Sunday, February 27, 2011

More Crystal River Sketches

Windy Day in Crystal River, watercolor, 10" x 14." Contact artist for price.
Here are few more sketches I did in Crystal River during our vacation. The one above is a watercolor looking out from the front of our house done on a very windy morning. The one below, a small oil of the sunset looking out on Kings Bay on an overcast evening. Our location in Crystal River offered so many wonderful views it was hard to decide what to paint next!

Cloudy evening on Kings Bay, oils on canvas panel, 8" x 10."
Contact artist for price.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Crystal River Archeological Park

Crystal River Archeological Park, oils on canvas panel, 11" x 14." Contact artist for price.

I was surprised to learn that Crystal River had an archeological site dating from 14,000 years ago. The Crystal River Archeological Park gives the visitor a fascinating glimpse into these prehistoric settlements. Six burial and ceremonial mounds are found on the 14-acre site at the mouth of the Crystal River, which was occupied until the times of the Spanish conquest.

Armadillo at the Crystal River Archeological Park
On our way into the park we saw another car stopped by the side of the road. Curious, we pulled up to see why these folk were there--and saw an armadillo cross the road--the creature lingered long enough to allow me to take this shot.

The small 1960's-style museum housed an interesting collection of artifacts and exhibits giving a history of the  cultures who successively occupied the site, as well as the early 20-century archeologists who studied it. Motion-controlled stations with recordings around the site provided a nice self-guided tour.

Herb and I walked by the burial mounds and climbed up the large Ceremonial mound (the highest on the site) which had at one time an earthen ramp that had been removed and replaced by stairs. We saw a stone stele with a face carved on it, a rarity among these early cultures.

The large Ceremonial Mound
The Stele
There were many birds and wildlife all around. The place was pervaded by a quiet elegiac atmosphere, to which the Spanish moss waving on the huge trees probably contributed. I resolved to come back another day to paint on site.

Herb at the archeological park
I came back toward the end of our stay and painted the oil above on a very windy and chilly day--sheltered from the wind behind the trunk of a large live oak, it was much warmer here in January than in Maryland.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Slogging on the Chazz

The Chassahowitzka River

I wanted to explore the wilderness around Crystal River. Talking to the volunteers at the Wilderness Refuge one day, a lady suggested we canoe or kayak down the nearby Chassahowitzka River (the "Chazz" for short) to a side creek where there is a place the locals call "The Crack" at the headwaters of the creek.

It was early afternoon when we rented a canoe at the Chassahowitzka Campground at end of the Miss Maggie Road (they included a small hand-drawn map of the area for our benefit). They told us they had no kayaks available on slow weekdays. That proved to be lucky for us, as it allowed us to explore the creeks at low water.

First, we paddled 100 yards upstream to the springs that feed the river. It was hard to tell exactly where Chassahowitzka Spring was--a first magnitude spring. Presumably it was the first deep pool with a strong current we traversed. Further upstream to the left there was a set of "unnamed springs" that the canoe rental guy referred to as Seven Sisters--a series of vents of varying sizes. The water here was crystalline, one to two feet deep, and the pools startlingly blue-green.

One of the Seven Sisters vents.

We turned around at the uppermost vent and started back downstream. Groups of pelicans flew by, some landing on the water near us, others on trees. Further down the river a flock of vultures perched on a dead tree; blue herons and cormorants fished the banks. A fisherman was working his net in the middle of the river. This was the real old Florida!

 As we made our way toward Baird Creek, we encountered a couple on kayaks who entered the creek ahead of us. They had trouble getting by the shallow mouth marked by a small island, but soon they outdistanced us as we labored through the shallows. We met them again not long after--they'd had to turn around when the course became too narrow for their paddles. The canoe allowed more room for maneuvering, so we were able to paddle upstream almost all the way to The Crack.

We paddled through places with currents strong enough to make us work really hard, through a wide, deep blue-green pool (later I learned this was called Blue Springs), and channels so narrow our canoe got wedged between the banks. We kept paddling through beautiful, thick Florida jungle, seeing wading birds. Where was this mysterious Crack? We met a small group of canoers heading downstream and asked them. Their leader said we were very close, but would likely have to walk for the last few hundred yards.

