Thursday, May 31, 2012

Some Heavy Lifting

The park is a site for multiple weddings each weekend. This couple speak their vows under a canopy on the beach.

Have you lifted 2,400 pounds lately? I have.

Memorial Day weekend at the park was for the record books. Thousands of people flowed through the gates. Jo brought in more than $3,000 in admission fees at her booth. More than 8,000 folks came to visit the park on Saturday.

I was out on my magical mystery tour, trolling up and down the beaches, fighting the never-ending flow of garbage that was deposited by folks leaving the beach. I met up with a man from Vancouver, B.C., who wanted to know everything I knew about the beaches, the birds, and the ferry. He even began to tell me about day-trading on the stock market. I spent a half hour chatting with him before I bid farewell so I could continue my journey of collection.

The flow of garbage was so overwhelming I decided I needed to quantify the crap. So I kept tabs on the numbers of trash bags I filled from the barrels along the beach. In my five-hour shift, I collected 48 bags of trash. The dumpsters were so full, the rangers had to use a forklift on the front of a tractor to press down and compact the garbage so more could be loaded. I calculated each bag averaged about 25 pounds. And I had to lift them twice: once after bagging the trash from the barrels and once from my electric cart into the dumpster bins: 2,400 lbs. or so.

The following day was just as bad. Sunday was hot, hot, hot and I returned to the workshop area after my first cart load of crap. I drank greedily from the water fountain and said the only way I could keep up the pace was if I got help. Chuck was the answer to my prayer. My radio crackled. The front gate ranger announced Chuck, a volunteer from Palm Harbor up the road, had just entered the park and was being sent to the workshop area. When he walked in the door, I pounced. Chuck didn’t know what hit him! I told him we were going trolling along the beaches. He worked alongside me for four hours before announcing he couldn’t do any more. But he was a god-send to me and I sent him on his way as the sun slipped below the horizon – with yet another green flash.

We’ve finished our first month at Honeymoon Island. It’s been fun and memorable. Mostly, Jo and I like having the park to ourselves in the late evening. We love the wildlife which surrounds us. We’ve both encountered 4-6-foot-long diamond-back rattlesnakes as they wriggled across the roads. We have two raccoons that play havoc with Jo’s lettuce pots. We laugh aloud at the antics of a silly female cardinal who alights on the rear-view mirror of our Honda Fit. She is beside herself with frustration every day when she sees her image in the mirror and seems unable to understand it is a reflection. To her, this is an intruding competitor who is interested in her male cardinal who arrives at the same time and who never looks at himself in the mirror. He simply perches on the roof or the radio antenna of the car and watches his mate with bemusement as she goes through hell trying to scare off the competition in the mirror.

The gopher turtles live here in abundance and look us with a mopey look of “please don’t disturb me” when we pass them on the road. They pull their head into their shell and wait for us to move along. Eventually, they peek out and decide we are not there to do them harm. And, finally, we are endlessly entertained by the endless array of wading birds and fluttering seabirds. The other night, as we walked the beach, two least terns fluttered overhead. They would hover in the air, their beaks pointed directly below them, eyes straining to pick out the tiny fish in the waves. In a split second, they spy their meal and drop like stones into the water. Up they come again, with a tiny fish in their mouth.

All in all, it’s a life that might be recommended to anyone. Chuck, by the way, was astonished that we would want to – as he put it – “live out of a suitcase”.  I tried to explain to him that we don’t feel we’re living out of a suitcase. It’s more like being a gopher turtle, I said. We carry our house around with us and it is always there as a comfort and place where we can find peace. Chuck, who is a retired professor of gerontology from the University of Georgia, was intrigued but couldn’t get his brain around the concept.
This Least Tern hovers while eyeing the potential for a meal in the Gulf of Mexico.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Wandering Among the Birds

A courting pair of  Royal Terns dance in the sand at North Anclote Key.

We joined a handful of rangers and a couple of volunteers from the Audubon Society on a boat trip to Anclote Key and then North Anclote Key to count birds. Anclote Key has a single ranger living there in isolated splendor. His name is Chris and when we pulled up to his dock, he was pretty grumpy. His reverse osmosis water system had broken down and he had no fresh water on the island.

He climbed aboard and piloted the barge to the northern part of the island (it's five miles long), where we dropped off two rangers and a volunteer by running the barge into the beach and letting them off the front end. Then Chris pulled back and we headed to North Anclote Key - a mile-long spit of land and barely rises above the sea. It had a wealth of birds living there, however.

Syd, an Audubon volunteer with a braid in his long white hair that looked like it had been done 15 years ago, Jo and I stepped off the barge onto the island.

Syd knew his birds, however, and we were soon photographing and identifying nests that were mere indentation in the sand. These were the homes of Least Terns, well-named because they are tiny. But these little guys also are feisty. While Jo and I stayed well away, Syd moved ever closer to the nests so he could photograph them and take a GPS reading on their actual locations. The birds continuously dive-bombed him when he was too close.

We moved along the beach to a cluster of much larger Royal Terns who were courting and preening. They are gorgeous birds, with bright orange beaks and a crew-cut hairstyle.

Jo spotted a pair of Snowy Plovers, lying low in the sand. They tolerated our approach and I was able to get a nice picture of these dainty and downy-soft birds which are threatened in the state.

The low-lying nature of North Anclote Key (it didn't even exist 50 years ago) makes one wonder how they can possibly survive in this hostile place. A higher-than-usual tide in these parts would pass over the island and the eggs would be washed away. I estimate no part of the island was higher than 2.5 feet above sea level.

