Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Western Panhandle

Denny, Linda and Marilyn on the beach at Ft. Pickens
As I sit with my toes in the floury, white sand, I think of family and friends back home weathering yet another snowstorm.  In three weeks, we will be back home in Ontario, and we will have to trade our shorts and bathing suits for long pants and coats.  How will we manage?

It takes us two and a half days to drive from Corpus Christi, Texas to Pensacola, Florida where we stay at Big Lagoon State Park first for a few days then at Gulf Islands National Seashore, Fort Pickens.

Big Lagoon State Park is on the Intracoastal Waterway, not the Gulf, so we drive to the ocean beach at Perdido Key only 10 minutes away.  The beach here is beautiful, unlike in Texas; it isn't littered with garbage and seaweed and the sand is like flour and almost pure white.  There is a crew on the beach gathering tar balls from the recent BP oil spill, although we don't see any tar on the beach or oil in the water, so they're either doing an excellent job or their work is all for show for the tourists.  The beach is a bit steep, so the waves are pounding and it seems to be high tide.  The water is about 75F so Brad and I decide to finally take a swim.  The waves are kind of fun; Brad, the 12-year old, has a lot of fun playing in the surf.  As I enter the water, the first big wave knocks me on my ass and I tumble along the shore.  Well, that makes it easier to get wet anyway.  At least four dolphins swim by about 400-500 feet offshore.  We can only see their fins but I do glimpse one breach in a wave much further down the beach; unfortunately we can't get any photos of them.  During a walk along the lagoon beach we find numerous hermit crabs.  Brad puts two close together and one tries to pull the other out of its shell; at least that's what we think they're doing.  Brad does pull them apart before either crab is harmed.

While checking out the beach at Big Lagoon State Park one afternoon, I hear something to our right and instinctively do the "mom move" on Brad, thrusting my arm across his chest to stop him from moving forward.  As I look down to the right toward the rustling noise, a large snake moves across our path.  It is dark brown with black markings; it hastily slithers in front of us and moves off into the trees.  As we move towards it, the snake keeps moving away.  It's about two feet long and 1-1/2 inches in diameter at its widest girth.  A ranger later tells us it is a cottonmouth snake and it IS poisonous, but they prefer to run away from humans like a big chicken.  Thank goodness for that.  A sign near a small pond also announces "No swimming.  Alligator."  No problem.  And yet the campsites (not ours) are so close.

Have you ever heard of the Blue Angels?  They are the elite team of Navy fighter pilots who perform stunts and fly their jets in tight formations at air shows.  Well, they practice a few miles down the beach from us.  Apparently we can go watch them on Wedensday or Thursday mornings, but they start at 8:30 am and that's too early for me.  We can see them from our campsite anyway and certainly hear the roar of the jets.  Brad and I saw the Blue Angels at the Hamilton Air Show about 25 years ago and they are an amazing team.  Of course, we have the Canadian Snowbirds, also an incredible team of formation flyers.  We've heard that Hamilton will be having an Air Show again this year after about a 10-year hiatus; wonder what the star attraction will be.

Dolphins in the Gulf at Fort Pickens

After four nights at Big Lagoon State Park, we move to the Gulf Islands National Seashore, Fort Pickens.  Driving there is like driving in a big letter C turned clockwise 90 degrees so the opening of the C is in the south.  We essentially have to drive around Pensacola Bay.  At Fort Pickens, we will be meeting up with our new friends, Denny and Linda from Ohio, whom we met at Padre Island.  Denny and Linda are a hoot, and we have a great time with them - more campfires and chats on the beach.  Again, we see dolphins in the water, closer this time than at Big Lagoon so I do manage to get some photos.  We take a night walk on the beach and hunt the ghost crabs, which Linda learns to enjoy handling.  Myself, I'm too girly and let a few screeches pass my lips when some of the large white crabs get too close to my bare feet.

As the name of this park suggests, there is a fort here, built shortly after the War of 1812 and used during the Civil War.  Brad and I tour it during a bike ride.  This fort was one of three used to protect Pensacola Bay during the Civil War; one other was on the western Gulf Island near Big Lagoon State Park where we just were, but it was destroyed during that war, and the third was on the mainland in Pensacola; the three forts forming a triangle.  Fort Pickens was fortified for WWI although never used.

