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  • Chris B

Florida Winter Vacation - 2018

February 3 – March 7th

We left home at 12:30 on Saturday rather than Sunday because of the impeding wintery weather that was forecast. Our first overnight stop was the Collecton State Park off I-95 north of Walterboro, SC with an arrival of 5:45 pm. This was the third time we had stayed there. Out of the two dozen campsites, we had about six or seven to choose from. Across from us, were two couples from Durham with rather new Oliver campers (a brand I was unfamiliar with). They were headed to the Keys, stopping at Fernado Beach and Titusviile along the way.

Sunday morning we paid for our overnight stay and headed down the road. There were a few sprinkles falling as we pulled back on the interstate. We made our second gas stop just before leaving South Carolina. We stopped at the Florida Visitor Center to picked up a fresh map and a camping guide. We had reservations at four different places, but none after the end of February. The state was in the process of planting new palm trees, replacing a number blown over by Hurricane Irma. We drove out of light rain several times, but each time we stopped, it caught up with us.

We arrived at Annastasia State Park in St. Augustine and got a campsite. Since we had left a day early, we did not have reservations until the next day, but there were spaces available. We set up on our assigned site and as we was finishing up, the rain caught up with us again. This time a pretty good shower. I discovered that the faucet was leaking on the kitchen sink so we decided to go out of the park and drive down to an Ace Hardware we had been to on a previous trip to get a couple of ”O” rings. We were also near empty on the truck.

After gassing up, we stopped at Publix and got a package of prepared Chicken Parmesan with linguini noodles and sauce and picked some fresh asparagus to go along with it. We looked for a slice of key lime pie, but they only had whole pies. We went next door to the Dollar Tree to get a birthday card for my friend Tom and some Valentine cards.

Monday morning it was clear but a little cooler (upper 50s). We waited until the afternoon to take a 10 mile bike ride which included a stop at the lighthouse.

Rhonda had picked up a small package of pork ribs when we were at Publix the day before and we had them slow cooking in the crock pot while we were out riding. We also went down to the camp store to connect with the internet and walked over to the beach. The ribs were smelling good when we returned. We ate them with mac and cheese and creamed spinach with apple sauce on the side.

During the night I thought I heard a noise coming from the truck. I figured I had left the back glass up on the camper shell and the wind was causing it to move. I finally got up to make sure it wasn’t something else. I discovered I had left the glass closure up and a raccoon had some how gotten in the back. The lid had been left off one of plastic storage tubs and the critter had had himself a feast. It had gotten into several food items packaged in soft containers. The Spanish rice, beef stroganoff, and some freeze dried fruit were pretty much gone. The instant mash potatoes and couscous were apparently not to his liking. There was only a small sample hole in them. The thing that made the biggest mess was the two envelopes of instant chocolate mug cake mix. I also found an empty Hormel meatball and sauce package out on the edge of the campsite near the brush. I latched the window and went back to bed.

The next morning it was clean up time. I was surprised that there were raccoon tracks on the hood and top of the cab and on the top of the camper shell. I just couldn't figure how he was able to climb up the smooth surface of the truck. Obviously, the lure of food provides motivation.

Mid-morning we biked about 2 miles to the downtown historic district, crossing the narrow bridge over the Matanzas River which separated Anastasia Island from the mainland and downtown. As we were crossing, we had to stop for the draw bridge raising to allow a pleasure boat to pass. This part of the river is also the Intercostal Waterway. We walked around the shops and had a delicious Cuban sandwich and a empanada at a small cafe off St. George Street for lunch.

The heavy payload SpaceX launch was schedule for 1:30, but was postponed until 3:45 at Cape Canaveral We went down to the beach at 3:30. Even though Cape Kennedy was about 100 miles away, we could see the fire from the rocket and the smoke trail at it rose in the sky. This was the second time I had seen a launch from St. Augustine Beach. I’d like to see one from Titusville sometime so I could see and feel it more vividly.

