Central Florida

IMG_2582Floridians don’t get much love, at least not in Georgia, I’ve noticed. From sports, to fashion, to how redneck the residents are (which is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black), you would wonder why anyone would venture across the border into Gator territory. Well, after spending a month down here, I have to say, it’s a pretty beautiful state, and we’re just now getting to the coast.

The last week we’ve spent exploring the north central portion of the state in and around Ocala National forest. If you were a fan of the novel The Yearling, that’s where it was set. There are expansive scrub pine forests and natural crystal-clear springs where manatees seek refugee during the colder months.

We enjoyed some pleasant hikes, exciting paddles with the manatees, and one rather dubious day on a house boat with our friends from Atlanta (thank you for the hospitality Adam and Mark – we paid for it the next day).

If you’re thinking about an outdoor vacation, don’t overlook Florida’s interior. There is lots to do in Ocala National Forest and if you feel like earning your sea legs, you could rent a house boat to cruise up and down the St. John river like our friends did.

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The Everglades Whisper

IMG_2135.jpgOur first night in the Everglades we went on a ranger-led night hike along the popular Anhinga Trail which follows paved paths and boardwalks through a very pretty waterway full of wildlife. The ranger gave a wonderful tour and I continued to be reminded of something he told us throughout our visit to the park.

He said, “The parks out west, like Grand Canyon and Yosemite, they shout at you, it is obvious why they are designated National Parks and why people flock to them. But the Everglades, it whispers.”

This became more apparent to me the longer I spent time here and learned about the uniqueness and fragility of this park. It is of course beautiful just for it’s solitude, and expansive landscapes, but even more so when you realize that it is one of a kind, there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. And this unique place on earth has been teetering on the brink of disappearing for the last 80 years.

What at first just appears to be a swamp, you realize is a vast and complicated series of waterways, with water flowing in and out supplying birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians with a robust but delicate home. Hunting, development, and agriculture have brought the Everglades and its inhabitants to the brink of extinction on multiple occasions and continue to threaten the delicate balance.

Only 20% of the original area that was the Everglades still exists. 90% of the bird population has disappeared, starting in the 1800s when birds were shot for their fashionable plumage and another mass eradication in the 1940s following development for farms and cities. While paddling and walking through different areas of the park, we saw signs of the continued threat the Everglades is under. Agricultural runoff has changed the chemical balance of the water, invasive species abound, and one particular hike showed disturbing signs of either chemical pollutants or climate change or both.

The Everglades’ beauty is not something that hits you over the head. It’s a place you have to explore, understand, and observe to fully capture its beauty. It was originally preserved not for its looks, but for its biological resources. And that is what you understand and appreciate once you spend time here. The seemingly endless prairie is actually a river that you are able to walk or paddle through, incorporating hardwood hammocks, mangrove forests, sloughs, and estuaries. Alligators, American crocodiles, manatees, turtles, snakes, hundreds of bird species, and more are easily viewed on any of the park’s trails. We feel lucky we got to explore this beautiful wilderness and share it with our children. We hope more people will come explore it and cherish it, in the hopes that more can be done to save this precious resource.

The Disney Experience

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We can now mark Disney off our bucket list – whether Rick wanted to or not! We only spent one day at Magic Kingdom (which was a whirlwind), but we were able to enjoy a few days at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground. The campground had plenty to do and was just a boat ride away from the park — I would recommend it for anyone thinking of visiting Disney World (they have cabins, tent sites and RV sites).

 

Highlights from the trip:

  1. Seeing CJ’s excitement as Elsa took the stage in front of Cinderella’s castle. She spent the rest of the trip randomly breaking out into dance and twirling her dress like Elsa, announcing, “I’m not CJ, I’m ELSA!”
  2. Watching Liam clutch his Junior Ranger badges like his life depended on it during the Pirates of the Caribbean ride (yes, he wore his J.R. vest to Disney). Upon further questioning, we realized he thought the animatronic pirates were going to mistake his badges for gold and steal them….
  3. CJ taking to the saddle like a true cowgirl. Both kids enjoyed pony rides around the stables – CJ’s first time on a horse and she couldn’t have been happier!
  4. Campfire sing-a-longs with Chip and Dale. Each night at Fort Wilderness you can enjoy a campfire, s’mores, songs with Chip and Dale and a Disney movie on the big outdoor screen. By the last night we had Rick doing the “Hokey-Pokey” with Dale!

