Posts Tagged ‘Nature’

The Questions…

1. In what way does the strawberry differ from other fruit?

2. How did the Green Bay Packers — the last of the small-town NFL teams, the only non-profit, community-owned team in pro sports, and the winner of more league championships than any other NFL team — get its name?

3. On the New York Stock Exchange, what is the stock symbol of the Sealy Corporation, the world’s largest manufacturer of mattresses?

4. During World War I, the rulers of Germany, Russia, and the UK were Kaiser Wilhelm II, Czar Nicholas II, and King George V, respectively. What did the three men have in common?

5. What tiny marine creature stuns its prey by emitting a noise louder than a gunshot or the sonic boom of a jet aircraft?

The Answers…

1. Strawberry seeds grow on the outside of the plant, not the inside.

2. In 1919, team co-founder Earl “Curly” Lambeau worked at the Indian Packing Company. When he asked the company to donate money for uniforms and equipment, IPC gave him $500, on the condition that he name the team after them.

3. ZZ.

4. Relatives. The three men were first cousins.

5. The pistol shrimp. This inch-long resident of the Mediterranean Sea makes a sound that can reach an amazing 218 decibels. How? The shrimp snaps its pincer, firing off a jet of water traveling at 60 mph. This briefly creates a bubble with an internal temperature hotter than the sun. The bubble bursts with a kaboom that stuns nearby prey, so the shrimp can avail itself of lunch.


Pistol shrimp

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The Questions…

1. The constellation Canis Major (Latin for greater dog) is represented as one of two dogs following Orion the Hunter. What star in Canis Major is the brightest in the night sky?

2. Cashew nuts are widely available roasted, but are not sold raw or in the shell. Why not?

3. In 1963, the U.S. Postal Service introduced its system of two-letter state abbreviations. In 1969, the USPS changed one of the abbreviations. Which one, and why?

4. Paul Hornung, the high-scoring “Golden Boy” running back of the Green Bay Packers, won the 1956 Heisman Trophy as quarterback for Notre Dame. What fact makes Hornung unique among all Heisman winners through the years?

5. The anaconda, a non-venomous aquatic snake found in tropical South America, can grow to 30 feet long and weigh over 500 pounds. What else is noteworthy about anacondas?

The Answers…

1. The brightest star we see is Sirius (Latin for glowing). Sirius, AKA the “dog star,” is a mere 8.6 light years from Earth.

2. Because the shell of the cashew contains the oil urushiol, the nasty allergen also found in poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. If you snacked on raw cashews, or shelled them yourself, you would regret it.

3. The designation for Nebraska was changed from NB to NE. It was done at the request of the Canadian postal service because of confusion with the province of New Brunswick.

4. Hornung is the only player to win the Heisman while playing for a losing team. In 1956, Notre Dame was 2-8.

5. Like rattlesnakes, copperheads, and a few other vipers, anacondas give birth to live young instead of laying eggs.




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In December 2005, after Death Valley National Park had cooled off for the year, I drove to California and spent a fascinating four days exploring the place. Memories of that trip still pop into my head from time to time. Apparently, I was impressed.

You probably know the basics about Death Valley, even if you haven’t been there: it’s the hottest, driest, lowest point in North America.

In July 1913, an all-time world record high of 134°F was recorded on the valley floor. In July of the year I was there, the temperature reached 129°F. Best to avoid Julys.

Rainfall-wise, the valley has averaged about two inches per year over the last 30 years. That’s an improvement. The historic yearly average is 1.6 inches.

Altitude-wise, the lowest point in the valley is the lowest point in North America: Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level.

Death Valley got the way it is because of its unique geography; the valley is a long, narrow basin walled in by mountains. On the west side, the Panamint Range blocks storms moving in from the Pacific Ocean. The western slopes get the rainfall, and almost none reaches the valley.


Deprived of moisture, the desert air becomes steadily hotter and drier. The heated air rises, but is trapped by the mountains on both sides. It cools a bit, falls again, and compresses the air below it, heating the air further. You learned that in high school physics, right?

If you look at the daily high and low temperatures in Death Valley over the course of a year, you get an average high of 90°F and an average low of 62°F.

