Our Paynes Prairie Camp Out

Mother’s Day weekend we hitched up the trailer and headed out for Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. The cast included the usual characters, my husband Herb, our dog Buddy, and myself.  Paynes Prairie is a 22,000 acre wilderness in between the little town of Micanopy and the big town of Gainesville. The Preserve was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1974 due to its rich wildlife habitat. On the way to the campground we sighted a beautiful deer.

IMG_9198

IMG_9243The three of us worked as a team and followed  our procedures for setting up camp. Buddy supervised from inside his crate. Herb performed most of the physical work.  I walked around looking important with my clipboard and pen. My job entailed checking off each task as Herb completed it. At this point we still need to consult written directions for hitching and unhitching the trailer, but the process is taking less time.  This was our third trip.  Click on the link to read about our first and second trips.

IMG_9203There are many trails at Paynes Prairie. Most do not allow pets. On Friday afternoon we walked the Lake Trail with Buddy. I think dogs are permitted on the Lake Trail because it’s boring. We walked for quite awhile without seeing any wildlife until Buddy located and started to eat the remains of a dead bat. Herb is an expert at fishing things out of Buddy’s mouth. Whew! I can get along without that kind of excitement.

IMG_6352 (2)

IMG_9302

On Saturday morning we decided to hike the La Chua Trail and leave Buddy in the trailer. We knew he would be comfortable (and safe) with the windows open and a fan turned on. The trailhead is located on the north side of the park near Gainesville. We followed a long boardwalk around a huge sinkhole. At the end of the boardwalk a grassy path began. We were warned to “enter at our own risk.” Soon we saw a large pond teeming with alligators.

IMG_9272
The months of May and June are mating season for gators. Is this big guy trying to show off for the ladies?

I’ve never seen gators so active. At least fifty thrashed about in the water. Some lifted their heads high as they choked down wiggly fish. But we couldn’t stare at the center of the pond for long.  We had to stay alert, because every now and then another big one would crawl onto the shore not too far from where we stood.

IMG_9340
Look out!

Suddenly I understood why pets are prohibited on the La Chua Trail!  Although Herb and I were fascinated by the “gators on parade,” we moved on.  Gradually the wetland plants changed to tall weeds and grasses.

IMG_9275
What looked like small pine trees, were actually giant thistles.

Fifty-seven percent of the state of Florida is currently in some degree of drought.  Dry conditions were very evident in the campground making it necessary for the rangers to ban campfires. On the hike we saw scores of dead fish in the mud where a pond used to be. Vultures flew in for a meal.

IMG_9274

After seeing (and smelling) this scene, I wondered what might happen to the gators if more ponds disappear. Then I realized gators don’t need a lot of water. This one seemed content in a few inches.

IMG_9309

Paynes Prairie is home to over 271 species of birds of all sizes from large herons, to small red winged blackbirds. Maybe when the fish population runs out, the gators will eat more birds. Large alligators have more options. They eat little gators.

IMG_9260

IMG_9331

The trail ended at an observation tower. From the platform Herb and I saw wild horses and bison grazing on the prairie as they did hundreds of years ago.  (I highly recommend binoculars if you hike this trail.) In 1985 the Friends of Paynes Prairie purchased a few Spanish horses from a local ranch. The horses have free roam within the confines of the prairie and fend for themselves. Another “living link” to the past is the American bison. We were surprised to learn bison are native to Florida.  Hunted to extinction in this area, bison were reintroduced to Paynes Prairie in 1975. The park acquired a group of ten bison from a refuge in Oklahoma. Now the herd numbers fifty. Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is a wild place and represents the best of the “Real Florida.”

 

IMG_9328

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

River of Inspiration

Moving metaphor below,

without one thought you flow

over stone

and I see

life’s not hard like land at all

but a living river of possibility

whatever you might be.

A River Poem is displayed on a plaque above the Hillsborough River. The author is anonymous.  From this spot people can see rapids as they bubble around outcroppings of Suwannee Limestone.  I love the depth of meaning in the poem’s simplicity. Life’s not hard for a river. It creates beauty in the process of overcoming obstacles.

