Friday, July 21, 2017

See Ya' Later, Alligators!

It's getting way too hot in Florida, so we're heading to cooler climates.  There were a lot of things we planned to do over the fall, winter, and spring here, but it just didn't happen.  Between my foot problems and developing exertional asthma, I just wasn't able to walk.  Now that I can walk again and have an inhaler to help me breathe while doing so, it's just too hot for Bruce to be able to handle it.  So, we'll just have to do more things when we come back to visit.  I really wanted to explore more of the Black Bear Scenic Byway and the forest, but that didn't happen because much of it is trails.  When we come back, I especially want to hike the Yearling Trail to the island that was the setting for the book, "The Yearling", which I loved as a kid.  It'll have to wait, though.  I also want to hike back into the forest in the early morning, spread out a blanket, sit on the ground, and watch the wildlife.  Again, couldn't walk, couldn't breathe, now too hot even in the middle of the night.  So, again, maybe next time.  We did get to see the critters that ventured into the park, though.  Armadillos, rabbits, snakes, various cool insects (like yellow and black stick bugs), and lots of birds.

There were a couple of things we did do in the Forest before leaving though.  One of them is a park I have very vivid memories of from early childhood.  Mind you, these are not full memories, just snippets of things I remember clearly, and from talking with my parents, I know where they happened.  I remember watching a man milk a rattlesnake of its venom (opening its mouth and pressing its fangs over the lip of a special cup) and marveling at the beautiful fish that we watched through the bottom of a boat.  I wasn't school aged yet, but I can still picture those two things vividly in my memories.  As far as I know, there weren't any pictures of that trip, though I'm sure Daddy had slides of it somewhere.  (For you youngsters, those were kind of like individual negatives that you projected onto a screen.)  Some of you may have guessed, these memories were from Silver Springs State Park in Silver Springs, Florida.  Silver Springs just happens to be right outside of the Ocala National Forest and is the western gateway to the Forest.  The State of Florida has taken over the park in an effort to preserve the springs that apparently got pretty dingy from commercial use.  They no longer have rattlesnake milking or 'gator wrestling, but the glass bottom boats are still running.  We took the 90 minute ride and got to see plenty of 'gators and lots of other critters.  Here are a few.

The springs and river itself is much different than I remembered, and consistent with why the state has taken over.  There was algae everywhere.  I hear it has been worse, to the point that you could barely see anything, but I remember seeing the white limestone on the bottom when I was little.  My memory of that white bottom is one thing I've been searching for in adulthood.  I can't tell you why it took me so long to return to Silver Springs to look for it.  I could see it peeking out in some places, but the springs really do seem to be choked with algae.  Don't get that confused with all of the lush sea grass, though.  We still saw a few turtles, gar, and other fishes in the water, and even got to see an anhinga catch a fish and eat it.

There were no good pictures through the boat bottom, and that wasn't just because the glass was cloudy.  In this picture, you can see some fish, a little bit of sea grass, little bits of limestone peeking out, and lots of algae!

They say it's improving and that it was much worse a couple of years ago.  I guess we'll just have to check back again when we come back and see if it continues to improve!  Maybe next time, we'll get a guide that talks more about the old TV shows and movies that were filmed around here.  Bruce would have liked to hear more about that.  If we hadn't gone through the museum or read about it elsewhere, you almost wouldn't have known that Tarzan, Creature of the Black Lagoon, and other shows were filmed here. There were some nice, healthy spots with hardly any algae clinging to the limestone.  This is the mouth of one of the springs.

Unfortunately, we didn't see any monkeys, though rhesus monkeys do live along the Silver River.  Hiking this park and searching for the rhesus monkeys is another thing I wanted to do this past winter, but again ... walking and breathing seemed to be issues.  It is a lovely park, and I would recommend visiting often, and taking the glass bottom boat ride.

Later, we made a drive up the Black Bear Scenic Byway, past Salt Springs, and to the tiny community of Fort Gates.  This is the main road to get there.