Tuesday, we moved down to Salt Springs for two days before going on to Juniper Springs for five days. The forest service campgrounds are a good deal. A huge discount is given when you have the Golden Passport for seniors; usually half off. It was about 82 degrees as we pulled into the campground around 2 pm. It wasn't the site I preferred, but still not that bad. Later, I walked around the campground and rated and marked sites on a map for future reservations. My criteria was spaciousness (relative to next door neighbors, shade, traffic and distance to restroom/showers. We were close to the showers and now there is WiFi throughout the campground with the node located on the bathhouse roof. We were able to have low bandwidth usage inside the camper.

On the way down from St. Augustine , we stopped in East Palatka and had a most delicious seafood lunch at Cory Bell’s on the St. Johns River. We came here last year for Valentine's. We had to park in a small shopping center a half block down the road and across the street, but the parking lot was too full for the truck and the camper. We split a big platter of fish, shrimp, scallops, oysters and devil crab, we also split a bowl of gumbo. The oysters are the best I’ve eaten in 20 or 30 years. Their’s is so good that it looks like we will make this an annual tradition as long as we continue to go to Florida.

Thursday, we woke up to a foggy morning, but the temperature was still moderate at around 60°. Mid-morning I decided to checkout the Fort Gates ferry landing on Lake George. I had seen the sign several times when we had stayed in the area previously. To get to it, we had to drive down a dirt forest service road from Highway 19 for five miles. When we arrived, we found that there wasn't much to it. Back at the start of the road, there was a sign with the schedule. Below the sign there was another sign that said it was closed.

The historical marker at the landing said it was a mile across the lake, saving a 50 mile trip around by road. The Fort Gates Ferry is a site of historic importance. It also said it was the oldest ferry in Florida, beginning service in 1853. This site is a narrows in the St. Johns River north of Drayton Island and has been home to a ferry crossing for nearly two centuries. The current ferry is a 1910 Sharpie sailboat piloting a 1930s barge that can hold two cars. The crossing is part of the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway. The road on the east side connected with US 17 at Pomona Park. In 1972, an automobile commercial featuring Paul Newman was filmed on the Fort Gates Ferry. In 2009 the ferry was part of a route named the "World's Worst Commute" in a contest run to promote a brand of motor oil.

After we returned to Salt Springs, we headed west on SR 316 to see if we could locate a barbecue restaurant called “Backwoods Barbecue” north of Lake Kerr. We gave up after driving as far as we wanted to. We did find out there was a little more Salt Springs than we thought, but not much.

It had been sprinkling some during the morning, but lightened up through the afternoon. We decided to take a hike on a trail which started and ended along the edge of the campground. It was about two miles long and was called the Bear Swamp trail. We saw some swamp, but no bear. We walked over to the springs upon our return.

I retuned the tv and got a little better reception. At eight o'clock, I tried to watch the Duke-Carolina game on my tablet, but the wifi wasn't good enough for the video part so I listened to the audio on an app called Tune In Radio.

Friday, I rode the bike some and Rhonda did a load of laundry in a small shopping center across the road from the campground. We packed up after lunch and moved to Juniper Springs. The temperature was 82° when we backed into the site.

Juniper Springs is without hook ups so I brought along a small 2000 watt generator to keep the camper battery charged. We love the campground there because it is blends in with the natural surroundings. The campsites have vegetation all around them so it has a bit of privacy, more so than most campgrounds. Even though the main spring is a little smaller than some of the other springs around, it is one I enjoy swimming in the most. It is located about the center of the Ocala National Forest so the closest store is about 11 miles away.

We biked over to the springs and I went in for a refreshing swim. I didn't get my face wet (surmerged) because I was treating my left eye for a mild inflamation and didn't want to take a chance of making it worse.

It clouded up and there was a short shower about supper time. I went to bed early due to some kind of allergy bothering my throat. Rhonda's allergies had started earlier and she had to keep taking something to help with the cough and other symptoms.

It was heavily overcast when we woke up and it took a while for me to feel like doing anything. There was a nature hike scheduled for 9:30 and I wanted to go, but I just couldn't get going. Rhonda went to a lecture on snakes, alligators and bears; all native to our immediate area. After lunch, we drove over to Astor Park to see if we could get the internet at the library, but the library was closed and the wifi signal wasn't very strong. We picked up some charcoal and pork chops to grill for supper. When we returned, we rode the bikes all around the campground. Being that it was the weekend the was a lot of activity around the park. It was the most crowded I'd ever seen it.

