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Two sides of Florida

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Today, I planned a long morning of outdoor adventure in two very different places. First, I drove out to Port Mayaca to ride my bike along the Florida Trail that tops the levy around Lake Okeechobee. This is also close to the Rafael E Sanchez Memorial Trail for some shady hiking. The drive along 708 to 76W is so beautiful early in the morning. Everything is glittering in the morning dew and sun shines golden over the farms. There are cattle and goats and fields of citrus and veggies. Birds of all kinds are everywhere including several storks and cranes along the road fishing in the wet ditches. I definitely need to take a slow drive one day to stop and take pictures and hit up a couple of the hiking trails along the way.

Lake Okeechobee is the largest lake in Florida and third largest lake that is entirely in the United States. While it is a large lake, it is very shallow with an average depth of 10-12 feet. It is also chock full of alligators!! The first time Jeff and I went riding along the levy, we realized that all of the little dark strips breaking through the glassy blue surface were alligators. I’m pretty sure we easily saw 100 gators of all sizes – most of them looked like bull gators (alligators over 9 feet long). Just last year, someone caught a 1000-pound, 12-foot gator from the lake! In a population survey, Lake Okeechobee had about 15% of the gators counted as bull alligators, so maybe we’re overestimating what we saw a little bit.

The lake is often a point of political discourse for the algal blooms that get released periodically into the river systems. Every time the algal levels rise, we get warnings to not swim or eat fresh-caught fish from the affected waterways. This puts everyone into a cyclical uproar against the sugar industry (“Big Sugar”), all farmers, and any polluters. While environmental laws loosen all over the country, we are fortunate to live where those rich fat-cats call home so they work to keep environmental laws much tighter in Florida. Anyway, today the water looked pretty clear!

I get here early to save myself from the hot sun. The cool breeze coming across the water feels good and I spot birds every few feet. There isn’t much cover, so it surprises me how much variety there is along the bike path. My camera is not very quick without an amazing telephoto, so I don’t get many pictures – they are in the air and gone before I can snap a shot, so you’ll just have to trust me 🙂 I have also learned to douse myself in bug spray before I set out. As long as I am riding and the breeze is blowing, there are no bugs. As soon as I hold still for even a few seconds, I get bird-sized mosquitoes trying to land on every available patch of skin.

I love this kind of bike path. It’s beautiful and it’s meditative with no worries about stop signs, traffic, or missed turns.

The gators are also far enough away that I am pretty darn safe. Be careful, though – I walked halfway down the levy to get a closer picture of a big one floating in the water. As I approached, he slowly turned and started to make a beeline for me. Even though the bank has a 1-2 foot cliff, I have no doubt he could flip himself over that edge in a second. I trotted back up to my bike and watch him sit and stare at me for a couple of minutes before drifting back to hide behind some cattails -as if I wouldn’t notice he is still there to eat me!

I rarely cross paths with other cyclists but I do see fishermen out on the water and the last few times I have seen these powered paragliders.

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By the time I got back from my 20-mile round trip, I was ready to cool off with a swim. Today felt like a great day to try out my new fisheye lens that I got from my parents for Christmas. I have used it dry, but have been wanting to use it for some split-shots in the water. On my way down to Phil Foster Park, I passed this guy nonchalantly walking along the Beeline Highway

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Phil Foster Park

Phil Foster Park has this wonderful man-made coral reef trail for snorkeling and scuba diving – the water over the trail is maybe 10-14 feet deep I think. Come over during high tide on the weekdays in the summer for warm water and a quiet time to yourself. A quiet swim means no one is stirring up silt, no one is accidentally kicking you in the butt, and no one is chasing off the glittering rainbow of fish. Watch out for shrimp, lobster, crabs, octopus, centipedes, and an array of other tropical critters. The water is life-guarded and the snorkel trail is blocked from boat traffic, so you can generally swim worry free. The park is also right across the boat lane from Peanut Island which is another popular snorkeling destination that I have yet to visit.

While just about everyone I work with is crazy about scuba, I love that snorkel is so cheap. My mask, fins, and snorkel and the ability to hold my breath to dive and chase fish are all I need for now. Of course the one day I brought my family over to get to see how cool this place is, the current was dangerously strong, the water brown with poor visibility, and the cheapo snorkels we got from CVS were filling with water. Lesson learned! Only use the nice snorkels and throw the others out. At least the fins and masks are ok for now.

The trail is a easy to swim out to and you can drift from spot to spot, sometimes with a school of glittering fish to keep you company. Most of the islands are piles of stone with coral growing into it, but several are whimsical like this one that I JUST realized is a smiley-face (somehow I didn’t see that while I was swimming), the shopping carts, and dolphin statues.

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I took the ocean view alternate A1A drive home – that blue water sure is tempting! I feel lucky to live where everyone wants to vacation – thanks for bringing me here, Clemmons!!

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