Friday, April 27, 2018

In the footprints of Hernando De Soto


We might have been in the Tampa area to catch up with some old friends and get in some time on the beach, but the temptation to explore led us to another site steeped in history – De Soto National Memorial.


There were others that came before Columbus, and there would be others after, Europeans marching across North American to explore and colonize the ‘New World.’ Hernando De Soto was a Spanish soldier, granted the license to explore La Florida by Charles V of Spain. He arrived in Havana in 1538, sailed to Florida in 1539 with 622 soldiers, and landed near Tampa Bay to spend the next three years trekking across the Southeast. Leaving disease and devastation in their wake, De Soto’s expedition sought gold and riches… What they found instead were hundreds of villages, but the consequences for their inhabitants were disastrous. Ironically it is the information about the Native Americans who lived here before us that is valuable to historians today, although the expedition was trailed by tragedy, the resulting social dislocation destroying the rich culture and traditions they were observing and recording.


De Soto burned his way north through Florida, then crossed into Georgia up to Ocmulgee. Upon reaching Cofitachequi in SC many of De Soto’s men were ready to settle. However, they were pushed on in search of gold and glory, and after cutting across to Coosa, TN they turned south, threading through Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas. Three years after landing in Florida, Hernando De Soto died of sickness and was buried in the Mississippi River. The remainder of his expedition stumbled back to Mexico, arriving at Pánuco River in 1543.


A good place to start your explorations of the National Monument is at the Visitor Center. We found the 20 minute film a little on the tragic side for young children, but the exhibits and artifacts on display offer insight into the expedition, Florida in the 1500s, the Natives who lived there, and the consequences of the excursion.


We opted to hike the 2 mile Memorial Trail, passing through a mangrove swamp out to the Manatee River. The first point of interest is the ruin of a tabby house. Built from a mixture of lime, sand and shell mined from the local prehistoric shell middens that once lined the shoreline, the structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Once attributed to the 1843 homestead of shipping merchant William H. Shaw, recent archeological surveys suggest that the site may be related to the freed black community of Angola, and date back as far as 1812.


From De Soto Point we headed south along the coast, eventually reaching the Holy Eucharist Monument and the Memorial Cross. Both were impressive, but the boys were by far more impressed with the beach.


The trail eventually emerges to the road, and we followed it back north to the parking area and Visitor Center. A highlight in this central area is the Replica Spanish Camp, complete with reproductions of Spanish armor and weapons. Modeled after an Indian village that was captured by De Soto to serve as a base camp, the demonstrations on everything from weapons to cooking were fascinating for adults as well as the children.


The large stone monument in the center commemorates the expedition. It was placed by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, and today is significant as the mark of the beginning of the De Soto Trail, the historic route of the conquistador’s expedition through the Florida Native American territories in his quest for fame and fortune.


If you are headed to De Soto National Memorial from May through October, be sure to sign up for the free 1.5 hour Ranger led kayak tour. Spots on the tour are first come, first serve, but they do take reservations – call (941) 792-0458 to reserve your seat. Tours run on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings at 9:00am, and include all your equipment (2 person kayaks, paddles and personal floatation devices).  Imagine seeing Florida the way the first Europeans saw it – blue waters ending at beaches lined with thickets of mangroves, gumbo-limbo trees shading the swampy understory.


The National Memorial is an expressive reminder of the tragic history of Americas. However, it also serves as a showcase of the natural beauty of the region; the coastal habitats are home to a wide variety of wildlife, and their range from aquatic to upland forest showcase the area’s diverse animal life. In terms of recreation, “The Cove” is a popular temporary anchorage for small boats, the beaches are well-known for not being too crowded, and the annual schedule of events allows for all types of interests.


I hope you enjoyed my National Park week series! Next week we’ll be back up in the FL panhandle, exploring the coast in an epic trip that took us from Tarzan’s Wakulla Springs State Park all the way to Pensacola… I hope you’ll join us in our adventure!


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Lost Colony on Roanoke Island


Happy National Park Week! Today it's back to North Carolina, to Fort Raleigh!

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site preserves the location of Roanoke Colony, the first English settlement in the present-day United States. The colony was led by Sir Walter Raleigh, and was established in 1584. But sometime between 1587 and 1590 the settlement was abandoned, for reasons unknown; ultimately the fate of the "Lost Colony" remains a mystery.


We visited Fort Raleigh on a visit to the Outer Banks, making the Roanoke Island stop on our way home from Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Located 3 miles north Manteo, NC, our first stop at the historic site was the Visitor Center.


