Road Trip

Florida to Missouri – May, 2018 We completed our road trip from Florida to Missouri in 10 days. We made it back to Doniphan for Memorial Day weekend. We stayed there two weeks and have now relocated to Springfield where we plan to spend a few weeks.

After Top Sail we visited my dad and stepmom who live east of Birmingham, Alabama. From there we got an early start one morning and made the 5 hour drive to West Memphis, Arkansas where we stayed one night at Tom Sawyer’s RV Park. We paid $35 for a full hookup, gravel pull-thru site with our Good Sam discount.

We have considered staying at Tom Sawyer’s a few times in the past. But usually we get that close to home and find the energy to continue on. Not this day. We were happy to make to the I55 bridge and didn’t care to go another mile.

We were totally whipped and ready to throw in the towel even though it was only noon. We were also very intrigued by several awesome sounding bike paths in the Memphis area, one of which would have allowed us to ride over the Mississippi River. We hoped that after we had lunch and some rest we would be refreshed enough to load the bikes up and go have at least a short ride on one of them.

Unfortunately some storms moved in during the afternoon and ruined that plan. So we made a plan B. Jim has always wanted to visit Memphis’ Bass Pro Shops ever since it opened in the Memphis Pyramid.

From our campsite in West Memphis it was an easy 10 mile drive to reach it. Their parking is under a pretty impressive collection of overpasses. I liked how they framed the downtown skyline.

We have been to many Bass Pro stores but this one was one of their more impressive ones. Here’s Jim trying to decide where to begin.

Once you enter, the glass elevator in the middle of the pyramid is pretty hard to ignore.

You can ride it 28 stories to the top where there is an observation deck and a restaurant. The cost to ride the elevator was $10 per person. We would have paid it except for 2 things: I had forgotten my camera and it was raining pretty hard. We decided to save the experience for another day. Maybe we’ll even spring for dinner at the top someday.

This Bass Pro has the unusual distinction of having a hotel right in it. The screened balconies of more than a dozen rooms can be seen in this photo. I bet it would be a fun place to stay.

We wandered and enjoyed all the usual Bass Pro departments and a few unusual ones. The only thing I needed was a pair of sunglasses as I had made it out of Florida with only one pair and left that pair at my dad’s. But this store doesn’t just sell sunglasses.

They have a department where you can design your own custom pair and they will make it for you in a few minutes. No, I didn’t inquire what the price for that would be. I just held out for the next Walmart.

They had the usual Bass Pro fish ponds but some of these fish were gargantuan.

We wrapped up our tour of the two stories of merchandise without buying a thing. We headed back to camp as the storms where subsiding and wandered along the riverbank a bit. The campground has park benches spread out all along the riverbank and we enjoyed watching the barges go by.

The next morning there was a pretty nice sunrise over the river.

We made the short 3 hour drive to my hometown the next day. We spent the next two weeks working on my family’s river house and enjoying the Current River. They say the snakes are pretty bad this year. This one was right at the bottom of our steps one afternoon.

I don’t remember having so many foggy mornings.

It was just a year ago that we experienced An Epic Flood. My dad and older brother had reinsulated, sheetrocked, and painted over the winter. Jim and I hung the doors and trim and it is now ready for furniture. Fingers crossed that we don’t have to go through that again.

Topsail Hill Preserve

Santa Rosa Beach, FL – May, 2018 When we passed through this part of Florida last October we were really looking forward to visiting Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. Unfortunately our reservation was summarily cancelled when Hurricane Nate made an unwelcome visit to the area the day before we were scheduled to arrive. Even though it was a little off of our planned route this trip, we decided to make the detour and spend a couple nights there.

We arrived an hour before the park’s 1pm checkout and were told they had not yet confirmed if our site was vacant. They directed us to park in their large day parking area and check back with them in an hour. We parked, had a quick lunch, then unloaded the bikes to have a look around.

The first thing that caught our eye were the numerous little ponds around the campground

and the many lily pads growing in them. Their blooms were quite lovely.

We made a quick tour of the park and confirmed our site was indeed vacant. Then back to the office to check in. Then back to the site to drop off the bikes and a quick walk to collect the camper.

