Sunday, June 26, 2005

Mammoth Cave NP, KY

From Chattanooga, we went to Mammoth Cave Natl Park for five nights. We had scheduled a tour in advance to be sure we wouldn't miss out...the Adventure Tour! We got there the afternoon before and checked out the Visitor's Center and did the brief Discovery Tour just to get a feel for Mammoth Cave. Mammoth has 365 miles of mapped tunnels, but they believe it is over 600 miles long. Not in one long line, but in a criss-crossing, multi-level maze of tunnels. It is mostly a dry cave, with 95% of it dry limestone rock formations. In some areas where the protective sandstone cap cracked you will find stalactites and stalagmites, but not many. The history surrounding the cave is interesting: an attempt at nitrate-mining inside the cave, the first tuberculosis hospital was built inside the cave, a trapped-caver story involving a circus of bystanders leading to Mammoth later becoming a National Park and stories of some of the first cave guides who were 17 yr old black slaves. We had taken four tours total and feel that we only saw a small portion of Mammoth Cave.

But we did get to see a portion of the Cave that not many visitors see. The Adventure Tour was six hours of crawling on hands and knees, squirming on bellies, straddling gaps in rocks, and just getting dirty. We wore helmets with headlamps, kneepads, and work gloves. The cave averages 54 degrees, but we still worked up a sweat. We kept our longsleeves on to help protect us from scraping on the rocks. Visibility was reduced due to the use of headlamps only, and since Andy and I agreed to be the "trailers" we had some kicked-up dust to contend with. As "trailers", we were responsible for making sure that everyone else got out of each tunnel ahead of us, and no one was left behind. There were 2 NPS Rangers with our party of 10 amateur speleunkers. Paula was our lead guide, and Eric followed behind or slunk thru holes only to reappear in other areas where help might be needed. Being a maze of tunnels allowed the park rangers to pick and choose the tour depending on our capabilities. It also allowed for "Plan B" if someone couldn't fit through the tunnel of choice - which did happen twice on our tour.

We crawled through places with the names like "Hell's Hole", "Kathleen's Crawl", and "No Name Pass" (no 'clean' name could be agreed upon for this tunnel, because it was worse than Hell's Hole!). Many of these tunnels were about 1 1/2' to 2' high making it difficult to use anything more than elbows, forearms, and toes to propel yourself forward. Surprisingly these tunnels were also quite long - 80 feet or so - meaning you were propeling yourself like a worm for what seemed like eternity. Some entrance or exit holes were so tight that you had to position your helmet just so in order to squeeze through. Prior to entering a new challenge, Paula would brief us on what to expect - height, length, best attack method. After one such briefing she rolls over from her sitting position and disappears into a crack. None of us knew the entry to the hole was right there. We all started to look at cracks and crevices more closely after that..."where does that hole go?".

There was only four who dared to enter the Mole Hole, however. Eric thought only 2 of the guys with us could do it this hole is so small. Eric did not think Andy should attempt it, that's how small the hole is. Andy may be 6'1", but he's built for speed and is a slim 165lbs (same weight as in high school, the bugger). But, Andy had to try it of course! Wish I could say he got stuck, because that would make for a funny story...but he didn't. The four of them got in and out safely. I'm just thankful we all weren't asked to attempt it.

Around the 5th hour of this why-did-we-pay-for-this excursion, I realized that my body was about to quit. Just pure and total physical exhaustion including, toes, lower back, elbows, triceps, you name it. But this is what we wanted and, boy, were we surprised that the NPS would actually offer such a life-risking tour. We now have even more respect for our NPS and the Rangers. This is what exploring our parks and wildernesses should be like...not always behind railings and in a safe-zone, but doing something with some risk and with some fear. There's a certain amount of pleasure and satisfaction in doing something that's challenging - either physically, mentally, or both.
Wild Cave Tour Photo Gallery - click here for pictures! (Some of the photos were taken without the flash for two reasons: 1. the dust particles in the area are highly reflective, and 2. I wanted to capture the essence of this tour by showing the darkness and headlamps-only lighting. The drawback is blur from people moving about.)