So, Death Valley is a hot, dry, low-lying desert. Those fundamentals, I knew. But when I finally got there, I wasn’t prepared for the diversity.

For one thing, I didn’t expect to find heavily-forested mountains that are snow-capped in winter. Telescope Peak, the tallest mountain in the Panamints, rises 11,049 feet above sea level. Badwater Basin is a mere 15 miles away.

The Park has plenty of other surprises…

A giant salt flat on the floor of the valley covers 200 square miles. The salt has accumulated over thousands of years, washed down out of the mountains by periodic floods. Because the valley is an enclosed basin, the water is trapped in temporary lakes. When they evaporate in the arid climate, another layer of salt is added to the crust.


In the surrounding mountains, countless canyons and dry washes deliver a steady supply of sand to the valley floor. Most is dispersed by the constant wind. But in a few places, sand dunes accumulate. Death Valley has five sets of dunes, the largest standing over 700 feet tall. The sprawling dune field at Mesquite Flat is conveniently located next to the Park’s main road.


Salt isn’t the only mineral buried in the valley floor. In 1881, large-scale borax mining began in Death Valley. The operation at Furnace Creek became famous for using teams of 20 mules to haul double wagons of borax 200 miles over the mountains to the nearest railroad. The site of the old Harmony Borax Works, closed since 1889, is now on the National Register of Historic Places.


One of the most incongruous sights in Death Valley is “Scotty’s Castle,” a Spanish-style mansion built in the 1920s by Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson as a vacation getaway. When construction started, Johnson’s friend Walter Scott, a free-spirited prospector of questionable repute known as “Death Valley Scotty,” told the locals that he was building the mansion himself, using proceeds from a secret gold mine. Amused, Johnson let Scott have his fun, and the name “Scotty’s Castle” stuck. The mansion was turned into a hotel for a while, and now the Park owns it.


Another odd sight: high in the Panamint Range are 10 masonry charcoal kilns, beehive-shaped and 25 feet tall. The kilns were built in 1877 by rich mining expert George Hearst (daddy of rich publisher William Randolph Hearst). The charcoal was used to fuel the smelters at Hearst’s nearby lead and silver mines. When the mines played out, the kilns were abandoned. You can go inside them, but mind the soot.


Death Valley is home to eight ghost towns, most founded by miners or outlaws between the 1870s and the 1920s. The largest of the towns is (was) Rhyolite, located just outside the Park on BLM land. Rhyolite lasted from 1905 until 1916. In its heyday, the town had over 5,000 residents, two churches, and 50 saloons.


The “Bottle House” in Rhyolite was constructed using 30,000 empty beer bottles. Except for the bottles, it’s just an ordinary building. The Bottle House was badly vandalized after Rhyolite was abandoned, but in 1925, Paramount Pictures restored the building as an investment; by then, the place was being used as a movie set.

Rhyolite Bottle House

There’s plenty more to see in Death Valley. Ubehebe Crater (pronounced YOO-bee-HEE-bee) is a volcanic crater, age uncertain, that is 600 feet deep and half a mile across. Ubehebe (a marvelous word that should be spoken with feeling) is a Shoshone word that means “big basket in the rock.”

Elsewhere, tucked away in a remote canyon, is a massive natural bridge. You are not surprised to find such a thing in this rocky, bone-dry country.

However, in another remote canyon is beautiful Darwin Falls, hidden in a fern-covered glen. Totally unexpected.

Then there is “The Racetrack,” where rocks mysteriously slide across a dry lake bed, leaving tell-tale tracks behind them. No one has seen it happen, but the speculation is that after a rain, the surface becomes slippery, and the wind is able to push the rocks slowly along.

And there is “Devil’s Hole,“ a hot water spring inside a limestone cavern, fed by a vast aquifer. The pool is known to be an indicator of seismic activity around the world. Earthquakes as far away as Japan have caused the water in Devil’s Hole to slosh like water in a bathtub.

All of the above is tourist stuff. Anyone can see it, photograph it, write about it, and plenty of people do.

But my trip to Death Valley that year had an added benefit that was private and personal and intimate.

Well, maybe someone else experienced it, but not from my vantage point. Let me explain.

