Florida Caverns: A Refuge for All Seasons

We pulled into Florida Caverns State Park at dusk, checked in at the gate and drove a couple more miles to the campground. Great, we need to set up camp in the dark. I turned on my flashlight and guided Herb as he backed the trailer close to the hookups. Now it was dark, very dark.  There were few lights or campfires in the area. After all, it was a Wednesday in December, with temperatures expected to dip into the forties that night.  The distant sound of dogs barking added to my apprehension.

Fortunately, we brought an extra light which Herb attached to the side of the trailer. He could see well enough to unhitch and level the Viking. We were tired after six hours of driving from Orlando to Marianna, located in the Florida panhandle. Our mission: experience the only caves which exist in Florida.

That’s right, there are caves in Florida. Millions of years ago Florida was submerged under saltwater. During that time shells, corals, and sediments accumulated on the sea floor. As the sea retreated, all of these materials hardened into limestone. Groundwater eventually dissolved crevices in the rock and shazaam! Caves were born.

Our first night in the park was eventful. Herb stepped in dog poop in the dark. By the way, it wasn’t Buddy’s. Later, I forgot to turn on the overhead stove fan when I cooked dinner and set off the smoke alarm. Buddy responded with a panic attack and tried to run out the open trailer door. After everything calmed down, and Herb left his shoes outside, we relaxed in our warm trailer with a hot meal.

The next morning Herb gave Buddy some anti-anxiety medication, and made him comfortable inside the trailer. We met a guide at the mouth of the caverns for a tour.

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During the tour we learned the Civilian Conservation Corps enlarged the passageways during the 1930’s. Known as the Gopher Gang, these young men worked for a dollar a day to dig out trails and chisel tunnels through solid limestone. They also wired the caves with electricity.  Without light, none of the calcite formations would be visible.

 

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It takes one hundred years for one cubic inch of calcite to develop. These stalagmites formed from water dripping year after year in the same place on the cave floor.

Colored lighting in several of the rooms created unique special effects.

 

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The Christmas Room

 

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The “Heart” of the Cave

The temperature inside the caverns is a constant sixty-eight degrees. With fifty degree temperatures outside, we enjoyed the warmth the rooms provided. In the summer, tourists visit to take refuge from the heat. However, during the summer rainy season, some passageways are flooded. The caverns do contain animal life. Bats flew over our heads. Blind crayfish scurried about in pools of water near our feet. After five p.m. a guide leads flashlight tours. When the lights are off, the rooms appear like they did to early explorers.

Herb and I have traveled all over the country to experience areas with different elevations and climate. Now we know we can drive six hours and feel like we are in the foothills of Appalachia.IMG_2021

When Britain ruled Florida between 1763 and 1783, this area was called West Florida and extended all the way to the Mississippi River. The Apalachicola River, located east of Marianna, divided East and West Florida. The river still marks the division between Eastern and Central Time zones. Florida Caverns is on Central Time.

The park is located in a temperate hardwood forest. Unlike most of Florida, this area is far enough north, and high enough up (two hundred feet above sea level) for the plants and animals to expect chilly winters. The forest experiences four distinct seasons and many of the trees lose their leaves in winter. We enjoyed seeing the fall colors as we hiked through groves of beech and maple trees.

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We stayed at the campground for five nights. As the weekend approached more campers arrived. A special note: Unlike other Florida State park we’ve visited, the shower house has central heating, which we appreciated on these cold December mornings. The campground also features sewage hookups at each campsite.

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Buddy in his “exercise pen”.

Florida Caverns, a refuge for all seasons, and an experience to remember.

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Trailers, Trash, and the Black Bears of Wekiva

Wekiva State Park is only a thirty minute drive from our home in Orlando. Although we’ve canoed the beautiful Wekiva River, we hesitated to reserve a campsite because of the park’s reputation as a black bear habitat. Part of our concern involved our beagle, Buddy. When we discovered dogs are permitted on the trails, we decided to go after all. If it was very dangerous, surely the park wouldn’t allow pets.

A friendly ranger greeted us at the entrance. “Be aware, the bears are very active right now.” My husband, Herb, nodded his head and we continued to the campground to set up camp. “What does that mean?” I asked. “Are bears roaming through the campground?” Herb didn’t answer.

After we parked our trailer, my husband drove less than a mile to the nearest Publix to buy firewood. I walked Buddy around the campground, and met a lady on the road with her pet.

