I Fell Into a Waterfall, It Was Great

Sometimes you fall in love with nature, sometimes you just fall in nature, sometimes you do both at once. This story takes place in the Smokey Mountains and begins with Trail asking me where I want to go for a hike. Normally, Trail picks the trails, but she’d seen all the things she really wanted to see. Since I’m not often asked, I figured I’d better step up and pick something. I reached for the Smokey Mountain trail guide book that Trail bought on arriving and looked for something.

I decided I was in the mood to see a waterfall and flipped around until I found one that was a relatively short hike. Spruce Flat Falls was the name of the place, located near the Great Smokey Mountain Institue at Treemont. The guide warned that the trail was a little tricky to find and that the ground could be somewhat uneven, especially in wet weather. Fortunately, the skies were clear and the sun shining. At 2 miles of moderate hiking, it sounded like exactly the short excursion I was in the mood for.

I didn’t take a good picture of the institute. Imagine more green and less white.

So it Begins

The Great Smokey Mountain Institute at Treemont is a pretty cool deal. We stopped in at the visitors center to make sure we had our directions squared away, and to get Trail a parks passport stamp.  These passports are a fun way to record your travels through the national parks and Trail is a big fan. They told us the trail was clear, and even had a little map for us on how to get to the trail head which was squirreled away behind one of their buildings. The GSMI looked pretty cool. They have lots of hands-on nature courses, mostly for kids, but also some for adults. 

The GSMI looked pretty cool. They have lots of hands-on nature courses, mostly for kids, but also many for adults and families. There are classes on nature photography, guided hikes, insect safaris, summer camps, birdwatching programs, and even opportunities to do volunteer work for research programs. If you plan a trip to the Smokey Mountains, I highly recommend you see what they offer while you are there. Unfortunately, we discovered them only at the very end of our time in the park.

With our little map in hand, we headed for the trail. If you have done much hiking to waterfalls, they almost always involve going uphill one way, and downhill the other. It turned out this trail was both. You first climb up a steep hillside, then down the other side to get to the waterfall. Indeed there isn’t more than a few feet of level ground on the entire trail. True to the guide, for the most part, the ground was uneven due to tree roots and stones littering the steep path. Trail found it a bit rough going for her knees and both of us got a good sweat going while climbing up the hills.

An innovative but not all that helpful addition to the trail.

Paradice Found

As we arrived at our destination, weariness gave way to excitement as we first laid eyes on the waterfall and felt the coolness of the air around the stream. The water levels were on the low side, so we were able to safely clamber over large stones to reach the base of the waterfall and have a seat to enjoy the scenery. The falls come down about 30′ into a shallow and rocky pool and then cascade over a series of smaller drops into the creek which continues down the valley. Surrounding the falls are lush moss covered cliffs, flourishing in the spray.

As Trail set about taking pictures, I made my way up to the base of the falls to get a face full of misty spray. I spied a little flow on the side that looked perfect for cooling off after the strenuous hike. I carefully picked my way over, cupped my hands and then splashed my face. It felt great! I stepped back to look for fish in the pool, sure enough, there were little ones darting about and catching insects in the water. I considered removing my shoes and wading in a bit, but the bottom was pretty rocky so I decided against it. But the thought of the cool mountain water called to me. I headed back to the little side fall, this time, I was going to get my head wet and take a little drink, sip from the mountain. A little risky, but my chances of Giardia were pretty low here.

Behold the Majesty of Spruce Flat Falls. Not to mention our oh so agile hero.

Had a Great Trip; see You Next Fall

I cupped my hands and captured some of the falling water, then sipped. Ahhh, so refreshing! I decide to lean forward to put my face in the downpour, feel the refreshment engulf me. The waterfall had other plans. As I shifted my weight, my right foot slid up and over the rock ledge I’d placed it on. My considerable weight then carried me over the ledge and set me spinning about. I only remember two things in this moment. The first was the rock ledge coming at my face. I extended a hand, deflected my momentum, but still tumbled over the ledge. The second was the bolder in the pool below coming at my face. Another stiff arm and I deflected off that and into the shallow pool at the bottom of the ledge, front first, but not face first.

So there I was, more than a little surprised, lying face down in the water. The refreshment had engulfed me after all, just not quite as I’d planned. I lumbered up and took stock of myself. Nothing more than some small cuts and scrapes on my hand to show for the tumble. Dripping like a big wet dog, I looked towards my wife. She was downstream trying to take a selfie with the waterfall, oblivious to my little adventure. I wondered “did she get a selfie with me falling into the waterfall?” Turns out she did!

The golden selfie! Did you see me in the cover image? Trail had no idea she’d caught my shame on camera.

“Hi honey, I just fell into the waterfall. It was fun.” seemed like the proper greeting under the circumstances. Her mix of concern, amusement, and surprise was very gratifying. I felt soggy but delighted. The adrenaline was taking care of the pain and giving me a nice robust feeling, and I was definitely no longer hot and sweaty. Sure, it would have been better had I decided to jump into the pool rather than tumble down the rocks into it, but all’s well that ends well. The hike back featured a lot of squishing from my shoes, but my soaked cotton shirt kept me feeling refreshed and vigorous on the return trip. I would not have normally chosen to jump in a stream with my clothes on, but this adventure taught me that it would have been a good decision if I had.

