no matter where you go, there you are

Sunday, June 29, 2014

the case of the manatees at crystal river

A long time ago, my sister, myself and our two neighbors created an Animal loving club (or something?) in which we each chose an animal mascot and made membership cards. Anne's chosen creature was the manatee. That's pretty much all I remember about that club. But the point is, that Anne loved manatees. Loved them then and still likes them a lot now. Upon browsing Groupon for a fun activity to do (besides Harry Potter world; more on that later) while Anne and the Mollys were visiting, I came across a discounted manatee snorkel tour. "What? You can swim with the manatees? That sounds so awesome! Book it!"

After doing some research on the activity, it turns out its a very popular winter activity in Florida. The waters of Crystal River area stay a consistent temperature of 72 degrees year round, so when the Gulf waters dip during the winter months, the manatees flock to the river and become a tourist attraction all on their own. When spring hits, they head back out to the Gulf. The prime manatee season is December-March. Manatees are friendly creatures so there was pictures and photos of tourists snorkeling and scuba diving with them and being able to touch and interact with them. It looked terribly exciting and since we'd be visiting the second to last weekend in March, I figured though there may not be a zillion manatees, we'd at least see quite a few. And snorkeling no matter where is always fun!

The tour left early in the morning so we were up before the sun. The small tour office was only a short drive down the road but we definitely got a little lost with bad GPS address problems. We found it after a few U-Turns and after signing the appropriate waivers, walked down to the dock with Captain Ned and our snorkeling gear. When looking at Crystal River on the map, it is HUGE! and thankfully it looks mostly preserved through the State Park foundation. You could probably spend days upon days exploring all the nooks and crannies in a kayak or other small boat. However, as we were part of a commerical business, we stuck to the public waters and explored all the canals and small waterways off King's Bay looking for the manatees. As all the canals have residences built along them, going in and out of them felt a little invasive but it was a lovely tour overall. Ned though, was not a tour guide. He was a boatman, so we didn't learn much.

After having no success whatsoever in finding the manatees, Ned took us to the entrance to a cove-like place. You could tell it was a popular place to explore as other manatee boats were anchoring at the entrance as well. Seeing as those all had plenty of people on them, I cherished that our tour was private. Ned informed us that if we swam up the little tributary, we'd come to a cove of crystal clear waters that is famous for having upwards of a hundred manatees in it during the prime season. Eager to get in the water and do something, we threw on our fins and goggles and hopped in. In all honesty, it was freezing and I had to force myself in the water. I was hoping that since the outside temperature was about the same, the water would feel warm and I would have no problem jumping in. It did not and I had major problems. But I did it. Anne however, had no problem.

Snorkeling is an interesting watersport to quickly dive into. While fins are the best thing in the world in easing the exertion needed to swim, it certainly takes a moment to accustom yourself to breathing only through your mouth and having your breath be amplified greatly due to your ears being submerged underwater. It took a minute or two for me to feel completely comfortable but the further up the tributary I went, the more natural the breath pattern became. The water was truly crystal clear. Coming from New England where the ocean is as far as you can get from clear, when you get to experience such see-through waters, it's fascinating to behold. You can see straight to the bottom, side to side...all around.

Once we made it to the cove we quickly peeked around for manatees and much to our disappointment, not one was chilling anywhere in the cove. However sad we were though, the cove was a sight in itself. It was serene, with different corners to explore and all sorts of natural aspects to look at. There were tree limbs along the bottom and different areas were deeper than others. There were even bubbles coming out from the floor in one section. Since we hadn't had any manatee luck so far, Anne snapped some great photos of just us under the water which turned out really cool.

Once we'd finished up in the cove, all of us swam back to the boat and tried to warm up as best we could while Ned drove us over to the other side of the bay to continue our search. This side of the bay had less homes along the edge of the water which was lovely but the water was NOT clear. It was murky and brown so when Ned finally spotted a manatee and told us to hop in, I was frightened. Not because of possibly encountering a slimy snake or other aquatic being, but of hitting the manatee head on. When we put our faces under the surface, our visibility was maybe a foot. If the manatee was swimming in our direction we would have no idea it was coming. And Ned was no help; he kept attempting to shout instructions at us that proved increasingly futile. Once he lost sight of it he had us come back to the boat so we could gain a better idea of where Mr. Manatee headed. 