“Hey, what’s going on with the bears around here?” I asked.

She kept a tight grip on her dog. “Last week a bear approached the campground dumpster. The rangers killed it.”

I sighed. “Oh, that’s too bad.” It seemed like I should feel sorry for the bear. After all it was probably just looking for food. I walked over to the dumpster to judge its location in relation to our campsite.  It was not a pretty sight. Have you ever seen a pretty dumpster?

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As you can see both dumpsters have secure latches on the side to deter bears.  It does look like a bear tried to raise the lid off the top.

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I read the rules on the sign. Between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. the dumpster is closed. I wondered if the ranger padlocked the opening to keep people from bringing their trash. Then I realized someone must have left their garbage outside the dumpster when it was “closed.” Talk about ringing the dinner bell for the bears. “Come and get it bears, I’m going to make it easy for you. And hopefully, you won’t eat me!”

I was very glad the dumpster wasn’t close to our campsite.

When Herb returned with the firewood, I told him everything I’d learned about the dumpster. He stayed outside with Buddy and I went in the trailer to make dinner. Later, while we were relaxing around the campfire, Herb casually mentioned that a neighbor came by with some news. Earlier that day, two pygmy rattlesnakes were crawling right where we were sitting.

I immediately lifted my feet off the ground. “This place has more wildlife than anywhere else we’ve camped so far. And we’re practically in our own backyard!”

I’m happy to report that we didn’t encounter any bears or snakes during the four wonderful days we camped at Wekiva.

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We did meet a wild turkey!

After we returned home, I researched a few facts about the Florida black bear.  Forty years ago they were endangered, with a population of only three hundred.  Today there are estimated to be 4,350, and they are no longer considered threatened. This fact surprised me. I thought the development of Florida’s urban areas would have the opposite effect. During the era of the black bear’s decline it was legal to hunt them. Now they can only be hunted during specific times designated by the Florida Wildlife Commission. In 2016 an authorized bear hunt lasted two days. During that time 306 bears were killed. Bears are more likely to be seen in forested wetlands, but can be found anywhere in Florida.

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At Home on the Road

Greg and Ann’s home looks like any other cozy apartment inside. The kitchen includes a stove, convection oven, dishwasher, and microwave. The door on the full size refrigerator/freezer is plastered with family photos. A washer/dryer unit and half bath are conveniently located off the kitchen. In the living room a soft leather sofa sits across from a wide screen TV. A short hall connects the kitchen to a master suite with a king size bed and full bath.

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This home seems normal except for one thing. It can be driven! In 2016, Greg and Ann sold their house in Las Vegas and purchased their dream RV. Since last December they’ve traveled across the country, eventually arriving in Florida to spend time with family. I caught up with Greg and Ann while they “camped” at Mayport Naval Base near Jacksonville.

ALL THE COMFORTS OF HOME

The couple selected their 2016 Holiday Rambler Endeavor because of the amount of livable space inside.  Beautiful woodwork and cabinets make the RV feel like a home instead of a camper. The unit features three slide-outs that increase the width of each room. The Endeavor is forty feet long, contains three air conditioners, and features a huge amount of outside and inside storage. “I love the icemaker,” Greg remarked as he sipped his iced tea. “That’s something every home needs.”

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A JOINT DECISION

Greg and Ann’s journey into full time life on the road began years ago with shorter RV vacations. After Greg retired they took extended trips, spending six months at a time away from their house in Las Vegas. Whenever they returned it took them three months to catch up on maintenance and yardwork. Finally they realized the expense and effort involved with keeping their house wasn’t worth it. So they joined the many retirees who have chosen to live in their RV fulltime. Greg advises couples to “jump in the shallow end of the pool” before making the decision. “Don’t do it unless you both agree.” Life on the road involves adjustments.

Since their marriage in 1974, Greg and Ann have never had to share one car. They tow a vehicle behind their RV for day use. The couple must consider one another’s needs before making plans. Ann joked, “Since we live in closer quarters, we’ve learned to shout at each other, more quietly.”

WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR STUFF?

Even with the ample storage, it’s impossible to fit the contents of a whole house into a forty foot RV. Greg and Ann sold many of their possessions. Greg admits he misses his home workshop, but the experience of seeing so many beautiful sights makes it worth the loss. Two of his favorite possessions, a kayak and an ATV are in storage. The couples policy regarding purchases: “For every new item brought into the RV, one item goes out.”

