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.

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.

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.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park

Homosassa, FL – October, 2017 One place that was not even on our radar until we reached this area and bought our Florida State Park passes was Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. It is an easily overlooked gem of a park just 10 miles south of our weeklong home on Crystal River.

We arrived just after the park’s opening at 9 am on a Tuesday morning. We were lucky to have an incredibly mild morning in the midst of 90 degree days of sweltering humidity. It was almost chilly on this 70 degree morning and perfect weather for a long walk amongst the wildlife.

This wildlife park houses many animals that are native to Florida. Just about every animal that I might hope to see in the wild in Florida is here for my photographing pleasure. Of course it’s not the same as seeing them in the wild but much more likely that I can capture their image. They may not be as cooperative as these pictures suggest but with a little time you can usually get something out of them.

If you don’t want to climb over this fence and hug this cute brown bear you are not human. He/she finally took her snout outta the bushes and sorta looked at me so I could get a portrait.

It wouldn’t be a Florida wildlife exhibit without birds and this place had a ton of them. I have been infatuated with Roseate Spoonbills since another blogger featured them.

Until now I have only seen a flock of them in a far off field and a single bird stopped by our campground before we left Florida last year. This place had an aviary you could walk through with several of them. They did not seem to mind our presence.

When they did tire of us they could easily escape.

This fellow was sitting just inside the aviary demanding his share of attention.

Before my infatuation with the spoonbills I sorta had a thing for these guys. I could still watch them all day with their slinky necks and updside down eating habits.

I couldn’t leave this red fox alone even though it was clear I was interrupting his nap.

I’ve seen a few in the wild but they are usually so FAST. This mellow fellow never got very excited.

Another lightning fast character that was surprisingly cooperative was this otter.

It wouldn’t be a Florida zoo without some alligators.

We enjoyed a wildlife encounter with a lovely volunteer named Vicky who shared some interesting facts about baby alligators.

There was an awesome cougar in attendance. Like many of the animals she was a bit shy but if you spent enough time with her she would finally open up.

We couldn’t help but be impressed by these eagles.

The bald eagles were especially thrilling.

We also enjoyed the reptile house. It was a good place to practice our snake identification. For instance, based on our wildlife encounter at the previous day’s agenda, we correctly guessed that this was not a venomous snake but its look-alike the Scarlet King Snake.

From November to February this park is all about the manatee.

They house several manatees year-round but during the winter hundreds of manatee crowd in to Homosassa Springs to enjoy the then balmy 72 degree water. Their underwater observatory was pretty cool during the off season.

We enjoyed seeing sheep head and snook from within it.

It would be awesome to see manatee crowding around the observatory windows.

Our Florida Family Park Pass included unlimited admission for two to this amazing park. You might be interested to know that they never ID’d either of us. If you don’t possess a pass I believe the entry fee is $13 per person which is well worth the experience.

Mermaids!

Crystal River, FL – October, 2017 I have wanted to come to this area of Florida for many years. I certainly expected to make it part of our travel plans last season. When it didn’t work out that way, it shot to the top of the list of places to see this season.

The area is known for freshwater springs, manatee, and the famous and historic Weeki Wachee Mermaids. Since mermaids trump everything we made seeing them the number one priority our first full day there. They perform at what is now the Weeki Wachee Spring State Park, 28 miles south of our Crystal River campsite.

The attraction was created in 1947 by Newt Perry, a famous swimmer. He invented a method of breathing underwater from a free flowing air hose. He then trained pretty girls to perform underwater ballets.

Business was slow in the beginning but soon took off and in the 1950’s it became one of the country’s top tourist attractions. It was purchased by the American Broadcasting Company in 1959 and the business thrived for many years. It became a Florida State Park in 2008.

The entrance to the park is surrounded by statuary.

We arrived about an hour before the mermaid’s 11 am show and walked the entire park. Here is what the spring and underwater theater look like from above.

In the background are water slides which are open all summer and on weekends after school starts. There is also a swim lagoon which had half a dozen bathers during our visit. The theater doors opened about 10 minutes before show time and we wandered in and found a seat on the stadium like benches.

The performance began right on time.

I kept my expectations low. So I was pleasantly surprised what a great show they put on.

I wondered how they would tell the tale of The Little Mermaid in under an hour. But they did, quite effectively. Ariel meets a prince.