A big shout out to Staci who helped us plan and book the whole trip. If you are thinking about taking a trip to Disney, please consider Staci as a resource, I didn’t have to lift a finger. She booked the site, park passes, even arranged our Fast Passes which would have completely confused me. staci@vacationswithcharacter.com

Merritt Island

IMG_1657Our trip continues as we make our way down through the Sunshine State. We are so lucky to have such generous family members in such a pretty part of the state. Rick’s Aunt and Uncle live in Merritt Island where we stayed for three nights. While there, Liam scored another ranger badge at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. We saw lots of gators, shore birds, along with a raccoon and an armadillo! If you know our kids, you know they LOVE wildlife so this was a big hit with them.

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A gator jumped up in the middle of these roseate spoonbills scaring them away!

Liam spent the day filling out his Junior Ranger work book and we were so enamored with all the wildlife, we lost track of time and had to race back (literally) through the refuge to get to the ranger station in time for Liam to get his badge. I’m not sure they would have unlocked the door for me, but luckily, Liam in his ranger vest is pretty hard to resist!

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Liam showing off his Jr Ranger badge!

 

Thank you Uncle Rick and Aunt Amelia for making room for us at your home and feeding us such delicious food! Your hospitality was so appreciated!!!

Stop 1 – Laura Walker State Park

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CJ enjoying her breakfast outside our first stop, the Waycross Walmart.

By The Rikker

After getting an 8:00pm departure out of Atlanta on Sunday night, we arrived at our first destination around 1:30am: the Wal-Mart in Waycross, GA. The overnight low was 26 degrees so it was a cool night in the trailer with no heat.  The good news is that the freezing temperature inside the trailer motivated us to get an early start. After breakfast and grocery shopping we arrived at our first park, Laura Walker State Park, which abuts the Okefenokee Swamp. We had our morning coffee and watched the kids chase after dozens of Tree Swallows who were flying around us in search of their morning meal.

After lunch we took the kids on a 1.5 mile hike and while we didn’t see any wildlife we did observe a lot of scat (Liam insisted upon looking at every dropping with his magnifying glass) as well as a gopher tortoise burrow. Along the way, Liam learned that 250 species use abandoned gopher tortoise burrows for shelter.

Later in the afternoon we met the campground hosts, Matthew and Celeste, who are related to a friend of ours. They’ve been living in their RV full time with their two kids for the past 4 years. They were kind enough to invite us over to their Airstream to see their set up and let us pepper them with questions over beer.

Unfortunately, we were sad not to have been in Atlanta for the UGA game, but I think Rick felt slightly better about missing it after the Dawgs heartbreaking loss.

Next on the itinerary, paddling in the Okefenokee Swamp!

(Above clockwise: Laura S Walker was naturalist and our first stops’ namesake, Rick and the kids paddling in the Okefenokee, our only gator sighting and he was checking out the nativity scene, Liam showing off some of the huge pine cones he found, one of the many tree swallows that were zooming right past us as we sat by the lake, and finally, our campsite!)

Thank You.

IMG_1514.jpgIt’s official – after several weeks in limbo, staying at different family members’ houses, we’re finally shipping out. It feels both good and sad to be leaving on what seems like a long awaited and much anticipated trip.

We’d like to say a big thank you to all our family and friends who have shown us so much love, support, and generosity as we prepare for this trip. It is always uplifting when we share our plans to hear people’s responses of joy and excitement for us. It has been an intimidating process getting ready and we still aren’t completely sure of what we will encounter with life on the road, but having all of your support has helped to keep us moving forward.

To all the folks who have given us gifts, thrown us parties, or just shared heartfelt well wishes as we finalize our plans…THANK YOU! Your love and support means so much to us and it is spending time with our friends and family that we will miss the most.

We have talked to many of you about meeting us while we’re out on the road, just suggest a time and place and we’ll let you know if we can make it work – we’d love to see you! For those of you who aren’t in the Atlanta area…get ready because we’re probably scheduling you into our travels!

 

Run Before You Walk

Despite buying our travel trailer this summer, and it sitting in our driveway for at least two months after finally bringing it home, it’s taken us until the Christmas holidays to hitch it up and take it on a test run. So we figured what better way to ease into the RV lifestyle than by taking it on a 12 hour drive from Georgia to Delaware. 

We spent the first night in our trailer at a Walmart somewhere in North Carolina. After pulling in at 3am and parking next to some truckers, we weren’t in much of a state to take in our surroundings. And after another 8 hour drive the next day we were just thankful the trailer made it up to Delaware in one piece….well sort of in one piece.

It wasn’t the most glamorous first voyage, but we’re certainly getting more comfortable with the trailer and have learned a thing or two. The most important of which is that we now have a pre-departure checklist to make sure everything is in its place…We may have misconnected a few pins and left the trailer post down a time or two (whoops!) but we’re getting the hang of things!