Sunday, we read and relaxed until mid-afternoon. I took my new mask, snorkel, and fins to the springs so I could spend more time in the water without having to worry about getting my eye wet.

Monday morning the sky was overcast and we drove up to Silver Springs to a greenway out of town that we had visited a couple of times before. It consisted of three big loops and a connector that went out to another street. Down and back was about four miles and I rode it three times and Rhonda rode it twice. The cloud cover made for a pleasant ride.

When we got back in town, we drove through the ATM at the BB&T for some cash, had lunch at a little Asian fast food place and checked out sort of a high end thrift shop. After lunch, we stopped at CVS for some allergy medicine, Winn-Dixie for fresh meat, the library for e-mail, a car wash to freshen up the truck, and a quick mart for gas. Most of the gas around the area was $2.60, but the quick mart had it for $2.46.

Tuesday was overcast again with a few showers. I waxed some of the truck and all of the camper shell. I also painted some rust spots on the frame and bed. Later in the afternoon, I changed the oil and filter. Before supper, I rode the bike all around the roads in the campground and park for about and hour. (still trying to get in some kind of shape for when I ride with Chuck after we meet up on the 19th.

We packed up our stuff, disconnected and headed over to the Thousand Palms Resort at Lake Panosoffkee between The Villages and Inverness on Wednesday. The campground is just a few hundred yards east of the Withlacoochee River on highway 44 and right on the border of Citrus and Sumter counties. Across the road was the Half Moon Wildlife Management area, a 9,000 acre preserve with hiking and equestrian trails, and the main dirt roads were quite bikeable.

We set up at the back edge of the campground with the pool, restrooms and laundry right in front of us. The resort had lots of shade and most of the sites were long term users. They had several rental units, but most all the sites and rental units were full. Our next door neighbors were from Minnesota, right at the Canadian border. They spent all the winter there, leaving their 5th wheel there year-round. During the summer, they stay on a lake up in Canada. Their children lived in Indiana.

I had an appointment at the Ocala Eye Clinic at 2 pm in The Villages, so we headed over there as soon as we had lunch to make sure we could find it and be on time. I dropped Rhonda off at a shopping center, after we found the clinic. The appointment only took about an hour. The examination was to see if the mild inflamation that had been detected before I had left had cleared up. The report was good and I was happy to be over the concern.

Thursday was the day we were to meet up with our friends, the Martins from South Carolina, Rhonda's brother and his wife, and two other friends from my high school class. We planned the get together at Cody's Roadhouse on SR44 in the Villages, at Brownwood Paddock Square. We had left early so we would make sure we could find it. We also wanted to check out a veterans thrift store and go by the bank to get a roll of quarters for laundry in Wildwood. The campgrounds usually don't have change machines. On the way, we spotted a guy selling strawberries on the side of the road, so I stopped for our first Plant City strawberries of the year, but they weren't as good as years past.

At the thrift store, I bought a travel iron for three dollars, some CDs for a dollar each, eight golf balls for two dollars and some DVD cases for a dollar.

We arrived at the restaurant location early enough to have a good look around the the unique area called Brownwood. It was mainly small shops and restaurants with an outdoor stage in the center for entertainment. It reminded me of the Main Street at Disney World. It looked like the main mode of transportation was golf carts. The variety of styles was amazing.

We had a pretty good meal and a lot of fun catching up on what we had been doing. The biggest complaint from some of the ladies was that the air conditioning made it very cold. I had to agree. The was a sign that said “free air conditioning”. I said it needed to be changed to freezing air conditioning. After lunch, we all went back to our campsite and visited some more for about two hours.

Friday, we drove down the road going into the wildlife management area to check out the trails and to see if the dirt road would be a good ride in case our friends that were coming down wanted to hike or bike.

We then headed into Inverness. We needed milk and I had a hankering to make mini pizzas using English muffins, shredded cheese, and pizza sauce. We stopped at a Dollar General, but they did not have the English muffins, so we had to go a few more miles into Inverness. We found all we needed at the Winn-Dixie.