The day-after was pay-day. We could barely move our arms because our under-used triceps were so sore. The skin on our elbows had been rubbed off - you heard me right, not cut, no abrasions, just missing skin from the constant rubbing on earth or rocks. We had bruises on elbows, forearms, rib cages, knees, you name it. Andy's mom just can't comprehend how we consider this "fun", but we do. The price was worth it.

Mammoth Cave NP isn't just about the cave, either. We enjoyed some topside activities, too. On Friday we kayaked the Green River. Since we were too cheap to pay $40 for a shuttle service at a local kayak shop, we made it an out-and-back paddle from Green River Ferry. The current wasn't too strong so we made it 6 miles upstream (using our GPS to gauge distance and speed), then decided to turn around for the 'float' home. Well, since the current wasn't too strong, we had a 6-mile paddle downstream. Just like at home when the wind is in our face both ways! A nice paddle though thru forest with limestone banks, islands, and birds providing musical entertainment the whole way. And, only 6 other people were seen the entire day.

On Saturday we took a horse-back riding trip with Double-J Stables. They're located on the northern border of the Park. The ride takes you into the forest of Mammoth and along one of the many myriad trails throughout that section. Very peaceful. But we've decided...we don't like trotting. Ouch! The abuse on your lower half is awful. Or maybe we just need lessons?

Here's a pastoral scene...we watched the sunset near our campsite.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Chattanooga (Choo Choo)

Chattanooga is an interesting little city. Once so industrial, it is now on the verge of becoming artsy with several pocket-parks displaying sculptures and artwork. It is also wonderful that the city is making the Tennessee River, which divides the city, into a main focal point and accessible to all. There are several parks dotting the riverside and a wonderful greenway that when finished will run for 22 miles along the river and through downtown. We ran and biked on the Riverpark Greenway.

The downtown area surrounding the Aquarium has several fountains that children can play in, stone bridges, and brick-pavered courtyards.

There's an outdoor amphitheater with free concerts. We saw scuba-divers gearing up to go into the river and kayakers enjoying the river as well. Here's a picture of the kayak launch down the river bank...makes me think we have it easy in S. Fla.

There's an inviting feeling to the downtown area. Very alive. Now it's not complete yet, there are some vacant buildings and industrial areas, but you get a sense for the direction this city is taking and its a good one.

One of the touristy things we had to do while in town was go to Rock City. Since the 1930's they have advertised on barn roofs across the country. Thankfully it wasn't as touristy as we feared. It sits on top of Lookout Mountain and consists of large boulders and cliffs with blooming plants and trees planted in nooks and crevices. There was the Swing-a-long bridge to cross over one large gap...

And other areas you had to squeeze between boulders to get to the other side...

There were also fantastic views of the valley below from Lovers Leap.

We also toured some of the historical parks in the area. The first was Chickamauga National Military Park. Although the park itself was serene with rolling fields and forests it was hard not to be disturbed by the history of this battlefield. Over 34,000 men died during the Civil War within two days of fighting. That's it, just two days, all of those lives lost. That's not including the wounded or missing. What really hit home for us was this quote by Col. John Wilder on Sept 19, 1863
It seemed a pity to kill men so. They fell in heaps, and I had it in my heart to order the firing to cease, to end the awful site.

We only took the driving tour through the park since we didn't get there til late in the day. There are hiking trails and biking roads that you can use to see more of this area.

Monuments and plaques are placed throughout the park detailing lives lost and battles fought. Cannons were placed on the original lines of battle which gave you an idea of where the 'enemy' was coming from, which was usually a forest.

