Category Archives: Florida

Gulf Islands National Seashore

IMG_3349We said our final goodbye’s to family in central Florida the 3rd week of January and packed ourselves back into the truck and trailer to start our journey back to the west coast for February 1st. The Gulf Islands National Seashore sits on the Gulf of Mexico right at the southern border of Florida and Mississippi and looked like a fun place to regroup and reconnect as our micro family.

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On the Florida side it is comprised of a series of barrier islands that border Pensacola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, with miles of white sand and dune grass.

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We arrived on Weds late afternoon and happened to run into a Park Ranger who was just leaving work. He mentioned off hand that we should watch the weather as it was a fluid situation regarding the park closure. Huh??? Those comments caused some research and we discovered that there was a major storm about to roll through with high winds coming from the south, which often cause them to close the road as it is below sea level. It seems that it can be closed for days at a time while they clear the sand… So much for our plans for 4 days hanging at the beach surfing!

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We got up the next morning and got a beach walk in – it was chilly and intermittently rainy but the winds weren’t bad. Fort Pickens is a Civil War fort that lays within the National Park. We found an armament on our walk and made plans to hit the rest of the fort in the afternoon while sticking around close to the park / campground in case of closure.

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By mid afternoon the rains had rolled in so our tour of the Fort was wetter and briefer that normal, yet still fun. The best part for me (as mom and teacher) was hearing Hunter compare and contrast Fort Pickens with the other forts we have visited on our travels, both this year and two years ago. The old adage definitely weighs true – he excels at things that interest him!

Fort Pickens is the largest of four forts built to defend Pensacola Bay and its navy yard. The fort was begun in 1829, completed in 1834, and used until 1947. Ironically, the only real action the fort endured occurred when the country was at war with itself. Fort Pickens was one of four seacoast forts in the South that remained in Union control during the Civil War. Preserved by the American people, Fort Pickens exemplifies over a century of homeland defense from the nation’s infancy through World War II.

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After much debate by the park wardens they made the call to keep the National Park open on Thursday, even though we were about to find ourselves right in the middle of the red blob of weather warnings. Our first tornado was not something that I was all that excited about! We blew and shook all night long but thankfully nothing ended up airborne and nothing crashed into or onto us. The lightning show was spectacular!

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After being up most of the night we finally nodded off to sleep around 4am when the main Tornado watch had passed (yes, I downloaded the weather app and spent a lot of time checking it while Tim mocked me). We awoke mid morning to chilly temperatures and high winds so decided to pull up stakes and move westward, with an afternoon stop at the Pensacola Naval Air Museum on our way out of town.

The Naval Air Museum is located right on the actual Naval Base, which was a pretty cool experience for us. We drove through the main gates, where the guards found our truck and trailer quite humorous, and then headed off in search of the museum. It was like a small city, complete with golf course and hotel. We have been to a number of military museums over the course of the last three years and while this one was good, we all agreed that it did not make the top three, which as of today are the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tuscon, the World War II Museum in New Orleans and the National Infantry Museum in Columbus.

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Overall our visit to Pensacola was a bit of a disappointment, not because of what the area had to offer but more because we didn’t really get to experience it in our own way. Due to weather there was no surfing, no bike riding and no exploring of the beaches – all things that we had hoped to do. The Fort Pickens Campground is a great site with very affordable rates and we definitely recommend it as a stop for families. Hopefully we will be back some day to redo our adventures!

Ski Camp – Florida style…

 

the view up the cable

the view up the cable

Just down the road from Aunt Shannon and Uncle Andy’s house in southern Florida is Quiet Waters, an urban state park with everything from walking and biking trails up to a cable wake board park. We missed our ski time at the cottage this summer so thought this would be a fun thing to try…

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It turned out that our friend Malwina from the Yukon was down visiting family in Miami and she jumped on board with the adventure. We signed up for a 2 hour beginner session that SkiRixen holds every Saturday and Sunday morning before the park opens to the public. They slow the cable speeds down and provide coaching and instruction – it was perfect!

The staff start everyone out on a knee board to get used to the cable system and learn how to manoeuvre on the water. The hardest part is learning to corner and minimize the slack so you don’t have a big slow down and then a big whip. It took us a few goes to get the hang of things and make it all the way around the square course.

The next progression is to water skis to let you get the weighting/unweighting and the cornering. They don’t recommend slalom skiing as it can be tough with the cable jerks and the slower speed during beginner time. It felt really weird to start by completely sitting on your skis but it worked – lots of small adaptations between a boat and the cable system.

The staff at SkiRixen were fabulous – very patient, gave lots of tips and suggestions and they even zip around in a golf cart to pick you up so you spend less time walking back to the start after you crash and more time on the water.

The finale for everyone was wake boarding. While it is supposed to be the hardest thing, we all found it one of the easiest, although that is probably because we spent our time on the knee board and water skis working out the system. Big smiles by everyone and lots of excitement for wake boarding this summer at the cottage!