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Sailing in Biscayne National Park

One early morning in late March of 2017, I urge Hitch to wake up with a nudge, “Get up. It’s sailing day!” My excitement feels silly; it’s not every day that we get to sail in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida. This gem of a park covers nearly 173,000 acres and over 95% is underwater. Without scuba gear, sailing would be our best option for experiencing Biscayne National Park. After I eyeing Biscayne for over two months, I finally discovered the Everglades Association & Biscayne National Park Institute’s sailing tours and jumped right on those tickets.

Our ship of the day & her Lady Captain

Our ship of the day & her Lady Captain

Convoy Point

After a quick breakfast, we hop into the truck and drive to the Dante Fascell Visitor Center at Convoy Point, and the departure point for our sailing tour. We get there early and spend a half hour roaming the museum and art gallery. I consider the museum above average since it offered a virtual journey through the park’s four ecosystems using dioramas, audio, and video. The gallery itself highlights the efforts of local artists who find inspiration in the park.

As our departure time approaches, we check in and head to the dock to meet our captain. For the life of me, I cannot remember her name, but I remember that despite being a young she was an excellent captain and adept at maneuvering a 40-foot sailing boat. During our voyage, we learn that she was also from the Pacific Northwest, and got her sailing chops by living on a boat in Gig Harbor since she was a kid.

Sister Sailing Boat - very similar to ours, we think its a Ketch.

Sister Sailing Boat – very similar to ours, we think its a Ketch.

Biscayne Lessons

After our short conversation, we go over our itinerary and our destination: Boca Chita Key. To reach this small island, visitors must sail across Biscayne Bay, and from Convoy Point, we’ve got roughly 26 miles. Not long after, we board the boat I notice four other passengers: two young ladies, a father, and his adult son. We set sail as soon as we’re all tucked on board, the captain slowly motoring us through a mangrove forest before reaching open water.

From our captain, we learn Biscayne National Park protects four distinct ecosystems: the shoreline mangrove swamps, the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay, the coral limestone keys, and the offshore Florida Reef. The shoreline swamps of the mainland and island edges act as nurseries for larval mollusks and crustaceans, as well as juvenile fish. In the bay waters, young and adult fish find refuge along seagrass beds, sponges, and soft corals, while manatees slowly feed upon fields of seagrass. The beaches provide nesting grounds for endangered sea turtles. Among the offshore reefs, more than 200 species of fish, marine birds, whales, and hard corals live in harmony, waiting for scubas and snorkelers to explore.

Pano view from Boca Chita Lighthouse

Pano view from Boca Chita Lighthouse

Boca Chita Key

As a group, we passengers make small talk, but mostly focus on the scenery and enjoying the warm Florida sun. When we reach open water our captain declares, “Time to hoist the sails! Who wants to help?” The young man quickly gets up and raises his hand, and soon he and the captain are quickly moving about the boat raising the three sails. We ask what kind of sailboat we’re on, but can’t catch what her exact reply. We surmise that our vessel is a ketch.

In roughly two hours, we spot the lighthouse of Boca Chita Key. The 65-foot lighthouse, built by Mark Honeywell in the late 1930s, is purely ornamental and serves no real function except to attract tourists to the island. The observation deck provides a fantastic view of islands, bay, ocean, and downtown Miami skyline.

Just as we are taking photographs, our captain and the young male passenger begin lowering the sails. Our captain then motors into the harbor and slips between two boats along the bulkhead, receiving praises from other skippers on shore for skilled piloting.

Sig likes sailing!

Hitch likes sailing!

Take the Paddle Board, Not the Kayak

For the next hour or two, our captain offers us a choice of snorkeling, paddle boarding, and kayaking. All of us decide to go snorkeling using the paddle boards to get there, despite the slightly choppy waters. There are only 4 paddles boards, so we volunteer to take the inflatable two-man kayak. Hitch asked if there was a technique for getting into the kayak from the water. Our guide shook his head and said if we had trouble we could swim it to a shallow area to get back in. We drop the sea kayak into the water and squeeze ourselves into it from the dock. I know nothing about kayaking, so I let Hitch drive us toward our destination. We paddle lazily out of the harbor and around the lighthouse. Our snorkeling destination is just on the other side and the north side of the island.

We pick a pylon, tie off our kayak, and dive in. Sadly, the wind and choppy water stirred up the bottom silt and visibility is pretty low. We catch glimpses of silverfish, sea sponges, and various soft corals. Soon its time for us to get back into our kayak. After 20 minutes of flopping around, flipping the kayak, and otherwise embarrassing ourselves, we took our captain’s advice to heart and lead it to shallow water and secured ourselves into the kayak. Today, my advice to anyone snorkeling: “For God’s sake, take the paddle board!”

Boca Chita Key & Snorkel Site.

Boca Chita Key & Snorkel Site. The Water was too cloudy to see anything.

Back to Convoy Point

Since our time was short we row to the beach on the north side of Boca Chita Key, instead of sailing around to the harbor, and walking the kayak back to our sailboat. As we stroll, I notice there are camping spots, picnic areas, and a trail that seems to circle the whole island. Boca Chita seemed like the ideal get away if you could land a spot.

Back at the boat, we layout out our things to dry and pull out our lunches. Our skilled captain makes our departure from the harbor seem easy, pulling up tack and gear quickly. Up go the sails just as we reach open water, and from here on its just enjoying the wind, sun and open water. By the time we reach Convoy Point, we’re all sun-drowsy and bid our young captain thanks and farewell for a wonderful sailing trip.

Should have taken a paddleboard!