We also went to Point Park, or Battles of Chattanooga, high up on Lookout Mountain where the battles continued. The park offered incredible views of Moccasin Bend and Chattanooga below.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Tampa to Chattanooga

First stop after Tampa was Silver Springs State Park. This pretty park is just on the western edge of Ocala National Forest. Silver River runs along the park to the world's largest artesian spring - "Silver Springs Nature's Theme Park". Our plan was to kayak the 2 1/2 miles to the spring from the park. We planned ahead by ordering kayak wheels since there was a 0.6 mile hike to the river and kayak launch. Now, we'd considered buying these wheels for awhile, but always talked ourselves out of it because most are so overly-priced (i.e. $50-99/each). But because we knew about this hike to the launch (feels much longer when carrying 2 58lb-kayaks, plus gear) and we found Key West Paddlesports on E-Bay selling wheels for $39/each plus s/h we changed our minds. We had bought them and had them shipped to Tampa so we'd have them for Silver Springs. Unfortunately we had technical difficulties. First, we had two defective wheel caps - so the bolts would unscrew and the wheels would fly off. This we learned within feet of our campsite. Resolution: we put both good caps on my kayak, and Andy drove his kayak to the trailhead. From there he dragged the kayak over the pine-needle and sand-covered path to the launch. Second, we wanted to avoid gluing the scupper posts on so we could disassemble the wheels and put them inside the 'yaks during the paddle. This didn't work (guessing we're on the heavy side for these wheels, recommended 60lb limit), so we rigged it to keep the posts from popping straight up and into the woods by applying pressure with the straps. Finally, about 2 hours after starting out, we finally made it to the launch. The Silver River is gorgeous. No houses, few boats during the week, just "old Florida". After touring the museum at the park, I could now begin to visualize the whooly mammoths, tigers, and super sharks that used to live in this area. Wouldn't that be neat to find a shark's tooth as big as your hand? Upon reaching Silver Springs I was a little disappointed in "Nature's Theme Park" - loud music blaring, corny little fairground rides, about 20 or so glass-bottom boats zooming about with guides on loudspeakers. What I did enjoy was the rookeries in the area with baby birds poking their heads out, the crystal clear waters allowing you to see allligator gar fish and many others, the glacier-blue water at the springheads themselves. The water is in the low 70's so it was refreshing to splash on us or hang our feet over as we paddled in the 90 degree air temp. After returning to the dock and hiking back, we continued to have problems with the scupper posts popping out of our new wheels, so we gave up and dragged both kayaks back. Guess we'll have to glue them in afterall.

The next morning at Silver Springs SP is when our plans changed. We were on a nice, wooded, scenic hike when the horseflies started attacking. And, it was another scorcher. Andy ran most of the way back to the RV, so when I caught up we had both individually decided it was time to get the heck out of Florida. Sorry Jim and Chris, we'll have to catch up on the tail-end of our trip! These parks in Northern Florida along I-75 are too pretty to not enjoy hiking, etc. We had several others on our list, but couldn't imagine going and not taking full advantage of them. So we packed up the RV and headed north. I know! Crazy for impulsive, lunch-time departure.

We made it to Reed Bingham State Park in Adel, GA by 3:00. Another pretty park with huge campsites. Live oaks with their outreaching arms dripping with spanish moss.

We toured around the park on our bikes to check out the hiking trails for tommorrow. More horseflies and mosquitos, not a good sign. In the morning we put the kayaks into the lake and paddled towards the Little River hoping the horseflies won't follow us on the water. The Little River appeared to have overflowed it's banks. It was muddy-brown and seemed to have swallowed up the forest for water was seen everywhere. There was no longer a 'river bank'. The current was visible and quite strong making for a great work-out going up-river. On one 's' curve, the floodwaters took the short-cut through the trees, bisected the river, and flowed back into the forest. It took us a minute to even determine where the river itself was since the current ran perpendicular to it. We paddled up as far as our arms could take us, spun around, and drifted home. The setting was more prehistoric than old Florida with cypress trees, moss, elephant ears, and a variety of trees crowding the waterway. Another great paddle.

We're glad we've had the opportunity to use our kayaks so much so far. We had really debated about whether we should bring them or not since we know we won't use them much out West or up North.