She innocently involves an evil sea witch in order to get some legs and join her beloved on land.

All seems well and the pair dance.

Then that darn sea witch actually demands payment, via the forfeiture of Ariel’s beautiful voice.

Everyone returns to the sea to fight this threat and save their world. The badly out-numbered witch is defeated and forced back to her underwater cave.

But not before she pops out of a trap door above the stage and scares the bajeezis out of everyone causing several youngsters to start wailing.

The show was something short of 45 minutes but they squeezed all the plot twists in quite effectively. I was very impressed with the performers’ swimming ability all while holding their breath for long periods between puffs on the air hoses that they sometimes held but were usually floating below them.

I loved how they used air bubbles for a curtain. They would release a massive amount of air below the glass and then when the scene was ready they would stop it and the “curtain” of air would rise on the next act.

It was a fun show but I can’t believe the performers get in that cold spring water for 2 shows a day (three on the weekends) every single day of the year. After the show we wandered to the back of the park for the animal show.

It was your basic talk about the local wildlife but the park ranger was engaging and funny. The park usually has a boat ride down the river included with your admission but that was shut down while we were there as they were waiting on their annual safety inspection.

This was our first Florida State Park this season and we chose to buy state park pass this year. They are $60 per person, or $120 for a family, so the same either way for us. It seemed a little steep but we can visit this attraction, and another I’ll tell you about next week, as often as we like. If we only visited them once, which is likely, we still have to visit almost 20 more state parks before the day use fees surpass the cost of the park pass. Challenge accepted!

While in Crystal River we stayed at Crystal Isle RV Resort. It is an Encore Resort, so it was pretty nice with a fitness room, pool, and hot tub. We got a sight for $25 per night through Passport America which is only available April through October.

Hurricane Nate

Gulf Shores, AL to Crawfordville, FL – October, 2017 We took three days to get to Gulf Shores, Alabama from Missouri. We didn’t watch any news during that time as at each stop we were either too tired to set up the satellite or there were trees blocking its reception. There was not much over the air TV available at any of our stops either.

When we finally reached Gulf State Park Jim set up the satellite and the first news report we heard told us about Hurricane Nate. We had reserved 5 days at this Alabama state park. But it looked like we were only going to get to enjoy two.

The good news was the next day was our anniversary and at least we could stay and enjoy it before leaving the following morning. Exactly one year before we had tried to celebrate our anniversary on the Atlantic coast and had to divert to inland Florida instead and wait out Hurricane Matthew. We’re thinking this is a sign and maybe we should spend future anniversaries in the mountains.

Gulf State Park is huge and it has a lot of new facilities since being rebuilt following the last major hurricane to come this way. There are 25 miles of trails and three large lakes. My sprained ankle was still healing so I wasn’t able to enjoy any long walks.

I reserved what stamina I did have for the beach. The park has 3 miles of beautiful beaches with several access points. The beach is 1 ½ miles from the campground so it’s a perfect ride if you own a bike or it was a short drive for us.

We enjoyed some wave watching and wading since the surf was pretty high. Then we had a lovely lunch beachside at The Gulf. We then headed to the park’s pool in the afternoon for a swim.

The campsites were about $40 per night for full hookups. It was pretty reasonable for all that the park offered. I liked that they didn’t nickel and dime you either. Parking at the beach, swimming in their pool, and access to their pier (which we didn’t have time to see) were all included in your camping fee.

We loved this park and hated to leave. They did refund us our camping fees when we chose to leave on Friday. I believe they shut the park down on Saturday.

We moved north of I10 and east a hundred miles to a camp near the town of Defuniak Springs, Florida. We found a park by a lake with a pool. Sunset King Lake RV Resort was a nice place for $35 per night.

The town of Defuniak Springs was pretty interesting and about a 10 mile drive from camp. It is built around a spring fed lake that they say is perfectly round and exactly one mile across. The town was organized in the 1880’s by the railroad and has an adorable train station.

It became the center of activities for the newly organized Florida Chautauqua Association in 1885. I had never before heard of Chautauqua but learned that it was an adult education movement that was very popular around the end of the 19th century and thru the mid 1920’s. It brought famous speakers and performers to the town each summer and so the well to do built second homes here so that they and their friends could enjoy the festivities.