When we made it to the southern tip of the island, Chris brought the barge back into the beach and we climbed aboard. We made our way back to his ranger's house (standing on 10-foot-high pilings on Anclote Key) and we got to work trying to get his reverse osmosis water maker to run. I did the plumbing, cutting and cementing PVC pipes and fixtures while Syd, a retired electrical engineer, worked on the electrical side of the system. We both got the system up and running in two and a half hours and it pretty much made Chris one happy ranger.

He has a huge array of solar cells behind his octagonal-shaped house which feed electricity into a large bank of batteries, the island's sole source of power. When we left him he kept shaking our hands and inviting us back anytime.
The barge, pushed by two powerful outboard engines, takes us to Anclote Key.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Review of My Book

Escapees Magazine is a journal for people who enjoy the RV lifestyle. They graciously gave my book a decent review. Thought I would add it to my blog.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Life in the Park

Jo and I enjoy the peace of a perfect evening on the beach at Honeymoon Island State Park.

The good news is that I get to mount my electric cart and go for spins around our park in silent splendor. The cart can achieve speeds of 26 miles an hour. It’s called a GEM-el and it allows me to troll around the 4.5 miles of beaches. The bad news is I have to empty the trash barrels which are often too disgusting for words.

I also have come to the conclusion, sorry ladies, that women are intrinsically messier than men. So why would I make this sexist statement? Because I see it with my own eyes EVERY day. The women’s bathrooms are always twice as dirty as the men’s bathrooms, for example. I shout as I enter: “Maintenance. Anyone here?” “Yes,” comes a female voice. I stand on the deck of the bathhouse, overlooking the perfect water, enjoying the view. Out she comes after a minute or so. I go in and string up my chain, cutting off half the female bathhouse while I go through the stalls. Always I find toilet paper thrown on the floor and the toilets unflushed in the women’s section. Rarely do I find this in the men’s section.

And the little container for used tampons and pads in each stall: well, that’s another story. Ladies: Please be sure to drop these used items into the supplied container. When you don’t do that, I have to pick them up in my gloved hand. Disgusting.

Hardly a day goes by without my finding a pair of underwear in the stalls. What is that about! Get it together ladies!

Happily, I now have only one set of bathrooms to clean. My first weekend on the job, I had to do all four bath houses. I came home sagging and dispirited. Something told me this was a test by the rangers to see how I could stand up to the overload. I told them I was not a happy camper having to clean so much mess and they backed off and said I was supposed to clean only one bath house.

Best job: Definitely cutting the grass in the picnic area in the early morning once a week. I have access to an enormous 60-inch Gravely grass cutter. It is a monster machine that is very finely tuned to turn within its own length. Lots of fun cutting great swaths of grass and spinning around the palm trees and park benches in the early morning before the searing sun begins to cook. Not only do I use ear protection, but I also have a helmet and visor to protect my eyes from flying debris.

Jo has mastered the computer at the tollbooth. There are about 80 keys on it for every possible permutation of visitor: Walk-in, person in a car, Car with up to 8 people, military pass, annual pass, family pass, active duty military, and freebies, and a handful of others.

The best part of the day, however, is when our work is done and we have the park to ourselves. All the visitors go home at 8:10 p.m. (current sunset). It is us and the birds and the fiddler crabs, maybe a pod of dolphins frolicking in the Gulf, and the constant, soothing sighing of the waves washing against the shore. Bliss.
A man happy in his work.

Friday, May 4, 2012

State Park Volunteers

We're at our new home on Honeymoon Island State Park, all uniformed and ready to work.
May 1 took Jo and me to Honeymoon Island State Park, on the blue-green Gulf of Mexico, just north of Clearwater and St. Petersburg, Florida. We have been hired as park volunteers for two months.

Jo looks pretty smart in her uniform since her job is to be a toll taker at the entrance to the park for 20 hours a week. I, on the other hand, dress down because I wander the beaches (4.5 miles of them) and keep the park clean. We have been provided a really nice camp site, with full facilities, even including free laundry.

Honeymoon Island once was called Hog Island. It is a long barrier island that protects the mainland of Florida from the encroaching sea. In the 1920s, a major hurricane came through the area and split the island in two, creating Hurricane Pass. The other island, to the south, is called Caladesi Island which also is a state park and can only be reached by a shuttle ferry.

Jo and I visited Caladesi Island this week as part our orientation. It is a pristine place with incredible beaches. Lots of wading birds were wandering the shore and we will return several time this summer to explore the nature trails.

Our park is the busiest day visitor park in the state. We have more than a million visitors passing through the gates each year. No public camping is permitted in the park. But the beaches are exceptional. As we cycled around the park last night, we came upon an army of fiddler crabs, marching across the road. Many had previously been squashed by cars as they made the march to the dunes. Jo and I stopped on our bikes and watched as hundreds of the little crabs crossed the road, one large claw in the air in front of them as that walked sideways.

My first day of work began at 7 this morning. I reported for duty and was assigned a ranger who took me around the park. We cleaned the bathrooms (they were perfectly clean already) and we picked up barrels of  trash, plastic bottles and aluminum cans. It also was great to get the ranger's insight into life in the park.
He explained that most of the vehicles in the park are in their last legs because the state has little funding for repairs - or anything else. Hence we are hired to help the rangers at no cost to the state apart from the electricity we use.

He mentioned that rangers are not in the job for the money. He said, as a point of reference, if you are a ranger with one child you are eligible for food stamps because the pay is so low. It was clear he loved his job, though, and he saw the greater good that was provided by having the state park system. I'm not naming him so his honesty will not cause him any problems.

Jo has just left for her first day of training at the entrance gate. She's going to have to learn the computer system which offers her some trauma. But I have every expectation she'll be a whiz at it in a few days.
Stay tuned for updates on the adventure.