By that point I was done in, freezing and shivering, and could not fathom going back in the water again, no matter how much I wanted to interact with Mr. Manatee. Soon after, his backside popped up swimming along the surface; Anne and O eagerly jumped back in while L decided to stay in the boat with me. Anne was determined to touch that manatee if it killed her. From the boat we actually had a good vantage point of where he was and could direct the girls towards him. Ned however, was not good at giving directions, as we had learned the previous time in the water, so we did our best to counter his directions. It was a success! Though brief, and through murky waters, both Anne and O got to touch Mr. Manatee before he swam off for good, bringing an end to our morning escapade at Crystal River.

Looking back, it truly was an awesome morning filled with fun memories and stories to retell over the years even if it wasn't filled with hundreds of manatees. It is something I would definitely want to try again, but next time I'll go in January. Tho there were a lot of people online who said they'd seen lots of manatees as late as the end of March, the winter of 2012 was unseasonably warm so I believe that due to higher temperatures, the manatees went back to the Gulf earlier than normal that year, hence why we had so much trouble scouting one out. But, we did find the one, and Mr. Manatee, well he was a good one.

friends in florida

From Aug 2011 - May 2012, I had the fortunate, and wonderful opportunity to work at an internship in Orlando, Florida. It was a fantastic 10 months; and while the professional experience was full of learning and laughter, the time spent living in the city afforded me the chance to explore a state I knew little about. My previous travel tales in Florida were minimal; a family vacation to Disney with a trip to Cape Canaveral, another (short) Disney trip in addition to the Everglades, and a week in Naples as a last hurrah with my best friends before graduating high school. Okay, so looking back, maybe they weren't that minimal. But having the chance to live in Orlando did provide me with the ins and outs of being a full time Floridian as well as being able to spend beautiful sunny days at local state parks, and gallivanting off on weekend trips with visitors. Because when you're friend is in Florida, who doesn't want to visit and escape the cold winter of New England?

The end of March proved to be the best time for my sister and best friends to come down as it was Anne's spring break; and as I was not running a show, had my weekends completely free. So it was then that she, and my two best friends, L and O, flew down. It also happened to be when "The Hunger Games" was released, so what better timing than that? After a long day at work, I picked them up at the airport, and we headed off to a midnight showing filled with tweens, teens, young adults and fabulous Hunger Games nail polish (courtesy of Anne.) The movie was awesome and we all had a blast!

Up semi-early the next morning, I took the gals to the Orlando Repertory Theatre, my then-current home of employ. We attended a rousing field-trip performance of "Lyle the Crocodile" which was spectacularly produced (just as all the Orlando Rep shows are); and I found it quite fun to actually see the show from the audience as I had only previously seen it from the set change POV whilst roaming the hallways backstage. After the curtain went down, my besties got a backstage tour where I showed them the wings, set pieces, SM office (with puppets) and scene shop. Before long, we were off and headed towards Crystal River, FL.

After lunch at Grannie's restaurant, we arrived at the hotel and since it wasn't super late in the afternoon, took full advantage of the Florida sun by laying poolside for a few hours. Ahhhh, just what the vacation doctor called for. Dinner was at a lovely restaurant next to the hotel where we enjoyed a tasty outdoor meal complete with mosquito bites. For dessert, the neighboring ice cream store was the perfect bookend to our day. Exhausted after the long, adventure filled day we easily fell asleep, eagerly anticipating the manatee tour the next morning.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Mt. Kineo

I think my favorite thing to do is hike. I've gone to the summit of Little Spencer Mountain three times, and as exhausting and difficult as it is, its one of the best hikes in the area. Big Spencer Mountain and Tom Young Cliffs are other local "big" hikes and the camp itself has multiple little trails to explore. Since I've hiked all of those trails in years past, this past summer I was adamant about finding something new, and difficulty friendly for my whole family. We settled on Mt. Kineo because it was closer than the other options, has different difficulty trails, and is a highlight of this region in Maine.

Mt. Kineo is not a very tall mountain but the combination of its beautiful 700-ft cliff face and the fact that it is a peninsula  in Moosehead Lake make it very unique. There is a golf course, one of the oldest in New England, and some homes on the land as well. Our little Prius was unable to make it the "backroads" way where you park on the side of the road and walk about a mile until you come to the mountain so we were forced to go the long way around; back to Greenville and up the western side of the lake until we reached the Ferry terminal. It's about a 10-15 min ride across the lake. It was very windy but I think that was only on the water because on land it was a perfect summer day: partly cloudy skies, a nice breeze and mid 70s.

