Gainesville, Florida (March 1986 – October 2007)

I am hired by the City of Gainesville directly out of graduate school to work as a comprehensive planner in the Department of Community Development in March 1986 (in 1986, the city population was about 75,000). It turns out to be a fortunate decision, as Gainesville has served well as a convenient staging area for a number of adventures I enjoy on a regular basis. My favorite spots in the Gainesville area, in no particular order, include:

Ichetucknee River. A series of springs discharges 233 million gallons of water every day, and creates Ichetucknee River. Most users of the river use the river by floating down it on an inner tube. It is the most gorgeous, sparkling river in Florida. Shuttle for tubers runs Memorial Day through Labor Day. Midpoint float takes 1.5 hrs. Full length takes 3.5 hrs. Can also kayak or canoe or snorkel the river.

North Central Florida contains one of the most astounding concentration of springs in the nation, if not the world, which explains why the National Geographic featured the springs of the area in early 1999. About 45 minutes from Gainesville.

University of Florida. In 1853, the private Kingsbury Academy in Ocala was taken over by the state-funded East Florida Seminary. The Seminary was moved to Gainesville following the Civil War. In 1905, the institution was renamed as the University of Florida. In 2001, with about 46,000 students, the University is today the fourth largest university in the nation. There are approximately 4,000 full-time faculty in 20 colleges and schools. More than 100 undergraduate and more than 200 graduate programs are offered. Professional degrees are awarded in dentistry, law, medicine, pharmacy and veterinary medicine. The university is home to the world’s largest citrus research center and has cooperated with Spain to build the world’s largest telescope. The campus contains a historic northeast quadrant (which boasts several buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. See photo upper right), Lake Alice (home to several alligators) and Medicinal Gardens, Century Tower (a 49-bell carillon which rings on the daytime quarter hour), a cutting edge Bat House (where at dusk each day, thousands of bats emerge for their nightly feeding), the Museum of Natural History, the Harn Museum, the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, the University Art Gallery, historic buildings, and major intercollegiate sports. The football season is from August through November. Basketball is December through February. Baseball is February through May. It is best to rollerblade or bicycle to see the campus.

Kanapaha Botanical Gardens. A 62-acre woodland and meadow park is the home of butterflies, herbs, humming birds, and sunken gardens. The state’s largest herb garden and collection of bamboo is also here, as is a pretty water lily pond. Very attractive, romantic walk. The Gardens are best seen in the spring or summer. The gardens border the 250-acre Lake Kanapaha. The word “Kanapaha” comes from tow Timuqua Indian words that mean “palmetto leaves” and “house.” Collectively they refer to thatched dwellings that were the homes of the original human inhabitants of the forests bordering the lake.

Devil’s Millhopper and San Felasco Hammock. Devil’s Millhopper is a huge sinkhole containing a dozen small waterfalls that can be enjoyed as you descend 232 steps to the bottom of a 120-foot deep, 500-foot wide sinkhole. It was formed when an underground cavern roof collapsed, creating a bowl-shaped cavity. The Millhopper is a National Natural Landmark that has been visited since the 1880s. It contains plant species rarely found in Florida. Nearly every major forest type native to north Florida is found in the 6,500-acre San Felasco Hammock. This preserve features limestone outcrops, sinkholes, champion trees, and numerous ponds, creeks, and marshes. Many rare plants thrive at the preserve. Wildlife includes bobcat, birds, gray fox, white-tailed deer,and wild turkey.

Suwannee River. I have canoed, kayaked, and mountain biked on or near this historic river. Quite impressive. A large river with coffee-colored water. This fabled river, made famous in the song by Stephen Foster, flows more than 200 miles across Florida from its origin in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia to its destination in the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, it is fed by more than 22 major springs-many of which offer diving, snorkeling, picnic, and swimming opportunities. Along the way are Big Shoals and Little Shoals, the only river rapids in Florida. The river flows through pristine river swamp with tall cypress, oaks, pines, and palmettos. Along bends in the river, you often find white sand beaches, many of which make excellent camp sites, which I have previously camped on. Wildlife includes deer, otter, alligator, hawks, great blue heron, osprey, and beaver. Limestone outcrops line the banks. Ancient ocean fossils in the limestone are evidence of a time when the shoreline extended further inland and the sea covered much of present-day Florida.

Parts of the Florida trail and a network of off-road bicycling trails parallel the river. The off-road bicycling trails, all of which I have bicycled, include 11 separate riding areas featuring a variety of forest ecosystems, palmetto thickets, pine forests, oak hammocks, and cypress swamps. Find old beaver dams, hidden springs, and glimpses of the blackwater Suwannee River along mountain bicycle trails that are second only to the Santos trails in all of Florida.

The Suwannee River is about a 1-hour drive from Gainesville.

Downtown Gainesville. Starting in the 1990s, downtown Gainesville has seen a resurgence. A very walkable place. Nice restaurants. Impressive cultural events. Pleasant collection of bars-including a brewpub that makes its own microbeer. Enjoyable library. Remarkable 5-story Union Street Station building built in the late 1990s and containing offices, residences, and retail.

Hippodrome Theatre. Alternative movies. High quality plays. It is the only professional theatre in North Central Florida-housed in an extremely impressive, classical building. Originally the downtown post office for Gainesville.

Matheson Museum. Center for cultural and natural history of the area. Features over 18,000 Florida postcards, 1,200 stereo-view cards, and a variety of prints, maps, and items of historical significance. The restored Matheson House (built in 1857) is next door, as is a native plant botanical garden

Morningside Nature Center. Large, 278-acre city-owned nature park. Old, historic “cracker” home and working “Living History” farm displays the lifestyle of a farmer in North Central Florida 100 years ago. There are barnyard animals, an 1840 cabin, a turn-of-the-century kitchen, an heirloom garden, and a barn. The park contains boardwalk and trails through a sandhill, cypress, and longleaf pine forests. More than 225 wildflower species and 130 bird species, mammals, and reptiles are found at the park.

Cumberland Island. Cumberland Island is just off the Jacksonville coastline. Pleasant for boating, fishing, hiking, camping, beach-combing. About 2 hours from Gainesville. 45-minute ferry ride to the island.

Cedar Key. Pleasant historic town. Nice for canoeing, kayaking, sea fishing. I joined my parents in chartering a fishing boat for shallow ocean fishing there, and caught ice chests full of delicious sea bass in a day of fishing. Also available is beach walking. About 1.5 hours from Gainesville.

Crystal River manatee snorkeling. Allows you to swim with and pet these large “sea cows”. Very pleasant. Very easy-even by young children. Very close to Cedar Key on the west coast of Florida.

Micanopy. Very pleasant, small, walkable historic town filled with antique shops. Micanopy is Florida’s second oldest town, and is about 15 minutes south of Gainesville by car.

Newnan’s Lake. A large, 6,000-acre lake on eastern border of Gainesville. Has nearly dried up due to the 4-year drought here as of January 2002. When at normal levels, a great lake to canoe or kayak or bike alongside. Lots of gators, wading birds, osprey, eagles.

Flamingo Hammock. At 250 acres, Flamingo Hammock is a semi-commune with 8 homesteads. A very nice forest with trails, a creek, a treehouse, and a sinkhole. Contains the 10 acres I formerly owned, and which I spent time reforesting for 10-12 years. This link shows photos I shot of the 10 acres I owned.

Prairie Creek. Nice creek at the SE corner of Gainesville that I have canoed a number of times. Nice, short canoe or kayak trip through a creek forest. The creek connects Newnans Lake, Paynes Prairie, and Orange Lake. This two- to three-hour trip twists and turns through a floodplain forest. Along the way is an area of open pines on the eastern edge of Paynes Prairie. A dike constructed in the 1940s by the Camp family to block the creek from flooding into the Prairie now re-routes the creek through an area of cypress trees.

Ginnie Springs and Paradise Springs. Ginnie contains crystal clear water-Jacques Cousteau has said that it is the clearest water he has ever seen. I have dove and snorkeled these springs several times. It is 72 degrees year round. Year round snorkeling, scuba diving. Can be reached by car, kayak, or canoe. Ginnie is about 40 minutes north of Gainesville. Paradise Springs is about 2.5 hours south of Gainesville, and features a 110-foot “chimney” that I have descended into as a scuba diver.

Poe Springs. A 197-acre county-owned spring near Ginnie Springs along the banks of the Santa Fe River.

Biven’s Arm Nature Park. A 57-acre city-owned park with 1,200 feet of boardwalks, and a mile of nice hiking trail through a forest.