Almost reminded me of Ecuador, except there were no monster speed bumps on it.  Could have been Mexico, except it has been well graded and we weren't bounced all over the place.  The road comes to a dead end at the St. John's River, and Fort Gates is nothing more than a few cabins or trailers with boat/fishing docks attached - 

- or not.

There's a sign (if you look hard enough) telling you to turn on your headlights to signal for the ferry if it's not on this side of the river. 

So, we pulled up and turned on our lights.

Soon afterward, we saw the ferry coming across the river with another car coming this direction.

As you can see, this is not your average ferry.  The Fort Gates Ferry is the oldest ferry in Florida, and it has a maximum capacity of two cars (and some motorcycles).  It's been running since the 1850s.  Currently, it's an old barge that is pushed by an old, retrofitted sailboat named the Too Wendy.  The way the Too Wendy is hooked up to the barge is sooooo cool.  When Dale pulled up to our ramp, he flipped a switch on the Too Wendy.  The boat then started swinging around on a trailer hitch that had been welded to the side of the barge.  By the time our new Geezermobile, (affectionately called the Incognito Cruiser) finished boarding the ferry, the Too Wendy was turned around and ready to head back to the Gateway Fish Camp on the other side of the river!

Once we got loaded on and stabilized by wood blocks, Dale just unhooked the rope tying the barge to the dock, and off we went.  Eventually, he went down into the Too Wendy to steer her specifically into the dock.  The whole thing was slicker than owl droppings!  It was just too cool!

It was a good thing we waited until there was a good rain before trying to take this ferry.  Dale said he had been grounded for several weeks because the river was so low, the barge was stuck in the mud.  Dale said he asked, but the county wouldn't come dig him out.  The ferry had only been running again for 3 days before the day we showed up.  He was doing a brisk business, though, between 10 and 15 fares each day.  The Too Wendy pulled expertly to the dock at the fish camp, and it was the best ferry ride I've taken yet!

Soon after leaving the Gateway Fish Camp, we found paved roads again and an actual little town.  As you pull into Crescent City, Florida, it feels like a step back in time.  There are gazebos by the river, and the old buildings are somewhat preserved.

The old fire truck is even out back!

As you move into the more modern section of town, it appears that someone has freshly carved out some catfish by the tennis courts.

Soon after passing this carving, the rain started coming down in sheets, so there are no more pictures of this trip.  

After several fits and starts, though, we are finally packed up and ready to head to cooler climates.  We're running a bit behind, though.  Businesses here, especially restaurants, are closing up for the season every day.  If you come to Silver Springs be aware.  This is an older community.  The only restaurant that is ever open after 9:00 p.m. on the weekend is the Steak and Shake.  Also, since it does tend to be a snowbird community, the sidewalks pretty much roll up when it gets hot.  As the building in Crescent City (above) and REO Speedwagon said, "I believe it's time for me to fly!"  See you all in cooler weather!

Friday, June 2, 2017

There's a Reason It's the #1 Aquarium!

It's been a while since we posted a blog, but we've been waiting for me to learn to walk.  My arches have fallen, and I've been on my rear or in CAM walking boots most of this time.  My doctor sent me to get custom orthotics made, and I even have to put them in house shoes!  When I complained about how uncomfortable they were, the guy that made the molds and gave them to me told I hadn't been walking right and that I hadn't been standing right.  He told me it would take a while to get used to being forced to stand and walk properly, and then it would be more comfortable.  My doctor backed him up.  So, I'm still having trouble walking, but I'm past the point of the "breaking in period", so off we go.