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SELECTING CAMPGROUNDS

Since Greg is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, they are eligible to park their RV at military bases. The couple also joined Passport America which offers its members a fifty percent discount at individually owned campgrounds. While in transit they plan their route one day before departure and reserve their next campsite the same day they expect to arrive. If they want to stay in one area for more than a few days, Ann makes a reservation further in advance.  Greg and Ann also benefit from a membership in the Escapees Club. This club offers mail service and educational tips for full time travelers.

MISCELLANEOUS TIPS

During our visit, Greg shared that they are currently in the process of selecting their state of “permanent residence.”  Florida, South Dakota, and Texas are the top choices for establishing residency for those who travel full time. These states offer no income tax, and low vehicle registration fees. When choosing medical insurance, its also important to select a policy that travels with you.  Requirements to drive an RV also vary from state to state. In Florida, RV drivers are exempt from obtaining a CDL. However, Ann is planning to take a hands on class in order to feel more comfortable driving. Greg completed the CDL requirements of Nevada.

LONG RANGE PLANS?

Greg loves baseball. The couple has seen games in twenty-one of the thirty cities with baseball stadiums. Like most outdoor enthusiasts, they want to visit every national park in the country. Both love the coastline of Maine. Long range plans? They’ve agreed to reevaluate their lifestyle in five years. Greg laughed, “I know of some retirement RV communities where you can hook up permanently.”

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Camping with the Long Key Crabs

Almost one year ago I wrote a post entitled Being.  I shared the value of doing nothing during a trip to the Florida Keys.  Last week my husband and I revisited Long Key State Park with our Viking  trailer for five nights of camping and relaxation on the shores of the Atlantic.

Sure it’s August. Sure it’s hot. It’s hot everywhere in Florida, so folks might as well camp near the water where they can get wet. The word must have gotten out about the constant sea breeze which cools the campground like a giant fan, because the park was full most nights. In fact we felt fortunate to reserve a site.

As in the past, our first day was blessed with a refreshing tropical breeze. We were surprised the second day when the tropical breeze turned into a tropical storm. The rain bands lasted eight hours.  We hunkered down in the trailer, read our books, and played numerous rounds of the card game, Lost Cities. Whenever the rain let up a little, we ventured out to walk our dog…one of the joys of traveling with a pet.

The remainder of the week was dry with a light wind. We enjoyed swimming, kayaking, and a couple of short hikes. With the exception of a day trip to Bahai Honda, we spent most of our time in our camp chairs, just being still and soaking up the beauty of the place.  What is it about the sea that refreshes a person’s spirit?

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One night  when I was preparing dinner our dog Buddy, barked at something. I stepped out of the trailer to see a large crab scurry into its burrow at the edge of our campsite. The crab was at least six inches across. It was grey in color and one claw was larger than the other.

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After that happened I paid closer attention whenever I walked to the campground trash bin with a bag of garbage. I noticed several crabs along the side of the road and dozens of burrows in between each campsite. Later I learned these shy creatures are called blue land crabs, and rank the largest in size of Florida’s semi-terrestrial crabs.  They spend most of their adult lives on or near the beach, but return to the sea to breed.  Blue land crabs burrow several feet underground to allow moisture to seep inside their tunnels.

I found the crabs were more active in the cooler parts of the day, around dusk and dawn.  Primarily vegetarians, blue land crabs eat tender leaves, fruits, and berries.  I felt like I’d really accomplished something when I managed to snap a photo of one with a blue shell before it skittered sideways into its underground home.

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I researched some additional interesting facts about these animals. Their reproductive activity occurs during the full moon of summer. Uh-oh, there might have been some hanky-panky going on at Long Key because the moon was practically full!

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A female blue land crab produces anywhere from 300,000 to 700,000 eggs in one spawning season.  She carries them under her body to release them into the sea. However, most crab larva are eaten by fish and very few survive. It’s unlawful to harvest any blue land crabs in Florida between July 1 and October 31. And of course hunting or capturing wildlife is against the rules in state parks. I have no idea what blue land crabs taste like, but some people consider them a delicacy.

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Female blue land crabs can vary in color from blue to white.

For the record, in mid-October Long Key State Park campground will be closed due to beach renovation for one year.  On our day trip to Bahai Honda we saw some beachside campsites.