Exhibits explore the history of the English expeditions and colonies, the Roanoke Colony, and the island's Civil War history and Freedmen's Colony, and the boys were soon engrossed in their Junior Ranger booklets. This site also preserves the cultural heritage of the Native Americans who lived in the area, and in-depth heritage stories tell the history of the island from multiple perspectives.


Just outside the Visitor Center is the First Light of Freedom monument, which commemorates the Roanoke Island Freedman's Colony that was set up during the American Civil War. We followed the paved trail towards Albemarie Sound and soon came to the 1896 Monument, which marked the beginning of preservation efforts of this unique site.


The earthen works that are visible in this area are not 430 years old, instead they are a part of a reconstruction from 1950. The reconstructed fort allows for a visual to accompany the story of the Lost Colony that is being told through the exhibits and informational placards.


The Fort Raleigh historic site is also home to Paul Green's outdoor symphonic drama, The Lost Colony. This Roanoke Island Historical Association production has been performed in the Waterside Theatre every summer since 1937, except for during World War II.


From the theater visitors can take the Thomas Hariot Trail, a 0.3 mile loop through the maritime forest. Or for a view of the Croatan Sound you can backtrack to the parking area at the end of National Park Drive and hike Freedom Trail, a 1.25-mile trail that winds through the maritime forest to the western edge of the park.


Finally, a highlight of the historic site - the Elizabethan Gardens. The sunken gardens are managed by the Garden Club of NC and are an example of a period garden. The 10 acre gardens were created as a memorial to the first colonists, and include a replica Tudor gate house. Open 7 days a week, there is an admission fee to this area of the site.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Cape Hatteras National Seashore on the Outer Banks


A persnickety spring has us in shorts one day, then back to bundling up the next. It’s a cold, rainy day such as today that has me dreaming of summer beach weather, which I have no doubt will arrive and have me begging for the cooler temperatures we’re presently shuffling through. Whether it is the thought of warm sunshine and ocean surf, or because this week is National Park Week, it is Cape Hatteras National Seashore that is calling to me today; this is one of a couple more posts to wrap up the North Carolina series after which I’ll turn my attention back to the Upstate & a few more Florida adventures.


Cape Hatteras National Seashore preserves 70 miles of shoreline on the Outer Banks, from Bodie Island to Ocracoke Island. Easily accessible thanks to the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge, the north end of the National Seashore is just across Roanoke Sound from Roanoke Island (home of Fort Raleigh) and south of the Wright Brothers National Memorial and Jockey Ridge. The Bodie Island section is home to the Whalebone Junction information station, Coquina Beach, the Oregon Inlet camping area, a marina, and the Bodie Island Lighthouse and Visitor Center.


The black and white striped lighthouse that stands on Bodie Island is familiar to many, and photographs of the photogenic icon are often found in coffee table books about lighthouses and the outer banks. Construction on a first lighthouse in this location began in 1847, but the structure was shortly abandoned after major structural issues resulted in a leaning lighthouse. A second lighthouse was destroyed two years after its construction by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, but the third lighthouse had what it takes to survive the elements on the Outer Banks, and still shines out on the Atlantic today.


The third incarnation of the Bodie Island Light was located further inland and to the north from its predecessors, and was almost twice as tall as the previous two at 156 feet; this translates to 214 steps to the top. With a First Order Fresnel Lens the lighthouse can shine its beam 19 miles offshore. A lighthouse keepers' structure was also constructed (which today houses the ranger station and Visitor Center), and the lighthouse was operational by 1872, fully automated in 1932, and came under the care of the National Park Service in 1953. Today the lighthouse and grounds are open to visitors; for more information and hours, please visit the National Park Service website.


The Bodie Island Lighthouse is surrounded by marshes, maritime forests and small saltwater ponds, making it a popular destination for bird watching. Hundreds of migratory bird species pass through annually, due in part to the location of Pea Island Wildlife Refuge south of Bodie Island. Be sure to stop in the Fish & Wildlife Service Visitor Center on your way south.


South of the Refuge are the towns of Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo. The enormous house that was featured in the movie Nights in Rodanthe was formerly located just south of Pea Island NWR, but multiple storms and a shifting coastline resulted in the structure being condemned. Two superfans of the Richard Gere-Diane Lane tear-jerker purchased it and moved it to a safer spot in 2010, and today the Inn at Rodanthe is a vacation rental.

Inn at Rodanthe: source here

Further south is Little Kinnakeet, the Historic US Life Saving Service Station. The original station building was among the first seven constructed on the Outer Banks, and the site remained active under the U.S. Coast Guard until 1954. Continuing south you’ll reach the Hatteras Island Visitor Center and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse; the nearby town of Buxton features numerous vacation rentals as well as campgrounds, bathhouse facilities and even an airstrip in the town of Frisco.