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Airstream Factory Terraport: Jackson Center OH

There are not many reasons to travel to Jackson Center Ohio apart from it being where Airstreams are made. But if you do swing through, you can get a very cheap site with full hookups while you visit the factory or have service work done.

We Paid: $10 per night for 4 nights
Discounts Used: Service Appointment (duration of repair work)
Address (GPS Link): 419 West Pike Street Jackson Center, OH 45334-0629
Website: https://www.airstream.com/company/tours/
Amenities List: Power, Water, Sewer, Camp Store, Rec Room, Factory Tour, Bathrooms (work hours only)

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Best Features

  • Crazy cheap!
  •  So many Airstreams!

Worst Features

  • Short Stays Only
  • Bad Cell Reception
  • Few Amenities

Some of our neighbors at the Airstream factory.

The Details

We came to get warranty work done on our Airstream but we paid for a few extra nights so we could plan out the next leg of our journey. If you are there for service, the sites are free up until you pick up your Airstream. We didn’t know how long repairs would take when we arrived, and we’d made arrangements to visit Trail’s brother a few hours north in Michigan. But had we wanted to stay at the park, they will put your trailer back in your spot at night to sleep in if at all possible.

You don’t have to be there for service to use the terraport, which is what they call the parking area for guests. There are around 18 spots available, all with full hookups, and just large enough for the largest Airstream trailers. All the sites are back in only. They are unusual in that they are arranged in a sort of circular flower shape so all travelers have their backs facing one another. A large central shrub keeps that from being a staring contest between trailers.

The only amenities on hand are located in the Airstream lobby where they have a bathroom, an Airstream shop, and some food and drink machines. A gas station and convenience store is next door and open a bit later than Airstream. The only wireless is inside the airstream lobby which is a nice place to hang out. Cell service is pretty bad, but we managed to get a workable connection for our AT&T driven internet. One of the things we had done was to install an antenna for our cell booster and that worked very nicely.

At the corner of Silver Dreams and Wanderlust.

You can take a factory tour on any weekday in the morning or afternoon. The tours are free and pretty interesting if you want to see how Airstreams are made or want to learn about the history of the company. And if you want to see a huge collection of new and vintage Airstreams, there are always tons of them on site. The parking spots themselves are only $10 a night, with the stipulation that you are not allowed to stay there long term. Exactly what long term is, I’m not sure. We paid for 4 nights after we picked up our trailer from service and they had no problem with that.

If you own an Airstream or like talking about them, then there is the added bonus of good conversation and comradery. We talked to quite a few other couples that were also staying at headquarters while we were there, one even recognized me from the blog.

I give the Terraport a hearty recommendation. It is probably the best price for a full hookup site you will find anywhere, and it is in a cool location for a short stay.

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Key West and Hemingway’s Polydactal Cats

Some travel to Key West for the sunshine, some for the booze, some for the surf, some to visit the home of a great writer; we came to see the cats with extra toes. They are called Polydactyl Cats and have a mutation that gives them additional digits on their feet. They were often prized by ships captains on the west coast of the US. Hemmingway, being a man who loved ships, was given one by a captain and they have populated his Key West home ever since. Their presence made Hemmingway’s home there a must visit destination for Trail.

Key West

Key West is the southmost island of the Florida Keys that you can drive to. It claims to have the southmost point in the continently US and we encountered a long line of people waiting to take their picture with the marker that proclaims this fact. Key West is heavily populated and frequently visited by tourists. We were there on shoulder season and it was well packed with cars and pedestrians. If you plan to visit, expect parking to be a challenge. A number of businesses rent small electric carts and cycles for roaming around town, though even with these we saw people struggling to find parking.

The biggest crowd we encountered at key west was there to take selfies at the southern point of the island.

Catering to partying college students seems to be the #1 business in Key West and there are bars and liquor stores everywhere you look. None the less, I felt they did a pretty good job keeping a local flavor to the town despite the very heavy commercialization. We aren’t much into drinking, but we took a long walk up and down the main drag to check out the shops and find some local fair to eat. Seafood and Key Lime Pie are the order of the day, but there was a wide variety of good eats on offer. I had Yuca fritters for the first time and they were delicious. Conch dishes are also a local specialty, but if you want to help out the local fisheries, seek out a place serving lionfish. It has become a problem invasive species and is also very tasty.

Hemingway’s Home

Hemmingway’s home is near the south end of the key on a narrow street where you definitely won’t find parking at any reasonable hour unlesss the gods of parking smile upon you. A stone wall surrounds the medium sized home and gardens. While open to the public, you do have to pay an entry fee to wander the grounds. The cost of entry includes an optional guided tour of the house, which I recommend you take. Our guide was a very colorful fellow in his own right and clearly had a real passion for both Hemmingway and his cats. 

Here is our tour guide. He was a very animated fellow and did a great job with the tour. He also claimed to know the name of every cat.

The house itself contains a large number of photographs of Hemmingway and his celebrity acquaintances along with other artifacts of his life. It’s no grand mansion but by Key West standards it is a large home. We found our first cats lounging in his bedroom doing their best to get as much cat hair on the bed as possible. The kitties here are clearly used to hundreds of people wandering through their home and are quite happy to entertain pets. The main rules are no feeding and no picking them up.

Something tells me Hemingway’s studio was not always this tidy. Still, I;d love to have taken it for a spin.

