Saturday, March 17, 2012

Be it ever so humble…

Friday and Saturday, Mar. 16 and 17, 2012 OTTAWA, ON – Yes, we are home! Just pulled in less than an hour ago, and it’s great to be here. The house looks in excellent order and the snow is gone from the front yard. There is snow out back, as well as at the shadowed edges of farmers’ fields and road banks that we passed on the way into town, but everyone is reveling in the mild weather. We spotted two people driving with the roof down, and several wearing shorts and bicycling or roller-blading. Thankfully, our trip from Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley to Binghamton yesterday and from there home today, was perfect in terms of weather. Even the fog that greeted us this morning burned off fairly quickly and didn’t impede visibility on the highway. Actually, we had excellent traveling weather this trip, from start to finish. It has been fun following the spring from south to north. Seeing daffodils, hyacinths and forsythia in full bloom in South and North Carolina was such a treat, as well as listening to red-winged blackbirds and robins, that will be coming north soon but haven’t yet arrived. And we passed so many fruit trees in blossom as well – and heard that the famous cherry blossoms in Washington, DC, are a couple of weeks ahead of the usual time because of the unseasonably warm weather. When we crossed the high bridge at Alexandria Bay back into Canada, we looked at the beautiful view, and the water surrounding the Thousand Islands was completely open and free-flowing. It was lovely to see all the cottages and docks ready to be opened up and set out for summer fun in the months ahead. In the sky over Ottawa as we came north from the border, there were great flocks of Canada geese in muddled strings, rather than disciplined vees, and many of the geese were also in the fields resting and drinking from puddles of water between the farmed rows. Even they seem to be back earlier than usual; I associate them more with May than March. We now feel that our new motorhome is thoroughly broken in and ready to provide years of traveling comfort. We’ve added little touches that have made the coach a home, and after two and a half months in very close proximity, Val and I are still on warm speaking terms (and then some!), so it has passed that test as well. So many features, like the easily opened and closed awning, comfortable seating, generous counter space and well-thought-through storage compartments have confirmed that this rig will take us far. But for now, we are happy to be in our big roomy house with all its comforts, safe and sound. And, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in proper style, we’re going to order in Chinese food for supper. Only in Canada, you say! Our parting photo, sunset over the Gulf of Mexico, provides the closing image of our Winter 2012 trip. When we travel next, this blog will resume. Meanwhile, happy trails to you!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Spring is in the air!

Wed. and Thurs. March 14 and 15, 2012 HARRISONBURG, VA – There’s a distinct scent of “eau de farm” wafting in the window of our RV, mixed with woodsmoke from a big fire that the KOA camp staff have set as they clear broken branches and dry leaves from the sites before the busy season is upon them again. Tonight will be our last night sleeping in the motorhome, since we can’t be sure our pipes won’t freeze from here on, and campgrounds in states north of Virginia aren’t open this time of year. This year, it looks as though they could be, though, because it has been unseasonably warm – the warmest winter on record in some areas. As we traveled north yesterday from near Savannah to just before the North Carolina state line, we were delighted to see fruit trees in blossom by the highway. Other trees already have that early spring blush of pale green as buds begin to swell, and today we saw hosts of daffodils when we crossed into Virginia! Not long after we turned from Interstate 77 onto I-81, we passed a section of highway several miles long where there was lots of machinery and workmen, and they were blasting and moving earth to widen the highway. Fortunately for us, it was the southbound side that was closed. When we got to the closing-off point, we saw a huge lineup of cars and tractor-trailers being slowly diverted to another highway. We were very glad to be north-bound! The land was fairly flat yesterday, but today we came in to rolling hills, and then the blue peaks of the Appalachians came into view. It was lovely to see peaceful farms and little towns with a church’s tall white steeple contrasting with the dark mountains beyond. And everywhere, there were clusters of snowy white fruit trees, at the peak of their blossoms! Beautiful! Our KOA site in Charlotte last night was on Scary Way, in a campground reflecting a Hallowe’en theme, probably because of its proximity to the witch capital of the US, Winston-Salem. Other streets were Scream Street, Monster Road, Spirit Lane, Haunted Hill Road, Spookywoods Boulevard and Hallowe’en Street! When October rolls around, they really get into the spirit of things! Although we were supposed to have free wi-fi with the site, it wasn’t working. This is often the case, unfortunately. Here at the Shenandoah Valley/Harrisonburg KOA, we are connected, but tenuously. One never knows. It’s a pretty spot, though, with farmland to the east and more blossoming trees and even some hyacinths poking up through the leaves. I could hear robins too; another sound that gladdens my heart when winter is on the wane. In the morning, we will winterize the plumbing system and pack bags for the hotel portion of the trip. We’ve tried to use up the perishables in the fridge with as little waste as possible, and with mini-bars and microwaves in most hotel rooms these days, we should be able to finish off the last bits. Today Val started out in shorts and sandals, but by lunch time he switched to jeans and put on socks for the first time in weeks. It’s farewell to summer temperatures now, but at least we’re hoping all signs of the white stuff will be gone by the time we hit Ottawa!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Swan-y lake

