Saturday, December 18, 2010

Cloudland Canyon

My friend Patty and I decided to take advantage of the Labor Day Weekend this year and go camping. She lives in Atlanta so I drove up there and then we drove up to Cloudland Canyon, about 2 hours NW of Atlanta.
Driving up, the highways were bordered by fall colors. All the tree leaves were turning and it was beautiful scenery!

 We camped in the RV/Tent campground. This was a last minute trip and it was easier to shove all our supplies in the car rather than hike them in to the tents only campground. Here is my little tent on our campsite.  


Sadly neither of us were in Girl Scouts and had issues starting a fire. Our neighbor helped us out and we managed to heat up our hot dogs and veggies and then create a campfire to stay warm by for the night.
The next morning we woke up and found the trail that leads into the canyon.

 
Along the trail, we found this baby cave. The rock on top is placed so perfectly it almost looks manmade but it's not (I assume!).
 While hiking, we amused ourselves by taking fake pictures. This is me rock climbing....12 inches off of the ground...

 Here is Patty holding up this GIANT BOULDER. It was huuuuuge. This was at the top of the path before the bajillion stairs that we walked down, not anticipating the return trip.
 Down in the ravine are two waterfalls, with a stream leading from one to the other. There are large rocks strewn along the creek bed. I think as a naturally short person, I automatically climb onto anything that will make me taller. I was standing on the chair rungs of a bar stool last night talking to someone and they remarked on it. I think I'm like a goat. If goats have the opportunity to climb on something, they will.
 Here is Patty in front of the first waterfall. Both waterfalls were pretty small considering the amount of space it looked like they could take. I'm guessing Georgia has had just as little rainfall as Florida this fall and hopefully they are bigger in the summer.
 This rock had a perfect seat just waiting for me!

 We hiked the two miles to the end of the trail and checked out the cave that Patty read about on the internet. Apparently the park does not advertise this cave but it is popular among spelunkers. We asked the park ranger and they gave us directions, letting us know that we will be able to tell we're near the cave by the cold blast of air that hits you as you get close. And it was true! It was freezing air coming out of the cave. I put my jacket on because it was probably a 10-20 degree different in temperature. .
This is looking from the cave back out the opening. There wasn't much to see beyond mud and rocks and we were on a tight schedule to get back to the campground before dark so we left. Hiking back on the trail, we started to get tired and were dreading the ridiculous stair climb back up to the top. Luckily we came across a couple of hikers that we had talked to earlier in the day. They were a nice older couple from the same town as Patty and they offered us a ride since they were staying in the same campground. 
 Relieved we didn't have to hike the stairs, we got back to the campground and relaxed in our hammocks, read, and snacked. Then we started our dinner and camp fires and were much more successful this time. We had a new neighbor whose "fire starter" consisted of a propane tank with a nozzle. He helped us out and we were set for the night! We made soup over the fire along with roasted sweet potatoes, zuchinni and corn.
Patty was in charge of the fire and I was in charge of the marshmallows :-P Plus it was super cold at night so the fire was essential!
 The next morning we got a grill fire going all by ourselves and cooked up an awesome breakfast of eggs in a basket with melted cheese on top. Yummmm

Then we packed up and drove back. We picked up some delicious apples on the way back from an old man on the side of the road. Fresh from Ellajay (sp?), GA where all their apples seem to come from.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Big Cypress

 I grew up knowing the Everglades was nearby and I think all elementary students go on a fieldtrip with the requisite airboat ride through sawgrass, but about 5 years ago I went to one of the Water Conservation Areas as part of my internship with NRCS.

We went on an airboat with an FWC employee and a professor from UF. The FWC employee was going to different tree islands to check the tapes on motion sensor cameras that track large animals, like panthers, as they migrate from island to island. My supervisor and I were there to assist the professor in collecting a certain species of water lily that grows near the islands for her research on phosphorous uptake.

That trip was one of the coolest things I had experienced at that point in my life. The airboat ride (not a touristy "lets scare the gators thing"), wading in the water, and exploring the tree islands were so unlike anything I had done before and had never imagined I could.

After that day, I decided I had to get a job in the Everglades. That's something I'm still working on, since I don't have a masters degree yet and am not willing to compromise my health insurance for a seasonal field work job. However now that the park ranger programs have opened up for the winter season, I am trying to go to the parks every time I visit that area.
So this past Thanksgiving weekend, I made sure to reserve spots for my dad and I on a ranger led swamp walk in Big Cypress National Preserve. The trail we took started out right across Tamiami Trail from the Oasis Visitor's Center.

