Sunday, March 27, 2011

Heading North!

Well, we started our trip back toward Michigan and are already kind of regretting our decision to leave Florida and head north. After my last post, we spent two more days at Stephen Foster and then decided to cut a couple days off our time there. It continued to be almost uncomfortably warm, plus we couldn't leave Brandi outside at all - she was just EATEN UP by the no-see-ums, especially in her front "armpits" (if that's what you'd call them). And it was supposed to go from 85 degrees up to 90 over the next few days, so we did one last very nice paddle on the Suwanee River. We went out for about four hours and had a nice time because there was just enough of a breeze to keep the bugs to a minimum. The river is really pretty, plus we came across another very nice gator. I'm attaching a picture of him (even though he looks an awful lot like the one I posted last week - but he's posing better!). We decided to leave the next morning and head up to Marion County park, just north of Chattanooga. This gets us almost half-way home which is always kind of nice for us - we can stay as long as we want, but we know we're only about a short two-day run from home. Plus it takes us around Atlanta, which is always another nice thing to get behind us - we HATE driving around Atlanta! So, anyway, we got up Thursday morning and got everything packed up and ready to go. I went outside for some little thing, and when I went to go back in that DAMN Dickens snuck out! He'd been whining all morning to go out and we deliberately did NOT let him because once he's out he disappears until he's ready to come back in - it's almost impossible to entice him in until he's good and ready. So, wouldn't you know it - HE'S OUT! And we are totally, completely ready to leave - NOT A GOOD SITUATION. We called him and tried to chase him out of the brush, but no luck. So then Dave decided that we should just load up and pull out of the site - he said maybe that would scare Dickens and he would come out of hiding to find us. I personally don't think cats think in exactly that way, but I agreed to give it a try. So we left the site, dumped our tanks, parked the RV out on the street and came back to the site with the car. We sat there for about 20 minutes - still no cat! So Dave went BACK out, got the motor home, brought it BACK into the site, plugged in the electricity and we just sat there and waited. About a half hour later, here comes Dickens, just strolling out of the brush like "gee, what's everybody all in an uproar about - I'm RIGHT here!!!" So we grabbed him, yelled at him, then hugged him, put him into the motor home, and we left - GOOD GRIEF!

So - after THAT little adventure, we finally got on the road and pulled over into a Walmart parking lot just south of Atlanta for overnight. The next morning we got up early, made it through Atlanta (always a relief!) and got up to Marion County shortly after noon. We love this park, but unfortunately the weather is NOT very nice. We pulled in on Friday and just kind of hung out - and then it started raining - and raining and raining and raining. It rained Friday night, absolutely ALL day Saturday and most of Saturday night. And it's pretty cool - Saturday's high was in the upper 50's and today (Sunday) it barely hit 50 - QUITE a change from 85. We MAY have made a mistake leaving when we did... But, as usual, we'll just make the best of it. It's probably a good way to get re-acclimated before we deal with Michigan!

So, anyway, yesterday we did go out for a little ride in the afternoon and then went out to dinner (the Western Sizzler, where we both stuffed ourselves mercilessly). One of the places we stopped was the Visitors' Center for the South Cumberland State Park. The park is actually ten separate areas, all under the "umbrella" of a single state park. There are some wilderness camping areas scattered throughout the areas, but the main attractions are the hiking trails through the various areas - with beautiful waterfalls, gorges, overlooks, caves, pools, etc. The trails vary from very short - just a short walk from the parking lot - up to a maximum of twelve miles. Some are rated easy, some are rated moderate, and a couple are rated difficult or strenuous (which I wouldn't tackle for anything!). I definitely wanted to try a couple of them while we're here, so today (Sunday) I took Brandi and we went to the Foster Falls area. There is a very nice overlook right off the side of the parking area, which I plan to bring Dave to tomorrow, but you really need to do a little hiking down to the base of the falls to get the best view. The hike to the bottom is a little tough, especially with a dog PULLING you the whole way, but definitely worth it. The path involves crossing over a little suspension bridge, which Brandi found to be kind of challenging. It was cute to watch her trying to figure out what the HECK was going on with this thing! The weather wasn't great - cloudy and cool - so my pictures aren't too good because there's no sunshine, but I'm attaching a couple anyway. The walk was fun to do, and the view from the base of the falls was beautiful. I really enjoy getting out on these hikes - I always feel GREAT afterward.

