wonder the air seemed so thin), where we rented double kayaks and paddled up a canal where we saw two crocodiles lounging about and swallow-tailed kites and osprey soaring above. Amongst the docks there, we saw manatees hanging out, occasionally poking their heads out for a breath. We ended the day with a lovely walk to the ocean at sunset.

Photos here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Key West


Key West turned out to be, not surprisingly I suppose, somewhat tourist-y, although off the beaten track, amongst the rundown, island-mixed-with-Victorian architecture, we found a delicious French creperie that we had to visit twice. We visited a few of the must-sees like Fort Zachary Taylor, a Civil War-era fort, and then the Southernmost point in the U.S., where we drank coconut water from a fresh coconut before having it chopped open so that we could eat the flesh. We also visited Earnest Hemingway's house where the forty-four descendents of his sixty-five, six-toed cats live and where we learned about his accident-prone, can't-believe-he survived-that-many-concussions, plane-wrecks-and-wives life. He was officially a wild and crazy guy. Our final stop within Key West was the butterfly house where butterflies magically flitted, weightlessly through the air and oh-so-adorable Chinese Quails ran around at our feet. 

While there, we stayed at the tiny, quiet, Geiger Key campground about ten miles outside of town where we had a campsite that backed up to water dotted with mangrove islands. We spent hours watching tarpon, sargent fish, hound fish, iguanas, and Portuguese men of war swim by, and brown pelicans, white ibis, and egrets at home in the mangroves. One day we took tandem kayaks out to explore the waters. We paddled through the clear aquamarine channels to the brown tannin soaked stillness of the mangroves forests where we ducked our way under branches crawling with crabs and over roots crawling with fish through the tight paths that wound into the islands that so many fish and birds call home.

After spending five nights at Geiger Key, we spent a day on a sailboat sailing in the beautiful waters outside of Marathon. We enjoyed a nice breeze on a twenty-four foot, GPS-free, J-boat where the boys dangled their feet off the side and lounged about in the sun watching the bottom pass by as Jason and I continually tried to figure out where the heck we were.

Photos here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Middle Keys



After much anticipation we finally made it to the Keys. On the drive down, as we began to catch glimpses of the water, we couldn't believe how much the color looked like the Virgin Islands, until finally we crossed a bridge that revealed the shallow turquoise water in its full brilliance, proving that it truly rivalled our memories of the Carribean. Based out of Marathon in the Middle Keys for a couple of days, we snorkeled and played in the warm, shallow waters of Bahia State Park. One of our campgrounds was located next to the old seven-mile bridge where we took a walk suspended over the water, spotting sea turtles down below. At our next campground, we had a campsite right on the water where I drank my morning tea wading in the warm, knee deep water, and we got a firsthand look at why retirees spend months in their RV's in Florida. It was so cool to watch white-haired folks riding bikes around just for the fun of it, stopping in the road and chatting. I could imagine them as kids doing the exact same thing, running around free, in packs, throughout their neighborhoods. We spent one afternoon on a boat that took us out to a coral reef where we snorkeled in four foot, choppy seas. Submerged in the waves, we would ride them up to the crest and then drop so fast that we could feel it in our stomachs....some of us more than others. I was sea-sick both in the water and on the boat, and, understandably,  Aaron found the conditions entirely too violent for someone his size to be in. In spite of the rough conditions, and the short amount of time that we stayed in the water, we still managed to see a loads of fish, coral reefs, a nurse shark, and a sea turtle. 


Photos here.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Pompano Beach




We made a brief stop in Fort Lauderdale where we stayed in a hotel on Pompano Beach for a couple of nights. While we were there, we met with Jason's uncle for a nice dinner in Boca Raton. It was really funny to see Sylvia parked amongst the fanciness of Boca. I am still kicking myself for not taking her picture there. While staying at Pompano the boys played in the warm waves and later talked me into renting boogie boards for the afternoon, despite the ominous army of Portuguese Man of War that had washed up onto shore that morning. We had so much fun riding little waves onto shore in what may be the closest thing that this breakable body may ever see to surfing.