Upon departing the ferry you have to walk about 3/4 of a mile to the Indian Trail trailhead. We hopped on and immediately started ascending the cliff-side of the mountain. It was definitely on the difficult side; steep and rocky. Lots of the trail involved climbing over large faces of rocks using hands and legs. It was really fun for me, but much harder on my mom. The entire way up the Indian Trail your vantage point is of Moosehead Lake and the farther you ascend the viewpoint gets bigger and better. When you get to the point where the Bridle Trail meets up with the Indian Trail, there is a spectacular overlook.

Since there had been so much climbing done to get to this point, Mom and Anne were pretty beat so they decided to rest for a bit then start the descent down the Bridle trail whilst Dad and I continued to the summit. We would then meet them back at the dock. From the overlook to the summit, the trail is fairly flat with little ups and downs as it takes you through a wooded forest. It was very nice and soon we were at the summit, denoted nicely but the old, but still climbable, fire tower. Its a little creaky and you can feel it move in the wind a bit, but it still felt very safe. The entire railing it carved with people's initials that have then rusted over. It's very neat.

Even thought the views on this hike had been terrific, nothing beats what you can see when your high above the treeline; a complete 360 degree vantage point. The entire lake spans before you in all directions and mountains upon mountains are seen in the distance. We could see Little Spencer and Big Spencer as well as a sliver of the pond on the other side of a small hill. The trees are dense and fill the land; it's hard to believe there are any roads down there at all. Clouds moved over and around us and we could see where the wind was at its peak down on the lake. It's places like these where there is nowhere else to be but at peace.

Monday, March 11, 2013

it feels like home to me

When I was two, after the birth of my sister, my parents planned for our family to take an early autumn vacation in Maine. I don't remember where we were intending to go originally, but the place we had booked either closed or cancelled...something that forced us to find new lodging. Although I was only a toddler at the time, I firmly believe it was one of the best things to happen to us as it led to our discovery of Spencer Pond Camps, one of the prettiest, most serene, peaceful places I've ever been to. Throughout my childhood, we made it a bi-annual tradition to return there over the summer, bringing various family and friends along the way, and take in nature at its most raw.

Spencer Pond is located about an hour north of Greenville, ME. You drive up the east side of Moosehead Lake for about 30 min before the road turns to dirt and you wind your way through logging territory for another 30 min following the red signs pointing to camp. Little Spencer Mountain looms over as you look out for animals such as deer, moose, rabbit and pheasant amongst a plethora of others. The driveway is on the left and its still another 1/4 mile through thick woods before seeing the small parking lot and infamous wooden Moose cutout on the gate.

The camp sits on Spencer Pond, which is much smaller than Moosehead Lake but still large enough that you can fill a whole day boating around on it. There are 6 waterfront guest cabins, ranging in size from 2-8 persons. There is also the main office cabin where the owners live. Sabotowan, the first and largest cabin was our Spencer Pond home for 7 wonderful visits; however, our most recent visits have put us in Lunkers, Bemsis, Cricket and Moose. Sowangan/Skip-Wiley is the smallest and only cabin us Chapmans have not inhabited.

The cabins are all wonderfully cozy and intimate with books lining the shelves, old maps and pictures hanging on the walls, and games hidden away in cubby holes. The kitchens are stocked with all of the dishes, utensils, pots and pans you need, and the refrigerator is run by a propane tank on the exterior of the cabin. Water must be pumped in from either a well or the lake depending on your cabin. As a kid, one of the first things you learn is how to prime a water pump in the morning.

There are an infinite number of activities to be done in and around the camps. Hiking, canoeing, kayaking, birdwatching, swinging, fishing, berry picking, laying about in hammocks, reading, puzzles. Even when its pouring rain outside, entertainment is available. Bemsis, Lunkers and Moose each have their own dock whilst Cricket, Sabatowan and Skip Wiley share the large one at the main "beach." There is an understanding amongst all guests that Spencer Pond is not a party place; even in the daytime, really loud noise and lots of ruckus is frowned upon. And after dark there is a strict quiet time policy.