The morning I left Death Valley to start the drive home, I was on the road before dawn. I left early because the motel dining room at Stovepipe Wells didn’t open for another two hours. Hungry and irritated, I drove off in hopes of finding breakfast somewhere else.

What I found was a spectacular sunrise.

I remember it vividly. I had just left the Park and was driving south through Panamint Valley, heading for the little town of Ridgecrest and civilization once again.

For miles, the road was arrow-straight. Beyond my headlights, everything was black. I knew from the absence of headlights and taillights that it was just me and the stars and the desert.

Then slowly, the predawn light began to reveal the landscape. I could make out a few mountain shapes in the distance. I could see faintly the outlines of ocotillo and saguaro cactuses. I became aware of a barely perceptible glow on the horizon, revealing where the sun would rise.

Soon, I came to a place where the highway climbed a small hill. On the right, at the top of the rise, was a large, level pullout. I coasted in and turned off the engine.

For the next 20 minutes, I sat on the hood of my car, waiting for the sunrise, enjoying the solitude, contemplating what a fortunate fellow I am.

When the sunrise came, it was glorious.

The photos I took that morning are among my all-time favorites. A 30” X 40” enlargement of this one has been on my living room wall ever since.



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Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon is an awe-inspiring slot canyon located on Navajo land just outside the city of Page in northeast Arizona. The canyon was formed by erosion — flood waters cutting down through the Navajo Sandstone, one monsoon season after another. The process is ongoing.

Antelope Canyon is not a “grand” type of canyon, but a narrow defile that at times can be claustrophobic. Often, you can reach out and touch both walls with your hands, and you may need to turn sideways to get through.

Meanwhile, way, way up above your head, the sky is occasionally visible.

Photographers and tourists adore Antelope Canyon for its spectacular colors and shapes. The Navajo Nation adores the visitors and no doubt takes in a goodly sum from entrance fees and guided tours.

Actually, there are two Antelope Canyons — upper and lower. The upper canyon is a short distance away via four-wheel-drive vehicle, and the canyon floor is more or less flat. Most tourists sign up for that tour.

Lower Antelope Canyon is steeper, narrower, and a bit more challenging. It begins within sight of the parking lot.

I saw both canyons for the first time about 10 years ago. The experience was thrilling, but my photos were lacking. It isn’t an easy place to photograph.

So last month, when I scheduled a two-week trip to Arizona, I put a return trip to the canyon on my itinerary.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Ten years ago, I paid the entrance fee and ventured down into Lower Antelope Canyon alone. But nowadays, under the current rules, casual visitors must have a guide. I was turned over to a friendly, 30-ish young man names Victor.

While Victor was getting ready, the dude who takes the money motioned me over.

“Look,” he said, “These guides are experts on photographing Antelope Canyon — real experts.

“They’ve seen every model of every brand of camera. They know which settings to use in the different seasons and lighting conditions.

“If you’re cooperative and pleasant, Victor will ask to see your camera. Give it to him. Some people don’t want anyone messing with their gear, but trust him. He knows what he’s doing.”

I gave the dude a thumbs up and thanked him. Victor soon appeared, and the two of us set off toward the entrance to the canyon.

The entrance to Lower Antelope Canyon. The day was overcast. I didn't know what that would do to my photography.

The entrance to Lower Antelope Canyon. The day was overcast. I didn’t know what that would do to my photography.

Descending into the canyon. In the old days, they used rope ladders.

Descending into the canyon. In the old days, they used rope ladders.

Victor was an affable sort, and we got along well. I snapped a few photos. In the viewfinder, they looked… okay. But clearly, the camera wasn’t capturing the gorgeous signature orange of the sandstone.

But then, I was using a new camera, a modest Canon PowerShot SX260, purchased only days before the trip. The thing had capabilities I knew nothing about. I wasn’t able to drift very far from auto mode.

This shot is typical of what I was getting:


Then, Victor spoke up.

“Rocky, can I take a look at your camera?”

Like a world champion manipulating a Rubik’s Cube, Victor quickly drilled down into the menus of my Canon. Twenty seconds later, he handed it back.

“Try this,” he said casually.

I looked at the settings. The camera was set in the “underwater” shooting mode.

What the –?

