Exploring Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park

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Fog bank in Glacier Bay

Last September, after months of planning, I embarked on an adventure to Alaska to witness firsthand several remarkable things that I had never seen before; Humpback whales, Sea lions, Sea otters, Mountain goats and glaciers. It was the latter that motivated me most of all, for with all of the talk about climate change and global warming, I feared that glaciers might not be around for me to see if I waited much longer.

The NPS Serac rendezvousing with our ship

It was a cold, foggy morning on the day that our cruise ship entered Glacier Bay. We were met and boarded by park rangers from Glacier Bay National Park, who would remain with us throughout the course of our journey 65 miles up the bay to the terminus of the tidewater glaciers, where we would spend time at both John Hopkins and Margerie glaciers.

 

Snow-capped mountains in Glacier Bay National Park

As the fog lifted, the sun broke through the scattered clouds, almost as if pulling back a curtain, to reveal an astonishing view. Snow-capped mountains towered out of the cyan waters on both sides of the fjord, which was as deep as 1,410 feet in some places. The scars left by receding glaciers were evident on the rough granite landscape, but instead of a bleak and barren vista, grasses, bushes and trees managed a foothold across much of it. We sailed for several hours into the bay, watching the towering peaks, hanging valleys and waterfalls slip by. Cold, but refusing to leave the rail, I spotted several playful Sea otters and a Stellar sea lion.

 

 

Kayakers paddling past Lamplugh Glacier (click to see full size)

A large glacier, Lamplugh glacier slid into view on our port side. At 160′ tall, this towering glacier seemed to be woven from ribbons of white, blue, grey and black ice. Near the base of the glacier I noticed multiple small specks of color floating on the water’s surface, but it wasn’t until I zoomed in with my 250mm lens that I was able to see tiny, two-person kayaks paddling past the glacier’s face. I was instantly jealous that I wasn’t out there on the water with them.

John Hopkins Glacier

We sailed onward and finally John Hopkins glacier slipped into view, the immense scale of it filling the horizon as we pulled closer. Measuring over 20 stories tall, over 50% taller than Lamplugh glacier, John Hopkins stretched from wall to wall of the fjord. The ship slowly turned in place over the course of an hour allowing the passengers on both sides of the ship to see the glacier. I took shot after shot of the glacier, trying to capture the impossible. I zoomed in to the base of the glacier, focusing on dark spots floating on top of the ice flows and was pleasantly surprised to see scores of Harbor seals basking in the afternoon sun.

Harbor Seals basking on ice flows at John Hopkins Glacier (click to see full size)

After an hour we left John Hopkins glacier and sailed on to Margerie glacier. Spanning a mile across, Margerie glacier greeted us with a sharp “Crack!” as loud as thunder as an ice spire, or sérac, calved from the face and plunged into the frigid seawater below. Over the next hour we watched again and again as more ice calved into the fjord. Margerie glacier is one of the most active glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park, advancing seaward at 6′-8′ per day.

 

Margerie Glacier calving

The afternoon drew late and it was time to head back to the mouth of the bay. I still couldn’t pry myself away from the rail, and for my effort I was treated to a view of Sea otters, rocky islands filled with Sea lions, Mountain goats and several brilliant rainbows. Finally we neared the entrance to Glacier Bay and the National Park Service sent a vessel out to retrieve our park ranger tour guides. We waved goodbye and retreated into the warmth of the interior of the ship to savor our experiences.

Sea lions at the end of the rainbow (click to see full size)

For me, this was a trip of a lifetime, but more importantly I learned that climate change is real. The glaciers are receding. If we, as stewards of the planet, don’t do something to stop polluting our air, oceans and groundwater, we are going to be left with nothing. The health of our planet is more important than corporate greed. Our sights need to focus on renewable energy and environmental sustainability. One person can make a difference, especially when we become hundreds, thousands and millions of people working toward a common cause – saving our planet.