Stop one is the Georgia Aquarium.  We've driven through Atlanta many, many times.  I even chaperoned a field trip to the Coca-Cola Museum right across the plaza from it.  I love zoos and aquariums, and this is supposed to be the best.  But, the Monterey Aquarium had disappointed me, so I decided to see if Georgia would make it up.  We got early bird tickets, so we were out in the wee hours of the morning to get to Atlanta by 11:00 a.m. from Ocala, Florida.  Perfectly doable.  The folks in Atlanta know a good thing, and they certainly aren't afraid to toot their own horn

Now, to see if they can back up those claims!  Upon entry, it's well put together.  A central area with each different area of emphasis in sections surrounding the central foyer.  The central area was large and open with pathways to help direct traffic, but allowing plenty of room to meander.  Several cafes on various sides where you could sit and rest with a refreshing beverage.  Those weren't where I chose to sit and rest, though.

We (meaning I) decided to start with the top draw - The Ocean Voyager where the whale sharks and manta rays are.  When you enter the section, there are a few spots to look into the huge tank before you reach the moving sidewalk and the tunnel.  My first sight of the whale shark was when it swam over me.

Pretty awesome.  You can step off the moving sidewalk if you would like to hang out and watch just in the tunnel.  I stepped out for a little while because I could have sworn I saw a sawfish swim through, but I was looking elsewhere and only saw him out of the corner of my eye, so I just wasn't sure.  He didn't come back, though, so we went on through the tunnel.  While waiting for the touch tank, there was an announcement that the whale shark feeding was about to take place.  I decided to bypass the touch tank.  I've played with rays and guitar fish before, but I did want to watch the whale shark feeding.

Whale sharks are filter feeders, so they just filter the water around them through their mouths.  The water passes through the filter pads and back out through the gills, and the food continues down through the digestive tract.  In the aquarium, they target feed them.  The workers float in small boats at the surface and target feed each shark from small color-coded buckets of krill.  Each shark has its own bucket so the workers can track how much each has eaten.  They are growing juveniles, after all!  It was amazing to watch!


These guys and their buddies (many of whom are also pretty sizeable) have plenty of room to swim around and to grow.  This tank alone holds 6.3 million gallons of water.  The whale sharks, manta rays, guitar fish, groupers, and others seemed to have plenty of room to maneuver and swim about as they chose.  When I needed to sit and take a break, I returned to this tank watching these gentle giants.  I'm even more determined now to join them in their natural habitat around Baja California or somewhere else.  There were a couple of times in Ecuador where one would beach.  The towns people would try their best to push them back into the water, but they failed each time.  I never saw one while swimming or snorkeling off the coast of Ecuador, but I hear there are scads of them in the Gulf of California, which some say is the best place to find them.

Just so you know, I would have been content if that had been the only tank in the aquarium, but it obviously wasn't.  There were sea otters, river otters, California sea lions, dolphins, penguins, and all kinds of things.  They did have one of the best tanks of garden eels I've seen, with schools of many different types of fish in the tank with them.  Many aquariums tend to put the garden eels in a tank with maybe one type of fish (usually a wrasse) with them and with an appearance of a protective habitat, though most garden eels thrive in areas with moderate currents, more likely to bring food their way.  I was also impressed with the leafy sea dragon tank.  Much larger than what you usually see with lots of places for the little guys to hide if they want to instead of a small tank that gets covered periodically to relieve stress.  And, the mandarine fish -- Usually, they're so busy darting around, I can't get a good shot.  This was posed.  He would move just a bit and then stop for the picture.  When I started to leave, he turned to face me, as if he wasn't finished!  Here are some shots.

The tanks were conducive to the animals' needs, yet easy for visitors to view without having to squeeze into small, tight spaces.  Nobody stopped me when walking to exhibits to have me sample their wares and take a coupon for my next trip to the market, and the space was used for animal habitats, not stationary displays and televisions so you could see what was going on in the exhibit if you couldn't get to a viewing spot.  The Georgia Aquarium puts the Monterey Aquarium to shame.  It also skyrocketed to the top of my list of best aquariums, which was most recently headed by the Newport Aquarium in Newport, Kentucky, just outside Cincinnati, Ohio.

After leaving the aquarium, we headed to Alabama to spend some time with a dear friend.  She took us to have some really good German food.  Sorry.  I couldn't wait.  Sooooo good.

This was Bruce's favorite part!