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Monday, March 19, 2012

NASA



It is really quite amazing what humans can accomplish when they put their minds to it. This trip has led us past the birthplace of flight in Kittyhawk where we saw man's first successful attempts at flight in the early 1900's, to Cape Canaveral where just 60 years later man built rockets that took us to the moon. It is astounding to see each firsthand, and to see the evolution that took place over such a short period of time. The boys walked around awestruck, gawking at the huge rockets. Aaron couldn't get enough of Saturn IB and couldn't wait to hop on a bus that would take us over to the even bigger Saturn V, which he sweetly informed me was, "Saturn 5, mom." The bus ride took us past the rocket hangar where the rockets are built, with bay doors that are tall enough for the Statue of Liberty to walk through without having to duck. We saw the giant, tank-like machines that transport the fully-fueled rockets at one mile per hour over perfectly round, Tennessee river rock from the state of Arkansas prized for its ability to rub against each other without sparking. We saw mobile launch towers, control headquarters, and, looming three miles off in the distance, the platform where the Apollo missions were launched from. At the hangar where a Saturn V rocket is kept we saw the control room used during the Apollo missions, including Apollo 13, where we watched a short video of a launch sequence so we could see how mission control managed each stage of ignition before they opened the doors to reveal the real Saturn V. Laying on its side, it was broken into sections so we got a very clear view of the different stages of the launch. In a side room, Jason faced ghosts from his past as he relived childhood trauma of  being chased around by an astronaut suit after he had curiously bent its fingers backwards. We saw Jim Lovell's reference manual used during the Apollo 13 mission, Neil Armstrong's astronaut suit, lunar landers.....really cool stuff. A few days later we watched the movie Apollo 13 with the boys while it was fresh in their brains so they could see what had happened during that ill-fated mission. They thought it was really cool to see hangar doors open, the rocket-mover in action, what happens in the control room, and how this group of people worked through an impossible situation to bring these three guys home safe. Needless to say NASA was a huge hit with all of us. 

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Canaveral National Seashore


While we were on Cape Canaveral, we stayed in a rundown, old RV campground beautifully perched on the Intracoastal Waterway. While relaxing next to the water in the evening, we caught a brief glimpse of a manatee so first thing in the morning we went back to check the water. The 50+ year-old, tattoed Harley guy with a relaxed mohawk camping next to the water came out and told us that he usually sees manatees, dolphins, and sting rays in the morning and showed us where to look. Shortly afterwards I found a small stingray swimming around, but no manatees or dolphins were to be seen. Our plan was to get out around 9am and head to the National Seashore. I know it will be a surprise to you all, but as it turns out, we were running late. Jason had a 10am meeting so we stayed in the campground while he sat in the van on the phone leaving the boys and I with time to watch the water for manatees. The evening before, we learned that the manatees leave oval-shaped patterns in the water as they swim by so we kept a sharp eye out for our round-shape making friends. As we sat by the water, long-term RV inhabitants were making their morning rounds chatting with neighbors and some came by to hang out and give us wildlife pointers. It was clear they were excited to have to young folks to hang out with. As we talked, manatees starting swimming by. We saw them in groups of two, three, and four. We saw a momma with, what must have been a new-born, only four feet long, and one of her older kids. They seemed to be swimming laps up and down the banks of the river because we must have seen them twenty times! We would walk side-by-side with them, only ten or fifteen feet away, down the length of the campground and then we would turn around, go back to where we started and walk down with the next family group. One of the long-term residents said they usually see one or two manatees per day, she couldn't believe how many we were seeing. She was convinced that they had come just for us. I had hoped that we may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a manatee on this trip. It was way beyond imagination that we would ever see this many! As I made lunch the boys and Jason continued to watch them swim by. 

After lunch we headed out to the Canaveral National Seashore, the largest undeveloped stretch of coastal Florida, thanks to NASA needing a huge buffer zone for launching rockets into space. After driving through Florida forest, spotting all kinds of cool birds, we stopped at the beach where the boys quickly immersed themselves into the ocean with much delight. When some storm clouds threatened in the distance, we decided to head further down the shoreline to the lagoon at the end of the road. After parking, as we walked down the boardwalk, we could see very large leathery forms on the beach at which point Jason exclaimed, "hey look manatee....no wait, just man." We had seen lots of signs warning that it was illegal to be nude on the beach (or anywhere really) and now we understand who it was directed towards. We decided that perhaps we should go check out the lagoon....we had seen enough manatees for one day. 

On the way out of the park, we made a quick stop at the visitor station before they closed for the night. On the grounds, there is a boardwalk that takes you through some wetlands. As we reached the end, I spotted our very first alligator! The boys were so excited to see the lazy beast snoozing across the pond from us. As we watched him yawn, we pondered the amazing fact that they had to make a law against taunting these large animals with huge teethy mouths. 