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 RICHMOND HILL, GA – That’s right, we’re out of Florida! So this is what happened: Val looked at me, and I looked at Val, and we said “let’s go home.” We’ve been on the road, seeing all kinds of amazing things and places, since January 9th and it just feels like time to go home. So, from this point, we’ll be making steady headway for Ottawa, one day at a time. We decided to save St Augustine for another time. It’s tagged as “the nation’s oldest city” and has lots of interesting attractions, such as an alligator farm with more than 20 varieties of crocodilians represented, and the country’s first schoolhouse. They will be something we can look forward to the next time we head in this direction. So, we packed up, hitched the car to the back of the RV and hit Interstate 95, just west of our campground in Rockledge, and headed north. As we passed Daytona, we saw next to the highway the spot where every motorcycle rider in the lower 48, plus their passengers, was gathered for Bike Week. There must have been more than a thousand bikes, a large majority of which were Harley Davidsons, parked on the grounds, and more thundering by on the highway either on the way there or leaving. One that passed us had a big stuffed Tweety Bird on the back! A lot of bikers had opted to forego helmets, chaps, heavy boots, protective jackets and gloves and were just belting past with no protection. We hope they had a safe journey. We took the ring road around Jacksonville and before long we were passing the sign welcoming us into Georgia – “We’re glad Georgia’s on your mind” said the sign, quoting the wonderful tune made famous by Ray Charles, and now the state’s official song. We’re at a KOA campground just outside Savannah, where a large pond next to the site is a way point for Canada geese, as well as home to several beautiful swans. The KOA employee who registered us warned us to look out for one of the swans that’s less than fond of campers. He said the swan is pretty aggressive, so just to back off if it approached. When I took a stroll over to see, none of the serene-looking birds made any unwelcome advances. They just glided peacefully along – at least until a pair of them got too close to the small island where some Canada geese were resting. One goose let out a squawk and dive-bombed the pair. Their peaceful gliding immediately changed to hyperspeed! I wanted to share a picture of the swans in today’s blog entry, but for some reason, the download function from the camera wants to save all 1,800 plus pictures in the camera instead of just today’s shots. So you’ll just have to imagine how lovely they are till I figure out how to fix the problem. Meanwhile, here's a shot of Savannah I took the last time we were here.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Days of rest

Sunday and Monday, March 11 and 12, 2012 ROCKLEDGE, FL -- Not a whole lot to report, as we've been taking it nice and easy. Yesterday, it poured rain all day, so we weren't inspired to go very far, and today it's gorgeous, so we were inspired to just enjoy the fine weather. So, for your viewing pleasure, I've selected some recent photos of things we've seen and done. The first is our campsite here. The second was taken at the Kennedy Space Center with the international space station in the background and the flags of participating countries in front. The third is our sunset view in Marathon, in the Keys.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Reaching for the stars

