Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Florida Sunshine

When I was a child, growing up in a small Nova Scotia fishing village, oranges were a special treat. We called them Florida sunshine. One was always included in our Christmas stocking and I remember Mom using them to make marmalade in February.

Avon Park, FL, where we spent a month, is situated in the centre of Florida's citrus growing area. There are thousands and thousands of acres of citrus trees growing along what is called "the Ridge" or "Florida's Spine". This area, also called The Highlands, is around 200 feet above sea level and the land on either side slopes down to the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west.
The groves are readily accessible from the roads and before the harvest ripe oranges lay at the base of each tree. Apparently these are gathered as juice oranges and it is against the law for passers-by to pick them up. A stiff fine is involved so no one does.

Just north of Avon Park, in Lake Wales, is this huge juice production plant:

And across the highway, an information centre:

We were anxious to learn more about citrus fruit growing and production so off we went to spend some time there.

It turns out that this is a grower-owned cooperative called Florida's Natural. The co-op has 1000 grower members who own more than 50,000 acres of citrus groves in Central Florida.

On the grounds were examples of the different orange and grapefruit trees grown in the area:

Inside excellent displays and a movie told us the story of citrus production in Florida. Did you know that the first citrus seeds were brought to Florida by Ponce de Leon in the early 1500's. It took about 15 years for trees grown from those seeds to produce fruit. Today, a the small tree started from a seed is grafted with branches from a mature tree and will produce fruit in three years.

Blossoms, green fruit and ripe fruit all appear on the tree at the same time.

Additionally, the fruit must be ripe when picked. This means that each orange must be picked by hand by people climbing ladders with large bags strapped around their shoulders.

The bags are then dumped into larger containers which are taken to a central gathering point where they are loaded into trucks for delivery to processing and packing plants:

After the harvest this huge trimmer is used to trim the trees so the new growth gets the sun:

The trimmers go very quickly through the grove trimming the sides and tops of the tree:

We were disappointed that there were no orchards close to Avon Park open for us to tour so all the orchard pictures above were captured along the highways, whenever we spotted some action. The fellow driving the tree trimmer above actually backed up when he saw us pull over, so I could get a picture.

We are now in Moore Haven, the heart of sugar cane growing country and I understand that there is a tour we can take to learn about this Florida industry. We did not know that Florida grew sugar cane so are looking forward to that.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Meanest Bird Alive

During our air boat nature tour Captain Darald called the heron the meanest bird alive because it can kill nearly anything it chooses to with one stab of its strong, sharp beak. We saw many blue herons hunting in the marsh on that trip. This one was standing on the wharf where the air boat docked:
Great Blue Heron
Normally very shy, the herons we encountered were obviously accustomed to people and would let us get quite close before flying away.

In the Florida Keys we encountered the Great White Heron. Majestic, beautiful and equally as vicious, according to locals. The islands of the outer keys (south of Marathon) that are reachable only by boat, and known as "The Backcountry", are a designated Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge. On our drive out to Key West we saw many white herons perched on the bridges along the way. There were also several that hung out at the dock in the Jolly Roger Travel Park, where we stayed. This one spent its day supervising the fish cleaning station on the dock:
Great White Heron
The great blue heron above looks a little under fed compared to this guy, And look at the eyes. Would you argue if it wanted your fish?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Wild Cows and Florida Crackers

While on our air boat tour we saw a lot of wild cows grazing in the marsh. And I mean IN.
Note the bird on the cow's back
In some spots the cows were up to their stomach in marsh grass

There was lots of good fodder there
Apparently these cows are descendants of cows brought to Florida by Spanish and then British settlers and were let free to wander and graze during the various wars that occurred during the early years of settling Florida.

Today they are owned by the large ranches that dot the prairies in this part of Florida but are still permitted to graze freely in the marsh. Once a year they are rounded up, the males are separated out for market and the females are returned to the marsh for another year.

The story about the cows really intrigued us and when we learned that Lake Kissimmie State Park brings Florida's cowboy heritage alive with living history demonstrations of the early Florida "cow hunters" in an 1876-era cow camp we had to go and have a look.

The cow camp is in its own area of the park:
It was quite a hike in to the main area through a beautiful oak hammock. Cow camps were built in oak hammocks because the marsh often caught on fire - mother's nature' way of house cleaning - but the hammocks were always protected by an area of water the fire could not jump.