Again, we decided on a lunch-time departure since we can't take advantage of the hiking trails. If it's not obvious yet, we hate horseflies and mosquitos! We made it to High Falls State Park in High Falls, GA by 4pm. That night we just walked some of the trails overlooking the two falls and watched the sun start to set.

The next morning we woke up to temperatures in the 60's. Aaahh, just what we've been looking for. Drank our coffee outside for the first time since we left Ft Lauderdale. Drove over to Indian Springs State Park to check it out. The Park has the spring enclosed with a pipe coming out of it. We saw several people filling up water jugs from the spring, eventhough signs said it was not potable. We asked a ranger later about it and he explained that some people still believed in the healing powers of the mineral-laden waters. But when he told me the water comes from the Chattahootchee River (think Atlanta to the north), filters through the rocks to pick up the minerals, I kept thinking to myself "how much of the pollutants get filtered out?" They test it for pollutants once a year. They try to discourage people from drinking it. I should've asked for specifics on the test results, silly me. Times are not the same from when the Indians used this spring for healing. After touring around Indian Springs SP, we went looking for more hiking trails. There was a non-profit, privately-owned nature center around the corner called Dauset Trails. Wow, what a facility. 1200 acres. Started up in 1977 by two guys - Daugherty and Settle. Part nature center with a wildlife rehabilitation center and farm animal center, part gardens and picnic area,

they also offer a campground and a chapel, and the rest of the land are trails - separate areas for hiking, horse-back riding, or mtn biking (about 20 miles, offering 3 levels). Decided we'd come back with our bike clothes and go for a ride. We attempted the intermediate trails, about 11.5 miles intertwined within a forest with two streams running through and a couple of high-grass fields to pedal through as well. What an excellent find! Beautiful scenery in the forest of oaks, sweetgum, pines, and other deciduous trees; nothing too life threatening even though the streams were in gullies there were wide bridges to criss-cross back and forth; long down-hills were teeth-chattering/head-bobbing free-for-alls; and the signage and maps provided were clear and easy to follow (but still easy to get lost considering the multitude of trails). Check it out when you're near Macon, GA.

Left Georgia this morning trying to schedule our trip around Atlanta's rush-hour, although it always appears it's rush-hour there with it's 4-8 lanes of traffic. We don't miss living here one bit. We arrived in Chattanooga, TN and decided to stay in a private campground so we could check emails, make phone calls, do wash, etc etc etc. We've been here before, years ago, but there are some other touristy stuff we would like to do over the next couple of days.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

A Quick Trip Back Home

We took a quick trip back to Ft Lauderdale to meet up with contractors to finish some of the work on the condo. The work was done, per se, but there were a couple problems to fix. In the two days home we met with three contractors plus the developer to finish our punchlist. Considering our tight timeframe we were happy to get it all done.
We also got to squeeze in a few visits with friends. Gail and Merle came down one night to see how all of their colors came out. Ha! Since Andy was no support during the color-choosing months (paint, tile, carpet) prior to the move I was constantly running over to their house for advice. Since we went outside of our comfort zone and went with bold colors (reds, golds, browns, and navy) I needed feedback that I wasn't doing anything stupid. They were a big help and I can't thank them enough for their advice. We like the change.
Our friend and realtor, AnneMarie, came for the "after" visit, since she had already seen the "before" when it was bare concrete and white-washed walls. And Fred & Charley came down for drinks and dinner. It was so good to have our northern (Boca) friends come to check out the new place.
On the drive back to Ft Laud we had to drive thru some rains, but were so excited to see a rainbow - the whole thing from end to end. How unusual. But then minutes later we saw another whole rainbow form right alongside the first, like a shadow. Very cool. I'm still excited about it, eventhough Gail told me this happens quite frequently in New Mexico.
We returned to Ft Myers Beach to pick up Spirit and on Sat we headed Tampa. Ha! Yeah, another short trip. But we wanted to stop at Lazy Days (the RV dealership where we bought Spirit) to check out the new 2006 models. Two good things happened during the drive. First, Andy somehow managed to avoid 90% of the rains from Tropical Storm Arlene and second, our water heater started working again. When we came back from Ft Laud, the pilot wouldn't lite. Might've been from so much humidity or driving rains that got inside the w/h compartment. But the drive must have air-dried it and it started up again. Oh, I should also mention that Andy is relieved to be leaving our last campsite since he had to donate so much blood to the local mosquitos there that he was going to pass out soon if he didn't move on. It was nice being on the water next to mangroves...except a low-tide, if you know what I mean. They were fierce at our site attacking any area (on Andy) not covered in Off.
Anyhow, we got to look at the new RV models at Lazy Days and came to the conclusion that we are perfectly content in our Spirit. The size, colors, design are all just right for us. But that's not to say those $600,000 40 ft buses weren't bad either with their washers and dryers and 1 1/2 baths...just not for us and the way we like to travel or parks we want to be able to fit in.
We're heading out soon, moving up the state to Ocala National Forest then along I-75 to some other State Parks. FYI: It may be a little while til I can post an update.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Ft Myers Beach