Payne’s Prairie. I have canoed, hiked, watched birds, and picnicked on this 21,000 acre wildlife sanctuary- home to 800 species of plants and 350 species of animals (photo at right). I have hiked La Chua Trail to the Sink, the Wacahoota Trail, bicycled Cone’s Dike Trail and Chacala Trail (which includes Chacala Pond and miles of wooded trails). Features a nice visitor’s center. With ponds and three lakes, Paynes Prairie is a wintering area for many migratory birds such as the sandhill crane, and home to hundreds of Florida alligators, as well as wild horses, hawks, otters, deer, gopher tortoises, bald eagles, and a herd of American Bison. This nationally prominent preserve is covered by marsh and wet prairie vegetation, with many acres of open water. There are numerous hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding trails in the preserve, which I have used a number of times. During the 1600s, the largest cattle ranch in Spanish Florida operated here. Contains the most dense concentration of eagles south of Alaska. Huge gator population that you can easily see up close when walking La Chua trail, which leads you to a popular destination for alligators hanging out in the sun-Alachua Sink. Along the La Chua trail, gorgeous views emerge as you descend into the Prairie basin. Once on the basin floor, I’ve nearly always found that I have an up-close and personal view of hundreds of Florida alligators along a trail lined with marsh vegetation and numerous birds.

Overlooks in multiple locations. Paynes Prairie was historically called the Alachua Savannah because in 1774, well-known artist and naturalist William Bartram wrote a detailed description of the area in which he called it the “great Alachua Savannah.” Within this Natural Landmark, 20 distinct biological communities are found, including wet prairie, pine flatwoods, hammocks, swamp, and ponds. Most of the life Bartram described still flourishes here today.

Paynes Prairie South contains other attractions, besides the Visitor Center:

Cone’s Dike Bison Trail Ride

I have bicycled this six-mile trail, which begins at the Visitor Center and runs through mixed forest and prairie habitat. This trail occasionally offers encounters with the Paynes Prairie bison herd.

Chacala Trail Bicycle Ride

Features a series of loops up to eight miles in length. When I bicycled it, the trail passed through pine flatwoods, mixed forest, scrub, sandhill, and baygall communities.

Hawthorne Rail-Trail

A 16-mile paved bicycle trail running from Gainesville to small town of Hawthorne. Can be rollerbladed. Trailhead is at the historic Boulware Springs. The Boulware Springs park features a restored water works building that was Gainesville’s first source of water several decades ago. The trail weaves its way through the north rim of Paynes Prairie through a canopy of huge oak trees, xeric scrub, horse pasture, and prairie. Along this portion of the trail, I have enjoyed overlooks and spur hiking trails into the Prairie basin. At the mid-point, a wooden bridge crosses Prairie Creek just south of the 6,000-acre Newnans Lake. From here, the trail passes through the Lochloosa Wildlife Management Area, pine forests, and pasture. Initially, this stretch of railroad was planned to be part of a network connecting New Orleans and New York. During the 1850s, the railroad was constructed from Fernandina to Cedar Key, providing a land route between the Atlantic and the Gulf, thereby eliminating the tricky passage through the Florida Keys. The railroad was to play a major park in the founding and history of Gainesville.

Thomas Center. Very pleasing, historic building. It is a beautifully restored Mediterranean/Italian Renaissance structure listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It contains 1920’s period rooms, local history exhibits, banquet rooms, performance space, art galleries, and meeting rooms. Now contains city offices. Formerly a hotel. The Thomas Center is surrounded by the lovely Thomas Center Gardens.

St. Augustine. My favorite town in Florida. Extremely walkable, historic town on east coast of Florida-first city established in the nation. Very nice pedestrian mall. Impressive, historic fort surrounded by moat. Gypsie Cab Company restaurant on Anastasia Boulevard just east of bridge is excellent. Cayman Island Seafood is also good. About 1.5 hours from Gainesville.

Manatee Springs. Popular place to swim and dive. About 45 minutes west of Gainesville.

Haile Village Center. Brand new village center built mostly in the 1980s and 1990s. Andres Duany calls it the best example of a new “new urbanist” village in North America. Extremely walkable. Especially important to visit if you are interested in urban design.

Town of Tioga. Nationally recognized new urbanist town at west edge of Gainesville.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home and Cross Creek. Author of The Yearling. Her home is a museum of Marjorie’s home and her farm/yard. Her cracker style home and farm, where she wrote The Yearling, is a preserved historic site. Nearby Cross Creek is a comfortable paddle.

O’Leno State Park. Attractive, state-owned forest with hiking and biking trails. Located along the banks of the Santa Fe River. The park contains a number of sandhills, river swamps, sinkholes, and hardwood hammocks. O’Leno encompasses a part of the Santa Fe River. Within the park, this portion of the river disappears and flows underground for over three miles before re-emerging at the surface. The park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. A suspension bridge built by the Corps still reaches across the river. Can be canoed or kayaked up to “River Rise,” where the river goes underground. About 45 minutes north of Gainesville.

Juniper Springs. Gorgeous, intimately-sized, spring-fed, crystal clear river great for kayaking. 4-6 hour paddle. About 1.5 hours from Gainesville.

Santa Fe River. Pretty river great for kayaking or canoeing. 2-6 hour paddle. About 30 minutes from Gainesville.

High Springs. Quaint, walkable, historic town with lots of antique shops. About 40 minutes from Gainesville. Staging area for many springs and creeks in North Central Florida.

Silver River & Springs. Clear water paddle on a swift river. Where Tarzan movies were filmed. Lots of monkeys and birds in forest along river. Very large spring has glass-bottom boat rides, jungle cruise. Silver Springs contains large water slide theme park for summer use. About 1 hour from Gainesville.

Santos Mountain Bike Trails. Extensive system of the best mountain bike trails in Florida. All skill levels. Through forests and sand pits. About 45 minutes from Gainesville.

Fernandina Beach. Near Jacksonville. Walkable, historic downtown. About 1.75 hours from Gainesville.

Rainbow River and Devil’s Den. Rainbow River contains very clear, colorful water full of alligator gar and wading birds. Pretty river. Nice for kayak and canoe paddles, and easy drift scuba diving. Devil’s Den is the most unusual geological formation I’ve ever seen. A collapsed sinkhole (a chimney provides sunlight down to the sinkhole lake), where you can snorkel and scuba dive. Breathtaking. About 45 minutes from Gainesville.

San Felasco Hammock State Preserve and Mountain Bike Trails. Large collection of mountain bike trails in a pristine state park forest. All skill levels. About 10 minutes from my house. Large collection of mountain bike trails in a pristine state park forest. All skill levels. The preserve features 10 miles of marked nature trails through 6,900 acres of forest. The preserve contains one of the finest examples of the climax mesic hammocks remaining in Florida.

Thelma Boltin Center. City-owned recreation and cultural building. I go here for monthly old-tyme-square, circle, and contra-dances, which I’ve attended each month for years.

· Horsefarms of North Central Florida. Marion County, just south of Gainesville, is horsefarm country. The County is graced with approximately 50 miles of extremely picturesque horsefarms along the famous “Horsefarm 100” bicycle route in Marion County. I have bicycled on rural roads through seemingly endless, yet gorgeous, horsefarms during a number of Horsefarm 100 events.

· Canopy Roads for Bicycling. I have found countless scenic bicycling routes through north Florida farms, forests, and small towns.

Bed & Breakfast lodging when I lived in Gainesville

Sweetwater Branch Inn. A spectacular, classy B&B. 800.579.7760.

Magnolia Plantation B&B. Very impressive, romantic, unusual Victorian. 352.375.6653.

Laurel Oak Inn. Recently renovated and converted into a B&B. 352.373.4535.

Herlong Mansion B&B. Enormous, impressive B&B in the heart of the very historic, walkable town of Micanopy. 800.437.5664.

There are many Seasonal Events in North Central Florida.

Good friends I had in Gainesville included:

Abbie Goldsmith

Andre Davis

Arnall Downs

Barbara McCain (via Complete Streets)

Barry Gibbons

Beth Rosenson

Betsy Byrne

Bill Hutchinson

Bill Warriner

Bill Paine

Bob Karp

Brad Guy

Brenda Mosier

Bruce Delaney

Bruce Ritchie

Bruce Morgan

Carolyn Morgan

Cathy Dewitt

Chandler Otis

Charlie Grapksi

Chris Bird

Chuck Flink (via Greenways, Inc)

Cindy Smith

Curtis Cooper

Dan Burden

Dave Pokorney

Dave Forrestel

Dave Bruderly

Dave Newport

Dave Cornell

David Harlos

David Coffey

Dean Mimms

Deb Gabrielle

Diane Del Gobbo

Donald Shoup (via The High Cost of Free Parking)

Doug Hornbeck

Dwight Adams

Ed Brown

Eileen Miller

Ellen Baisley Nodine

Ewen Thompson

Gabrielle Ayala

Gary Anglin

Gene Francis

Gina Hawkins

Gerry Spizio

Grant Thrall

Harold Kegelmann

“Hutch” Robert Hutchinson

Ian Lockwood (via West Palm Beach)

Jack Putz

James Howard Kunstler (via Home from Nowhere)