Spencer Pond is like a second home. It doesn't matter than I've only ever been 10 times, it's something that has always been with me in my life. It's somewhere where I know I can find peace and solitude without the pressures of this crazy, hectic society we now live in. With no electricity and only a smidgen of cell phone service, you can shut off the fast pace and crank up the relaxed one. And I've been able to share it's experience with my family and best friends, introducing them to this special little world in the Great North Woods and creating memories to last a lifetime.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind - seneca

Well, I've made it. 18 months later and I'm finally on the last entry to my cross country summer road trip of 2010. Though most of the posts for this journey has been out of chronological order, I've purposely saved the last post for the adventures of our last few days on the road. As we ventured back into the northeast there wasn't as much on our To Do list since this was more local to home and we'd been to the different regions before. Just as the first day and a half of travel was straight driving to get out of the northeast, the last 4 days was visiting family and friends with a couple sight seeing stops in between.

From the Great Smoky Mountains, our first stop was in Williamsburg, VA. My dad's brother and his wife live there and my cousin had come up for the evening from North Carolina to have dinner with us. It was quite nice and relaxing after spending the last few days in theme parks and campgrounds. The next morning we wanted to see historic Williamsburg since Molly had never been there before and so my aunt and uncle offered to take us to breakfast and show us around. It was funny getting their version of the tour versus one provided by the park; it was truthful and honest to say the least. And it was free so that is always a plus :)

We left around noon for Washington DC via Chincoteague Island off the coast of Maryland. I thought I had done my research fairly well but I didn't realize how much of a detour visiting would be and how little there was to do if you weren't going to the beach. We wanted to see the wild ponies as we both had memories of the books about the ponies. But as they are wild it's not guaranteed you'll see them. As we drove towards the visitors center we could see a couple in a distant field. The visitor center had that salty ocean smell to it which definitely reminded us of home.

We wanted to explore more so we opted for a short loop hike that offered a lookout to one of the common pony viewpoints. Bad decision. End of August means humidity and mosquitoes. And these were more the size of gnats so they were super super annoying. The only way to avoid being eaten alive was to run. But neither Molly of I are runners, or even in shape so it was like stop and go running with lots of panting. Wearing flip flops made it no less easier. The viewpoint was nice, but due to the attack of the biting bugs we certainly couldn't enjoy it. I don't think there are words to describe how swarmed we were and how all of them were biting. From the lookout we could see the same 2 ponies from earlier and they were just as far away; small brown and white specks in the distance. Getting a picture was no easy feat as I was forced to bounce from foot to foot to keep moving to avoid getting more bites than I already had. It was kind of like channeling Dory from Finding Nemo, "Just keep moving, just keep moving."

After running back to the car and praising our sanctuary from the bugs, we set off for Arlington, VA where Molly's sister Erin had recently moved to begin teaching at a local elementary school. Because Chincoteague ended up being a longer detour than I expected we ended up arriving a few hours later than planned. But we were still able to have a pretty good evening catching up and visiting.

We parted the next morning as Erin had to work and we had a day planned of sightseeing our nation's capital. We drove over to the National Mall and was on the lookout for parking. We pulled into the first garage that said public not realizing it was also a government building, US Agriculture or something. Anyway, the car had to be checked for weapons and/or explosives and the kind security guard discovered our camping hatchet in the trunk. We apologized and asked to be pointed in the direction of a different garage. One was just around the corner luckily. The garage fee here, plus all the tolls we paid the day before driving was the first foray back into the cost of living in the northeast. We'd been so "spoiled" for the last four weeks being in cheaper areas of the US.

As we walked towards the mall we passed by a building that's important but I can't remember the name, the front of the White House, and what I swore was the FBI building because it looked like the one on "Bones."

We officially "started" our tour of the National Mall at the Vietnam Memorial and after passing through there, the Lincoln Memorial. I had been there years ago with my family but Molly had never seen it. To be honest though, at that point I was more thankful for its public bathroom than anything else.

It was a gorgeous, albeit hot, day and we enjoyed our stroll along the reflecting pool towards the World War II memorial. I hadn't been there before so that one was really neat.

