Monday, February 29, 2016

What's in a Name? Beauty and Fun on Florida's Nature Coast

Crystal River, our home for the last two weeks, is located on Florida's Nature Coast. We had a great time uncovering the hidden beauty of area ...  and also learning to pronounce the names of the unique places in this area! 

Derived from the Creek Indian word for "Where the peppers grow".

The urban area of Homosassa, just down the road, probably should have been called "where the succulent shrimp and crab are found". Here we discovered a seafood heaven called The Freezer.

It is a little tiki bar that serves up plain and simple ... and darn good seafood. I almost lost out on the crab legs because Doug was a much more skillful "crab cracker" ... but he felt bad and graciously cracked some for me :-)

We are glad that the locals who told us about it also gave us the strategy for getting served. One person gets in a long line leading up to the bar in order to place your order while the other scouts out a table. No matter what time of day, this place is always busy! And once you taste your food and see your bill, you will understand why ... crab legs, shrimp and two beers for about $25. Yes, we went back again!

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Derived from the Muskogee Indian word for "little spring"

So, after posting an underwater photo taken at Rock Crusher Canyon RV park's awesome pool, a friend commented that I should try out for the mermaid show at Weeki Wachee.

The idea of seeing a REAL mermaid intrigued me ....

So I dragged Doug to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park to see ...

Live mermaid shows in their underwater spring theater ...

Alligators (and their cute trainer) up close and personal ...

A river cruise on the clear spring fed river...

And even had a chance to try out my "mermaid" pose!

Chassahowitzka River
The Indian word for "land of the hanging pumpkin"

Hum, not sure about what pumpkins have to do with this area, except that our favorite "pumpkin-growing" friends are visiting us here.

Ok, so Doug was not so thrilled with my mermaid find, so he took the RVenture activity planning into his own hands ... and struck gold at the "Chaz" River ... because no one can really pronounce "Chassahowitzka"... except Chris, as it is eerily close to her Polish maiden name.

We rented a canoe at the Chassahowitzka Campground Store for $20 a day ... a real bargain around here!

But it was the clear waters, spectacular wildlife and lack of crowds that hooked us!

We hung out for a while in "Snapper Hole"... just us and a few manatees enjoying the sunshine.

Paddling up Baird Creek, we came to the "end of the road" where we had to get out of our canoe and wade up a short distance to the springhead of the creek, "Blue Spring". So cool to think that this deep blue spring is the beginning of the waterway!

Withlacoochee Trail
The Indian word for "crooked river"

Biking in Florida is best done on trails, and unfortunately, we have not done as much as we would like. But we were happy to find three bike trails in the area. The Withlacoochee Trail is a 46 mile paved trail. We drove to Inverness and biked a 12 mile out and back with a stop at Ferris Groves for some huge and oh, so sweet strawberries!

The Withlacoochee Bay Trail (better known by locals as Canal Trail) is north of Crystal River. It is a pleasant 5 mile ride that ends with a lovely view of the Gulf.

For our mountain biking experience in flat Florida, we did a 7 mile loop at the Crystal River Preserve State Park. Muddy and swampy at times, but no alligator encounters.

Today we have moved south to Little Manatee River State Park in Wimauma, Florida. Another Indian name? Well, my google search revealed a different origin of the town's name.
It seems the town's founder named it by taking the first few letters of his three daughters names, Willie, Maude and Mary! How funny is that??!!

But before we start to explore the Tampa area, we want to leave you with some reflections of the beauty of Florida's Nature Coast.

Our friendly manatee wanting us to get in the water to play
Azaleas in bloom at Rainbow Springs State Park

Dolphin jumping in the Gulf at sunset

We would love to hear the name and meaning of your favorite nature hangout.

