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.

Entertaining Guests

Goodland, FL – February to Mid-March, 2018 We took our last guest to the airport and said goodbye on Tuesday. We had houseguests for 5 of the last 6 weeks. We spent our days planning the next meal, provisioning (keeping gas in the boat, groceries in the house, and beer in the cooler), and boating.

We took a boat trip just about every day we had company. Our neighbor took this picture of us leaving one day.

We usually headed to one of several beaches that are reachable only by boat. But we often fished a bit along the way. I caught my first fish in many years. The catfish aren’t supposed to be good to eat but they sure were fun to catch.

We all caught catfish that day.

Another day the mackerel were hitting. Our buddy, Terry, caught a couple spanish mackerel.

Jim got one too. We didn’t keep them either but we could have.

The dolphins were a real crowd pleaser. Until last week this is the best shot of one I had managed to get.

I finally had my camera at the ready when this pair started playing in our wake. Do you see the second one at the very bottom of the photo?

When the tides cooperated we enjoyed taking our guests on a sunset cruise.

Every sunset here is uniquely stunning.

When we weren’t boating most of our guests were content just hanging out on the dock, enjoying the Florida sunshine.

We cooked copious amounts of food and I think I consumed at least a million calories. A seafood boil (sometimes known as a low country boil or frogmore stew) is one of our favorites and was on each week’s menu. I finally remembered to snap this shot before it was all gone.

We loved every single day of it and all of our guests were dear friends or family whose company we enjoyed immensely. But we are looking forward to the next several weeks of quiet, to eating more reasonably, and getting back into our fitness routines.

Airboat Adventure

Naples, FL – February, 2018 Once our guests started arriving in February we began looking for ways to entertain them. One thing on Jim’s bucket list was an airboat ride through the swamp. So when some of our guests showed an interest in this as well we took them to the nearest airboat company which also happened to have very good reviews.

Corey Billie’s Airboat Rides is barely off of Highway 41, the Tamiami Trail, just east of the turn to Goodland and the Seminole State Park. I called the afternoon before we wanted to go and their first available reservation for four was at 1 the next day. The tickets seemed a bit steep to me at $40 per person but Jim thought it sounded fair.

We arrived 30 minutes ahead of time as instructed, settled up the bill, and signed liability waivers.

Then we wandered the grounds where they had several chances to see alligators. Right behind their store was a large pond with this monster.

Nearby there was a gentleman handling a 3 foot gator.

Several people were getting their picture taken holding him. I didn’t ask if there was an additional cost for this as I had no desire to touch him.

They also had a tank full of 4 week old babies. He’d pull one or another of them out and pose them.

I bet mama is glad they don’t nurse.

The handler was very informative and entertaining. Soon it was time to make our way to the loading platform and wait for our boat to arrive. Boats were coming in pretty often making the last corner at high speed to give the passengers one last thrill.

We met our driver, Gary. We were given headsets to protect our hearing and a few instructions. Then we were off.

The ride was somewhat thrilling. It seemed pretty fast, around 30 mph we were told, and I did often wonder if our driver was going to pull off a turn without us careening into a tree or the grass. The headset insulated you from the noise and the ride was very smooth so it didn’t seem terribly exhilarating to me.

Considering it was a loud course with boats passing by often, I was surprised how many birds there were.

We stopped often and the driver entertained us with stories, information, and jokes. We spotted some gators but most were a good distance away.

It is, thankfully, against the law to feed alligators so there was no incentive for them to get closer to the boat. At the “swimming hole” we had several fish jump in our boat. Clearly beaching themselves on our raft was preferable to what was trying to eat them under it.

At one stop the driver offered to take pictures of our group with each passenger’s camera.

One of the most popular stops was in the middle of a mangrove where our driver stopped and called out. Soon this cuddly pair appeared.

They looked pretty young and well accustomed to handouts. Obviously there are no rules to protect them from being fed marshmallows.

The ride was around 45 minutes. It was a great way to entertain our guests for a couple hours. We may try it again someday with future guests. We’ll likely visit another vender just for variety.

Home Improvements

Goodland, FL – January, 2018 January was the coldest month we have ever spent in Florida so it wasn’t appealing to go boating very often. On a few of the nicer days we did boat out in the afternoon and start exploring our new home waters.