So, it only took me 48 hours to figure out how to properly post pictures on my weblog ('properly' is the key word here). For those who attempted to view the blog on Sun or Mon, please accept my apologies for the horrendously large photos that were posted. Many thanks to Chris Guld, friend, Almighty Blogging Guru, and my personal "campground hero", for always helping me when I need it! You, too, Jim!

Over the weekend we determined a new plan-of-action so that we can see Jim and Chris along our route. They're heading south to Ft Lauderdale and scuba-diving, and we're heading north. We determined we can intersect in Tifton, GA while they work at a Coach-Connect campground. This will be great. We love seeing friends along the way. We'll just slow down a little bit and see some additional state parks in northern Florida to get our timing right.

With all of this time on the internet, we've found some interesting articles on RVing. This article on RVing and WIFI (wireless internet)was interesting. Now I understand better why our WIFI signals fluctuate. We've also started to formulate a plan...where we're going and what we want to see. Of course that can change at any moment, so you'll just have to keep in touch to see where we end up.

On Monday we put our kayaks in at the boat ramp here at our campground. The Management Office told us that we were on the Great Calusa Blueway and we could just paddle out and follow the signs. We first went to the website, printed out a map, plugged some coordinates into our GPS and then we went out (better safe than sorry, right?). Weren't we smart! We never found a sign marker until we got back to the campground. We just followed the GPS directions and headed in that general direction. All of the mangrove islands made the blueway more of a 'mazeway'. But we had a good paddle. We could've just used the half-sunken boats as markers. There were so many left over from Hurricane Charley 2004. Very sad.

We made it back to the campground (using GPS and sunken boats). Here's the only Great Calusa Blueway marker we saw. If you look close enough you'll see our boat ramp behind the sign...don't ask how we missed it.

Here's a picture of our campsite near the point. We're at San Carlos RV Park & Island Resort - the beauty of it is that it is surrounded by water since we sit on the edge of Estero Bay.

Along the way we got to see some birds, but most were smart enough to stay in hiding during the afternoon heat:
We love the Roseate Spoonbills - they're as pink as flamingoes, smaller, but with platypus-type beaks for skimming for microscopic organisms.
That evening we decided to take in the sunset at Bowditch Regional Park. The best place for sunsets in Fort Myers Beach. The Park has trails that wind around a hilly bluff above the western point of Estero Island. Pretty landscaping on the hills with a butterfly garden. But the sandy beaches here were dotted with live sand dollars! We've never seen living sand dollars before. They're covered in a "fuzz" or cilia on top and bottom, and you can see it around their edges. This is what allows them to 'crawl' across the sand. Some had left trail marks to show their efforts and the distance they made during low tide.