Soon we were set up in our new home and, most importantly, plugged in to the power grid so our AC could work overtime to get our little tin box comfortable. The sites here aren’t overly large but they are big enough and thoughtfully laid out.

The rain that was in that afternoon’s forecast kept getting pushed back so we gratefully took advantage of the beautiful day. After a short rest we donned our bathing suits, threw a couple things in a bag, and headed for the beach. The beach is about a mile from the campground or from the day use parking lot. It is perfect for bicycling to or they have a tram that runs from 9 – 7 daily.

We arrived at the beach to find it fairly busy with families enjoying their Sunday afternoon.

The sand was at a premium but there was plenty of room in the water and all we cared about was getting our saltwater fix. We threw our bag down and plunged right in. The yellow flag was up so there were some pretty good sized waves we had to work our way through. But we finally got out to 4-5 feet of water and just bobbed around for a while.

The water was a deep shade of green and the perfect temperature. The only negative was little green globs of, I don’t know, seaweed? They were everywhere. That’s ok. We persevered long enough for our bodies to soak up their quotient of salt.

Some dark clouds were moving closer and we heard some thunder so we decided we better head for home. I was glad we weren’t stuck waiting on the tram. We jumped on our bikes and made it home just before the clouds let loose.

We were both looking forward to a good ride the next morning. A very popular trail starts across the highway from the park and travels 20 miles along Scenic Hwy 30-A. Unfortunately Jim’s trick knee had pulled one of its shenanigans the day before. He wisely decided he better let it rest.

I took a ride around the park. Primarily I wanted to take the paved trail to Campbell Lake. It was only about 3 miles roundtrip.

The lake is a rare freshwater coastal lake. It’s hard to see in this picture but the other side of the lake is actually a tall sand dune that protects it from the ocean.

The morning was pretty dreary and it was misting the whole ride. I kept hoping it would clear up and I’d get some better light for my photos. It didn’t.

Turns out it was pretty comfortable riding conditions so I kept going. I rode every stretch of pavement in the park, about 5 miles worth. I stopped at the beach and walked down the boardwalk.

The beach was now deserted.

Then I road most of the park again to complete an hour’s worth of morning exercise.

The rest of the day turned out cooler than expected, which was nice. We drove east a ways beside the bike path we had hoped to ride and found it was very congested in places and we probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it anyway (sour grapes anyone?). Jim wanted to visit a bike shop called Big Daddy’s. You can tell they are serious about bikes.

Then we explored the area to the west of the campground. There were tons of retail options in this area. There were high end shopping centers and a huge outlet mall.

Even though we didn’t need anything, roaming some of the strip malls was a good way to get in some walking and we always had a place to duck in out of the heat or the rain, depending on what Mother Nature chose to throw at us from one hour to the next. The easy walking was what Jim’s knee needed to keep it going without further straining it. Hopefully he’ll be back in the saddle by our next stop.

Silver Springs

Ocala, FL – May, 2018 The time finally came in the middle of May to leave Florida and slowly make our way to Missouri. We covered Bella and got her secured on her boat lift, closed up the house, loaded up the 5th wheel, and hit the road. Our first stop was Ocala, a five hour drive north.

A couple months ago, I read a post by one of my favorite bloggers, Wandering Dawgs, titled Historic Silver Springs. As soon as I read that their were wild monkeys in the park I knew we HAD to go. We have joked for years that what Florida needs is wild monkeys to make it really interesting. It has giant snakes, alligators, and crocs. Monkeys would fit right in!

We weren’t sure exactly what day we were leaving Goodland so we couldn’t make a reservation very far in advance. By the time we were sure of our departure date I could only get a rez for 2 nights, a Wednesday and Thursday. We’d have to vamoose on Friday.

The wet season had officially hit Florida that same week. We luckily avoided most of the storms (or they wisely avoided us) during the day’s drive. We got to Silver Springs State Park campground around 2 and just finished setting up when we heard the rain coming and made it indoors just in time.

Just before dinner the rain let up for a bit. We got the bikes out and road all the campground loops until another line of storms rolled in and chased us home. We had a great dinner waiting in the crockpot so we settled in to watch a movie.