Maybe we’ll move our “do nothing” location further south until Long Key reopens.

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Nature’s Classroom at Faver-Dykes State Park

Camping during the Florida summer is not for wimps. Our trip to Faver-Dykes State Park challenged us in ways we have never been challenged before. Located in a remote area fifteen miles outside Saint Augustine, the park is known for being “off the beaten track.” We pulled our Viking trailer over the bumpy dirt road to the entrance of a small campground. As the campsite was not level, my husband, Herb made several attempts before he successfully parked our trailer in the soft sand. Soon a park vehicle stopped nearby and a ranger stepped out to welcome us. The ranger took an interest in our dog, Buddy, the best beagle ever.

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Early the next morning we decided to hike the 2.6 mile Hiram-Faver Trail. Guess what? The trail was named in honor of Hiram Faver, who donated the land to the state for a park. Go figure!  On our way to the trailhead we walked by the park office. The friendly ranger who  welcomed us yesterday came out of the office to say hello. He asked where we were headed. I told him the Hiram-Faver trail. “Oh,” he said, “you better watch out for ticks out there.”

“We’re prepared, ” I boasted. I wore long sleeves and long pants and tucked my pantlegs into my socks. I also sprayed my legs with bug spray. The ranger focused his attention on Buddy. “I always put a tick collar on my dog. Then the ticks never bother him.” Suddenly I realized that Mr. Ranger was more concerned about Buddy than we were.

“Buddy is on special medication to prevent ticks from harming him,” Herb responded. At the time I wondered, how bad can it be out there?

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We began hiking with Buddy in the lead. July is hot in Florida. Herb and I kid each other that real Floridians can handle the heat. But we forget that we aren’t real Floridians. We’re actually transplanted Buckeyes from Ohio, and Buddy hails from North Carolina.

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As we approached Pellicer Creek, we felt a delightful cool breeze off the water. We saw a bench and sat down to enjoy our granola bars and bottled water. Buddy had a drink, too, and relaxed in the grassy area at our feet.

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I took out my cell phone to take pictures.  I noticed I had phone service. (Something not always available at the campsite.)  Herb looked across the river and spotted a cell tower. What luck! We had a great time sitting on the bench, texting pictures and checking our email. I even posted a couple of photos on Facebook.

After about twenty minutes, I noticed something crawling on the front of my shirt. “A tick!” I yelled. Herb rushed over and brushed it off. Then I spotted a tick on his pants. I brushed it off him. “Let’s get out of here.”

We hiked back toward the campsite. I still wasn’t very worried. So we saw two ticks. Big deal. We’re only a mile from the campsite. All will be well.

When we reached the campsite, we sat on the ground with Buddy and examined his belly. I lost count of the numerous ticks attached to his legs and stomach. I felt terrible. What did I do to my dog?

I grabbed the tweezers from the first aid kit and Herb and I combed through his fur with our fingers. It wasn’t easy to remove the ticks from Buddy’s skin. They were small, brown, shiny, and wanted to stay put. When I pulled the first tick out I didn’t know what to do with it. It latched on to the tweezers and wouldn’t let go. Then it started to crawl onto my hand. Yikes!

Finally I got the idea of dropping the live tick in a cup of water. It worked. I removed at least thirty ticks from Buddy. We covered the cup with a second smaller inverted cup to keep the ticks from crawling out. If possible, we wanted to keep them out of our campsite. We wrapped the tick filled cup in a plastic bag and dropped it in the nearest garbage can. Hopefully they didn’t escape.

Buddy was a trooper. He didn’t complain, and relished all the attention. Ticks are strange. Unlike other pests, you don’t feel it when they dig in to your skin. No sting, no itch. Unless you check yourself and your family from front to back and head to toe, you don’t know you have them.  I know, I removed three from my ankles.

Hikers beware! July is peak season for ticks in Florida. Nature has many lessons to teach, but we will not attend the July session of the school of ticks again.

 

On Facing Reality

We could have been camping today. If I lean into my imagination I can see the flickering flames of the campfire and taste the toasted marshmallows. Why didn’t it happen?

Reality struck. Have you ever been so blinded by your wants that you lose sight of your needs?  I was absolutely giddy about purchasing the Coachmen Clipper until….