There are many beautiful, mostly Victorian homes built here. It was a shame I couldn’t yet walk far as we would have really enjoyed walking these streets and seeing the many fine homes. We explored as best we could in the truck.

After our first day of exploring we hunkered down to watch and wait out Hurricane Nate. We were well out of harm’s way but it was still pretty wet. The park had a lot of things blown around, like trash cans and portable awnings, but no real damage.

Our next reservation was at the Florida state park, Topsail Hill Preserve, just east of Destin. We were supposed to go there Sunday and Monday but they shut down for the weekend and refunded our fees. So we finally got back to our planned itinerary on Tuesday when we headed for St. Andrews State Park.

This park is an oasis in the middle of Panama City. You drive through the city and onto the St. Andrews Peninsula and it’s like the city isn’t even there. It’s 1,200 acres of sand, sea, and swamp. The swamp is actually quite beautiful, especially in the morning light.

And there are tons of deer. They are a bit on the puny side. I imagine it’s a tough place to live.

This was the view of the bay from the back of our campsite. We had a tiny private beach and lots of water birds, crabs, and bunnies for neighbors. We loved our three day stay at this gem.

I finally started to be able to walk a bit farther and hobbled down the beach each morning. The sunrises were amazing.

The boating channel just beyond the sea wall was very busy at sunrise and it was neat to watch all the boats race out.

There is long jetty that the fisherman seemed to enjoy despite the signs warning to stay off it.

The seas were still pretty rough our first morning and got calmer as the week wore on. Here is the view of the park’s pier at the end of their beach and Panama City Beach beyond.

The park has a lovely protected bay.

One morning we went for a long swim after our walk and had the whole bay to ourselves until about 10 am. We went back that afternoon and snorkeled along the outer edges of the bay where the rocks are piled up to just below the water’s surface. It was fun but awfully crowded.

We vowed to take our snorkels the next morning but on that morning’s walk the beach was littered with tons of large jelly fish.

We finally did snorkel our last morning before we packed up and left. We saw a few jelly fish but were able to swim around them. We enjoyed some large schools of big fish, a few tiny but colorful fish, and one ridiculously large crab.

This park is a pretty special place. We were lucky to have snagged our weekday reservation but we had to get going on Friday. The site was around $30 with electric and water.

It’s often hard to find any place to stay on Friday and Saturday nights when you are in popular areas. We looked for some place along our route where we could wait out the weekend and stumbled across Newport Park, a county park along the St. Marks River. It was 10 miles to the nearest town of Crawfordville.

After lunch we visited the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. There was a $5 fee per car to enter the refuge and during our Friday afternoon visit it was collected via a self-pay station. We drove the 10 mile road through the refuge to get to the St. Mark’s Lighthouse, the second oldest in Florida.

I am not terribly excited by lighthouses. They’re OK but unless you can get inside one and climb it, I only have mild interest in them as interesting subjects to photograph.

I was under the mistaken impression that the light house was open and was a little disappointed when it was not. It did turn out to be an interesting drive through marshlands with lots of birds and one alligator.

The next day we planned to explore more of the area but after a morning trip to Crawfordville for provisions Jim wasn’t feeling well so we spent a quiet day in our weekend refuge. The camp was a good choice even though the sites were laid out a bit chaotically. It was $27 per night for full hookups which was payable by cash or check only.

We pulled out early Sunday morning as we were very excited to get to our next destination. I am equally excited to tell you about it in my next couple posts.

Catching Up and WOW

Springfield, MO – Aug. to Oct., 2017 We had reservations for the last week of August at Glacier Basin Campground on the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). Our intention all summer was to wrap up our visit to Colorado there. But several things caused us to rethink that plan.

The 45 mile road across the RMNP between Grand Lake and Estes Park is not big rig friendly. It has MANY tight switchbacks. We saw some big rigs crossing it but the more Jim thought about it the less he wanted to attempt it. We even got mixed answers as to whether it was allowed. One park ranger said there was no length limit on the road, another said they had only recently enacted a 32 foot limit. The 150 mile trip around the park was doable but did put a damper on our enthusiasm.

We had visited Estes Park briefly and even checked out the campground. Glacier Basin was nothing to write home about. It was an open area with few trees. The roads through it were rather tight and lined with large rocks. The pull thru we had reserved was so awkward we were certain we’d have to pass it and back into it.