The next morning until 11 was the only window of time that the weather guessers said we’d have a better chance of staying dry than being drenched. We planned to cram as much exploring in before lunch as possible. The campground is a few miles from the main entrance to the park. We road our bikes on the sidewalk beside the highway to the spring’s entrance.

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We locked up the bikes outside the admission gates and flashed our Florida State Park Pass to the gate attendant to avoid the $2 per person fee.

We walked around the grounds. The boat tours didn’t start for an hour so we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves. I love this structure with its many gables and stained glass.

The main spring was amazing. It was 30 feet deep and so incredibly clear you could watch the anhinga dive down and catch fish.

The glass bottom boats do look really cool. Next time …

There were lovely flowers everywhere. This bloom was as big as my head.

We used to have these growing in our back yard in Missouri. They are exquisite.

We followed the path along the water keeping an eye out for wildlife. Jim spotted these babies and called them ducklings. But I wondered if they were ducks or the offspring of the group of anhinga fishing in the background.

Upon further inspection of the pictures when I got home I realized there was actually a wood duck among the adult birds and these were obviously her ducklings. I was crushed that I didn’t notice her and get a clear shot. I have always wanted to see a wood duck and didn’t recognize what was right in front of me.

There were huge fish jumping ridiculously high all along this stretch water. You can barely see one of them jumping on the left of this photo.

We made our way back past the main spring and wandered over to the boardwalk trail. The surroundings were very jungle like.  Those monkeys wouldn’t have looked at all out of place there.

We moseyed down the boardwalk and met a nice lady walking two adorable dogs. She commented that the water was a little murky because of the previous day’s rain. We couldn’t imagine how it could be any clearer.

Since she was obviously a regular we asked her if she had ever seen monkeys from the boardwalk. She told us that she had once, about a year ago, and she hoped to never repeat the experience. She said that several adolescent males were on the bridge over the river and one of them made several aggressive advances toward her before she could get away.

We continued on along the boardwalk keeping our eyes to the trees, just in case.  I did see a beautiful woodpecker. He was having his way with this log lying on the ground. You can see from the holes in it that he is a regular.

I was struggling to get a better shot with all the greenery around him. He must have sensed my frustration. He jumped up to a nearby tree and poised beautifully for me just before I walked away.

We left the boardwalk and continued along the river to the kayak launch. Their kayak rentals are pretty reasonable and we definitely would have gone that route if the weather would have cooperated. You can also launch your own kayak here for a small fee. We talked to the guys collecting the launch fees and they said that if we kayaked the river we’d have about a 50/50 shot of seeing the monkeys.

We also discussed hiking trails with them and made the decision to hike back to camp and drive back to collect the bikes later. We headed down the trail and didn’t make it very far before we met this black racer.

He was just off the trail and he made his presence known by waving his skinny little tale at us and bobbing his head ferociously. We scooted right past him to a safe distance so I could get the shot.

After that we had an uneventful 2 and a half mile walk through the woods with only a few butterflies to keep us company. We were very attentive to our surroundings, keeping an eye to the trees (ever the optimists) and also watching the ground for snakes. We saw lots of signs of critters: deer tracks, gopher tortoise holes, scratch marks where something dug for food.  But it was just us and the trees for most of an hour.

We had hoped that we might have another rain free hour later that afternoon so we could explore more of the trails in the campground but we did not. It started raining at noon and never let up. So we kept busy finally putting everything away in the trailer, puttering on projects, and writing this post.

The campground is really awesome. The sites are huge and wooded. We loved our full hookup pull thru site, number 2.  It came to almost $30 per night after taxes and fees.

I wonder how many more times we would have driven right past this gem of a park had I not been lucky enough to read Wandering Dawgs’ account of it. If you want more info on the park her post is a good read. She also has great pictures and has actually seen the monkeys! We’ll get ’em next time!

Return to Shark Valley

Marco Island, FL – April, 2018 Jim has been wanting a recumbent bike for many years and the last couple he has been actively looking for a used one. He wasn’t willing to pay much over $500 and he was pretty picky about the style of recumbent. He hadn’t seen a single one for sale that met his criteria and was even worth test driving until now.