Behind the house is another small building that contains Hemingway’s writing room upstairs, and a gift shop downstairs. It sits next to the swimming pool that one of Hemmingway’s many wives built in order to get revenge on him for an affair. It was apparently quite an expense and there is a “last cent” encased in lucite nearby to commemorate the achievement. Pretty much everything in the house has an amusing story. One of the water-fountains is famous for being made of a urinal from a local bar. Hemmingway purchased it when the bar was going out of business and stuck it in the garden. I took a moment to honor it while I was there.

Just kidding of course. And yes, Juvenile; but somehow, I think Hemingway might approve of the gesture.

The Cats!

Outside the house are the gardens where you will find the bulk of the many-toed felines. Little cat huts are squirreled away all over the place and you will find kitties roaming all over. There are between 30 and 50 of them on the grounds at any given time. Not all of them have extra toes, but most of those we encountered did. They are often named after celebrities or politicians that Hemmingway knew. In one corner of the garden, there is a cat memorial/cemetery with markers for the many cats of the past that have lived at the home. Our favorite kitty was a rather young lad who we followed about the yard watching him hunt bugs and enjoy the sunshine. His picture is the cover for this post.

I read online that these kitty condos were mandated by the federal government. The guide mentioned that the cats only rarely used them.

We made more than a few rounds of the home and garden to hang with the cats and just enjoy the fantastic weather in Key West. If you are into cats or Hemmingway, I think it’s a great stop to make. He was a decidedly interesting person who lived a wild and adventurous life. And of course, the cats are adorable. We had wondered if there was a way to adopt or purchase cats from the estate lineage, but the answer is no. You can, however, adopt other polydactyl cats in need of a good home which are just as cute and adorable.

 

 

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Richmond Indiana KOA

Richmond Indiana KOA is pretty typical for the brand. A pretty, if slightly over-priced campground that is very kid friendly.

We Paid: $43 per night for 3 nights
Discounts Used: KOA Membership
Address (GPS Link): 3101 Cart Road Richmond, IN 47374
Website: koa.com/campgrounds/richmond
Amenities List: Power, Water, Sewer, Camp Store, Rec Room, Pool, Playground, Field Games, Mini Golf, Fishing, Dog Run, Wireless, Cable TV, Bathrooms, Showers, Laundry, Cabins, Tent Camping, Propane

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Best Features

  • Pretty grounds
  • Lots of stuff for kids

Worst Features

  • Expensive for what you get

The mini Golf here was clearly hand made by someone at the park. Its a pretty decent 9 hole.

The Details

Richmond Indiana KOA is a well-run park. The grounds are clean and everything was in good shape when we visited. It is an attractive and quiet park with just the right number of trees to give it a real campsite feel, but not so many they make parking difficult. They have all the usual amenities along with quite a wide range of activities for kids to engage in, something I’ve come to associate with the KOA brand more than anything else. There is even a cute little mini-golf course on site.

Unfortunately for us, when we booked here we could only get a site with water and electricity, but no sewer connection. Only about half of their lots have full hook ups. That isn’t a big problem for a short stay, but it felt like we were paying a premium price for a sub-premium site. We decided to use our KOA points here to pay for part of the site cost. Considering that most KOAs seem to have a bit of a price premium, their discounts and rewards programs seem to do little more than bringing their cost back to normal.

They have a small pond on site where you can go fishing. On our visit, it was so choked with algae bloom from fertilizer run-off I don’t think I’d want to eat anything that came out of it. The scummy appearance also made it a bit less attractive than it otherwise would be. You can rent paddle boats to roam around on it if you like. Still, it makes for decent scenery within the park. The bathrooms were clean but I found them cramped and the shower faucets were only about 5′ high for some reason. 

I’ll give this one a mild recommendation for those who are camping with kids with the caveat that you should make sure to ask for a full hookup if you want one.

Ya, I wasn’t really considering jumping into that green pea soup. The shoreline is pretty enough though.

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Whispering Hills RV Park: Georgetown, KY

Whispering Hills is a very decent RV park with all the basic features and a few extras that is hampered by small cramped sites.

We Paid: $37 per night for 2 nights
Discounts Used: Good Sam
Address (GPS Link): 275 Rogers Gap RD  Georgetown, KY 40324
Website: www.whisperinghillsrv.com
Amenities List: Power, Water, Sewer, Camp Store, Pavilion, Pool, Playground, Basketball, Fishing,  Wireless, Private Bathrooms, Showers, Laundry, Propane

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Best Features

  • Pretty Lake
  • Nice Bathrooms
  • Clean Park

Worst Features

  • Small sites

The lake here is really a beauty. There were a number of campers fishing here.

The Details

We only stayed at Whispering Hills RV Park for two nights as we traveled north to Ohio. My first impressions were good as the park was clean and orderly. The amenities seemed to be in good shape and the grounds in very good order. The park is surrounded by forest on three sides and a lovely lake on the other. There are very few trees within the site itself where you will find mostly gravel and lawns. The lake can be used for fishing, swimming, boating, or just watching the sun rise across the water.

There is a smallish pool, geared more for water play than swimming, and a large outdoor Pavillion next to the lake that is perfect for dining in the open air or hosting an event. The bathrooms are all private and include a shower which is exactly how I like them. They seemed to be in good working order and kept clean. The laundry is a bit small but serviceable and located near the pool. They have all the usual hookups, though they do not have cable and we did not try out the wifi during our visit.

The hills are whispering “Hey, we need a bit more room here.”