Then once again, before we can say "Florida Panhandle", the sand in the hourglass has run out and it's time to move on.  We bid adieu to Denny and Linda, and to these Gulf Islands and head east.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Padre Island Update

Marilyn on the beach with the Sargassum Seaweed
The day before we leave Padre Island National Seashore, we attend the Ranger program Beach Walk.  Brad has attended a similar program in Delaware with Brandon at Cape Henlopen, but this is my first, and it's very interesting, partly because of what happened yesterday.  The sargassum (rhymes with sarcasm) seaweed washed in en masse and now lies all along the beach; it continues to wash in today.  This happens all spring from March until May or June because of the prevailing southerly winds.  It's unbelievable to watch so much seaweed being pushed in by the tide.  We could see it floating in the waves several hundred yards off-shore as it slowly gets coaxed in.  It brings everything with it (as I mentioned before a lot of garbage) including creatures - tiny creatures like slugs, crabs, fish - some smaller than your baby fingernail.  The Ranger has the kids in the crowd bring these up with both a small hand-held net and a large seine net which scoops up the seaweed, then we shake the seaweed out over a clear tub of sea water and all the creatures fall into the water for us to see.  The kids (and us adults) are enthralled.  The Ranger also digs up a small ghost crab, so named because it is so well camouflaged in the sand that it's almost invisible unless you're really looking and it's moving.  Ghost crabs can get quite large, perhaps several inches across, but he digs up a little fella about one inch across so as not to get pinched too harshly.
I also learn that the plant on the dunes that smells so wonderful is called camphor weed.  It isn't camphor like that used in medicinal rubs, but it does have an odour similar to that of camphor, hence its name.

More about the seaweed - the staff here at the National Seashore do bulldoze it and pile it up in the dunes every once in a while when it gets really deep along the shoreline.  The seaweed dries out and composts itself in the dunes, allowing plants to grow and stabilize the sand in the dunes.  When the seaweed is dry, it's a very dark reddish brown colour and crunchy, and very light leaving it at the mercy of the winds again.

Tomorrow, we begin our last leg east to the Florida Panhandle.  We'll be making four stops there before heading home!  I can't believe this 5 month journey is almost at an end.  When I remind myself of some of the places we have visited, I am amazed myself!  So many fantastic things we have seen and places we have been.  We will have two more weeks on the beach, and I'm already as brown as a bear.  It's hard to stay out of the sun when almost every day is sunny!  Let's home spring will arrive soon after we get home so we don't have to endure a lot cold weather and snow!  I don't know if we could tolerate the white stuff.  And my tan would fall off!  I also think Grady is looking forward to getting home.  He's started climbing the walls - literally.  We find him at the top of the cupboards, meaning he has climbed up the drapes and walked across the top of the kitchen cupboards to sit on top of the kitchen pantry.  And yes, his claw marks are in the drapes, so we've had to be creative at stopping him from getting up there.  So it's time to get him home where he can go outside and run around the backyard.  He's not allowed outside the trailer, nor does he attempt it.

Last word - our thoughts are with the people of Japan and those with family and loved ones there.  It will be a long struggle to clean up and rebuild the country.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Life's a Beach!

The view from inside our trailer at the campground
We arrive at Padre Island National Seashore under heavy skies.  These are the first serious clouds we've seen since California - three states ago!  We originally intend to camp at Mustang Island State Park (for no particular reason) which is further east, but that park is full and we get one of the last four paid sites here at the national park.  Our big back window faces the ocean with small dunes separating us.  The smell here is incredible.  It's not a salty, ocean smell; it's a sweet, herbal smell, but no vegetation is blooming so I don't know from where the scent is originating, however it's intoxicating.  I later discover it's the creaping leafy vegetation covering the dunes which has almost a minty smell to the leaves.  Mmmm.

The birds near the trailer drive Grady nuts during the first few days!  Black birds that are iridescent blue in the sunlight with yellow eyes (someone tells me they are Magpies) make very strange, whistling calls and other funny noises.  They look just like our Grackles back home, but definitely don't sound like them.  We joke that they are calling the cat, "Here pretty boy!  Ooo, aren't you a pretty kitty.  Wanna come out and play with me and my friends?"  They keep him awake most of the day as he crouches from window to window, watching them.  There are also numerous marine birds - sandpipers, gulls, herons, pelicans and others I can't identify.  These are too far away for Grady to be interested in, but wonderful for us to watch.

We go for long walks on the beach almost daily, although the wind blows constantly, fiercely some days but hardly at all others.  We get a couple of thunderstorms the first morning after we arrive, which adds to the excitement.  We can drive on much of the beach except the area where we are camped.  We can actually camp for free on the beach if we want, but we are nervous about getting stuck in the sand although there are other trailers and motor homes our size out there.  However, if we do get stuck and have to get towed, it could cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000 - not a chance we're willing to take.  For $8 per night, we'll pay to camp where we are with our view and not right on the beach where everyone else is driving by.