I saw a bike in his price range that looked like what he wanted on Facebook Marketplace when we were in the Keys. He looked the model up online and it had great reviews and seemed to be exactly what he had been looking for. It was in Key West which we were planning to visit that week anyway. We made arrangements to see it, rode it up and down their street, and finalized the deal for only $400.

We took it back to Fiesta Key and took turns riding it around the RV park the next few mornings. It was everything he hoped. It was easy on his knees and back which is what has kept him from enjoying biking for many years now. What he got was The Rover by TerraTrike. They start around $1100 new and his bike would have cost about $1500 with all the extra options it included. Here’s a pic I borrowed from their website.

He’s owned it a bit over a month now and is loving it. We’ve been riding almost every day. We generally ride a minimum of 5 miles, 7 to 9 miles is not unusual, and our longest ride has been 15. So what, you may ask am I riding.

We had a couple of cruisers we had picked up at a garage sale last season and they were fine for riding around Goodland but not what I’d like to spend hours on. I had some idea of what I wanted and after a little internet research I found it in what they call a crossover or hybrid bike. I wanted to sit upright on a comfortable seat like the cruiser, but I also wanted some gears.

I did not want to spend a lot of money either. If we ended up riding a lot then I could always upgrade to a better quality bike later. Most of the bikes I saw online that fit my criteria were around $250 but I finally found this one for under $150 at Walmart and the reviews were pretty good. It was in stock near our home so we picked it up the next week and I have been extremely happy with it.

My most common form of exercise up to this point is a three mile walk. If I walk every single public street in Goodland it adds up to just over 3 miles. So I have walked every street over and over during the last 6 months. I enjoy these walks and usually see something new each time. I really enjoy walking very early in the morning because there is hardly anyone out and about before 9.

There is a nice, paved walking/biking path from town, along Goodland Drive that leads to the highway. I usually don’t include this path in my morning walks but if we ride every single street in town and take the path to the highway we can get just over a 5 mile ride. Our typical ride looks something like this.

There isn’t much elevation gain on the city streets and only about a 10 foot rise in elevation from town to the highway. So to add a challenge I’ve been turning onto the highway and peddling to the top of the bridge. There is very little traffic in the mornings and there is a very wide shoulder.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit how hard it is for me to get up there. But with the exception of my first attempt, I have made it every time without stopping (even though Jim said it looked like I was going so slow near the top that he was afraid I might fall over).

Jim has started joining me on the bridge. He’s at a disadvantage on the recumbent because he can’t put his weight into it. It’s all legwork for him whereas I can stand up if the going gets tough. He also has much smaller wheels but the same number of gears as me. Our goal for next season is to be able to go all the way over the bridge and then back up over it thereby adding two climbs to our usual ride.

Whether I walk 3 miles or ride 5 miles, it’s about 50 minutes of exercise and I’m burning a similar number of calories. Of course, that is the minimum amount of exercise I try to fit in most days (try being the operative word). The bikes are making it easier to reach that goal and also helping us do more than the minimum.

Jim often walks with me but walking up and down the same streets just doesn’t appeal to him. He enjoys biking them so much more. And it is much easier to exercise every day when you’ve got someone that’s excited to exercise with you.

Also when biking we create our own breeze. Therefore we are willing to bicycle when it is too hot to walk. And we can bike when there are some bugs about without being feasted on as we would if we were walking.

It’s a lot more interesting to ride somewhere new so a couple times a week we’ve been loading the bikes up and going in search of new trails. Luckily we have some great options in this area. One of our favorite trails is the Gordon River Greenway in Naples.

It has several parking areas but our favorite place to start is by the Naples Airport. There is a park there beside the runway and they have a platform where you can watch planes come and go and even listen to the tower on a loudspeaker. You never know what you might see there.

Then you can ride about a 5 mile loop that swings past the Naples Zoo and crisscrosses the Gordon River.

If you want to wrack up more miles you can add 5 by continuing past the parking lot and all the way around the airport and back.

One goal we set when we started riding was to return to Shark Valley in the Everglades National Park and ride its 15 mile loop before we left Florida for the season. Four weeks after we bought Jim’s bike we did just that.