Then there were the crowds. Even on a Monday the eastern side of the RMNP had lines of traffic, congested parking lots, and the stores in the little town were packed. No thank you! We finally decided to cancel our reservation all together and head back to Missouri to get a head start on remodeling one of our rentals.

We hoped the remodel could be completed in as little as three weeks but allowed five weeks for good measure. Good thing we did. I left Jim for almost a week when I flew to Florida to help our daughter evacuate.

I was only home a couple days when I badly sprained my ankle. This laid me up completely for almost another week and slowed me down considerably for the remainder of the month. So Jim got stuck remodeling the house mostly by himself. It took the whole 5 weeks and we finally delegated a bit of the work and made our escape on October 2nd.

We kept our nose the grindstone most of the time we were there (or at least Jim did). But we did have plans to keep our granddaughter the last weekend in September. We were thrilled when we realized the much anticipated and long awaited Wonders of Wildlife (WOW) National Museum & Aquarium was opening just in time for our weekend with her. It is part of the Bass Pro complex in Springfield and has been closed for remodeling for many years.

We arranged to meet my cousins and enjoy the tour with them. They have a daughter almost the same age as our granddaughter. Here is our picture taken by our 7 year old granddaughter.

We started our tour on the museum side.

So obviously this included a LOT of stuffed animals.

Their dioramas were amazingly detailed and quite stunning.

There were also rooms full of artifacts and informative displays on everything from indians to conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt. It took us about 2 hours to tour the museum and then we proceeded to the aquarium.

This is when things got really interesting.

I’m talking 3 story circular tanks you can walk around on multiple levels. This picture gives you some idea what I am talking about. We were standing on the second level on the outside and you can clearly see the other side of the tank and people standing on the first level.

After traveling up and down and around this amazing display we thought we were about done. No. This was just the beginning. The aquarium went on, and on, and on!

One of mine and Jim’s favorite places was this bait ball display. Being able to see the fish’s reaction when a predator swam by was very entertaining.

We also really enjoyed the jelly fish display.

The kids were pretty much enthralled with everything in the aquarium.

They especially enjoyed the touch tanks. The first, smaller one is in the middle of the tour. Isn’t this the oddest looking shark ever?

The tour ends at a really big touch tank full of rays. The rays swim around in a pool that circles another massive tank. So the ray at the bottom of this picture is in the touch tank and everything else is swimming in an aquarium. There is so much reflection going on it is hard to tell where one tank ends and the other starts.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit and were completely worn out by the end. It took us around 4 hours total and that was a bit rushed. The ticket is good for the entire day so if we had it to do over again we’d probably visit the aquarium first, then go have lunch (and maybe a nap), then return to visit the museum. If you are taking kids and are short on either time or money you might consider skipping the museum.

The one day admission tickets may seem steep to some. Compared to the aquariums we’ve visited throughout the country it was an average price for an above average experience. The adult aquarium tickets are $30, the museum tickets are $15, or the combo ticket to visit both in one day is $40. Children 4-11 are $20, $10, and $24 respectively.

If you live in the area I would highly recommend the annual membership. I like that it includes two adults and their designated children OR grandchildren under 18. It is $250 or for $300 it includes two guest passes. We may consider a membership as we definitely want to return.

Georgetown Loop RR and Silver Mine

Georgetown, CO – August, 2017 Jim is as much a fan of trains and mining as I am of fire towers and moose. So while exploring the mining communities west of Denver I read about a train ride to a mine tour. Well that was a no brainer!

The community of Georgetown, Colorado was once known as the “Silver Queen of the Rockies.” They had a narrow gauge railway that carried silver ore from the mines 2 miles uphill in Silver Plume. The railway and mines were shut down for 50 years but were reopened in the 1970’s by the Colorado Historical Society.

We stopped in historic downtown Georgetown for a quick bite before our scheduled departure. We couldn’t resist a café called the Happy Cooker and we were not disappointed. Jim’s French dip and my meatloaf sandwich were both exceptional.

We walked around the area admiring the many neat old buildings. Their firehouse is very distinctive and serves as the town’s historical symbol.

We then headed up the hill to the Georgetown Loop Railroad. We passed under a train trestle and Jim exclaimed “I hope we get to ride over that”. I was not as excited about the prospect. It soon became apparent that we would be traveling over it as a train came around the bend before heading to the station.

