Big Cypress

Gatortime

We found the gators – they are all hanging out upcountry at Big Cypress National Preserve. We spent two days down in the Everglades and only saw one gator. As soon as we pulled into the Big Cypress Oasis visitor center, we saw dozens of cold-blooded beasts lounging around.

The park ranger guy explained that in the dry season, a lot of the gators congregate in the canals that run along the roadways here. They were all just strung out along the highway soaking up the rays. He also said they basically just bask for days and weeks in the sun to store up energy, then expend it in a lightning burst to grab some unsuspecting prey. They only eat every couple weeks, and are good for a couple months if they catch something big.

He'll get'cha

We took a little detour down a gravel road loop to see even more gators. Honestly though, I was more interested in the ratty homesteads we found along the road – more than a couple sweet old campers buried in that there swampland!

The Long Road

The national preserve campground we stayed at in Big Cypress was the roughest yet. This place ended up not having a shower house, and the bathrooms were shady at best. I didn’t realize that when I booked the two nights…oops. It’s hard to understand how they can justify charging the same $30 for this dump as they do for the more built up Everglades site – I guess that’s just government logic for you.

So at this point we’ve come pretty far from the opulence of running water and clean bathrooms in the Keys. Instead I got to spend a half hour McGyvering up this beautiful outdoor shower contraption. We’ve got a solar shower from Cabela’s that is basically a big 5-gallon water bladder with a little screw-on spray nozzle.

Anyone for a shower?

I feel that you haven’t really maximized your marriage until you find yourself holding a really heavy bag of water up in the air while your significant other rushes to shower only inches from your face surrounded by a tarp contraption consisting of every bungie cord you could find, and a big, pink flamingo chip clip (thanks Carla!)

Needless to say, we are looking forward to heading out of the wilderness, and back to civilization for the holidays!

Everglades

Everglades Boardwalk

We left the sunny, good vibes of the Florida Keys retiree lifestyle, and plunged headfirst into the backcountry of Everglades National Park. The campsite is electric only, the showers have no hot water, the skeeters are out in force, and we’re deep in gator country!

When I think of the Everglades, I conjure up visions of dense swampland full of alligators and muck. The reality is actually a lot different than I expected; the area is mostly miles and miles of wet grasslands and tons of birds. Water is the life force of this place, and flows down from the lakes in central Florida, passing through rivers of wet grasslands before flowing out into Florida Bay. The National Park does a good job of illustrating and explaining the massive water conservation efforts that are currently underway to help preserve the fragile ecosystem.  The guy at the visitor center said the populations of Egrets and other wading birds are down 90% from where they were in the 1930’s.

We went on a few short hikes to check out the scenery. The first thing you notice is the huge variety and number of birds. They are everywhere! It’s the dry season here, so the numbers of bugs are greatly reduced from their summer volumes (so we are told.)

Anyone looking for some endangered swamp mahogany?

Mahogany Hammock

On Friday, we got up early to embark on what turned out to be a fairly epic 5-hour canoe trip into the Everglades backcountry. We rented the boat at the Flamingo Marina – $22 for 5 hours. The guys at the dock were really nice. I think they were a little excited to have some young people that seemed actually interested in the area. They told us about a sweet hidden route from Coot’s Bay through a tunnel of mangrove trees to Mud Lake.

Canoeing the Everglades

We paddled about an hour up the waterway to Coot’s Bay – the weather was sunny and pleasant – really peaceful! Not much in the way of wildlife, but lots of white mangrove trees. If we veered closer to shore the bugs would come out and bug us so I tried to keep us closer to the middle of the canal.

I'm so cool

We made it out onto Coot’s Bay, and worked our way along the shore until we spotted the entrance to the mangrove tunnel. That tunnel was the coolest part of the trip by far.

It took about 10 minutes to meander through the narrow channel. The trees were dense; sometimes we had to duck down, and other times we had to pull ourselves along using the overhanging branches. Noelle thinks she saw a gator slip into the water, but I’m not that sure.

Into the Tunnel

Navigating the Mangrove Tunnel

Mud Lake was really neat – it was muddy, shallow, full of birds, and we were completely isolated. That little mangrove tunnel is the only way into the lake. We had a nice little picnic lunch in the canoe, saw some more birds, and some weird jumping eel looking things.

Out into Mud Lake

Wader in Mud Lake

Pelican

I panicked a little trying to find the little mangrove tunnel on the way back, but Noelle’s common sense eventually had us working our way along the shore until we spotted it.

The haul back to Flamingo was pretty tough – we had been paddling for over 3 hours at that point, and we faced a strong headwind back in Coot’s Bay. The sun was going strong, and body parts were starting to ache. The last leg of the canoe trip was pretty brutal. Skin tight from sun, backs cramping, hands raw from the effort.

A friend from the cold northern wastes of Chicagoland suggested I do some alligator wrassling while we are down here, but up to this point we hadn’t seen a single gator. We had a running joke that the whole idea of alligators everywhere was just a huge Florida marketing ploy intended to lure unsuspecting tourists.  Ironically, as we rounded the final bend, we saw this bastard sunning himself on the boat ramp. Yeah we just canoed all day long without seeing a single gator and we could have seen this thing without even leaving the car! Oh well, it felt really good to complete that trip.

Gator time

It was a different guy at the dock when we got back – he asked where we had gone – we said Mud Lake and he was like, “Wow you went all out!” I was like, “Heck yes we did!”

Florida Keys

Heading to the Keys

Beautiful, sunny, relaxed, good times… We’ve finally made it to the Florida Keys! We have had a really nice set of days here, and are definitely reluctant to move on.