I had been feeling the onset of kidney stones again and we were down to one pain pill, so I decided to go to an urgent care I had seen back up near Wildwood. I was in and out in an hour. I stopped at Publix to get some things for supper. I got a roasted chicken, a great salad mix and some sour dough bread. I also got a few apples, some pimento cheese, and a Jimmy Dean breakfast bowl. Now we were set for supper and breakfast.

Saturday, I rode my bike all over the area near WMA for about ten miles. There was a three hole golf course

back at the campground so I took three clubs, a putter and four balls and played until I had lost all the balls. It was a very close course with only about 10 yards at the widest point in the fairways. When the ball went in the rough, there was little chance of finding them.

Sunday, we went to the worship service at the Inverness First Baptist Church. It was a large church that had been downtown and was now on the edge of town since 2007. It had a thirty-five member choir and five musicians. The sanctuary was about half full.

Monday, we met up with our friends, Chuck and Christine from Raleigh. They had been down for several days visiting a cousin that lived in Tarpon Springs. Chuck and I rode bikes on the northern half of Withlacoochee Trail from Citrus City down to Floral City (23 miles). The ladies checked out some thrift shops after dropping us off. We got back together and had lunch at the Air B&B where they were staying. We relaxed in their pool and hot tub after eating and then returned to our camper.

The next day we met in Floral City and traveled down to the southern end of the trail to finish the second 23 miles back to Floral City. Both days had plenty of sunshine with the temperatures in the low eighties, but there was a nice breeze to make it a very pleasant ride. The trail is well used. We saw mostly people of our age (retirees) all up and down the trail riding almost every kind of bike you could imagine. Back in Inverness, we ate lunch at a place called the Highland Restaurant. Chuck and Christine had eaten supper there on Sunday evening and found it to have good food at a very reasonable price. It had a diner type menu with bountiful portions.

Wednesday, Chuck and Christine came over before lunch and we hiked a loop trail down in the wildlife management area and then had lunch back at our camper. I had booked a ride on an airboat from a place called Wild Bills for 3 o'clock and we had to be there at 2:30. It was about a mile from the campground.

The airboat held 25 people, but there were only ten in our group. The boat took us up the Withlacoochee River to a small dam and back for eight miles with the trip lasting about 55 minutes. On the trip up the river the operator stopped by several places where he knew there were alligators hanging out. The small dam was used to back river water up into Lake Panosoffkee. There also was sort of a ramp built as part of the dam so airboats can get over the dam to access the upsteam of river. On the return trip, it was all about speed and a little more excitement. The boat used an automotive engine with about 550 hp.

We had supper together at the picnic table outside the camper. We supplied the

main course and they supplied the key lime pie.

Thursday, Chuck had to catch up on some work for his job on the computer, so we got together mid-afternoon. We checked out Lake Panosoffkee and a small park on the waterway that connected the lake with the river. From there we went to Brownswood in The Villages to cruse the shops, listen to some great live music, and eat at a restaurant call Gators. Chuck and Christine went on to a winery/micro brewery with live music and we returned to the camper.

The next day, we went to Crystal River and rented Kayaks, hoping to see manatee at Three Sister Springs or out in the river. We enjoyed the sights and paddling, but did not see a single mantee. We did see an number of other paddlers, even a school group from North Carolina.

On Saturday, we met in Inverness and Chuck and I did a 21 mile ride on the trail back to the north. We had a great seafood lunch at a restaurant in Inverness called Cedar River Seafood. They were heading out the next day and going down to Bradenton to see Christine's sister and brother-in-law who were vacationing there from eastern Virginia.

Sunday, we went to Fort Cooper Baptist church. It was a long service, because they were having a special missions emphasis and had a guest speaker.

Monday, we went back to the bike shop on the trail in Inverness. They had several kinds of trike recumbent bikes. Since seeing some a number of years ago, I wanted to try one out. They had them for rent. We had brought Rhonda's bike along also so I could ride it while she tried out the trike for about five miles. We rode down to Floral City and stopped at a fruit stand and got some more strawberries. When we returned to Inverness, Rhonda checked out the area around the park at the trail and I rode up to Hernando and back. Riding it was like sitting in a low lawn chair and pedaling with your feet and legs out in front. It was very comfortable. Of course, pedaling from a different position, uses some different muscles. I had the rental all day (the only way you could rent it), but after 21 miles I was ready to turn it in.

