August 26, 2012 – Shakedown Cruise

Having largely given up on our quest for a vacation home in Florida, as chronicled in a previous post, we turned our attention toward the idea of a motorized vacation home.  We narrowed our choices down to a relatively small Class C motor home, just enough for us and the dogs.  I must have looked at a thousand of them online before I located one in nearby Burlington, Iowa.  Stacey and I drove up one night to look at it, then, after some discussion, drove up the next night to pick it up.  It’s a 2004 Winnebago, also known as a Minnie Winnie.  At 24 feet, it’s not insanely large.  I was surprised at how powerful and agile it seemed on the drive home.  The Ford E450 10-cylinder gives it plenty of oomph. 

We stocked it with all the dishes we had shipped back from California, kitchenware originally from my Mom and Dad’s 5th-wheel trailer.  I read the whole manual and went through the thing as well as I could.  We scheduled our shakedown cruise for a weekend in Wakonda State Park.  Our friends Henry and Teresa Gunsauls joined us two campsites down with their pop-up trailer. 

Two dogs, two people, and the Minnie Winnie.  From August 2012

I should mention that we were all later to arrive  than expected.  On Friday afternoon, I was called to a fire in Canton, while Henry was called to a fire in La Grange (where he is Chief).  After I cleaned up, I drove the Minnie Winnie and Stacey drove the pick-up truck with the kayaks to the nearby park.  Our campsite was a lovely spot next to the lake, with full hook-ups.  It was quite warm, as it has been most of the summer.  I took the kayak out late Saturday morning after Stacey had made a delicious breakfast of pancakes.  I only caught one fish, but it was a nice, 16-inch bass.  I saw a soft-shelled turtle slide down the shore into the lake, the usual great blue herons, and several wildflowers.  Gerardia was in bloom (pretty little purple flowers) along the shore, which was very exposed by the low water.  I looked for agates among the rocks, but didn’t see any.

In the afternoon the wind picked up.  We retracted the awning just before it began to rain.  We spent the time relaxing, reading and napping.  Stacey got a lot of sewing done, a hobby she seldom gets to enjoy at home, as there always seem to be more pressing matters afoot.  The dogs adapted to the camping lifestyle quite well.  They barked at dogs from neighboring camps, but that’s to be expected.  Big Guy slept on the couch or on the floor,  Gretchen slept in the overcab bed with us, but with some difficulty.  We had to keep her from jumping down, and she seemed to have trouble settling herself on the first night.  Henry and Teresa have a dog even larger than Big Guy  A beautiful Great Dane in the harlequin pattern, Maltese is about 140 lb.   We wanted to introduce them on neutral territory, but while I was walking our dogs around the campground, Maltese saw us, ran to the end of his cable, broke the plastic buckle on his collar, and, without breaking stride, came running right up.  They weren’t exactly fast friends, but their greetings were cordial enough in dog terms.   Later they had a slight disagreement.  Big Guy always barks at strange men, such as Henry.  Maltese felt obliged to defend his Daddy, and barked right back.  We all agreed that they just need to spend some time running free and playing with each other.  Gretchen was quick to bark at strangers, but we were usually able to calm her down quickly.  On Sunday morning when I came back in with the kayak, she didn’t know what to make of me and barked like mad.  They were so tired from the adventure that I think they slept for about 2 days. 

Gretchen loves the fan, even with the air conditioning on.  From August 2012

Saturday night we attempted to barbeque, but the rain made that difficult.  The chicken didn’t turn out quite right, and my attempt at peach cobbler in the dutch oven was a complete failure.  At least the company and conversation (and maybe drinks) were good!  Our friend Amanda came out to visit during dinner. 

Big Guy loves his food, either indoors or outdoors.  From August 2012

Sunday it was raining.  We didn’t have to leave until 2:00 p.m., but it didn’t make much sense to hang around.  We unhooked, packed up, dumped our black and grey waters, and went home.  I wrote Lowell a corollary to Murphy’s law which stated that, in any system sufficiently complex, something will always be broken.  Lowell wrote, “Murphy was an optimist!”  Lowell was right.  We made a list of things that need to be fixed in the RV.  It’s mostly little stuff, and about what you’d expect in a used unit of this age.  For one thing, our sewer hose was too short.  Most things will be easy, inexpensive fixes.  Overall, we were very pleased with our experience and look forward to our next outing. 

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August 10, 2012 — Buzzard Island

I launched my kayak at Fenway Landing, just north of Canton, Missouri.  This recreation area is maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers.  Park rangers are seldom seen, but friendly.  Normally, there isn’t much happening at this launch ramp, but I had to wait a few minutes while some catfishermen got their jon boat in the water.  The skies were overcast and a steady wind was coming from the north.  It was a remarkably cool day for mid-August.  There was a light chop on the water.  I took the wiser course and started out by paddling north, against both current and wind, so I would have them in my favor on the return trip.  Note: if there is a strong south wind, in opposition to the current, then large waves are produced and kayaking is rather unpleasant. 