Jeff Morris

Jeff Shamis

Jeff Wade

Jill Lewis (via Bike Virginia)

Jodee Binks

Joe Courter

Joesph Cunningham (via Freedom From Religion)

John Barrow

John Moran

Jon Reiskind

Julia Reiskind

Karin Katrina

Ken McGurn

Linda McGurn

KIm Popejoy

Lawrence Calderon

Linda Dixon

Lisa Duke

Luis Diaz

Maki Brown

Maria Cadette

Margaret Downey (via Freedom From Religion)

Mark Stowe

Marlene Powell

Michelle Reeves

Michelle Grainger

Mike Hoge

Mike Byerly

Monica Leadon

Nathan Collier

Onelia Lazzari

Pat Byrne

Patricia Carter

Patty DeBusk

Pavel Gubanikhin

Pegeen Hanrahan

Penny Wheat

Perry Maull

Pierce Butler

Ralph Hilliard

Randy Wells

Richard Hamman

Rob Brinkman

Robert Steuteville (via CNU)

Robert Seidler

Ron Cunningham

Ron Chandler

Ron Combs

Ruth Steiner

Sarah Carey

Scott Camil

Shenley Neely

Sheri Boyd

Sidney Bertisch

Steve Lachnicht

Susan Murray

Tammy Vrana

Ted LaCombe

Tina Knudson

Trace Gironelli

Trey Palmer

Tricia Wurts

Valerie Rosenkranz

Veronica Lane

Vicki Leslie

Victor Dover (via Dover-Kohl)

Vince Gallagher

Whit Blanton

Will Ellis

Favorite restaurants and pubs when I lived in Gainesville:




Tim’s Thai

Leonardo’s 706

Melting Pot

Bahn Thai

Market Street Pub


The Top

Dragonfly Sushi


Wine and Cheese Gallery

Steve’s Café Americana


Great Outdoors Trading Company (High Springs)

In the late ’80s, I bought a cute little 55-year old bungalow in the historic Duckpond neighborhood (Duckpond goose guarding the neighborhood at right).

An important, memorable attraction in the neighborhood is the collection of Duckpond Historic Homes. The neighborhood is extremely romantic and walkable, and filled with turn-of-the-century Victorian homes and the Thomas Center along quiet streets lined with Spanish moss-draped oak trees.

The bungalow I bought was the first house built on N.E. 5th Street, which was called Kentucky Avenue at the time. I spent a lot of time and money restoring the house, including installing a solar water heater on the roof, building a wood deck, re-doing the bathroom and kitchen, repainting the interior and exterior, and re-wiring the electrical system. In 2001, I did an exhaustive title search to assemble a history of ownership on the house that reaches back to when it was built in 1935.

On Halloween in 2001, Maureen and I bought a lovely home in the neighborhood. The “Kelley-Swords” house is rich in Gainesville history.

In the nearly 20 years I have lived in Gainesville, hurricane season had never sent the city “seasons greetings.” That is, until 2004, when the Hurricane Train paid us a visit…


Categories: 1981-1990, 1991-2000, 2001-2010, Florida, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Pellicer Creek, Florida (December 2007)

I fly to Jacksonville to deliver a speech about suburban sprawl and traffic congestion. The venue will be the UF Whitney Lab. My audience is the South Anastasia Community Association.

Generously, my host offers to show me his old boyhood stomping grounds, since he grew up in Crescent Beach. He offers and I readily accept a quick motorboat trip up the Moses Creek. The creek feeds into the Intercoastal Waterway at Crescent Beach, and we depart near dusk.

We pass the tallest tree along the shoreline, and as one can predict, the king of eagles has set up residence at the treetop with the best view of the area — the magnificent bald eagle.

Soon, we beach our boat and ascend to bluff that provides us with an impressive vista view of the estuary before us. My host then brings us back to a quiet campsite, where we sit before a crackling campfire, drink a few beers, smoke a few cigars, and discuss important ideas and childhood reminisces.

First thing the next morning, I arrive at a fish camp concession, where kayaks can be rented. I have changed my mind overnight. Instead of a long, arduous paddle across the sometimes intimidating Intercoastal, I have decided the much better approach is to drive to an upstream put-in point for the Pellicer Creek, thereby bypassing an unrewarding paddle and starting much closer to the wilderness I seek.

The problem with the plan is that I have a small rental car. Not willing to let that stop me, the concession attendant and I fashion a way to carry the kayak on the little vehicle. Carefully, I drive off to Faver Dykes State Park, where a boat ramp awaits me.

At 9 am, I put in at Faver Dykes. I paddle upstream for about 1.5 hours through a zig-zagging esturine creek system. Happily, I do so without other boaters in the vicinity. A great many flying mullet and bait fish leap in the air in front of my kayak.

I cross under the I-95 and US 1 bridges.

That is when the paddling becomes superb.

I enter an exceptionally narrow, wilderness-like creek channel. A channel that does not appear to have every seen a boater before. The creek here seems so remote and so much like a wilderness far from civilization that I start getting the disconcerting feeling that should I get lost, I may never be found.

Certainly, the fact that the creek here is somewhat braided and presenting me with forks (which way should I go?) lends more anxiety to my trip. “Will I be able to remember this fork well enough when I paddle back to recall which direction to go?” I make a major mental note of any sort of creek landmark. “Remember that chain-sawed palm tree and turn right when I come back. Don’t forget. I ain’t gettin’ out of here if I forget.”

Along the way, I am treated to two otter (one playing in the water just in front of me, and one scampering along the creek on dry land to my left – otters are not the most graceful animal when running). I also spot a red fox darting through the cypress trees.

One also is able to enjoy an enormous number of heron and ducks along the Pellicer Creek.

I recommend it, and plan to return for additional exploration in the future (hopefully with a GPS…).





Categories: 2001-2010, Florida, Paddling | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Contra Dancing in Gainesville, Florida (1989-2007)

In 1989, a former significant other drags me to a “contra” dance at the Thelma Boltin Center in Gainesville Florida’s Duckpond neighborhood. For several months, I am bewildered and hesitant. The dance is challenging for my naturally shy nature as it is openly flirtatious. Somehow I stick with it, and after several months, my comfort level improves. I start knowing and eventually can anticipate calls from the caller. The dance, therefore, grows increasingly enjoyable as I am able to relax and worry less about what I must do next.

An important aspect of this dance is that newcomers tend to be gently guided by friendly and experienced dancers in your “cluster” of nearby dancers. You are almost never all on your own.

After a little more than a year, I finally feel comfortable with the three-step traditional contra waltz (I’m a slow learner). Soon, I decide to “graduate” to an all-weekend contra dance. I quickly learn that these are exceptionally enjoyable. Most of them are “dance-till-you-drop” events. Typically, the dancing starts on a Friday night, starts first thing on Saturday. Usually the Saturday dance goes on late into the night, until people are more like zombies than dancers. Many of the weekend dances end at about noon on Sunday. During these 2-3 days, there is nearly continuous contra dancing and a number of dance/call/musical workshops in various locations. All-weekend dances tend to include relatively high-quality dancers, callers, dances and fiddle bands. The result is an exhilarating, high-energy experience that combines relatively complex and intricate dances, a fast tempo, and rapid-fire calling.

With so many experienced dancers, it is thrilling when a difficult dance succeeds despite the tricky nature of the dance. The feeling of successfully negotiating such dances often leads the group of dancers to finish the dance with a great big group hug and an arms-raised shout.

I find that at the best weekend dances, I wear a great big smile on my face all weekend (quite astonishing for one not known for being a smiley person).

Here is a description of contra dancing I found on the Internet a few years ago. This comes from Gary Shapiro. See:


Definition 1: an earnest attempt

A caller, usually working with a group of live musicians, guides new and experienced dancers alike through a variety of dances.

A dancer and his or her partner dance a series of figures, or moves, with each other and with another couple for a short time. They then repeat the same figures with another couple, and so on. The figures are similar to those of old-time square dancing.

The figures are combined in different ways for each different dance.

The caller teaches each dance before it is actually done to the music. This gives everyone an idea of what to expect so the movements can be easily executed. The caller leads the dances while they are being done to music, so dancers are able to perform each movement to the music. Once the dancers appear to have mastered a particular dance, the caller may stop calling, leaving the dancers to enjoy the movement with music alone.

People of all ages and lifestyles, including children, are welcome. Contra dances are a place where people from many walks of life come together to dance and socialize. Dancers often go out to a restaurant after the dance, have a potluck before or during the dance, or hang out with musicians in jam sessions and song circles.

Children as young as seven can participate in adult dancing; your mileage may vary. As long as parents are responsible for keeping non-dancing children out of harm’s way, everyone will enjoy everyone else’s presence.

Some groups sponsor family dances. These are dances designed for participation by the whole family. In addition to dancing, the leader of a family dance might also initiate other activities such as games and singing, and singing games, and dances with singing.