So - we aren't sure how long we're going to stay, but we'll probably go visit our land one of these days, and maybe hit a tourist trap or two, and if it's even halfway decent Dave will do some fishing and I'll do some more hiking. We'd love to get in a campfire or two, but we'll just have to see how the weather goes. In the meanwhile, we're keeping an eye on the Michigan weather via the weather channel and sometime within the next week or so will hit the road for the last leg of our trip. Hard to believe. But, as I mentioned last week, it won't be all bad to get home - eventually we actually DO begin to get a little homesick. And it'll be nice to see our family and friends again. But we will NOT come home if it's snowing - and that's FINAL!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Stephen Foster Cultural Center State Park

We are now at the very last of our reserved parks - from now on we'll just be pulling in wherever we want to on the way home. It's always kind of sad for us when we get to the last of our pre-planned locations - it really means our trip is almost over. Although I have to say (and, believe me, I am NOT complaining) but it actually is REALLY pretty hot down here. It's been in the mid- to upper-80's pretty consistently and, although we really love the warm temps, it definitely saps your energy a little bit. We are actually a little bit ready to move slightly more north. We have reservations here through next Monday, but we're talking about leaving this park a little bit early and getting into Georgia at least.

But, in the meanwhile, this park is REALLY pretty. It is a state park, located in White Springs, which is about 70 miles straight north of Gainesville, and probably 30 or 40 miles south of the Florida state line. The park is a regular state park, in that it has a campground (an exceptionally pretty one, actually) and it's on the bank of the Suwanee River so we can fish and kayak, but it is also a cultural center to celebrate the Florida folk arts and the music of Stephen Foster. There is a really pretty museum dedicated to Stephen Foster and his music, his life, etc. There is also a beautiful bell tower (or carillon) that plays every quarter hour during the daytime and has a bell concert at 10:00, 12:00 and 2:00. Very pretty. There is also a "craft square" which is a group of about 5 or 6 little cottages that have various folk artists, like a blacksmith, a basket weaver, etc with local artisans displaying their work. Not every cottage is open every day, but normally two or three of them are. The park grounds are exceptionally pretty, with beautiful landscaping throughout.

On Saturday, the little town of White Springs, along with the state park, celebrated their annual "Azalea Festival". We were kind of looking forward to it - there was going to be a bunch of live music, food vendors, craft-maker displays, etc. WELL... I guess it was ok, but it was a REALLY small festival with probably only a couple hundred people total. We walked around town a little bit and then came home and watched March Madness games instead. I think we were expecting something a little closer to our Tulip Festival...wrong!

Today we put the kayaks into the Suwanee River and paddled a little bit, but (to our surprise) there were actually some little RAPIDS on the river - it was fun going DOWN the little rapids, but not so much coming back up! Yikes! Even though they were VERY little, it was a HECK of a lot of work paddling back up. We think we figured out a way to go a few miles up the road to a park, leave the car there, paddle down the river TO the state park, and then take our bicycles to get back up to the car. I know - it sounds kind of complicated but it really isn't. We're thinking about doing this little adventure on Tuesday - I'll let you know if we survive! I don't think white water rapids will EVER be in our future! Oh, and we spotted a pretty big alligator laying on the side of the river while we were paddling - I'm throwing his picture onto this post. Normally we see alligators laying on dark, muddy banks, kind of hidden from view, but this guy was laying on a bright, open stretch of white sand - kind of different!
One of the things that's really nice about this park is the flowers - they are EVERYWHERE. It is full springtime down here, so everything is blooming. I'm attaching a few pictures, but they don't begin to give an idea of how MANY flowers there are. Really beautiful. One of the things we hate about heading north is we have to watch all the green colors fade out and everything revert back to grays and browns - it's hard to leave springtime behind and move back into winter! But, I do have to admit, we are probably both beginning to get just a TEENSY bit homesick. It's kind of nice how that works out - a month ago would have been too early to go home, but in another week or two we'll be ready. But in the meanwhile, we're sure LOVING it!

Monday, March 14, 2011

LOVE Paynes Prairie

Gee, I just realized it's been almost a week since my last post. I definitely begin to wind down toward the end of the trip, and I'm fairly certain my faithful readers begin to get a little tired of our trip too! But, boy, we did good with picking this park for our next-to-the-last. For one thing, it's in a great location - we're only 10 miles south of Gainesville so have gone into town a number of times. Secondly, the park itself is just SO pretty! It has a great variety of environs - there is this huge prairie for one thing, then the pretty little 300-acre lake, and then the beautiful pine-and-oak-and maple woods. The woods are so different from the Florida scrub that we've been in for the past couple months - the trees are more spread apart and taller and just a lot prettier.