It was a fabulous morning together as a family. Sunshine, water and learning new things – doesn’t get any better than that!

We definitely recommend Ski Rixen as a family adventure. They currently have a 2for1 beginner special which made this an absolute bargain at $25 each for a 2 hour session.

160 km bike down the Florida Keys

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Back in March our brother in law Andy, who lives in southern Florida, shared that one of his bucket list items was to bike the Keys from end to end. Being adventurers, we thought “why not”… without really doing much thinking about the actual details. Fast forward nine months and we found ourselves driving from Fort Lauderdale down to Marathon to get set up for our 3 day biking extravaganza.

DSCN1907We had 8 adventurers on board with ages ranging from 12 to 73. We based ourselves out of Knights Key Campground which is just south of the town of Marathon and about 2/3 of the way down the length of the keys. The plan was to ride 60km day one, 48 km day two and 70 km day three. The night before these distances finally started sinking in to our heads – Ack!

To avoid the heat of the day, day one started really really early – we were up at 6:15 and in the truck shortly after 7:00 to drive back up to Key Largo and start the biking. Andy’s brother Peter joined us as rider and shuttle driver and this was invaluable. Peter rode short distances out and back from the truck and then drove the truck towards our final distance, picking up anyone that wanted to opt out along the way.

The original goal for Hunter was to make it to Dairy Queen, which was about 20km from the start. With such an early start we arrived before DQ actually opened (11:00) and since he was riding so well we pushed onwards. At the 30km mark he was definitely done due to a sore butt. Hunter and I called Peter for a ride and then took a small detour back to DQ for his promised blizzard before continuing on to the finish point for the day to pick up Bob, Andy and Tim.

The first 30km of the ride was mostly side walk or bike paths as we made our way through Key Largo and down into the keys. The second 30km of day one started to see things open up and the last 10km of it was now along the water. The boys took a pit stop at the IslaMorada Fish Company, which is a restaurant and a Bass Pro Shop location with a Tarpon pool out front – neat to see these large fish.

DSCN1987The weather was unseasonably warm (in the high 20’s celcius, 85-88f) and I was craving a swim in the ocean, especially with water temps in the high 70’s. Unfortunately Knight’s Key is more about boats on the water than people in the water so there wasn’t a great place to swim. First Hunter and I tried walking out into the water at a small opening we found in the mangroves. We made it about 8 steps before our feet were so sucked down into the muck that it took a team effort to make it back to shore. Attempt number two was to take the SUP out to get us far enough from shore to be able to jump off and swim. This was hampered by fairly strong winds and the fact that the depths stayed shallow for quite a distance. It was fun but unsuccessful and I was left craving some water time.

Day two was another early morning start – up and in the truck for 7am. It was a shorter drive to the start so we were on our bikes and riding by 8am. Grandma Liz joined us for this leg so Hunter, Grandpa and Tim rode in the back of the truck to make room for her in the truck. Day two was mostly oceanside riding with a few stretches of great bike path in the mangroves. About 15% was along the side of the road. With a sore butt Hunter made it 20km and then had fun touring with Peter in the shuttle truck.

Grandma Liz rode with the group for another 10km and was happy to catch a ride with the shuttle gang while Tim, Bob, Andy and Lee continued on for the remaining 18km.

The last stretch of day two was through the town of Marathon and then over 7 mile bridge. The winds were in our favour which made crossing the bridge much easier than anticipated. I was concerned about any strong cross winds and what it would take to blow me off my bike and over the rather low guard rails into the water. The old rail bridge travels beside the new bridge for about 5 miles on one side and then 2 miles on the other side with a small gap for boat traffic in between. Hopefully they will soon finish refurbishing the bridge so that you can bike on it rather than with all the traffic on 7 mile bridge.

I was still jonesing for some time in/on the water so Bob and I took off in the canoe after some lunch and a rest. We paddled out from the campground and over to check out the bridge and surrounding area. The winds were still decent so we had some bouncy water in sections which made things interesting since we were in his marathon race boat (sleek = tippy). We circumnavigated a few islands, checked out the real-estate and saw lots of birds. Thankfully no swim while in the canoe so I finally gave in and headed to the local swimming hole for a quick dip. It sits right on the edge of the marina and I wasn’t all that excited about the idea of swimming in boat engine water so while it was refreshing it was also quick.

Day three had a slightly later start – 8am vs 7am which was nice. Hunter had set himself a goal of 40km, which would be 4km higher than his personal best from our epic ride in Columbus.We set a slower pace with the goal of getting him to his target. Around the 30km mark we came across a fire station that had their pumper truck sitting out – a perfect place to rest. One of the firemen noticed us lingering and came out to spend time with Hunter… one happy kid!

