Our stay in the Tampa area was one of connecting with family and friends. Our niece, Robin, and her kids Destiny and Jeremiah, live in Tampa. Pat’s sister, Mary Lee, was flying in to visit Robin while we were there and I have some National Guard buddies in the area.
We spent a Saturday at Crystal River kayaking to see the manatees at Three Sisters Spring. Robin and Destiny used our kayaks and we rented two more, Pat and Mary Lee in one, and Jeremiah and I in the other. It was fun watching Robin and Destiny struggle through their learning curve with the kayak, but it wasn’t long before they were paddling like they were experienced kayakers. The recent cold temperatures had driven the manatees to the warmer waters of the springs in the Crystal River area in large numbers. As a result there were a corresponding number of manatee watchers! The canals and the springs were filled with kayakers and snorkelers watching these gentle beasts resting and eating. This was Mary Lee’s first opportunity to see manatees and we all enjoyed the experience. Afterwards Robin rewarded us with a home-cooked meal at their place, she is certainly a great cook.
Tampa hosts what is considered to be the largest RV Show in the U.S. and Mary Lee, Pat and I went to check it out. I don’t know if it is the largest, but it was certainly the largest RV show that I had ever attended. I think every manufacturer was represented there, from small trailers and pop-ups, large and small fifth wheel trailers to Class A motor homes. We wandered through the exhibits and spent a lot of time going through the suppliers booths that sell support equipment and almost anything else. We even ran into a booth for Huron County Parks in Michigan, and we knew some of the people manning it. What a small world! We walked out with the X-hose (which I call the “incredible shrinking hose”), and a side sun shade for our awning. It’s hard to go to these shows and not spend money! Time will tell if these were good purchases, but the early experiences are good.
We hosted the group at our place a lot and what better place to fly kites than the beach! It was perfect weather for kite flying and young and old had a good time. Back at the trailer it was game night and we can’t have a Wangen game night without playing dominoes.
Robin, her kids, Pat and Mary Lee went to the Gasparilla Kid’s Parade while I visited with some of my Guard friends that I hadn’t seen in a long time. It was a great finale for our visit and with an early start on Sunday, January 19th, we were on our way to Everglades National Park.
Our plans were to stay at the Long Pine Key Campground, which is first-come, first-served. We didn’t think about the fact that we were arriving on Saturday of a three-day weekend, but fortunately there were sites available that would hold a rig of our size. Long Pine Key has no utility hook ups so we were dependent on battery power and generators, but we were prepared for that and had no problems.
There is plenty to do in the Everglades and Ranger-led activities every day. We did the “Anhinga Amble,” an exploration of the alligators and wading birds in the Taylor Slough (pronounced “slew”). The anhinga is one of the bird species in the area, along with ibis, blue heron, and vultures. Alligators were all over the area, including one that was sunning himself right next to the trail! In the “Gator Lounge” there was about a dozen laying across each other warming in the sun.
While the Everglades is known for nature activities, there is a little known piece of military history within the park. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Battery A, 2nd Battalion, 52nd Air Defense Artillery, a Nike Hercules missile battery was stationed in the Everglades. This is one of the only two such facilities that had actual enemy aircraft appear on their radar screens. The Cuban Missile threat was a real thing to the soldiers that served here. For years the site lay untouched until a local Floridian who served in Battery A suggested the park do something with the site. Over the years Park Rangers and local volunteers have started to restore the facility and give daily tours. In addition to the buildings, the park has acquired two actual Nike Hercules missiles that are displayed in the facility.
Another daily Ranger-led activity is a bike hike through the pineland forest and marl prairies. This is a great way to see the diversity of nature within the park. One, if the not the most interesting aspects of this area, is the removal of the Peruvian Peppercorn plants that took over much of the land that had been farmed before it was acquired by the National Parks. The only way to eliminate the invasive species is by literally scraping the land to the limestone base to remove all trace of the Peppercorn. The area where this is going on is referred to as the “hole of the donut” because, when viewed from the air this area looks like a donut hole in the landscape.
In addition to Ranger evening presentations in each of the campgrounds, there is the “Gator Spy,” an evening walk along the Anhinga Trail to see alligators at night. It is quite interesting to shine your flashlight into the Taylor Slough and see the reflections of the eyeballs of many alligators looking back at you. It is a big difference from what you see during the day!
On Saturday, January 25th, we had a leisurely start for our short (only 40 miles) drive to John Pennekamp State Park on Key Largo, FL.