Saturday, March 10, 2012 ROCKLEDGE, FL – The three stars that represent the belt in the constellation Orion looked a little different to me in the night sky tonight, as I humped a load of laundry over to the RV park laundry room. Today, we had a closer look at them from the Hubble telescope. They may look like they’re lined up next to each other, but out there in space, they are actually quite spread out. Bedecked in red-framed 3D glasses, Val and I watched two amazing IMAX movies at the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex, one about the international space station and one about the Hubble telescope. It was a fantastic way of actually seeing what life is like in the space station, as we vicariously floated through hatches, took space walks and opened our mouths to catch blobs of juice floating in space. And floating off to delve into the nebulae of distant planets to see stars come into being was magical. Our visit to the centre began with a bus tour that brought us to the launch pad of the space shuttles that we had seen countless times on television when they took off. We saw them first from the bleachers where thousands of spectators gathered, miles away, to see the launches in safety. Then we drove close to the foot of the tower, with the Atlantic Ocean surf rolling to shore in great waves behind us, and a huge sky above us, full of gigantic cauliflower clouds. Our guide explained how a nearby water tower sent torrents of water around the base of the tower at lift-off to attenuate the surge of energy and sound that the rockets would spew out as the shuttle thundered skyward. We saw the fifth largest building in the world, where the shuttles are assembled, and the huge doors along one wall that open when it is time to bring the space ships to the launch location. Massive rolling platforms glide over a huge gravel road, inch by inch, till they are in the correct position. In the distance we could see the countdown clock, and the special observation buildings where the news media stand ready to broadcast their reports. History unfolded before our eyes with a film about the space race of the 1950s and a simulated count-down for a manned mission in a theatre that had the original tiers of desks and control panels used in the early days of the space program. Outside the theatre, suspended over our heads and covering more than a football field’s length, was the three-stage moon launch and the lunar module. We even got to touch a piece of moon rock on display in a small glass case! Space suits, scoops for moon rocks, and plaster molds of astronauts’ hands that were used to design custom-made gloves were on display in the space treasures room. Some guests who were willing to pay the fee were even able to have lunch with an astronaut. In another building, visitors could feel what it was like to be launched into outer space.

Friday, March 9, 2012

City mouse, country mouse

Thurs. and Fri. March 8 and 9, 2012 ROCKLEDGE, FL – Our location is considerably more northerly than our last entry, as we sit at the threshold of the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral in the Space Coast RV Park. It’s a lovely spot with mostly permanent residents, now emptying as snowbirds start heading for home. We didn’t even have to make a reservation to stay here, despite the fact that it’s March Break. Yesterday we said farewell to the Keys, where life is easy and laid back, and everyone is a beach bum, content to sip from a coconut under a palm tree and watch the pelicans dive bomb for fish. The contrast was notable when we turned toward the east coast and followed Highway 1 through the long chain of towns and cities south and north of Miami proper. Several times as we traveled along, cars zipped into the lane in front of us with no warning, and more than once we heard a sharp car horn snapping at some driver who failed to instantly respond to the green light the moment it came on. Instead of tiki huts and lazy beaches, we passed endless malls and then the high-rises of Miami. It wasn’t until we neared our stopping point for the night, the Johnathan Dickinson State Park, that the landscape became a little more spread out and rural in appearance. The park was the first we’ve stayed at in Florida, and it’s named after a Quaker whose boat was shipwrecked near Hobe Sound, where the park is located. We passed a large expanse of park land that had clearly suffered a fire at some point in the past. Palm trees had blackened trunks and their green fronds were singed and dead at the tips. A lot of ground vegetation was also burned, but was showing signs of re-greening. The park ranger said this was the result of a controlled burn that they carry out every few years. Apparently it’s an eco-system that depends on periodic fires, so the rangers oblige under carefully monitored conditions. To us, it just looked like we were camping in a scorched earth zone. But we did enjoy the natural surroundings, and the facilities were fine. There was no danger of fire during our stay. Showers doused us as we set up and throughout the night. I felt sorry for the young couple in the next site, who set up a tent, fresh out of its cardboard box, and endured a night of drenching rain! We were on our way again this morning, continuing to follow Highway 1 in spite of the GPS voice that tried to guide us to the Interstate 95 at every possibility. We wanted to see the coast on our way north! But actually, almost the whole way, we were set back from the Atlantic shore proper, because a long string of islands lies parallel to the coast line like a buffer between the mainland and the ocean. It provides a lot of wonderful spots for fishers and sailors, protected from the brunt of weather that may come from that direction. Several times on today’s journey the skies opened and poured down on us. Any vestige of salt that our pounding in the Keys may have left on the RV was certainly washed away today! While we don’t have internet connections at our site, there is a special room here that’s open around the clock, so we’ll be able to post this and review our e-mail.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Beach combing