Here are my dad's shoes as he's trying to avoid the mud. The park ranger explained that we had to walk in the muddy trail or else we would all trample the surrounding plants.
Another picture of my dad in front of me. You can see the trampled, muddy trail. 
As we got closer to the cypress strand, the water got deeper and cooler as it washed out the mud in our shoes and slowly soaked our pants.
This is what the cypress looked like when we entered the trail, small and thin. You can see the strand of cypress in the background. Those trees are taller and thicker, not because they're older but because the elevation is lower there and there is water for longer periods of time. The stunted cypress in the foreground are (probably) the same age as the larger ones but their ground dries out faster in periods of no rain, so they don't grow as quickly.

 This is a picture of a bromeliad on a cypress trunk. These airplants, also called epiphytes, attach themselves to the trunks of trees. They get all of their nutrients from the air and the rain.
Look at all those hairy bromeliads!
Partially submerged in the water is lemon bacopa. There is a purple flower, but I don't remember if that belongs to the bacopa or another plant. Lemon bacopa smells like eucalyptus or menthol when you crush it up. 
  
It was really peaceful in the cypress stand. Most of the leaves have already fallen off for winter, but the light came down through the clouds and branches. 
 The water became deeper as we slowly felt our way further into the swamp.
The water is a dark tea color from the tannins in the cypress leaves, so it was hard to see what you were going to walk into next. Here is my dad stepping up out of the water and over a log.
 We eventually ended up a gator hole. This is a large pond that is deeper than the surrounding areas. There was a juvenile gator basking on a log and some egrets in the background. Sadly I am too short and didn't get a good picture of it. Also, we were all standing on the edge of the pond, being quiet so that we didn't scare away any animals. You can see alligator flag in the foreground of this picture. The park ranger explained that this aquatic plant lives in deeper water than the rest of the prairie, and the hunters used it to know when they would come across a gator hole, hence the name "alligator flag".
After the gator hole, we looped around and came out to the drier prairie. We took the same trail back to the road and rinsed off at the visitor's center. This was a great experience, but not for those squeamish about getting muddy or wet or close to gators/spiders/etc. 
The change of clothes recommended when you reserve your spot was definitely needed!








Monday, December 6, 2010

Chassahowizka River

Yesterday my friend Ashley and I went on a kayak trip to the Chassahowitzka River. This is a spring-fed river that empties into the Gulf of Mexico and is tidally influenced. Our trip happened to be during low tide. There are the 7 Sisters Springs located near the boat ramp.

The water in this section was maybe 6-12 inches deep with springs bubbling up through circular solution holes in the riverbed. I'd first seen pictures of this when my friend came here a few years ago and I've been determined to come back ever since!
Going into the main channel, the river is wide, shallow and clear! It's surrounded by coastal forest. The tree that really stood out were the cabbage palms lining the banks of the river.
That circle of green up there in the bald tree is a bunch of mistletoe.
We paddled up some of the side channels that feed the river. Looking at a map, I saw that the side channels start with a spring and that eventually flows into the river.
There was a strong wind blowing from the cold front that came in that day so it was nice to get into a smaller side channel, protected from the chilly air.

The side channels were also narrower and shallower. 

We stopped on a bank of the main river for "lunch and bushes".

The second side channel was slightly deeper and clearer than the first.
It passed through two springs. They were very blue, but the water was cloudy (total dissolved solids?)

We eventually reached a point in the creek that was too shallow to continue paddling. We pulled the boats over and continued on foot, walking through 4 inches of crystal clear water over white sand. There were trees shading overhead, filtering the light. 
Even though it just looks like a sand path in the picture above, it's not. It's a creek! There is an egret in the background. 
 

You can see the line of blue in the middle of the picture. That is "The Crack". This is the spring feeding the channel we paddled up. It's literally a crack in the limestone. The water surrounding the crack is only a few feet deep. There's a rope swing hanging over the crack so it must be higher water at different tides. Still not deep enough for me to jump into... I really wanted to swim in it, but didn't because of the strong and cold wind in the main river that we had to paddle to return.

Heading back to the river, some other boaters let us know about three manatees in a nearby cove, so we checked it out. At first we couldn't find them but soon they started coming up and nosing our boats. 

Ashley and my faces were in permanent "OMG THIS IS AWESOME" expressions.