Oh, well, I thought. Might as well see what happens. I turned and took this photo.



Babbling and ooh-aahing happily, I commenced to taking shots in every direction.




The photo fest went on for another hour. I went home with a solid bunch of photos that, even though taken with a pocket-size Canon, are vastly superior to those I took on my first trip with a big honking Nikon SLR. (May the Nikon gods forgive me.)

And no question, I owe it all to Victor.

They say the photography in Antelope Canyon is best in the summer months. Between March and October, beams of direct sunlight reach down to the canyon floor in some spots. That gets the shutterbugs salivating.

You should see the place. I recommend it highly. And please, ask for Victor.

Victor leads the way.

Victor leads the way.

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In my last post, I wrote about my trip to Crystal River, a little town on the Gulf coast of Florida where large herds of manatees spend the winter.

Crystal River is on King’s Bay, which is fed by a series of freshwater springs bubbling up at a constant 72 degrees. In winter, the manatees gather there because the spring water is warmer than the Gulf.

In Part 1, I described a day of snorkeling at Three Sisters Springs. This post is about Day Two, when I went back to the springs in a kayak.

I went back to the same spot to compare the below-water and above-water experiences. I also wanted to take more photos. The day before, I had used a small underwater film camera, and I didn’t have high hopes for the quality of the pictures.

Kayaks rentals are everywhere in Crystal River. I found an outfitter on the south side of town that has a dock in its back yard. From there, it was a short, easy paddle through the residential canals to Three Sisters Springs.

The weather was perfect: sunny, calm, 75 degrees. I arrived to the same scene as the day before: a cluster of tour boats, a swarm of swimmers and kayakers, and a small herd of manatees, the latter staying just out of reach in the roped-off safe zone.

When I planned a day of kayaking, I intended to bring along a swim mask and fins, so I could stop and get in the water when the spirit moved me.

But it wasn’t to be. Local regulations don’t allow kayakers to tie off to a tree or the shoreline. In other words, most of your swimming would be in pursuit of your own kayak.

That was the bad news. The good news: sitting atop a kayak is an excellent vantage point from which to watch the manatees. For the next several hours, that’s what I did.

Initially, I stayed close to the safe zone, watching manatees come and go. I also had a good view as the swimmers and kayakers interacted with them. Seeing the animals from a kayak isn’t as dramatic as seeing them underwater, but the view still is surprisingly good.

Eventually, it was time to paddle into the spectacular lagoon that is the source of the Three Sisters Springs.

The mouth to the lagoon is protected by iron pilings that prevent boats larger than kayaks from entering. That seems unnecessary, considering that the entrance is already plenty narrow and restrictive.

On the other hand, it would only take one person with an outboard motor, fueled by too many beers, to wreak havoc in the lagoon and demonstrate that the pilings are needed. Maybe it already happened.

By any measure, the lagoon is a stunning place — beautiful and pristine. I could have floated there all day, grooving on the peace and serenity.

FYI, the lagoon at Three Sisters Springs is spectacular not only because of the water, but also because of the land around it: a vacant 58-acre tract in the heart of Crystal River.

For years, that tract was in private hands, always at risk of development. It escaped the bulldozers because its owners, who wanted to sell the property, preferred that it be preserved in its natural state, not developed as homes or apartments.

In 2010, Citrus County and the City of Crystal River reached an agreement with the owners and purchased the property. It is now protected as a national wildlife refuge managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The tract will open to the public soon. A boardwalk already has been built around the lagoon.

In the end, I drifted around the lagoon and listened to the silence for about half an hour. Only occasionally was I interrupted by other kayakers or swimmers.

Later, when I emerged from the lagoon, I decided to paddle west toward the open bay, to see what I could see. The day was still sunny and calm, the temp still under 80 degrees.

Several times, I paused to watch groups of snorkelers or kayakers clustered around a manatee, or a mother and baby, or a small group en route to somewhere else.

You have to sympathize with the poor beasts. Under ordinary conditions, they are minding their own business, either eating, sleeping, or migrating.

Then, for reasons they can’t fathom, their space is invaded by humans in wetsuits, legs flailing, or by oblong pieces of colored plastic, floating on the surface and following them as if by magnetic attraction.