The only real problem with the park is that the sites are on the small side, both in length and width. Most of the sites were entirely taken up by the trailers leaving no room for the tow vehicles which crowded the side of the roadway in the park. Side to side, the RVs are all pretty close to one another and the lawns between them, where there are any, are quite small. As I write this, I am not looking forward to trying to get our RV out of the park in the morning.

The price is a little on the high side considering the park offerings and lack of significant attractions in the area. Seeing as they take good care of the park, I didn’t feel they were asking too much, but it doesn’t qualify as a bargain. I’d recommend it only for shorter stays due to the lack of space.

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Juniper Springs in Ocala National Forest

Take a moment and eyeball the cover picture on this article. Juniper Springs is seriously gorgeous. Of all the photographs I’ve taken so far on my trip, that one is my favorite. That is a straight up, non-enhanced image. The shapes, textures, and most of all, colors of Ocala National Forest are a real stunner. If you look closely under the bridge you can even see an alligator in that shot. It is also one of the few occasions where a photo almost does the live experience justice. 

This is the same gator as in the cover picture. He gave us a great show swimming around in the crystal clear springs.

About the Springs

Juniper Springs Recreation Area is one of a great many natural springs in Florida where you can both go for a cool swim and experience a lot of great Florida Wildlife. Instead of the hot springs so popular in the north, these are cool springs where the water is always a refreshing 73 degrees. Furthermore, it is pretty much crystal clear provided no one is stirring up the bottom of the pools. We were here in the winter, but during summer they are coveted as a place to cool off from the oppressive heat of the day. Most of the springs will have a designated area for swimming that is largely free of alligators while the rest of the springs are closed to swimming to protect the wildlife. 

Here is the spring you can swim in at Juniper Springs. The water wheel house was built by the CCC in the 1930s.

Juniper Springs is located in the Ocala National Forest which is home to all manner of plants and animals native to the region. One of the large springs is reserved for swimming and wading. An old water wheel separates it from the other waters but it is still part of a natural system so the spring is home to water plants and animals. Surrounding it are lush lawns where families can host picnics. There is a store that sells treats, park souvenirs, and water gear that also acts as an information center for the springs. The Recreation area is actually run by a private concession on contract by the parks service. Unfortunately, that means even if you have a national parks pass, you will have to pay to visit.

We caught this fellow soaking in the sunshine while we walked the trails at Juniper Springs.

Surrounding the springs are trails and campgrounds where you can explore the forest. Walking the trails is where we encountered most of the wildlife. Turtles, Alligators, Butterflies, and Birds were all abundant during our visit. If you are into plants there is a huge variety and with those, lots of cool bugs to check out. Calling them hikes would be a stretch, more strolls through the woods on well-established trails. Being Florida, elevation change is not something you need to worry about. Another popular thing to do is take a canoe or kayak down the Juniper Run 7 miles to the St. Johns River. It sounds like an amazing trip.

Another lovely shot of this trail bridge through the foliage. So many shades of green!

We visited a number of other springs while in Florida but Juniper was easily the most beautiful we encountered. One fun feature of the spring you are allowed to swim in is that it is populated by tiny fish that are adapted to eating the dead skin of manatees that frequent the springs. If you dip your feet into the water and hold still, they will come up and nibble at your toes ever so gently. I had a great time cooling off my tootsies and watching the fish occasionally nibble my cuticles. 

Note the crystal clear water, note the tiny flesh-eating fish checking out my gigantic foot.

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Exploring the Civil War in The American South

Heads up:  This article contains strong political views on serious subjects as well as some harsh images of war.

To my reckoning, the American Civil War stands as the most pivotal moment in American history. The revolution is the most defining in that it was the creation of my country. But it was the Civil War that represents the greatest moment of crisis, doubt, and hardship the nation has ever faced. Both Trail and I grew up in the Northwestern US where no battles were fought and where the Civil War is almost purely history. Traveling in the Southeastern US is a whole other reality. Here, you can feel the weight of the war through to the present day and its scars are readily visible wherever you care to look. Both its pain and its hope are kept very much alive.

While we drive around the deep south, we have been listening to a lecture series from The Great Courses: The American Civil War. It consists of 30 half-hour lectures that focus directly on the time of the war itself, both on the battlefield as well as the political and social fronts. I have to say, it is an outstanding course, both in its content, and its presentation by Professor Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D. It has been incredibly helpful in understanding the context and meaning of the sites we have visited and the role they played in the overall conflict. It has also shed light on the political and social divide that yet fissures culture in our nation today. We get our courses via Audible. This $250 audio course was covered by our $15 monthly subscription. You can get a free trial month here: Audible Trial Subscription.

The lecture series emphasizes looking at records from the time of the war so I used photographs of the time for this article.

The Spirit of North and South

Our first tactile encounter with Civil War history was in New Orleans which was captured in May of 1962 by Union forces approaching from the Gulf of Mexico. The Union held it throughout the rest of the war. We were there just before the city started taking down many of its monuments honoring the Confederacy and its heroes. The controversy around that is a good example of how the cultural currents that sparked succession are still with us today. It was an event that long ago passed from living memory but the spirit of north and south are both very much alive in the hearts of many, each with their own view as to what they mean.