Eventually we ran aground--it was time to ditch the canoe. Herb sank knee-deep into black mud as he was trying to pull up the canoe, but managed to not lose his shoes. We persisted and sloshed ankle-deep in the warm, clear water the rest of the way, until we finally came across The Crack.

The Crack was a few feet across by some thirty feet long, and who knows how deep? The bottom couldn't be seen--it cut across a very shallow swimming hole decorated by a fallen palm trunk that had been carved with initials for apparently a number of years. We couldn't linger very long as it was past four then and we had to return the canoe by five. About this time a few insects began to appear--I can just imagine what they must be like in the summer months.

We high-tailed it out of there and back to our canoe. Later Herb said he hadn't had this much fun in a long time--there might be something in swamps after all. I think Swamp Girl (his nickname for me) has made a new convert!

Herb at the Blue Crack
You can see more photos of our Chazz Adventure on Flickr.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Morning Sketches

Crystal River Morning, watercolor study, 6" x 10."
While vacationing at Crystal River I got into a routine of getting up in the morning just as the sun was rising. After opening the curtains of the row of windows giving out onto the lagoon and fixing a cup of my favorite chai tea, I would get out my watercolors to work on a sketch. The windows had a convenient small ledge on which to set my kit, and sitting on a kitchen stool, I worked until Herb was up and ready for breakfast.

Crystal River Morning, watercolor, 10" x 14."
I never tired of seeing the play of the light on the mossy branches of the trees across the lagoon--such incredible colors! From orangey at first light to golden yellow as the sun climbed higher, lilacs in the shade, they were all so harmonious, and so difficult to render! It could take a lifetime to get this Florida landscape just right. I hope I get enough time after I retire there to learn to paint Florida with a small fraction of its natural beauty.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Three Sisters Spring

Three Sisters Spring, oils on canvas panel, 12" x 9." Contact artist for price.
A few days after our swim with the manatees, the 24th Annual Florida Manatee Festival was taking place. On Saturday, the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge whose headquarters were located a few houses down the street from ours, held an open house at Three Sisters Spring. The land surrounding the spring is part of the wildlife refuge and not accessible to the public, but they were open for a morning as part of the Manatee Festival's activities.

After seeing the springs from underwater, I was really anxious to paint them from above, and this would be my only opportunity. Herb and I got up early that morning so we could be among the first groups to be shuttled by van from a local shopping center to the spring. I brought my Guerilla Painter Box, gear bag and one 9" x 12" panel along with my camera. The refuge volunteers were very kind to allow me to leave my gear at their booth so we could walk around for a bit before I settled in to paint.

Early Morning at Three Sisters Spring.

It was quite chilly--there had been an overnight frost--and mist wafted over the water at the springs, giving a wonderfully mysterious atmosphere. Even at this early hour, snorkelers were already there, and lots of sleeping manatees could be seen in the crystal-clear water.

The Three Sisters Spring area consists of some fifty acres of land around the springs that were saved from development. The purchase took place just last year, and the state of Florida has plans to develop the area as a park with boardwalks and viewing platforms for visitors. The volunteers led us on a guided walk around the spring even though the banks were a bit muddy. We were allowed to explore the rest of the grounds on our own. Herb and I walked over to look at Magnolia Spring, farther downstream on the waterway. Magnolia Spring is in a neighborhood that was developed many years ago and has lovely homes around it--the actual spring was impossible to discern from where we were. Many birds could be seen and heard all about: robins, finches, sparrows, blackbirds, and other birds I couldn't identify.

It was time for me to get started painting. I chose a spot on the side farthest away from the booths and crowds and Herb left me there. Unfortunately, this was the windward side. The Spanish moss swung sideways with each gust of wind. The color of the moss in the dappled shade and the water were very difficult, and as you can see, I didn't manage to get either one right, but I had a great time trying anyway.

By eleven-thirty I was so chilled I packed up and went back to the other side of the springs and took more photos while waiting to get on the shuttle that would take me back.

The springs were now like Grand Central Station--lots of kayakers and snorkelers on the water, crowds on land--poor manatees! They didn't seem to mind much, though. They don't appear to have any fear of humans and in fact, some were quite curious and playful with the snorkelers.
Late morning at Three Sisters Spring
Kayaks entering Three Sisters Spring
If you are ever in the Crystal River area, Three Sisters Spring is not to be missed! More photos here on Flickr.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Swimming with Manatees

Herb and I were taking an exploratory walk around Kings Bay Drive one afternoon when we were greeted by a charming lady with a foreign accent. Pavla turned out to be an artist from Czechoslovakia--her American husband, Captain Fred Reed, is a local dive master, and their business, Art N Diving, offers personalized tours to see the manatees in Crystal River.