So what have we been doing this week? Gee... I don't really know! Well, that's not EXACTLY true, but it does seem like we've done a lot of just "hanging around." For one thing, the weather has been absolutely perfect - sunny, high 70's, no humidity, no bugs, no wind, no clouds - GORGEOUS! I HAVE been on about three hikes here in the park - probably some of the nicest trails I've been on during this year's trip. As I mentioned, the woods are just exceptionally beautiful, and the trail surface is great - a nice wide hiking trail with a soft pine-and-moss surface - very nice to walk on. And very smooth - not a lot of roots and things to trip you up (a BIG issue to us 60 year-olds who don't like the thought of falling!). We've also been out on the lake a few times - actually, Dave's been out a number of times - I've been out twice but plan to go out one more time tomorrow. The other day we just very. VERY slowly paddled around the outer edges of the lake - it took about three hours because we were BARELY moving - and we counted 37 (yep, 37!) alligators. The gators here are apparently pretty used to kayaks and people and stuff because we'd see one swimming - you CAN'T mistake those eyes sticking out of the water, with the spiny back just breaking the suface of the water - and he'd pretty much ignore us until we literally were within a few feet of him. Then he'd finally go below the surface, which is also kind of a weird feeling because you KNOW he's RIGHT below you someplace. But it was a gorgeous day - upper 70's, bright sunshine, no clouds, and not a hint of a wind. PERFECT day for a nice easy paddle. Besides the alligators, we saw lots and lots of birds (including two beautiful bald eagles - AGAIN!). I'm attaching a picture of a blue heron, but it might be a LITTLE tough to pick him out. We really do enjoy just being out on the water looking at things - you'd think it might get boring, but it really doesn't.

On another day I went into Gainesville with Brandi and did an AVA walk around the University of Florida campus. It's a really pretty campus with some beautiful old buildings, a very pretty bell tower, a couple of cool "bat houses" that do indeed house two of the largest colonies of a particular species of bats, a gorgeous auditorium, the huge football stadium, etc., etc., etc. I always enjoy walks around campuses - I like to see the different schools in the country. And this turned out to be the perfect week for this particular walk because the students were on their spring break so there were very few students to be seen (probably only the ones who don't have the money to go to the Bahamas or whatever!).

Today we drove into Gainesville and took Brandi to a nice dog park - I think in the future I'll "google" dog parks in every town we go to. She has a BLAST running around with the other dogs and we get a big kick out of watching her. After she got tired - which takes about two hours! - we left her in the car while we went in to dinner. We don't go out that often, so that was kind of a treat.

Tomorrow I hope to get out on the lake again and I hope to do one of the longer trails on Wednesday - and then we leave for the next park. It FEELS like these 10 days have gone really fast - probably because we're getting to the end of the trip and time begins to speed up! We definitely will put this park onto the DO-return list - I feel like this park is sort of little "hidden treasure" and that not that many of the "snowbirds" get here. There are only 50 sites, and about a dozen of those are just for tents, so not a lot of people are going to get in here. Plus a lot of people don't think of this part of Florida - kind of in the northern, central area of the state - when they are thinking about where to travel. But I would definitely recommend a few days here even if it's just a stopover on the way south to the more "glamorous" locations along the coasts.
So this is probably the last post from this park -the next one is the Stephen Foster Cultural Center State Park, about 90 miles north of here and another new park for us. We are getting VERY close to the state line, which to us kind of signals that our trip is getting toward the end. BUT NOT YET! NOT yet!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bikes, TVs and a New State Park

Well, here we are at the next-to-the-last state park on our trip. Where did the winter go? We are now at Paynes Prairie, about 10 miles south of Gainesville - and we LOVE it! What a pretty, pretty park! After we leave here (in 10 days) we go up to Stephen Foster State Park for 10 days and then we begin to meander home. Unreal.

But let's go back to Blue Springs for a final farewell. As I mentioned, I don't think we'll make a big point to come back here again, even though we really do like the area a lot. It's nice to be kind of close to Daytona and kind of close to Orlando, so we'll definitely come back to this area again - just not this park. We didn't do an awful lot our last couple days here, although on Saturday we went into Deland (which is only about 5 miles north of Orange City, where Blue Springs is located). Saturday was the official beginning of the Daytona Bike Week. I should look it up on the internet and get a few stats about how many bikes visit the area, but all I know for sure is that it's about a jillion! Daytona Beach, of course, is absolutely crawling with bikes - thousands and thousands - but on Saturday Deland has its own one-day bike rally. There is a big stage set up for music, a few beer tents, lots and LOTS of merchandise vendors (think black panties with the Harley logo across the back and...). They close off a few blocks of the main street and divert all traffic away from downtown and they just LINE UP the bikes - I'm attaching a picture because it actually is kind of cool to see so many bikes - and this is only fraction of what you'd see in Daytona Beach. So basically, what everyone does is walk around with a beer in their hands, look at each others bikes (some of which are incredible, to tell you the truth - a couple pictures are attached), and try to look really, REALLY cool and "biker-ish". The music was good, the beer was pretty cheap and the people-watching was excellent! So we spent most of the afternoon hanging out.

