Posts Tagged With: wildlife

Loving the Wildlife

This post will happen again many times over the course of this blog, mostly because these situations keep coming up. There are a lot of factors that make people afraid of outdoors adventures, but one of the several recurring factors is the local wildlife.

“Don’t go kayaking in that creek, I heard they spotted a gator two years ago.”

“You know the news said there’s a bear wandering near that mountain.”

“ACCCCK! SPIDER! KILL IT WITH FIRE!”

This is what many people think wildlife encounters are like.

This is what many people think wildlife encounters are like.

Those are just a few of the things people tell me whenever we talk about the outdoors. Yes, folks, there are animals out there. Some of them could even hurt you. Once in a blue moon, there’s an entirely unprovoked animal attack, literally where a human was doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing, and out of nowhere a wild animal comes after him. Even in those “out of nowhere” cases, you have to understand there could have been extenuating circumstances that prompted the attack–even though they were absolutely NOT the human’s fault–like perhaps the bear had cubs nearby or the animal in question happens to be highly territorial. (Interesting trivia: did you know that more people are killed by hippos every year than any other animal? They’re uber-stingy with their territory.)

I’ve had some interesting encounters with wildlife, but when I say encounters, I only mean that I WAS THE ONE who’d encountered it. The animal could have cared less that I was standing there.

Exhibit A: I was in the woods one day and a mountain lion walked right in front of me. It looked at me, flared its nostrils, and walked away. It had smelled me and decided I was NOT useful. The fact that it took about ten minutes to finally vacate the area enough for me to get my back off that tree and race to the car was MY problem, not the mountain lion’s.

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Exhibit B: I was hiking in the woods with my husband after a night of heavy, heavy rain. I love hiking after a big storm because the paths turn muddy from the rain but the heat of the next day dries the mud enough to walk on. That means you can walk around pretty easily and still see tons of fresh animal tracks. I pointed to one in particular and said, “Hey look! A mountain lion track!”

A short time later, I got to point and say, “Hey look! A bear track!” My husband laughed and said, “There aren’t any bears in this part of the state!”

I wear a women's size 11 hiking boot.

I wear a women’s size 11 hiking boot.

No sooner had the words left his mouth than his phone beeped. We had a friend who was going to join us that day but he had something come up that morning. He told us he’d be along later in the day and would try to catch up with us, but not to wait on him.

The phone had beeped with a text from that friend. It was a picture of the bear he’d just seen. (Man, do I love being right, and do I love to punish a non-outdoorsy husband when I am!)

Exhibit C: We just got back from a camping trip to go kayaking in the southern part of our state. Yes, folks, that’s the alligator that was floating in the middle of the lake, right in front of our kayak. As it turns out, just the week before, someone had caught the record-setting gator at 920 pounds. I wasn’t actually aware there ARE gators in that body of water… now we know.

Hi there, gator! Nice camouflage.

Hi there, gator! Nice camouflage.

Here’s something important to remember. For 99% of the animal-human wildlife encounters, they don’t want to hurt you. There’s a reason it makes the news when there’s an animal attack. Even the famously-feared shark attacks are rare enough that it warrants sending a reporter to the now-empty beach to stand there and tell us what happened.

As a general rule of thumb, if you leave them alone they’ll leave you alone. Yes, there are animals out there. Guess what? They also walk through your yard at night! But with a little respect, some forward thinking, and a promise never to attempt to take a selfie with an armadillo, you’ll be fine.

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Anyone Can Do This!

We’ve been gone from the blog for a little while because we had some back-to-back traveling to do, most recently to a state park in the southern part of our state. The camping-kayaking trip served a specific personal purpose.

My mother was once wheelchair bound and eventually with enough physical therapy has gotten to the point that she can walk with a walker. She decided over the summer that she wanted to try kayaking, and even wanted to drive five hours to my house so I could take her on the local river run. With her bad hips, I worried that sitting in a kayak with her legs in front of her could eventually start to hurt; after all, when you put in at one location and then have to take out at a farther point along the river or creek, you can’t just stop and say, “I’m done. This hurts!” You HAVE to finish it.

I suggested we camp at very large lake in her part of the state, and then we could paddle as much or as little as she wanted to. I’d stay out there all day if she liked, but if her hips couldn’t take it, then she would know that a river trip wasn’t feasible.

It took some effort, but after only a few minutes (and several fishermen offering to help, for which I thanked them profusely and replied, “If she’s gonna do this, she has to learn how to get in and out of the kayak!”) we were paddling! We’d used the state park’s concrete boat ramp, and that worked for her really well. I got my two-man kayak situated in the water and then helped her walk down the ramp. Basically, she just had to sit down and then put her legs in. The real trick was finding a sitting position that accommodated her hips since they no longer bend at the waist at a typical angle. The adjustable back rest helped, and she felt great.