Wednesday, March 7, 2012 MARATHON, FL – Today is our last full day in the Keys, so we wanted to see one of the state parks and the beach areas before leaving. The skies looked a bit threatening and it was still quite windy, but that just meant we had the beaches mostly to ourselves. At the Dolphin Research Center yesterday, the young lady who gave the educational presentations said she had seen manatees at Sombrero Beach, so that’s where we headed first. The road to the beach took us through some residential areas, where many of the homes are built of concrete and set up on columns, with the car parked underneath and the living quarters on the second level. They look good and sturdy, and ready for any hurricanes that might blow through. It was lovely on Sombrero Beach, with a wide expanse of sand and gentle waves washing foam up around our feet. The sky was quite dark out to sea, but the water at the horizon was a bright turquoise, and there were stripes of aqua and brown as the water’s surface hinted at the shoals and depths it was hiding. No one was swimming, and only a few people were strolling on the shore, so it almost felt like a private beach! Unfortunately, the manatees did not show up today, so we’ll have to keep looking. (Yesterday, Val spotted a dolphin in the snorkeling area of the RV park, which was kind of exciting. Apparently, manatees and sharks have also been sighted off the dock here, but not when we were around.) After stopping for gas and a few groceries, we headed back toward the RV park, turning off when we reached Curry Hammock State Park, also on the ocean side of the Keys. “Curry” is a person’s name, and “hammock” refers to a rise of land where larger trees can grow. These often appear in the Everglades, where wet land predominates, but patches of dry land, or hammocks, provide environments for other types of plants and wildlife. A bright array of wind surfer’s sails was laid out on the shore where they’d just been pulled in. The wind had proven too much for the surfers, so we just missed seeing them perform. Yesterday from the window of the restaurant where we had dinner, we could see wind surfers in the distance, pulled way up above the water by the stiff wind that filled their curved sails. It looked pretty scary to me! Plus they must have had their arms pulled out of the sockets trying to hold on to their equipment. Back at the RV park, we started some of the wrapping up chores for our departure in the morning. We really wanted to wash off all the salt that the wind storm had plastered onto the RV walls, even though the park rules say we can’t. Mother Nature obliged, just after supper, by sending a quick dousing of rain to spare us from possible eviction! After supper, we headed over to the pavilion where a wine tasting party was taking place for the guests. People were invited to bring a bottle of wine and something to nibble, so we had a chance to meet some of the other campers. It’s always fun to compare notes with other travelers at events like these; we’ve never left such an event without learning something new about the area or about interesting things to see in other places. NOTE: We may not have internet connections at our next stop, so stay tuned for our next entry.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Dolphin day