We spent one morning in a class offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary that was devoted to navigating the waters around Marco Island. It was extremely helpful and made us more confident about venturing to some places. We also learned of other areas with too many obstacles that we’d rather avoid.

We spent most of January finishing the projects we had planned for this season on our little house. We had several guests scheduled to visit us starting in early February. We wanted to get all our work done so we could just rest and enjoy their company when they arrived.

On all but the chilliest days the weather was pretty great for tackling outdoors jobs. It was better than our first month here when we tried to get most of our outdoor work done before 11 because it was too darn hot to do much after that. On the coldest days we concentrated on our indoor projects.

For a home that flooded during the hurricane, it had remarkably little damage. A tidal surge had swept through it and reached about ankle deep in most of the house. Apparently it exited quickly though and that prevented the damage from being worse.

The previous owner had cleaned the flood damage really well but had not removed the ruined laminate flooring that was in most of the house. When we demoed the flooring we found a lot of dust and some mud still under it. We were glad to get down to the subfloors so we could get it scrubbed clean and dried and know what we were living with. The plywood below the laminates was in extremely good shape and required no additional work.

We replaced the laminate flooring with vinyl planks. They are very similar to laminates but they are waterproof and, thankfully, they were much easier to install. They look great and are comfortable to live with and easy to keep clean.

The paneling in the master bedroom had wicked the flood water and swelled up. So we had to cut it off and replace it with wainscoting to the bottom of the window sills around the room.

We were prepared to do this in the remainder of the house to clean and disinfect any water damage in the walls. We removed several baseboards throughout the house. Remarkably we didn’t find any others where the water had gotten into the walls.

Other than that the house required very little interior work. I love the paint color the previous owner had used to paint most every surface. I was able to get a custom match at the paint store to paint the new wainscoting and touch up around the house.

Jim had to solve one major plumbing issue. The septic started backing up within a few days of us moving in. He ended up having to dig up the septic inlet and found that it was poorly designed 60 plus years ago with a 90 degree turn into the tank AND that, more recently, the inlet pipe had sunken below the inlet hole and someone had made a pretty crappy (pun intended) repair.

He did the right thing and dug up the whole area so he could raise the pipe and add several 45’s to replace the 90. He also added a cleanout which doubles as a place to dump our RV. The good news is that it didn’t end up costing much to fix. It just required several days of hard work and sweat.

We found some other poorly plumbed items in the house, like drains that were just stuck together and not even glued. But other than the plumbing, we have been extremely happy with the quality of workmanship that went into the house before we owned it, like the beautifully tiled shower.

FEMA had tarped the entire roof after Irma but there were no signs that it had actually leaked. In late December we finally removed the tarping and decided it could be repaired which was a huge relief. The before picture is of the worst half of the roof. The after picture is of the other side which had much fewer missing shingles.

We spent a good part of 3 days replacing damaged roof tabs and filling a gazillion holes from the nails used to hold the tarps down. It’s not beautiful but it hasn’t leaked and it’s such a low pitched roof you can’t see it from the ground. The color of the new tabs will eventually blend with the old as they weather.

Most of our budget and effort went into the backyard and the dock. One of the very first things we did was have a hot tub delivered. More than anything about RVing we miss our hot tub. We looked for used ones but couldn’t find a good deal so we splurged on a new, two person tub.

We covered an uneven back porch with a deck.

The palm tree scene on the left is a privacy/sun screen. The south facing back yard can get brutally hot. We recovered the old dock with new decking and enlarged it slightly.

Then we joined the two with a boardwalk and covered much of the back yard in gravel.

Finally we added some decorative lighting.

I’d guess we are about halfway done with everything we hope to accomplish on this home. But the remainder of the projects can, and likely will, wait for next season. As far as project homes go this one is probably the least amount of work of any that we have ever bought.

There are a couple things I feel obligated to pass on in case anyone is considering such an investment. First: I think it is unlikely that you could find anyone to finance such a property. Despite its upgrades, this home is essentially a very old manufactured home that does not qualify for any traditional financing.

We were lucky to have a line of credit (LOC) set up with some of our rental properties as collateral. We arranged it to finance our flip house last season and since we sold it, the LOC was just sitting there. So we were able to make a cash offer and close in two weeks.

