Echo Bluff State Park

August, 2018 – Eminence, MO We had plans to meet our friends at Round Spring Campground the weekend before Labor Day. We realized we didn’t have anything going on the week before that required us to stay in Springfield so we left town on Monday. We had a tough time deciding where to go but finally landed on spending a few days at Missouri’s newest state park, Echo Bluff.

Echo Bluff was only a few miles from our weekend destination. It wasn’t quite open the last time we ventured this way in July of 2016 so we had never been there. And it is said to be frequented by the wild horses of Shannon County which I have always wanted to see.

We didn’t have to wait long. Soon after we got set up Jim spotted some horses near an old barn across the road from the campground. I grabbed my camera and headed that way.

I stayed on the sidewalk with a guardrail between them and myself, quite a distance from where they were, hoping not to spook them.

I was afraid they would leave when they noticed me. I was totally unprepared for what actually happened. They spotted me and started galloping toward me! Doesn’t the one on the left look a little maniacal with that hair?!

I hurriedly walked back to Jim who was coming to join me. I didn’t know what protection he could offer me from three crazy horses but I was pretty sure my old farm boy would know what to do. Thankfully we didn’t have to do anything. The horses reached the road, stopped running, and calmly walked past us. They must enjoy messing with the newcomers!

It turns out that these three horses, though part of the wild herd, choose to stay in and around the state park. In fact they appear to be a bit of a nuisance. We saw them being shooed out of many a campsite while we were there.

The pony especially seems to have no fear of humans and, of course, no training. This combination can make him quite the pest. One day he tried to eat our welcome mat. We put it away after that.

The park turned out to be a delight. Sinking Creek runs through the park. It is clear and warmer than the many spring fed creeks and rivers in the area. There are many places along its banks to wade and there are a few decent swimming holes to enjoy.

The park includes cabins and a lovely lodge, both of which had fairly reasonable rates.

The lodge’s back deck looks out on the park’s namesake, Echo Bluff.

The campground was beautiful each morning with mist rising from the creek and the sun rising behind the hills.

It was the perfect park for my morning walks. It was far from crowded in the middle of a week after local schools had started. There were exactly three miles of pavement between the campground, the lodge, the cabins, and their fabulous playground.

On Friday we made the big 3 mile move to Round Spring Campground. I shared the details of Round Spring Camp and Cavern with you on our last visit two years ago. I kept telling my family and friends that they had to make this float with us but it was so hard to get an RV site at the campground. I looked in May and this particular weekend, the one before Labor Day, was the only one they had any RV sites left. They happened to have three and we snapped them up.

As the date approached I started to worry that this group was not going to enjoy the float. The water was a little low in August so it wasn’t moving as fast as it does in the spring and a 9 mile float was longer than they usually like. Jim suggested that we look into putting in at Current River State Park which is around halfway.

This park does not have an official launch but when we visited several years ago they said they were working on one. Their website and everything else we could find on the internet suggested there was not one but we decided to drive over early Saturday morning to see what we could find out.

Several of us arrived soon after 8 am Saturday assuming they would be open. The gate actually said they did not open until 9 am so we parked at a nearby trailhead and walked past the gates. Soon after we began our walk to the river the gates were opened a couple times by employees arriving to work.

About the time we got to the main area of the park a gentleman pulled up and introduced himself as the park’s superintendent. It was still well before 9 but he offered to open the buildings for us and proceeded to give us an outstanding tour. Having been to the park before, we were most interested in showing our friends the gymnasium.

We were impressed with the diamond patterned ceiling which doesn’t have any boards more than a few feet in length. According to our guide this is one of only two examples of this construction still standing in the US.

We had never had the opportunity to tour the rest of the buildings before. Our guide opened each of them and gave us a ton of information on each. The whole property was a corporate retreat for a box company in its heyday.

There was a main lodge which included men’s quarters. Later they added a ladies dorm. And this building on the right was the pool hall.

