Time to Spring into Camping

So spring is officially here! And it comes with warmer weather, longer days and a promise of more camping trips. While April and May with melting snow, uncertain weather, lots of mud and quite often still cold nights may not seem like the best choice to head into the woods, there are lots of things that make spring camping special. Here is what I am looking forward to as we are preparing for our first spring camping trip of the year.

Rebirth of nature

After a long winter sleep, nature finally shakes off its white blanket and springs into a burst of colours, smells and sounds. Even though I know it’s coming, every year I am mesmerized by this magic act of rebirth, by the vigour of spring flowers pushing their way through the ground, by the tenderness of swelling buds. The blues, yellows and purples of spring ephemerals and bright greens of first leaves look like drops of paint spattered by a careless artist around the otherwise still bare forest. So put on a pair of waterproof boots and head to the forest. Walk slowly and look for signs of spring awakening.

boardwalk at Presqu'ile Provincial park

flower   first leaves

spring flowers   spring flowers

tree in the spring   willow in the spring

spring flowers

Trilliums

Yes, it is a flower and could be mentioned above but in my book of spring camping it deserves a separate chapter. It is Ontario’s official flower and spring is the only time when you can see it. Imagine forest floor covered by a blanket of snow-white curvy petals with occasional pinks or reds peeking through. It is a sight worth seeing, practically a must if you live in Ontario.

red trillium   white trillium

trilliums

Twitter

Not the one on your phone, of course, the original one produced by birds. In the spring, woods and lakeshores are filled with chirps, cheeps, peeps and tweets. Ontario Parks offer excellent birdwatching opportunities. Some parks, like Presqu’ile, Long Point or Point Pelee are practically birders’ meccas. So if birdwatching is your thing, grab your camera and binoculars and head to one of the parks. And even if you are not a birder, waking up to a birdsong is way more pleasant than to an alarm on your phone.

heron near the lake

duck

warbler   warbler

family of geese

Wildlife sightings

As more and more animals wake up from their winter slumber and right before summer crowds hit the parks, spring offers a great window for wildlife viewing. For instance, spring is the best season for moose watching in Algonquin. You don’t even have to go far. You are almost certain to see these animals along Highway 60 as they are attracted by the salt in road ditches. As always, it is important to remember that wildlife may pose danger. So exercise caution when you are driving in or close to the parks, and give animals lots of space whenever you come across them in the woods.

moose in algonquin park

moose in algonquin   groundhog

More daylight

Longer days mean more outdoor activities. While there is a certain charm to long winter evenings by the fire and there are lots of enjoyable activities to fill the time, as the days are getting longer I am looking forward to spending more time outside and can now plan for longer hikes or bike rides.

More sun

After a long and cold winter, we all deserve a bit more sun. And with more sun come better moods, warmer weather and more Vitamin D. Spring weather with its gentle sun, a bit of a breeze and without the usual summer humidity is perfect for outdoor activities.

Fewer layers

As the weather gets warmer, we can start shedding all those winter layers. As much as I enjoy winter, I won’t miss extra sweaters, snowpants, scarves, hats and gloves and I am looking forward to spending less than ten minutes getting dressed before going outside. Spring nights can still be pretty chilly so don’t put away your sweaters and hats too far away just yet. If you are concerned about spring chill at night, consider booking roofed accommodations at one of Ontario Parks. They are much easier to book in the spring as more people are choosing to stay in tents.

awenda in the spring   Macgregor point

walking over a log   on the beach at awenda in spring

Cycling

Yes, you can bike in the summer and fall too, but there is nothing like the first bike ride of the season. After a long cycling gap (unless, of course, you are a winter biking enthusiast), the sensation of pushing pedals is always new and exciting. With a breeze in your hair and a birdsong in your ear, spring cycling is filled with childlike joy. So dust off your bike, tune it up and head outside. A lot of Ontario Parks have excellent biking trails, for instance, Pinery, Algonquin, MacGregor Point. Quite a few also offer bike rentals.

biking in algonquin   biking at craigleth provincial park

Canoeing

Just like cycling, canoeing is not a strictly spring activity. But just like with cycling, I can’t wait till the first paddle of the year: the slight resistance of water as my paddle cuts through it, the splash, the feeling of gliding on the surface. Plus rivers and lakes are at their fullest in the spring after the snow melts making them easier to navigate. Some routes can only be paddled in the spring or early summer at the latest and they become almost impassable as the water levels drop later in the season.

paddle in the water

Finally, the best cure for cabin fever

Even though we go camping in the winter too, with only two or three trips over the whole season I feel like we spend too much time in the city. So why wait till summer if you can go camping now. Nothing can chase those winter blues away like the orange crackling of a campfire, the bright yellow of first spring flowers  and the tender green spirals of fiddleheads.

marshmellow in the campfire

yellow spring flowers   fiddleheads

Time to start packing! Remember that Ontario Parks have different opening dates while some are open year round. Check Ontario Parks website for help with your trip planning and to book campsites.