Tuesday, March 6, 2012 MARATHON, FL – Having a pair of dolphins swim over to you and tilt sideways to have a close look at you is a pretty neat experience. Val and I were standing next to their tank when no one else was around, so we know it was us they came to check out! This was one of the highlights of our day at the Dolphin Research Center, near our RV park. A huge mother and baby dolphin sculpture entices passers-by to come in, as well as a sign that says “Swim with a Dolphin Today!” I was unsure what kind of a facility this would be when we first arrived. Would it be like a circus, or was this a serious establishment, as its name suggested? Happily, the latter is true. The DRC, as staffers refer to it, is devoted to caring for dolphins and learning as much as they can about their physiognomy, behaviour and intelligence. The animals are clearly healthy and happy, as they cavort in their capacious holding lagoons and click and squeal at their handlers. And, we were told, the DRC has published a variety of research papers in scientific journals. We learned the story of Jax, the baby dolphin that came to the centre with wounds to its fluke, dorsal fin and flipper caused by a bull shark attack. Humans rescued him off the panhandle of Florida, and when he was stabilized, he was brought to the DRC and nursed back to health. Because he wasn’t with his mother long enough to learn how to hunt for food in the wild, the DRC will be his forever home. Other dolphins at the centre are descendants of Flipper, of movie fame. The oldest one is 50, although their life expectancy is usually less than that in the wild. The lagoons, which are fenced-off areas of the ocean, segregate the animals into juvenile, maternity and adult male sections. Programs at the centre allow visitors to touch the dolphins while on shore, standing on a platform waist-deep in water, or actually swimming with them. At around $30 per person for the experience, it generates revenue for the centre, which is not supported by any kind of government funding. It was great to watch the dolphins and handlers interact, and to see the enthusiasm on both sides as the handlers used commands and hand signals and the dolphins responded with speed and obvious delight. Some of the tasks teach them proper positions and behaviour when researchers need to take blood samples from their flukes, or swabs from their blowholes to determine respiratory health. Since there was not a huge crowd there today (there was a stiff wind whipping at us the whole time), we were able to get up close and admire their sleek, grey bodies as they glided by, and appreciate the attention they gave to us at the same time. In addition to dolphins, the DRC has three sea lions that also interact with visitors. Kilo, the largest sea lion, hoisted his enormous bulk out of the water and bounced over to the handler to show off his learning skills. Karen, a retired sea lion performer and now blind, came out after Kilo and allowed herself to be hugged by paying visitors in front of a photographer. It was fun to see the peoples’ reactions as her whiskers tickled them and her flippers closed behind them in a moist embrace. Our aquatic day came to an appropriate end at the Whale Harbour buffet restaurant, where we sampled crabs’ legs, chowder, jambalaya and other seafood delights.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Six-toed cats and feral roosters

Monday, March 5, 2012 MARATHON, FL – We got as far south as you can go and still be in the continental USA today – and here is the picture to prove it! It’s only 90 miles away from Cuba, and a favourite photo opportunity in Key West, where we went today. We didn’t get on our way quite as early as we had planned. After a restless night with the wind howling and shaking the motorhome without a moment’s respite, we weren’t sure we could venture out even today. It was still blowing hard at first light, and the waves were still rough when we looked out. However, when we actually stepped outside (with our hands firmly gripping the handle as we opened the door) it was bearable, though still very windy. Our poor little Honda was completely caked with dried salt, having borne the brunt of the lashing waves in its parking spot facing the water. It sparkled almost like frost on the windshield when we ran the wipers through it. So our first order of business was to find a car wash to get the corrosive stuff off. It was well past 10 before we got on our way to Key West, a 50-mile drive from our RV park. We crossed the Seven-Mile Bridge toward the Lower Keys, and passed through the Key Deer preservation area, where big signs warned of deer crossings along a section of highway that had fences on either side higher than any deer I know could leap. We never did catch a glimpse of a single one. Rather than getting snarled in city traffic once we made it to Key West, we decided to park the car and take a tour on one of the hop-on, hop-off trolleys. We didn’t stay on for long before we came to a likely-looking lunch spot, next to Ernest Hemingway’s home, called the Six Toed Cat. Apparently, such creatures still inhabit the grounds of the Hemingway establishment, descendants of Papa’s six-toed pet. Our light lunch lightened our wallet alarmingly, but we had been forewarned, and we were hungry. It was a short walk to the cairn that marks the Southernmost Point of the USA, and the day was lovely and fresh after all the heat and humidity we have had. We passed quaint wood-frame houses with picket fences, shady porches and gingerbread trim, decorated with tumbling splashes of bright bougainvillea. Several times, we spotted feral roosters strutting about and crowing. After our photo opportunity, we walked back to re-connect with the trolley tour, which took us on a wide loop through the old town and out to the more modern edges of the city. We learned that the name “Key West” was actually an anglicised version of Cayo Huesa, the Spanish name that means island of bones, since pirates in early times found such evidence from shipwrecks. When our route took us past the shopping, eating and beach areas, we appreciated the full impact of Spring Break, which has just begun. The beach especially was jammed with huge crowds of young people, looking for a good time with their friends. On the main street, hundreds of shoppers jostled each other on the sidewalks, and shopkeepers smiled as their cash registers chimed regularly. If we had more time, we would have had a closer look at the Hemingway house and a nearby butterfly museum, but we wanted to get back to the RV before nightfall, so we left that for another time.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Gone with the wind