Second: We were barely able to insure the property. At first, I wasn’t very concerned about this. The land is worth the majority of what we paid for it so if it burned to the ground we felt we could recover most of our investment anyway. Only later did it dawn on me that no insurance meant no liability insurance, now that would be just plain irresponsible to go without.

I checked with a couple local agents and it wasn’t looking very good. Thankfully I have the majority of my rental properties insured with a real estate investment group and they were finally able to cover the home with a basic policy that will cover fire and, most importantly, provide liability coverage. It does not include hurricane or flood coverages though so, fingers crossed!

Bringing Bella Home

Goodland, FL – December, 2017 We now owned a boat and the perfect place to anchor her. Unfortunately for the first month they were an hour apart. This didn’t matter because Bella Vita spent that month on the service rack at the boat house in Bonita Springs.

As I mentioned in my first post about Bella, we considered the Garmin’s depth gauge the most important piece of equipment on her, and it didn’t seem to be working. We had taken her out a few times since we got her but without knowing our depth we were only comfortable retracing our route out of the inland waterway and heading straight out from shore a few miles. These trips were awesome but to explore more of the coast we had to know our depth.

We decided she needed a new GPS. Installing it entailed installing a new transponder under the boat and THAT required getting her out of the water. We figured we might as well have a mechanic look her over and give her a tune-up while she was dry.

Luckily the guys that ran the boat house were super helpful and offered to haul her out and put her on their service rack.

They also recommended a great mechanic who was willing to look at her the next week. We had them pull her out the day before and finally got a good look at her hull for the first time.

We were actually quite pleased with what we saw. It appeared to be in good shape.

The mechanic came the next day and the tune-up went well. He had only positive things to say about her inboard Mercury MerCruiser engine. He did voice some concerns about the outboard portion of her motor. This gunk was covering the whole back end.

Apparently that is not what that is supposed to look like. This little fellow was actually living in the outboard.

He recommended cleaning her back end so that we could get a good look at what we had to work with. Since we had closed on the house and were busy working on it AND we had no idea how to get all that muck off her, we hired a professional with the right tools and experience to do the job.

Then we met the mechanic there to look it over. Long story short, we ended up replacing the entire outdrive. And yes, that did cost a little more than what we had paid for her to start with.

We knew we were taking a gamble when we bought her. She’s still worth at least what we have invested so no worries. And now we have a boat in good working order and Jim knows what she needs to keep her that way.

The initial tune-up, cleaning, and inspection took about 2 weeks. Then ordering the parts and doing the major repair took another 2 weeks. So after a month on the rack they finally put her back in the water and called to tell us she was ready. We couldn’t wait to bring her home!

The trip was about 50 miles and we couldn’t leave the dock at low tide so we had to wait until almost 2 in the afternoon. No problem, that still left us 4 hours of daylight to make what should be a leisurely 2 hour journey. We ordered a Lyft to drive us to the boat and were pleasantly surprised it was just $50 for the one hour drive.

We got to the boat yard, settled up with their office, fired our girl up, and put some gas in her tanks. It was only 1:30 and the tide wasn’t quite as high as we liked but we were raring to go. Jim pushed the trim button to lift the prop a bit and we cautiously headed for the pass.

We could almost see the pass when it happened. We heard a loud kuh-klunk! Then felt an awful vibration.

We pulled over and stopped to consider our options. We could limp back to the boathouse. But neither of us wanted to go back there. We finally proceeded to the inland side of Delnor-Wiggins Pass. There is a pretty nice beach there with large sandy shallow area and relatively good visibility.

We dropped anchor in 3 feet of water and jumped off to assess our damage. As we suspected we had lost a chunk of our propeller. One of her three fins was about an inch short. We also realized during this stop that the trim button wasn’t working.

I phoned our mechanic to ask for advice. Could we drive her home that way or would it do further damage to the outboard? Or could they meet us somewhere nearby or on our way south to make the repair?

They said their guy could meet us at a public boat park in Naples and assess if there was any more damage besides what we had found and repair the trim button if possible. We headed out to open ocean and south about 15 miles. The good news is the vibration from the prop stopped when we reached about 18 miles per hour.

We met the mechanic and he insisted the trim button was working when he tested it a few days before. He checked it out and found some erosion on a cable that appeared to be the issue. He cleaned it and got it working then raised it to have a look. Everything looked fine except the prop.