We paddled close to the boat ramp until she got the hang of her paddle. Just to make things even more interesting, she’s had shoulder replacement surgery in the past couple of years, so I wanted to make sure her shoulder didn’t hurt from the repetitive motion involved in paddling. When she felt confident that she could do it pain-free, we left the little slough near the boat ramp and ventured out further.

“What’s that up ahead?” she asked when we’d made it a good distance away. I squinted, and said I thought it was a stick. She said, “Oh, it looks like a bird!”

We went to check it out, just to get close enough for her to see the aquatic bird take flight when we came too close for comfort. Oddly, the bird in question didn’t seem to feel threatened by our presence.

That’s because it wasn’t a bird. It was a twelve-foot alligator. He was just lying in the middle of the lake, getting some sun. The stick/bird was actually his head, and when we got too close the rest of his body floated to the surface.

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You know how in cartoons when someone’s trying to run away the little character’s legs will spin in a circle while he goes nowhere? That was our paddling effort for a couple of seconds. I quickly got us turned around but finally told my mom, “Let me handle this! You’re making us go backwards, TOWARDS the alligator! I’ll paddle, you watch the alligator and tell me if he comes towards us!”

And he never budged. Once we turned around and started paddling away we were no longer a threat, so he eventually lowered his body back into the water and left his head sticking up, just like before. Even if we’d been stupid enough to try to get closer to him instead of leaving slowly, he probably would have just swam away. He most likely lifted his body in order to make his getaway, NOT to come eat us. It was actually over an hour later that I walked back around and took this from the opposite bank with my zoom lens.

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I’m glad to say that after our “brush with toothy death” my mom and I paddled for another forty minutes or so. We took some kayak selfies to show my dad and her friends from church, we talked about good places to paddle and proper technique, and she was able to get herself back out of the kayak with a little help. We talked about a contingency plan if she couldn’t get herself out of it, which would be to paddle a little way out from the ramp, fall overboard, and swim to the ramp where she could stand up (she didn’t love that thought…after all, there was a gator out there somewhere and lake water isn’t exactly see-through). The only reason we cut our kayak trip short was some thunder clouds rolled in and we didn’t want to be caught in the rain.

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Basically, the purpose of this entire blog is to help people who otherwise don’t have any experience with the outdoors–and therefore don’t have confidence in what to do in an unexpected situation–realize that they can do it, they can be self-sufficient, and they can have fun. They can do it… you can do it. Your kids can do it. Just don’t pet the gators.

We did finally see a bird. (Where were you earlier, dummy?)

We did finally see a bird. (Where were you earlier, dummy?)

Suspiciously stick-like gator head.

Suspiciously stick-like gator head.

I get the concept of camouflage, but he shouldn't match the lake water this closely!

I get the concept of camouflage, but he shouldn’t match the lake water this closely!

See? He's under there somewhere!

See? He’s under there somewhere!

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Paddling Fun

Today was an incredible day for paddling, and the funny thing is, we almost didn’t go. I’m a morning person (and by morning person, I’m talking 4am) but I slept in until almost six. I pretty much cancelled our trip, but I hated to do that to the kids. All told (and thanks to the fact that the kayaks stay on their trailer at all times), we were out the door by eight!

There’s a great creek near us that offers paddlers of every ability level something to do. You can race down it, you can take the more rapid-moving paths, or you can just mosey like you were in an innertube. You’d think it would get boring paddling the same stretch of the same river over and over, but there’s something different every single time we go.

For example, this guy…

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He’s from a trip a couple of weeks ago with my good friend Wendy, but we sat not five feet from him while this rather chubby beaver lazily munched some leaves, ignoring us completely while we were in awe of the local wildlife.

Today, it was swallows’ nests. I can’t believe I’ve never looked up (as many times as I’ve passed under that bridge), but here’s just one section of the bridge and all the swallows’ nests tucked up inside it.

It’s a real joy to live so close to this kind of outdoors opportunity, but we’re also just as likely to haul the kayaks to farther places, just to try some place new. Of course, the way water levels change, your closest creek might be new each time, too. This tree, for example, was practically underwater the last time I paddled here, but now we can see the really cool root system.

The last time I passed it, there was an alligator hovering nearby, but he wasn’t there today. Of course, at least one paddler in our group was quite pleased to NOT see him today.

          

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TRAVEL REVIEW: Adventures At Sea

The beach has got to be one of the top travel destinations for summer getaways, but have you ever really considered just what there is to do? Once you’ve played in the waves and gotten a nice crispy sunburn, then what?

One of my mantras for going outdoors–no matter where we may be going–is “something for everyone.” If we go camping in the mountains, for example, there’s plenty of time for hiking and bird watching (yes, that’s my thing), but there are also trips into the local town for my teenager to look at the shops. So a beach camping trip will be somewhat secluded and outdoorsy but will still involve at least one meal in a good restaurant, a visit to the ricky-ticky souvenir shop for t-shirts, and maybe a round of mini golf or two in town.

