Florida Part 1: Rubber-eating buzzards, sea cows and the world’s oldest hippo

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We turned out every light in the RV.

Braden turned out the light in his bed and Jess hit another switch. It was pitch black.

I leashed up the dogs and threw open the door, leapt out and quickly slammed it behind me.

When I clicked on my powerful 600 lumen flashlight, I noticed the beam was weak and diffused. As I remember it, I heard horror movie music when I looked down at the flashlight and saw the reason the light was weak was because the lens was covered in a swarm of fat, black mosquitos. I quickly turned the light off and took a couple of quick steps away on the asphalt.

Then I remembered the park rangers saying that here in the Everglades, pythons slither onto the roads at night because the blacktop stays warm from the sun.

Yes, stepping on a python was worse than mosquitos. I clicked the flashlight back on and urged the dogs to hurry about their business.

While I was out, Braden had turned on his light so when I returned, I knocked for him to turn it out. When he did, the dogs and I bounded in, leaving the door open for about three seconds on the way out and three seconds on the way in.

No fewer than 35 mosquitos danced around the white ceiling of the camper. In what had become a routine, we each got a paper towel and smashed the invaders against the ceiling. This is camping in South Florida — even in December.

Entering the Sunshine State

Despite living on the road, we didn’t want to miss Thanksgiving and Christmas with family. And since our families live in Georgia and Alabama, that gave us a three week span between the holidays where we didn’t want to go too far from home. When we looked south to Florida, it made a lot of sense. Being there in December, we would come in before the snowbirds booked all of the campsites, but after the bugs were gone. We were right about the snowbirds.

From my family’s Thanksgiving in Valley, Ala. we headed down US 27 toward Tallahassee on the Friday after Thanksgiving. We had picked a couple of campgrounds around Tallahassee, but when we called them, they were all full because of the Florida-Florida State game the next day.

Luckily we found a Jellystone Park about an hour west on I-10. The main thing I remember from this stop was the huge tether ball (telephone pole with a 4-foot across ball). Braden and I played  with it until I almost knocked his head off twice.

Florida … “The Real Florida”

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One of our goals for being in Florida was to see Manatees. Jess had never seen them in the wild and since they are not very fast moving or elusive, we thought it would be fairly easy.

We had much better results than our search for a loon up north.

We camped at Manatee Springs State Park and took our kayak out in the Suwannee River our first morning there. Sure enough, as we paddled along Jess thought she either saw a rock or a manatee under the clear water. When it moved slightly, we knew it was a manatee. Then suddenly, there were a dozen around us. They would breach their noses above the water, breathe and then sink back down. Pretty cool critters.

While looking at the manatees below us, we couldn’t help but notice a freaky number of vultures in the trees around the river. It was a very unusual number of them and we wondered what they knew that we didn’t.

But the manatees and vultures were not our only companions. Christian and Julie (our Canadian friends with the green VW van whom we met in Michigan) were also in Florida and stayed a couple of nights at Manatee Springs as well. It was great to see them again several thousand miles later and catch up about road life. We enjoyed a campfire and chicken fajitas with them and the great conversation was only broken up by the loud thrashing of armadillos in the bushes. They sound big and scary in the dark.

Before leaving Manatee Springs, Jess and Braden started decorating the RV for Christmas.

Homosassa Springs

As a kid, we lived in Brooksville, Florida when I was 4 and 5 years old. One of the things I remember the most about that was trips to Homosassa Springs. At the time it was a private wildlife park, but it has since been turned into a state park. We stopped by for a fun afternoon that included at least one recreated photo. I’m about Braden’s age in the red shirt below.

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We had fun seeing Lu the Hippo, who as the oldest known hippo in the world at approximately 60 years old was the only resident of the park still there from when I was a kid. Sadly, she didn’t seem to remember me.

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We had a great older fellow who put on a manatee talk. Among his pearls of wisdom was the quote of the week: “There’d be no wars if we were all manatees.” I believe him. I also believe he needs to narrate animal documentaries.

We learned more about manatees, primarily that they are really more like a cow or elephant than a seal or walrus. While they look very blubbery, they actually don’t have much body fat which is why they find warm springs (or power plant discharge) in the winter to stay warm. They have wide ribs and 150 feet of guts inside and if we had tried to touch one, we would have felt it was more firm than squishy.

Fort Desoto

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Homosassa was just a stopover on our way to Fort Desoto County Park near St. Petersburg. This was Jess’s favorite campground in Florida and it included nice biking, an old fort, pleasant beaches and tons of lizards.

The park had wi-fi at the little store, so I spent most of the time there working from the store’s second story balcony overlooking a bay.

It was a pleasant stay all the way around, so I don’t mean to grumble, but I’ll say this: Florida tolls are killing us. Sure none of them are very expensive, but they are everywhere. Sometimes they will only be 50 or 60 cents, but there may be three toll plazas in 15 miles. At Fort Desoto, we had one right outside the park, even though the park had a day use fee and there wasn’t much else on that road aside from the park.

Manatee Hammock

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We crossed from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast and stayed for a few days near Titusville at Manatee Hammock County Park. The parks was still recovering from Hurricane Matthew but was a good stop for us. Jess’s parents were leaving on a cruise out of Cape Canaveral a few miles away so they spent a couple of days with us. We all went to check out Cape Canaveral National Sea Shore and Jess and Braden went with them to see the Kennedy Space Center. We also got to check out the annual Christmas parade in Mimms, FL. While it was nothing compared to the Sea Witch parade in Delaware, we always love a good parade.

At Canaveral, we saw our first big alligator of the trip. From my few years in Florida as a child, alligators have always fascinated me, which I why I was really looking forward to our next stop.

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The Everglades

For now, there are 417 units in our National Parks system. I’ve been to about 80 of them and I encourage people to go see them all. However, I’m sorry to recommend that you put the Everglades at number 417 on your list.

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We really expected to see alligators and other wildlife everywhere. We camped at the Flamingo campground, which is one of the only places on Earth where alligators and crocodiles co-exist. While we did see one large croc sunning near the docks, we only saw one alligator the whole time. We took several short hikes through the mangroves, saw a few interesting birds, took a disappointing overpriced boat tour ($37/each!) and pretty much fought with mosquitos the rest of the time. It’s really hard to describe the mosquitos. As a writer, I’ve always been very careful not to compare things to war, because that’s lazy writing and almost never a good comparison. However, our relationship with the mosquitos did include a ruthless, cunning enemy creeping into our camp at night, covert missions under the cover the cover of darkness and weapons-grade levels of DEET in the bug spray. We did learn that there are 43 types of mosquitos in the area. 

There are no airboats allowed in the park, which was disappointing because that’s always been on my bucket list. At one of the parking lots, the park service has provided tarps and bungee cords to cover your windshields because for some reason the vultures love to attack the weatherstripping and wiper blades. I have no idea why this happens but I wasn’t chancing it.

Then the power went out for most of a day. The lack of cell service also made it impossible for me to keep up at work.

In the Everglades, looking out at it’s buggy flat, marshy prairies that Jess and I concluded that we are Mountain Folk. And definitely not Everglades folks.

The visitor center does a good job of explaining why the Everglades is ecologically and environmentally important, and I certainly agree that it should exist. I just don’t ever need to visit it again.

2 thoughts on “Florida Part 1: Rubber-eating buzzards, sea cows and the world’s oldest hippo

  1. Isn’t it amazing how little bugs can have such a great impact! For us it was no-see-ums. If you had made your way over to Big Cypress National Preserve you would have seen a LOT of alligators! Love the photo of the five of us!!

    Like

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