The local outfitters preach to the tourists diligently about the rules of manatee encounters. They counsel us to keep our distance, move slowly, and avoid hassling the creatures in any way.

But in practice, some people get excited and over-eager. They pursue the manatees too closely or block their passage. I’m sure the manatees find these people as irritating as the rest of us do.

But fortunately, most of the tourists are restrained and respectful. Consider the tour boat full of young teen boys that I came across.

The group consisted of about a dozen boys and two tour guides, a man on the boat and a woman in the water. The boat had paused at the mouth of a residential canal that, at the time, was a manatee safe zone.

(The authorities usually don’t create a safe zone and wait for the manatees to find it. They identify places where the manatees congregate and rope them off.)

The canal being a safe zone, manatees were steadily arriving and departing, and the boat had dropped anchor where the action was.

I paddled up to the boat slowly. Several of the boys were in the water. The rest were leaning over the side, stroking the back of a lone manatee.

“Easy does it,” the male tour guide told the boys in a calm voice. “This one is young and curious. Don’t spook him.”

The boys on the boat jockeyed for position, but stayed quiet. The boys in the water peered at the circling manatee through their swim masks.

“Let him come to you,” said the female guide in the same calm voice.

The manatee swam in a tight circle next to the boat. He didn’t seem to mind being touched. Sometimes, his nostrils broke the surface, and he breathed deeply and went under again. The boys on the boat whispered excitedly among themselves.

For several more minutes, the manatee swam slowly around the boys, appearing, as the guide said, quite curious.

But then the manatee turned and began to swim away in the direction of the safe zone. The boys let out a collective yelp of disappointment.

“Don’t follow him,” said the male guide. “He’s playing with you. If you swim after him, he’ll keep going. Stay put. He’ll come back.”

He was right. Hardly a minute later, the manatee reappeared. He swam through the group in the water, rolling on his back as he passed.

Several times, the manatee passed next to the boys, circled around, and passed them again. Each time, the boys patted and scratched his back and sides.

Then, very slowly, and for the first time, the manatee propelled himself directly toward one of the boys. Instead of swimming in lazy circles, he approached the boy head first.

The boy never moved an inch. He floated motionless, head down, watching through his mask as the manatee drifted up to him.

Ultimately, the two of them were less than six inches apart, nose to nose. For several seconds, neither of them moved. The only sound was the clicking of cameras.

I watched, fascinated, as the young boy and the young manatee looked at each other at close range. Long seconds passed. Then the manatee veered away and swam off into the safe zone, this time for good.

What the two of them shared at that moment, I can only guess. But there’s no doubt that the boy will remember the encounter vividly for the rest of his life.

I saw plenty of manatees at Crystal River, and I got plenty of photos. Most of the shots are interesting, but forgettable.

The photo I really wanted, which the boy in the water saw so memorably in person, was a shot of a manatee head-on and close up.

Although that photo eluded me at Crystal River, I got it the following week at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on the other side of Florida.

It happened at Mosquito Lagoon, a remote spot on the Intracoastal Waterway where manatees stop to feed while migrating. From a viewing deck overlooking the site, armed with my big Nikon and my best zoom lens, I patiently took photo after photo.

This is my favorite.

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The manatee, sometimes called the sea cow, is a large, aquatic, herbivorous mammal that has the overstuffed look of a walrus.

Mama and baby manatee.

Manatees are air-breathers, yet they live entirely under water. While awake, they come up for a gulp of air every few minutes. During sleep periods, they surface as infrequently as every 20 minutes.

They are friendly, peaceful, intelligent creatures that live in warm, shallow water, feeding on algae and aquatic plants. Adults can be 12 feet long and weigh 1,200-pounds. Babies are about 40 pounds at birth.

Sea cow may describe their docile nature, but they very much resemble, and in fact are related to, the elephant.

In February, a friend of mine mentioned that her family was going to Florida to swim with the manatees.

Huh? What? Swimming with manatees?

Every year, she said, they drive down to the little town of Crystal River on the Gulf coast of Florida, where hundreds of manatees congregate for the winter.