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Explore Florida’s St. George Island on Apalachicola Bay

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Sea Oats Photo © Beverly Hill

 

In late October I visited Dr. Julian G Bruce St George Island State Park (talk about a mouthful!) along the Forgotten Coast located in the lower panhandle of Florida. This important barrier island provides protection for the Apalachicola Bay Aquatic Preserve and the nearby Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR) and UNESCO World Biospher Reserve. In a word, it’s pretty special.

Interestingly, St. George Island is an exercise in balance. Half of the island is developed, with homes, condominiums, shops and businesses on the western end, and the eastern half of the island is home to a state park with 9 miles of pristine sand beach and 12 miles of estuarine shoreline. As one would expect, during the summer months, St. George Island is a haven for endangered sea turtles coming ashore to lay eggs.

Great Egrets Photo © Beverly Hill

My early fall trip coincided with the seasonal butterfly migration; Monarchs, Gulf Fritillaries, Long-tailed Skippers, and other colorful butterflies dotted the flowering landscape. I chose the one-mile long East Slough Overlook trail that wound through the pine scrub to a slough flanked by Smooth Cordgrass and Black Needlerush. From the boardwalk I was able to observe a Great Blue Heron and several Great Egrets stalking their prey in the shallows. To my delight I also spotted some Southeastern Five-lined Skinks that quickly raced for cover upon my approach.

Gulf Fritillary Photo © Beverly HIll

I took my time taking in the sights from the boardwalk and adjoining sand trail before eventually returning to the parking area near the trailhead. I drove further into the park, stopping to take in the sights along the coastal dunes, including a defunct section of boardwalk that had been damaged by Hurricane Dennis in 2005. The surf was a bit rough on this day, so I decided against a walk on the beach, instead turning my attention back into the heart of the park.

Old boardwalk on St. George Island Photo © Beverly Hill

Next, I took a drive through the campground to check out the amenities available for camping and noted 60 campsites complete with electricity and water, two bathhouses and a playground. There are current plans in the works to expand the campground with an additional camping loop with up to 30 additional spots, as well as expanding the number of primitive hike-in campsites. Among other amenities, there are two natural kayak launch areas on the bay side, three covered picnic pavilions and 6 covered beach shelters, and restroom/shower areas.

Long-tailed Skipper Photo © Beverly Hill

To get to St. George Island State Park, turn onto FL 300 S from Hwy 98 in Eastpoint and follow it 4 miles across the bay. Once on St. George Island, turn left onto Big Bend Scenic Byway Coastal Trail/Gulf Beach Dr and drive 4.3 miles to the state park entrance. Other nearby parks include St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in Port St. Joe and Ochlockonee River State Park in Sopchoppy. Check the Florida State Park webpage for entrance fees and closures.

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The Jewels of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

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Fishing Pond at Topsail Hill

Oasis is perhaps the best description of Topsail Hill Preserve. An oasis of nature in a changing world of urban sprawl. Here, a unique ecosystem holds onto its place in Florida’s coastal dune system under the shade of an old-growth Longleaf pine forest and gentle sea breezes. Among ancient dunes, threatened Gopher tortoises and endangered Choctawhatchee Beach mice forage next to four rare coastal dune lakes that lie within the park’s 1,640 acres of paradise. Sanctuary.

Shuttle Tram

Topsail Hill is a shining example of balance between humans and nature by mitigating human impacts in fragile areas of the park while still offering amenities similarly available in more urbanized parks. This has been accomplished by careful land and forestry management practices, including locating the camping, lodging and parking areas near the entrance to the park and supplying tram service for visitors to the beach access area. Visitors can also ride bikes or hike to areas within the park, allowing them to see even more of this amazing place.

Parrot’s Head Pitcher Plant

Along the hiking and old jeep trails visitors have the opportunity to see both pine and wetland plant communities, including pitcher plants. The park uses controlled burns to keep understory species in check so that pine, wiregrass and pitcher plant species are able to thrive without competition. It is in one of these hydric pine flatwoods where I was first able to see a beautiful native Pine lily in full bloom.

