View from Calloway Peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the storm on the right caught up to us and rained on our hike back down
Karen on a boulder in the middle of a river, hiking with Megan in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Boynton Beach, Florida is on our itinerary for two reasons: one, it is where Jim’s mom and stepdad live for the winter and two, Jim’s sister has a condo here that she graciously said we could stay in. After a few days of visiting with Jim’s family, Megan went up to Boone, NC for a long weekend to visit her friend Karen. They had a wonderful time hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains, eating delicious food, and looking for the first of the blooming rhododendrons that blanket the hills. It was the first time since we left that Megan needed to wear long pants, socks, and a sweater—a delightful change for this girl who has gotten used to the heat. Meanwhile, back in Florida, Jim was joined by his sister Candy, her husband Bill, and his brother-in-law Dana. They all pitched in to close up his mom’s house and get the snowbirds and their dog packed up and on the way to Maine, where they will spend the summer.
Sawgrass prairie in S. Florida
Like everywhere else we have been, Florida is interesting! Being back in the US, we have had less to get used to, but many things here are very different than Oregon. Before we get into our life and adventures here, a little background and history. Florida is flat—really, really flat. In the weeks we have been here with all our exploring, we have ranged from sea level to about 15 feet above sea level. Also Southern Florida is a vast wetland. Given the lack of grand topography, elevation changes can be measured in inches. The ecosystem is different on the “high ground” which is only a few inches above the mean elevation of a given area. The lowest areas have standing water year round. Lake Okeechobee (in the middle of the peninsula) is slowly draining downhill, to the south. Water in the lake starts at 15 feet above sea level and will take about a year to travel a little over 100 miles from Okeechobee, through the Everglades, and out to Florida Bay (which is the body of water between the mainland and the Florida Keys). The Everglades is essentially a 50-mile wide river that is just a few inches deep! Given all this wet flatness, almost all the land that people live on has been man made. By digging a ditch, piling up the dirt, and diverting the water flow humans have been creating drier land to live, travel, and play on. Florida’s flora and fauna are unique because this is one of the few places in the world that tropical species and temperate species live side by side. The warm wet environment means life is abundant. Ponds teem with fish, reptiles, insects, birds, and plants. Tree trunks and branches are home to hundreds of air plants. Thousands of migratory birds spend part of the year in Florida.
This is a typical east Florida beach with white sand stretching on farther than the eye can see.
We have settled into a nice rhythm. Each morning, we begin the day by swimming in the condo association’s pool. We’ve found a fruit and vegetable stand that keeps us stocked for breakfast smoothies, green salads, and watermelon feeds. We’re about a mile from the beach and regularly enjoying walking on the endless soft white sand, swimming in the warm breaking waves, ogling the mansions and gardens built right off the beaches, and sharing it all with the families in the area. Several times we have tried to snorkel but it is always disappointing and difficult in the waves. We learned how quickly and heavily the rain can come here; one walk turned into a wet squish as our clothes became entirely soaked in the first 3 minutes of the downpour. The clouds are constantly amazing and beautiful: small cumulous form off the coast and seem to come scooting over the land just above our heads. This is a car culture with very limited public transport so we have rented a car in order to take advantage of all there is to see around: nature preserves, parks, a Japanese garden, beaches, lakes, museums, etc.
The approach to a sinkhole in Fakahatchee Strand filled with alligators
We took a road trip through southern Florida, beginning by crossing what is called Alligator Alley to the west coast and dropping south to Everglades City. Our host recommended a hike in a local swamp: Fakahatchee Strand Nature Preserve. We drove on a dirt road seven miles to get to the trail head and didn’t see any other people out hiking. The Fakahatchee is known for being full of epiphytes, bromeliads, orchids, and royal palms. We hiked along an old raised path built for when they logged the old growth cypress out of the swamp. It was pretty fantastic to be in the swamps like this but the mosquitos were so plentiful we didn’t stop to take any pictures of the amazing plants and trees all around. We saw one water snake (not poisonous) and an alligator; actually, we smelled the alligator before we saw him on the side of the trail and nicknamed him “Ole Stinker.” A couple miles in we came to an old cabin by a sinkhole. Sinkholes occur in the limestone and can be almost 100 feet deep, even though this one was probably more like 10 feet deep. Right now the dry season is coming to an end, which means the swamp is drier than usual (I can’t imagine it with more mosquitos though!) which means that animals congregate to known water sources, like sinkholes. As we stepped out onto this little dock, it quickly became clear that the sinkhole was filled with alligators. Fortunately our dock was up off the water, so we felt safe, and in the hot afternoon sun, so the mosquitos left us alone. We stayed for close to an hour watching about 50 alligators swim around the pond. They were very active, swimming, splashing, feeding, posturing to each other. You can see a short video we took here and many photos under the “Pictures” tab at the top of the page.