One of the more interesting features of the buildings was the fireplaces which were all built with formations from a nearby cave, now closed. I realize from a conservation standpoint this is an atrocity, but it was done a really long time ago so we might as well appreciate how unique it is and how much craftsmanship it took.

After an hour tour we asked him what we came there for “Could we launch our kayaks from the park?” He informed us that yes we could but the best place to launch was pretty muddy at the moment and he wouldn’t recommend driving down there. Also he said we would have to have our vehicles gone by the park’s closing at 6 pm.

We headed to camp to load up our boats and get the rest of our group. We then drove back and put in. The place we chose was a bit of a haul and not terribly easy to launch but I think with a little more investigation we could have found a better launch in the park.

We had a great float. This launch cut the 9 mile float to less than 4 which was much more to our group’s liking. There was no need to paddle and plenty of time to fish. We stopped at practically every gravel bar and then spent almost an hour at our favorite spot, the confluence of Sinking Creek and the Current River not far above our takeout.

We enjoyed our time in this area very much. This visit cemented our opinion that this is one of our favorite areas of Missouri. It is nice to know that visitors now have additional options for camping and lodging in the area and another option for starting or stopping a float on the beautiful Current River. FYI: the local outfitters will pick visitors up and return them to their lodging in either Round Spring Campground or Echo Bluff State Park and they offer several great floats on the Current, most of which are around 9 miles long.

Lovers Key State Park

April, 2017 – Fort Myers Beach, FL We were nearing the end of our time in Florida, for this season at least, and there were so many things we hadn’t gotten around to seeing and doing. For one reason or another we had not gone kayaking with our daughter since she arrived, something we expected to do a lot of. And we had not explored a nearby gem of a state park, Lover’s Key. We decided to remedy both those items at the same time one weekday afternoon.

There is a 2.5 mile marked kayak trail through the park’s mangroves. It doesn’t look much different than the area’s rivers.

Even on a weekday it was relatively busy. We set off about the same time as a rowdy group of German twenty-somethings on a variety of water craft; one canoe, a couple paddleboards, and several kayaks. We dawdled a bit until they got out ahead of us.

I discovered this guy drying his wings. I love these creepy looking birds and but I hadn’t gotten a picture of one until now.

Manatee, dolphins, and alligators are wildlife you might spot here. Birds were the only things we saw but we did hear another couple at the launch say they had seen manatee. You’d probably have better luck seeing wildlife earlier in the day.

We later saw this beautiful guy.

If you look at the map of the park it looks like you could just put in and paddle straight to the backside of the beach and walk over to it. Unfortunately that is not the reality here. The put-in drops you into the maze at the middle of this picture.

You could kayak from the mangroves, out into Estero Bay, and eventually out to the ocean and beach. But that would be a very long haul and we had gotten way too late a start to go that far. If your goal is to kayak to a beach you are much better off launching at nearby Big Hickory than here.

We did make it a ways out into Estero Bay. Most of the floats in Florida have a very limited number of places to land so when you find a tiny beach it’s time to stretch your legs. We stopped for a bit then headed back.

Here’s Jim in our new inflatable kayak. When we went kayaking with the kayak club from our RV park, most of those people had this type of kayak. We were impressed with how they handled so we looked into them.

We wanted to try one out for ourselves and see if it might be an alternative to hauling our big kayaks all over the country. This one easily fits in our basement. We also thought it would be great to have 3 kayaks all winter in Florida so we wouldn’t have to rent one when we took our daughter with us.

We found a gently used Sea Eagle 370 on Craigslist and picked it up for only $150. It included deluxe seats which are a must. You can get the same thing on Amazon for about $325 right now. Here’s the view of it from the top.

This Sea Eagle is made for two. In fact, Jim says it handles better when both of us are in it. It carries up to 650 pounds and weighs only 32 pounds.

We are pleased with it so far and plan to keep it. It was perfect for most conditions in Florida and should be great on any lake in the country. We’ll likely use our regular kayaks in Missouri and possibly leave them there for our summer visits.