First-time dancers will likely find experienced dancers extremely friendly and helpful. If this does not seem to be the case, talk to the dance organizers. They need to know! Or, depending on your location, you could find another dance group.

An evening that includes contra dancing might be called a Contra Dance, an Old-Time Contra Dance, an Old-Time Country Dance, a Barn Dance, or similar. Most contra dance events will include a few dances of other kinds: traditional squares, waltz, polka, swing and other types of couple dance.

At most dance events in North America, we dance with a different partner for each dance, although dates who attend together and significant others might dance with each other more than once.

Women can ask men to dance. At a contra dance this is certainly true and has been for some time. It might be just as common as men asking women, or more so. Women will sometimes dance with women, and men will sometimes dance with men. In general, especially for the men, this happens only when a gender imbalance exists in the hall (men tend to be real chicken about dancing with other men otherwise).

The above notwithstanding, it is a good idea at some point to dance the opposite role. It’s a real eye-opener! Be warned, however, that you’ll need extra alertness and concentration.

Contra dancers make eye contact whenever possible. This adds to the connectedness of the dance, and helps reduce dizziness, especially during the swing. It is also uncomfortable for some. Don’t let anyone tell you that you must make eye contact, but give it a try even if it’s a little uncomfortable. Expand your comfort zone. You might get used to it and even like it. Remember: they’re gazing into your eyes not because they love you but because they want to make the connection, and they don’t want to throw up on you.

Definition 2: what contra dance is not

Contra dance has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with country line dancing. Nada. Zilch. And if it did I would deny it. (I’ve allowed a personal bias to come through. Certainly some people enjoy both contra dancing and country line dancing.)

Contra dance groups receive absolutely no funding from Oliver North.

No classes are required, or even offered (in general), except for a non-required half-hour or fifteen minute introduction to contra dance before the dance, at many regular dance events.

We do not wear costumes (except on Halloween) or any particular style of clothes. Some groups ask that you bring a separate pair of soft-soled (non-scuffing) shoes to protect the dance floor. Tennis shoes are quite adequate for the first-time dancer.

Very little footwork is required in contra dance. The most common type of movement is a smooth walking step.

Definition 3: whimsical

Contra dance is a form of dance that thrusts a different person of the opposite sex into your arms every 30 seconds or so.

Actually, this is only true sometimes. It might be more prudent, but less whimsical, to say that contra dance is one of the few dance forms where by the end of the evening you are likely to have danced with everyone.

Definition 4: analytical

Contra dancing takes place in sets. A set consists of two lines, with your partner usually across from you in the other line. The set is subdivided into minor sets, which nowadays usually consist of two couples. A contra dance with such minor sets is a duple minor contra dance.

A contra dance with minor sets of three couples is a triple minor contra dance.

The minor set dances one time through the dance. Each couple moves on to a new couple, forming new minor sets, and repeats the dance. Some slightly more advanced dances involve interaction with dancers who are not in the minor set. Other dances involve two minor sets each time through, and you move on to the third minor set. These dances are called “double progression.” There are even a few, rarely called, triple and quadruple progression dances.

The dances are done to live music, usually reels or jigs. The music consists of an A part and a B part, which are related much like a chorus and a verse. Each part consists of 16 beats, or steps, and is repeated twice. So a complete dance goes A, A, B, B, and consists of 64 beats total. (Musicians will usually say 32 measures.) The A and B parts are usually specified A1, A2, B1, B2. The music is phrased in 8-beat sections, and to a lesser extent, in 4-beat sections. A typical figure takes up 4, 8 or 16 beats of music.

Definition 5: an analogy

“A contra dance is like an amusement park ride we make for ourselves.” –Unknown

Other topics

Learning to contra dance

We recommend that new dancers who wish to learn quickly and effectively seek out the more experienced dancers as partners. If you attend with a date, give each other a present by dancing with others for a while. You’ll then be able to have more fun dancing with each other. Read this paragraph again.

Or not. In a room full of strangers, you’ll want to cling to the one you know. But go ahead, dive into the unknown–we’re all here to catch you.

The short introduction that is offered at many locations is not a substitute for dancing with experienced partners, nor is it considered a prerequisite for joining the dance, but some people feel more comfortable having attended the introduction.

Feel free to attend the introduction multiple times. Different teachers will present it differently. Heck, the same teacher will present it differently. And you’ll notice different things, and different things will sink in, especially after having experienced what they’re teaching.

Also don’t hesitate to ask other dancers, or the caller, for help, but keep in mind you may not get the same answer from two different dancers, or two different callers!

Ultimately, the only way to learn contra dancing is to do it. In comparison, watching it, or reading about it, is not particularly helpful.

Regarding dizziness

Earlier we mentioned that eye contact, especially during the swing, reduces dizziness. However, if your partner is significantly taller than you, looking up at too steep an angle can be uncomfortable and actually increase dizziness. In this case, fix your gaze on some other part of or on your partner, such as chin, or a button, or wherever is comfortable for both.

Conversely, if your partner is significantly shorter than you, looking down can also increase dizziness. In this case, it has been suggested, look at his or her aura.

Then there are those who claim that only by looking into the eyes can dizziness be reduced.

Some more dizziness suggestions:

  •  Keep your head level, adjusting just your eyes up or down to look at a partner of different height.
  •  Swing smoothly, without bouncing or bobbing up and down.
  •  Swing more slowly. Say something to your partner (or neighbor) like “please slow down or I’m going to be sick.”
  •  As you dance more and more, you’ll get less and less dizzy.
  •  Some people enjoy being dizzy and don’t get queasy.
  •  Some contributors to the rec.folk-dancing newsgroup feel that avoiding consumption of drugs before dancing may lessen dizziness. At least one such contributor pointedly included alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and aspartame (e.g., Nutrasweet) as drugs to be avoided. (Whether aspartame is a harmful drug or is a safe product is a matter of controversy.)
  •  Ginger can help prevent motion sickness.

Why the name ‘contra dance’?

English country dancing gained a certain legitimacy in the 17th century. What might have happened next is described by James Hutson in his article “A Capsule Chronicle of Contradancing, Part One,” from the Fall 1994 issue of Contra Corners, the newsletter of the California Dance Co-operative:

The French, who thought that they invented country dancing (as well as anything else culturally significant), and who were miffed at the notion that the English should receive credit for anything, converted the name ‘country dance’ to French contredans (which conveniently translates as ‘opposites dance’), then turned around and claimed that the English term was a corruption of the French!

Later, the French term evolved in the young U.S.A. into “contra dance.”

At least this is one theory.




Categories: 1981-1990, 1991-2000, 2001-2010, Florida, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Kayaking the Sopchoppy River, Florida (September 2007)

After 24 years of living in Florida, the approaching weekend will be my last in the Sunshine State before re-locating to Virginia. The quest is crystal clear:

Convince my friends to join me for a farewell paddle on Florida’s best kayaking river… The Econfina River in the Florida Panhandle.

We finally agree on an open weekend (coincidentally my last), and monitor the water levels on the USGS water levels web site. The Econ, after all, is very sensitive to rainfall, and is too low to paddle unless there have been steady rains.

After spending the night at a Marianna hotel within striking distance of the river, we set out for the river put-in point at Scott’s Bridge – reachable only by an unpaved road. I leap out of the pick-up truck at the bridge and quickly scramble down to the river gauge under the bridge.

My heart sinks.

The gauge reads a measly 0.90 feet. The guidebook advises no less than 2.0 feet. Our previous paddle here had flirted with an unpleasant experience, as we had set out at 1.8 feet. At that height, we just barely had enough water. Clearly, 0.90 feet would not be sufficient.

Dejectedly, we trudge back up to the truck. Fortunately, we have a Plan B. There are two rivers in the area (Chipola and Sopchoppy) that are considered good paddles. We have not been on either. Reading the guidebook indicates that either river would provide an enjoyable, technically challenging experience along an attractive river.

It is a toss-up. Both seem excellent. We opt for Sopchoppy (photo above), in part because getting there is on our route back home.

Ultimately, we are to later learn that our decision is unfortunate.

The Sopchoppy River is found within the heart of the Apalachicola National Forest, and requires several miles of driving along a webbed network of unpaved forest roads. The river drains a large swamp south of Lake Talquin. After 50 miles, the river joins the Ochlockonee River at Ocholockonee Bay. “Sopchoppy” is a Creek Indian word that is believed to mean “long twisted stream.”

With its location in the middle of the national forest, the river is uniquely remote. A real wilderness experience.

While waiting for my companions to drop a vehicle at our take-out point, I paddle upstream a short distance to sample the river. Water levels seem adequate, I am relieved to find, despite the weeks, months and years of drought we have experienced.

Our boats head downstream. It is 3 pm.

Immediately, we learn two things as we begin dipping our paddles in the tanic red waters of the Sopchoppy. First, its location in the middle of the national forest means that the river is dead silent. I have never experienced a more hushed, quiet river. So quiet that we are unable to sneak up on wildlife, as they can hear us from quite a ways away.

