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Our First Official Screw Up Of The New MilleniumTM came first thing in the morning; we locked the key in the van. The function of the electric door locks was one of a number of oddities we noticed about the Cruisemobile. The interior lights had a mind of their own and the Scrub Jay Detector was obviously broken. It drizzled a little later that morning but not enough to stop us from exploring the park's namesake, Fort Clinch itself. I found it hard to imagine what soldier life was like here without air conditioning given Florida's heat and mosquitoes. In their honor (the soldiers', not the mosquitoes') we stopped in the gift shop and bought a postcard to send to our brother John.
By dusk Liz had taken us to our next stop down the coast. We stayed in Titusville which is next to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Cape Canaveral/Kennedy Space Center. We splurged the extra $8 for a river-side room at the (Indian) River View Motel which was a bit dumb considering it was already dark and we couldn't see the river, not $8 worth anyway. We later found out that our luxury accomodations included access to a money-hungry washer and recalcitrant dryer. We wound up with two laundry loads of wet clothes hanging from lampshades, hangers, picture frames, and pretty much anything that would support the weight of a wet sock or tee shirt.
Before we settled in at the room we enjoyed a sunset drive along Black Point Wildlife Drive in the wildlife refuge. We saw birds galore, and Steve and Liz the birdwatchers were in ornithological ecstasy despite the lack of scrub jays. They were so anxious to return that we got up before dawn the next day in order to make it back to the wildlife refuge in time for sunrise which is of course a primo birdwatching hour. We made it on time, but my enthusiasm was still in bed back at the hotel. The good bagels and fresh squeezed OJ we'd picked up on the way worked wonders though. Since Merritt Island is on the Atlantic Flyway, the birdwatching is supposed to be superb and we were not disappointed. We hiked the Cruickshank Trail and saw roseate spoonbills, bald eagles, ducks, and every kind of wading bird you can think of. But no you-know-whats. Oh, we saw a couple of marsh hares (not March Hares) too, and a gator. Last but not least, Steve and I found and identified Florida White butterflies in the time it took Liz to use the parking lot Porta-John.
After the hike we went back to the motel room and took our first daylight look at the $8 river. Checked our laundry, still wet. We ate a quick lunch and went back out, this time to Mosquito Lagoon. There are two boat ramps off of Route 1 north of the Haulover Canal. The first we found to be noisy, busy and shadeless. We travelled to the second (northernmost) and were pleased to find the total opposite -- small, private and surrounded by trees.
Although the Intercoastal Waterway bisects it, most of Mosquito Lagoon is very shallow and at times we had trouble paddling. We aimed for a distant white sand beach on the opposite shore as our plan was to paddle to the lagoon side of Apollo Beach and then climb over the dunes to see the ocean on the other side. After a pleasant paddle we got close enough to the white beach to realize that it was actually a huge flock of white birds (including the uncommon white pelican) and a few assorted non-white ducks acting as pepper in the salt. We corrected our course in light of this new information and made it to the mangrove swamps at the far side of the lagoon. We got close enough to hear the ocean quite clearly but mangrove swamps are famous for being confusing and this one was no exception. We ran out of time without ever making it to Apollo Beach. All we saw were mud flats, raccoon tracks and cactus. We had wanted to go snorkeling but we didn't see any place that looked inviting because the water wasn't terribly clear. (No surprise with all those birds crapping in it.)
On the return trip I was the first one back to the van and I realized then that maybe the secluded boat ramp wasn't such a great idea after all.