As for Lover’s Key State Park, it was a great park with a lot more to offer than just the kayak trail. There were hiking and biking trails and you could walk or take a tram to what we are told is an incredible beach. We didn’t have time to visit again before we left Florida but it will be high on out priority list if we return.

Big Hickory

Big Hickory Island, FL – November, 2016 Just 10 miles from our RV resort is a put-in that offers just about everything a kayaker could hope for. We were introduced to Big Hickory when we joined our campground’s kayak club for their first outing of the year. There were two other couples in inflatable tandem kayaks.

It took a few minutes for them to inflate their kayaks on the beach so I threw my boat in the water and met the locals.

Both couples had been here before so once they got in the water we just followed their lead. We paddled along the edge of the mangroves and then over to a beach only accessible from the water.

Just before we landed between the boats we noticed a lot of dolphin activity in the bay so we paddled back out. These dolphins were more active than any I’ve encountered before. I assume there was more than playing going on but I’m not one to speculate on the romantic interactions of others. This pair came up almost under Jim and he got a great shot with his GoPro which tends to give it that fish eye perspective.

The tide was going out so we landed on the bay side of the beach and walked around the point to the beach. I forgot to take my camera on this walk but the beach looked pretty much looked like every other area beach except it was practically deserted. Our new friends said that it will be much more crowded in season (January-March).

There is a large picnic pavilion and a roped off swimming area courtesy of a local community called Pelican Landing. They ferry their residents over for the day as one of the amenities they offer. About half the beach showed signs of improvement and appeared to belong to them although we walked the length of it without being bothered.

After our walk we returned to our boats on the bay side and ate our lunches while watching the dolphins play. Quite a strong wind was now blowing across the bay and out to sea. So we headed back to the take-out. It wasn’t too hard a paddle and we were impressed with how well our friends’ inflatables handled it.

Jim and I returned for a second visit by ourselves a few weeks later to further explore the area. This time Jim brought his fishing gear and we headed under the bridge to explore Estero Bay.

Just on the other side of the bridge we saw dolphins swimming. Jim fished while I tried to get a good shot of them. They never did get very close so this is the best I came up with. If you zoom in there’s one right in the middle.

We then turned right into the mangroves. I puttered along the edges looking for wildlife. None here but I love the trees.

I finally found this beauty.

And this one.

Then we were almost overrun by a flock of pelicans. They are fun to watch.

I love how big a splash they make every time they land.

Big Hickory Island is between Bonita Beach and Lover’s Key State Park. There is a put-in just across the bridge from Dog Beach west of the road. There is plenty of free parking and a short walk to the water. The blue arrow on this map represents the put in. The orange line represents our path on our first outing there and the red was the course we took on our second trip.

We hope to go again soon and plan to spend a full day on that lovely beach.

Imperial River

Bonita Springs, FL – November, 2016 Just a mile from our winter campground is Riverside Park, the highlight of which is the Imperial River. It’s a great place to wander or ride a bike. I can’t believe it took us almost 2 months to get around to kayaking this river. We chose to float it on Black Friday, preferring the solitude of the water to the craziness of the retail scene.

The put-in is in the far left in this photo. It is right beside a pedestrian bridge to a large island.

We had visited the park a half dozen times and hadn’t noticed much of a current, so our plan was to paddle up river and float or paddle back. But once on the river we realized that at this particular time at least, there was no discernable current, so we chose to paddle toward the gulf and take our chances that the paddle upstream wouldn’t be too difficult.

After you leave the borders of the city park the banks of the river are all privately owned and often lined with houses and docks. But there is still plenty of nature to witness, like this amazing tree with an intricate pattern of roots around its trunk.

We saw plenty of birds.

And here everyone seems to want to get in the pic, from the bird statues in the upper right to the turtle poking his head up above the log.

I saw one duck and when I went to investigate I found the whole family patiently waiting for their photo op.