Second, we witness the most spectacular, beautiful, seemingly artistic cypress tree roots and knees we have ever seen. The gray-colored roots are like curving, torturously twisting snakes. It is as if a cypress tree sculpter has spent the past several centuries creating a vast art display of gray serpents and demons in the river channel. Never before have I seen such a profusion of enormous cypress tree trunks (several of which are eight or more feet in diameter). Never before have I seen what appears to be cypress knees that are so numerous that it appears that we are looking at a crowd of 10,000 people peering back at us (a cypress choir?). At times along the narrow channels we pass through, it is as if we are paddling through a silent army standing on both sides of us.

As is to be expected, the Sopchoppy is nearly identical in character to the nearby Suwannee River (with the obvious exception of the Sopchoppy being a smaller river). Same water color. Same tree canopy. Same limestone formations.

Much of the river channel consists of very narrow, tall and twisting limestone walls.

Quickly, we discover what is to be a day-long challenge: Water levels are just barely more than a trickle in sections of the river on this day, forcing us to walk/drag our kayaks to the next downstream pool. This surprises me, as I normally expect a river to gain water as one moves downstream, as it is common for rivers in Florida to be fed by small tributary creeks and springs. It turns out that like the Econ, the Sopchoppy is extremely dependent on rainfall for its flow. A word to the wise: check rainfall activity before considering a paddle here.

Indeed, the water levels appear to be at a historic low. We observe tree branches and other signs of previous river water levels that indicate the river is approximately six feet below normal (or at least six feet below high water).

All in all, we end up walking perhaps half of the five river miles, due to the very low water levels we encounter.

It takes us 4.5 hours to negotiate 5 miles. At the last minute, we had decided to paddle for five miles rather than 10. Had we opted for 10, we would have spent an exhausting, unpleasant night camping within the national forest – with the Sopchoppy Serpents…


Categories: 2001-2010, Florida, Paddling | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Kayaking the Econfina Creek & Perdido River, Florida (October 2006)

The paddling guidebook states that because of the enormous number of tree pull-overs, portages, and treacherous conditions at lower water levels, the Econfina Creek MUST NOT be paddled when the water gauge level at the put-in point is below 2 feet. We peer over the bridge to read the gauge.

It reads 1.8 feet.

Sane, prudent, cautious men would stop dead in their tracks and call off the kayak trip at this point.

Not us.

The day is too perfect, and the rave reviews we’ve heard for years about this Florida Panhandle creek are too tempting. We might never have another chance…

Besides, we tell ourselves, we’ve surely faced much worse in our many past paddling ordeals.

No, we’ve come too far (a five-hour drive from home) to turn back.

We recklessly launch our Necky Dolphin sit-on-top kayaks.

The day is absolutely perfect — weather-wise. The temperature is a crisp 70 degrees. The air is sunny and dry. The rain from the night before has added water to a creek parched by a long drought.

Before us as we paddle, the water is dappled with the glistening sunlight on the water riffles.


The Econ turns out to be a highly unusual experience for Florida. It is full of relatively high velocity water which races and boils along its narrow channel (mostly about 15 feet in width) as it runs sharp turns around abrupt, curving limestone walls and tree falls.

For much of its length, the Econ is what for Florida is an astonishing whitewater river experience.

Early on, we find ourselves spilling over small waterfalls. Before we are able to catch our breath, we quickly approach sharp turns that propels us down an absolutely exhilarating, shocking DOWNSLOPE. So steep does this downslope appear that I feel myself leaning back in my kayak, disconcertingly wondering whether I have the ability to negotiate the high speeds that lie ahead. In combination with the water velocity, and the half-pipe-like, narrow limestone tunnels we plummet down for several hundred feet, the ride is rather alarming for a flat-water kayaker such as myself. “Am I still in Florida???”

I feel as if I am hurtling down a bobsled chute in the Winter Olympics. Each time we approach the beginning of one of these runs, I giddily turn back to my kayaking buddy and exclaim, “HERE WE GO AGAIN!!!!!!!!!!”

For miles, we ride this immensely enjoyable kayaking rollercoaster. It is the most fun I’ve ever had paddling a river.

On the flat, quiet, sun-dappled sections, the water is a lovely honey-brown color. The sheer limestone walls flanking us (they are nearly hugging us due to the narrowness of the deeply carved channel) are alive as they drip with cool, clear spring water. Several times, we pass by a thunderously roaring waterfall 10 to 15 feet tall (another out-of-character feature for Florida).

The dense forest trees easily canopy over us due to the narrow-ness of the channel, further adding to the feeling of being enveloped within a forested tunnel.

The high-velocity current, and the sharp turns in the limestone and fallen trees makes this, under normal water conditions, a highly technical paddle that only the most skilled paddlers should consider sampling. This creek is not for a novice.

There is no margin for error.

All of our kayaking abilities are tested — particularly paddling cross-current and keeping a straight line. Pulling alongside a fallen tree (to pull the boat over it) is particularly dangerous, as the strong current will quickly overturn the unsuspecting kayaker. Indeed, on this day my boat flips twice (which ordinarily never happens to me). On the first flipping, my highly coveted Nikon camera and wide-angle lens are unceremoniously dumped into the water, surely ruining both the lens and the camera body.

We had been told by a paddler at the put-in point that we could expect approximately 20 tree pull-overs along the 10-mile stretch from our start just north of the Town of Fountain. Instead, I count 8.5 of them. All in all, and comparatively speaking, such a small number of pull-overs is virtually clear sailing.

At one point approximately five miles into our adventure, we come upon an “S”-shaped limestone wall formation that feels to us like gliding through a curving slot canyon.

Absolutely spectacular.

Downstream, the river is so completely undeveloped and unused by any others that the silence is nearly deafening. The most quiet river I have ever experienced. No planes. No cars. No motorboats. No lawnmowers. No chainsaws.

We speak in hushed tones as we slide along the sparkling water, not wanting to spoil the blissful experience of the sounds of silence. So quiet that one can hear a pine needle drop in the forest.

Along the way, the river is flanked by monstrous magnolia, cypress, beech and cedar trees, a scene which is particularly lovely because it is periodically splashed with red fall leaf colors in the streams of sunlight.

All in all, the Econfina is for me an unequaled experience. I have now paddled over 40 rivers and creeks in Florida. Unquestionably, the Econ is the most entertaining, gorgeously magnificent, unusual river I have ever had the pleasure of paddling.

So good that my friend and I vow to repeat the long trip (after a good rainfall) to paddle it again.

And Again.

On the day before, we drive to Pensacola. It is my first visit to the city. We have dinner at the delightful, loud, boisterous Dharma Blue restaurant. Dharma Blue is found within the Pensacola Historic District, where one finds magnificent historic homes. After dinner, I ask our waitress where we can find microbeer brewed on premises. She suggests McGuire’s. A real institution. Quite a find. We enjoy a glass of fresh, yummy Irish Stout.

The first thing one notices upon entering the pub is that its walls and ceilings are COMPLETELY COVERED with dollar bills. It is as if one is looking up at the ceiling of a bat cave, which bats sardine’d together by the millions. Indeed, signs on the walls inform the newcomer that there are half a million of these donated dollars…and counting…

Another impressive display here in this happy, bustling Third Place are the many photos of illustrious people who have visited. Bob Hope. George Carlin. Tip O’Neil. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. John McCain. Jack Kemp. Strom Thurman. Willie Mays.

While the historic district and McGuire’s are both impressive, I find the city, overall, to be poisoned by an enormous number of highway overpasses, angry and multi-lane raceway roads, huge asphalt parking fields, and no “there there.” Homes and offices and shops are so spread out from each other — even in the historic area — that travel is measured by a long car ride rather than a short walk. Driveable suburbanism rather than walkable urbanity.

“Main Street” in Pensacola shows a heroic, admirable effort to create walkability with streetscaping (on-street parking pockets, human-scaled street lighting, landscaped bulb-outs.) But it is not enough. A roaring four-lane road cannot be a walkable main street, no matter how much window-dressing is applied.

After our night in a Pensacola motel along the Rt 29 sprawlscape strip (where most of the retail dollars have apparently been sucked to), we set out for the Perdido River (“Perdido” means “lost,” and probably comes from the Biblical word “perdition”)

Hopefully, the name will not be our fate.

Compared to the Econ, Perdido is rather wide, despite its shallow nature. Like Econ, the current is swift, and therefore not amenable to paddling against the current.

The paddle starts off quite spectacularly, as the first bird we see gracefully flying overhead is a stupendous bald eagle.

On our left along this 15-mile paddle is Florida. On our right is Alabama. The Perdido forms the boundary between the two states.

