Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Morning on the Wakulla River

Friday morning I woke up at sunrise to the sound of vaguely familiar bird calls--what kind of birds were these? Eventually it dawned on me, they were cardinals, but with a southern accent! It was hard to get out of bed and dress with the chilly temperature in our room. Looking out the window over the guest parking lot, I saw only one car besides our own--there was frost on them--it must have been below freezing last night. They did say these months were their slow season, and it was great to have the place nearly to ourselves.

After breakfast we went down to the dock to arrange for a morning boat tour. We were told they rarely ran the glass-bottom boats these days, and only when the water was clear enough to permit viewing. Out of a fleet of about six tour boats operated by the park service, we boarded the aptly-named named Alligator. Our group consisted of six avid bird photographers equipped with incredibly large telephoto lenses, and us.

Looking down the Wakulla Springs basin

The hour-long tour cruises down the Wakulla River below the springs for about a mile and circles back up along the opposite shore. There were lots of birds to be seen this morning: coot, moorhen, ducks, herons, white ibis, and many anhingas.



Anhinga perching on cypress knees

The anhinga is among the few birds that lacks oil glands, so its feathers cannot repel water. It's also called the "snake-bird" because it hunts for fish underwater. After a dip, the anhinga must dry its wings before it can take flight, accounting for its classic posture perched with spread wings.

Another anhinga near the Cypress trees on the Wakulla River

Ancient cypress trees draped in Spanish moss formed islets in the shallows, giving the river a marvelous atmosphere. We pass by a blue heron, the feathery plumes on its breast showing hints of its mating plumage. 

Blue heron

White Ibis on the Wakulla River

The birders on board were as knowledgeable as our captain--one of them actually spotted a limpet! The captain said limpets had become a rare sighting since the mysterious disappearance of its main food, the apple snail, about a decade ago.



A pair of Hooded Mergansers

Further on, they pointed out a pair of Hooded Mergansers swimming near our boat--Herb and I had never seen this unusual duck before. Once the boat reached a certain point, it began to turn around to cross the river towards the northern shore, passing islands of vegetation where birds fed, and alligators and other reptiles basked.

Alligator on the Wakulla River
Turtles basking on a log

Along the other shore the water was a bit clearer, indicating the flow of another spring into the spring basin. A few islands with large trees shelter the mouth of a creek that flows from Sally Ward Spring. The captain told us that this was where the old horror classic "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" was filmed back in the 1950's, adding another note of fame to the springs.

The Black Lagoon

The fossilized bones of mastodons and other prehistoric creatures have been found in the depths of Wakulla Springs since before the Civil War. These are mostly in museums now, though they keep one original and a few reproductions on display for the public here.

Black Vulture

I got this amazingly close shot of a black vulture here before we wound back towards the spring basin--don't think I've seen this sinister creature so close before. Our boat circled by the main spring on its way back to the dock. Despite the murky water, we saw a pod of manatees there; they probably stay right over the springs to keep warm on frigid winter days.

Manatee surfaces in Wakulla Springs

Our tour was over much too soon (I was tempted to get on the next boat to take the tour again); we'd have to figure out what to do in the afternoon. For more photos of Wakulla Springs see my Flickr album here: Wakulla Springs.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Wakulla Springs

Wakulla Springs.

After our happy stay at Chassahowitzka we drove north on Rte. 19/98 towards Wakulla Springs, where we would spend the next three nights at the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs Lodge. On the way there I had hoped to stop at Fanning Springs State Park for lunch, for a quick look at another of Florida's wonderful springs. But as we were about to enter the state park, the ranger at the booth told us that due to flooding of the nearby Suwanee River, the springs had become muddy and were not very scenic at the moment. We opted for the free picnic grounds along the Suwanee, on the eastern bank of the river. The river was at flood stage indeed. I was glad we had given up on our original rental house along the Suwanee, as the currents would have made navigating the river on a canoe or kayak too dangerous.