I wouldn't mind having a trike, but they are a little more difficult to transport and they are not well suited for trails with a double track like some of the New River Trail. The two front wheels would have to be on the grass and rear tire would be in the trail tread. It is absolutely great for paved trails. And of course there's the three thousand dollar price tag.

Tuesday, we rode up and across the highway in front of the campground to the Half Moon Wildlife Management Area. For most of the ride we were on the streets of the neighborhood that was on the eastern side of the preserve. There was one stretch on a dirt road and Rhonda found it a little bumpy for her liking. The good thing about the ride was that there was little or no traffic.

Wednesday, I told Rhonda I wanted to ride eleven more miles of the Withlacoochee Trail so I would have ridden over a hundred miles on the trail. It was my second completion of the entire trail. The day was another perfect day for riding – about 82° with a slight breeze. She dropped me off a few miles down below Floral City and I rode back to Inverness.

Our reservation at Thousand Palms was up on Thursday. I called around to several places near High Springs where we wanted to go, all except two were expensive (over $48). Our plans were to kayak a stretch of the Santa Fe River, which I had seen on the map and we had scouted the previous year. The two reasonable ones were the one at Oleno State Park and High Springs Campground. We had stayed at High Springs the year before and it was OK, just very basic, and they did have internet. I called them and made a reservation for four nigthts.

On the way to High Springs from Inverness, we stopped in Williston and had lunch with Jimmy and Linda. They had come down two years and stayed there in their travel trailer. Last year, they bought a very nice park model (single wide stationary RV) in the resort. We had to park in a grocery store parking lot and they came and picked us up. Our friends, Danny and Dorothy were there also.

Friday morning, we drove over to the Santa Fe River Canoe Outpost on the river and rented two single kayaks. We had always paddled together in double or tandem kayaks or canoes. This time we wanted to see how it would be to paddle separately. It worked out well and now we might buy a couple of singles for ourselves.

The river is in northern Florida, is 75 miles long and originates from Lake Santa Fe near Keystone Heights. It is usually a slow flowing river. This slow speed, combined with the abundant leaf drop from nearby trees, especially Bald Cypress, makes it a very dark brown or bronze river. It is fed by numerous springs and three tributaries (the New River, Ichehucknee River, and Olustee Creek). The river is unusual in that it completely disappears underground in one place and reappears (rise) three miles downstream. The river flows into a large sinkhole (swallow) and reappears at the River Rise. It ends at Bradford where it flows into the Swaunee River. From there, the Suwannee continues on for another 74 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.

It was an absolutely beautiful morning with not a cloud in the sky and the temperature was around 78° at 9:15 when we pushed off from the shore. A college student couple rented a double kayak and headed out ahead of us. We were the only ones on that part of the river.

As we paddled down the river from the put-in at the US 441 bridge, we saw hundreds of river cooter turtles sunning on logs and rocks. We stopped at Poe Springs for lunch. We were able to paddle right up into the springs and tied up at the hand railing beside the steps that enter the water. The county park containing the springs was closed because of damage from the hurricane. We had our lunch at one of the picnic shelters not far from our boats.

Further down the river, we paddled up into Lilly Springs and by Pickard springs. We reached the take-out at Rum Island at 2:15 and hung out at the springs until the van with the trailer came to pick us up along with four other paddlers. There were about a dozen others relaxing at the springs, but only a few got in while we were there.

Saturday after lunch, we drove forty miles south to Williston to visit with Jimmy and Linda and see the N.C. State vs Louisville game. There was a car show in town and a craft fair at the resort. The car show was concluding as we got into town.

Before supper, we drove over to Micanopy, a little, quaint old town that had about a dozen eclectic mix of authenic, rustic store fronts that lure the casual thrift shopper, collectors and antiquers. In a brochure it said that it had earned the title “the town that time forgot”. We have seen a few of these town in our travels across the US. If ever in the area, it is worth a visit. It is located off I-75 just south of Gainesville.

