Myakka River State Park

The next stop on our adventures in Florida was a trip to Myakka River State Park where I was assured I’d all the alligators I’d ever wanted to see… from a safe distance! Crow’s family also alluded to the famous “canopy walk”–somehow a walk among the trees, though how one did this, I couldn’t even venture to guess. It sounded very exciting so of course I was game to go.

So the four of us–me, Crow, Crow’s dad, and his dad’s girlfriend Doris–stuffed ourselves into the *Camaro* and took off on a beautiful sunny afternoon for Myakka. We decided to take the guided airboat tour on Upper Myakka Lake to see up close the wild life in its own environment. As if specifically for our benefit, an alligator sat sunning itself from the opposite bank as we loaded onto a boat. They had a name for him–I’ve forgotten what it was. He didn’t seem to be much perturbed by the presence of our boat.

The alligator who greeted us at the boat dock.

As the boat moved slowly onto the water, the tour guide indicated that there were a great number of alligators (again, I’m bad at remembering numbers, details), and asked us where we thought these alligators were, if we were only seeing a few along the shores? Ha! I could not help but imagine the alligators unseen sitting at the bottom of the riverbed at any given time. Kind of made me think/hope/pray the boat was pretty sturdy and no one was going to have to get out and push any time soon!

An airboat tour taking departing from the dock.

Due to the shallowness of the lake during the dry season (winter, spring), we couldn’t get too close to the opposite shore. However, you could see a bunch of alligators sunbathing themselves while many exotic birds just walked among them (according to our tour guide, alligators don’t find birds very tasty–not enough meat and all feathers–so they leave them alone). More exciting, though, was the two times an alligator surfaced right next to the boat. It was kind of eerie–just this snout and the hump of the back rising from the stillness of the water in silence. It didn’t seemed very phased. Just popped up as if to assure us of its presence, and then it was gone again.

An alligator surfaces to alert us of his/her presence.

Ominous creature greets us with a wry hello.

Alligator says, "Hello, tasty tourists! Throw me a leg!"

It wasn’t just alligators that prominently inhabited the lake, though. Birds and water fowl of various kinds could be found grazing the shores, swimming in the waters, or flying around. We saw bald eagles flying over head. Geese, egrets, blue herons. Most fascinating was a breed of bird called the anhinga, also called “snake bird” because, submerging itself under water to hunt for food, when it surfaces, only it’s long neck can be seen hovering above the water like a snake about to attack. I was really fascinated by this bird because it kind of reminded me, in smaller scale, of the drawings and blurred photographs of the alleged Loch Ness Monster. Watching that s-shaped head pop out of the water randomly here and there, I could see how one could build a mythology of a mysterious monster that lives under the sea. Although, I have to admit, I thought the bird was quite cute.

An anhinga (snake bird) comes up for air like a miniature version of a legendary sea creature.

Other water fowl of Upper Myakka Lake.

Wild pigs also live in Myakka, though we weren’t lucky enough to see these ourselves. The tour guide said a herd of pigs had been at the lake shore earlier that day and the prior tour had gotten to see them. That’s the thing with wild life–they come and go as they please without any regard for us humans who may want to observe them! Oh well. There certainly wasn’t a lack of other wild life to observe and appreciate.

If herons and alligators can co-exist, why can't elephants and donkeys?

After the boat tour, we ate lunch outside beneath the shelter of the little cafe/gift shop by the lake. It was one of those nice, breezy days in which you just feel happy to be alive. I was fascinated by the swampy marshland of palm trees, moss, and fern plants. I couldn’t help but make comparisons in my head to the state parks with which I’m familiar back home. How different and unique Florida seems to me. The tropics are always fascinating in their variety and the vivid colors of its flowers and animals.

Also, though we have blue herons back home, I’ve often spent long minutes trying to spot one. They just aren’t as visible as they were that day in Myakka. I was continuously surprised and thrilled by the amount of wildlife that was visible for us to see without effort (and none of it caged or corralled just for show!).

Our next stop after lunch was the bird walk. A long board walk takes you into the middle of the marshy shore to get a better view of the birds. I guess during wet season, more of the ground beneath the board walk is filled in with water and, according to the tour guide from the boat, you may see a lot of alligators sunning themselves. We didn’t see any alligators, but again, lots of birds.

The board walk bird walk. Disappointingly devoid of alligators.

One of the highlights of Myakka River State Park is the canopy walk. It turns out this is a suspension bridge 25 feet in the air through the forest canopy. After crossing the bridge, you climb the steps up to a tower that gives you a view of the entire forest from 74 feet! I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle this part. I’ve been on a few fire towers in the past and have not had the most comfortable experience because it would sway and bend in the breeze. I’m not too good with vertigo. (My entry about our Groundhog Day adventure will shed further light on this as we did try to climb a fire tower there. But those are details for another day.)