Elena on the Suwanee River

It was quite chilly at the park and we were the only folks there except for a workman in a minivan, also stopping for lunch. In spite of the chill, the purple-pink blossoms of redbud trees were starting to open. Ahh, Florida! I wish I could be like the birds who migrate south every winter, to return north in the spring.
Herb after our picnic

After our picnic lunch we drove across the bridge into new territory. We passed a series of small towns, rural and more or less impoverished. At a town named Perry, we turned west on Rte. 98 toward the Florida panhandle. Truck after huge truck loaded with raw pine logs passed us going the other way. Stands of pine trees in all stages of growth from saplings to mature trees ready to be harvested grew along both sides of the road.  There must be a lumber mill nearby, and we wondered if the harvested logs were to be milled into lumber for construction, or for turpentine, or paper pulp.

Edward Ball Wakulla Springs Lodge grounds

After crossing the St. Marks River we arrived at our destination in the late afternoon. The Wakulla Springs Lodge is a hotel built in the 1930's by financier Edward Ball at the site of these spectacular natural springs. The hotel has all the charm of its era, several modernizations in the succeeding decades have not altered its Spanish Colonial style so popular in its time in Florida. We were told the lodge was about to undergo renovations again this spring.

Main Lobby of the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs Lodge

After checking in and getting settled in our room, I went out to scout the views. The gardens surrounding the hotel had huge camellia trees loaded with blossoms. Unfortunately, the springs here had also been flooded and the famously clear blue water was the color of strong tea--one couldn't see beyond the first few feet of water. Even so, the surrounding trees densely draped in Spanish moss made for a lovely scene. I saw one brave tourist in the bathing area (probably German), getting out after a brief dip--I had brought my bathing suit hoping for a dip in the springs, but this air was way too cold for me.

Lone bather after a dip in Wakulla Springs

Despite the bone-chilling breeze, I was determined to capture this beautiful scene in a painting, and found a bench near the water where I could sit and spread out my gear. The garden was deserted so I had the place all to myself. I worked on my watercolor for about an hour as the sun was going down until I was so thoroughly chilled I couldn't stand it--I'd have to return to finish my piece the next afternoon.

Doorway to the grand salon

 I came back inside the lodge to warm up with some hot tea and met up with Herb. We sat in the main lobby admiring the grand salon: the unique painted ceiling beams, the arched windows, the huge fireplace--wish they'd light a roaring fire in it! A cocktail pianist played on a grand piano through the evening hours, adding to the atmosphere. We ordered a bottle of wine to enjoy here and take along to dinner. Later on we drifted into the dining room and had the best Southern fried chicken dinner we've ever had--delicious! The meals at the lodge were all wonderful, our compliments to the chef--we really enjoyed the food.

Our room was so cold, we were grateful for the extra blankets. We retired early to keep warm and be ready for a boat trip down the Wakulla River the following morning.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Magic of Weeki Wachee


On the third morning we drove to Weeki Wachee State Park for a trip down the river. We knew the drill, having done it four years before--the concession operators set your rental out below the swimming area and arrange to pick you up at Rogers Park, some six miles downstream, a few hours later. We rented a canoe for the two of us this time, so I could record video and take photos without having to worry about navigating at the same time. The Weeki Wachee has a six-knot strong current so paddling is not strictly necessary--the current will propel you along nicely--but with so many sharp curves and low-hanging vegetation, negotiating the turns can be tricky.

Herb on the Weeki Wachee

As we began our drift downstream a couple of people on kayaks who had left after us overtook us, nearly colliding with us as we passed the tour boat Aquabelle on its return voyage.

After the tour boat and the others had passed, the magic of the Weeki Wachee enveloped us. The  songs of birds and the gurgling of the stream were the only sounds beyond the hum of traffic from the road near the refuge. It was heartening to see the water level much higher this year than four years ago, though we didn't see any alligators or turtles basking along the banks. It was cooler than the other day on the Chazz, but not as cold as it had been on our previous trip, and the water seemed warmer--could that be the reason?

