Sunday, April 29, 2012

Kayaking Shingle Creek

Saturday was two days from the end of April and perhaps two days from the end of Central Florida's Spring. I judge my seasons by temperature, not calendar and any day in May in that isn't hot feels like a blessing.  So I'm getting my kayaking in while I can, because soon it will be too hot and the afternoon thunderstorms too volatile to take a small plastic boat out to far away from the safety of my air conditioned bubble.

This week's destination was Shingle Creek in Osceola County. I noticed the the relatively new park off US 192 when I visited Osceola County's Pioneer Village last year. Shingle Creek Regional Park was built a couple years ago and there isn't much about it on the Internet, so I wasn't exactly sure what I was getting into when we drove up. The satellite view on Google Maps shows a sandy banked creek that suddenly disappears into tree tops not far from the busy tourist corridor. After making the decision to head south first, it became apparent about a half mile into the trip why the water can't be seen from space. As we traveled further away from the park, the creek got narrower and narrower until finally it was so narrow that I could touch the bank on each side of the creek with my paddle. We soon found ourselves in maze of cypress knees and understood while the creek was marked so carefully – had it not been the dry season it would have been nearly impossible to find our way around, because the creek dumps right into a swamp. The water from this area eventually ends up in the Everglades, Florida's great kidneys, and it was exciting to imagine the days when one could have traveled down a natural watery corridor like this creek all the way from Kissimmee to Lake Okechobee. But the Kissimmee River was turned into boring straight canals years ago and only now are they trying to restore the river to its natural course.

The Creek starts out fairly wide but quickly disappears under the tree canopy in this satellite view

The incredible scenery starts soon after leaving the park
19th century pioneer cabin at the park
A Live Oak stretches for the sky over the creek
Signs of human inhabitants

Snail eggs on base of a large Cypress

Where the creek narrows

Along the way we saw two big gators – one so large it appeared to dwarf our kayaks – hundreds of teethy gar, bass, bream and lots of Limpkin, an indication that the water quality is pretty decent. The tanin stained water actually was pretty clear and there were many sandy beds along the bottom fanned by the tails of female fish throughout the entire length of the two mile trek. After the marked trail ended to the south, we turned around and paddled another mile north of 192. That side was wider, and we could hear music from a nearby apartment complex, although it was still relatively natural. Terminating at a park centered around a heroic live oak, the creek went on but we did not. Gorgeous Live Oaks lined both side of the creek as well as glorious Cypress trees and millions of Cypress knees which I seem to find more and more enchanting. On our way back we saw a homeless person sleeping under the 192  bridge – the only person we saw on the water during  the entire four mile trip. There were, however, frequent signs of man including some creekside houses, a cellphone tower and the constant sounds of aircraft approaching the Kissimmee airport. But that did little to tarnish the experience of a near perfect day.

One of several Limpkins we saw
Under US 192
The wider side of Shingle Creek, north of US 192
Cypress and Live Oaks
The large Live Oak at the at the park's northernmost point (me for scale)
Supposedly Shingle Creek was named because the abundant cypress trees made for a readily available source of wood shingles. From what I can tell on the map, the creek runs from Sandlake Road in Orlando all the way down to Lake Toho in Kissimmee, passing behind gated neighborhoods and fancy tourist resorts before finding freedom in the swamps we passed through. I don't know how this portion of creek survived the paving of Central Florida, but I'm grateful that it did, because it is a miraculous treasure.

My kayaking buddy William in Nature's cathedral

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Oh Blackwater keep on rollin'

When I got a kayak for my birthday last year, I asked author Bill Belleville to suggest good spots to explore. He suggested Blackwater Creek in the Seminole State Forest and several months later I finally got a chance to visit. The Creek and the State Forest are located within the Wekiva River Aquatic Preserve, 19,000 acres of "sovereign submerged lands." Blackwater Creek is fed by more than a dozen known springs through the forest into the Wekiva River. The weekend I kayaked the creek, a Bio-Blitz was cataloging different species of flora and fauna within the basin and Bill Bellevile was part of a team that discovered two new previously unknown springs. With a map showing rough location of some of the named springs in the area, I was hoping to be able to see a few of Central Florida's smaller springs.

To enter the Forest, one needs a permit from Division of Forestry because the road is gated and one must know the combination to open the lock to enter. About 45 minutes after leaving my house, I was at the gate, ready to enter another world. We saw a couple hikers on the dusty dirt roads in the forest as we drove to the creek, but it was remarkably free of people. The put-in point for the creek is just past a bridge and we hit the water and headed down stream in the direction of the Wekiva and Sulphur Run, an offshoot where it appeared many of the springs were located. We traveled as far as we could before downed trees forced us to return. I found out later that the two newly-discovered springs, named Sirena I and Sirena II, (after the character in Margaret Tolbert's performance art pieces), were near Sulphur Run. They were only discovered because the swamps surrounding them were extremely dry due to the on-going drought.