We picked up our prepaid tickets in the gift shop and headed for the platform to catch the train. We didn’t have to wait long until we were boarded and on our way.

The train ride is about 4 miles each way. Even though the stations are only 2 miles apart the tracks zigzag back and forth to keep the grade at an acceptable level, 6% or below. The path crosses the beautiful Clear Creek again and again.

In less than 30 minutes we pulled in to Silver Plume. The engine pulled away to take on water and then reattached itself to the other end of the train for the downhill return.

This took about 20 minutes and we had an opportunity to get off and visit their gift shop if we wanted. They also took on new passengers at this station as you can begin your tour at either Georgetown or Silver Plume. Finally we were back on the rails.

In about 10 minutes they stopped at a platform and those of us who had purchased a mine tour departed. Some people chose to just ride the train. The mine tour is optional or not an option for anyone with children under 5 or those who can’t handle the walk to and through the mines.

We had a brief safety talk and then the passengers broke in to separate groups for the 3 different tour options. We had chosen a tour that would take us 900 feet in to the Lebanon Mine. Everyone donned a hard hat and we headed underground.

The first part of the mine looked like this. The timbers were spaced close together until they got through the part of the hill with the smaller stones.

Once they reached bedrock they only shored up the ceiling where it was needed. The height of the cavern became much shorter and anyone over 5 ½ feet had to spend much of the walk hunched over.

Thankfully they had the hard hats so it wasn’t painful when one found a particularly short spot. I even bumped my hat on a couple low spots. When the tour stopped for a talk everyone was usually able to find a spot where they could stand upright and straighten their backs.

The tour was fascinating and incredibly informative! Much of the mine equipment had simply been abandoned when the mine closed. This scene is practically as they found it when they reopened the mine.

You see the ladder to the above tunnel but can’t see that there is hole in the floor to the lower tunnels. This winch was used to haul the ore from both to the ore carts. We were walking on the carts’ tracks now filled in with gravel.

In another side tunnel the hole down was closer and you can clearly see the ladder descending into the depths of the mine, now flooded.

Our tour was on the 3rd level of a 6 level mine. They are continually trying to open new tunnels to tours. They work over the winter when they are not giving tours. They expect this tour to be about 100 feet longer next season.

The mine didn’t close because they ran out of silver but because the price of silver dropped below an amount that made it profitable to mine. There was silver ore all over the place. The miners called this a dragon tongue.

It apparently means that there is another rich silver vein above it. Several of these have appeared since they reopened this mine. It’s not like you can just pick up the silver though. It is embedded in granite and has to processed to extract the silver.

They don’t anticipate the price of silver ever reaching a level that would make it lucrative to mine these veins in today’s economy. There are working silver mines in the area though. The tour operator said the Phoenix mine down the road does OK and supplements their mining profits with tours during summer.

After about an hour long tour filled with tons of information we were totally satisfied with our experience. We didn’t at all mind leaving the 40 degree mine and Jim especially appreciated being able to stand upright again. We were very happy with our choice of tours as the Extended Lebanon Mine Tour had only 10 participants. Each of the other available tours had at least double that amount which would have made it pretty crowded in the narrow tunnels.

We walked up the hill to the platform and stopped to visit their very gentle pet donkeys on the way.

Our train showed up very shortly and we boarded it for the brief 15 minute ride back to Georgetown. Of course, we had to cross the trestle for the second time but it wasn’t really bad as there were so many sights and sounds to distract you.

I highly recommend this tour if you are in the area and interested in trains and/or mines. I thought the prices were very reasonable. A train ride was about $26 and the mine tours were $11 to 14 more. You could upgrade any ticket to first class which let you ride in a covered car with windows for another $10.

The train ride was rather short but you got to experience all the facets of a train excursion without a serious commitment of time. When we took the Durango & Silverton train a couple years ago it took all day and we were a bit uncomfortable by the end of the trip. This train ride along with the mine tour took a little under 3 hours but we were plenty tuckered out by the end of the day.

We stayed at Dakota Ridge RV Park 35 miles away in Golden, Colorado. We paid $49 per night for a full hookup, back-in site with our Good Sam discount. It was an extremely nice park with a pool, which we never managed to get to, and a hot tub, which we finally visited our last evening there.