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

St. Augustine, FL


St. Augustine, founded in 1565, boasts the title of oldest continually inhabited city in the US, complete with an amazing castle-y Spanish fort. We stayed in nearby Anastasia State Park where we enjoyed walks through the hammock forest over old dunes. Though parts of town were incredibly touristy (I started worrying a little when I started seeing advertisements for Ripley's theme parks, hauntingly reminiscent of Gatlinburg), there were definately sections off the beaten path where it was cool to see genuinely old Spanish-looking buildings and yummy cafes. Not surprisingly, Aaron wanted to climb 271 steps to the top of the lighthouse for the big view before heading to Castillo San Marcos where we spent the afternoon checking out the nooks, crannies, and, of course, weaponry of the fort finished in 1672.


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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Barrier Islands


We awoke on Jekyll Island to clouds giving way to beautiful sunshine so we set out to explore the island a little bit. Jekyll Island is home to a 1920's era, swanky, resort club built by H.B. Hunt where folks like Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan hung out.  Sitting on the edge of our ultimate destination of the Sea Turtle Rescue Center, we parked on the gorgeous grounds and popped the top to let Sylvia dry in the wind and sun (quite the contrast to her fancy surroundings) while we ate our almond butter sandwiches and drank tea. Jason took this opportunity to work on the RV electrical system to figure out why it had pooped out the day before (with success, I might add),  so the boys and I played hacky sack while watching serious croquet players dressed all in white play in what looked to be a very serious game indeed. Continuing to work our way down the barrier islands, we checked out Amelia Island before rolling into Little Talbot Island State Park just after sunset. As Aaron told you we were lucky enough to be awoken the next morning by a great horned owl kicking off a great couple of days spent playing on the beach and launching off bone yard trees. 

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Monday, March 12, 2012

The Night (and Morning) of Owls by Aaron



We've been looking for owls for a long time. In Bozeman, on our second night looking for them in the graveyard on the hill, we saw a Great-Horned Owl fly down out of some  tree, but we didn't see it that well and it was quick and we didn't know where it went. But anyway, this is about the trip. We were staying on Little Talbot Island in Florida,  and on the first night there, we went looking for owls, but didn't find any. But owls were hooing almost all night long. Then, in the morning, when it was almost time to get up, the owls were STILL hooing! So we got up and started looking for them. The first one we thought was a Barred Owl, so we walked toward the sound but didn't find it. But from there we could hear another Great-Horned Owl. So we walked farther until we found a small field with a few large trees in it. The owl sounded like it was in the tree that looked like the largest of them all, but we still couldn't see it even though it was daylight. We went closer to the tree but still couldn't find it. Then we went to the other side of the tree and we saw something up near the top of it. After a few seconds we realized it was moving! It was the owl! We could see the feather-tufts on it's head move when it hooted, and we also saw it's wings move a little bit. We went to the other side of the tree to see if we could see it a little better. We didn't see it until it flew out, which was really cool. We were really happy we finally got to see an owl so well!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Savannah, GA


Our next stop was Savannah, founded in 1733 and meticulously planned by  General James Oglethorpe, with its gridded street system broken up every couple of blocks by shady park squares filled with giant, old live oaks, flowering camellia bushes, and park benches. We spent the day wandering the historic downtown streets and walking along the river flanked by tourist-trap shops. We spent the night at Skidaway State Park where we took a lovely walk in the morning through forests of palm, live oak, and slash pine, past a shy alligator den (although he did not grace us with his presence much to our disappointment), to an old civil war entrenchment, which was near an old moonshine distillery that the sheriff discovered and took axes to, and past ancient oyster shell middens left behind by the natives. The afternoon forecast was for severe thunderstorms so we hurried back to Sylvia as we listened to loud, rolling thunder booming in the distance, making it in just minutes before a torrential downpour. We decided to drive to our next destination, Jekyll Island, instead of hanging out in the camper van all afternoon watching deep puddles form around her. As we drove in the pouring rain through Savannah, we couldn't help but notice the really loud sirens that were blaring out of every public building. We had to stop at an auto parts store to pick up a volt meter to try to diagnose Sylvia's brand-new electrical problem and discovered that the alarms were a tornado warning system. Awesome. Here is where I really started pushing for staying in a hotel for the night. As we we drove through the downpour with the windows all fogged up I wished, not only that our defrost worked better, but also that I could keep an eye on the sky. When we filled up at a gas station later, the attendant said that her boss had called a half hour ago and told her take cover. She said two tornadoes had touched down earlier in the morning where she lived and that the tornado warning was in effect through 8pm. When we got to Jekyll Island, it was still a torrential downpour so after we finished dinner we decided to stay in a hotel to avoid the soaking of the boys' bed. Snuggled into our warm, civilized beds we were thankful to be dry and safe for the night. 