The Hillsborough River flows through Hillsborough State Park on its course to the Gulf of Mexico. Recently Herb and I walked the River Rapids Trail with our dog, Buddy. The scenery is quite beautiful.

IMG_8837

The path meanders along the river bank through forests of ancient cypress trees. The tree pictured below is estimated to be four hundred years old.

IMG_8859

Although its base is hollow, the tree is still alive.  Some scientists think the stumpy looking knees around a Cypress tree serve as anchors in soft muddy soil. The knees also carry oxygen to the roots. I’ve heard the taller the knees, the higher the water has risen around the tree. The base of this tree is probably underwater during the rainy season.

On our walk I noticed a significant amount of poison ivy on both sides of the trail.

IMG_8864

Doesn’t it look pretty? These leaves of green terrify me! I’m very allergic to this wicked weed and suffer for weeks if the oil gets  on my skin. So not only did I need to keep my eyes on the path, I needed to make sure our dog wasn’t walking through it. So far so good. Whew!

Unfortunately, I was so focused on watching my feet, I missed something. Herb sighted a bobcat running across the path ahead. I think I’d like to see a bobcat, but on second thought I might get scared and try to escape by running through poison ivy. Out of the frying pan and into the fire!

Back to the peaceful river… further down the path we noticed a couple kayaking.

IMG_8867

As they paddled closer, instead of looking calm and relaxed, they seemed anxious. They had good reason to be.

IMG_8892

The river provides a wonderful habitat for alligators. I photographed this fine specimen basking in the sun on the opposite bank. Once I saw the gator, I realized I was not brave enough to kayak or canoe here. I could appreciate the river better from where I was standing. As long as I wasn’t standing in poison ivy, of course.

Since we were camping at Hillsborough State Park, we had another day to explore. We visited Fort Foster. This historic site is a replica of the original fort which was built to  house supplies for  U.S. soldiers during the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842.

IMG_8929

The fort also protected the only bridge in the area that crossed the Hillsborough River. One thing the government didn’t consider, the bridge also made it easier for the Seminoles to cross the river from their camps on the opposite bank.  A few skirmishes happened here, but more casualties occurred from insect related diseases.

Inside the stockade fence, the fort contained a canon, an officers quarters, an infirmary, and a supply building.

The fort could not accommodate the 305 soldiers assigned to the post. Most of them camped outside the fence in palmetto sheds. During the summer of 1836 the fort was abandoned due to unhealthy living conditions. The troops returned in October, to guard the supplies kept at the fort. Eventually the Seminoles were pushed further south to the Everglades.

IMG_8841

The Hillsborough River… an inspiration for poets, a habitat for plants and animals, and a source of history. Like the poem states… “a living river of possibility.”

 

Camping, Then and Now

IMG_8765

The afternoon temperature increased along with my frustration. “Didn’t the service technician say the tongue needed to be raised all the way up before we attach the chains?”

My husband, Herb, turned the crank a few more times. “Yeah, check the list again. I think the sway bars go on next.”

Our dog, Buddy offered no advice as he lay in his crate in the back of the SUV.

Almost an hour later we rolled out of the storage facility lot.  The trailer creaked along behind us.  We constantly checked our side view mirrors to make sure it was still connected to the car. After ten minutes we merged into I-4 traffic, but continued to stay in the right lane. I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, we were on our way to Lake Kissimmee State Park. Our first trip with the Viking trailer, and our first trip with our dog.

IMG_8751

 

Located fifteen miles east of Lake Wales, the park is nestled between three lakes. We drove into the campground in the late afternoon. Each campsite was walled on three sides by dark green palmettos. Good, I thought, our neighbors won’t see the circus act that is about to begin as we try to park and unhitch the trailer.

IMG_8745

We followed our checklist step by step. The sun was going down by the time the trailer was leveled and ready for habitation. Buddy needed to be walked and fed of course. We put him in his pen by the door of the trailer and transferred our gear from the car. I waited outside with Buddy while Herb drove to the camp store for firewood. Buddy was nervous. He whined when Herb left. I’m sure he was confused and wondered, Why are we here?