One of the most amazing aspects of the Perdido is that, like the Econ, there is absolutely no development at the water’s edge. On the Alabama side, moveover, there is not even a small little dirt jeep trail within miles of the river, at least according to our Delorme’s maps. The river appears to be flanked by giant expanses of undeveloped hunting grounds.

For the entire 15 miles of our Perdido trip, we see not a single person on or near the water.

Not that we were all alone, as a small herd of young deer cross the river directly in front of us. Then do so again going back to the side they came from. We enjoy watching their heads bob along as they swim across the swift current.

Perhaps the most visually impressive aspect of the beautiful Perdido are the numerous sand bars one finds along the way – many of which are perfect spots for camping. The sugar white sand bars are brilliant white in color. In the sunlight, they appear to be glowing. Almost blinding to look at due to their brilliance in the sun.

The 15-mile Perdido paddle takes us a surprisingly short period of time. Only 5.5 hours. A distance that would take at least twice as long on the flat, calm waters we are used to on the Florida peninsula.

The most important difficulty on the Perdido section we paddle is the 3 or 4 logjams we come upon. Unlike others we’ve experienced in the past, these jams are hundreds of feet in length, requiring a long portage through very thick, nearly impenetrable underbrush and fallen trees up on the solid ground of the flanking forest. The jams are overgrown with thick living vegetation, which suggests the jams have been in place for a great many years (see photo below).

The shallow, log-jammed Perdido (and the tree fall pull-overs on the Econ) help explain the complete lack of motorboat activity on these rivers (a delightful state of affairs for a paddler). And the absence of motorboats (and nearby development) helps explain another treat: An almost complete absence of litter and associated redneck flotsam (what my kayak companion calls “yahoo spores”) along either river.

Both rivers, despite the fallen trees, are fairly well-maintained, with periodic chain-sawing activity to clear tree obstructions.

Both rivers also contain a great deal of yellow and orange gravel, a highly unusual feature for sandy Florida.

We are astounded to find that we see not a single fish or alligator (and very few birds) during our 12 hours of paddling on these two remote rivers. There surely are fish, since we regularly see Kingfisher birds skirting ahead of us on the rivers.

In sum, the Perdido River is a top-notch Florida river. I would rate it an 8 or 9 out of 10 for quality. The Econfina is clearly a 10. The most attractive, exhilarating creek I’ve ever experienced.

I cannot wait to paddle it again.

Categories: 2001-2010, Florida, Paddling | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Diving the Spiegel Grove shipwreck, Key Largo, Florida (August 2006)

Signing up with the local dive shop for three days of diving off of Key Largo, our primary, 21st Century concern in the week before the trip is the All-American worry: “What time should we drive there and back to avoid the horrifying agony of Labor Day weekend gridlock?

Fortunately, one of the divers who has signed up agrees to drive us down, and his early Friday departure sounds like an effective traffic-congestion avoidance plan. It turns out that he is right, as we arrive at our Bayside Hotel a number of hours before we had anticipated.

We have time for a leisurely Friday lunch, and serendipitously stumble upon a virtually next-door home-cooked-meals restaurant with a packed parking lot (a reliable indicator of quality). Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen oozes with authentic ambience and local character. The quality of the food is magnificent, which readily explains why it is regularly populated by “the locals.”

Over the course of the weekend, we find ourselves as repeat customers at Mrs. Mac’s, and agree we will return in the future, should we again be passing through Key Largo.

We awake the next morning and caravan to the marina, where Christal Clear will be our dive operators. The Christal Clear dive boat is brand new, and we are all impressed by the design features – which show that the boat builders knew of the needs of divers.

Our boat captain, George, with 20 years of experience in the Keys, is a treasure trove of dive information, and each day is able to navigate us to the best dive sites. Captain George has a full reckoning of weather, water, and reef conditions.

Our two-tank dive on Saturday morning features North Star on Molasses Reef and Sand Bottom on French Reef. Our shallow-water excursions find us swimming amongst schools of parrot fish and angel fish. Large, green, menacing Moray eel chomp at us from their coral reef crevasses, and lobster peer at us from under reef ledges. We spot a good-sized nurse shark leisurely swimming with us, as well as a black sting ray. North Star contains impressive canyon reefs, while Sand Bottom provides delightful, tight-fitting coral swim-throughs.

Our next dive trip is not scheduled until the next afternoon, so we have plenty of time to sleep late and luxuriously enjoy a Sunday brunch.

Today, our first reef is Snapper. As it’s namesake indicates, Snapper Reef features colossally thick, seemingly endless schools of bright yellow snapper. I feel as if I am floating in a yellow cloud as hundreds of snapper surround me. This reef seems to explode with an enormous diversity of marine life. Our group gets dizzy as members repeatedly call others to see the latest “find” in all directions. Spotted eel, Moray eel, nurse shark, small rays, flounder, and the most gargantuan brain coral I have ever seen (about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle).

Our second dive is Pickles, a place we find rather unremarkable.

The final Sunday dive is a night dive on the Wreck of the Benwood. Here we find gigantic parrotfish, lobster, and large crab. The large World War II ship appears ghostly at night as we use our flashlights to illuminate its hulk on the ocean bottom.

The marquee dive is our first Monday morning dive. The world-famous Spiegel Grove wreck.

The Spiegel was commissioned in 1956 and served as a US Navy Landing Ship Dock. The ship was named after the Ohio estate of US President Rutherford B. Hayes. The ship saw action throughout the Caribbean Sea, the United States East Coast, Africa, the Mediterranean Sea, Panama and the Middle East, including an important role in the original Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf. She carried a crew of 18 officers, 325 men and 318 troops. Spiegel was decommissioned in 1989.

The ship had spent 12 years tethered in the Navy’s “Mothball Fleet” in Virginia’s James River.

The sinking in 2002 was somewhat of a fiasco. First, the ship sinks before it is planned to. In June 2002, only a few hours from the scheduled scuttling, the hull began taking on water, the ship turned upside down, and started to sink prematurely hours before volunteers were going to scuttle it. The volunteers fled the ship for safety. Equipment worth thousands of dollars were dumped to the ocean floor.

Professional ship salvers were called in to finish sinking the ship, which by then was floating upside down with part of its hull exposed. Ultimately, the 6,880-ton Spiegel ended up resting on its side at the sandy ocean bottom.

Fortunately, Hurricane Dennis (“Dennis the Menace”) uprights the ship in the summer of 2005. Today, it rests at a sandy bottom130 feet below, and because of its 90 feet of height, rises to within 50 feet of the ocean surface. The ship is about six miles off of Key Largo.

At the time of its sinking, the Spiegel Grove was the largest ship ever intentionally sunk to create a new reef for divers. The Duane and the Bibb, two decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard cutters, rest nearby off Molasses Reef in slightly deeper water. However, those wrecks are only accessible to experienced divers.

We anchor at the wreck and the captain regretfully informs us that there is a very strong current today. My wife opts to sit out the dive. I find a new dive buddy and we descend, hand over hand, along the rope tied to the wreck below. With the unnervingly stiff current, I am careful not to lose my grip on the safety rope. Who knows where I would end up (Cuba?) if the current ripped me from the guideline. Behind us, the trip leader is training an Advanced Certification class, but soon after he gets in the water, his mask is blown off by the raging current and he quickly calls off the dive.

Fortunately, I have already descended to the ship.

We reach the MASSIVE Speigel wreck at about 65 feet. Before us is a ship too large to see its full length, even from a distance. It is, after all, 510 feet in length, which is almost two football fields long (and 85 feet wide). The ship is so large that we are only able to inspect a tiny fraction of the ship during our dive, even though we are diving nitrox. A number of doorways and hatches enable reasonably safe ship pass-throughs, and we swim through a few of these.

I feel like a tiny mosquito dwarfed by a large elephant I have landed on.

Near the end of the dive, my buddy points to a name on a metal plaque (see photo below) placed on the side of the ship. It is his name, as he was involved in the sinking in 2002.

Our final dive is at the Christmas Tree site on French Reef. Here, one finds healthy reefs, colorful marine life, and excellent swim-throughs. One of these finds me passing through a 25-foot long slot filled with a school of silver fish. Overall, a very enjoyable dive site.

In general, our visibility is somewhat mediocre. But the quality of our dives, and what is in store for us in diverse marine life and impressive shipwrecks, more than compensates.



Categories: 2001-2010, Diving, Florida | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Falling Creek, Florida (August 2006)

“You ever heard of ‘Falling Creek, Florida’?” That was the question emailed to me by an adventure companion on a hot summer night.

Having spent over 20 years seeking out adventure venues in Florida, I am stunned and intrigued to realize that I have not ever heard of such a place.

Immediately, I go to Google, the 21st Century Oracle, to learn what I can. One of the first hits is a web page by a local friend, John Moran, who is an impressive professional photographer capturing astounding, magnificent images of the natural world. A click to his page brings up a completely unexpected scene of a Florida landscape. On my screen is an image of an 8- to 10-foot tall WATERFALL. And the view is graced with an equally astonishing feature for Florida: A blanket of SNOW.