Sunday, March 4, 2012 MARATHON, FL – The heat and humidity yesterday was such that we decided to run the air conditioner all night, just so we could get a comfortable sleep. I guess it was the precursor to what we experienced today: a tropical wind storm of considerable force that seemed to blow in out of nowhere. The morning started off quietly enough. It was still warm and humid when I set off for church. On my way, I warmed up my voice by singing an old favourite hymn. To my delight and surprise, that was the very one we sang at the end of the service! Nice! When I got back, the wind had picked up, so after I got changed I thought it would be wise to put away the lawn chairs before they got knocked over. When I went to open the door of the RV, it was practically ripped from my hand by a fierce gust of wind! I barely kept the door from banging against its hinges, and already one of the chairs was skidding away from the concrete pad. Val came out and helped me get them folded and stowed. With the rear end of the RV so close to the water and now-crashing waves, we thought it best not to put the chairs under there (no way were we going to attempt to open a storage door), so we stashed them under the car nearer the road. With the wind whipping our hair and flapping our clothes, we worked our way back to the RV door. Then Val muscled the door open just wide enough for me to get in, and hopped in himself before pulling with all his might to get it closed. For the remainder of the afternoon, we stayed inside, listening to the wind howl. The RV shuddered and rocked and great splashes of rain and wind lashed against the windows. Our radio was set to receive weather warnings automatically, and sure enough, the weather band came on with warnings for boaters to get below and make sure all aboard had life jackets on. It predicted blinding rain and winds gusting to more than 35 knots. It was fascinating to sit at the window and watch the white caps crash against the sea wall behind us and burst into white plumes of foam. Amazingly, we saw a few birds out above the waves, with wings outstretched, buffeted by the currents of air. And sadly, I saw in the water a large dead bird, bobbing in the waves and carried in to shore. The storm had been just too much for the poor thing. We had made plans to do some more exploring this afternoon, but they went by the wayside. Instead, we read, did crossword puzzles, napped (or tried to) and read up on what we might do tomorrow. By late afternoon, the wind had died down enough for us to venture out briefly and see what, if any, damage had occurred. I was surprised not to see much; there were mounds of churned-up seaweed on the boat ramp, and palm branches that had been ripped off a few trees, but the campground and its residents seemed to have weathered everything quite well. Even now the wind is still billowing away, but at a diminished rate. It gave us a better understanding of what it must feel like when a hurricane comes through. I don’t think I’ll ever watch a TV report about US hurricanes with quite the same detachment as before.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A hospital like no other