On Tuesday we drove to Sanibel and Captiva. We stopped at Ding Darling NWR and drove thru the park. Timing was bad - afternoon, hot, high tide - but a great nature center. During one of our stop-offs I found an Osprey nest with a mother feeding two babies. Took lots of pictures, but none came out. Instead I was surprised to hear a Pileated Woodpecker squacking not 5 feet behind me...
As Steve Irwin would say, "what a beaut":

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Ft Myers Beach, FL

Yesterday we had a day without rain. Well, actually it drizzled periodically, and black clouds threatened most of the day, but we were still able to get out of the RV and do some fun things. So we drove to Lover's Key State Park and started out with some shelling. Boca and Ft Lauderdale's beaches just don't have many seashells, so this is not something I get to do frequently - though some may disagree considering the size of my shell collection. It was high tide when we got there, but with the storms there were a lot of shells on the beach. What a variety, too. Florida fighting conchs, lightning whelks, kitten paws, cones, and many more I forget the names of. The water was warm, the sand was white, and the beach was almost empty. Perfect day to stroll the beach.

We took a break from shelling and put our kayaks in and paddled the interior waterways surrounding Black Island. We kept seeing fins in the water breaching like dolphins, but the fins weren't shaped exactly right for a dolphin. We'd see these "fins" chase after fish creating quite a disturbance, and Andy even saw one in the distance jump completely out of the water. Later we were told that they were probably large tarpon. We're used to seeing pretty little reef fish, sharks, manatees, and dolphins, but not big game fish like tarpon. I'll have to learn more about these big guys!
I got a distant picture of the "fin" during a feeding frenzy, and when I zoom in this is what we found...tarpon? or Lochness Monster?

Lunch took us into downtown Ft Myers Beach where Andy saw a New York Deli offering their "world famous Philly Cheese Steaks". When we found out they make their own bread on-site, our hopes rose even higher. Excellent cheesesteak and eggplant parmesan sandwiches. Andy always says the bread can make or break the sandwich.

We walked out to the pier to find the National Swimming Championships was being held right then and there. They had several races to choose from - a 5k, 10k, and 25k SWIMMING race. Which would you choose? We watched the end of the 5k. The 1st & 2nd place finishers came in side-by-side for a photo-finish in 55 minutes. Unbelievable. I figure that at my 40-minute/mile pace x 3.2 miles + extra minutes for slowing due to the distance + extra minutes for sore shoulders + extra minutes for drowning in the pea-soup green surf = never finishing. Can't even imagine a 25k.

We went back to Lover's Key at low-tide for more shelling. We walked north to the end of the island. Outside of those threatening black clouds, it was still nice. This time, though, instead of just finding the shells we found live critters. Many Florida Fighting Conchs were fighting their way back into the gulf. Got some great close-ups. Freaked one little guy out so he went scampering back into the hole he just dug himself out of. Oops! It's a slow process for a guy with one foot and two eyes dangling out of his shell.

We also found a live Lightning Whelk that Andy pulled out of the sand.

And the area is proving to be a great birding area. With Ospreys...

And Herons...

And Roseate Spoonbills...

Just to mention a few.

Good thing we got out yesterday, because it's been raining since lunchtime today. We attempted a run this morning in the teeming humidity...went two miles up and over the big bridge and down the beach before we called it quits and walked two miles home. "Better than nothing" I like to say! Our fault for having a lazy morning.

Friday, June 03, 2005

You've Got Pictures!

We left Ft Lauderdale yesterday and drove across the state to Ft Myers Beach. Just like last year, it rained on our very first driving day. The entire southern half of Florida is experiencing "isolated thunderstorms" so it didn't really matter if we're on the East coast or West coast. Note: June 1st was the first day of Hurricane season for us.

Good thing we have WIFI here at the campground in Ft Myers...because it has been raining. Torrential rains. Wake-you-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night rains. So good thing we have internet access to keep us busy. So I finally got pictures up from the last couple of months. I put these on the website, so just click on the links below to take you there:

Butterfly World
Key Largo
Ft Lauderdale

We're hoping the rain will stop eventually, because we'd like to kayak around Lover's Key and go biking on Black Island. But for now, we'll continue to get our "work" done :)