We headed out of Naples’ Gordon Pass about 4 pm with around 30 miles of water between us and home. Everything pointed to us being able to make it home before dark but we were extremely anxious. We hadn’t even tested the boat’s lights yet as we had no intention of being out after dark.

Jim took us a couple miles from shore and gunned it to 25 miles per hour. This was fine until we passed Marco Island. Then our options were to take one of the passes north or south of Marco Island or go well past Marco and around Cape Romano.

We weren’t keen on trying the passes before and our time crunch didn’t make them any more appealing. When we thought we had all afternoon we had planned to give Cape Romano a wide birth. Now I found a route on the charts that just skirted the cape and looked doable.

It was strange passing the tip of Marco Island and continuing away from civilization and toward the open ocean as the sun sank lower and lower.

Once we reached the cape the water looked like silk and was unbelievably beautiful as it reflected the now purple sky.

We had to slow way down and watch our depth gauge closely as we passed between the shoals. This route took us through one section the charts said was only 2 feet deep. That’s about the minimum we can scrape through but it was now high tide so, as we hoped, it never got below 3 feet. The depth increased from there and averaged around 5 feet for the remainder of the trip.

There was not a single other boat out which didn’t exactly make us feel any safer. We weren’t totally alone though as we were joined by several dolphin. One dolphin hopped in and out of the water a half dozen times. It was like he was a rock being skipped across the water’s surface. Amazing!

Of course we tried to appreciate the beauty around us but were distracted by our concern over the setting of our only source of light and our complete unpreparedness for being out after dark. Jim was concentrating on the water in front of us and his depth gauge. I was studying the chart and comparing it to our location on the GPS.

Our weather app said the sun would set around 5:40 and last light would be about 30 minutes later. We weren’t sure just how much light we would have in between. Jim was really getting concerned until he realized the only glasses he had brought were his sunglasses and once he took them off about 5:45 things were a whole lot brighter although a little blurrier!

We were elated to finally see Goodland in front of us as the sun sank behind us.

We breathed a huge sigh of relief as we pulled into the canal that led to our back door. There was still plenty of light when we arrived home just after 6. We did the bare minimum to secure the boat and headed to the house for a much needed cocktail. By the time they were mixed and we stepped back outside to check on our baby it was completely dark outside.

We Bought a House, Again!

Goodland, FL – November-December, 2017 We were pretty sure we were going to invest in another home in Florida this year. We had several possible scenarios we were considering: another flip house, a rental, or a home of our own. Once we got the boat, a waterfront property was our primary focus, one we could stay in or near and work on this season while enjoying having the boat out the back door. What we decided to do with it at the end of the season (sell it, rent it, or keep it for our use next season) was moot as long as it was a good deal.

We spent some time looking north of Bonita Springs in the Cape Coral area. We found some really good possibilities there but for some reason we just couldn’t get excited enough about any of them to pull the trigger. I don’t think we’ve ever bought a house we weren’t crazy excited about so we procrastinated and didn’t make any decision at all.

Mid-November, when I was almost recovered from what I assume was the flu, Jim asked if we could take a Sunday drive to a house he had seen on Zillow. He had saved it to his favorites list when he first saw it for sale last summer (yes, we were trolling Zillow for homes in Florida while we were sitting in the mountains of Colorado). He was really taken with the property although it was way more than we wanted to spend at $235,000.

In October, post Hurricane Irma, he received a notification from Zillow that the home’s price had decreased almost $75,000. He was curious to find out if it was totally demolished by the hurricane or just what exactly would justify a price drop of 75 grand! So we made the one hour drive south to Goodland, Florida to check it out.

We drove by and couldn’t see any obvious signs of damage. We called the agent and after some back and forth were told she could show it in about an hour. We had come out this way last year to check out real estate and although the property we looked at was disappointing, the area was awesome.

We finally met the agent just after lunch and were really excited by what we saw. The house had flooded during Hurricane Irma, but the damage was fairly minimal. As is typical for us, we toured the property for a whole 20 minutes and then made an offer. We made a strong bid and hadn’t left ourselves a lot of room to negotiate so we were really pleased when our original offer was accepted with no haggling.