In 1539 Spanish conquistador and explorer Hernando De Soto noted a Timucuan Indian village here. Over two hundred years later, the American naturalist William Bartram recorded his impressions of a proto-Seminole village named Cuscowilla in this same locale.

By the time Spain ceded its Florida provinces to the U.S. in 1821, the newly constructed hamlet of Micanopy became the first distinct United States town in the Florida Territory. One of the founders was Moses Elias Levy, a wealthy businessman and philanthropist who was involved in West Indies shipping and other interests. He immigrated to the United States in 1820.

Named after a Seminole chief, the village of Micanopy was built under the auspices of the Florida Association of New York (the earliest Florida development corporation, headquartered in Manhattan). Chief Micanopy lived about 60 miles (97 km) south in present-day Sumter County. In 1821 when the territorial village was developed, a faction of Miccosukee Indians lived in the immediate area. The historian C. S. Monaco has suggested that the town was named after Micanopy "to appease the chief and acknowledge his original authority over the land."both Fort Defiance (1835–1836) and Fort Micanopy (1837–1843) were located here during the Second Seminole War. Some of the bloodiest battles of that war took place along the road southwest from Fort Micanopy to Fort Wacahoota, just inside modern Alachua County. A recent archaeological study has verified both forts as well as the location of two battlefields within the town limits: the Battle of Micanopy and the Battle of Welika Pond (1836).

Micanopy's historic district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. The home of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, where she wrote The Yearling and Cross Creek, is in nearby Cross Creek. The house is operated as a museum. It is also known for being the filming location of the 1991 romantic comedy, Doc Hollywood staring Michael J. Fox.

When we returned to Williston, we stopped at BubbaCue's Barbecue and picked up take outs for supper. We enjoyed some good food as we started to watch a great ballgame with N.C. State being the victors.

Sunday, we attended worship services at the High Springs Baptist Church that started at 11 am instead of 10:30 like so many churches are doing now. This was because they had an early service. It was a good size church and the sermon was very good and close to being the “hell fire and damnation” variety. The pastor was using an acronym of the word “G-O-S-P-E-L” that was printed on the bulletin. As we neared noon and he was just starting on the letter “P”, we knew it was going to be a long service.

We stopped at Hardees for lunch and then headed out to Oleno State Park. We brought a change of clothes and shoes. We went to check out the park in general, but mainly to see the “swallow” and the “rise” of the river. We hiked a loop trail that followed the river down to the swallow and came back up the other side. We crossed back over into the main part of the park on a suspension bridge.

Monday morning, March 5th, we headed north after gassing up and buying two bags of very sweet navel oranges (one regular and one red) at a big citrus store right at the entrance ramp for I-75. We stopped mid-afternoon, after traveling 275 miles, in Walterboro, South Carolina at the New Green Acres campground. We had stayed there on two other occasions on our journey home. There appeared to be very few long term users. We always get the impression that it is a quick overnight stay for travelers going to and coming from Florida. They advertise as having the longest and widest pull-thru sites east of the Mississippi.

Our destination for the day was our friend's house in Jonesville, South Carolina. We didn't get much of a visit with them down in Florida, just the brief rendezvous for lunch and at our camper afterward down at Lake Panosoffkee. It was rainy and cool as I pulled into their yard and parked in the spot Don had made for RV hookup.

The next morning, we had a great breakfast together and headed to Gaftney where we connected to I-85. We bypassed Charlotte by taking US 32l at Gastonia to Conover at I-40 and then I-77 home. We stopped at Wendy's in Woodlawn between Galax and Hillsville.

It always enjoyable to travel to Florida in the dead of winter and see more of spring the further we go south. When one spends a month or more, the greener it gets. Unfortunately, the ride back north is not as rewarding and spring just shrinks back into winter. Of course, the remedy for this is to stay in Florida until spring is completely arrived back home. This year we got a big dose of winter again after we got home. In the weeks that followed, we got two good size snows, making us to long for those sunny days with temperatures in the upper 70's and low 80's. It will certainly be on my mind when we make plans for next year if the good Lord continues to bless us with that opportunity.

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