In spirit, Trail and I are very much Union advocates. With our modern sensibilities, we’d have been counted among the radical Republicans of the day. I see the Confederacy as standing for elitism, slavery, hypocrisy, and a stubborn resistance to modernity and human progress. Apologists cite states rights and liberty as rallying cries for the Confederacy but history shows these values were often compromised to protect the institution of slavery and with it the economic foundation of southern social hierarchy. To my mind, the liberty they pursued was the liberty to oppress others which to my mind is no liberty at all. Not that the Union forces were angels, far from it, but their path was the one I think our founding principles called for.

As a result, I see the Confederacy, its cause, and it’s heroes as the agents of our darker natures, something to be taken as a lesson on what America repudiate rather than embrace. That said, it is not something we should ever forget. It is a lesson on all Americans should study carefully. Every time someone says, “American politics have never been more contentious.” I boggle as to how they could think our current bickering could be anything but the palest of shadows of the Civil War and its aftermath where Americans took to killing one another wholesale to determine if we were one nation or two.

This is an image from the deck of an Ironclad ship of the era.

Of Monuments and History

So when it comes to remembering the Confederacy, I think we have to walk a fine line. I am all for removing monuments that venerate the Confederacy and its heroes. I am, however, not for trying to whitewash or erase the history and memory of it. The most difficult questions surround memorials to the fallen soldiers of the Confederacy. While their cause may be one we shun, their courage and sacrifice for their families and nation were none the less heroic in their own right. And not every soldier is complicit in the politics of the nation they fight for. The Confederacy conscripted a great many soldiers during the war and they often were, in fact, defending their homes from hostile forces from the US. I think it is incumbent upon us to be able to recognize the humanity of soldiers separately from the ideology they fight for.

Most of the sites we have visited are very matter of fact about the battles they commemorate. They do not glorify one side or the other, only tell the tale of what happened and try to give us a picture of the lives of the participants and the meaning of the outcome. It is in the older stone monuments that you will find the kind of veneration and honor for the Confederate cause. It is also sometimes on the lips of people you meet, either tongue in cheek, a habit of culture, or sometimes serious conviction. I don’t think we owe it to the past to preserve their proclamations or their honor for this lost and dark cause. I am heartened that the people of New Orleans decided not to erase the past, but to take down symbols of pride in it. General Lee needs to be remembered, but he does not need to be venerated. What we choose to honor is a choice of the present, not a requirement of the past.

Since New Orleans, we have been to a number of battlefields, forts, and other sites of significance in the war. Most recently we visited Lincoln’s birthplace, and while it is not a site directly related to the war, you can’t really look at Lincoln without the event that defined the whole of his presidency. It was a burden he never wanted, but ultimately his to barely more than any other figure. I’m looking forward to visiting many more sites as we travel and reflecting the meaning of the war as well as simply the human experience of it. As a traveler, I am grateful for these places and all that I can learn from them.

And this is the truth at the heart of war. It is why we should seek to find other means to settle our differences.

Reflections and Judgements of Division and Unity

My time in the South coupled with the most recent history lessons has given me a more nuanced understanding of what it means to identify with the South and the Confederacy. I can understand where their pride and fascination comes from. I can feel to a small degree how a person growing up here could come to identify with the spirit of the South. I can understand how they very much want to separate the cause of slavery from the cause of the Confederacy because if you strip that away, what is left does have admirable qualities. The hardship the Confederacy suffered was immense and yet they persevered through it and made incredible efforts to fight for their cause. And there is simply a wonderful sense of place and community in the south that is easy to identify as home. 

But ultimately I don’t think we can separate slavery from the Confederacy, not in history. And so many of those more noble aspects of southern culture and pride were put whole stock in service to an incredible evil that violates the most essential element of our nation’s justification for being; the essential liberty of all people. We have to recognize that what set the Confederacy apart was not its courage or its ingenuity, or it’s love of liberty; those were qualities all Americans had. It was their steadfast commitment to the institution of slavery that set them apart and caused them to flee from the Union so that they could keep black men in bondage. In my opinion, you cannot honor the Confederacy without honoring slavery.

Fortunately, as I travel the South, I see America, rather than the Confederacy. The ultimate cause of the north was Union, and we have that. While the scars of division are with us today, we are not cleft apart. We all have a great deal more in common that we see if we only look at the political arena. In the myriad parts of life that are separate from that, there is far more in common, especially in virtue, than there is that divides us. I think the more we can come to understand that, the better off we will all be.


The American Civil War
The American Civil War
Author: Gary W. Gallagher
Length: 24 hrs and 36 mins
Release Date: 07-08-13
Amazon Buy Link: http://amzn.to/2qz0jDl

If you’ve ever wanted to understand the Civil War, this series of 48 startlingly evocative lectures by a leading Civil War historian can serve as both an ideal single course or a solid starting point for further exploration.


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Gulf Islands National Seashore

Gulf Island National Seashore contains a set of barrier islands located both in Mississippi and Florida. The two districts contain a total collection of 12 units including beaches, bayous, and islands. Hitch and I took a quick day trip to the only part of the Gulf Islands accessible by car and within Mississippi: the Davis Bayou Area. After a stop at the visitor center, we learned that ferry rides to the islands wouldn’t begin until summer. Regardless, we satisfied ourselves with exploring this small detached area.

Out on the Bayou

Out on the Bayou

Native Shell Mounds

The Davis Bayou Area is fairly small. There is a boardwalk near the visitor center, which lead us to a dock where you can fish and watch shorebirds. At the other end of the park, near the campground, we saw alligators and turtles. The most interesting thing we found was the evidence of shell mounds left by the Apache and Choctaw tribes. Before the European colonists, the Apache boundaries extended as far west as present-day Texas to the coastal parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and panhandle Florida. While the Choctaw mostly roamed the internal areas of those same modern-day territories. Today, a camping area and parking lot dominate the landscape. If you walk along the shore you can spot oyster and mussel shell remains which mark the edge of the mound. Not much else remains of these native tribes from that age.