They don’t open the gates until 8:30 so we arrived just after that time on a Monday morning. It was already 78 degrees out so we hustled to get on the trail which begins along the canal. We weren’t very far along before we were swarmed by bugs and I started to wonder what we were getting in to. There were a variety of buzzy things but the most annoying was the biting flies. Luckily that was the worst area we went through and it got better as we rode on.

During our last visit we hadn’t seen any bugs but we anticipated there being some this time and were wearing bug spray. Jim is usually the one the bugs love most so he had applied it more liberally than I did and surprise, surprise they didn’t bother him nearly as much as me. Unfortunately, when we stopped so I could apply more the can ran dry. Lesson for the day: always carry spare bug repellent in the Everglades.

The bugs were just bad enough that I didn’t want to stop to take pictures for fear of being swarmed. So we put the first 5 miles behind us pretty fast. As we were nearing the observation tower at mile 6 I finally got it out in hopes of seeing the crocodile that we saw last time. She must have been sleeping late as she did not make an appearance this day. There were plenty of alligators though.

And there were quite a few birds, although not as many as in April.

We climbed the tower and lingered there for a while. It was cooler up there and shady. There were no bugs and very few people. And it was nice not to be rushed as we had been when we took the tram tour last time.

There were tons of alligators in the pool below the tower this time and we had seen very few here during our last visit.

We finally drug ourselves away when the first tram tour of the day arrived to break our peace and quiet. We still had 9 miles to go.

The park prefers you ride the whole route counter clockwise, opposite of the trams which are the only other traffic allowed. We could have returned by the same route if we had needed to thereby reducing the day’s total miles to 12. But we were feeling pretty good and up to the challenge.

As we road on we found out why the alligators were now at the pond under the observation tower. The area that had been covered in water during our April visit was now mostly dry. We still saw a few smaller gators and several babies around the drainage ditches where the last of the water remained. There were some larger ponds, mostly a ways from the road.

The good news was that there were far fewer bugs on this side of the park. Unfortunately there was also zero shade. We got lucky and had some occasional cloud cover on the return trip but if we stopped we lost our breeze and it was too hot to stay long. We had intended to make it a leisurely day trip. We had brought a lunch and plenty of water. Instead we pressed on and finished in just over one and a half hours not counting our intermission at the tower.

We are looking forward to taking our bikes on the road with us this summer. Jim found us a rack for the RV that will carry them both. We are already planning our route and stops based on finding good bike paths.

Diving the Keys

Florida Keys – April, 2018 Jim and I are working through a short bucket list of items we want to do before leaving Florida for the summer. Diving in the Keys was at the top of that list. We still can’t believe we were nearing the end of our second season down here and hadn’t been diving at all.

We were optimistic that now that the high season was waning we could find a campsite in the Keys. We did, at Fiesta Key RV Resort, between Islamorada and Marathon. Even with a Passport America discount for the first two nights, the cost averaged $80 per night, but it was well worth it. The resort was surrounded by beautiful, clear water. It had a very nice pool we never used because there was a great ocean swim area. Most importantly, it was still half the cost of the cheapest hotel room we could find and we got to sleep in our own bed.

We drove down on Sunday and dove Monday morning and Wednesday afternoon off Islamorada. The first day we made two dives to an average depth of 50 feet. The coral wasn’t much to look at, it was more like rubble, but the sea life was astounding. We saw eels galore, a turtle, lionfish; all on the first dive.

Our second dive seemed a bit like a bust with not nearly as much to see. That is until the halfway point when the dive guide turned us back toward the boat. Jim and I were in the back of the pack as usual and a big nurse shark came straight at me.

I banged on my tank with the pointer I carry to get Jim’s attention so he wouldn’t miss it. The shark seemed interested in me and kept heading my way. I thought it might come up and give me a kiss so I kept my pointer aimed at it in case I needed to poke it in the eye to make it clear I was not that kind of girl!

It veered away just a few feet from me and kept cruising the reef. A few minutes later another, larger nurse shark came flying past. On the way back to the boat we spotted a nurse shark a total of 4 times. We assume there were just 2 sharks but there could have been more.

I chose not to take a camera with me that first day of diving so I have no evidence of these encounters. It had been over two years since our last dives in Cozumel therefore I thought it would be a good idea to concentrate on my diving and not be distracted by my camera. I had a new underwater camera I was dying to try though.