Though there isn’t much powerboat traffic on this reach, and there were no barge tows around, I elected to stay on the west side of the river, that is, the East Coast of Missouri.  First, I passed a few river cabins immediately adjacent to the launch ramp.  I don’t know why anybody would want one of these habitations.  Only one was in decent shape.  Though all were on tall stilts, most showed the punishing results of years of unrelenting floods and storms. 

Next, I passed Gregory Landing, visible as a large sand dune through the trees.  It’s not a natural deposit, but the product of river dredging.  Shortly thereafter, I entered the chute between Buzzard Island and the Missouri shoreline.  Though it’s sandy beaches may be tempting, this is a privately owned island, and trespassing is discouraged.  Interestingly, in places you can see corn growing up above the tangle of vegetation that covers the shore, as the island is farmed.  At some point in this portion of the trip, a big carp jumped right next to my boat and scared the bejeebus out of me.

Typical riparian plants dominate the area, with lush silver maples, white-barked sycamores, towering cottonwoods, and small mulberries being the primary trees.  The shoreline, frequently disturbed by floods and the annual ice flow, features a variety of vines, including wild grape and poison ivy, as well as morning glory and trumpet creeper, which were in bloom. 

A Great Blue Heron prowls the Missouri shore. From August 2012

As one might expect around “Buzzard Island”, turkey vultures were always about, some perched on snags near the shore, waiting to snack on the occasional dead fish one sees floating by, once it washes ashore.  More attractive birds that I saw included numerous great blue herons, blue jays, red-headed woodpeckers, a pileated woodpecker,  eastern phoebes, northern cardinals, wood ducks, American crows and the occasional bald eagle.  Flocks of swallows were dotting the dead trees at water’s edge.  Their nesting season concluded, they have nothing to do now but fatten up on the abundant aquatic insects, such as mayflies and caddisflies, before the fall migration.  Most were northern rough-winged swallows, but a patch of iridescent blue revealed a tree swallow in the bunch. 

Swallows assemble on a dead tree in the Mississippi River.  From August 2012

I enjoyed the calm of the sheltered chute as I paddled north.  I was getting the “false summit” effect (well known to hikers) as I kept thinking the head of the island was around the next bend.  This island is really long!  Finally, I rounded the head, and started back south in the main river channel. 

Flotsam and jetsam get caught in the flood debris that accumulates on the channel side.  I always keep my eyes out for treasures.  I spotted a nice looking soccer ball (at least it had an Italian name), but it proved to be leaky.  I picked up a big bobber and a beat up fishing lure from that spot and kept going.  A short distance farther I found a nice piece of lumber.  A 4 x 4, perhaps formerly a part of someone’s dock, had gotten stuck under a tree.  I knew it was a valuable board, especially at 18 feet long.  But it would be quite a burden to haul home.  After a brief internal debate, I tied it to my kayak and paddled toward the launch ramp.  It was still a long distance away, but at least I had the wind and current in my favor.

A number of variations on this paddle could be taken from the same launch site, though going south you would shortly run into Lock and Dam 20.  There are other islands that could be circumnavigated, as any map will reveal.  The route described runs about 7 miles and took me about 2.5 hours.

Florida 2012

I recently took a trip to Florida, right on the heels of our family trip to California.  This was a solo effort, however, with the goal of finding a vacation home.  I stayed with our friends Bob and Jamie at their condo in Highland Park.  On the first morning Bob and I went on a hike in nearby Tiger Creek.  We got an early start when it was not yet too hot.  The hike proceeded through some prairie and scrub, then around a marshy lake.  Because of the heavy recent rains, there were lots of flowers and insects to photograph.

Relative of Day Flower?   From Florida 2012

The first 21 images in this album are from Tiger Creek (click the “Florida 2012” link below the image).  Others include mating robber flies and a dragonfly eating a large fly head first.

Wednesday I had reserved to meet with the realtor, Bob’s nephew John.  First we looked at many homes in nearby Lake Wales.  There are lots of houses on the market since the crash, and we saw many in my price range.  To make a long story short, all the homes were either in bad neighborhoods or required complete renovation.  For example, one house had steel burglar bars on the screen door, but someone had tried to break in anyway.  Our last hope was a condo in Highland Park two buildings down from Bob and Jamie’s.  It was beautiful and immaculate, having been recently restored.  However, the building carried no insurance and the HOA fee was pretty high.  I looked at a pair of condos in another unit, but the guy wouldn’t separate them and their HOA was even higher.  We are left hoping that a condo in Bob and Jamie’s complex will open up.  Alternatively, we are considering getting an RV.  That way we can see the whole country and take our dogs with us.