Mars Girl on canopy bridge at Myakka.

Crow, Crow Dad, and Doris on canopy bridge.

It turns out that while the tour at Myakka did sway a little in the breeze and from the movement of others climbing the ladder, it was nothing near what I remembered from my frightening experience at the Pennsylvania high point (Mt. Davis) from a decade before. So I felt safe enough up there to relax and enjoy the view.

Canopy from above.

Which… as you can see… was quite extraordinary….

Panoramic view above the canopy. (This is my first attempt at using panoramic mode on Crow's camera. You can see the imperfect line in the middle right of the picture. I got quite better at it n later adventures.)

A distant body of water… Some poofy Florida clouds…

View from the tower.

Trees, trees, and more trees!

Tree tops as seen from the canopy tower at Myakka.

Oh, hey, wait… that’s not a view!

Crow and Mars Girl atop the tower.

We actually stayed up there for quite a bit–several small groups of people cycled through in the time we stood observing the view. I like sweeping landscapes. Thus, the long neglected lust for mountain climbing.

We finally walked down the steps to solid ground.

“Heidi! Heidi!” I heard someone calling my given name as I exited the tower at the bottom. I instinctively looked up and noticed a three people on a bench playing with a little wiener dog that was scampering between them. Oh, no, not again.

“Um, is your dog named Heidi?” I asked tentatively, trying not to reveal how miffed I was. This, of course, coming from someone who named her cats Nicki, Tanya, and Cleo–all real people names.

“Why, yes,” replied the lady in the group.

I scoffed. “That’s my name.”

I had a dog treat (note: organic, all natural) in my pocket, given to me earlier in the day by Crow’s aunt. I asked if I could give the dog a treat. They consented and I so I tossed Heidi the biscuit. Were I a dog, I’d want some folk to do the same, I suppose. This wasn’t the first dog named Heidi I’d met; it would undoubtedly not be my last either. (Ha, ha, I get it. Dachshund. German. Heidi. But may I suggest that if you get a German breed of dog, you try something less youthful and pretty? Perhaps Helga? Birget? No offense to any Helgas and Birgets out there…)

Canopy tower from below.

On the way out of the park, we stopped at a bridge along the main route in and out of the park to watch (and photograph) more alligators and birds. I got pretty good at spotting those snake birds–each time I saw one pop its head out of the water, I was a bit thrilled. I guess this is how birders feel. The alligators, of course, were just as ominous as ever, which made them somewhat endearing to me. Hey, the tour guide on the boat said that they generally don’t find adult humans a meal unless people start feeding them. So maybe it’s time we stop the hate for these ferocious reptiles now. They just want to live like everyone else… is that so wrong?

View from the bridge exiting the park.

Anyway, I think we spent over four hours at the park. I probably could have spent a lot more. It was definitely a great way to spend a sunny afternoon. I’d love to go back again. Maybe try the tram tour. I have to admit I am somewhat curious about the wilderness portion of the park. But I’m probably not yet ready to wake up next to an alligator in my tent… Not so sure I want to test the truth of the tour guide’s claim that alligators have no interest in eating me.

See ya later, alligators!

Cycling Sarasota By Tandem

While we were in Florida a few weeks ago, Crow and I picked the hottest forms of transportation. We decided to rent a convertible for normal travel. Said convertible turned out to be a banana yellow Chevy Camaro with just a couple hundred miles on it! We decided also we to rent a tandem bicycle to see how we felt about being the same bicycle together.

Our vehicles: A Camaro and a tandem.

Driving along in the Camaro.

Crow at the helm. (Note: No photos were taken when I was driving... Mwwuhhahaha!)

It wasn’t a road tandem; therefore, it was, shall I say, a bit on the heavy side. A tank. But good enough for tooling around town and attempting our maiden voyage on a tandem. It was a little shaky at first. My previous experiences riding as a stoker on a tandem was with an experienced tandem rider. As Crow and I first attempted to mount the tandem, I realized I would actually have to help teach him how to get on the tandem. It had previously seemed so easy! It took us a bit to get the hang of it.

Our maiden voyage was a nine mile ride from the bike shop on Siesta Key back to Crow’s grandma’s house in Sarasota. We managed to somehow get out of the parking lot on the bike, but we had to stop at a stop sign and wait for traffic. We had difficulty at getting back on the bike at that point, and what made it harder was the fact that we were stopped on the street in front of two restaurants with outdoor seating where the patrons jeered and giggled at our efforts. We ended up walking the bike to side street and practicing getting on and off the bike, making turns, changing gears. We made it the rest of the way home none the worse for the wear, except for the back of my right calf which ended up getting hit a few times by the pedal when I didn’t get into the saddle fast enough while getting on the bike… I pretty much had a permanent bruise there for the rest of my time in Florida as this was a repeated problem even as we got used to the tandem (maybe this probably could have been averted by clipless pedals?).