The next few hours involved a lot of standing around swatting mosquitoes and talking to the police after which we went back to the hotel room and fashioned a new window for the Cruisemobile out of plastic sheeting and duct tape. We could still lock the kayaks to the Cruisemobile's racks but everything else had to be moved out of the now unlockable vehicle and into the motel room. So the damp laundry hanging in our room was joined by muddy coolers, muddy kayak paddles, maps, Space Center information pamphlets, sandy sneakers, binoculars, bird books, an 8'x10' plastic tarp, spray skirts, hiking boots, water bottles, snorkel masks, dry bags, wet suits, spare towels, sunglasses, my sleeping bag, cameras, camera tripods, paddling gloves (also wet), life vests, a camping stove, fuel canister, cooking gear, bags of food, a flashlight, assorted hats, a roll of duct tape, bottles of sunscreen, etc. etc. etc. not to mention the usual motel room amenities like beds, chairs, a desk, a Gideon bible and a lamp that didn't work. The Cruisemobile was in quite a state too. It was glazed with mud and sand dripped from the kayaks, peppered with mosquito carcasses inside and out and the interior was liberally garnished with broken glass. We had also heavily augmented the van's wimpy roof racks by attaching our own using a combination of wood blocks, band clamps and foam padding. By sheer coincidence the company we'd rented the van from had a rental location right next door to the motel. They must have seen the Cruisemobile from their window and if they had known that they were looking at one of their vehicles they would have had a heart attack on the spot.
We ate dinner late that night in the only restaurant we could find, a Chinese restaurant next to I-95. The place was empty except for the staff and us but that didn't dampen the festive atmosphere provided by the thumping disco music that crackled from unwilling and overdriven speakers next to a large decorated stage. Bhudda's Delight and YMCA. Truly bizarre. I think this is the point where we started calling Titusville "TwilightsVille" with a nod to Rod Serling.
To make a long story short we didn't have to return the Cruisemobile to the rental company. Instead, the next morning we got an auto glass company to replace the window at the horrendous price of $901 which was fortunately covered by my insurance. By the time we cleaned the glass out of the Cruisemobile's carpet and repacked we were ready to get the hell out of TwilightsVille. It was too late to check out the Kennedy Space Center so we left that for another trip and headed west towards Orlando.
We thumbed our noses at Mickey and picked up the Florida Turnpike near Lake Minnehaha. We took a detour to find some burrowing owls and amazingly enough we did, although they were shy and we only caught glimpses of them as they scampered back into their burrows. Their home was in a scrubby lot in a half-hearted residential development which I hope remains burrowing owl habitat and doesn't get sacrificed for a trailer park. Amazing sandspurs, ouch.
Later we stopped to look for scrub jays in an indistinct patch of woods next to a motel. Steve and Liz's bird book mentioned this as a known scrub jay site, but all we found was a smelly dump, a power transformer and a patch of oaks and pines. You really have to have some sort of weird obsession to be wandering around some nondescript Florida scrub looking for a bird that is essentially a fancy blue jay. The only really interesting thing we saw was a bagpiper (really!) bleating away next to the motel as we returned to the van. We heard him long before we saw him and that's a strange thing to hear in the middle of the palmettos and scrub oaks, let me tell you. No stranger than us being there to hear him, I guess.
Our travel day ended in Crystal River on Florida's west coast. With motels galore to choose from and me at the wheel, my unerring instinct homed in on the "NO VACANCY" sign at the King's Bay Lodge. They had space for us, in fact they seemed to have a lot of space although we never saw the NO VACANCY sign go off the whole time we were there. We didn't question our good fortune too much but instead made friends with the proprietor, Mr. N. Bates. We didn't just get a room, we got a whole efficiency. Best of all, we had access to the guests-only boat ramp that gave us access to King's Bay.
Before we crashed for the night Steve and I ventured out to the CyberSurf Café in order to email our siblings back home to let them know we were still alive. I did a very unscientific survey of Internet cafes when I travelled in Europe this summer. My research wasn't exhaustive but I have to say that the CyberSurf Café beat every one I saw hands down. Imagine the computer room of your public library dropped into your local dive bar. The bartender smokes Marlboro Lights, paints her nails red, wears hip hugger jeans and calls me honey. The computers run Linux. Speedy Internet access is just a two drink minimum away. How could you not love it?