One of the highlights of every beach trip for us is to rent a pontoon boat and head out to sea. It gives us the chance to have that sand-and-sun crashing waves experience, while also giving us a place to eat our lunch, sit in the shade, and (best of all) get off the beaten path. There’s an added benefit to renting a boat, too, and that’s the ability to see some serious wildlife. Of course, renting the boat when you get there means it’s already in the water without you having to tow it, and it’s already flushed out for saltwater use.

I promise, that's a dolphin. Trust me, it doesn't look like it when you're actually in the water with it!

I promise, that’s a dolphin. Trust me, it doesn’t look like it when you’re actually in the water with it!

During our recent camping trip to the Florida Gulf coast beaches, we rented our boat from Adventures at Sea, located just before you get into the serious beach traffic. They have a huge parking lot and a massive fleet of these boats, and with their website constantly running specials and coupons, there’s no reason why you won’t find a $30-or-more discount. Even better, you can rent your boat for half a day, and then if you’re just having such an awesome time that you don’t want to head back, you can literally call them from your boat and see if it’s available to keep all day and just pay the difference when you get back. The rental office is located right at the pier, so you sign your papers and walk right up the dock.

Pontoon boats are very easy to use. Basically, you have forward and reverse, with neutral for idling. You also have a trim button, which lifts and lowers your engine’s prop in the water. The higher your trim, the less effective your engine is, but it’s a must if you’re going to be in shallow water. Now, don’t let the deposit and the paperwork you signed scare you… you’d have to drive that thing at full speed directly aimed at the beach to damage it in shallow water. That’s the beauty of a pontoon… it floats high up in the water, meaning you can anchor your boat in knee-deep water and let the kids jump off and play.

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Seriously, that’s it. Forwards, backwards, trim up or down. The one we rented recently didn’t even have gauges like a fuel gauge or speedometer because it just wasn’t necessary. It couldn’t have been easier, and with padded upholstered bench seats to hold twelve people as well as a fully-carpeted deck with plenty of room for jumping off the boat, it was a dream.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

1. Don’t jump off the boat without putting the ladder in place. You’re not getting back on your boat without that ladder, but you can’t drive around with it in the water. You have to take it up and put it down every time you stop.

2. There’s shade, but no potty. Do NOT forget your sunscreen! I’ve found that many rental places have pretty cheap, well-worn life jackets, so we always bring our own from home. There are different laws in different places about what ages have to wear it as opposed to have it available, so find those out before you leave home if you’re bringing any kids who might fall in that age range.

3. Your coolers are welcome, but don’t let anything (like your life jackets or picnic garbage) fly off the boat as you drive.

4. PAY ATTENTION to the nice man at the dock when he shows you the map of where you can go and how fast. There are typically signs, and no, you don’t have to be a mariner to understand them. You just have to remember to look for them and obey them. In many places there are surprise pockets of protected water, such as a manatee breeding ground or an oyster bed. It’s your job to look for the signs and do what you’re expected to do.

5. Ignorance of the law is no excuse when it comes to harming wildlife. In fact, being an obnoxious tourist who just drove a wave runner over a protected kelp bed could mean you get an even heftier fine because the locals are tired of outsiders coming in and destroying their ecosystems. If you’re not sure of the local laws where you’ll be vacationing, it’s your job to look ’em up online. For example, if a dolphin approaches your boat where we were staying, you’re welcome to get in the water and see if it approaches you. If you try to chase it, feed it, lure it, ride it, slap it, kiss it, etc., you are risking the wrath of the water patrol. Yes, there are police officers who patrol the water ways, and in many locations they’re actually under the Department of Fish & Wildlife. That means you just attempted to ride on a dolphin’s back in front of a game warden, and he can make your life far more miserable than a typical street cop can. Find out the laws, and behave yourself!

6. Think really hard about what you’re going to want on this four- to eight-hour boat ride. One fateful year I left our snorkeling gear in the car, and didn’t realize it until we were a good two miles out to sea. There’s no turning around for it when you’re traveling at those speeds over rough waves, so we just had to do without.

As for operating a boat like this, you will most likely be required to have a temporary boating license. Adventures at Sea handles that for you, as do most of their competitors in the area. If you’re going somewhere besides the Gulf, check with the local rental locations to make sure the license is available through them. If you have a boating license in your home state, many of the larger tourist destinations will have reciprocity to accept it.

The most important thing is to remember to bring a waterproof case for your phone/camera. You’re going to spend a significant amount of money and have the chance to get some great shots, and you don’t want to ruin it by leaving the camera in the car for safety or dropping your phone in the ocean. Take a look at the company’s website to see their other offers, too, such as parasail rides, dolphin tours, and more.

That much ocean will wear you out, but the ultra-comfy boat put both my girls to sleep on the way back to shore.

That much ocean will wear you out, but the ultra-comfy boat put both my girls to sleep on the way back to shore.

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