The town is on King’s Bay, which is fed by freshwater springs — leaks from the Floridan aquifer. The spring water is a constant 72 degrees year-round, which in the winter months is warmer than the Gulf. Manatees can’t tolerate water colder than 65 degrees. Hence, great numbers of them go to King’s Bay for the winter.

So do tourists like my friend, who descend on Crystal River between November and March to interact with the portly beasties via tour boats, dive trips, snorkeling, swimming, and kayaking.

To me, the concept was completely new and totally out of left field. I was so intrigued and fascinated that a week later, I put Paco in the kennel, packed my swim gear, and drove south.

The town of Crystal River is north of Tampa and west of Ocala, on a small bay a few miles inland from the Gulf. Manatee tourism is the local economy’s bread and butter.

Google Earth view of Crystal River.

In Crystal River, the lodging, eateries, and tourist operations are pleasant mom-and-pop outfits. The only corporate behemoths in town are Walmart, Walgreen’s, Family Dollar, and Publix.

The town seems to have all the amenities you need, but with the casual vibe of 30 years ago.

On Day One, I signed up for a half-day guided dive trip. Most of the tour outfitters in town seemed interchangeable, but I went with Manatee Tour & Dive, the company my friend in Jefferson uses. That morning, I found myself part of a group of 10 swimmers.

After we watched a video about the rules of manatee encounters, we were fitted with wetsuits, given swim fins, masks, and snorkels, and herded onto a tour boat.

Next was a five-minute boat ride to the centerpiece of King’s Bay, Three Sisters Springs. The water there is chest-deep, crystal clear, and a beautiful aqua.

Beautiful, but not secluded by any means. The springs are located on one of the town’s numerous residential canals. Overlooking the spot — and lining the web of canals in all directions — are the waterfront homes of the locals.

An amazing place to live, if you can put up with the constant presence of waterborne tourists in your back yard.

At the mouth of spring, we and four or five other tour boats anchored next to a manatee safe zone, which is off limits to people.

The manatees know that, and they congregate behind the ropes, just out of reach of the hovering boats and kayaks and the hoards of swimmers.

When I was there, a dozen or so manatees were resting and grazing on vegetation inside the safe zone. Sometimes, however, the zone will be overflowing.

For the next two hours, we were free to swim and explore as far as stamina permitted.

Once in the water — decked out in my wetsuit and swim gear and clutching a cheap underwater camera — I swam over to the safe zone. Naturally, I wanted to photograph a manatee, preferably head-on from two feet away.

It didn’t happen. Adult manatees prefer to keep their distance. Babies stay close to their mothers. Adolescents sometimes can be curious enough to approach you — but the best I got was a few shots of manatees just out of arm’s reach, ignoring me.

The manatees seem to understand that we mean no harm, but still consider us an unwelcome nuisance.

Now and then, a manatee would arrive or depart the safe zone. This would cause a furor as the tourists, including me, jockeyed to get close.

It was during one of these arrivals that I got my first chance to touch a manatee.

Someone yelled, “Incoming!” and 30 yards up the canal, kayakers and swimmers marked the location by parting to make way for the new arrival. A few seconds later, two nostrils and a massive back appeared at the surface of the water and then disappeared.

It was a big adult, moving slowly along, one yard below the surface, headed toward the safe zone.

When he got to within 10 yards of me, I dove down. (My underwater camera wasn’t ready; I hadn’t gone through the laborious process of winding the film forward and cocking the shutter. By then, it was too late to do it.)

I bobbed quietly in the water and watched through my swim mask as the manatee drifted past. It was huge. Graceful. Serene. I placed one hand on its back, and it passed lightly beneath my fingers.

It feels like an elephant, I thought. A wet elephant.

I’ve never touched an elephant in my life, but that’s what I thought.

For the first half hour, my attention was on the manatees. But soon, I wanted to explore the lagoon where three large springs, the namesake three sisters, emerge from the aquifer.

The three springs are inside a secluded pond connected to King’s Bay by a long, narrow channel. The outflow of water through the channel has a surprisingly strong current.

The swim fins made all the difference. I flippered my way through the channel and emerged inside the lagoon.

The channel leading from King’s Bay to Three Sisters Springs.

