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.

Round Spring Camp and Cavern

Eminence, MO – July, 2016 The Current River is so long and varied that it’s like having several rivers to choose from. Round Spring is just 12 miles north of Eminence and the river here is a very nice size. It is so much bigger than it is near Montauk where we floated a couple weeks ago and our kayaks often scraped the bottom. But the river is less than half as wide as it is near Van Buren where we went last week.

I made this reservation almost a month ago because this Monday thru Wednesday was the only 3 days I could get an electric site here before we left Missouri. Round Spring is a great campground even though the 6 sites they have with electric and water are in the center and lined up like a parking lot. The fee for these sites is $22 per night.

The spring for which the park was named is a short walk from camp. This picture really doesn’t do it justice. The spring flows into this sinkhole and you can only look down on it from the 15 or so foot bluff around it. Then it flows under a bluff on one side and down to join the river.

There are several great old bridges in the area. This bridge over Sinking Creek is no longer in use. It has some obvious signs of damage. You can see the new metal bridge behind it.

The 9 mile float from Pulltite into Round Spring campground is one of our favorites. Carr’s Canoe Rental will pick you and your kayak up at your campsite and port you to Pulltite for $15 per person, which is extremely reasonable. But we decided to be lazy this trip and not to float.

Instead we found an excellent spot to enjoy the river for a day. Just over that new bridge in the above picture and less than 2 miles from camp is a gravel road to the confluence of Sinking Creek and Current River. It is a free day use area and they have primitive campsites for $5 per night.

Our favorite part of the float from Pulltite to Round Spring is stopping at Sinking Creek anyway. After spending the day floating the frigid waters of the Current the creek water is like a warm bath. It is probably only 10 degrees warmer but it feels amazing.

We spent most of the day sitting in Sinking Creek. Floaters on the river often stopped to enjoy the gravel bar. A father and kids stopped and stacked these rocks.

After a day of fun in the sun we were looking forward to visiting the Round Spring Cavern the next day. On our previous visits the cave was closed for most of the summer due to the White Nose Bat Syndrome. Apparently they determined that the cave was already infected so they reopened it.

They give 3 tours a day and the cost is only $5. What a bargain! It turned out to be a really awesome cave.

Each person carries an electric lantern and the ranger carries a flashlight. These are the only sources of light in the cavern.

It was really fun and challenging to photograph the cave. Of course to compensate for the low light the camera’s shutter stays open longer. The cave formations were good at holding a pose but the people in my shots were not so cooperative.

Since the bats were wiped out the main cave inhabitant is now the salamander. We saw a half dozen of them throughout the tour.

In the very distant past the cave had a much larger inhabitant. There is evidence that giant short faced bears used this cave over 10,000 years ago. There are bear beds, where they have wallowed out an indentation in the clay. And claw marks, this one was authenticated by scientists.

We have been in quite a few caves and we were very impressed with this one, especially for the price.

Jim and I have enjoyed the last two months bumming around our home state, enjoying the clear, cold rivers, and spending time with our family and friends. But we are excited to move on to places we’ve never seen, spend time exploring on our own, and get back into our routines. My next post will be from some place new to us and much cooler.