 

Pine Lily

The coastal dune lakes are another important feature within the park, and represents a vanishing resource along much of the coast. These rare and globally imperiled lakes perform multiple functions such as filtration, retention and habitat. Salinity differences caused by outflow and inflow of sea water can vary widely between lakes, allowing for a variety of fresh and saltwater fish and animals. Campbell and Morris Lake are the two most notable lakes within the park, with Lake Stallworth lying on the eastern boundary. Outside vessels are not permitted on the dune lakes, but canoe and kayak rentals are available from the camp store for kayaking on Campbell Lake.

Bike racks at Beach Access

Wildlife finds a home here as well and binoculars or a camera could be beneficial. An early morning stroll to the beach could have visitors crossing paths with Gopher tortoises, White-tailed deer, or even a Loggerhead Sea turtle on its way back to the Gulf after an evening of egg-laying. If walking near any of the lakes within the park, keep a sharp eye out for basking Alligators, since they also call the park home. Watch for wildlife tracks along any of the sandy paths as it may provide clues to some of the park’s unseen residents.

Topsail Hill at Campbell Lake

Topsail Hill is an ancient dune from which the park takes its namesake, rising 25 feet above the shore of Lake Campbell and used historically as a navigational marker for vessels. Several archaeological finds have been made at Topsail including WWII metal tracks, a wrecked wooden ship, shell middens and turpentine collection materials. A reminder in case you stumble across any archaeological materials, these are not permitted to be removed from any State Park, so leave them be for future visitors to observe.

Sea Oats wave next to an Outflow

Topsail Hill Preserve State Park is on Hwy 98, although the main entrance is located along Scenic Hwy 30A in Santa Rosa Beach. Park hours are 8 a.m. until sunset, 365 days a year. Check with the park for current admission and rental fees.

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Kayaking Adventure on the Ichetucknee River

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Beautiful clear waters of the Ichetucknee

The Ichetucknee River has always been on my list of rivers to explore. For years I had been jealous of tales of crystal clear waters and more wildlife than you could shake a stick at, so I was thrilled to get the opportunity to paddle on this pristine waterway last October during the 2015 Florida Paddler’s Rendezvous at the Suwannee River Campground in Mayo, FL.

Ichetucknee Springs State Park is almost literally in the middle of nowhere, with the closest town being some 5+ miles away in Fort White and the next largest town, Lake City, located nearly 23 miles away. Despite the distance, Ichetucknee Springs receives more visitors than it can sometimes handle and it has to turn people away once capacity for the park is reached.

Aquatic grasses swaying in the current

Fortunately for our group, October is the off-season and the tubers had gone home for the summer and our convoy of paddlers had no problem dropping off kayaks near Blue Spring at the north end of the park before shuttling vehicles to our takeout on the lower Santa Fe River almost 12 miles away. The plan was to paddle 6 miles on the Ichetucknee before merging onto the Santa Fe River where we would paddle another 5 ½ miles to our takeout on Hwy 129.

 

Unnamed spring beneath a limestone bank

Because of the distance we would be traveling that day and the restrictions within Ichetucknee Springs State Park, special care had to be made with our food and water provisions since disposable containers/wrappers are not allowed within the park, including glass or plastic bottles. For this trip I brought along my Camelbak and a drybag containing cookies and dehydrated fruits. I really don’t mind extra measures like these when it comes to protecting such a vital natural resource.

Kayaking

We finally got underway and were immediately met with the beauty that is Ichetucknee. The waters were clear and cold, allowing us to see all the way to the bottom of the river where a sea of grasses waved gently beneath us, beckoning us with their rich colors. A variety of bream, bass and other fish drifted casually in and out of the grasses, probably secure in the knowledge that fishing isn’t permitted here. Along the banks we would sometimes see White Ibis, Great Blue Heron and even a Barred Owl as it swooped across the river.