I had been struggling with the idea of buying a new underwater camera. I had a waterproof housing for my Sony and we owned a SeaLife DC600. But honestly I was floored by how great Jim’s underwater pics were turning out with his old GoPro in its waterproof case.

We stopped in a dive shop in Panama City on our way into Florida last fall and they showed me the Intova X2. It is similar to the GoPro but is waterproof without an extra case and has some built in filters and lighting options. It cost around $500.

I took it on our Wednesday afternoon dives and although I’m still getting used to the settings, I am really pleased with its performance. Usually in underwater photography close proximity to the subject is the key to any decent shot. But this camera takes some amazingly clear photos at a distance. Like this one of our dive leader joining us in the water. I took it from the bottom, 30 feet below.

Wednesday’s dive sites were teeming with fish.

Both sites had beautiful hard and soft corals and were relatively shallow at around 30 feet or less.

I may not be able to capture all the colors of the ocean with this little camera yet but I like the simplicity of it. This pufferfish is blotchy brown so it captured it perfectly, even if you can’t tell that some of the fans surrounding it were beautiful shades of purple.

It also flawlessly captured this black and gold french angelfish.

The highlight of the day was this gorgeous turtle who didn’t seem to mind the half dozen divers hovering around him.

The Florida Keys offer almost as good a diving experience as we’ve found anywhere in our dive travels. The dive trips are reasonably priced as well at $85 each. We do not intend to let another 2 years go by before going again.

On one of our non-diving days we drove 65 miles south to Key West. The drive was nice and there were a couple of places we wanted to see there. We had spent a long weekend in Key West in 2009 so we weren’t completely unfamiliar with the area.

First stop was the Key West Cemetery. You know we love cemeteries, the older the better, and we had somehow missed this one on our first visit. This cemetery was established in 1847, on the highest natural elevation in Key West, after the previous cemetery was destroyed by a hurricane. The cemetery is 19 acres so it made for a nice morning walk.

Jim had read that there were several humorous headstones with sayings like “I told you I was sick” and “I always dreamed of owning a small place in Key West.” He had also read to watch out for iguanas. We walked the aisles, he looking for interesting headstones, while I watched out for big slithery things.

The day was warming up so I had better luck than Jim did.

Despite some intelligence on where these humorous headstones were supposed to be, he never did find one.

Another thing we didn’t find was a parking space anywhere close to our next point of interest. After driving the narrow streets in our big truck looking for one, we got a bit fed up and decided we’d save that destination for our next visit because we know we’ll be back. We had been considering lunch downtown as well but instead we turned our carriage toward camp and found an awesome seafood place called the Square Grouper on our way home along the Overseas Highway.

Trouble in Paradise

Panther Key, FL – April, 2018 Ever since we got our boat Jim and I have been saying we wanted to camp out on it or on a deserted beach. We are in our last full month in Florida for this winter and we figured we better get on with it before it got too hot or the rainy season kicked into gear. We chose a weekday just after Easter and made it happen.

We just wanted to sleep under the stars as far away from light pollution as we could, so we planned to go out one afternoon and come back the next morning. We took a tent and an air mattress to sleep on the beach but agreed we could sleep on the boat instead. We left it till we got there to decide. If there had been any other campers on the beach we might have slept on the boat. There weren’t. There was quite a surge where the boat was parked so it probably wouldn’t have been too comfortable.

We kept the meal plan simple. We only had one dinner and one breakfast to worry about so we picked up fried chicken from the grocery store to eat cold and made a pasta salad to accompany it. When dinner time came we were roasting. It was almost 90 degrees and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. That cold dinner tasted better than any hot meal we could have dreamed up. We planned to have cereal for breakfast.

We reached Panther Key, which is about 8 miles from Goodland as the crow flies, around 3. It took us about an hour to get everything we wanted off the boat and the tent set up. It wouldn’t have taken that long but we’d get a little done, stop to drink a cold beverage, and then work a little more. Did I mention it was hot?!

Once we were set up we wandered the beach as far as we could in both directions. Here is Google’s satellite view of Panther Key and the orange arrow shows about where we camped. The beach stretched less than a half mile on either side of our camp.