A stop at the beach on our maiden voyage.

We rented the tandem with the express purpose of getting out to ride at least one of the days we were in Florida. Crow came up with a route to follow the coast on the way down to Venice and take the Legacy Bike Trail back. The trip out would go along Siesta and Casey Keys with a questionable mountain bike-like drive on a section of Casey Key that no longer had a road. That was the adventurous part because we really didn’t know what to expect. Road maps and satellite photos on Google Maps seemed to indicate that there might be the remains for a road or trail through that section… But we wouldn’t know the condition of it until we got there. Fortunately, our bike had some pretty hefty wheels so I was (sort of) up to the challenge.

Two goofy would-be tandem cyclists on the beach.

We had a late start of about 11am. Hey, it’s vacation. Why get up early? The point of our ride was to amble, enjoy the scenery along the way. We were in no hurry. Which is why we ended up stopping at a plaza on Siesta Key to grab some post card stamps (I’d bought some post card earlier in the week) and I discovered a Birkenstocks store… A cute basset hound stared out me from the window, beckoning me to enter. How could I refuse?

Nevermind that I’ve been looking to buy a new pair of Birkenstocks since my last pair (bought in Germany in 2005) disintegrated under my feet. I couldn’t help but browse the racks… and the fact that there were a number of shoes on sale, sure made it all the more attractive. Needless to say, we were delayed for about 45 minutes as I hemmed and hawwed over which of two pairs I was going to buy (though they were both on sale, is it really practical to buy two pairs of shoes?). Also, I had to stop and pet the dog every few minutes as he thrust himself at my feet and proceeded to roll onto his back with his feet in the air, demanding a belly rub. What a ham!

The canine proprietor of the Birkenstocks store.

I’m so glad Crow willingly indulges my distractions… I stop for shoes and earrings. I don’t want to mention how many of each I’ve bought in the last two months. Eh. Sometimes I can be such a girl. Fortunately, our bike also had a basket on the front so we could take carry the spoils of my whim without a problem.

We got back on our way, following the beach until the road ended at an apartment complex by Turtle Beach. We had to walk the tandem down to the beach and walk it for a bit until we found the entrance to a locals’ beach access path. It was worn down enough that we could get back and ride past the apartments and condos into the shrubby wilderness beyond.

Walking the tandem along the beach.

By that point, the sun was beating down pretty hard so it was starting to feel quite hot. We rode on a path that was at times a bit sandy. It was a bit nerve-wracking for me as I’m not used to riding non-paved surfaces, but Crow felt comfortable and would probably have pushed all the way through that part of the ride without any trouble on his own mountain bike. Even on my own mountain bike, I might have felt a bit unstable.

The shrubby wilderness between Siesta and Casey Keys (and new Birks in the bag in the basket!).

The land we were riding in was really empty and grown over. Originally, a road had gone through the two keys, but a hurricane wiped it out a number of years ago and nothing was ever rebuilt in its place for whatever reason. From the small traces of a path, I gathered maybe dune buggies or some such beach vehicle occasionally made use of the land. It’s a shame that the local government never made it into a park or something. It was maybe a mile in length and would really make a nice park for the area residents on each key.

We ended up walking the bike the last several yards and then carrying it over a boardwalk that extended out to the beach from one of the houses at the end of residential North Casey Key Road where we continued our ride.

Crow and tandem in our mountain biking section of the ride.

Casey Key is exclusively residential and highly upscale. Excluded in a beach paradise, our eyes were dazzled by the unique architecture of these opulent homes. It was amazing to see what people did with their property. The road was quiet. The north end of the road seemed the most remote. As we traveled south, we encountered landscaped areas on each side of the road.

One home we saw was being constructed in an Asian style. A partially built gazebo resembled a temple or something in you would see in Japan. We actually wanted to stop and take a picture of this structure, but felt a little sheepish about it as the construction crew were on site working on it. I felt a little like I was prying.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to own one of those homes. I couldn’t though. I’m not sure I really want or need one of those homes. But it was certainly fun to look at. I wouldn’t mind a tour inside one or two.

Water meets sand...

We rode Casey Key to its end at a public beach so that we could lay claim to having ridden the entire length of the key. Of course, we got off the bike and dipped our feet in the water for a bit. I was a little disappointed with this beach, however, because it was the most crowded beach I’d seen since I’d been in Florida. I’d forgotten how odious that can be. I guess the beach was kind of small for the number of people trying to sunbathe themselves there. It was also the hottest day I’d experienced since arriving in Florida–about 80 degrees–so I think everyone was taking advantage of the summer-like heat.