A fellow RV’er we met further north suggested this campground because it is in an excellent location, has friendly people, and is a great value – he wasn’t lying, this place is awesome! We have a really nice, shaded spot. The ocean is only a few steps away, and the pool is even closer than that.

Beautiful Campsite

Florida Keys Camping

Crystal clear waters

Keys birds

Seaside camping

We spent a day in Key West; did a little sightseeing, and a lot of eating and drinking. We saw Fort Zachary Taylor, we had some $1 Yuengling drafts and ate some fish for lunch, we wandered Duval Street, we ate a lobster roll, we found the Southern Most Point in the continental US, we missed the Hemingway house by 5 minutes (oops), we ate some more fish for dinner and had an amazing slice of Key Lime pie, and finally capped everything off getting drunk while singing Karoke with a drag queen. I’m not sure what else we could have thrown in there to have a better time except maybe meeting Bill Murray on the street… because who doesn’t want to meet Bill Murray on the street.

Fort Zachary Taylor

Cannon

Blue Heaven

Southernmost Tip

We watched this chicken cross the road… Noelle wanted to ask him why, but he wasn’t having any of that.

Chicken

After the adventures in Key West, we proceeded to sit on our butts for the next three days. It wasn’t all fun and games though – Noelle made me work at the pool – it’s a tough life.

Workin hard

I know this post is a bit happy-go-lucky, but we have really had a good time this week. We’ve been to a few places so far on our little journey, and plan to see a few more. I can only hope that we will have more weeks as blissful as this one!

So we’ve gone as far south (in the continental US) that we can… I guess we will just have to see how far north we can go too. Onward!

Coral Castle

Throne Room

We stopped at the Coral Castle, as we continue to head down to the Florida Keys. Overall impression… Meh.   We also had a bit of an incident at Walmart!

The Coral Castle is located right off highway 1, and is the first “attraction” we’ve been to in South Florida. At $15 each, the entrance fee to this place is steep – especially given the lack of anything to actually look at besides a few rocks here and there.

Castle Grounds

Checking out the scene

Don’t get me wrong, the little Latvian American dude name Ed who built this crazy little place did some good work… but just not $15 dollars good. In fact, he actually knew what his work was worth, and charged people 10¢ to check it out.

I’m no math expert, but everyone knows that 10 cents in the 40’s to $15 today is about a 7.5% annual rate of inflation – sounds like someone got a little greedy over the years!

Cheap

Coral Pool

Coral Castle

So after being ripped off at the Coral Castle, we headed over to spend the night at Walmart. Everything looked good when we arrived around 4PM. A couple other rigs were already there, and we settled in nicely.

Bam! All of a sudden something rocked the camper hard. Noelle and I ran out as fast as we could. We were both worried it might be a hit and run situation. Outside, we saw a car wedged up against the spare tire on the back of the camper. The lady inside was kind of leaning over and shaking.

I’m freaking out – Noelle calls 911, I try to knock on the window to see if the lady will wake up. I could see that she was breathing, but she wouldn’t respond. Meanwhile, her car was still running, and was scratching further along the tire.

The police arrived, the lady eventually woke up, and they took her to the hospital. They said she might have had a diabetic seizure. The camper appears undamaged except for a torn tire cover – whew! If she had hit any other part of the camper, there would have been damage – if we hadn’t been there, she might have driven out onto the street or hit somebody.

Walmart Drama

After all that excitement, we decided to skip the whole Walmart thing and headed to a campground for the night. Another exciting day on the road!

The Campground Shuffle

Campground?

We’ve had a pretty easygoing week in Port St. Lucie, and are looking forward to heading down to the Keys soon.  We spent another great day at the beach, and enjoyed a few more days of our work/ camp lifestyle.

This post is going to be a bit of a reflection on our experience in finding and staying with the various campgrounds we have come across so far. In short: they are a random mess of prices, amenities, attitudes, and ambiance.

Take the current location; a bona fide “RV Resort.” We found this place via Passport America (they provide a 50% discount at participating campgrounds, many times with seasonal restrictions or a max number of applicable nights). The description read something like “Large Sites, Beautiful grounds, Pool & Clubhouse, WIFI, etc…” The Tripadvisor reviews were decent; most said something like “Great campground.”

This campground has the highest undiscounted rate of any that we have stayed at yet – it has also been one of the worst. The place is well manicured, the RV pads are level concrete, the bathrooms are clean… the sites are also tiny, the RV’s are only a couple feet apart.  The “management” has a list of rules and regulations six pages long, and signs posted everywhere reminding guests to flush the toilets and only use the wifi for “1 hour for email.” I don’t even know what that means!

The worst part: the plumbing in the bathhouse barely functions; the toilets don’t flush right, and the water in the shower fluctuates wildly between scalding hot and freezing cold.   Keep in mind the full rate at this place is as much as a decent hotel!

But this little parking lot calls itself a “RV Resort”, and has somehow convinced a number of real people to write decent reviews and ratings… WTF! This experience highlights what we have seen so far – price doesn’t indicate quality, and people can be real dumb.

So far the worst site has been the most expensive. On the flipside, the cheapest site was one of the best so far.  That little campground had a beautiful setting, best bathhouse, awesome clubhouse, and great people.  It felt a little like I was leaving home when we moved on! It looks like finding a good campground involves a mixture of research, trial and error, and a bit of good luck. It’s always an adventure with each new site, and hopefully we get some of that luck in the Keys!

At least she still looks good