Monthly Archives: April 2013

Snowbirds, pt. 4 – manatees

Our alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. Ayrril and I got up, started the coffee brewing, and began quietly preparing the bus for the road – unplugging from the campground electrical hookup, folding up our bed, stowing any loose items. At 4 a.m. I started the bus, removed the leveling blocks, and got ready to move out. Skipping out on a bill, you might think? Running from the law? Trying to avoid more “full-timer” tips from overly solicitous neighbors? All good guesses, but no. Despite temperatures in the 30s, we were setting off for a 6:15 rendezvous to snorkel with manatees in Crystal River.

Way back when we were planning this trip and talking with friends about our plans, we had a fuzzy idea of our route and what we’d like to do in our year on the road. When I mentioned heading for Key West in the winter, my friend Will said without hesitation, “You’ve got to swim with the manatees!” He gave me the basic details, I mentioned it to Ayrril, and then I tucked it away under the “Possibilities” section of my very cluttered mind. As we got closer to Florida, it came up again and we decided that it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Manatees, sometimes referred to as sea cows (although not to their cute pudgy faces), need warm water to survive. During the summer months, the water in the Gulf of Mexico is perfect but in the winter, things cool off pretty rapidly. Fortunately for them, Crystal River is fed by naturally warm freshwater springs that keep the water at a near constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit. This provides a natural haven for the manatees and a perfect opportunity to see these amazing creatures up close. March and a cold snap combined? Perfect. And while snorkeling tours to the springs go on all day, the early morning trip would get us there before a lot of other swimmers and manatees stirred up the water too much to see anything clearly.

The first order of business at River Ventures, our chosen tour company, was a thorough briefing on manatee encounter rules and regulations, all specifically designed to ensure that these endangered animals are not disturbed or harmed in any way. Next came wet suits and a short ride to the dock, where we met our boat captain, swim guide, and on board wildlife biologist Mike Birns. He is a founding member and president of the board of the Manatee EcoTourism Association. As we soon discovered, he’s also a fantastic guide! On the short boat ride to the springs, Mike briefed us all again on protocols for the swim – in short, interaction is allowed only at the surface of the water, only upon being approached by a manatee (no pursuit), touching only with one open hand, and don’t cross into the roped off area.

As soon as we dropped anchor, a young manatee approached the boat and began playing around the anchor line. Mike slipped into the water, eased away from the boat, and then it was our turn. Ayrril went first and almost immediately was approached by the young manatee calf for a snout-to-mask “kiss.” It’s hard to adequately convey how cool it was or how curious and playful the manatees are. You’re not swimming “near” them, you’re not just observing them from a distance while they carry on obliviously with their own lives; you are actually swimming with them. Everyone found themselves at one point or another virtually surrounded by manatees, both big and small, rolling over to be scratched on their bellies, grabbing you with their flippers, or coming close to look you in the eyes. One very small calf was fascinated with Bridger, swimming under and around him for a long time. It was incredible! Now we understand why it was included in the book “1000 Things to Do Before You Die” and why thousands of people come from all over the world to swim and kayak in these waters.

When it was time to go, we climbed out of the warm spring water into the incredibly cold spring air. Mike’s seemingly endless supply of hot chocolate was barely able to stave off hypothermia as we toweled off, added layers, and headed back to the dock. Fortunately we had parked our home right next to the shop, so warm dry clothes and a propane furnace were quickly in sight.

What a great experience! It was simply amazing.

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Snowbirds, pt. 3 – gators, birds, and bad drivers

Much as we hated to leave Key West, the road was calling. We had plans to see alligators in the Everglades, friends in Tampa, and manatees in Crystal River so we loaded up and headed toward the mainland. The mangrove forests, the skittering iguanas, the crystal clear waters, and the distant boats all seemed more familiar on the way north –  like old friends, warm and comfortable and known, far removed from the frantic hustle of life away from the sea.

Our first stop was Fort Myers, not a destination in itself but a good jumping off point for a day exploring Everglades National Park, a unique combination of ecosystems that covers nearly 1.5 million acres of southern Florida. We parked the bus at a great little RV park and headed out early the next morning for a guided tour. Our guide Linda, a native Floridian and incredibly knowledgeable naturalist, gave us a great overview of the park on the drive down to Monument Lake. Although we had seen quite a few gators in the water along the road, it was nothing like seeing them up close and personal from a flat bottomed air boat! Before we even got on the boat, though, we got to hold a baby alligator and a baby crocodile while our guide explained the difference between the two. Florida is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles live in the same ecosystem. The air boat, which is essentially a wide boat with a giant fan on the back for propulsion, took off slowly from the dock before gunning it out across the lake to skirt the grassy shoreline. The variety of wildlife was amazing! Tons of birds, from nesting bald eagles to long legged herons and diving cormorants, plus of course the stars of the show – gators! We saw alligators hunting, sunning themselves, swimming, and even one pretty small gator dragging a big fish out of the water.