The 1,000 year old tree
We do some exploring further east to see if we want to move after our initial paid four day stay here:  first to Mustang Island State Park where the beach is the same as ours but the trailer sites have no view of it; then to Goose Island State Park which is not on the ocean, but on Aransas Bay so, although the park is beautifully arranged with sites on either the water or amongst the Live Oak trees whose branches sprawl in gnarly patterns sometimes horizontal to the ground, it is not a desirable park to us.  Near Goose Island State Park, we also visit the 1,000 year old Live Oak tree where we run into two of our new RV friends from Quartzsite, Sue and Paul from Michigan.  We know they are staying at Goose Island State Park just down the road, but to run into them here is just odd.  So the answer to the question about whether or not to move to another park is obvious to us - we prefer Padre Island National Seashore and at the end of our initial planned four night stay, we book another five nights and eventually another five nights, making our total stay the maximum allowed 14 nights.

One night, we attend a Ranger-led talk on the history of Padre Island.  As with most of the land along the Gulf of Mexico, the island was founded by Spaniards in the 1500s and they named it Isla Blanca - White Island.  Three Spanish ships shipwrecked just off the coast, although the crew and passengers managed to make it to the island safely.  There were natives here who were brutal and virtually wiped out all of the shipwreck survivors.  In those early days, the island wasn't used for anything as it was deemed to be useless.  By the 1800s, a priest bought most of the island and brought cattle here; hence how the island was eventually renamed Padre Island (or "the Padre's Island"), Padre being Spanish for "Father".  It was also used as an Navy bombing range during WWII and was finally made into a National Seashore in 1962 by President Kennedy.

To my left, David & Lynda, Linda & Denny
We meet some of our RV neighbours and have a fire on the beach with them during one of the less windy nights.  This is the best part of the trip is meeting new friends.  In our little group is Denny and Linda from Ohio who also love to sail around Lake Erie near our home, Lynda and David from Peterborough, Ontario who are fellow college employees, and Nancy from Syracuse, NY making us all practically neighbours at home!  We enjoy great campfire talk, and many "happy hours".

At 70 miles from north to south, Padre Island is the longest undeveloped natural barrier island in the world!  What is really unfortunate though is the amount of garbage that washes up on the beach - water bottles, plastic toys, shoes, milk jugs - you name it, it's caught in the seaweed and laying on the sand.  Everything floating out in the Gulf comes in with the tide.  It's a  real shame.  These are not the pristine beaches we are used to seeing in Florida.  However, it's still such a serene feeling to hear the waves crashing onto the beach.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Lake Amistad

Brad overlooking the Pecos River
Friendship - that's what amistad means in Spanish.  After months in the desert, it's nice to be on a lake for a change.  Lake Amistad is a reservoir.  We are near the city of Del Rio where three rivers meet:  the Devils River and the Pecos River meet the Rio Grande, which is dammed to form Lake Amistad and the Amistad National Recreation Area.  There is fishing, waterskiing, swimming (obviously no aligators here), boating, camping and archery-only hunting (yuck!).  There are four camping areas, separated by miles.  We arrive on Sunday night and find picnicers in the camping spots!  So I manipulatively guilt some picnicers into vacating the best spot in the San Pedro camping area.  It's right on the lake with access to a small beach area.  Hey!  They didn't pay for the use of the spot!  There's a picnic area right across from this camping spot.  Yes, I like to get my way.  We camp here for four days and enjoy beautiful sunset and cool breezes.

Marilyn enjoying our campsite beach
Our campsite at San Pedro, Lake Amistad
We take the opportunity to replenish our groceries (can you say "Welcome to Walmart"?), and relax on the beach for a full day.  There are several American Coot ducks here, probably three dozen, and I also see an armadillo drinking from the lake.  I follow him to get his picture and he doesn't even notice my presence.  After a couple of days of shopping and sitting on the beach, Brad and I take a short hike along the Pecos River.  The cliffs here are about 300 feet high, the water is a refreshing green (not an algae green), and it's cold (of course, it's winter).  Again from this hiking trail, we can see the Rio Grande to the south - this is where the Pecos dumps in the Rio, and Mexico is across the other side of the Rio.  And everywhere else is nothing but arid desert.  The Border Patrol vehicles and officers are everywhere; we've been through so many checkpoints, each one with a drug-sniffing dog which is taken around the perimeter of our truck and trailer.  Can you imagine if the Canadian-U.S. border was so heavily patrolled?  It's, what, some 3,000 miles long?  Jeez, if someone here had a grudge against you, all they'd have to do is plant some drugs in your vehicle and you'd have a lot of 'splainin' to do!

Anyway, the hike is very short, but the view of the river is pretty.  Tomorrow we head for Corpus Christie and the Gulf Coast.  Can't wait to get to the beach, just to see something different than desert!