My god.

How is it possible that I have lived only an hour from such a geologically spectacular place for 20 years without having ever heard of it?

Instantly, I start making plans to visit. Is the creek navigable? (the thought is that we could perhaps kayak over the falls) Water levels reported on the USGS website are showing lower-than-normal water levels for nearby rivers, which indicates that Falling Creek is almost certainly low (the month of August has been rather dry throughout Florida). We decide not to take our kayaks, as the likely discovery that the creek is too low to paddle would create kayak theft concerns.

I point out to my friend, however, that I will be terribly disappointed if, on our “reconnaissance” mission to the creek, that the creek ends up being navigable.

We drive up on a Sunday morning with our ever-present Delormes map booklet. The plan is to drive to each of the bridge crossings with Falling Creek to have a look.

Each time we look down from a bridge, the story is the same. Water level too low.

Finally, we arrive where Delormes has written the word “falls” along the creek. We drive down every nearby road into all housing developments nearby. No access. No trespassing. Don’t even THINK of parking here. A roadside sign near the creek crossing tells motorists not to park here. To park only at the “designated” access area.

Well, where are we to find this designated access?

Just before we decide to park at a historic wooden church in the vicinity, we drive down the road and accidentally stumble upon a parking area with an information kiosk for the falls that has been set up by the Suwannee Water Management District. Eureka!

Here there is a concrete walkway leading to a long wood boardwalk that takes visitors to the falls.

Upon arrival at the boardwalk overlook, we are greeted by a sight that is completely unexpected in Florida. Falling Creek reaches a limestone cliff where water drops about 10 feet into a pool of water. At high water levels, there would be no falls at all, as it would be submerged by the water. Today, the creek is so low that there is barely a trickle going over the “precipice.” Still, it is a very impressive, first-time-ever-in-Florida sight for seasoned Floridians such as us.

Downstream from the falls is more astonishment. Lying in the nearly dry creek bed is a collection of large limestone boulders flanked by 15-30 foot tall steep slopes (nearly cliff-like) on each side, forming what appears to be a mountain valley containing strewn granite boulders.

Completely unexpected and unheard of. Mountain ravine and boulders in flat, sandy Florida???? Fed by a waterfall??? Again, how is it possible that I have not heard of this before? My conclusion is this: For a reason I am unable to explain, Falling Creek does not seem to be spring-fed (spring-fed rivers tend to have a regular “base-flow” of water even in dry conditions, and are almost never dry, as is Falling Creek on this day of our visit). How could it be that in this limestone geology that the creek flows through, and where nearly all Florida streams are fed by springs, can Falling Creek be unfed by springs?

Assuming that without springs, Falling Creek is most always quite low in water level, the falls are usually only a trickle or otherwise not in existence. Only rarely is there enough rainfall to fill the creek sufficiently to create a roaring waterfall.

That would explain the fact that I have not heard of the falls previously. And for the lack of substantial tourist facilities. The area has been settled for some time (the historic church was built in 1855), but has never been the site of major tourism. Instead, there have only been gristmills, scattered housing, slave holdings and religiously-inspired visits to the falls over the past 150 to 200 years.

Had the creek been spring-fed, the falls would be regular enough to be a meaningful attraction. Instead, it exists in relative obscurity.

Perhaps this is fortunate, as too often, tourism degrades the experience of these natural wonders. Expect the unexpected at Falling Creek.



Categories: 2001-2010, Florida, Hiking | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Kayaking the Hillsborough River, Florida (August 2006)

“Abandon hope all ye who enter here” is the well-crafted wooden sign which greets us as we reach a fork in the river.

Of course, we recklessly disregard it. Our eyes, after all, are WIDE OPEN.

We are to live to regret that ill-advised decision…

This disconcerting sign stands as a dire warning for paddlers reaching the upstream gateway of what is known as the “17 Runs,” where the Hillsborough River braids into a confusing, confounding, torturously twisting maze of small river channels.

The paddling brochure I have read before our trip states that even “expert paddlers” often get lost and lose the main river channel as they seek to negotiate this swampy portion of the Hillsborough to a downstream destination.

I have paddled nearly every river in north central and central Florida. The Hillsborough remains one of the last major watercourses I have yet to conquer, and it is billed as a very attractive river. With all my experience, and the strong desire I have to sample one of my few remaining Florida paddle challenges, I decide to disregard the warnings. After all, 17 Runs is just upstream from a major metropolitan area, and we are paddling in the heat of the summer so there is no chance of suffering hypothermia should we get lost. I am also picturing the swamp to be a tree-less, grassy marsh, not a thick forest of trees. How hard can it be??

I have opted not to have my group paddle an upstream portion as the put-in point near Crystal Springs seems difficult. Thick trees and uncertain car parking is what I have found in a scoping investigation the day before. The next segment is quite brief (typically an hour-long paddle). Following this and 17 Runs, the brochure indicates that motorboats are allowed and can be expected. Not a pleasant or peaceful prospect for a paddler, so I opt against that segment as well.

That leaves us with the short segment from the Hillsborough River State Park (where I had previously, several months earlier, visited and noticed from an overlook that the river through the park looked extremely scenic), and the 17 Runs segment.

The decision must be carefully considered, as one of the people in my group is a “kayaking virgin,” which means I must be sure to select a trip that is not terribly difficult or otherwise technical.

My group of paddlers has assembled at a friend’s house in Tampa. We are to meet the friend for dinner at a sushi restaurant, then go contra dancing. We gather on the back porch and go over the maps and brochures so that everyone is aware of the plan. We are to set out first thing on the morning after the dance to try to capture as much “cool” weather as we can in this sultry Florida August.

The morning after the dance, as seems to always be the case with a group, our departure time for the Hillsborough River is late, and we are not in the water until 11:30 am.

Starting from a boat launch at Hillsborough River State Park, we enjoy a few hours of lovely, peaceful paddling. The river current is nearly undetectable. Very slow-moving. It is a relatively wide river, even this far upstream.

We are enjoying the day as we paddle, feeling fortunate to have such an attractive river all to ourselves (as is commonly the case, we see almost no other boaters).

About two hours into our paddle and after having eaten lunch (which we do by lashing our boats together at a mid-channel tree trunk – the sandy banks are too populated with hungry mosquitoes), we encounter The Sign.

“Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here”

“Probably just a sign erected by government employees designed to amuse paddlers,” I assure myself. “Surely, if what lies ahead is a navigational nightmare, there would be a skull and crossbones sign FORBIDDING further downstream travel.”

So we foolishly, naively, almost cheerfully press on. Unaware of the misery that lies ahead of us.

Almost immediately, we come upon our first downed tree trunk stretching across the river, and requiring us to get off our kayaks and stand in waist-deep river water on a soft, mucky bottom to lift our boats over the trunk. Optimistically, I try to comfort myself that this is just an aberration. The challenge of the 17 Runs is NAVIGATION, as I understand it. It is NOT having to engage in multiple hours of portaging boats over large trees. And I can manage difficult navigation, as long as I am careful to observe which stream branch seems to be carrying the strongest river current.

But navigation turns out to be the least of our worries. Instead, what is ahead of us is a series of what seems like HUNDREDS of downed, enormous tree trunks which have fallen across the now narrow, shallow river channel. We find ourselves constantly having to get out of our kayak and into the water so that we can lift our boats over a tree trunk. Several times, we stub our toes or painfully bump our knees and shins into hidden trees under the water surface. And there is always the dread, in a Florida swamp, that one will be the unfortunate recipient of a water moccasin bite, or make the potentially fatal (and always horrifying) blunder of bumping into a large Florida alligator. What makes these potentially awful attacks particularly disconcerting is that when one is in the middle of a steamy Florida swamp remote from roads or development, one is not at all likely to be able to be evacuated FOR SEVERAL HOURS by emergency medical personnel in the event of a medical emergency.

After two hours of this hopeless slogging and portaging, we are all exhausted and exasperated. Each of us feels the temptation to turn back to where we came, as we are now convinced that we have a great many miles of worsening conditions ahead of us.

But there is no turning back.

We are too far downstream and have battled through a horrific number of obstacles. It would be impossible to find the motivation to re-live the horrors of what we had just struggled through on the swamp behind us.

Our only chance is to keep trying to follow the main channel by watching the stream flow, and hoping to soon be able to reach the downstream terminus of the swamp.

I look into the faces of my companions, and it is an unmistakable message of extreme fatigue. The joking and smiles have all but left us. “No whiners,” I insist as we started our adventure at the put-in point. I am thankful that this is the case, as my companions are being troopers despite the misery. Even after hours of what seems like a hopeless situation. We will survive. We will not abandon all hope…

The obstacles vary. Sometimes, one encounters tree trunks that are either partially immersed or otherwise too low to get under. Other times, the tree trunk allows “duck under” travel as the kayaker is able to lie back and slowly slip under to pass the trunk. And often (particularly in the summer), we must struggle through thick beds of emergent vegetation. Clearly, the navigability of these obstacles is quite temperamental. When water levels are slightly higher, trunks lying across the river (and the emergent vegetation) can simply be paddled over. When the river is slightly lower, it is easier to duck under the more elevated trunks.

