Camping at Highlands Hammock

Highlands Hammock is a popular place to camp. Many people come to see the ancient trees of the hammock.  Eager to escape the frigid north, snowbirds migrate south in their RV’s. They camp in one state park for a week or two then move on to another. Highlands Hammock campground contains one hundred thirty-eight campsites. We were there midweek and every site was occupied. The developers of Highlands Hammock capitalized on the high demand for campsites by crowding as many sites as they could into the area.  As you can see in the photo above there’s not much privacy between sites.

Buddy stands guard scanning the environs for squirrels and stray cats.

Our own site was difficult to navigate. My husband skillfully parked our trailer between two trees and in front of an electric pole. (We’ve owned our Viking for one year now, and he’s getting better.) At least we didn’t have anyone camped behind us, but our neighbors on either side were fairly close.  We got to know our neighbors. Buddy, our beagle, always draws everyone’s attention. IMG_2588

The close proximity of our campsites promoted more interaction among the campers. One morning a group of volunteers served a delicious and reasonably priced breakfast for everyone at the recreation hall. We enjoyed meeting other campers, talking about our adventures, and trading tips on the best campgrounds we’ve visited. There was a great feeling of community here. Proceeds from the breakfast help support the park.

I highly recommend the Tram Tour.  Ranger Kevin took us for a tour through the more remote wilderness areas of the park.  IMG_2616Kevin drove us through three different ecological communities. The palm hammock, pine flatwoods, and cypress  swamp. Along the way he stopped to describe the plants and animals.  He told us that alligators often lose body parts due to fights with other gators. Yet, they never die from infection. Alligator blood contains antibiotics and may be helpful as a remedy for MRSA. Scientists certainly have enough specimens to study in these parts.

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Juvenile alligators are camouflaged by their striped hides.

The cypress swamp teemed with life. Scores of alligators, snakes, birds, and turtles abounded in this beautiful place. Herb zoomed in on this delightful turtle.SNQQE3053

Ranger Kevin plucked his favorite flower from the swamp. The floating bladderwort is not only pretty, but helpful. This plant is carnivorous. Its underwater leaves bear small “bladders” which trap and digest mosquito larva.  MXST1689And like all good conservationists, Kevin placed the flower back in the water after his demonstration so it can continue its work.

IMG_2518Highlands Hammock State Park is proud of its history. The park is one of eight in Florida  developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930’s.  The CCC constructed the visitor center. concession building, roads, and bridges. A museum displays memorabilia, photographs, and examples of CCC workmanship.


During the past year we visited two other parks built by the CCC, Florida Caverns and Hillsboro River. In the museum we viewed a map of all the public works initiated by this organization. We were amazed to learn they established 800 state parks throughout the country. The CCC built 13,100 miles of trails, and planted billions of trees. These men worked hard and were happy to earn a dollar a day.

And where was Buddy during all of our educational touring? Inside the trailer, of course. He learned something too. How much he misses us when we are away.  Luckily beagles are quick to forgive. IMG_2609 (2)





Long Live Highlands Hammock

What is a hammock? I always thought of it as a shady place to rest. While hiking at Highlands Hammock State Park, near Sebring, I walked through the oldest hammock in Florida.  A hammock is a stand of trees growing in an elevated area surrounded by wetlands. Think of it as ecological island where plants and animals abound.

While camping at the park, Herb, Buddy, and I traversed trails through wild orange trees, ancient live oaks, and towering Sabal palms.


These wild oranges look almost ready to eat. Early Spanish explorers brought orange seeds to Florida.  Seville oranges can be found throughout the state from Jacksonville to Key West. Wild oranges contain a large amount of seeds and taste sour. Yet, they are a valuable ingredient in orange marmalade, and can also be substituted in recipes which call for lemons.

Herb, posing with an oak tree estimated to be one thousand years old.

The park contained many old oak trees, living and dead. The center of an old oak often rots away from disease, parasites, or fire leaving a hollow space with little skeletal support.


Tree surgeons attempted to save this oak by supporting it with cement blocks. It didn’t work. The tree died, but an artifact remains for now, until the wood decomposes.