After a drive through the Big Cypress Swamp (with more gators, of course), we stopped for lunch with gator tail appetizers. Yum! (I wouldn’t really say yum. -Ayrril)  Then we hit the water again on a much bigger boat, a National Park Service sponsored ferry tour of the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. We saw lots of birds, of course, and the islands themselves are beautiful, but the most remarkable part of the trip was watching the dolphins play around the boat. A very playful pair rode the bow wave for a long time, essentially surfing along in front of the boat, leaping and diving right beneath our noses. At other times, dolphins would head to the back of the boat to cavort in the wake, bursting out of the white trail to crash back down with an enormous splash. It looked like fun!

The next stop was Tampa, where we met up with some more old friends for dinner. Mary and Madison and Tyler were very good friends from our North Carolina days. Carson and Madison were playmates as babies and now they’re 15!  We made plans to meet at Busch Gardens the next day for roller coasters and, well, roller coasters! Unfortunately, the excitement started before we even got into the park. As we were waiting at the light to turn into Busch Gardens, we got rear ended by a big van. Luckily he swerved at the last minute so he didn’t hit us dead-on. He did crush the back right corner of the Jeep and sent us smashing into the car in front of us, which bent our tow bar. Luckily no injuries, his insurance is covering all of the repairs, and the Jeep was still drivable, so we headed in to Busch Gardens just a little later than expected. Carson rode his first looping roller coaster, Bridger rode his first real roller coaster ever, and we all left happy.

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Snowbirds, pt. 2 – Key West!

We’ve been looking forward to Key West since we were parked on Lake Michigan north of Chicago in January, enduring single digit wind chill just after an ice storm.

Heading south, we stopped in Miami to catch up with the Urbecs, some of our very best friends from back in the Fort Bragg days. They made us feel so welcome we parked our bus in their yard and stayed for a while. The boys loved having other kids to hang out with – they had so much fun. Carson was invited along on a sleepover that included forging knives in the backyard! The adults had a pretty good time too. There was much wine and conversation and laughter. And knitting… Man, we love those guys.

We finally dragged ourselves away from Miami and headed south on US Highway 1, known as the Overseas Highway, one of the most scenic stretches of road in America. It traverses the Florida Keys for over 100 miles, ending at Mile Marker 0 in downtown Key West. The water was crystal clear, iguanas scurried across the road in front of the bus, and people along the way were often fishing from both sides of the road. Very cool.

I think when Jimmy Buffet sang about “Changes in latitude, changes in attitude,” this is exactly what he was picturing. One week stretched into two, we started to have favorite hangouts, and everyone started to relax into the island life. We soaked up the sun, snorkeled the Florida Reef (third largest in the world), SNUBA-dived just off the island (imagine a cross between snorkel and SCUBA), para-sailed, drank rum drinks, walked Duval Street, toured Hemingway’s house, kayaked through mangrove tunnels, flew in a seaplane out to the Dry Tortugas islands to snorkel the most western end of the Keys, and wrapped it all up at the end with a spectacular Key West sunset from Mallory Square.

Key West, we will definitely be back!

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Snowbirds, pt. 1 – Space Coast

Wow, time flies when you’re lying in the sun! We hit Cocoa Beach, Florida in mid-February intending to visit some friends stationed there (tough life!), see family in Orlando, and hit a few major attractions before heading further south. We ended up staying nearly a month – visiting with the Orlando branch of the Boggess clan, sharing great meals with Miguel and Christine, enjoying the beautiful beaches, and seeing the sights.

The Orlando Science Center is a great little hands-on museum with a lot of different activities from dinosaurs to astronomy to physics and mechanical engineering. Oh, and they also happen to be hosting a special traveling exhibit called Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination. We’re a family of Star Wars fans — we call our bus the Millennium Falcon — so we were really looking forward to the exhibit. Real costumes and props from the movies along with discussion, exhibits, and experiments about the science behind the movies. The boys got to build a maglev craft and a programmable robot. Bridger, our resident Star Wars geek and scientist in training, was in heaven!

Since we were just south of Cape Canaveral, we continued the real world space exploration theme with a visit to the Kennedy Space Center. We recently watched Apollo 13 and the excellent documentary series “When We Left Earth,” so it was really cool to see the Mercury and Apollo rockets up close. There’s even a Space Shuttle launch simulator that almost makes you feel like you’re in space!

Ayrril and the boys settled in for a couple of weeks of school while I flew back to Seattle for work, then it was time to load back up and get on the road again. I think we could get used to this snowbird life!

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