The last island in the series is Ocracoke. With its own Visitor Center, the Ocracoke Lighthouse and additional campgrounds, the island is a popular destination despite being only accessible by ferry. A free shuttle runs daily between Hatteras and Ocracoke; visit NC Dept. of Transportation website for more info. Southwest of Ocracoke is another National Seashore, Cape Lookout. However, travel to the mainland or Cedar Island involves a 2.5 hour toll ferry.


Portions of Cape Hatteras National Seashore are open to off-road vehicles, with ramps providing access to the beach. In other places boardwalks take visitors to the water, but regardless how you access the shore, there are 70 miles of sandy beaches to explore. Go for a hike or shelling, or just choose a spot to relax, picnic and build sand castles. The constant winds coming off the ocean provide ideal kite-flying weather, and beach fires are allowed with a free beach fire permit, allowing visitors to stay late and enjoy the starry night sky. Whether you are enjoying the beach, kayaking the sound, or climbing the Bodie Island Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a highlight of an Outer Banks visit that will be sure to provide memories plenty for beach daydreams until the next visit. Happy Earth Day, and happy National Park Week!

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Apalachicola NERR Nature Center


A museum may not be the first thing that comes to mind on a beach vacation, but the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR) Nature Center is a stop worth making on your visit to the FL panhandle. The ANERR headquarters are located just northeast of the St. George Island Bridge in Eastpoint, and includes 90+ acres that stretch along the St. George Sound. The oyster harvest area to the south is one of the most productive harvest areas in the entire Apalachicola Bay System, and the Nature Preserve helps conserve the shoreline of this ecologically unique area, as well as provides an educational opportunity for visitors to learn more about the region.


First stop is the Nature Center, where a range of interactive and live exhibits allow visitors to delve into the topic of most interest to them. We watched a movie highlighting the system of rivers, estuaries, bay and gulf that makes up the very unique ecosystem, and then the kids drifted around to the exhibits that most called to them. Mikus was enthralled with the hundreds of shells identified and displayed, and recruited the help of a naturalist to help identify a shell he had found in the Gulf waters near Bradenton. Lauris gravitated towards the displays about the history of the region, and Vilis toured the aquariums in search of inhabitants he could recognize.


While the Nature Center could be saved for a rainy day, the nature boardwalks provide a nice outdoor exploration of the marsh and flatwoods that you won’t want to miss. About ½ mile of trail takes visitors for loops through the forest and to an overlook on the Sound; grab an informational card and follow the numbers to learn about some of the species that call this area home, or bring the binoculars and enjoy the view of the St. George Sound. Make sure to stop in the butterfly garden, and you might be rewarded with a monarch butterfly sighting!


On the other side of Millender Street is Millender Park, complete with beach access and picnic pavilions. Visitors can launch non-motorized boats here, or just enjoy the water on a summer day. There is a third parking area at the base of the St. George Island Bridge, which provides access to the remnants of the old bridge which today serve as a fishing pier. You can get a good view of the boats out harvesting oysters, or take in the views of the water and St. George Island across the Sound.


The Nature Center is open Tuesday to Saturday from 9am to 4pm and admission is free. Find the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve on facebook and twitter, or visit their website here.

The boys spotted this green anole and tree frog on our boardwalk hike

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Black Lagoon and Wakulla Springs

Billed ‘strange and mysterious waters,’ a 6,000-acre sanctuary is hidden away in a quiet corner of the Florida panhandle, 30 minutes from Tallahassee and more than an hour from St. George Island. However the unique cinematic history as well as its incredible geographic features convinced us to make the trip to Wakulla Springs State Park, and we were so entranced that we are already making plans to return!

The deepest part of the spring is just beyond the buoy

The heart of the park is Wakulla springs, one of the largest and deepest in the world. The freshwater springs are a result of the unique geology created by the prehistoric seas that once covered the area; when the seas retreated they left behind sandy soils over limestone, and when water eats away at the limestone, holes develop. The result is called ‘karst,’ and the holes and tunnels (resembling Swiss cheese) are linked in an enormous underground cave system that serves as the aquifer for the region. The freshwater springs are 185 feet deep with a flow rate of 250 million gallons of water per day.