Until next time ... have fun in the sun ... and enjoy the adventures in your life!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Crystal River Manatees ... The Other Florida Snowbirds

We are spending two weeks in Crystal River, Florida. We became intrigued with this town years ago when we brought our boys to Florida during spring break. We were drawn to Crystal River to search out the Manatees, who "winter" in the warm headsprings in the area. Unfortunately in the past, our visits had been at the beginning of April when most of the manatees had ventured back to the Gulf.

This year we are thrilled to join the human "snowbirds" at Rock Crusher Canyon RV Park and the Manatee "snowbirds" at Crystal River Wildlife Refuge ... both who gather in large numbers from about November 1 through April 1. 

As the Gulf of Mexico's water temperature drops in the winter the manatees, who are unable to tolerate water colder than 68 degrees, are drawn to the Crystal RiverThe headsprings keep the water in this haven at a comfortable (for manatees) 72 degrees year round. The US Fish and Wildlife Service created the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge to protect the endangered Florida manatee. Seeing these gentle, slow moving herbivores in their winter habitat has long been on RVenture "to do" list.

There are three main ways to view the manatees that gather in Three Sisters Spring.

The first is to stop at the Citrus County Welcome Center and buy a $15 ticket to ride the trolley to the newly constructed boardwalk above the Three Sister Springs. 

The next is to rent a kayak or pontoon and get a chance to see them closer ... and possibly have them glide underneath your watercraft. Many companies in the area also offer guided tours.

Our tandem kayak was able to take us closer to the action! It was fun to see the flapping fins as the manatees played in their winter wonderland.

 But, I realized that Doug will not be satisfied with seeing these gentle giants from a distance for long ... 

So we donned the wetsuit, goggles, snorkel and fins ...

and jumped right in!

We were happy that our underwater camera still worked, and were able to capture some of the beauty of these docile sea creatures.

The success of the Crystal River Refuge is becoming evident as the numbers of manatees are increasing. It was fun to see many mama manatees with baby closely following!

Until next time ... hang out with some wildlife ... and enjoy the adventures in your life!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A Walk with Friends: McKee Botanical Garden

Just as I suspected, I met some amazing people while volunteering for Habitat for Humanity in Vero Beach last week. One of these special people is Pam, a self-proclaimed professional volunteer and all-around fun person!

Pam is a member of the "Women's Build Team" and helps at the build site twice a week year round. I quickly realized that I could learn some "serious construction skills" from her. I also learned about her other passion, botany, and was very happy when she graciously invited our group for an afternoon walk through the McKee Botanical Gardens ... especially since Doug is never really excited about these types of "fun" RVentures!

As a volunteer at McKee Botanical Gardens for many years, Pam is a fountain of information on the palms, bromeliads, water lilies, bamboos and 10,000 other native and tropical plants in the garden. The garden started out as McKee Jungle Garden in 1932, one of Florida's original amusement parks, attracting 100,000 visitors a year.

But with competition from the arrival of that "other" big Florida amusement park in 1971, the park closed in the mid 1970's. Twenty years later a dedicated group of people worked to raise money and restore the beauty of the gardens. The resulting McKee Botanical Garden opened in 2001.

During our walk through the 18 acre garden, Pam shared with us some of her favorite plants and places. Her amazing stories reflected her passion for educating people about the natural beauty of Florida. I wish that I had taken notes, so that I could pass on all that I learned, but I will just leave you with a few of the pictures that Doug and I took.

We did encounter a few "creatures" in the jungle garden ...

McKee's current special exhibit, "Roar of the Dinosaur" featured Guy Darrough's incredible dinosaur replicas. It was fun to see the life-like AllosaurusDaspletosaurus, and Sordes amidst the tropical vegetation.

Unique natural structures like these towers made entirely of sticks and the Royal Palm Grove added to the charm of the garden.

We are always thankful for the times when RVentures brings us to beautiful places. But moreover, we are grateful to walk with friends like Pam who is willing to share her talents and passions with others!