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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Hunting Island, SC



Hunting Island State Park is a lovely four-mile stretch of beach and forest just outside Beaufort, SC, where loggerhead turtles come to lay their eggs during the summer months. I have to say that is a little strange to see Sylvia parked amongst such tropical vegetation where the forest of live oak, palmetto, and slash pines march right down to the beach. The ocean is working its way up the beach to meet the forest with sections of the wooded areas being engulfed by its watery neighbor. Standing graveyards of trees give way to ocean as the land erodes away little by little. The boys loved climbing, bouncing, and swinging on the remains of the forest as we worked our way through toppled trees to the 131 foot light house where we learned about the history and climbed the 167 stairs to the top for beautiful panoramic views. Back at our campsite amongst the trees was a gully that the boys spent hours running obstacle courses back and forth. And as Isaac informed you, we found that the forest was teeming with nocturnal life. 

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Friday, March 2, 2012

Nights of the Raccoons by Isaac



Hunting Island, SC

Night 1
We had just finished dinner. We were going to go on a "walk" to the dumpster to throw away our garbage. When we got to the dumpster, we heard some scrabbling in it. Then suddenly, five cats followed by four raccoons exploded out of it. We stood there, watching them. When we were sure there no more animals in the dumpster, we threw our garbage in. We kept watching them, however. At one point, a raccoon jumped into the garbage and dragged our garbage bag out and started eating the chicken bones in it. Another raccoon stood up slightly, reached out with both paws, and grabbed at something we could not see. Then, having not caught it, it stood up a little further and reached up into the air, grabbed the thing, and ate it. We hoped the raccoon was not delusional. Then, a guy with two dogs came to put his garbage in the dumpster, scaring the cats and raccoons away. We started walking back to the camper when the guy called over at us and said,"There's something in this tree right here. It looks like an owl. Probably a screech owl or something." We shined our headlight up into the tree and lo and behold, two eyes were staring out of the palm tree. We walked under the palm tree to see if we could see it better. It wasn't an owl at all but a raccoon, staring at us from up in the palm tree.
We started walking towards our camper, with Dad shining the light into the woods. Then we saw to glowing green eyes, too widely spaced for a raccoon. We got closer, wondering if it was a wolverine. It turned out to be a deer bedding down. We returned to our camp and scared away a cat. We brushed teeth, played a round of Spades, and went to bed without further incidents.

Night 2
We had been itching to see the raccoons again, so that night we went to the dumpster armed with two flashlights and a headlamp instead of just one headlamp. We arrived at the dumpster to find that all the dumpsters were closed (There were four.)! We put our garbage in the last one; then I thought; 'Maybe there's a raccoon stuck in one of the dumpsters!' I was going to open the third dumpster, since that was the one the raccoons had exploded out of. Before I opened it, however, Mom said, "You'll be awfully surprised if one jumps out at you." There was wisdom in her words, so I asked Dad to do it. He opened it, and there sat a raccoon, looking a bit confused. Then, it realized it could get out and took advantage of the opportunity. We opened the other dumpsters, but there weren't any in them. We saw a few under the dumpsters, however, and one in a tree, but there wasn't an explosion of animals like we had hoped.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Charleston, SC



Stop number one on this trip was Charleston, SC where things are really starting to feel southern down here with huge live oaks draped with spanish moss lining country roads.  Bench swings for spending lazy, hot afternoons line the palmetto-filled parks. We wandered the streets lined with opulent mansions built by rich plantation owners in the 1800's, spared by General Sherman in the Civil War thanks to an influential political friend who lived in Charlston. In our wanderings, we stumbled across the Powder Magazine Museum, the oldest surviving public building, where the nice man who worked there gave us a brief history of Charleston and some hard time in the stocks. Downtown is situated next to a  channel of water that abruptly rises to shallow water causing fish to be swept to the surface when the tide comes in, supplying the bottle-nose dolphins an all-they-can-eat buffet. We spent two evenings watching them as they feasted, including mothers teaching their babies how to hunt. Across the channel from downtown the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown found its final resting place after sevice in WWII and Korea and has been turned into a museum. We spent an afternoon looking at fighters and climbing through the bowels of machinery, while learning the history of the ship. Charlston Harbor is home to Fort Sumter where the Civil War began. Sadly, due to excessive amounts of time spent in the U.S.S. Yorktown and an itch to get further south, we did not make it out to Sumter this trip.

Click here for photos.