On the way in signs introduced us to what we were about to experience.

The cow camp consisted of a shelter for the cow catchers, a corral for the cows and a separate one for the cow catchers horses.

The shelter is called a chickee and was most commonly used by the natives in Florida. It is built to face the wind with the fire in front so the wind blows the smoke into the chickee chasing out the mosquitos.
The chickee was equipped with everything a cow catcher would need to survive. Arch was most taken with the shot gun

The Florida Cracker cow catcher stayed in character the whole time we were there telling the same story over and over to different groups of people as they arrived:

Note the whip to his right. This is used to round up the cattle. They whirl it around and "crack" it. Makes a very loud popping noise - like a gunshot - the real origin of the term Cracker. Never is an animal touched with the whip. It would do too much damage.

As a point of interest. two weeks ago we ordered new lamps for beside our bed from Camping World. They came in yesterday so we went to pick them up. While there we noticed two RVers in the parking lot hooking their car to their motorhome using a Blue Ox tow bar, Arch was interested in how it works and went to chat with them.

Meet Jim and Bettye Hatch. Very delightful people and Jim is a Florida Cracker - ie the descendant of the original Florida cow catchers and ranchers.

Jim and Bettye have a home on a lake in Babson, Florida they would like to rent, which is not far from us here in Avon Park. A great, central area to explore Florida and visit Disney World, etc. $900 a month on a yearly basis, $1200 per month if seasonal. If you are interested let me know and I will put you in touch with them.

And the new light look great don't you think?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Find the Alligator

For the Stone, Tate and Tanton grand nieces and nephews.

It was a warm day when we went on the air boat ride. So we saw lots of alligators because they like to sun themselves on the banks of the marsh and river. They do blend into the grass though. Each picture below has an alligator in it. can you find them? If you click on the picture you can make it larger.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Alligator Cove Air Boat Ride and Nature Tour

Last Wednesday Arch and I and our RV resort neighbours Jim and Judy headed up to the Lake Kissimmee area for an air boat nature tour.

An air boat is powered by a giant propeller enclosed in a protective metal cage at the rear of the craft, similar in appearance to a big fan. The propeller blades produce the necessary force to move the air boat forward over water or terrain. The one we rode on had 7 seats in front of the propeller - 6 for passengers plus 1 for the captain/guide.
Note the ear protection on each seat. Believe me, we needed it.

Incidentally, the first air boat, called the Ugly Duckling, was built in 1905 in Nova Scotia by a team led by Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. It was used to test various engines and prop configurations. An associate of Dr. Bell, Glenn Curtiss (of airplane manufacturing fame) is reported to have registered the first air boat in Florida in 1920.

The location of the company was a little remote but our handy GPS took us right to the door.
We were early and no one was around so a chance to pose for a few pictures while we waited:

Jim and Judy
Then the other two men who were riding with us arrived and lastly, right on time, Captain Darald and Captain Dee appeared. We all hopped on the boat - except Captain Dee. She took this picture and stayed behind to run the office (and dog sit Tara - THANK YOU again)
Arch wanted to sit up front so there we are!
Then we were off. This heron bid us good by from the dock:
The meanest bird alive according to Captain Darald. More about that in another blog.
 We went slowly down this beautiful channel:

And out into the marshes that surround the lake.

Captain Darald was expert guide:
The boat is in the marsh here and he is sitting on the front edge.
He told us so much about the natural world in in this area that it will take two or three more blog posts to tell you about it. 

To learn more about this part of Florida they recommend the book "A Land Remembered" by Patrick Smith, which I now have on my kindle. Really a good story.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Some Days You Get Lucky

Before Christmas my Facebook and blogger friend Elaine shared a picture from the RV resort where she and her husband Rick are spending the winter. It was a contest, share the picture and be entered in a contest to win 6 months free at The Glades RV Resort. So I shared the picture. What did I have to lose. And guess what. I won the prize.

On Wednesday, when we returned from our air boat trip (more about that later) there was an email from Elaine telling me that I had won. We were really excited but knew nothing about the resort. So today we drove the 75 miles south from where we are now to The Glades to check it out.

What a great spot. Very friendly people, a beautiful location, and the resort focuses on golf and fishing - Arch's two favourite things in the whole world - next to me and Tara, of course.