We headed upstream in the other direction to see if we could find any of the other springs on my map. Going past the put-in point we saw a couple people with canoes, but never actually saw anyone else on the water during our entire trip. In fact, if it weren't for the occasional passing airplane we heard no manmade sounds at all. Eventually we ran at out of creek again, as blocked trees again forced us to head back. By car, however, we did find two of the springs on our map. Located near a campsite, Moccasin Spring was a mysterious, aqua-colored pool. We kayaked right by the spot where the spring run enters the creek and didn't even know it. The small basin appeared to be entirely covered with aquatic growth and there were several downed trees over the spring allowing for closer inspection.

After shooting photos, we headed back in the other direction and found Sharks Tooth Spring, again near a campsite. Following a trail next to a tiny creek, we discovered the spring emerging from the side of a rock formation.  The water in the run from the creek was no more than 8 or 10 inches deep and it did in fact look lake a great spot for shark tooth hunting, something I used to love to do when I was a kid.

Blackwater Creek is one of those all-too-rare places in Florida that are pristine and unspoiled. I thought about keeping it to myself but figured anyone who reads this blog and goes to the trouble to get a permit from the Division of Forestry would appreciate it as much as I did. I said to my kayaking buddy that Blackwater Creek might just be my new favorite place in Florida. I can give it no higher praise.

Blackwater Creek
The stump of an epic Cypress tree, logged out eons ago, provides the base for new tree.

Friday, April 13, 2012

End of the season

One of my favorite bits of Old Florida still hanging on is the roadside citrus stand. While not in the great numbers as they used to be in the pre-interstate era, there are still some businesses selling the bounty from Florida groves, and stepping into these shops is like stepping back in time. This season I stumbled across a couple old businesses that sell Indian River Citrus, which is the "brand" known for high quality and great tasting fruit.

The first place I stumbled across earlier in the year was Davidson Brothers Citrus in downtown Daytona. The owner told me that Davidson's was Daytona's oldest business going back to 1922 and the shop, located near the Halifax Historical Museum, is full of great citrus memorabilia. The packing house is in the back and as I talked to the owner I got a quick lesson on Indian River Citrus and how many growers claimed to be from that region but actually weren't. We left with some delicious Honeybells or Tangelos – a blend of tangerine and grapefruit that are as sweet as candy. I must admit that for years I've not taken much interest in the types and varieties of citrus, and the more I learn, the more I appreciate the different tastes available every year.

When I visited Harvey's Groves in Rockledge last year it was not quite citrus season. This time, Harvey's was open, but just barely as this is the end of the season. Much larger than Davidson's, this roadside mecca on US 1, seemed to be full of snowbirds stocking up before they returned to the north. It was Easter weekend and for many of the folks who come down to sunny Florida for the winter, that marks the end of their stay. So I saw folks filling shopping carts full of the last fresh grapefruits and oranges grown in Florida this year.

Next season my goal is to frequent more of these great establishments and better understand the nuances and subtlety of different varieties of citrus. My recommendation for you is if you see one of these roadside institutions on your travels, by all means stop and get some citrus and enjoy the trip back in time!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Visiting Clearwater's Shuffleboard Hall of Fame

No one is sure exactly when shuffleboard was invented, but it clear it was played for centuries in Europe before coming across the Atlantic on ocean liners. The game was first played on U.S. soil right here in Florida at the Lyndhurst Hotel in Daytona Beach in 1913. I know that because I saw a display at Clearwater's International Shuffleboard Hall of Fame adjacent to the Clearwater Shuffleboard Club.

The Hall of Fame is in two rooms located next to the clubhouse and I was fortunate to have a club member let me in on my Saturday morning visit. The first room seems to be dedicated to housing memorabilia and photographs of shuffleboard worldwide; the second room seems to focus on shuffleboard domestically. It was that second room that I found most fascinating because it was full of vintage tangs and biscuits, old trophies, and printed ephemera related to the game. Without any guidance, as this room is really more of a collection that an exhibit, I really enjoyed the aesthetics of the equipment and the graphics of the printed materials on display. While not for everyone, a shuffleboard junkie like myself found it fascinating and inspiring – an intriguing visual record of 99 years of shuffling. I look forward to seeing how the 100th anniversary of the game on land is celebrated next year.

This is how the game probably came to America

This is the spot where the land-based version of the game began 99 years ago

Home of the International Shuffleboard Hall of Fame

Clearwater Shuffleboard members can shuffle in this nice screened-in space

Gorgeous trophies in every shape and size can be found throughout the space

Vintage tangs