The next morning we got up (not as early as we'd intended) and kayaked to Three Sister's Springs where we'd seen manatees once before on a trip to Crystal River. Fortunately we'd had our snorkeling gear in our kayaks when the Cruisemobile was broken into otherwise we might have lost that too. There were tour boats aplenty at Three Sister's Springs but despite that we had a good time snorkeling and saw a half-dozen tubbies swimming and sleeping in the river.
Feeling triumphant with our manatee jones satisfied we took a victory lap around Buzzard Island and then headed back to the motel using Pete's Pier as our landmark. The day was so invitingly warm that we spent a few afternoon hours just sitting around outside the motel soaking up the sunshine. After all, this is what you go to Florida for, right? Later on we drove over to the Crystal River Archaeological Site to check out the Indian mounds there. Afterwards we took a windy walk on the beach and spotted an otter chasing dinner in a tidal creek. We found our own dinner at ABC Pizza on Route 19. Six thumbs up! For the next day we planned to snorkel around Main Spring in King's Bay to look for more manatees. Mindful of our crowded experience at Three Sisters, we planned to go veeeery early in the morning.
My personal experience with the pre-dawn hours is almost exclusively as a continuation of the night before. Nevertheless, this particular morning found me up before dawn for the second time in less than a week, only this time I was stumbling around in a wet suit. Steve and Liz are hardy souls and volunteered to pack the kayaks and prepare for launch while I ran out to get bagels. A cold front had come through overnight and it was chilly. Coffee and bagels at sunrise. We paddled out to the spring and found that a tour boat had beaten us there despite the early hour. We tied our kayaks off to a tree on the shore of Banana Island and swam around the edge of the manatee protection zone and into the spring. There were manatees galore! And fish like I'd never seen, a school of mullet streaming past me that took a full half minute to pass. Five foot long tarpons swimming around looking ominous. We even saw cormorants dive and swim in front of us looking for breakfast. As for the manatees, they were quite friendly and twice I was approached and gave them a friendly pat. I wasn't sure what else to do; do they like to be scratched behind the ears? Play fetch? Do they have ears? Best of all was looking into the wet black eyes of one who swam right towards me, stared for a moment, and then moved on.
We played for as long as we could stand the chill. The swim back to the kayaks was long and cold. I returned last (my borrowed wet suit was a size too small, tight suit = better heat retention). When we climbed back into our kayaks, I was shivering hard and Steve was beginning to slur his words although I don't think he realized it. Fortunately you warm up fast when you're paddling with a wetsuit on. We were glad to get back to the motel and hot tea and showers.
We had a plan for the afternoon so we wasted no time packing the Cruisemobile and getting on the road. We aimed for Ocala and the Silver River. Inspired by Deb Hawkins' trip report, we wanted to spend the afternoon on the river. We put in where Route 40 (Silver Springs Boulevard) crosses the river and began our upstream paddle. I can't speak for Steve or Liz but I never imagined a river could be this clear. We could see turtles and gar framed against the white sand bottom. The banks were crowded with cypress and water lotus and there were plenty of birds to look at, including ibis, limpkins, herons, egrets, ducks, coots, ospreys, and lots of cormorants and anhingas. Two gallinules followed our boats clearly expecting to be fed. Clif bar crumbs, I found out, sink fast.
And of course there are the rhesus monkeys, a whole colony of them. They scrambled to the ends of branches hanging over the river and were obviously accustomed to handouts from boaters. After seeing them in person I think anyone who would get close enough to feed these animals is crazy. Cuteness only goes so far. The clearly visible sharp teeth, aggressive charging and screeching -- something in my little primate brain told me that these primate cousins of mine are not picky about what they sink their not-so-little primate teeth into. You don't have to take my word for it; the primatologists that I used to work with concur that rhesus monkeys can have sharp teeth, nasty tempers and diseases that you don't want to catch.
