Hopkin’s Prairie in the Ocala National Forest

I almost let camping season in Florida get away from me.

Last year, I took my oldest for his first overnight in a tent, which turned into a smashing success. He’s been talking about going back ever since, and I did a poor job of making a new trip happen. I can make a lot of excuses – among others, Payne’s Prairie, where we went last year, got jacked up by Hurricane Irma – but those are all excuses.  The probability of us going on a trip this year went down with each passing weekend.

But my boy, he is tenacious.  At one point he and my wife played a wishing game – I think throwing coins into a fountain – and he told her he wished for more adventures.

My heart went *bloop* because, well, I also wish for more adventures, and when my boy is wants to head down the path I want to take him down … I want to be a follow-through kind of Dad.  This pushed me to start researching dates, places, and weather. Payne’s Prairie was an option again, but the recent hurricane flooded the area and caused limited site availability. Other somewhat local state parks and designations did not have any campsite availability, either. So after poking around, I settled on a primitive, un-reservable campsite in the Ocala National Forest called Hopkin’s Prairie.

The word “prairie” deserves some discussion here – the word has been used twice now. When I hear the word “prairie,” I conjure up a mental image of the Great Plains of the American Mid-West – miles of grassland almost never punctured by trees or, for that matter, features of any kind.  In Florida, “prairie” still means grassland, but the scale is different. Here, the grasslands in question are formed by low-lying seasonal marshes that flood in the rainy season and can’t support stands of trees. The major ones, like Payne’s Prairie, can look like they go on forever when you stand in them, but for most of them you can see the forest pick up on the other side.

Hopkin’s Prairie is one of these low-lying areas in the Ocala National Forest, set in a sea of Florida scrub interspersed by islands of longleaf pine. The campsite is seasonal, only open from early November through June 1.  The primary reason for the seasonality is as much about bugs as heat, too. Any time you hear the phrase “low-lying marsh,” feel free to substitute the words “mosquito factory.”  The area is all-the-way primitive – no running water, only a moldering toilet, and the 22 campsites are not electrified – so the end of April is starting to risk yucky weather. Read more

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

Back in August, relatively early in my current path to fitness, I wrote this post, in which I articulated some secondary goals related to my fitness.  These are not goals about the fitness itself – they are goals that address a theme I’d call “How I Want to Live My Life”.  For the record, though I couldn’t have done so when I wrote that post, I can sum the answer to that up in one word now – Adventure.

One of those goals is worth quoting in its entirety:

Start keeping track of bag nights.  I love to hike and camp, and I don’t do it enough because it can be hard.  I don’t have the energy, and the physical work is just exhausting.  It has been on the order of years since I’ve done even minor camping.  That has to change, if for no other reason than that I’m committed to introducing my kids to the outdoors.

And so last weekend I took my oldest son on his first camping trip. Read more

Photo-op Saturday

Got up this morning to go for a scheduled 4 mile run, but I was having some gastro issues and lets just say that I was nervous to be 2 miles from the house this morning after having run to get there and move on.

Instead, because I was up and had a rare free morning when the sun was coming up, I grabbed my camera and headed out to the big pond / little lake out here by the house that I see so much wildlife in as I drive by on the way to and from work.  This is the same lake where I took the picture of the big alligator a few weeks back, and I thought maybe I’d find something interesting.

And I did.  Lots of things.

One thing I have to say about Florida – when the sun isn’t directly overhead the landscape is absolutely beautiful.

 

Kind of perfect, really...
Kind of perfect, really…

So I walked up and spent a couple of minutes looking around, just to see if there was anything obvious to see.  There wasn’t, so I started walking down the edge of the water.  Within two minutes, I made a new friend.

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2015-09-05 07.54.23

This was not the big guy, but I was able to get up very close to him and get some pictures I really like.  This was a rush.

Then I went and found the birds.  A great blue heron:

2015-09-05 08.04.04A great egret:
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A red-winged blackbird (actually a bunch of these, but they didn’t sit still for pictures):

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And a little blue heron (which is a distinct species, not just a small specimen):

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The light was challenging, but I want to practice my photography and try and get better – there is so much here to take pictures of, and it is frustrating to know what you want the shot to look like and not be able to execute.  So I’ll keep practicing – and seeing all of this wildlife is really a rush.

Tomorrow, though, I’ll be running.  I’ve got a 4-miler to make up.

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You must go to Gatorland

Took the family to Gatorland in Orlando today, and here’s the thing about Gatorland – you need to go.

No, seriously, whatever it is that you have planned in the Orlando area the next time you come around, you need to just go ahead and shuffle that around and make a trip to Gatorland.  If you’re here for Disney, just take the half day or even full day and skip Disney and head over there.

We went in with low expectations.  Frankly, it seemed like it had an opportunity to be very cheesy.  And, in spots, it was.  But that was more than made up for by the just unbelievable wildlife – there are so many alligators that counting becomes pointless. And snakes and birds and crocodiles and you name it – this place is incredible.