It was the lizards that really stole the show. Jim noticed this monster on a dock. He was HUGE, at least 5 feet from tip to tail and he was incredibly colorful.

I managed to get a few shots of him before he moseyed to the other end of the dock and out of sight.

Directly across the river was this little (in comparison) bright green fellow.

The only downside to floating through neighborhoods is the complete lack of places to stop and take a break. After about an hour and a mile and a half of paddling we decided to turn around. It was a good decision as the wind was picking up and could have made it harder to paddle back later in the afternoon.

We talked to a resident working on his boat and he told us the tides do affect the water level in this area. He said the only time you see much of a current though is when strong winds blow the water out of the bay at the end and the water empties from the river to fill it or when the wind blows water into the bay and it backs up into the river.

On the way back Jim passed within a few feet of this lizard without noticing him.

And we only saw this one because we heard the rustle of palm fronds and looked up. He was way up there and really moving.

There were kids jumping off the docks just upstream of the take out. You wouldn’t catch me swimming in this water. There are way too many alligators in these parts! Of course, the boys were fearless and daring each other to do more complicated flips into the water.

We are looking forward to floating this river again and again.

Atlantic Coast

Satellite Beach, FL – November, 2016 There are a lot of places we plan to visit while wintering in Florida. But our number one travel priority was rescheduling a visit to the east coast to visit my aunt and cousins there. We had scratched our scheduled visit at the beginning of October due to the unwelcome arrival of Hurricane Matthew.

We enjoyed three relaxing days filled with fun, food, and plenty of socializing. We stayed in an inexpensive hotel near the beach that we only saw to sleep at night or for brief rests between social calls. Satellite Beach is on a barrier island just south of Cape Canaveral and across from Melbourne on the mainland.

Our first full day in town we were treated to an awesome jeep ride down the A1A through the towns of Indialantic, Melbourne Beach, and all the way to Sebastian Inlet. We had originally planned to camp near the inlet at the county’s Long Point Park. We made a loop through the campground and agreed we definitely want to spend some time there on a future visit.

While in the park we saw these odd looking birds. There were several following a guy with a 5 gallon bucket around. I assume he had bait in there. A brief internet search turned up the name Wood Stork for the creatures.

On our return trip we detoured over to the inland side of the island in places. A lot of docks on this side were damaged by the hurricane.

One of my cousins lives on a canal that connects to the Banana River. Though it is called a river it is really one of two brackish lagoons between them and the mainland. The second is called the Indian River.

The canal is a great place to fish and watch for wildlife. They called it a manatee highway, since manatees travel up the canal every morning and back out to the river every evening.  Apparently the highway gets a ton of traffic when the temperatures fall.  Jim did see a manatee from their dock but I missed it.

We borrowed their tandem kayak one afternoon and Jim paddled us to up to where the canal ends. We traveled under a couple streets. They often site manatees in these ponds and people would stop on the sidewalk to look for them. But we only saw a couple turtles there.

When we reached the end the canal was about 30 feet wide and we were surrounded by homes and dilapidated boats. We waited quietly for a few minutes and then heard a watery exhalation to our right. We turned quickly to see a snout disappearing below water. We watched that spot in the water expectantly only to hear another behind us.

We ended up seeing at least three manatees who seemed to be playing with us. No matter where we concentrated our attention and the camera’s lens they always popped up in the opposite direction. Over the course of a 10 minute encounter we caught a glimpse of their snouts over and over but their backs only a handful of times.

The water was murky so we couldn’t see a thing below the surface. I finally got one pretty decent shot. We thoroughly enjoyed the experience and are optimistic we will have more encounters with these wonderful creatures this winter.

Since I knew we’d see plenty of sunsets over the gulf the rest of the winter, I hoped to catch a couple sunrises while on the east coast. Our first morning we chose breakfast over the sunrise and took a long walk on the beach afterward.

We had to be careful not to step on the crabs which were almost impossible to see against the sand. We only noticed them when they scurried for cover to get out of the way of our gigantic feet.