We walked all the way to the north end of the beach. But we only went a short distance to the south before having to walk out into the surf to get around trees. We hoped to walk all the way to the south end of the key in the morning when the tide was lower.

There were few other visitors to the beach while we were there. We probably saw a half dozen people all afternoon. After 6 we had it completely to ourselves. There were 3 boats we could see anchored offshore for the night.

Around 5:30 we couldn’t wait any longer to dig into that fried chicken. Soon after that, we caved to the enticing shade offered by our tent and the falling sun. We pulled our chairs, and the cooler of course, into its shadow and reveled in the relief from the blazing heat.

We hid in the shade for the better part of an hour. When the sun got lower, the temperature dropped precipitously, and we pulled our chairs back to the water’s edge for the big show.

We had the perfect location for a brilliant sunset. It was spectacular and the colors were incredibly intense. With so few clouds in the sky, however, it was far from our most photogenic sunset.

It was also remarkably swift, seeming to have only just started sinking before disappearing altogether. Some of the best colors were reflected in the sky to the north where two of the three boats within sight were anchored.

The third boat, a sailboat, was on the Western horizon, seemingly in the thick of the setting sun.

Right before last light you could see a few puffy clouds in the sunset and Venus rising to the right of it.

Next came the part of the evening we were really there for. In a very short time the stars started appearing and within the hour the sky was covered. The moon wasn’t scheduled to rise until after midnight so we had plenty of stargazing time.

It wasn’t in the same league as some of the most memorable nightscapes we’ve encountered, like our Colorado River float or boondock at Flaming Gorge, but considering how little effort it took to get here it was a pretty spectacular view. We could see the glow of both Marco Island and of Naples in the distance so if we go even further away from civilization next time the view will get even better. Sadly I wasn’t successful at getting any pictures.

We stared and ooohhhed and aaahhed until we couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore and then we retired to our tent. We both thought that after all that sun, water, and wind we would have no choice but to sleep like the dead. Wrong! Even compared to other nights we’ve spent in a tent and on an air mattress, this had to be one of the most uncomfortable.

Our biggest concern had been being hot while we slept so I didn’t bring enough covers. The sea breeze was constant and pretty chilly. We weren’t too cold, just uncomfortable. When the moon did rise it was unbelievably bright in there. And of course the air mattress deflated throughout the night.

Around 5 am Jim had had enough and he crawled out of the tent and started collecting firewood. I joined him as soon as he got the fire started and it kept us toasty until the sun came up.

It was about then that Jim realized that the boat had drifted in the night and we had a problem.

We had a rear anchor on her and a line from her bow tied to a tree on the island. Her anchor hadn’t held and so she had drifted south and closer to shore. She was only just stuck. If we had paid attention and caught it as soon as we awoke we probably could have corrected the problem. But we mistakenly thought the tide was still coming in so if she looked a little high in the water the tide would soon lift her. When Jim realized the tide had turned and was going out, he became alarmed.

We jumped in and tried everything we knew to get her into deeper water: rocking her, using a limb for leverage, adding the power of the motor. It was a no go. We were good and stuck and the next high tide wouldn’t be until 4 that afternoon.

We could stay all day. We had enough snacks and water. But 8 more hours in the blazing sun did not sound like a very good time.

Our boat insurance with Progressive includes a towing endorsement called Sign and Glide. We decided to give it a try. We called their 800 number and they dispatched a Seatow boat which reached us in about 45 minutes. In that time though the water dropped another foot and there was no way he could get our Bella off the sand bar.

We had spent that time packing everything up. We asked the captain, Eric, if he’d give us a ride back to civilization and then bring us back with him at high tide to pick her up. It turned out he was our neighbor and docks his boat at the other end of our canal. He agreed, so we locked Bella up, made sure her rear anchor was really, really secure, and abandoned ship.

He dropped us off on our dock and we drug our tails into the house. I made a big breakfast and then we took a much needed nap. We spent the afternoon puttering around the house trying not to worry about our girl out there all alone.

A little before he was supposed to pick us up at 3 the captain text that he was on a call in Everglades City and might be a little late picking us up. Everglades City is about the same distance as Goodland from Panther Key but in the opposite direction. So he would be going right past Bella to come back and get us in Goodland. We suggested that if he wasn’t towing a boat on his way back, maybe he could just get Bella and tow her home. He said he would.