We didn’t see the “famous” Jumperoo show, but we did go and take in the alligator wrestling.  Picture a sand pit in the middle of a little arena, bleachers on all sides.  The pit is surrounded by a moat, in which swim a dozen or so alligators and over which is a single bridge that has gates on both ends of it.  Some crazy-ass dude walks in there, asks a little kid to pick out which gator he’s going to “wrestle” – and the little kid OF COURSE picks the biggest one in the water.  Because, OF COURSE.  This thing is mean, and our man struggles to get it out of the water.  So he STEPS OFF INTO THE MOAT, WADES OVER AND GRABS IT BY THE TAIL AND DRAGS IT UP INTO THE SAND PIT.  This alligator snarling and bellowing and trying to bite him the whole time.  And then proceeds to do all kinds of tricks with it.

Are you kidding me?

Seriously, come do this.  And bring your camera.  There is some amazing stuff to see here.  I took all of the pictures included below except the one with the family – that one cost $18.99, but did come with a 1GB flash drive.

Enter at the famous Gator Mouth
Enter at the famous Gator Mouth
And be greeted immediately by a sight guaranteed to make you pause.
And be greeted immediately by a sight guaranteed to make you pause.
Obligatory
Obligatory “ride the fake alligator” shot
We didn't know about the little alligator when we said do it - there was a snake option, to which we said
We didn’t know about the little alligator when we said do it – there was a snake option, to which we said “no but hell no”
They have tropical birds. Happy with my lens on this.
They have tropical birds. Happy with my lens on this.
D'awwwww
D’awwwww
This guy was no shit certifiable. And this was his second go at the gator - he got away the first time. Just crazy.
This guy was no shit certifiable. And this was his second go at the gator – he got away the first time. Just crazy.
No seriously - just crazy.
No seriously – just crazy.
Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron
He was not the biggest gator we saw, but he was huge and right underneath us.
He was not the biggest gator we saw, but he was huge and right underneath us.
Tried to make this confrontational-looking, but it wasn't. The bird was in zero danger.
Tried to make this confrontational-looking, but it wasn’t. The bird was in zero danger.
Great Egret. Looks like another freaking country.
Great Egret. Looks like another freaking country.
So.Many.Alligators
So.Many.Alligators
And welcome to Florida, where the humidity is wretched and it rains every day.
And welcome to Florida, where the humidity is wretched and it rains every day.

Random Butterfly

On vacation to Delaware this week, and on the way up we stopped to have a picnic lunch at the Visitor Center for the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge.  Nice place – cool little small museum, and pretty scenery.

Also, these guys.  I’m waiting on a positive identification, but this is some kind of swallowtail – Eastern swallowtail, two-tailed swallowtail, something.

DSC_0737 DSC_0740

Happy with how these pictures turned out – in particular (technical photography speak here – don’t worry, I don’t know what I’m talking about), the bokeh is something I’m really happy with from this lens.

This has nothing to do with fitness or running or eating right.  Cool pictures, though.

UPDATE (8/17/2015):

This has been confirmed as an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail – and this is a female.  Fun!

http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/sighting_details/1057467

Wildlife

Back in December, a headhunter got in touch with me about a great job opportunity.  And he was right – it was great.  There was a catch, though.

The job was in Florida.

But – against all odds, we sold our house and moved to Florida at the end of April.  There will be a lot of discussion of the adjustment of moving and the running in Florida vs. the running in New York (preview:  no hills!).  This post, though, is going to focus on a specifically new thing for my runs:  wildlife.

I’m sensitive to this topic because about six weeks after we moved here I took this picture from the pond about 3 minutes from the house:

That is EXACTLY what it looks like
That is EXACTLY what it looks like

When I took that picture, I was standing on a sidewalk that is part of my regular running route.  It has to be, because I have to regularly go through there to get to a lot of places.

So … yeah.  I run in the early morning, before work.  Before dawn.  When it is still dark.  I pay attention when I run now, to indulge in understatement.

Of course, this means I notice a lot, and it turns out that there is a lot to notice in Florida.  The big one for me is the birds – an example is this guy, whose picture I took not 100 yards from where I took the picture of the alligator:

They stand like that all the time
They stand like that all the time

This one is called an anhinga, and they are basically South American birds who also have a small range in the extreme southern United States, including most of Florida.  In other words, I never ever would have seen this bird in New York.  Incidentally, I looked him up, and they stand with their wings like that to dry them – they are water birds, but their feathers don’t get oily like a duck’s, and they struggle to fly with wet feathers.

There seem to be a million of these little lizards:

These guys are EVERYWHERE
These guys are EVERYWHERE

And, just, in general there is a lot of wildlife.  Several runs ago I spent 5 minutes watching two bats going crazy catching bugs. On the run after that I was close enough to an armadillo that I could have kicked him.  And then just after the armadillo, there were three deer that included a little yearling buck about 10 steps away.

The next day I almost stepped on something that scared me to death, and I still don’t know what it was.  It was, however, furry – so not an alligator.  Or a snake.

Oh, dear god, if I ever step on a snake…