And we met Elaine and Rick in person - up till now we were Facebook friends only - even though they are from Moncton, New Brunswick. Not that far from where we are in the summer.
Rick and Elaine - great people,  We are looking forward to seeing more of them later this month
But 6 months is a long stretch for adventurers like us to spend in one place. So I contacted Jerri, the leasing manager at the resort and asked if we could book 1 month this February and use the other 5 months in 2015 after we go to Arizona and California in 2014. Sure, she emailed back. No problem. I told you they were nice people.

So our plan is to head for the Florida Keys when we leave here next week and then return to The Glades for 1 month starting Jan 25, then head up along the gulf coast starting Feb 24.

Thank you, The Glades RV Resort. Lucky us!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Two Accidental Days at the Races

It was a dark and gloomy day last Friday and we were booked to go on an Air Boat Nature Tour. So we consulted with our RV resort neignbours, Jim and Judy, who were coming with us, and decided to cancel until this week.

With an empty day in front of us we decided to drive to Lake Okeechobee and check out the scenery. Frankly it was pretty boring – lots of cattle ranches, sugar cane fields and orange groves on the way and not much action around the lake. Pretty though.

On the way home we came upon the entrance to the Sebring International Raceway. We knew we were staying close to it and I had checked the website but there didn’t appear to be anything happening while we were here. So we had no plans to go there.

But, there we were, right in front of it. So we pulled in to see what it looked like. Arch wanted a picture of the day for his Facebook page.

At the entrance we noticed this ramp to our right with a gate that appeared to have a person in it. We went to check it out.

There we met a man who said “if you want to go in you have to sign a waiver”. Signing would let us see what is on the other side of the ramp. Good spot for a photo. So sure, we signed the waiver, received a small pamphlet and off we went. Over the ramp to see this:

The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) was racing there last weekend. The weekend’s Super Tour event is the top level of the SafeRacer SCCA National Racing Series and the US Majors Tour. The Super Tour consists of six events across the country featuring the best that club racing has to offer.

These races are usually closed to the public but last weekend, for the first time, it was an open paddock, which meant we were free to go wherever we wanted (except the race track itself), get a close-up look at the cars and chat with the pit crews and drivers.

Friday was qualifying day with lots of action in the paddock. We were able to wander around, chat with folks and look at the race cars and their portable garages.
Spec Miatas lining up for qualifying race
Very sophisticated set up
and a little less sophisticated. Room for everyone here
For the love of speed

Returning from the track
On Sunday we went back to watch the races.

Arch went to chat and find out what was happening while Tara and I settled in to watch the action.
There weren't very many people there as the fact that the races were open to the public was not publicized.
Touring, Super Touring and Production categories
There were 8 categories of race cars and several categories raced together. That, combined with the roar of the motors drowning out the announcer's voice, made it a little difficult for the un-informed (that would be us) to know who was in the lead and what was happening at any given time. But we learned a lot about racing never-the-less.
Green flag means GO
Yellow flags alert drivers of an incident ahead
A waving yellow means the incident is on the racing surface, NO PASSING! A blue flag advises drivers to check their rear view mirror for faster cars that may be approaching, red and yellow vertical stripes advises drivers about debris, oil or some other liquid on the race track, white means a slow moving race or safety vehicle is on the racing surface ahead and black usually means you have been bad - report to the pits for a mechanical or behavioural issue.
The Pace Car
The pace car leads cars out to the starting line at the beginning and is then used to control the pace when a yellow flag is out. There were a lot of yellow flags while we were there. Laps run under the yellow flag count and one race finished under a yellow flag. When leading the pack under yellow the light on top of the car flashes and on the final round the light is off, indicating to all that the race is about to start.
An inglorious way to leave the race
An even more inglorious way to leave

Sorry the above photo is blurry. They were a long way off.

At the end of the race the winner in each category receives a checkered flag as they exit the track. There were four to five handed out per race.
Then they were off to the winners' circle:
We met the crew with the car above and were following it. They won their category.

All cars go to the winners' circle - win or lose - but the winners must first go through a check area where the car is examined to be sure it meets the requirements of its category:
Checking the winning cars
In the winners' circle all cars in the race are on display and drivers and pit crews are available to chat with spectators and pose for pictures:
You can see all the winners' circle on the grassy area in this picture.
We assume that under normal racing situations this area would be open to families, media, etc., but not the general public.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) is forecast to be sunny and 82F and we are booked for the air boat tour. Really looking forward to that.