 

Our Road Trip to Florida: Part III – Camping at Everglades

So finally the best part of our trip – Everglades.

everglades

Our last stop before entering Everglades was Robert Is Here Fruit Market, a feast of colours and tastes. We packed our car with fresh produce, exotic dragon and star fruit, and locally grown mangoes and avocados and set out on the last leg of our journey.

Robert Is Here Fruit Market in Florida

Robert is here fruit market florida  Robert is here fruit market florida

By the time we reached Flamingo Campground, it was already dark. The registration booth was empty so it took us a while to figure out how to get to the walk-in area where we had a site reserved. When I was booking a site, I was seduced by the walk-in’s proximity to the ocean. Drive-in and trailer campsites are not too far away but you can’t really see the water from there. I knew that the walk-in area was a big open field with an occasional palm tree. What I couldn’t know from the pictures was the fact that the area was pretty swampy with about a quarter of the sites covered ankle deep in water, something we discovered pretty quickly as we tried to pick a site by the flashlight. Another thing we weren’t prepared for were the mosquitoes. I did read other people’s accounts of practically ‘being eaten alive’ but I thought: how bad can it be, we’ve been camping a lot, we are not afraid of some mosquitoes. Well, I was wrong because there are mosquitoes and then there are mosquitoes at Everglades or rather, as we later found out, in the Flamingo area. But I’ll get to the bugs later, now back to our campsite.

We quickly realized that we would not be able to choose a proper site in the dark. Plus carrying all the gear from the car would take a while and all we wanted at that point was to get inside our tent. So we ended up setting camp right by the side of the road next to our car. I kept repeating, more to myself than others, that things would be better the next day. Yet, even in the morning I had my doubts. I must confess that for the first time in our camping history, I was contemplating leaving and looking for alternative arrangements. I am glad I decided to stay because we all ended up loving the park, bugs and all.

Flamingo campground at everglades

The next morning after an unsuccessful attempt to move to the drive-in area, which looked more shaded and cozy, we finally picked a walk-in site and moved all our gear there. I will not go into details but apparently the park uses a very ‘sophisticated’ manual site registration system and the staff don’t really know how many sites will be available until ‘the lady’ comes around midday to check all the sites and put up ‘reserved’ notes. After they told us to come back later for the third time, we gave up. It all worked out in the end. Our neighbours moved out that same night and we managed to occupy a site with a tree, a luxury at the walk-in campground. The tree provided shade, particularly useful in the morning if you want to sleep a little longer, but it also gave an illusion of privacy and was excellent for climbing, too. And that proximity to the ocean that made me book this site in the first place? It gave us a front-row view of incredible sunsets and sunrises.

campsite at Flamingo campground at Everglades

climbing a tree  campsite at night

sunset at Flamingo Campground at Everglades

sunrise at Flamingo campground everglades

For more pictures of sunsets and sunrises, check out my Random|Pix blog.

Everglades National Park is the largest tropical wilderness in the United States, the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River and is visited on average by one million people each year. Most of those people come during the day and they usually stick to the Anhinga Trail and boat cruises. Anhinga Trail is a prime location for watching famous crocodiles and alligators as well as numerous species of birds. From the safety of a boardwalk, you can see crocs and gators everywhere, sunning, swimming, sleeping or maybe just pretending to be sleeping while constantly watching you from under their half-closed lids. It was exciting to see these prehistoric looking creatures but because of the sheer number of these reptiles and most importantly people the whole experience felt almost staged. Coming across an alligator during our canoe trip or riding past a gator family on our bikes felt more authentic, probably because there was no boardwalk to separate us from the animals. The birds were also a lot of fun to watch as were the manatees down by the Flamingo marina. Since the marina was only a ten minute bike ride from the campground, petting manatees was a daily must for our kids.

anhinga trail at everglades

alligators at everglades

Anhinga trails at everglades   anhinga trail at everglades

reading

biking snake bight trail at Everglades  alligator

patting a manatee

manatees    patting a manatee

For more pictures of alligators, manatees and birds, visit my Random|Pix blog.