We walked by the Washington Monument, saw a small group of Amish and then took a right to get to the Holocaust Museum. The Holocaust Museum is a free museum and I had tried to go there on a college trip but they only admit a certain number of people per hour per day so they don't have overcrowding. We were able to get in this time and took the elevator to the top and began our historical education. A lot of the information and artifacts I'd either seen before or knew of but no matter what, being surrounded by all of it including video footage of the camp liberation and the American soldiers clean-up is just horrific and depressing. And unfortunately for me I tend to get really into dramatic, horrific events and feel like I need to read and learn everything possible. So I go home and invest myself for about a week until I get too depressed and have to stop. We were able to really go through all the exhibits and spent a good amount of time there, both glad we decided to come.

Late that afternoon we drove up I-95, paid all the ridiculous tolls and arrived at my college roommate's apartment where we had a very nice dinner and caught up on life before heading to bed and dropping her off at work the next morning. We then hit the road for our last driving journey together and arrived back at my house in Cohasset around 2pm. It was nice to be home of course but definitely strange in a way, especially since I in no way wanted to unpack, clean camping stuff and do laundry.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Visiting the Grand Canyon in the middle of August is one word: hot. I guess its more than one word as it's also grand, breathtaking, a wonder of the world and so much more. But in August, the defining feature it that it's hot. Not only do you feel it, but the warnings all around the park in regards to the heat and taking care of yourself never let you forget it. And lucky for us, we were to arrive at Grand Canyon National Park smack dab in the middle of August.

Two of the main South Rim hiking trails that dip into the canyon are the Bright Angel Trail and the South Kaibab Trail. There's also the rim trail which is a few miles long and has numerous viewpoints of the canyon. As I'm all about doing as much as possible, we did just that, portions of all three trails.

Our first day we opted for the more modest South Kaibab Trail which was listed as less difficult trail for the best views. And it would be a good warm up for the harder hike the next day. Our turn around point was to be Cedar Ridge.

As the guide had said, it ended up offering better views than the Bright Angel Trail. The hike was really nice and not too hot. Shade was always preferable to sun but we started early enough in the morning that the midday sun was never a huge problem. I really liked Cedar Ridge and sitting on either side of it offered a spectacular view. You really feel like you're a part of the canyon and not just an observer from the edge.

After lunch we headed out to walk along the Rim Trail. I think we hiked 2-3 miles before deciding we were tired enough to hop on the bus back to our car. The Rim Trail is certainly an excellent option for those who aren't able to handle the strenuous hiking of the canyon trails. You get to see multiple areas of the canyon, you can see the Colorado River at a couple points and the camera opportunities are infinite.

On day 2 we headed for the Bright Angel Trailhead. This is the main trail down to Phantom Ranch, the National Park's lodge in the center of the canyon. It is not advised to hike down to the river and back in one day, and we weren't equipped to backpack down there, spend the night and return so we opted to hike to the Indian Garden stopping point and then return.

The hike down wasn't so bad. It's steep and a little harsh on the knees but not super stressful. The worst part was having to step to the side to let the donkey groups down, and then having to walk over the donkey poop in the middle of the trail. It's hard to hike when you smell donkey poop for at least one or two switchbacks.

Indian Garden was quite nice but for an ending point it offered no views of the canyon itself, because it's IN the canyon. The walls rise up around you and it's tempting to keep going down rather than turn around. We rested in a grove of trees amongst multiple groups of donkeys and people resting up before continuing on their journey either into or out of the canyon.

In terms of the heat, it lived up to the hype that's for sure. We left early as advised by the park so you avoid hiking in the high suns of the afternoon, but apparently we didn't go early enough because it was scorching by the time we were ascending back up. It took us 3x as long to get out as it did to get down which is torturous enough before you add the beating sun to the equation. But we took it in stride, one step at a time, one switchback at a time. There was little shade to hike in so we took our rests in whatever shade could be found. 

The Three Mile Resthouse was a godsend since we could sit on benches in the shade, recuperate and refill our water bottles. The only thing bad about it was that it reminded us we still had 3 miles to go before reaching the rim again. Given the heat, and the difficulty of the trail, this hike was all about our endurance and accomplishment of making it out alive.

In total, I think it took us 6 hours to get to Indian Garden and climb back out. We got back to camp around 2pm, ate food and sat down. We read books, soaking in the gorgeous weather and the elk wandering through the campground and didn't move again until sunset. I was sore to say the least!