Once you make it to the 40 km mark the next goal of 65km seems pretty doable so Hunter pushed on. We had an ice-cream pit stop at a gas station at about the 48km mark and that helped provide energy to push on. Hunter did amazingly well and the first tears and strain only showed up around the 60 km mark. We pushed and cajoled and made it to the almost final stop – meeting up with the rest of the gang at Publix/Wendy’s in Key West. The idea was for Peter and Liz to join us for the final 5km ride through Key West to reach the Mile 0 buoy.

It turns out that this is quite the tourist stop and people were lined up around the block to get their photos taken with it. Definitely the end of our peaceful ride… people, tour buses and cars everywhere!

DSCN2176One more DQ stop as the reward for Hunter riding 70km – what an awesome new personal best! While some people went for lunch, a few of us drove around in the air conditioned car and checked out Key West – it was the perfect compromise for Hunter who was not going to move another foot on his bike for a few hours. We finished the day with a short ride back through town to the shuttle truck and headed back to the campground for a big sleep!

About 75 miles of the keys is now accessible via the Overseas Heritage Trail, which is the paved bike trail. They are working on completing the last bits and when that happens this will be a great family adventure. Until that point there are a number of places where you have to ride on the side of the road, which is not great for cyclists under 10. We just rode with someone in front and behind Hunter and felt fairly safe.

 

 

Don’t let go!!! Fun on 4 legs at Ladyhawk Farms

DSCN1841Our trip so far has been a mixed effort between not replicating what we did last time while still catching the things we loved. Horseback riding at Ladyhawk Farms was high on Hunter’s list to do again because we had so much fun last time. After his trail riding in August went so well, he was adamant that we had to go again!

Susanne and Jim are fabulous hosts and have great horses. The barn is very welcoming and we had fun brushing the horses and making friends while getting everything ready to ride.

We did the half day ride and it was a perfect length of time. You ride directly from their property, which is surrounded by the Withlacoochee State Forest that has specific horse trails (no bikes, no ATV’s etc.). The trails were scenic and peaceful while also being interesting and diverse. We rode to the top of Tillis Hill which houses an Equine Campground and great resources for a trail stop (water buckets for horses, tie off points, washrooms for people etc.) and then headed back to the farm.

One of our favourite parts about Lady Hawk farms is that you are highly engaged in the horseback riding activity – and this was very true for our cantor up the last hill to the barn. The horses knew exactly where they were and when we said “GO” it was all about holding on and holding on some more, especially as you came to a fence at the end of the trail and made an abrupt right hand turn. Susanne said to trust the horses and that was all you could do – while holding on! Hunter was thrilled and terrified at the same time, which was a great way to end the ride.

We strongly recommend Lady Hawk farms for a day ride or an overnight adventure.

In search of Florida Wildlife…

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We LOVE canoeing on central Florida rivers – they are usually warm due to being sourced from a spring and chock full of a wide assortment of wildlife. We’ve had 2 fun days of paddling so far, with more to come in January when the manatees are back in full force.

Our first paddle was up near Ocala in the Silver Springs area. Grandpa Bob had a canoe race so we came along in hopes that we would get the see the elusive monkeys. On our last trip here we found plenty of turtles and alligators but only one monkey – even though we came armed with a full bag of marshmallows, which is what they seem to love.

The weather was fairly grey, misty and cool for our paddle so we had to amuse ourselves with bird spotting as it just wasn’t warm enough for the cold blooded animals to get out and sun themselves. By the end of our paddle we found a few turtles but definitely slim pickings! We also struck out on the monkey sightings and came home with a full bag of marshmallows!

The next day we headed up to the Weeki Wachi River in search of some early season Manatees. With the weather having been so warm in November we weren’t hopeful but had to go and look anyways! We came across a mom and baby fairly early on our paddle up the river (grey blobs in the photos) and were excited that there might be more along the way. Lots of looking but no luck as we headed up to our favourite swimming hole…

About 2/3 of the way up the river there is a really deep hole on a right corner bend. Historically we have jumped off the small wooden pad on river right but were excited to discover that someone had created a whole new level of jumping by putting wooden boards on the tall tree directly across the river. The water was relatively warm and it was a great spot to stop and play!

Hunter started a “tradition” of snorkelling his way back down the river from the turn around point when we were here two years ago. He is a tradition oriented kid so there was no real discussion as to whether or not he was doing it again – it was just a given. Tim was a nice Dad and accompanied him from the jumping hole to the rope swing, which is just before you get back into populated water. I was left to paddle the canoe down, which was actually quite peaceful.

The boys spotted a small turtle on the banks as they were swimming down so stopped to check it out. Tim, being a country boy at heart, picked him up to check him out. Hunter worked up his bravery to hold the turtle himself and thought it was so cool that he chased after him after we let him go and picked him up again all by himself, wiggles and all!

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Fewer birds on this river and not many turtles or other animals out either. We were lucky to find another couple of manatees near the take out so that left us in high spirits and looking forward to coming back in January.

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