Raccoon washing paws

Turtles were everywhere, and more than once I counted as many as 30 on a log. I figure there weren’t more simply because the log wasn’t long enough. We never saw any alligators, and I’d been told that any over 4′ in length are trapped and relocated. That being said, this is Florida and you never know when one will find its way in, so it’s a good idea to be on the lookout just in case. Someone should probably mention that to the Raccoon I spied washing his paws at the water’s edge.

Devil’s Eye Spring

Along the way we took the time to gaze into the depths of Devil’s Eye Spring and later Coffee Spring, as well as several other springs along the length of the spring run. We drifted along the river for a couple of hours, passing several of the park’s tube launch platforms until we finally passed out of the park and the last takeout before entering the lower section of the Ichetucknee where houses and long boardwalks slowly loomed into view. There were no takeouts beyond this point, so we were committed to our takeout on Hwy 129.

Confluence of the Ichetucknee and Santa Fe Rivers

Finally we reached the amazing confluence of the Ichetucknee and Santa Fe Rivers. I stopped to take several pictures of the brilliant clear water of the Ichetucknee merging with the tea-colored flow of the Santa Fe. It was such a stunning contrast. From here we downstream the remaining 5 ½ miles to our takeout. This last section of Santa Fe was mostly unremarkable with homes appearing regularly. Our biggest challenge was just keeping an eye out for any motor boats.

Before planning your trip, be sure to visit the Florida State Parks website to see when the south gates are open. Ichetucknee Springs State Park is located at 12087 SW Hwy 27, Fort White, FL.

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A Hike to Cherokee Sink near Wakulla Springs

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Cherokee Sink Trail

Cherokee Sink Trail

I learned of Cherokee Sink Hiking Trail while preparing for a return visit to Wakulla Springs south of Tallahassee. My morning plans consisted of a river boat ride on the Wakulla River followed by a couple of hours of hiking before continuing south to Crystal River. Cherokee Sink fit the bill perfectly by being a short hike with a scenic destination.

Access to Cherokee Sink Trail is off of Hwy 61 about 1.3 miles southwest of the main entrance of Wakulla Springs State Park. We turned right at the small Cherokee Sink sign onto an unpaved road and drove a short distance to the parking area.

Cherokee Sink

Cherokee Sink

The trail itself was an easy trek over flat terrain down an old forest road lined by hardwood trees. Deer and other small animal tracks were abundant along the 1 mile trail. The weather was mild for late November, and I was glad for that, having hiked many a trail during hotter temperatures.

After about 20 minutes of peaceful walking we arrived at our destination, a large sinkhole lake about 250′ wide glistening in the afternoon sun. Three wooden boardwalks dotted the rocky perimeter to viewing platforms overlooking the lake, and we moved onto the closest one to take in the view of this amazing 80′ deep karst window into the Florida aquifer.

Another view of Cherokee Sink

Another view of Cherokee Sink

Where most people might just see a swimming hole, Cherokee Sink is more than that. Florida is composed primarily of porous limestone, which over time becomes pockmarked with voids and passages, sometimes creating caverns. Cherokee Sink used to be one of these caverns until its roof collapsed into itself creating the sinkhole lake that exists today. The water that you see today is rainwater runoff that mixed with the water table far below.

Pond Apples?

Pond Apples?

We took the time to walk around most of the lake, and to my surprise I found what appeared to be ripe Pond Apples on the ground along the trail. Further along the trail we arrived at the site of the historic Causseaux Cemetery. The grave markers are long gone, but a sign tells about the family that lived there, including Stephen Causseaux, a Confederate Soldier.

After exploring the overlooks, we headed back to the parking area. Our brief visit to Cherokee Sink was well worth the effort – it’s not every day that one gets to peer into a karst window. Don’t pass it by due to the short hike. It’s easy to add more hiking mileage in by adding the trails at Wakulla Springs to round out a full day of hiking.causseaux-cemetery

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