Hiking the RMNP

RMNP, Colorado – August, 2017 We were certainly enjoying our time on the western edge of the Rocky Mountain National Park. We took several walks in the area but a couple of hikes were our most memorable.

One weekday we hiked to Grand Ditch via Red Mountain. We parked at the Colorado River Trail Parking Area. The parking lot had been packed every time we passed it so I expected a popular trail with lots of company. Instead we arrived at 8 in the morning and were about the 3rd car there.

We hit the trail and didn’t see another soul for an hour or so. Then a couple caught up to us and trailed us most of the trek. On our way back down the trail we met a few more hikers headed up the trail and a couple guys that had been backpacking several days and were on their way back to civilization.

The day was very overcast and I was grateful we never got rained on. Most of the trail was a pretty steady climb. Parts of it were rough and rocky.

I had developed a fascination with the local mushrooms ever since I discovered these red ones were not exclusively associated with small men with beards.

This romp through the woods gave me plenty of opportunities to photograph them.

Jim started enjoying the hunt and pointed many of the toadstools out.

These little orange ones covered an entire hillside.

I seriously took a hundred photos of fungi.

Our walk was occasionally interrupted by a beautiful mountain pond.

We finally made it out of the woods and enjoyed a view of the surrounding mountains.

A short distance from there we came to the Grand Ditch. Apparently this is a water diversion project to bring snowmelt from the Never Summer Mountains to the eastern plains farmers. The result is plenty of waterfalls.

Jim is often a reluctant model in my shots.

I believe the exact words before this shot were “Where are you? Please get back in the frame.” I am grateful, he is so patient!

The hike to Grand Ditch via this route was 6 miles roundtrip. I must admit the hardest part was the trip down. Our feet and knees were screaming on the descent.

I wanted to do another hike of similar length before we left but Jim wasn’t feeling it. I weighed my options for a solo hike. I read the park’s literature on hiking in bear country and I appreciated their advice.

The 3 primary rules were; don’t hike alone, make lots of noise, and hike in the middle of the day. I’d prefer to have a hiking buddy but given the option between hiking alone or not at all, I’d rather take a hike. Make lots of noise I can manage. I have a bear bell, I’m not above singing to myself, and when I get tired of my own voice I will happily play music on my phone.

The rule I most disliked was hike in the middle of the day. I am a morning person. I’d much rather put in several miles before lunch. If I have to wait till later it’s likely to not happen at all.

So I considered their advice and chose a hike where, despite hiking alone, I was unlikely to be alone. I decided to hike the Green Mountain Trail to Big Meadows and return via the Onahu Creek Trail. We had never passed the parking lot for these trails without them being almost completely full.

According to the trail map it was supposed to be just over a 7 mile roundtrip but my GPS recorded it closer to 6 miles.

I arrived at the trailhead around 8 am on a Sunday morning and snagged the very last parking space. A couple were just hitting the trail in front of me and I lolly-gagged a little to give them a head start so as to not crowd them. I never saw them again.

The trail climbed steadily and I stopped often to catch my breath. Despite the very chilly morning, it didn’t take long for me to shed my down jacket, and shortly thereafter, my long sleeved shirt. The trail map looked pretty straightforward but the trail turned out to be a little more complicated.

There were several paths leading in various directions that were not on the map. And some of the distances were not entirely accurate. But in general it wasn’t terribly difficult to follow the directions and I was able to get to where I intended.

I didn’t meet another soul until I reached Big Meadows. Supposedly it is not uncommon to see moose here in the early mornings. But I was not hopeful on such a popular trail and shortly before arriving there I could hear people making quite the commotion from a nearby campground. It was still a pretty clearing.

I met a couple young fellows on the trail and basically asked them if they thought I was going the right direction. They agreed I was on the right track. Turns out most of the people I met, and presumably most of the cars in the parking lot, belonged to those who had hiked in to campgrounds for a night or several.

The first half of the hike was pretty uneventful and not terribly scenic. But once I reached Onahu Bridge which was, surprisingly, an actual wooden bridge, the trail got much prettier.

The trail criss-crossed Onahu Creek for the remainder of the hike.

I passed a half dozen other hikers that morning, not exactly as busy a trail as I expected. But I never felt unsafe and I enjoyed my solo hike immensely.