IMG_8716

 

Herb returned and got out of the car. “The camp store closed at five. No fire tonight.”

My initial let down was surpassed by my fatigue. “It’s getting dark, let’s make dinner and relax in the trailer.”

Buddy sniffed out the tiny trailer in ten seconds. He wagged his tail a lot and seemed pleased. We placed his bed under the table for two. He crawled in. What a great location for a beagle.

Relieved that the gas stove worked, I cooked hamburgers for our first meal. We gave thanks for food, safety, and togetherness.

After dinner, we opened the trailer door and looked up. The dark sky revealed the brightest stars we had ever seen.  We took Buddy out for his evening walk and our small flashlight lit the area in front of our feet, but not much further. We took a lap around the campground and chuckled at  folks watching a big screen TV outside. This is camping, circa 2017. As we rounded the bend, ghostly shapes appeared in the middle of the road. People making desperate attempts to receive cell phone signals.

Although the trip primarily focused on “making friends” with our RV, we did some hiking.  Buddy was in his “element” as we hiked four miles on the Gobbler Ridge Trail. Nose to the ground, he loved to track whatever animals may have been in the area.

IMG_8673

We walked through tall grass prairie and shady hammocks to an observation tower. Looking across the prairie we saw some cattle grazing in the distance. I thought about one of my favorite books, A Land Remembered.

IMG_8741

In the book author Patrick D. Smith describes the Florida cracker (cowboy) lifestyle around 1870. The main character, Tobias Maclvey, believed there weren’t enough people or cows in the whole world to fill up the Florida prairie. During this time, wild cattle roamed free until they were rounded up by cowboys and herded to market.  Eventually the crackers bought sections of the prairie and erected fences. They became ranchers and locomotives moved the cattle to market by rail. The cattle industry is still important to Florida today.

Lake Kissimmee State Park brings Florida’s cracker heritage to life with living history demonstrations. An 1870’s “cow camp” is open every weekend from October first to May first.

IMG_8692

The crackers lived a rugged life of survival during a time without air conditioning, refrigeration, and running water. In 2017 are we really camping or just kidding ourselves?

IMG_6131

 

 

 

 

 

Being

 

img_4484

Have you ever visited a place you could never forget? For me that place is Long Key State Park.  Located in the Florida Keys,  Long Key is a great place for being. When I say being, I mean a time to live in the moment. It’s an experience marked by feeling more closely connected to the natural world.  When our activities slow from a sprint to a crawl, we can better appreciate all of creation.

img_4515

Last October we rented a small RV from Cruise America and spent a few days in Long Key State Park. There, every campsite is oceanfront property. The rhythm of the waves is a constant soundtrack. Gentle sea breezes keep mosquitos away.  Most of the sites are lined with trees to afford privacy from neighbors.  Something amazing happens when you park an RV, get out comfortable camp chairs, and sit down facing the ocean. You don’t want to leave.

img_4502

When asked,  “What did you do while you were there?” I responded, “Nothing, and it was the best nothing of my life.” I loved to sit and watch the birds at low tide while they pecked among natural debris to find food. When they flew  away I watched a lone ant marching in the sand. Maybe he was a scout for the rest of the colony.  In the evening I saw the soft glow of moonlight reflect upon the surface of the water. The next morning the sky was ablaze of color as the sun rose above the horizon.   I realized that all of this nothing really was something. The world was full of life but I was always  too busy to notice.  I grew to appreciate the little things.

 

img_4496

So why did I need to go all the way to the Florida Keys to be?  That’s definitely food for thought.  For me, being requires several days of low activity and uninterrupted time in the outdoors.  If those conditions are met in a different location so be it. Camping in one place for several days definitely lends itself to being.  As I write this I am saddened to realize my one experience of living in the moment happened almost a year ago.  How ironic to make doing nothing my new goal.

Being is a state of rest that we rarely experience. According to the book of Genesis, after God created the earth, he rested on the seventh day.  I like to imagine God in a state of being. On His day of rest, God saw everything He had made, and said, “It is good.”

When have you experienced being? Leave a comment and tell me about it. Let’s support each other in being more and doing less.

img_4499