We agreed to go out with them late enough in the afternoon so the hordes of swimmers and paddlers at Three Sisters Spring, where the manatees hang out, would have thinned out. A high tide would improve our chances. The day was bright and sunny, but somewhat chilly.

Before starting out, we were made to watch a short video about manatee etiquette: one is not allowed to harass the manatees in any way. Harassment is defined as attempting to feed them or give them water (how one would give water to a manatee I can't imagine--aren't they already in water?), touching or approaching them, unless they approach you, and particularly separating any mother from her calf. No humans are allowed in the areas designated as refuges for the manatees. There are heavy fines and even jail time for anyone caught breaking these rules.

We were outfitted with full wet suits, masks and fins before boarding their boat and at their suggestion, I had brought a disposable underwater camera. The Captain cruised out of the canal behind their house onto to the main canal and then to Kings Bay. Out in the open water, the breeze was even colder--I was glad we'd brought our jackets.

Captain Fred Reed and Pavla
Herb on King's Bay
 The Captain took us around to our lagoon where we could see our rental house from the water, and then behind some islets past the King Spring, which is about 90 feet deep. A number of folks in the area told us the entire bay used to be crystal-clear years ago, but storm surges from hurricanes have made the water murky. There were buoys all around the bay indicating the refuge areas for manatees--no boats of any kind or swimmers are allowed there.

Our house
Crystal River has the largest population of manatees of the warm, spring-fed rivers on Florida's west coast. The manatee population is estimated at some four to five thousand individuals. The manatees swim up Crystal River in early November when the gulf waters start to get cold and stay until late March when the gulf begins to warm up again. The constant 72-degree water of the springs helps them to stay alive during the winter and prosper. We were told last year's record cold weather caused some one thousand manatees to die from cold stress.

After touring Kings Bay we went back towards the main channel and the entry passage to the Three Sisters Spring, which is marked with two posts. There were several manatees visible from the surface swimming lazily in the refuge areas by the banks of the stream as Herb and I entered the water. I got so excited I forgot the camera and the Captain called me back to hand it to me.

The water was pleasantly warm, and with the exception of a couple of kayakers, we had the springs pretty much to ourselves. The entry passage was narrow and we passed several manatees going in. I noted a large manatee tagged with a tracking device attached to his tail--the straps were padded so they would not hurt it and the tracker floated on the surface on a short line. I wondered what the manatee made of that.

Manatee with fish
Herb swims over sleeping manatees
Elena swimming with manatees
There were some thirty to forty manatees gathered at the spring, sound asleep. We were told they come up for air every twenty minutes or so when they sleep, though they must breathe more frequently when they are active. It was so funny to watch them come to the surface to take a breath, and then see them nosedive straight down again. Several baby manatees next to their mothers looked so sweet.  Herb and I swam around taking photos until our film was all used up. By that time our bodies were beginning to feel chilled, and it was time to swim back to the boat. Swimming with manatees is a celestial experience!

You can see more photos of our swim with the manatees in Flickr.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Fishing the Lagoon on Kings Bay

Fishing the Lagoon, oils on canvas panel, 9" x 12." Contact artist for price.

The next morning was cloudy; mist wafted over the warmer water of the lagoon. I opened the curtains and saw a couple fishing on the lagoon. They were on a boat which was unusual to me--the boat seemed to glide with the prow pointing high out of the water and the man stood there working a rudder from the front with one hand while casting with the other. It looked most unstable yet the boat did not tip or shake. The motor idled with no wake.

Both the man and the woman were bundled up this chilly morning. They appeared to be expert casters, their bait skipping on the surface of the water as they reeled in. I wondered what kind of fish they were after. I brought out my pencils and a sketchpad and did some quick sketches as they plied our lagoon. They circled around a couple of times with no luck, and then moved on.

In the afternoon they came by again--by now they had shed their heavy jackets--and repeated the morning's ritual. After they had left, I went out on our dock with my painting gear and set it up to paint this scene, putting in the figures and boat from my sketches and memory.