Another attraction at the Flamingo marina is a narrated boat cruise either into the backcountry or around the Florida Bay. We decided to skip it and get a full-day canoe rental instead (for the price of one boat ride ticket). For part of our expedition, we actually followed the boat and could hear the guide talk about the differences between crocodiles and alligators and different kinds of mangroves but then the boat sped away and we were left to explore on our own. Other than an occasional gator sunning on the bank and mangroves lining the shores, canoeing into the Everglades backcountry didn’t look or feel any different than canoeing in Canada.

canoeing in Everglades

ducks

alligator

canoeing through a mangrove

reading a book on the dock

When we tell people that we camped at Everglades, the first thing they ask us about is alligators and sometimes pythons. Somehow everyone has this idea that the park is crawling with these reptiles. Well, here is good news: while alligators are abundant around marshes and lakes, they don’t come to the campsites. There are lots of birds in the campground and every morning we would wake up to a flock of ibises grazing nearby or a pack of vultures trying to get to our food. As for pythons, they are very hard to find even if you go looking for them (as we learned during a ranger-led talk) so there is no danger of them falling on you from a tree. Our son did have a lizard fall on him on one of our bike rides, but no pythons were in sight.

ibis

vulture

I still maintain that when it comes to ‘wildlife’ in Everglades, mosquitoes were the most menacing. I would like to say that it got better on day two but there were still as many of them. Plus they were joined by the so-called no-see-ums, tiny insects that you can’t see, as the name implies, but can definitely feel as soon as they bite. We were prepared though. By the time the sun set, we had finished our dinner, washed the dishes, packed all our food, put on pants and long-sleeve shirts, ready to retreat into the tent should it become unbearable. We even joked that we felt as if we were in a zombie/vampire movie waiting for the creature of the night to appear as soon as the last ray of sun fades away. Forced inside our tent so early in the evening, we played card games and Settlers of Catan listening to the buzzing outside. And early bedtime made us all into early risers, feeling rested and energized for the day ahead. We survived as do numerous people that go camping at Everglades every year (more than survived, actually, we really enjoyed it and are now considering doing some backcountry camping there), even though my husband did look like he had a severe case of measles by the time we were leaving.

I am happy to report, too, that in a few days the temperatures cooled down a bit in the evening and it even rained on New Year’s Eve reducing bug levels to bearable. We could spend our evenings outside and we were able to ring in the New Year by the campfire. Since we forgot to bring sparklers, our attempt to write 2015 with sticks and marshmallows failed miserably. It was a fun celebration nonetheless. We cooked an eclectic fusion of Japanese miso soup, Mexican guacamole and Italian gnocchi. Then, at twelve (or at least twelve according to our clock because not everyone seemed to agree on the time), we joined a growing chorus of Happy New Year across the campground.

campfire

Unfortunately, vacations always come to an end. On our way out, we made another stop at Robert Is Here market for the most delicious fruit shakes (that was our breakfast) and to stock up on more fruit. The fruit salad that I made on my lap in the moving car at the end of day one and the ugli fruit that we enjoyed somewhere around Pittsburgh felt like an extension of the holidays.

selfie in the water

Our Road Trip to Florida: Part II – Florida Keys

After a long drive from Tampa and a stop for groceries, we finally crossed the bridge to the Keys just as the sun was about to set down. We stopped for dinner at the aptly named Sundowners restaurant in Key Largo. More yummy seafood plus beautiful views.

view from Sundowners restaurant in Key Largo

Camping at Sugarloaf Key

Our destination was a KOA campground down at the Sugarloaf Key. My original plan was to book a site at Bahia Honda or any other state park in Florida Keys. Unfortunately, since campsite reservations for Florida parks open eleven months in advance, there were no campsites left by the time we started planning our trip. After some research, I found a KOA campground not far from Key West. During our road trips, we often book cabins at various KOAs for one- or two-night stops. It is less expensive than a hotel room and doesn’t interfere with the whole camping vibe of the trips. We weren’t sure about tenting, though, since the tent sites we’d seen at different KOAs varied significantly – from decent-size wooded lots to small pebble-covered patches tucked in between RVs. The site we got at this KOA exceeded our expectations by a lot: it was further away from the RVs, and had lots of shade and space (enough space to even play soccer). We then discovered that there were other tent areas, with the green one (where we stayed) and the yellow one being the best. All the others were across from the RV area, which looked more like a parking lot than a campground and made me claustrophobic every time I had to walk through it.