It was fascinating to notice how the water flow contoured the banks--deep pools tended to form on the outer edge of the curves while the sand built up on the inner edges, making those very shallow. My camerawork was interrupted at each sharp bend to help Herb manage the turns, keeping our prow pointed forward. A few times we came close to getting hit by low-lying branches.

Halfway down the river, I began to notice my camera battery was running low, and I had forgotten to recharge the spare the night before. I tried to save as much power as I could for a bit of video of our old neighborhood on Dawn Lane, and managed to accomplish that.

Shortly after, the battery ran out--I was not able to photograph the lower Weeki Wachee and Hospital Hole, where we came across more manatees. There were several groups of fishermen casting at the hole, as well as a few kayakers ooing over the manatees. We had a hard time maneuvering around them all before deciding it was much too crowded here--it broke the meditative mood of our solitary sojourn down the river.

All too soon we arrived at the end of our run: Rogers Park. Ahh, I could be happy paddling down the Weeki Wachee every day of the year!

Friday, March 6, 2015

Painting on the Chazz

Evening on the Chazz, watercolor, 10" x 14".

It was pouring when we woke the next morning. Grateful for the opportunity to give our sore muscles a rest, we hung around our cozy cabin reading books. Later we drove down to Weeki Wachee to verify that the boat rental concession at the state park was still in operation, and stopped at the public library to check our Emails.

It started to clear up in the late afternoon and by the time we got back to our cabin, a hazy sun was trying to emerge from the clouds. I walked down to the river with my watercolor kit and set up on a bench towards the end of the strip of boardwalk. From here I could look over Chassahowitzka Spring towards the narrowing channel to the Seven Sisters. With the sun setting behind me, the colors were subdued--lovely grays and silver, with a touch of gold.

It took a while to decide what to focus on--the reflections of a few bald cypress trunks and one tree leaning over the channel seemed the most appealing. I included the large cypress next to me to balance out the opposite shore. I had completed most of the trees and land mass as the evening shadows deepened, but had not started yet on the water--that would have to be worked wet-on-wet all in one pass and there was not enough time today. Insects were starting to come out and buzz around me (I'm a mosquito magnet); it would be smart to get back to the cabin before I was attacked.

I'd been painting for a couple of hours and Herb had not come down to the river to look for me... how odd. Back at the cabin he remarked that he had gone to the river to look for me, but that I had "vanished into thin air." With a small group of people sitting by a fire pit near the boathouse, he had not seen me at the end of the boardwalk in the gathering dusk.

I finished the water and the rest of the painting two days later, relying on memory. I took some artistic license by adding a few blue-greens and golds to the water that weren't actually there, but give the painting a little more punch.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

All that Chazz!

Chassahowitzka Spring.

The morning after our arrival was quite chilly and breezy, but sunny. After breakfast we packed some sandwiches for lunch and walked down to the boathouse to rent a canoe for the day. On our previous trip we had explored Baird Creek all the way up to its source at the Crack. We asked the attendant for suggestions about new creeks to explore and tide information. He told us that any of the other creeks downstream were worthwhile, and that the winds had been so brisk that there was very little perceptible tide, as the wind pushed the tides out. "Be sure to check out Snapper Hole, where the manatees hang out," he said.

We paddled across the basin of the main spring towards the Seven Sisters. A fallen tree trunk had created a new archway entrance to the springs there--I've been wanting to take a dip in the deep blue vent there, but it was too cold for swimming today.

Herb entering the Seven Sisters.

The Seven Sisters Springs.

The area seemed shallower than we remembered, and it was impossible to navigate around the other end into the canal, so we turned around and continued downstream.We explored a short creek on our right with three lovely homes with boathouses, any one of which I'd love to call home--what a setting! Swamp lilies bloomed along the edges of this creek.

Homes on a creek.