Despite the vicious flesh eating monkeys of death we made it to the headwaters of the river, the spring itself. To our surprise we found that the spring is surrounded by a New Age-y theme park. The park is clearly marked with a profusion of signs with New Age-y peace and love messages like
GO AWAY YOU AWFUL SMELLY KAYAKERS
My butt was numb and my legs were achy, so I docked under a NO DOCKING sign and got out. I had just enough time to stand up straight before Mean Mr. Mustard (as Steve so accurately called him) came running, waving his arms and saying, "No docking!!!" I didn't want to give kayakers a bad reputation so I de-docked and kept to myself my thoughts of his probable predilection for farm animals and glue sniffing.
We paddled back quickly because we didn't have much time before dark. The birdwatching on the trip back was still terrific despite our hurry; limpkins were old hat to us now although a scrub jay would have still gotten us excited. Just before we returned to the takeout we were surprised to see another group of monkeys on the left bank. We waved goodbye and told them to go piss on Mean Mr. Mustard.
We drove that night to Lake City and stayed in an anonymous motel with an anonymous eggs and coffee breakfast in the morning. We left Florida behind at 9:30AM and with it our chances of seeing a Florida Scrub Jay. (Moment of silence.) We proceeded on to Stephen C. Foster State Park in the Okefenokee Swamp in south Georgia where we planned to spend our last day of the trip. It was cloudy, uninviting weather. I was disappointed by the park guard who couldn't (or wouldn't) tell me where to find carnivorous plants in the swamp. It might sound odd to you, but the Okenfenokee is legendary among carnivorous plant enthusiasts for its population of insect-eating plants, especially the "Okee Giant" form of Sarracenia minor which grows nowhere else. It made me really mad when I found an insectivorous plant called a sundew (Drosera capillaris) growing along a drainage ditch right in view of the ranger station, essentially right under the ranger's nose. I pointed these plants out to her later and she didn't seem to care much.
We paddled up the Suwanee to Billy's Island where we got out to walk around some and have lunch. Along the way we didn't see much to look at, just typical southeastern swamp which is pretty enough but something we've seen a lot of already. The flat gray sky didn't do anything to make it more vivid. OK, so maybe we were jaded but we weren't satisfied with cypress knees, anonymous little brown birds and an occasional alligator sulking in the chill. While we were on Billy's Island it began to rain. It was only a short shower but it didn't make us any more enthusiastic.
After paddling we stretched our legs on the Suwanee levee. Call us quitters if you will, but we'd seen too many wonderful things on this trip -- manatees, eagles, bagpipers, a river as clear as glass, underground owls, Internet access in a dive bar -- to be satisfied with what we saw in the Okefenokee.
There isn't that much more to tell. We tried to stop at a wildlife refuge outside of Savannah on the way home the next morning but it began pouring rain. My shoulder tendonitis that I developed over the summer had gotten thoroughly aggravated in the tight passages of the swamp, so I wasn't interested in doing any more paddling. We got cranky over breakfast and eventually just pointed the Cruisemobile back home. Once back in North Carolina we found that the snow that was on the ground when we left was still there. And just a couple of weeks after I got back to my home in Durham a storm gave us 18 inches of the white stuff which is more than we usually get in a few years. I took the time to sit inside, look at pictures, fill out sludgy insurance paperwork for the gear we lost and the Cruisemobile's window, and write this trip report which I hope you enjoyed.
Postscript: In 2004, we finally saw some scrub jays up close and personal. They're handsome little devils!
We liked the State Park which offers decent campsites and showers and friendly armadillos. This is the Park Service's page.
There's lots to do here. Plenty o' birds, lots of kayakable water, and the Kennedy Space Center.
The King's Bay Lodge, ABC Pizza and the Cybersurf Cafe are all places we'd go back to. Here's GORP's page on the Crystal River area.
The Silver River is gorgeous and outstanding despite the stupid park surrounding the spring itself.
The spelling of this word varies depending on who you ask. Popular opinion (and the US Park Service) lean towards the single-"e" version -- Okefenokee instead of Okeefenokee. Either way, you have lots of pages to choose from.