The lagoon is completely isolated and natural. On average, the pool is about chest deep. At the point of each spring, the depth is about 15 feet.

I spent most of the next 30 minutes with my head down, breathing through the snorkel, criss-crossing the lagoon and taking in the experience. My most unexpected discovery: hundreds of tiny “sand boils” created by spring water percolating up in random spots through the sandy floor of the lagoon.

Part of the time, I had the lagoon to myself; sometimes, other swimmers and kayakers were there with me.

But everyone felt compelled to remain silent. It’s that kind of place.

Eventually, I swam back out to King’s Bay and climbed aboard the tour boat to rest. The scene was the same: boats and swimmers lined up around the safe zone, watching the manatees, hoping for an encounter.

After a drink and a snack, I got back in the water and explored the canal a short distance in both directions. I didn’t go far. After being at it for three hours, I was exhausted.

Swimming with the manatees had been an amazing experience. Being at and below water level is a unique perspective.

But in some ways, it’s a limited perspective. I already knew I would be back the next day in a kayak, to see it all again from a fresh vantage point.

More about that in my next post.

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An Obsession

A couple of years ago, I signed up as a trail maintenance volunteer for the parks department in Athens.

I’m in charge of two trails, the Screech Owl and the Swimming Deer. My job is to walk them once a month, trim back the undergrowth, remove fallen branches, and report what I can’t handle, such as downed trees that require a chainsaw.

I walk those trails anyway as a civilian, so I might as well be useful.

The parks department (they call it Leisure Services) operates about 20 parks and rec facilities around Athens. The largest of them, Sandy Creek Park, is 750-plus wooded acres surrounding a 280-acre lake.

The Swimming Deer Trail meanders three miles along the west bank of the lake.

Sandy Creek Park offers the amenities you would expect: fishing, boating, swimming, camping, picnicking. It has basketball and tennis courts, disc golf, and a dog park.

But to me, the real attraction is the beautiful lake and the sprawling oak and pine forest around it. The lake is great for paddling. The forest has miles of beautiful trails, most of it with views of the lake.

Now, it’s a fact that some trails are better than others, and the trails at Sandy Creek Park are of notable high quality. They are exceptionally well-designed and well-constructed, and they blend in nicely. Very scenic and unobtrusive.

The reason for that is a retired University of Georgia forestry professor named Walt Cook.

Walt is a nationally-known trail-builder. Trails are his thing. For decades — in Athens, in Georgia, and around the Southeast — he has been a go-to guy for advice and assistance with new trails, especially trails through sensitive environments.

Governments and organizations know that a Walt Cook trail means high quality and low maintenance, maximum scenery and minimum erosion.

Walt’s trail-building obsession grew out of a long commitment to sustainable forests and environmental protection.

After Sandy Creek Park was built, Walt and some friends came up with the idea of creating an environmental education center in Athens. They found a site on Sandy Creek, five miles downstream from Sandy Creek Park, secured the funding, and made the necessary deals. Sandy Creek Nature Center opened in 1973.

Walt laid out and helped to build the network of trails at the Nature Center. He also built a trail along Sandy Creek that links the park and the nature center. Cook’s Trail is its name.

Allow me to toss out a nature factoid here: the State of Georgia has no natural lakes. None. All the lakes in Georgia are man-made.

Lake Chapman at Sandy Creek Park exists because a dam was built on Sandy Creek.

Like all man-made lakes, Lake Chapman has a wetland at the upstream end — the transition zone between creek and lake. There, the water backs up, spreads out, and makes the land boggy and yucky.

For years, the parks people had wanted to extend the Swimming Deer Trail around the top of Lake Chapman and link it with trails on the east bank, thus creating one continuous loop around the lake.

But that pesky zone of wetlands frustrated them. A trail across the Lake Chapman wetlands would require long stretches of elevated boardwalk. The cost was too prohibitive.

Then last year, an anonymous donor stepped forward and offered to pay half the cost of the boardwalk.

Free money. That got the immediate attention of the mayor, the council, and the parks people.

More about wetlands and trails in my next post.

Lake Chapman at Sandy Creek Park.

Upstream end of Lake Chapman.

Walt Cook at work on the Benton McKaye Trail in the North Georgia mountains.


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