My attempt to be an artistic photographer with a shot of my shadow against the waves on the beach.

Playing footsie in the sand?

I filled up my water bottle and we retraced our tracks about a mile and a half to Albee Road which took us back to the main land. It was another two miles along a busy road to downtown Venice. This town had a completely different feel to it than Sarasota–a little less modern with an older crowd. There were some antique  and souvenir shops. Of course, no town in Florida is complete without an obligatory ice cream shop as well. I resisted to fragrant lure of the ice cream and we stopped to eat outside at a restaurant called T. J. Carney’s. It was about 3pm at this point. Which caught my attention because I kept forgetting it was in fact winter–not summer–and the sun would be going down around 6. We neglected to bring a head light. (My fault–I told Crow we wouldn’t need it and he listened.)

Crow poses along the public beach on Casey Key.

The shore line of the public beach on Casey Key.

After eating, we browsed a few shops but suddenly realized we were a little pressed for time. We headed out again for our return route up the Legacy Trail. We totally hauled some butt. Which was a real shame because I would have liked to have stopped to take pictures and enjoy the scenery as we did on the way down. When will I ever learn? I’ve got myself caught in the dark without a light on many occasions when I’d underestimated the amount of time it would take me to do a ride… Learn from me: always bring a light in case.

We took the trail to what we thought was its end at McIntosh Road (apparently, it now goes further than the last time Crow had been on it for we could see it follow the road for a couple more miles). We made our way back on mostly safe streets–and a few busy, terrifying ones without bike lanes–the last seven miles back to Sarasota. It was maybe 6:30pm when we arrived home–well past dark. Oops! Only one driver chastised us for not having lights, shouting, “You guys really should have lights.” Um, yeah. Thank you, Mr. Obvious. Yes, we really do enjoy riding our bike on roads in the dark.

We felt really beat after the long day on the heavy bike. We didn’t know it at the time, but we’d actually done 43.79 miles!! That’s pretty awesome considering the challenge of riding together for really the first time on a tandem. Plus, I hadn’t been out on a bike since November (Crow, however, had been out as recently as a week before, climbing Oak Hill in the valley on a Tuesday night. He’s such a die-hard.)

We considered our tandem adventure a real success. Perhaps one day we’ll get a nice road bike version for ourselves…

PS: I apologize for the lack of pictures from Venice and the Legacy Trail… We were a little pressed for time!

Please Stand By

I’ve had the most amazing last two weeks–so much fodder for blogging. However, I’ve been extremely busy. And this little thing called “work” keeps getting in the way. It seems that being in love takes up a lot of one’s free time in the evenings. In addition to keeping up with my blog, I’m trying to work on a scrapbook of my U2 adventures from the summer, exercise, create Valentines Day cards for my U2 buds, manage my finances, keep up on letters to my two remaining pen pals, and write my freaking novel. Why are there not enough hours in the day?!

Being an avid reader of several blogs, I feel your pain in my silence. I enjoy reading blogs and get so frustrated when my favorites get neglected for a period of time. I guess, though, you should take comfort in knowing that I’m having so much fun that I can’t contain myself. I’ve gotten a little bit less jagged around the edges. I’ve let myself go a little. And it’s been the most awesome trip!

In summary, which I plan to detail later in future entries, here is how I spent my last two weeks:

January 21 to January 29, I went with Crow down to Sarasota, Florida to visit his family. His father and grandmother live down there and his aunt and uncle from Ohio were down there as well. Crow and I enjoyed many great excursions both as a group and by ourselves. The highlights were Myakka State Park where we saw a lot of wildlife (including alligators!) and climbed a tower for a beautiful canopy overlook; an all-day bike trip on a tandem to Venice; and a dolphin cruise along the bay. We rented a convertible Camero–yellow–and cruised the streets like the heat-deprived Ohioans that we are!

February 1st and 2nd, we went to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to partake in the annual Ground Hog Day festivities. What an interesting cultural experience that was! We spent two days hanging around the town, and then spent February 3rd hiking some of PA’s beautiful state parks–Cook Forest and Clear Creek. We then moved on to Bilger’s Rocks (AWESOME!!) and Penn’s Cave on February 4. Lastly, we skied the afternoon of February 5th at Hidden Valley Ski Resort before heading home. What a relaxing five days that was!!

I have tons of pictures and stories to share! I can’t wait to get a free moment to sit down and share these adventures with you. It may be a few days, though. So just hang on! In the meantime, would someone please extend the length of an Earth day, but shorten the amount of time in that day that I spend at my job, so that I can get everything I need done? Thank you very much!

Crow and Mars Girl at Gobbler's Knob.