 

Boating Around the Bayou

Later in the afternoon, we decided to join a ranger-guided boat tour of Davis Bayou. Thanks to our guide, we learned the difference between a swamp and bayou. Bayou is a body of water typically found in a flat, low-lying area, and can be either an extremely slow-moving stream or river or a marshy lake or wetland. The name “Bayou” can also refer to a creek whose current reverses daily due to tides and which contains brackish water highly conducive to fish life and plankton. Swamps, on the other hand, are generally slow with an almost imperceptible current flow.

Through our boating route, we saw a few birds, alligators, and turtles. To get to the sound, we took a narrow boat channel marked by pylons. As we reached the outer boundaries of the Davis Bayou area, we saw strings of buoys indicating crawfish traps below. Upon the open water, we spotted dozens of terns, gulls, and pelicans.  

Sig in a life-vest

2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

While on our boat tour, we also talked briefly about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In April 2010, Deepwater Horizon drilling rig hit a high-pressure methane gas pocket. The gas rose from the well and expanded up into the rig where it ignited and exploded. The result of the explosion released masses of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. In total, the spill released 4.9 million barrels of crude oil, making it the largest marine oil spill in history. To give you a comparison, the spill was almost 20 times greater than the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

By June 2010, numerous waves of oil pools and globs of tar landed on Gulf Islands National Seashore. Meanwhile, across the Gulf, nothing was untouched by the oil spill; from coral to fish, shorebirds to dolphins and whales. People suffered too, and not just because of fishing bans. By breathing, touching, and swallowing chemicals in oil, people suffered from acute toxic effects.

Fast forward today, seven years later wildlife still suffers from the spill. Northern Gulf of Mexico dolphins suffer from a higher mortality rate and birth defects, thus their populations dwindle. According to our ranger, the bird populations were deeply damaged by the spill, but today the numbers are slowly rising.

Boardwalk out to a local fishing spot

Boardwalk out to a local fishing spot

Islands, Beaches & Bayous

After our boat tour, we went back to the Visitor Center to learn more about the areas of Gulf Island. I learned that the Gulf Island National Seashore encompasses a large area. Ultimately, I knew that we needed more than a single day to see it all and felt a little disappointed that I didn’t allow for more time. Just to give you an idea of what we missed, here’s a list of all the places within this national seashore.

Mississippi Areas

Davis Bayou Area – located near Ocean Springs, Mississippi. A great place to fish, bird watch, and learn about the Bayou habitat.

Cat Island – The island is named for raccoons which Spanish explorers mistook for cats. During World War II, the island was a base for the Cat Island War Dog Reception and Training Center where Americans sent family dogs to be trained by the U.S. Army Signal Corps for military service.

Ship Island – Hurricane Camille split the once single island into 2 separate islands in 1969: East Ship Island and West Ship Island. The island served as a vital anchorage for ships for French, Spanish, British, Confederate, and Union occupations. Today, both are accessible by private boat year-round. The East Ship Island can be reached by passenger ferry seasonally. West Ship Island is the site of Fort Massachusetts

Horn Island – This undeveloped island is known for its sugar-white sand, dunes punctuated with sea oats, tall pines on small groves, and a few inland lagoons. Visitors can only access this island by private boat.

West Petit Bois Island – Once known as Sand Island, it joined Petit Bois Island long ago. Today, this undeveloped island is popular for wildlife and bird viewing.

Petit Bois Island – Petit Bois in French means “little woods,” and named by early French explorers due to a small wooded section located on the eastern end of this mostly sand and scrub-covered island.

Cat Island War Dog Sign

Cat Island War Dog Sign

Florida Areas

Perdido Key Area – Located on Pedro Key, Florida, this recreational area offers daytime access to the Gulf of Mexico and white sandy beaches of Johnson Beach. In the 1950s, many of the beaches near Pensacola were designated as “whites only,” meaning colored people couldn’t visit the beaches. This beach was named after a Korean War Army Private Rosamond Johnson, Jr, a man who carried two wounded soldiers to safety and died while trying to rescue a third.  Once owned by Sunset Riding Club, the club renamed the beach to Johnsons Beach. They then leased the land in 1950 to the county for use by “colored citizens.” Although the lease expired, it remained until it became part of Gulf Island National Seashore in 1978.

Fort Barrancas – The fort was first built by Spanish colonists in 1698, and came under American control in 1812. The fort itself is located within the Pensacola Naval Air Station. Visitors can tour Fort Barrancas and the Advanced Redoubt.

Naval Live Oaks Area – Located near Gulf Breeze, Florida, this reservation was once a federal tree farm in the 1700s to the 1800s. The timber from the live oaks was used to build ships. Such ships were once called “Old Ironsides” due to their strength. Today it serves as a recreational area for hikers and beach-goers.

Fort Pickens – Built in 1834, the United States built this fort to increase security to its major ports after the War of 1812. Located west of Pensacola Beach, the area features historic fortifications from the early 1800s through the mid-1900s, as well as miles of beaches.