In Everglades National Park, the alligators can be found right on the edge of the trail
The next day we went into Everglades National Park. In a shorter hike there, we were overwhelmed with the quantity of life. The place was teeming with fish, alligators, turtles, birds, algae, plants, and tourists. The animals there are used to people so we were able to get quite close, not by trying, but because these critters live right on the side of the path.
Driving down the Florida Keys
After that, we headed south into the Florida Keys. The Keys are a chain of islands stretching over 120 miles south and west from Miami. In many places, the islands are about a block wide and in other places bridges span up to seven miles between islands. We did our duty by sampling multiple version of key lime pie. We spent a night in Key Largo and another in Key West. We went snorkeling at the fantastic John Pennekamp State Park, where we got close to many large barracuda, a stingray, and an endangered green turtle, large parrotfish, coral heads and many more colorful fish. To get there we took a boat five miles off shore yet our snorkel site was between two and eight feet deep and pretty well beaten by waves breaking on the reef.
As far south as you can get in the contiguous US. We didn’t want to wait in line to take our picture like the couple in the background, so we got in on theirs instead.
In Key West, we enjoyed the people watching, the art galleries, the old architecture, the infamous daily sunset celebration in Mallory Square, and the good food. It was a riot to watch the crowd gathering for the sunset; many buskers performed for tips while boats sailed back and forth in the channel behind them. Our host let us borrow beach cruisers and we joined the throngs of slow cyclists criss-crossing town. We toured the Audubon House and southernmost point of the contiguous US, where we were closer to Havana than Miami!
Riding beach cruisers in Key West. Check out the coconut cup holder, bell, and horn on the handlebars!
The Audubon House is a museum that once was the home of a wealthy Key West family who earned their fortune salvaging wrecked boats off the keys. Mr. Audubon himself once used part of a limb from a tree on the yard as a model for a drawing.The house contained a superb collection of first edition Audubons, artist proofs, and period furniture. Panels explained the history of Key West told through the story of one family; they lived in the house for four generations. The grounds were compact, peaceful, shady and had a nice garden of tropical plants.
Can you identify which one of these is the non-native invasive species? (Hint: it isn’t an orchid)
Sunset celebration at Mallory Square in Key West. Note the fire juggler on tall unicycle.
Two bridge fisherman in the Keys with a “keeper”
Can you spot the gar fish?
Can you spot the turtle?
Can you spot the resting alligator?
Can you spot the bird?
Can you spot the cypress knees? Cypress trees put up these odd growths; it is assumed they help stabilize the tree in the event of strong winds and soaked earth.
Can you spot the tree under the 1000 epiphytes growing on it?
Can you spot the baby alligator?
Can you spot the barracuda?
Can you spot the chemtrail in the sunset?
Can you spot the alligator?
Classic grassy marsh with scattered palms
Airboats are a common way to get around the swamps because all you need to draft is a couple inches. We decided to not go on one and instead keep our hearing.
A lookout tower near Fakahatchee. Note the air conditioner box on the side and vultures roosting on the structure.
The largest alligator in the Fakahatchee sinkhole was at least 12 feet
The bumps you see are the eyes of alligators
Royal palms are prolific native species in S Florida. They are also commonly planted in landscaping
Everglades City was a sweet quiet town with empty lots, neat yards, and scattered houses. We guessed some of the empty lots in the middle of town tell of past hurricanes.
One of the bonsai trees at Morakami. A few were 400 years old.
Museum at Morakami had displays on local history, and life in Japan (school, family life, transportation)
Yogic turtle practicing “up dog” at Morakami
Morakami Japanese Garden
This iguana was in a park in downtown Fort Lauderdale
Sunset with the municipal water town in Boynton Beach
This nest was about 6 feet from a boardwalk in a local nature preserve
The wildlife at a local nature preserve was nonplussed by proximity to humans
The Wakodahatchee Wetlands are the last step in the local water treatment plant’s outflow. It is also a free country park with a mile of boardwalk trails so people can observe the wildlife.