While Bruce was hanging out in the hotel, Barb and I found a little park with a creek.  Noticing no signs warning us to stay out, we decided to dip our toes in.  It was an awesome feeling!  The water was cool on that hot day.  A couple of frogs weren't really impressed with us, though.  Next time, I think I'll bring my water shoes, though.  Those rocks were pretty sharp!

A lovely park with a refreshing creek with two crazy ladies wading in it!  Life just doesn't get any better!

Meanwhile, in Tennessee -- Meet Pete!  He's gonna be a daddy soon, and he perches on the racks of this truck or high in other trees so he can keep an eye out, making sure nothing messes with the mama of those little peababies.

The peahen (whose name just evades me) decided to lay her eggs in the bed of this pickup truck, which won't be moving anytime soon.  I got the best shots I could, but the last thing I wanted was for her to feel threatened and have either her or Pete or both let me know just how unwelcome I was!

Since we were there, we had every intention of going to the Portland, Tennessee Strawberry Festival.  It's held on a Saturday in May every year, and we just happened to be there for that Saturday.  Remember at the top, I said the doctor said I didn't know how to walk?  Well, I proved it that day.  We got up and checked out of our hotel, deciding we'd spend a few hours at the Strawberry Festival, and maybe have some strawberry shortcake or strawberry pie for lunch before travelin' on down the road.  No such luck!  We got out of the car and started walking to Main Street, where it was shut down for the festival.  We got on the sidewalk, and I swear Bruce pushed me!  I'm not sure how he managed to do it since he was actually in front of me, but that's what had to happen because the next thing I know, I'm laying face down on the sidewalk!

You know that Facebook meme that's going around about knowing whether you're old based on the way people react when you fall?  I'm old!  I'm apparently older than old!  One lady actually started digging through her handbag for ointments and bandaids!  My new filtered water cup got scratched up in the fall.  I got some scratches on my fingers.  I got a bruise on the side of my leg just above my ankle.  The biggest brunt was my knee.  It doesn't look so bad, but it hurt like hell, and some of those spots were really deep!  If I was younger, I probably would have been able to push through it.  But, Bruce was having none of it.  If I couldn't stand up and walk properly, apparently I didn't need to have any strawberry shortcake or strawberry pie!  He marched my butt back to the car (meaning he almost literally carried me), and drove me to the nearest store where he could find a bandage big enough to cover it.  Then, he stood in the parking lot while I stuck my leg out in the car and cleaned my knee, point triple antibiotic on it, and taped a large dressing on it.  He finished it off by handing me a giant Reese's Cup.  Doesn't make up for the strawberry shortcake I was looking forward to, though!

That put me back on my rear again for a period of time.  But it didn't stop me from crashing Mother's Day with some friends and family in Tennessee before heading to Mississippi.

After a couple of days we were on our way again.  Biloxi, Mississippi was the next destination.  We got there a little early for checking into our rooms, so I sat down for a little while.  Sixty cents later, and --

As you can see, I bet big! (snicker, snicker!)  I actually spent most of my time there coaxing the birds up so I could try to take their pictures.  This was the best I got.  Holding the camera in one hand and a little bit of bread with the other.  None of them would come in to take it.  Surprisingly, they didn't even catch it when I threw it to them!  The one in the back was looking at it, though.

Of course, we had to make a trip to Darwell's!  No trip to the Biloxi area is complete without it!  One of the most unique things about Biloxi is the tree carvings in the median down Beach Boulevard (Hwy 90).  When Hurricane Katrina came through, there was a huge amount of damage, including all of the trees that used to line that median.  Instead of cutting them all down, the city commissioned three chainsaw and wood artists to turn the dead trees into works of art.  And, boy, did they ever!  These are some really awesome sculptures, with quite a bit of detail.  Some are small, but some are huge and multifaceted.  Here are just a few of them.

This will be our last circle back to Florida for a while.  It's getting entirely too hot here, so the next trip out will be another one-way journey!  And hopefully, I'll have learned to walk by then!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Day Full of Elephants!

