"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Friday, March 8, 2013

A little time away: Ocala National Forest

Could it be that even full time RVers need a break from their home-on-the-road now and then?

This week we had the "opportunity" to get away for a few days while our RV underwent a needed adjustment. As reported previously, the teflon strip under the bedroom slide had become skewed out of place, and so the slide was screeching and squealing as it moved in an out. In addition, the errant teflon strip was pushing out and misplacing the carpeted wooden trim on the inside edge of the slide. Hard to explain that - I should have taken a picture.  Anyway, the shop anticipated that it would take about 20 hours to remove the slide, make the minor repair, and reassemble the slide. So we took this "opportunity" for an adventure that would take us more than a day trip away from here.

We had no time schedule so we were free to take as long as we liked to get to our destination, Astor, FL. We passed through New Smyrna Beach on the way just to check it out. The Canaveral National Seashore extends all the way up to New Smyrna, so we drove along the beach, and Kona got a swim in the Mosquito Lagoon! (No dogs allowed on the beach, but there were no signs along the lagoon.) Her first in a long long time.

Then we stopped for lunch at Dolphin View Seafood Restaurant and had their fish rueben special. This is where we sat, looking out over Mosquito Lagoon from the mainland side. This egret was just waiting above our heads for a little something...

After lunch we lazed around on the other side of the restaurant property 
in their tiki bar section, and it did feel a lot like a laid-back tropical vacation.

Even the birds were yawning.

Finally we got back on the road toward Astor, which is on the St. Johns River. We found a modest pet friendly cottage at The Castaways on the River. It was very clean and comfortable, and had a GREAT shower.  (Boy, that's one thing I really miss about a sticks and bricks house: a full throttle, high pressure hot shower.)  More importantly, it provided a comfortable and safe place for Kona to rest while Rick and I went out exploring the next day.

After dinner we sat outside just soaking up all the river had to offer. There were plenty of pelicans and osprey, fishermen idling by in their boats, and an old docking area filled with multiple kinds of water vegetation. In just this tiny picture there are at least three kinds of floating water plants. Some of it so minuscule I didn't notice it until I blew the picture up. (See the pale green confetti like stuff down in the spaces between the other leafy stuff? I think it may be duckweed.) The largest is water lettuce.

OK, next day. This part of Florida has many clearwater springs that are popular for swimming, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and wildlife viewing. We had already visited Blue Springs and Wekiva Springs earlier this month, but I really wanted to see the springs in Ocala National Forest, and kayak them too if possible.

Ocala National Forest is the second largest in Florida (the first is Apalachicola, up near Tallahassee). Ocala NF is minimally developed, and from the roads that pass through it you'd think it was nothing but dry scrub, long leaf pines and saw palmetto. But, like much of Florida, it is a big sponge of lakes, rivers and springs. It's all about the water.

When I lived here about 30 years ago I canoed Juniper Springs, and had been looking forward to doing it again ever since then. It was magical - a clear blue spring with a run of about seven miles, lots of wildlife, a white sandy bottom most of the way, and even sand boils.  In some parts of the world this refers to a different phenomena, but around here, sand boils are places where the springs bubble up through the sandy stream bottom. There were even places where you used to be able step into them and be supported by the up-currents of the spring. In many places now the sand boils are off limits to protect them from damage and garbage.

We chose not to go to Juniper Springs as we had heard it was now a difficult and long trip due to many downed trees from a recent hurricane. One option we were considering was Silver Springs, but we weren't sure about anything. We woke to a cold and windy day, with no prospect of it improving, so we doubted we'd get the kayaks in the water anywhere. We headed into the National Forest with high hopes and all our equipment just in case. First we stopped at Silver Glen Springs because it was the closest. It was clear that it was too windy and cold. There was also a forest fire in the area that was still not under control, so we decided to drive further south to Alexander Springs, away from the fire, and further from Lake George, where it might be less windy.

Although Alexander Springs was lovely, we thought it was still too windy to kayak, so we took a short hike along the Timucuan Trail instead.  The Timucua were the native people who lived in this immediate area before the Spanish arrived.

The trail was a little over a mile, and about half of it was boardwalk through the squishy parts.  
It led out to some nice views of the Alexander Run in a few places.

This big turtle (Florida red-bellied turtle?) was out for a stroll in the picnic area. See how beautiful her shell is?

After a picnic of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we returned to Astor, wondering what else to do with our day off. Castaways on the River is all about the river, so we decided to splurge and rent a little motor boat for the rest of the afternoon. That turned out to be just the right thing to do.  Here are Captain Rick and First Mate Kona.

Although it was really chilly, at least we didn't have to be concerned about paddling against the wind. We just bundled up and enjoyed the sunshine and the water.  We drove up to Lake George, had a close call at the mouth of the river with a bit of shallow water, and turned around. Lake George was pretty rough so we stuck to the back channels. This is Blue Creek, a beautiful detour off the St. Johns.

Abundant birds and turtles, a few alligators, and I guess there were probably manatee too, but we didn't see them. We went idle speed along the whole length of Blue Creek, just in case. Plus it was pretty shallow in spots and we didn't want to get stuck or bend the propellor.

Back out on the St. Johns, we passed many of these residential canals, which are really typical in Florida. A lot of the homes in Florida are on canals like this, so folks can have their boats, and access to larger rivers, lakes or the inter-coastal waterways.

When we stopped at the South Moon marina for gas, there were about 15-20 pelicans lounging around waiting for fishermen to clean their fish at the dock. 

They weren't bothered at all by us pulling up, or by me getting really close to take their pictures. There were adult...

and juvenile brown pelicans. You can see the difference easily in these two pictures. 
In addition to the color of their head plumage, their eyes are also different colors.  

Our fun day away ended with dinner at a local down home Florida restaurant called Sparky's. They were having all you could eat catfish, but we passed on that. I think every guy in the restaurant was wearing a camouflage hat. Now that's local color.  THE the local color.

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