There were lots of signs of the hurricane here as well. There were uprooted trees and many of the accesses to the beach and steps to private homes and businesses were damaged.

Our second morning we managed to sleep in and missed another sunrise. On the morning we planned to leave we were up early and ready to hit the road. We grabbed a cup of coffee and stopped at the beach on our way out of town. When we arrived there were two lovers and one yoga enthusiast waiting for the spectacle.

Over the next 20 minutes as the day arrived so did many more spectators the most famous of which was this guy.

If we had any doubts that we had indeed stumbled upon Santa’s summer home they were squelched when a pair of young ladies walked by and exclaimed “look Santa’s here again”. I’m sure he is a local celebrity. We were all finally rewarded for our patience with the most glorious of sunrises.

Mackinac Island & Shipwrecks

St. Ignace to Alpena, MI – August, 2016 I’m pretty sure every person I know that ever visited northern Michigan has told me I just had to see Mackinac Island so there was no question we would be going there. The island sits just to the east of the Mackinac Straits which separate Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas and connect Lake Michigan to Lake Huron. The Mackinac Bridge is an engineering marvel that spans the waterway.

Ferries to the island operate from both St. Ignace on the upper peninsula side of the bridge and Mackinaw City on the lower peninsula. The cheapest of the three ferry operators was the Arnold Mackinac Island Ferry at $18 pp. It was the slowest ferry and a bit like a cattle car but got the job done. We caught the first ferry at 7:15 am and had a leisurely cruise to the island with great views of the bridge. Here one of the other ferries races to pass us and get his passengers to the island first.

Some of the best views of the town are from the boat.

The traditional way to see the island is by bike. If you own a bike bringing it on the ferry at a cost of $8 is the way to go. Renting one at $60 per day was out of the question so we chose to hoof it. Since the island has absolutely no motorized vehicles you only had to share the road with bicycles, horses, and buggies.

We walked around the edge of the island till we reached this great view of Arch Rock.

Then we climbed the stairs to get the opposite view.

We continued our walk through the interior of the island where they have a couple great old cemeteries. This one’s earliest occupant was buried in 1833.

Then we made our way back to town where it was starting to get crowded. People were constantly loading into carriages in Marquette Park below Fort Mackinac.

We had a lovely lunch at Millie’s on Main. It was the perfect place to people watch and cool down from our 5 mile walk. We then took a stroll down Main Street and visited several fudge shops. They each offer free samples of fudge which made for the perfect dessert for me as I’m a huge fudge fan.

We made our way back to the docks to wait for our ferry. We were pleasantly surprised when our afternoon ferry was a little nicer than the morning ferry. The upper deck was furnished with comfy patio furniture and there were less than a dozen passengers.

Mackinac Island is definitely worth seeing. Staying on the island a couple days and bringing your own bike would be the ideal way to visit. We enjoyed the town of St. Ignace where we stayed as well. Tiki RV Park was extremely nice. Our water and electric site was only $16 with our Passport America discount.

We made our way from there down the east side of Michigan’s lower peninsula. We spent a couple days in an electric site at Cheboygan State Park, $28 pn. The highlight of this stop was kayaking a mile south to visit a couple shipwrecks in less than 30 feet of water.

Jim jumped out of his kayak and snorkeled over these huge wrecks. One was the Genesee Chief, a 142 foot schooner, that was scuttled here in 1891 after it was determined she could not be repaired.

There were some huge fish like this sucker. That board was a 2 x 12 so the fish is around 4 feet long.

The visibility around the wrecks was around 50 feet. Jim had a ball and snorkeled back and forth for almost an hour. I didn’t mind staying with the boats as I was just a bit uncomfortable swimming that far from shore. I feel so much more vulnerable snorkeling than I do scuba diving.

Next we spent a rainy weekend in Alpena. This was a great little town with an awesome downtown full of fun shops, beautiful old buildings, and lots of cool art.

The Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center is a free museum devoted to the hundreds of shipwrecks in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. It was exactly the kind of stuff we were hoping to see at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, but didn’t. It was also the perfect place to spend a stormy Saturday morning.

We stayed a couple miles south of town where we paid $25 pn for an electric and water site at Thunder Bay RV Park. We had hoped to kayak to some shipwrecks in Thunder Bay but the weather didn’t cooperate and after several days of rain we doubted the visibility would be all that good so we moved along.

Pictured Rocks and Mooching at a Casino

Menominee to Munising, MI – August, 2016 We made our way into Michigan’s upper peninsula and stopped at J.W. Wells State Park. We snagged a lakeside site so our kitchen window looked out over Lake Michigan. It was a lovely place to relax for a couple days.

The next day we hauled the kayaks 20 feet to our beach and set off. We were shocked by how clear the water was. You could see the rocky bottom well after the water was over our heads.

On the left of the pic are some of the lakeside sites just up from ours. The arrow points to where we paddled to, the mouth of Cedar River, two miles away. We took a break on the beach before paddling back.

Jim bought a one day fishing license online for a reasonable $10. He had a few nibbles but finally on the way back he landed this good size bass. It was at least 12 inches. I was close enough to get a picture of his catch before he released it.

Everyone kept saying the sunrises were not to be missed. Each day seemed to dawn overcast and I never was blown away.

The campground was extremely nice and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit. The cost for the electric site was a reasonable $20 a night but we did also pony up $31 for a state park annual pass rather than pay the $8 per day park use fee. We expect to visit enough Michigan State Parks to come out ahead.

We were looking forward to our next stop and I was especially looking forward to saving some money on camping fees. I had read that just outside the town of Munising where we were headed was a casino with free electricity. I was so in.

We arrived before noon and had our pick of the 8 sites. Even though the marked spaces weren’t much bigger than standard parking spaces we were able to hang off the edge of the parking lot and mostly fit even with our slides out. Later that day a tiny Airstream moved in to the right of us and they were the perfect sized neighbor.

The next morning we had lots of neighbors but most cleared out pretty early and the next evening it filled up again. Our intel was correct, the sites were free and there was no registration or restrictions of any kind on their use. Sure it was crowded but we were busy sightseeing all day and I was sure ecstatic to save the $28 per night I would have spent at the next cheapest alternative.

The main draw here was Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, 42 miles of scenic shoreline on Lake Superior. There were also many beautiful waterfalls both in the national park and around Munising. First we visited the waterfalls nearest town. Both were just short walks from their parking areas.

I didn’t even notice the stacked rocks in this photo of Wagner Falls until I got it on the computer.

Next up was Munising Falls.

We also visited Sand Point just outside of town. It was a lovely beach with a view of the adorable East Channel Lighthouse across South Bay on Grand Island.

Then we headed out to explore Pictured Rocks. The most scenic spot that is easily viewed from land is Miners Castle. It is also closest to town so it was very crowded.

There was also a nice view from there of a good stretch of the shoreline. The local outfitters rent kayaks from Miners Beach below and lead trips out to the castle and back.

Next stop was Miners Falls.

It is a long drive between points of interest in this park. It was a 35 mile drive to our next stop, a walk along Twelve Mile Beach. Another 9 miles brought us to the Log Slide overlook where we had this beautiful view of Au Sable Light Station.

I would have loved to hike to it. But it is a 3 mile hike one way from the nearest access point and we had a pretty full day already. We would have come back to do it the next day if it hadn’t been such a long drive.

Our last stop was at Sable Falls 7 miles further.

And a short walk beyond that is a beach covered in beautiful multicolored stones.

From there it was an hour drive back to our parking lot with the free air conditioning. We had every intention of staying a third day and night to kayak either at Sand Point or Miners Beach. Even though the next day was the warmest of our visit it also turned out to be the windiest whipping the water into a frenzy. So we scratched that plan and departed for another adventure.