Today was an exciting day.  Since getting out of the CAM boot for my Achilles' tendon problems, I'm finally out and about.  I have temporary orthotics in my sneakers, a bit stiffer than over-the-counter, but not quite fitted to my foot, so the arch support is a little forward compared to my normal arch.  But, it lifts my heel (which the podiatrist says is important), and it keeps my arch from falling the rest of the way.  My custom orthotics will be ready in a couple of weeks, and maybe we can take some early morning walks into the forest  to hang out and just watch the critters who live here and don't want to come out to the human communities.

About an hour up the road form here is an elephant sanctuary, Two Tails Ranch.  I felt like it would be a good place to start, and elephants!  I mean, come on.  Who doesn't want to play with an elephant?!  If any of you are ever around Williston, Florida, I would definitely recommend you go by.

You have to call and reserve your tour, so if you just stop by, they may not be having one that day.  Or you could get there and find that they are full.  I was surprised at the number of people who were there.  Bruce estimates about 50 or 60 people ranging from toddlers to geezers older than us!  This is the line to check in.  We had looked at a few other animals before getting in line, and there were several people behind us.

After checking in and buying our tickets for the activities we wanted, we entered a patio with folding chairs and picnic tables.  In the paddock in front of us was Luke, a male Asian elephant.  Luke stood patiently waiting for everybody to come in and for his matriarch, Pat (a human), to educate everyone on elephants, especially the Asian elephant.

Pat taught us quite a bit about the elephants that I had no clue about.  Some of the highlights are that there are significant differences between African and Asian elephants.  The easy way to tell the difference is in the ear size, with the African elephant having much larger ears.  However, the DNA strands are very different, and they aren't just different breeds of the same animal.  The Asian and African elephants cannot breed because their species are so different!  She talked more about the external differences (such as number of toes, tusking, head shape, etc), but the DNA differences struck me so strongly that I had to look up the taxonomy.  (I know.  I can be a bit nerdish, at times.  Okay, often and more than a bit!)  I learned that both the African and Asian elephant belong to the same genus, but they are different species with each of them having multiple subspecies (breeds).  And apparently, the Asian elephant is more closely related to the wooly mammoth than the African elephant is.  This is why the tusks of the Asian elephant cross in front.  Luke (in the picture) is still an adolescent.  As he grows up, his tusks will begin to curve up, like a mammoth's.  Another difference between the Asian and African elephants is that in the Asian elephant, only the male grows tusks.

Luke has spent much of his life at Two Tails Ranch.  He grew up with Pat's children and enjoyed playing soccer with them and doing other things, such as painting.  Luke painted a picture for us.  He seemed to enjoy it.

Later, we got to take pictures with him.  He was very friendly.  I wish I had stayed a little longer.  He was getting curious with his trunk.  The next person who took a photo got a hug from him with the trunk!

After pictures, we fed carrots to one of the female elephants.  She was very, very happy!  Pat said it costs over $100,000 per year to feed each elephant.  That's in addition to the 80 acres they get to roam and graze!  She said they don't have to go round them up, as they all like to spend the night in the barn.  Especially Luke, who is afraid of the dark!  It was really fun feeding the female.  She was reaching for the carrot before I even got up to her!

Then they did elephant rides.  I opted out of the rides, instead wandering around the grounds checking out the other animals.

They have ringtail lemurs with a large enclosure and a "skybridge" leading to and from a large building, where they can go inside whenever they want, like this guy!

They are breeding the lemurs.  This one turned 3 weeks old yesterday!

All in all, it was an excellent day.  The animals appear well taken care of and spoiled.  The enclosures were large and well appointed, and most of the animals are apparently turned out to roam the 80 acres at will when guests are not on site.  They also have a program in which you can bathe an elephant and other up-close activities assisting with their daily care.  I didn't think I was up for that yet. Shout out to Two Tails Ranch for doing such an excellent job with these animals!