On Sunday we didn't do very much - primarily got everything all packed up because we had to SET THE ALARM for Monday morning! OMG!!! We had made the big decision to put in two new TVs and have everything upgraded so we made an appointment for Monday to have everything done. We went to Sam's Club and bought the TVs on Sunday and then headed over to Sunshine RV early Monday morning. We left the rig, left the cats, left the TVs and took off in the car. We went to Bob Evans and got a little breakfast and then headed down toward Orlando (to Winter Park, actually) and took Brandi to this GREAT dog park - what a HOOT to watch her running all over with all the dogs. She had an absolute BALL! We stayed there for probably two hours just watching her and laughing at how crazy she was. She's such a good little dog - she doesn't get the least bit agressive, even with the tiny little dogs - she just wants to PLAY. After we got her back into the car (where she promptly fell sound asleep for most of the rest of the afternoon), we went to a couple other places and waited for the call that the RV was ready. They finally called around 3:00, we got there around 4:00 but didn't actually leave until close to 5:30. The new TVs are great, and Ron did a good job of eliminating one or two of the control boxes and spreading things out a little, but we STILL need to upgrade our Direct TV receiver to HD in order to receive a high-def signal (I've got someone coming tomorrow to do that), and our switcher box (which has all the buttons like SAT vs ANT vs DVD for both the front and back set) is apparently going out, so I need to replace that at the nearest Camping World. Plus I need a longer monitor cord if I want to hook my laptop directly to the TV and use it as a monitor. This is beginning to feel like one of those endless projects that just goes on and on forever! (Brenda - does this sound like your kitchen??) But we are definitely pleased with everything so far and we are sure that, when everything is finally done, we'll be set for years and years. ....RIGHT???
So we finally left the RV place and headed out to our next park. It was about a 100 mile drive, so I had called to tell them we would be late. The ranger gave us the combination to the gate (all Florida state parks have gates that are locked at night when the office closes - we really like that a lot) and we pulled in at 7:00, pretty much in the pitch dark. We do NOT like setting up that late, but we had no choice. Fortunately, we are in a nice roomy site so it was pretty easy for Dave to get backed in and for us to get all set up. Our initial impression of the park, just driving through and getting to the campground, was very positive. So this morning we jumped in the car, finished registering at the office and drove around the park to get our bearings. And, wow, what a nice place it turned out to be. The park is about 21,000 acres, with a very pretty little lake maybe a quarter-mile away from the campground. There are miles of trails, with a very nice visitors' center - I'm attaching a picture of the center from both the front and back. There is also a very short walk from the visitor's center to a nice observation tower that looks out over the prairie. The park is kind of interesting - instead of just that Florida scrub, this park has lots and lots of pine trees -it smells wonderful! - with a large, flat, grassy prairie area - very unusual down here. Apparently, the prairie was formed by a large number of sinkholes all kind of collapsing together and then filling it to form this large prairie-type of area. It's very hard to try to explain, but extremely pretty. And apparently there are all kinds of wildlife in the prairie, including bison and wild horses - I guess they are hard to spot, but visitors do occasionally see them, especially if they walk out on the longer trails. I plan to do all the trails that I can - although it's unfortunate that some of them prohibit pets - poor Brandi! Anway, Dave and I both had nice days today - he put his kayak into the lake and fished all afternoon, while I took Brandi for a nice walk, then took my bike out on a ride to the visitors' center. And tonight we are going to have a nice campfire - our first in quite a few weeks - so I'm looking forward to that. We're both thinking these ten days will be very nice - a great way to begin winding down on our trip.

PS - today is my mother's birthday - HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MOM!!!! 83 AND STILL GOING STRONG! ALL MY LOVE TO YOU!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Is it MARCH already????

We can never believe how quickly the winter passes by (ok, I do NOT want any reactions to that statement from my friends up north, OK?). Anyway, we are down to the last few days here in Central Florida, and then we move into the upper portion of the state for our last two state parks.