Opal Beach – Also known as Santa Rosa Day Use Area, this recreational site is located on Hwy 399 east of Pensacola Beach and is one of the most popular beach locations. This beach was born in 1995 when Hurricane Opal flattened the dunes to create a smooth, glittering paradise of sugar-sand beach.

Okaloosa Day Use Area – On U. S. 98 near Fort Walton, this quiet water area has sandy beaches and calm waters perfect for swimming.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo Spanish Moss Yellow-crowned night heron Juvenile Black Crowned Night Heron Big American Alligator basking in the sun

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The Aware Wildlife Center in Atlanta Georgia

While making our way through Georgia we got an invitation from our gaming friend Scott Lang to pay him a visit. Scott was recently named the director of The Aware Wildlife Center just outside of Atlanta Georgia. He asked us if we wanted to come meet the ambassador animals and tour the facilities. Cute animals and geek talk? We were stoked!

What Is AWARE?

AWARE stands for Atlanta Wildlife Animal Rescue. Their mission is to help the people of Atlanta and the local wildlife co-exist successfully by rehabilitating injured wild animals and by educating the public. They take in native animals found by citizens and nurse them back to health. If they are successful, they are re-introduced into the wild. If the animal cannot survive in the wild, they become ambassador animals. These ambassadors are cared for by the center full time and used to educate the public through outreach programs and tours of the AWARE Center.

The center was the dream of its founder, Michael D Ellis who worked many years to make it a reality. They opened their doors in 2006 and have been helping injured wildlife ever since. Scott was brand new to the directorship, having been a volunteer board member and supporter of the center for some time prior. For both the small number of paid staff and the many volunteers, it is clear that their work at Aware is very much a labor of love. 

Baby Owls!

Taking the Tour

Heading to the center, Atlanta itself reminded me a good deal of Seattle. Both cities are vibrant, hip, and modern and both sit in the midst of lush forests. As a result, Atlanta has a pretty diverse population of wild animals that make the city and its surroundings home. The center cares for a diverse population of birds, reptiles, and mammals. When you visit, the birds they keep as Ambassador animals are going to be the first critters you encounter. Front and center during our visit were two beautiful Barred Owls. We stopped and watched them for some time as we both adore owls. It was there Scott found us mesmerized. 

Scott treated us to the VIP tour. We started by checking out their medical facilities where they treat injured animals. From there we got to watch as the staff prepared meals for the critters. With a huge range or animals comes a huge range of nutritional needs. I was fascinated by all the different dishes of meats, vegetables, and seeds that were being prepared and did my best to stay out of the way. Everyone was hustling and working hard to care for the critters. Directly behind the facility, they have a small outdoor amphitheater for demonstrations along with a garden of native plants.

More wild animals (coyotes) that live closer than you might think.

Winding back into the woods, a series of trails takes you to various enclosures they have set up. Those open to the public are for the ambassador animals. For those being prepared to be released into the wild, they want to minimize human contact to maintain the animal’s natural fear of people. It was clear that great care had been taken to make the ambassador animals comfortable and to keep those to be released into the wild safe and secure. Since all of them were provided hiding places in their enclosures, we didn’t see any of the mammals on our visit. But we did get to view a good many birds including some beautiful hawks and some very adorable screech owls.

Meeting the Ambassadors

Returning to the center we were delighted to meet some of their ambassador animals up close. Scott had one of the animal handlers in training show them to us. First up was Marry Shelli Frankenstein, a charming turtle who’s shell was cracked and had to be plastered together. As a result of his injury, he cannot retract his head into his shell so he’s working the ambassador gig along with his snake buddy legs. We didn’t meet legs as he was getting on in years and is semi-retired from show and tell. We were told he’d recently had laser treatment for his arthritis. Arthritis is not something you want to have when you are a snake.

Its Shelli, ready for her closeup!

Next, we met a lovely little Ball-Python, Necklace, who we got to hold and enjoy. Since Lucy was not a native animal she was adopted by the staff as an ambassador. Unfortunately, a lot of people buy exotic pets and then release them into the wild when they become inconvenient. This typically means the death of the animal, or worse, the introduction of an invasive species into the ecosystem. Albert the hawk was our next visitor. He’d been lost the use of one of his eyes making it very hard for him to hunt on his own. 

Finally, we met with Skulli the Opossom. Dear Skulli had gotten a bit of his skull stuck in her brain after a car accident but managed to survive it. Unfortunately, the result of his injury is that she tends to walk in circles when left to her own devices. I’ve always had a fondness for North America’s only marsupial. They tend to get a bit of a bum rap but are really very helpful animals to have live near people. They love to eat ticks and other pests while doing their best to stay out of our way. Skulli did her best to hid in her handlers arms, so they brought out an Opposom kit who was cute as can be from a recently rescued litter.

It’s super cute! This guy is actually just old enough to forage on his own and will be released soon.

Be AWARE

We were very impressed with what the AWARE shelter’s work and the love they have for the critters in their care. If you like cute pictures and videos of animals, I strongly recommend following their Facebook Page: Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort (AWARE). If you are in the Atlanta area, then, by all means, pay them a visit. You can check their website for visiting hours. There are also some wooded trails around the property to explore. If you want to support some great folks doing their best to help animals and educate the public, you can make a donation to keep them up and running.

We had a great time visiting the center, meeting all the animals, and spending time with our friend Scott. Keep up the good work sir!

Here we are with Scott in his home. They have lots of Coca Cola decorations including this painted wall.

Here we are with Scott in his home. They have lots of Coca Cola decorations including this painted wall.

 

 

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