So we waited, and waited, AND waited. About 7 Bella finally made it safely home. A different Seatow captain brought her and put her right in her slip. We spoke to him briefly and the gist was Eric was tied up on calls, he asked this guy (who turned out to be his father) to go get her and said he could pick us up if he wanted. He said the water had turned rough and if we had gone we would have been miserable and very wet so he did it alone.

We were ecstatic to have her back. She was a big salty mess, but she was home with no damage. We were extremely grateful to Progressive’s Sign and Glide team who checked in with us throughout the day and to both Seatow captains.

So what’s the take away from this experience? 1st: We need a better anchor or anchoring system before we take Bella out for another overnight. Jim has had his eye on something for a while and this will probably seal the deal. 2nd: We really didn’t know if a free towing endorsement on our boat policy would offer very reliable service when we needed it. So it’s reassuring to know they have our back.

Shark Valley

Everglades National Park, FL – April, 2018 Jim woke up Easter morning and said he wanted to go exploring. I thought “on Sunday, on Easter Sunday of all days?!” And then I got on board.

It didn’t take long to decide on a direction, and soon a destination was chosen as well. We packed a lunch and I grabbed my camera backpack. Then we hit the road just after 8am.

We drove East on US 41 for about 60 miles and arrived at the Shark Valley Visitor Center of the Everglades National Park. Our National Park Pass saved us the $25 per car entrance fee.

This Anhinga entertained us while we waited in the short line of cars to enter.

We took a quick look around the visitor center. It consisted of some outside exhibits, the gift shop, and the park office where they primarily sold tickets and rented bikes for $9 per hour. We decided we would take the tram tour and we bought tickets at $25 per person. We didn’t have to wait long as the next tour left in 10 minutes, at 10am.

We saw the first alligator within a few minutes of departing the station.

And then another.

And this couple.

And when we tired of the reptiles, there were birds.

So many birds!

There are at least half a dozen varieties of birds in this photo. Of course, the roseate spoonbills are the highlight.

It wasn’t always easy to photograph the birds but I did my best. We were at the tram driver’s mercy to stop or not, to move where the people in our car could see things, and to stay long enough for me to get the shot. He did a pretty good job.

We did have perfectly wonderful weather. It was warm, but cloudy. And we even got a refreshing sprinkle of rain a couple times.

At the end of a 45 minute ride we reached the highlight of this section of Everglade’s National Park. The 45 foot tall observation tower was built in the 1960’s. It really was quite impressive!

We were only given 15 minutes to walk down the path, up the tower, snap a few pics, and hurry back to the tram. From the top we saw a couple more gators, some turtles floating in a pond, and about a million White Ibis in the surrounding trees.

I would have liked to stay longer but we still had another 45 minute ride to return to the visitor center. The return trip was by another route so we got to see more of the park. Don’t worry, there were still plenty more alligators like this one which was the largest and oldest dude we saw.

One gator was even blocking the road and our tour guide had to get out and shoo him away. I’m sure all the bicyclers around appreciated his intervention.

The most exciting thing we saw was the only American Crocodile they apparently have in this area. They said that they had tried to relocate her to a more remote area of the park. They moved her 40 miles away but she found her way back! I was glad she was on the other side of the waterway.

We also saw a turtle nesting right beside the road, preparing to lay her eggs.

And this 1 foot baby gator was pretty cute.

We thoroughly enjoyed our tour and did not regret spending the money. We ended up getting the last two seats together on the tram and were very lucky to be on the side (the left side when facing forward) which had the most views of the wildlife. I kinda felt bad for the people to the right of us as they didn’t have nearly as good of view.

If you are an avid bicyclist and have a bike with you, cycling the park would be the ideal way to see it. It’s 15 miles round trip and totally flat. We do have bikes but I wouldn’t trust them mechanically to make the trip and wouldn’t want to get stuck walking back.

We will visit again. Maybe next time we will hike a couple miles down the road by the canal and back the same way. Or if we invest in better bikes in the future we would absolutely take them there. There are also a couple short hiking trails that are easily reached from the visitor center.