Saturday, March 3, 2012
MARATHON, FL – Richie Moretti never dreamed, when he opened a motel at Marathon in the 1980s, that it would lead to the establishment of the only state-certified veterinary hospital in the world for sea turtles. He was just interested in entertaining his guests when he stocked an old concrete swimming pool with unusual fish and sea creatures. But it was the time of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and a youngster asked him why he didn’t have any turtles in his menagerie. That got him thinking, and when an injured sea turtle turned up needing a place to recover, he accepted the first of what would be a thousand such creatures to come under his care. We saw Richie Moretti today, briefly, as he reported to our guide that they’d solved the mystery of their most recent patient’s ailment. He’s short, with long greying hair pulled back in a ponytail, and kind eyes. His leadership has changed the lives of hundreds of sea turtles, and educated as many human beings in how to protect them at every stage of their lives, from eggs to full maturity. Moretti bought the night club next door to his motel when it became clear he was no longer going to be in the hospitality business, and transformed it into the Turtle Hospital. It has an operating room, equipped with all the necessities for surgical interventions. Out back are holding pools for the patients where veterinarians and volunteers come to help them with physiotherapy and rehabilitation. In the parking lot are two turtle ambulances, equipped to pick up patients that can weigh over 100 pounds and snap through hard shells with their sharp beaks. After our tour today, I know a lot more than I ever did about sea turtles. I learned that they can’t retract their heads or legs into their shells like land turtles do. I learned that at around age 25 the males grow a tail but the females don’t. I learned that many communities have campaigns to get residents, who live near the beaches where the babies hatch and scamper to the sea, to keep their lights off at night in hatching season between May and October. That helps the babies aim for the waves, shining in the moonlight, without being led in the wrong direction by artificial lights. Of the seven varieties of sea turtles in the world, five live around Florida and four of these are endangered. The fifth, the loggerhead turtle, is threatened, so much of the Turtle Hospital’s energies are spent on educating people about not throwing trash into the water, taking care with monofilament fishing lines and refusing to buy products made from turtles’ shells, skin, eggs or meat. The hospital has no government funding, so they rely on public support. The three R’s of the Turtle Hospital are rescue, rehabilitation and release. It’s always a day of celebration when they can let one of their patients return to the sea. Our guide told us they did just that a couple of days ago, when the one-year waiting period was over and the fully-recovered creature could go back to the wild. It was great to see the outdoor tanks where the huge creatures were swimming around. Some had lost flippers, and others had been injured by boat propellers or succumbed to a virus that causes tumors to grow on their bodies. The ones we saw today are the lucky ones, tended to with loving care and returned, whenever possible, to their watery homes.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Under the sea

Friday, March 2, 2012 MARATHON, FL – Our plan for today was to backtrack to Key Largo, the first cluster of the Keys, and take a trip in a glass bottom boat out to see the coral reefs. The Princess II, as our vessel was called, had an interesting neighbour at the dock – it was the African Queen, the very boat that Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn sailed in when they made the 1951 film of the same name! It looked rather the worse for wear, and was missing its famous potbellied stove, which was off being restored. Signs nearby asked for contributions toward further restoration in this, its 100th year. With only about 30 out of a possible 100 passengers on board our boat, we had a good view of the channel out to sea on the top deck, and plenty of space to see the reefs when we went below later on to look through the large glass panels on the bottom of the boat. Once we cleared the channel, which was lined on either side by swanky villas and expensive yachts, the open water was rather choppy. Our guide advised staying topside until we reached the reef, about 30 minutes away, because looking through the glass bottom at things whizzing by could make us feel “uncomfortable”. Actually that feeling came over both Val and me once the boat did come to a crawl, and we looked at the diverse marine life below us. The boat rocked quite a bit, so it was hard to stay focused on any one thing. Still, it was lovely to see lacy sea fans, and long, delicate fronds of sea ferns swaying back and forth in the currents. The coral’s myriad holes and crannies provided lots of hiding places for tiny fish when the big ones came by. Schools of bright yellow fish darted past, and solitary sergeant fish, with stripes like a sergeant’s rank badge, swam in and out of the shadows. The guide pointed out a couple of large, mottled barracuda with pointed snouts, and a grouper gliding near the bottom. She described the fire fern, a dark sea plant with white edges that can burn a diver’s skin at the merest touch. She also pointed out ancient railroad ties that had been jettisoned in a storm before they made it to shore for the Florida railway. Now they were left in place, because they had become an integral part of the reef. Soon it was time to head back to shore, and we were both glad to be topside with fresh air blowing on our faces. It was good to have a chance to see the continental United States’ only coral reef, and to marvel at the sea life just below the water’s surface. Seeing it in calmer conditions would have made it even better. As we headed back toward Marathon, we stopped at a place that was full of colourful lawn ornaments, flags, wind chimes and wind socks. We love the wind socks for our back yard, but they fade in time and they’re sometimes hard to find. So we stocked up, and at the same time had a great conversation with Diane, the owner, about California, where we hope to go next year. We stopped for a late lunch at Wahoo’s Bar and Grill, and our booth overlooked a dock where several pelicans were hanging out, hoping for tidbits from the fishing boats. We watched their antics as we munched on snapper and lobster, and relished a restful evening by the seashore.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Room with a view