IMG_2581My favorite tree is the Sabal palm. In Highlands Hammock many of these trees grow between  seventy and one hundred feet tall. Upon my arrival home, I researched information about the life span of palm trees. I discovered palms do not have rings, so their age is determined by their height, rate of leaf production, and visible scars from fallen leaves.

According to botany professor, Barry Tomlinson, palms may be the longest living trees if you consider the age of actively dividing cells in their trunks.  In most long-lived trees the trunk is composed of rings of woody tissue, but only the cells of the inner ring actively divide. Each year these active cells are replaced with new cells and another ring is added to the tree. That’s why oak trees not only grow taller, they grow wider too. An  oak tree might be one thousand years old, but its active cells are much younger.

In contrast, the tissues in the trunk of a palm are laid down in vascular bundles with the oldest cells in the trunk and the youngest in the top. However, the oldest cells flourish at full capacity throughout the life of a palm tree, continuing to transport water and nutrients to the top leaves for centuries.

This reminded me of Psalm 92:12 which states:

The righteous (faithful) will flourish like the palm tree.

Good food for thought.  Compared to other trees, palms are unique because all of their cells are flourishing throughout their old age. I’m delighted when science confirms the word of God. How did the psalmist know that the cells of palm trees flourish?

Like all baby-boomers, we have more years behind us than ahead. As we approach our “golden years”,  don’t we still desire to flourish like the palm tree?





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.



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.


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.


The Christmas Room


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.



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.

Buddy in his “exercise pen”.

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








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?


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.


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.


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.






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?


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.

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.





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.


The Folk Art of the Suwannee River

When Stephen Foster wrote the song Old Folks at Home there was no music business as we know it. Sound recording had not been invented. Yet, in the small community of White Springs Florida, a state park is dedicated to his memory.  All because Foster  looked on a map for the name of a southern river which had two syllables. He had never seen the Suwannee River, but he liked the sound of the name and changed the spelling to “Swannee” to make the meter work. How’s that for poetic license?

IMG_6519Last week my husband and I camped at the Stephen Foster Cultural Center State Park . It was founded as a memorial to Stephen Foster due to its location on the Suwannee River. (Remember, the river that Stephen Foster never saw, but wrote a song about?)

IMG_9544The Florida Federation of Music Clubs admired Foster and obtained contributions of land in White Springs.  Later a commission  formed to direct the building of a 97-bell carillon on  property which plays Foster’s music. The park opened in 1950, almost one hundred years after Old Folks at Home was published. Did you know Stephen Foster is considered the pioneer of American pop music? He wrote two hundred songs between 1850 and 1864.  Old Susanna and Camptown Races  are two of my favorites.  These melodies are catchy. Once you start humming them, you can’t stop!

IMG_9556During our stay we learned of the park’s mission to support folk art. What is folk art? Art that’s created by nonprofessionals.  In America, folk art might be considered blue-collar or rural art. It can be self taught, and is often functional. Quilting, sewing, and knitting are all examples of folk art.  Folk art also includes music which expresses a community’s values and identity. At the park I enjoyed meeting several folk artists who demonstrate their talent in the Craft Square.


Richard Darlington, a resident of White Springs, creates affordable earings and flies for serious fishermen.

IMG_9548Chris Jacobs from Miami crochets broomstick lace which can be worn as a scarf.

IMG_9551Marie Longo sews baby quilts for the Pregnancy Care Center of White Springs.

IMG_9552A quilt top hangs on the wall of the fabric arts cottage.  Someone rescued it from a dumpster in Live Oak.  This quilt top was sewn from remnants of old clothing thought to be over one hundred years old.

Antique shops are a great place for folk art.  The Adams General Store in nearby White Springs is worth seeing. Built in 1865, the building contains unbelievable finds. But go early, due to a lack of air conditioning.


I can’t conclude this post without some mention of the Suwannee River. Unlike Foster, I did see it.

330The Suwannee is considered a black water river. Originating in Georgia, the river flows south through forested swamps. Decayed vegetation stains the water the color of coffee.  At Big Shoals, located outside of White Springs, a nine foot drop in elevation creates class three rapids. Here, the natural brown color of the water is more evident.


At age 37 Stephen Foster experienced a persistent fever which resulted in his death. He died in 1864 with thirty-eight cents to his name.  And like the deep Suwannee River, Stephen Foster’s melodies live on today.