Friday we got up really early and drove down to Sanibel Island for Jamie’s favorite activity, hunting for shells.  The tide was up and the shelling was tough, although the beach was heaped with piles of shells in a lot of places.  I found a few good ones.  I learned that you can only walk barefoot on broken shells for so long before you wear most of the skin off the bottom of your feet and every little spot has been poked with a sharp point a hundred times.  After lunch Bob and I went canoeing near a site called Dog Beach.  The tide was going out and the mud flats were full of shorebirds, herons and other waterfowl.  I put my camera with the big lens in a dry bag to take advantage.  Normally, I won’t take my good camera in a boat.

Roseate Spoonbill From Florida 2012

Roseate Spoonbills were abundant and tolerant of close approach.  So, naturally, I took hundreds of photos of them.  This sequence starts with a fiddler crab, includes cormorants, egrets, herons, and pelicans.  There were fish, mostly mullet, jumping everywhere in the shallows.  On the way out, the dogs were having fun playing on Dog Beach.  An osprey at the take-out signals the end of this sequence.  We picked up Bob’s friend Tom and had dinner at the Bass Pro Shop.  We got to see some of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.  We spent the night in The Fountain Motel, which dates from perhaps the 1950s. The rooms were little cottages and out front were large statues of Alvin and the Chipmunks.  It was clean and we slept well. 

Great Egret with shrimp, From Florida 2012

In the morning we went canoeing out to Mound Key, an island made of shell deposits left by the Calusa Indians.  It was much bigger than I thought.  We hiked across it, photographing flowers and dragonflies.  Curiously, there was a fenced area containing a goat.  Not sure what’s going on with that.  We paddled across a big flat into the mouth of a river.  We didn’t see too much up there, except two guys trying to net some mullet.  I got to practice my Spanish on them.  We crossed back and went around Mound Key again, where I saw some dolphins or porpoises in the distance.  I think they were porpoises because they were relatively small.  I wanted pics so we put maximum effort into our paddling.  But even when porpoises are not trying very hard, they swim pretty fast.  Eventually, we caught up with them.  When they come up for air, they only surface for a second.  It’s just about long enough to raise the camera, and find them in the eyepiece.  But by the time you press the shutter button and the camera focuses and fires, they are back underwater.  Through repeated efforts I was finally able to get some shots of them.  There were at least 6 in the pod.  After we were through harassing them, a group of people on water maggots (personal water craft, AKA jet skis) came along and got right among them.  As we paddled along the front of an island I saw something break the surface.  Bob heard a blowing noise and identified the culprits as manatees!  We were already among them.  There appeared to be one young one and two adults.  Like porpoises, they’re difficult to photograph when they come up for air.  In the photo, it will look like an alligator snout, but you have to look close to see the hairs. 

Porpoises, From Florida 2012

After we took the canoe out we went to Times Square in Fort Myers beach.  I looked in all the tourist trap shops, then we had lunch at a cafe on the beach.  We watched the parasailers and the people frolicking in the water.  We picked up Jamie, who had stayed with a friend, then picked up Tom for an afternoon snack.  On the way home I spotted a Crested Caracara on a fencepost by the roadside.  Bob did two U-turns so I could shoot it.  I got a much better image than I had last year. 

Crested Caracara, From Florida 2012

Sunday morning we went out to Bok Tower Gardens.  It’s just outside Lake Wales.  I love the tower, the flowers, and the insects.  I was finally able to get a shot of a zebra butterfly, since they were swarming one particular bush.  Skinks were out sunning themselves on the trunks of trees, giving me some opportunities.  I was shooting the tower, but it was too contrasty.  Bob spotted some clouds about to come over.  We waited and I got the shot while the sun was briefly occluded, which evened out the lighting for a better shot.  On the way home I saw a Swallow-tailed Kite soaring over a clearing in the orange groves.  Bob turned around and we pulled into a sandy lane.  We watched it come down and grab something out of the field.  I was shooting with the big lens the whole time.  They didn’t all turn out well, but on magnification you can see that it caught and was eating on the wing a huge yellow caterpillar.  

Four by Four, From Florida 2012

Monday Bob took me to the airport at a crazy early hour.  For those who have lost track, I have gone to Ecuador, California and Florida this summer, requiring 14 separate flights.  It’s been fun, but I’ve had enough of airports and airplanes for awhile. 

Swallow-tailed Kite with caterpillar, From Florida 2012