Thursday, March 1, 2012 MARATHON, FL – Here’s what we look out on from our motorhome bedroom window at the Jolly Roger Travel Park. Pretty nice, eh? We’re delighted! This view looks northward across the gap between the Florida Keys and the mainland. Marathon is the cluster of islands at the mid-point of that little string of dots you see on a map trailing south-westward off the tip of Florida. We picked this spot so that, during the week we’re here, we can explore in both directions. It’s a world focused on water. Boat cruises, fishing expeditions, snorkeling, swimming, jet skiing, parasailing, beachcombing and sunbathing are just some of the activities available here, as well as seafood-eating, which we are planning to do at some point! Our trip from the outskirts of Miami this morning took us past vast fields of crops and nurseries through the small town of Homestead and then on to the first of many bridges along Highway 1, the artery that serves the Keys. We knew we had water on both sides of us, but there were long stretches where tall trees obscured our view. Every now and then, though, we caught glimpses of beautiful, turquoise water. In some spots, the highway had only a few dozen feet on either side before the waves lapped the shore. Dozens of pleasure boats and fishing boats bobbed in marinas and out on the water. We stopped briefly in Key Largo, the first of the chain, to check out the travel literature at the Visitor Center so we could plan our explorations. In one of the guides, I learned that the Keys are sectioned off, not by islands, but by clusters of them, into five parts: Key Largo, Islamorada (the first syllable rhymes with “isle”), Marathon, Lower Keys, and Key West. In each of those parts there are at least a dozen key names, but those five are the main identifiers. When we got to our campground, our host led us in his golf cart to our site. We knew we had a waterfront site, but when we actually saw the view, we were enchanted. There is a concrete walkway behind the RV, and then endless, beautiful water. We had thought of heading out to see some sights as soon as we got settled, but we were pretty hot from the minor exertions required to set up, so we decided to just sit and feel the breeze on our sweaty brows and watch huge pelicans swoop over the waves. After that, and a leisurely stroll to see the grounds, it seemed good to sit in the shade and read, and then creep inside for a wee nap. By then it was time to think about supper, which we sat outside to eat as we watched a golden sun descending to the horizon. The peach and lavender coloured sky was mirrored on water that was shimmering like silver, and grey clouds overhead flashed orange at their shaggy edges as the last rays caught them. What a sight. Once the sun had slipped away, our neighbours were out on the walkway looking over the edge into the water and pointing. They were watching the lobsters crawling out from their hiding place under the concrete! These creatures are not the big-clawed fellas we find on our dinner plates. They have spider-like legs and huge long antennae – and they are edible, too, although these guys wisely chose a spot where harvesting them is not permitted.