two tents at the Sugarloaf KOA campground

playing soccer at Sugarloaf KOA  playing soccer at Sugarloaf KOA

The campground as a whole was far from the wilderness camping experience we are used to and reminded more of a resort with its own bar, café, tiki huts and inflated bouncing and climbing structures in the beach area. It had some nice features, though, like kayak, canoe and boat rentals, and was a good base for exploring the Keys and visiting Key West (plus we had lots of wilderness waiting for us over at Everglades). We stayed there for three days going on bike rides, kayaking, soaking up the sun and watching pelicans and iguanas. Pelicans were abundant, especially around the fish cleaning station waiting for occasional fish remains or lining up on the fishing bridge seemingly oblivious of the people right next to them. Dozens of iguanas were sunning in the mangroves, their striped tails hanging among the branches. It was a fun game to see who could find the most of those masters of disguise. Sometimes, they would scatter around the campsite or play hide-and-seek around the car. (For more pictures of pelicans and iguanas, go to my Random|Pix blog.)

biking

fishing bridge

pelicans  pelican in a tree

iguana in a tree   iguana in a tree

iguana on a car tire   iguana on a car tire

The best part of the trip, of course, was getting to spend time with my family, my brother and his wife. In the evening, we would have long conversations around the fire or listen to our friendly neighbour Roger play his guitar.

around the campfire

Key West

We dedicated one day to exploring Key West since it was only 20 miles away from the campground. Instead of driving there, we decided to take public transit. There is a bus running all the way through the Lower Keys and it only costs $4 for adults and $2 for kids. Biking would be another green transportation option since there is a bike lane along most of Highway 1 that runs from Key Largo to Key West. The bus does take some time, though, since it makes frequent stops and circles a bit around Stock island and Key West but then you don’t have to worry about finding parking, not an easy task in a town as busy as Key West.

key west

Key West is a pretty, lively town at the very south of Florida Keys so almost everything has ‘Sounthernmost’ in its name, like “Southermost Hotel’ or ‘Southernmost Beach.’ The southernmost point in continental USA actually features a huge buoy with the ’90 miles to Cuba’ marker, a very popular destination with a huge lineup of people wishing to take a picture in front of it. I guess this fascination can be explained by the fact that for now Americans can’t get any closer to Cuba. ’90 miles to Cuba’ is another popular sign you’ll see around the city.

90 miles to Cuba

two boys near the sea  sea

southernmost beach

Key West, just like the rest of the Keys, has a bit of a Caribbean vibe. Beautiful houses, tropical plants, roosters wandering in the streets, lots of restaurants and cafes, delicious seafood (again), yummy ice-cream and famous Key Lime pie, music and dancing everywhere. And, of course, the sunset celebration at Mallory Square with flaming skies and street performers.

key west

rooster in key west

ice cream shop  restaurant

dancing

sunset at Mallory square

sunset

street performer at Mallory square

We had great time exploring the city and taking silly pictures, like looking over the fence of Hemingway’s House or pretending to be taking a selfie with a statue at the Museum of Art and History.

hemingway's house in key west

mallory square in key west

key west   selfie

For more pictures of Key West, check out my Random|Pix blog.

Before long, it was time to leave Florida Keys. As always, it felt that there was so much we hadn’t done. We had plans to stop at Bahia Honda Park on the way back since it has the best beach in all of the Keys. Unfortunately, the day use area was packed so we had to readjust our plans. We ended up at Sombrero Beach, a lovely public park in Marathon. It felt surreal to be swimming in the ocean at the end of December and the water was the warmest we’d experienced in 2014 (yes, much warmer than the lakes in Canada were this past summer). After a few hours on the beach and a grocery shopping trip, we headed for Everglades, with a beautiful Florida sunset in our rear-view mirror.

sombrero beach in marathon

sombrero beach in marathon  reading

seven mile bridge  seven mile bridge

sunset

Off to Everglades…