Until next time ... take a walk with friends ... and enjoy the adventures in your life!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Habitat for Humanity Build #1: Vero Beach

One of the hardest parts of starting RVentures was giving up all our volunteer activities and the friendships at home. While reading another RV traveler's blog, we found out about the Habitat for Humanity Care-A-Vanners program. During our build with this talented crew, we found a great way to use our talents to give back ... and the new friendships formed was a precious BONUS!

Our build site was the Waterside Community in Vero Beach. The Habitat for Humanity affiliate purchased the land and will build approximately 50 homes here. During our two weeks, we worked on five houses in various stages of construction. Future homeowners worked alongside us. To be considered for the program, they put in 300 hours of work at the buildsite as well as attend classes that will help ensure that they will have the skills to be successful homeowners.

As a result of this "sweat equity", the homes showed the pride of the new owners. And the treats provided by grateful families show how they continue to give back for the gift of their new home.

I was a bit nervous starting out, as I am a construction "newbie". Never handled power tools ... in fact, Doug wasn't even sure that I knew the difference between nails and screws! But Richard, our construction supervisor, had no problem finding jobs for me that were within my skill and comfort level.


In fact, after he tasted the Yummy Bars that I brought for break one day, he decided that I could be the official "Snack Maker" ... I can do that! Since we are moving on, I will leave the recipe here.

Yummy Bars

1 chocolate cake mix (dry)
3/4 cup butter (melted)
2/3 cup evaporated milk
1 bag (14 oz) Kraft caramels (unwrapped)
1/2 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350. Mix melted butter, dry cake mix and 1/3 cup evaporated milk together and put 2/3 of the batter in a lightly greased 9x13 pan. Bake at 350 for 8 minutes. Meanwhile, melt the caramels and 1/3 cup evaporated milk in microwave until melted; stirring often. Pour melted caramel mixture over baked cake mix. Sprinkly with chocolate chips. Spoon the rest of the cake mixture on top. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes. Cool and cut. Enjoy!

I have been told that these bars last 2-3 days, but I have never been able to test that theory ...

According to Doug, our workday started at "0 Dark 30" (thus the half-opened eyes) and went until 12 noon when the day started heating up.

During that time Richard skillfully coordinated the many groups of volunteers ... and utilized the various skills to get the job done.

Diane and her husband, George, have 23 years of Habitat for Humanity building experience. They have built in every state. I am in constant awe and admiration of her power saw skills!

A large group of men from one of the retirement communities would come on Tuesdays. It was inspiring to see this group to work together to "raise the roof"!

How many cooks can we fit in the kitchen? Quite a few when each brings their own personal construction skills!

Larry (in orange) served as our Care-A-Vanner leader using his 10 years of volunteer experience to ensure we all had a great build ... and fun social events like the Super Bowl potluck!

Doug learned a thing or two about home construction when working with his contractor dad during his younger days ... 

From these pics it looks like he learned how to let someone else do the work while he takes care of all the "heavy" cleanup!

But in all seriousness, my greatest moments were being about to work alongside Doug and the other volunteers and have them patiently teach me "serious construction skills". By the end I have learned ....


...that caulking is lots like cake decorating

...that working with the friendly, supportive, and experienced "women's build team" is just as therapeutic as coffee with my girlfriends!

...that laying tile flooring is as fun as assembling a puzzle ... but the pieces fit much better when Doug does the measuring of small corner pieces!

We signed up the one build initially as we were unsure how we would like the Care-A-Vanner experience. We are glad to say that it exceeded our expectations so much so that I entitled this blog entry as "Build #1"... there will be more! After just the first week, we got back on the Care-A-Vanner website and have signed up to three more builds (in Wisconsin, South Dakota and Louisiana) in late summer and fall. 

The answer of how we can we use our "serious" construction ... and baking skills to bring to promise of a better future for others was obvious by the smiles of the future homeowner. Habitat for Humanity's Care-A-Vanner program brings together the talents of so many to make the dream of homeownership a reality.

Until next time ... utilize your "serious" skills ... and enjoy the adventures in your life!