We are continuing to stay busy in this area, but we probably won't put this park onto our list of "must return" locations. For one thing, the bathrooms are absolutely horrible - probably some of the worst we've seen throughout the whole state park system. We heard a rumor that this park may be on the list of campgrounds to be closed - we've heard that Florida is in such financial straits that it has chosen seven parks (or maybe just the campground in the park???) for closure - have absolutely no idea if that's true, but it might explain the complete lack of maintenance in the campground. We can't believe they would close the whole park, because the day area is extremely popular and very, very busy. It is one of the primary manatee-viewing locations in the state. There is a herd of around 400 manatees that primarily live in the St Johns river, and they come to the springs literally by the hundreds during cold weather. People sit in lines outside the park, in their cars, waiting to get in during that time. Another neat thing is that if the manatee are not in the "spring run" (the stretch where the spring water runs into the main part of the river) then people can swim in the springs, where the water is apparently at a constant 72 degrees. In fact, this is one of the parks where scuba divers can actually dive down into the aquifier itself - like WAY down into the system of springs and underground rivers. We saw a diver rescue team from the sheriff's department yesterday, apparently doing some rescue "exercises". So, because of all the things the park offers, I tend to think the park itself is secure, but there aren't that many campsites so maybe the campground doesn't pay for itself. Who knows?

On my last blog I mentioned that we went out on the river on a narrated two-hour cruise - very nice. We enjoyed seeing a new part of the river and realized that this really nice island was just south of the park, so on Tuesday we threw the kayaks in and paddled back there on our own. We saw lots and LOTS of alligators - plus it was really pretty! And just as we were getting back we spotted another bald eagle perched way at the top of a tree close to our landing spot. We sat there for a while and just watched him - they are so regal and beautiful!

We didn't get out onto the river until a little later in the afternoon, because we had originally made different plans for the day. I came up with this bright idea that we should go to the Central Florida Fair - yep, like with ferris wheels and animals and all that good stuff. So we jumped in the car around noon on Tuesday, drove down into Orlando, found the fairgrounds, pulled into the parking lot and said "gee, there aren't any cars here - that's weird". Well, it wasn't weird at all - once we found out the fair didn't open until 4:00! SOOOO - we turned around and drove all the way back - interesting way to use up two hours of the day - and decided to go out onto the river instead. But - never say die! - we went BACK to the fair on Wednesday instead. You know....I really used to LOVE the fair! But I think maybe I've gotten a little too old for it now. We don't do the rides - they don't appeal to us, plus they are TOO DARN EXPENSIVE! We don't really do the junk food very much anymore - and when we do, we feel kind of yucky and guilty. I did get a big old order of chili fries and after I ate them I felt almost nauseous - that's just not how we eat anymore. I'm posting a picture because I need to prove that I actually ordered something so AWFUL! The only thing that really was kind of fun was the animals - we visited the sheep barn and I took some pictures of the babies and am posting them for my lovely daughter - Brenda, I KNOW you're going to like these. Plus we enjoyed talking to some of the kids who were taking care of their animals and getting them ready to show. We complain SO much about "today's kids" - so it's good to remind ourselves that not ALL kids are the same. There are still wonderful, level-headed, grounded kids who shear their sheep and carry the little lambs around in their arms. Plus, of course, it reminded me of how Brenda and her girls always did the 4-H fair back when they lived in Michigan. It made me a little nostalgic for when the girls were that age! Oh, well. One of the pictures I'm posting is of a woman holding onto a little 8-day-old lamb. She was bottle feeding it because the mother rejected it for some reason - and I could tell right away that THIS little guy isn't going to the auction block! We also watched a "wild west" show (...oh, boy!) and some acrobats (oh, boy!) and also a horse show with a bunch of little miniature ponies and stuff - and THAT was really cute. We spent a few hours there in total and I told Dave afterwards that I think I got that out of my system now and perhaps we will NOT be returning to the fair in the immediate future!

And today - I WORKED! I did TEN (yes, TEN!) hours of Kerkstra work - we just closed out the 2010 books, am trying to get January 2011 closed, and have already started working on the closing of February. Every time I do something I have to stop and remind myself which MONTH I'm working on. But I'm not complaining - I continue to be very grateful for the opportunity to do some work on the road and still have this wonderful trip - and I have only put in a couple of these long days so it's no big deal.

But tomorrow - DEFINITELY time for another AVA walk. I'm still trying to decide which one because there are SO many to do in this area and this might be my last one! What to do??? I'll let you know what I decide - on my next blog!

PS - if any of you watch the national news at night, you've probably seen the story about the HUGE wildfire buring down here - like 17,000 acres at this point. The fire is probably about 40 or 50 miles from us, and when we went to the fair you could actually see the haze in the air, and even smell the smoke. Kind of creepy!