Our path is blocked by countless spider webs in addition to downed tree trunks and tree limbs that have not be chainsawed to clear a route for paddlers. A sure sign that the course we have taken has not seen paddlers for quite a while. Clearly, as James T. Kirk would point out, we have gone where no man has gone before (at least for a considerable period of time).

Overall, the river segment we choose to paddle is remarkably free of development, and is flanked by a very attractive, stereotypical Florida forest canopy (at least outside of the 17 Runs). We are fortunate to have encounters with quite a few large wading birds. Mostly, we see snowy egret and Great Blue Heron – one of which was quite tolerant of us and would stand, stately and motion-lessly only a few feet from us when we pass him 4 or 5 times. (wading birds on rivers tend to fly ahead of paddlers down the river, which often leads to multiple encounters with the same birds, and these birds must be confused by how often they must repeatedly fly away from the same group of paddlers)

The water along this segment is teeming with large fish as well. We see quite a few gar fish, catfish, and bass.

We are exhilarated, after 8 hours, to finally come upon the bridge where we have pre-positioned one of our vehicles. One of the very few signs of civilization.

We can hardly walk. Sore knees. Sore necks. Sore backs. Sore feet. Sore hands.

I apologize profusely to my companions. And I point out to the group that this will be an unforgettable experience. One day, we will be able to look back and laugh at this day. That my “virgin” kayaker can now consider herself to be an advanced kayaker who has now done something that even most experts have not done.

For now, though, we hug each other in relief, and feel eager to get home, where a shower and comfortable bed await us.



Categories: 2001-2010, Florida, Paddling | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Kayaking Sebastian Creek, Florida (April 2006)

Now that I have paddled nearly all navigable waters in North Central Florida, I am increasingly finding that I must travel great distances to reach rivers I’ve not yet sampled. This weekend, a group of five of us have decided to set out for Sebastian Creek, a 4-hour drive south of us.

Due to the distance, two of us set out the night before for Melbourne to sleep at a US 1 motel up the road from the put-in point for the south prong.

We wake to a bright, sunny, cloudless day. As early risers, two of us walk the old downtown Melbourne while waiting for the others. Downtown is rather small. Two streets with on-street parking, some streetscaping, and small shops. At busy times of day, this vicinity is probably a somewhat pleasant place to stroll and hang out.

After walking the streets, we stop at Mr. Beau Jeans, a very nice restaurant serving excellent breakfasts in their outdoor patio graced by borders and canopies of striking red bougainvilleas. I order their fruit-topped Belgian Waffles, for which they are said to be known for. A good way to start the upcoming paddle.

We decide we will put in upstream on the South Prong of Sebastian Creek and have shuttle vehicles await us at the public park downstream a few miles. Put in at the Rt 512 bridge is possible, but not the most pleasant experience. We carefully carry our kayaks along a narrow road shoulder cluttered with typical American roadside litter, walking within inches of high-speed, high volume car traffic. The narrow path leads us under a bridge without a lot of head room, but comfortable enough for us to slip our boats in the water.

The upstream portion of the South Prong averages about 15 to 30 feet in width. Not a bad width for kayaking. While there are short snippets of overhanging canopy trees one paddles under, we find that most of the South Prong is flanked by grasses and bamboo.

Not much to write home about or otherwise enjoy.

The water is a murky brown color. Fertilizer run-off from the nearby subdivision, perhaps?

Despite these minor flaws, the South Prong, more so than any other body of water I have paddled, is literally teaming with aquatic life. Flying mullet are constant throughout the paddle. We see the usual Florida river collection of large turtles and basking alligators (one of which entered the water and appeared to be on a torpedo course for our boats when we came near).

Along the way, we spot more than a few relatively large crab in the water.

Most astonishing of all, however, was the ENORMOUS population of quite large gar fish we see. During the paddle, I spot at least 45 of these monster fish with long and tiny snouts.

We break for lunch on a small, cleared peninsula, and while eating we hear a loud, unusual blowing sound behind us. “What on EARTH is making THAT sound???”, we ask. Turning around, we spot the source. Ten feet from us, a large manatee is surfacing and blowing water to catch a breath of air.

Reaching the public park near the end of the South Prong, we stop for a break. We have sufficient daylight time remaining, so some of us decide to continue on to investigate the North Prong of the Sebastian.

From the park, it is a physically demanding and mostly unrewarding 90-minute paddle along a river that becomes more like a wide bay. The open nature of this portion of Sebastian whips up fairly strong winds, which adds to the paddling difficulty. Larger boats are found here, and there are several islands, river cul de sacs, and river dead ends (prongs?) on each side of us, making for a rather maze-like navigational challenge. A number of times, we must do some guessing to decide which course to follow to stay on the main channel.

Two of us remain as we reach what we believe (based on our guide books) is the entrance to the North Prong, which is touted to be a very attractive route enveloped by a canopy of trees. But after a brief paddle upstream from the mouth into the larger Sebastian paddle, we see only high sandy bluffs without much in the way of tree canopy.

We decide to turn back and consider possibly returning in the future (from a put-in that is closer, if possible, to the North Prong than is the public park).

After all, we are not certain that we are in the narrow section of the North Prong we are seeking, and we are too exhausted to risk heading a long way upstream in what might turn out to be a dead end.



Categories: 2001-2010, Florida, Paddling | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Kayaking Tomoka River, Florida (February 2006)

For my 46th birthday, I suggest to my wife that we sleep overnight in St Augustine, one of my favorite cities in all of America. St Augustine is, in fact, so wonderfully, walkably timeless that it remains a fabulous, romantic place even though it is the first city ever established in America a number of centuries ago.

We stay at the very nice Kenwood Inn. Our bedroom is very impressive. Our bed is covered with a lace canopy, and our breakfast served the next morning by the Inn is the best we have had the pleasure of eating at a bed & breakfast. We intend to return someday and enjoy their outdoor gardens. Their location is conveniently within the heart of the most walkable part of the city.

The streets are superbly, medieval-ly narrow. A pure delight to stroll with a lover, even though most of the cute little streets have no sidewalks. We enjoy a wonderful seafood paella for two at AIA Alehouse, along with pints of their stupendous, brewed-on-the-premises microbeer. Then it is off to the pedestrian mall, where we visit Café Hidalgo for an obligatory, fresh, delicious gelato.

Next morning, we opt for the “scenic route” along AIA to head an hour south to the Tomoka River. My wife is to try out the Necky Dolphin kayak I had just purchased for her on eBay.

Put-in for Tomoka is not easy. As advised by a paddle book, the put-in is near the Rt 40 bridge a half-mile west of I-95. But there is no place to comfortably park our vehicle, so we opt to park on a grassy embankment on the southwest side of the bridge – hopefully visible enough to the roadway to discourage hoodlum actions against our vehicle.

The river is about 60 yards through a narrow dirt trail winding its way through a wooded area strewn with the beer cans of the uncivil, which forces us to carry one boat at a time.

We launch our boats and head upstream, as the guidebook indicates that the upstream portion from here has “outstanding” scenery and only a very gentle current to paddle against. I had decided that upstream would be a lot more rewarding, as downstream seemed to feature a stream that was too wide and too encroached upon by boat docks and houses.

Sure enough, the upstream is gentle, and we easily, lazily paddle up. At first, the scenery is quite disappointing, as there are quite a few boat docks along the way. Soon, however, the docks disappear and we enter an extremely attractive, narrow, winding, seemingly pristine creek. The image depicts the Tomoka as it appeared over 100 years ago (1905). The portion we paddled still looks much like this century-old photo.

The guidebook has informed us that there are no deadfall obstacles in the early going. We confirm this, but notice early on that the stream starts braiding, which is somewhat disconcerting, as we could not be certain that we were still paddling the main channel, or if we’d be able to avoid getting lost on the way out. Fortunately, we soon notice the creek channel become unitary.

Downed trees begin to appear. They are infrequent enough and easy to get by, so we tolerate them. Within about an hour, however, we notice these deadfalls becoming more frequent, so we decide to turn back (threatening, blackening skies add to our decision).

Our turn-back point is a large tree trunk blocking our way. We are absolutely delighted to notice a pair of very cute, playful otters on the other side of the tree. They are poking out of the water to check us out for the next few minutes. Apparently, they are a mom and dad striving to ward us off to their nearby nest.

As we leisurely head back downstream, we come across three more otter, as well as some white-tailed deer.

I make a vow to return someday to attempt to go further upstream…



Categories: 2001-2010, Florida, Paddling | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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