Several underwater scenes for the 1954 horror movie “Creature from the Black Lagoon” were filmed in Wakulla Springs, as well as Tarzan movies from the 1930s, “Return of the Creature,” “Night Moves” and “Airport 77.” The clear water of the deep spring along with the tropical vegetation growing along the Wakulla River (and the alligators that go with it!) make for ideal filming conditions. If you take the boat tour your guide might point out some of the spots utilized most frequently in filming.

One of the River Tour boats making the rounds

One of the boys’ favorite portions of our visit was the boat tour. When the water is clear enough, the Park offers glass-bottom boat tours over the spring itself, however on our visit rainfall (with higher nitrogen levels) and the invasive & exotic species of hydrilla and algae had teamed up to create a dark water day; on these days visibility in the basin is too low to permit the glass-bottom boats to operate. However, the 3-mile River Tour operates 365 days a year (with exceptions for extreme weather) taking visitors up the river among the giant bald cypress trees to see alligators, native birds, turtles and other wildlife up close. The morning of our visit dozens of alligators were taking advantage of the warm day to sun themselves on the banks, and a manatee was seen on its way out to the coast to feed; the gentle giants cruise the waters in the summer, and a pod has been known to winter around the springs where the water stays a constant 70° year round.

See it?

The tour guide was very knowledgeable on the flora and fauna of the park, but also the historical aspects. Archaeologists have uncovered giant Mastodon bones and evidence of inhabitants dating back more than 14,000 years in the area! A complete mastodon skeleton recovered from the spring is on display at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee.

Clockwise from left: white ibis, hooded mergansers, male anhinga (during breeding season flesh around the eyes turns bright emerald green), double -crested cormorants and the common gallinule

The river boat tour presented an opportunity to get up-close views (and identification) of wading birds, anhingas, grebes, ducks, and many others.  A number of species breed and raise their young in the waters of Wakulla River, and migratory species travel through from fall through spring. For boat tour pricing please see the Wakulla Springs website.

A cooter sunning itself among the cypress knees

It isn’t necessary to take the boat tour to see the spring, however. The deepest spot is adjacent to the swimming area, and a dive tower allows for viewing the spring and a two-story perch to plunge into the cool waters. The historic tower used to be four stories; I will admit jumping off the bottom level provided enough excitement for us, and swimming/jumping is at your own risk – no lifeguards are present. Also, swimming and snorkeling are limited to this designated swimming area (alligators!), and although scuba diving is allowed at some designated sinkhole areas, the Wakulla Springs are off limits.

Then and now. Historic photo source here

Another way to see the park is on the 9 miles of trail, either on foot, bicycle or horseback. The Nature Trail leads through southern hardwood and maple-cypress forests, with several state and national champion trees along the way. The entrance to the Cherokee Sink trailhead is on Hwy 61 two miles south of Hwy 267, and leads 1.4 miles to an 80 foot deep sinkhole lake. On the Riversinks Tract of the park visitors can hike the Bob Rose Trail, which follows the cave system and showcases karst features such as dry and wet sinks, swallets, and collapsed caves. On our visit we stopped at Sally Ward Spring, the reason why the area is called Wakulla SpringS, not spring; the second, 18ft deep spring is located near the park entrance and flows into the Wakulla River just downstream of its sister spring.


Placards throughout the park describe the biological, historical and other features that make Wakulla Springs so unique. It was shortly after Edward Ball purchased the property in 1931 that the Historic Wakulla Springs Lodge was built, and period furnishings include a grand piano, marble checker tables, a massive fireplace and the lodges only TV. The Spanish-Moorish style mansion (Mediterranean Revival architecture) is two stories with 27 rooms, lavished with pink and grey marble (including one of the world’s longest marble counters in the gift shop), and cypress beans and ornate hand painted ceilings grace the grand reception room. Upon Ball’s death in 1981 the property went to the State of Florida, and today the Lodge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated as a National Natural Landmark. Even if you’re not staying/dining in the lodge, plan to stop in, if only to see “Old Joe,” the 11’2” stuffed alligator that was a longtime resident of Wakulla Springs before it was illegally killed in 1966.


Visitors should definitely plan on spending the whole day at Wakulla. We utilized picnic tables for lunch, swam for several hours, toured the grounds, took the boat tour and still had multiple things we wanted to do before we left. In the immediate vicinity of the Park you’ll find other points of interest as well, including state capital Tallahassee, St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge and the St. Mark’s Lighthouse (on the Forgotten Coast Lighthouse driving tour), the world’s smallest police station in Carrabelle (plus stop here for coffee!), and the National Forest. That evening our route would take us to a favorite spot for Apalachicola Bay oysters back on St. George Island, and the next day we would be on our way west through Apalachicola and St. Joe, to Panama City Beach.



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