Let me back up a bit.  The Saturday after the RV show my husband and I cleaned the garage to make space to park  our new tent trailer. We live in a townhouse with no yard or driveway. We believed the camper would just fit on one side of the garage with six inches to spare. How clever we are! One of us, can park on the street (probably him.) Now we won’t need to pay for storage. We were all set to pick up the camper later in the week.

Fast forward to Sunday night. A terrible rain storm hit Orlando. Tornados and hail were predicted. My husband realized he better put his car back in the garage. Then he decided he really didn’t want to park on the street permanently.  On Monday, he started to scout around for storage facilities.  He contracted to store the camper nearby.

Friday morning arrived. We dropped our dog off at my mom’s, and drove seventy-five miles to pick up our dream camper.  Only we realized our dream  camper was more of a nightmare.  We endured a three-hour training session of  raising and lowering the canvas top. Both of us were shocked to discover there are twenty steps in that process which must be performed in sequential order. No wonder the technician’s first words were, “Do you guys have any idea how much work goes into owning a tent trailer?”

The canvas top needs regular maintenance. It must be washed every time you use it and completely dry before storing to avoid mildew. That seemed impossible considering our storage situation.  My husband pulled me off to the side. “Do you still want to do this?” he asked.

My stomach started churning.  I felt like a deflated balloon. “I still want to get it, but if you are extremely opposed, I’ll relent.”

“I’m not extremely opposed, but I’m opposed,” He responded.

I need to also mention that while all of this turmoil was going on, his car was being equipped with a hitch and brake controlling device. My stomach was still churning.

Sometimes you have to face facts. How could I continue to insist that we go through with this plan knowing he wasn’t on board?  “Okay,” I said. “Let’s see if they have another vehicle we can buy instead.”

A sales representative showed us a few lightweight hard top trailers.  He tried to cheer us up with a bag of popcorn and some jokes. We came home empty-handed, except for a hitch and a braking device that continually flashes numbers under the dash.

In closing, sometimes the road to adventure includes detours. Take them.

 

 

 

Living with No Regrets

Last week I visited an RV show near Tampa, Florida. The show featured a variety of recreation vehicles, from tent trailers to behemoth fifth wheels.  One of the smallest trailers was the Little Guy pictured above.  It is so tiny an adult would not be able to stand up inside. This trailer is basically a bed on wheels with air conditioning and a TV.

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Every Little Guy camper includes an outdoor cooking area complete with stove, sink, and pull out cooler. An additional screen room can be attached to the bedroom to provide more living space.

My husband and I have never owned a trailer. Although we love to visit national parks, we’ve usually stayed in hotels or lodges. I am the one interested in camping. (A throwback to my childhood in Ohio.) Now that we are both retired, we want to take more trips for longer periods of time.  However, we own a sweet little beagle with special needs. We don’t like to board him for more than two weeks.  My solution is to take the dog with us. So…that’s how we came to be at the RV show.

At the show, we attended a seminar on extended travel in an RV.  The leader of the seminar owns a home in the mid-west, and winters in Florida in his RV. He shared that many retirees actually sell their homes and travel in their motor home permanently. That would explain why someone might want a motor home with more than one bathroom, a washer, dryer, and big screen TV.  The speaker gave tips on managing mail, prescriptions, and banking while on the road. He closed his presentation with a quote from Malcolm Forbes Jr., “Go as soon as you can, as far as you can, for as long as you can.”

Immediately I recalled my word from God for 2017, “Go.” The words of Mr. Forbes resonated with me.  (For details read my blog from post of January ninth.)

Over dinner that night, my husband and I discussed our options. At the show we saw a Coachmen Clipper tent trailer which suited our needs. We wanted something easy to pull, with enough room inside to accommodate our dog.  I especially liked the idea that the canvas top had plenty of windows. Even when I was inside, I felt like I was outside. The Clipper was also very affordable.

Then the what ifs began. What if we don’t like it? What if it doesn’t work out to travel with our dog? How will we store it? Maybe we should limit our trips to no more than two weeks at a time and continue to stay in hotels.

Wait a minute! Isn’t that what we did before we retired? Didn’t we work all year and eagerly anticipate the two weeks out of the year that were truly ours? Enough of that!

I don’t want to regret that I never tried to travel in a camper.

So the next morning we sealed the deal. In two days we pick up our new camper. I can’t wait until we will take off for our first destination. Our little beagle doesn’t have a clue what adventures await him.  Tune in during February for more posts about our experiences in the great outdoors.

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