My camera is an underwater camera so we stuck it in the water and just shot blindly to see if we could get pics of the manatees.
The manatees were huuuuge! They were the length of our kayaks and much larger in width. The continued to swim up to and under our boats, probably rubbing their backs. The second time one of them stuck her nose next to my hand, I just reached down and scratched her head. 
There was a boat with a family in this area and the manatees headed over there. The kids on the boat reached over and stuck their hands in the water to pet the manatees. Next thing I know, the baby manatee is on it's back with it's belly and flippers in the air, getting a belly rub from the kids! I've swam with manatees once and I've seen them one other time so I haven't had that much interaction with them. Ashley had never seen manatees at all so we were both in awe the entire time.
I highly recommend this river and plan on coming back in warmer weather to swim. I also want to see the dolphins that are known to come to the river to feed. 
We went with Lars from Adventure Outpost. He was extremely knowledgeable and shared interesting facts about the environment. I plan on going on more of his trips to explore the rest of Florida's springs!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Juniper Prairie Wilderness


This past October, my friend, Kristen, and I hiked a portion of the Florida Trail in the Ocala National Forest. It's called the Juniper Prairie Wilderness. I found a set of photos from somebody else hiking it on Google Earth and thought it looked like a nice intro to long distance hiking in Florida. Originally we thought it would be cool to hike in, camp overnight and hike out the next day but we're both too poor/cheap to invest in some camping gear at the moment.
I researched it and found a useful intro and map to the area on the Florida Trail Association's website. I'm horrible at getting up early so by the time we drove the 1.5 hours to Juniper Springs to park at the trailhead, it was probably around 9:30. The trail starts out in a scrub ecosystem with a lot of thick bushes. We were a little nervous at first because it was the start of hunting season and we don't own any "hunters orange" clothing. And by we, I really mean me because I am a worywart. So we put on our orange and blue Gators hats and wore bright clothing. Another possible danger in the back of my mind would be the encounter of a black bear. I doubted we would see any, but if we did, then what?!

The trail dips in elevation and enters a burnt out pine forest. Which is where we saw the above sign. It reads "THIS PORTION OF TRAIL PASSES THROUGH A WILDERNESS AREA. THEREFORE, IT IS MAINTAINED TO A LESSER STANDARD. VISITORS MUST ASSUME POSSIBLE RISKS SUCH AS FALLING TREES, LIMBS, LACK OF VEHICLE ACCESS, ANIMAL.." and then it cut off b/c the rest burned off in the fire. Woooonderful.

This area of the trail was actually the most beautiful because of the contrast between the darkened pine silhouettes against the bright blue sky.Also the vast expanse of saw palmetto made it possible to get a good shot of area.

A couple of streams crossed the trail and one of them had a log and rope to help you cross, I assume when the water is higher. After this, the habitat changes a bit into more trees and a couple of times it took us a few seconds to figure out which was trail b/c the area was so open. Luckily this trail was well maintained and we just followed the orange triangles.
Eventually we came to a pond. The map from the FTA's website was incredibly handy, but it only has one pond listed on it. We came to this pond maybe 40 minutes into our hike and according to the map Hidden Pond is supposed to be about 6 miles in from the trailhead. So we scratched our heads, looked at the  map some more and kept walking. After passing numerous ponds that looked exactly like this one, we met another hiker who assured us that we would know Hidden Pond when we saw it because it was significantly larger.

After asking "is this it?" to each other multiple times, we finally came upon Hidden Pond. We only know it was Hidden Pond because of the tents we saw set up across the way. We ran into another set of hikers asking us if this was Hidden Pond and when we confirmed it probably was, their faces showed the disappoint that I was feeling. The only difference between this pond and the probably 10 others we passed on the way here was a little pathway worn into the bank from so many people entering it. It was crystal clear (indicating a spring?), but you could only tell that because the erosion had also taken away the aquatic plants growing on the bottom. So who knows whether the other ponds were spring fed. I had read multiple websites that praised this trail for the amount of swimming opportunities. While it was clear water, the dark bottom of the rest of the pond made it hard to see through and I don't think you could pay me to go swimming in that. I am a Floridian to the core and have a healthy fear of alligators, so no thanks.

After eating some dried fruit and a water break, we headed back. I found out that a 12 mile hike is most definitely not a good beginner hike to do in one day and I will spare you the whining that ensued. Kristen is most definitely a true friend for not only putting up with my complaining but for encouraging me those last 4 miles. 8 miles round trip is going to be my limit until I build up some more leg muscle.

Muscle-less legs aside, this trail had beautiful scenery, was well maintained and I would consider coming back. My one real complaint was the lack of detail on the grab and go map from the FTAs website. If you park at the Juniper Springs trail head, the park rangers require you to sign in and out with them, which I appreciated. However they did not have any maps or information about the trail beyond a large Florida Trail map that you could buy for $3. Now we've already established I'm relatively thrifty, but $3 for a map that is essentially just a large ortho map of Florida with a line denoting the Florida Trail and with absolutely no detail about the trail I plan on hiking seems absurd to me.

What is the proverb? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? Park Service might want to invest in some free maps for the trail before they end up sending a search party for someone who isn't prepared.