It took some effort to paddle downstream, because the flow seemed to be against us, indicating an incoming tide (despite what the guy at the boat rental had said). We found several other people on kayaks at Snapper Hole, with a small pod of manatees. There were two youngsters who were very curious. One of them hammed it up for us, turning belly-up with fins and mouth in the air, making sucking sounds. He repeated this performance every few minutes, to the delight of all onlookers.

Playful manatee.

Baby manatee sneaks up on Herb.

One of the baby manatees came over to check out our canoe, and seemed delighted when Herb leaned down to pet him. He went under the canoe and then swam back to check me, and I didn't miss the opportunity to also pet him. Ahh, such bliss--that's one for our bucket list!

We played with the manatees and took photos for a long time before continuing down the river. We paddled past Baird Creek, seeing many birds: cormorants, pelicans, herons and little blue herons. The Chass widens as one approaches the tidal zone, and now the wind was picking up.


Little Blue Heron.

A bit farther down we put into a creek on our right to tie up the canoe and have lunch. Three kayakers were leaving, and we asked them if they knew where we were. "Potter's Creek," they replied and told us they had seen some sea otters upstream. We finished our lunch and decided to go up Potter's Creek a bit.

Lunch on Potter's Creek.

We paddled across a wide basin with strong current (probably another large spring there) and were entering a sheltered forest, but Herb's hands were starting to develop blisters, so it seemed wiser to  head back at this point. It was getting late and it would be hard paddling getting back.

Upstream on Potter's Creek.

As we we coming back across the wide basin, we spotted a tiny head near some reeds--a sea otter! We'd never seen one before, never even knew they were here on the Chass.

As we observed, another otter surfaced several yards away, diving and surfacing repeatedly, seemingly playful. Herb surmised that perhaps the tiny head we'd seen first was a baby and its parent or parents (there might have been two otters, it was hard to tell) were making this elaborate display to lead us away from their young.

Getting back to the main river after leaving Potter's Creek, the force of the wind hit us like a hammer. We struggled to move forward against the current and wind, trying to hug one shore and then the other while avoiding the motor boats and their wakes. It was quite a workout, interrupted by short breaks for photos. We made it back to the boathouse around three-thirty, exhausted--we'd feel it in our muscles tomorrow.  But what an extraordinary day--all this wildlife on the Chazz!

The Four Amigos (pelicans).

For more photos of our day on the Chazz, see my flicker album here: The Chazz Two.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Day Two: Arrival at Chassahowitzka

Our cottage at Chassahowitzka River Campground.

We slept late the next day and got back on I-95 after a hearty breakfast. It's always great to feel the sun and air getting warmer as one approaches Florida. We pulled in at the first rest stop to get a new state map to guide us, and skipped lunch to time our arrival in Chassahowitzka for our four o'clock check-in time.

We drove south on Route 19 through Crystal River and decided to stock up at the grocery store where we had shopped the last time we stayed in the area--the store had changed hands and was now part of the Winn Dixie chain. We noticed that several restaurants had closed and many storefronts were vacant. Obviously the last four years of the current economy has taken a steep toll on this area.

I feel so fortunate to be able to afford a vacation here this year--the time we've had on the Chass and magical Weeki Wachee rivers--can't wait until you see the next photos and read the stories!

Herb relaxing by the Chass.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Return to Florida's Nature Coast

We began our vacation trip southward on a Friday morning and ate our sandwiches at the first gas fill-up stop in North Carolina around one PM. It was another two hours to the South Carolina state line. How could we not stop at South of the Border, setting for the climactic scene of Herb's novel, recently re-titled "Dog$"?  The colorful roadside landmark has become a touchstone for us by now.

It was quite windy, as you can see in these photos, but getting warmer already. We bought two new South-of-the-Border mugs to celebrate and continued on to Savannah where we had dinner and spent our first night.

Note: Herb's novel was recently re-issued at can be purchased in book format here: Dog$ or in Ebook format here: Dog$