So here is our latest investment. Most of these pics are from the listing. I’ll share my after photos with you in a later post. This is what we got for $150,000.

The house is a 1950’s single-wide trailer with a 12 x 16 foot addition which is used as the master bedroom.

Then, sometime in the 90’s, a 12 x 21 foot lanai was added. It was later finished out and is currently a great room large enough for living and dining.

Eventually a roof was installed over all three sections of the home. The total home is small, just like we like it at 700 square foot.

The trailer has been completely redone and even though the tires and axles are still under it, it was totally overbuilt and you cannot feel any movement when walking in it. It consists of a relatively large kitchen:

A bath (yep, that is a porthole):

And the original bedroom. The last couple occupants used it as a closet. A 10 x 8 closet! I don’t think so. We’re calling it a second bedroom and will likely put a double bed in it for guests in the near future.

The lot is also tiny at just under a tenth of an acre or around 4,000 sq. feet. In fact, when one of my relatives first heard that we had bought a place in Florida with 4,000 sq. ft. their first thought was “what the hell are they thinking buying a house that large?!” Later they realized that was the square footage of the entire property, not the house, which made a lot more sense.

There is an outbuilding for tools, extra storage, AND a washer/dryer.

The best part about the property is that, though small, there is plenty of room to park our 5th wheel in the drive.

OK, maybe not the best part. Did I mention there is a canal out our back door?

The yard and dock need the most work.

I am looking forward to sharing the improvements we have planned when they are finished.

You may be wondering “Is this it? Are they settling down?” The short answer is NO. We definitely plan to enjoy this little slice of paradise this season and next. After that we may sell the place or we may rent it out either seasonally or annually. Decisions, decisions,…!

Fakahatchee Strand State Park

Copeland, FL – December, 2017 While out exploring one morning Jim and I ran across the Fakahatchee Strand State Park. It is a strand swamp, which means it is a linear, water-filled channel with prairies on each side. Fakahatchee happens to be the world’s largest, at 22 miles long, and the only one with a mixed royal palm and cypress tree canopy.

Our first stop was at the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk which is right on the Tamiami Trail about 20 miles east of Naples. There is a pond out front with fish jumping, birds wading, and upon our arrival, a very large alligator sunning himself not 15 feet from the highway.

I took that picture from the safety of a bridge over the pond. We then found the path to the boardwalk. We walked a short distance beside some water keeping a close eye out for that fellow’s cousins. We soon reached the boardwalk which offered protection from ankle biters and we could spend more time looking at the amazing surroundings.

Some of the Cypress trees were HUGE.

And these lovely flowers were pretty common.

I later learned they are called swamp lilies or sometimes string lilies.

Some of the most intriguing trees were those that appeared to be being choked by a vine.

Turns out it is actually the roots of the Strangler Fig which starts out as a seed deposited in the top of a host tree. It then sends down roots to the ground and they entwine and often kill the host tree. This one literally looks like the fig is a fist wrapped around the host.

While reading the signs at the boardwalk we realized we were on the edge of a very large state park. We decided we might as well see the rest of it. A little further east on Tamiami and a few miles north on Hwy 888 and we reached another entrance to the park.

We took the park road called James Scenic Road for about 8 miles. It was scenic, and extremely rough! But it was worth it.

We had only gone a couple miles when we saw a gator. He was right beside the road and perfectly still. He wasn’t even inclined to twitch an eye muscle as I took his photo from the safety of my passenger seat.

A short distance later was a second one. He was more active. He had his head resting on some grass by a tree and moved it back and forth a couple times. Maybe he was just scratching an itch.

We saw a half dozen more laying on the edge of the water beside the road. We then saw a very large one crossing the road probably 300 yards ahead of us. He was a monster, longer than the road was wide. By the time we reached the spot he had crossed there was no sign of him.

We decided we had had enough rough riding for one day and turned around a little short of the road’s end. We’ll make it all the way on our next trip. I took a turn at the wheel dodging potholes and let Jim enjoy the scenery.

He was hoping to see a baby alligator and he saw a fairly small one, although probably not a baby. It was about a foot and a half.

The swamp was really quite lovely. The water was perfectly still and the reflection of the trees in the water was intriguing.

If you are in the area or passing through on the Tamiami Trail this park is well worth the stop. We definitely plan to visit again.