Thursday a week ago, we loaded up our camping gear, food and our bikes and made the pretty drive from Okeechobee to Sebring, where my most favorite state park in Florida, Highlands Hammock, is located. A couple of hours after arriving my parents’ camper was parked and ready and Wes and I had our tent up, as well as helping my sister-n-law, Alicia, get theirs up. With both picnic tables moved to the middle of the campsites, it looked like we had our own private compound! We ate a quick and easy supper before taking a short ride before dark, and were joined by my brother who got there later that evening. That night while lying in our tent, I noticed that the bright moon turned the oak trees into lacy shadows that danced on the side of the tent in the gentle breeze. Periodically awaking throughout the night, I watched as the moon traveled across the top of the tent, creating what looked like a monotone watercolor painting on the tent canvas. At one point during the night, I also heard an Armadillo crunching noisily through the oak leaves covering the ground, sounding as if he came right up to the tent.
The next morning, Wes and I enjoyed an early morning hike around the Allen Altvater Trail, while watching the gorgeous sunrise! Then Wes made pancakes for everyone, and afterwards we were off on our first bike ride around the loop. We were blessed with a beautiful day of absolutely gorgeous weather, as we enjoyed riding through the dense green hammock, with the sunlight streaming through the canopy overhead. I never tire of riding through the hammock, as you see something new each time, whether it be a Snail Kite circling above, a Red-Shouldered Hawk navigating the dense hammock and landing on a tree limb or an alligator laying in the sun! The gracefully arching limbs of the Live Oaks covering the narrow road create a woodland tunnel to blissfully ride through. We came back to the campsite to enjoy lunch before heading back out on our bikes for the afternoon. After supper that night, my dad, brother and I rode around the loop in the dark, which is always a real treat and fun adventure to me, as the hammock looks totally different in the dark, with a small amount of moonlight penetrating the dense woods!
As we walked on the Cypress Hammock Trail that night, which is a boardwalk built above the swamp below, I started seeing what appeared to be little green crystals in the light from my headlamp. My brother Marshall told me they were spider eyes, and after inspecting one up close, I saw that he was right! It was a truly amazing and surreal sight, seeing hundreds, and perhaps thousands of these green sparkling eyes everywhere you looked! They were all over the trees and bushes and on any clump of floating debris, underneath the boardwalk, on moss hanging down and on every cypress knee poking up through the dark waters below! It looked like they were taking over the swamp, and although I loved it and was completely mesmerized by the scene, I decided if you had a fear of spiders, this experience would do you in! We left that trail and rode to my next favorite: the Fern Garden Trail. We walked out onto that boardwalk and started seeing large, green, beautiful bullfrogs, scattered throughout the murky water below, each one appearing bigger than the one before. Then we came up on about a 7-foot, beautiful alligator, who tends to stay along that trail. It was even more exciting seeing her in the dark than in the daylight! All of a sudden it started raining, so we waited out the short-lived shower under a clump of Cabbage Palm fronds. It stopped as quickly as it started, so we mounted our bikes and enjoyed the remainder of the ride back to the campsite.
Saturday morning, Wes and I rode around the loop, and walked out onto the Cypress Hammock trail, where we saw 3 baby gators with one of them lying on a log beside two good-sized turtles. We also enjoyed watching a Great White Egret walk along the creek’s edge, while searching for, and finding, small fish and other tasty edible treats. I got several beautiful photos of him, that I’m sure will inspire a miniature painting someday soon! We left that trail and rode to the Ancient Hammock Trail, where we enjoyed having the path all to ourselves, sharing it only with the warblers and butterflies flying through. I also heard a hummingbird above. The next stop was the Fern Garden Trail, where the big gator was still lying in the same location as the night before. Further along the boardwalk trail, we cam upon an immature White Ibis feeding in the shallow, murky waters bellow. It’s interesting to watch them feed using the long curved beak to search for small crawdads and other tasty things in the muddy bottom. While watching this lovely graceful bird feeding, I suddenly heard a “Hissss” and saw that it had come a bit too close to a banded water snake lying on the muddy waters edge and the snake was warning him. The beautiful young bird quickly pulled back his thin neck and started moving to another location! What a neat confrontation of nature I had observed.
After enjoying lunch at the campsite, we headed back around the loop taking my dad with us this time. We stopped to walk a couple of trails, the last being the Fern Garden Trail once again, where my dad and I counted a total of at least 7-8 Cottonmouth Moccasins and Banded Water Snakes! We also saw several of the big bullfrogs we had seen the night before. While walking back along the trail, we met a very nice gentleman that called himself “Nature Dave”. He is also a wildlife artist, and extremely knowledgeable about birds, critters and anything having to do with nature in general. My dad and I were totally mesmerized by the wealth of knowledge flowing from him as he shared different interesting facts and stories about critter encounters! Nature Dave ended up riding back with my dad and I, talking with us the remainder of the bike ride back to camp. You just never know who you might meet while camping!
My brother-n-law, Justin, joined the rest of the family later that afternoon and we all enjoyed a wonderful supper together that evening. It was a stunning sunset, and we had a front row seat from our campsite! As dark set in, my parents, Marshall and Tyler accompanied me while walking the nearby Allen Altvater Trail, using the light from our headlamps. After we had walked some distance and reached the middle of the open scrub land dotted with pine trees, we turned off our lights and sat back and enjoyed this spectacular show of nature! The vast amount of brilliant stars filled the dark, night sky. We lay back on the old wooden benches, placed in a circle, and as I looked up into the sky the tall, slender pine trees encircling me, made it look like Stonehenge, only it was “Pinehenge” instead. It was so peaceful lying there, enjoying this spectacular nighttime show, while relaxing, talking and laughing, and just plain enjoying life and this special time together! As we walked back, Tyler and I made sure everyone walked quickly through the imaginary quicksand, and once back to the campsite, all decided we had made yet another wonderful memory!
That next morning began early once again with what sounded like every bird in the entire campground, congregated in the two large oak trees above our campsite, singing their beautiful melodious spring songs. After a quick breakfast, my dad, Marshall, Tyler and I rode the mountain bike trail which goes alongside a canal and eventually leads to the loop road. It was another gorgeous morning, as we rode along just absorbing and enjoying the surrounding nature! We took a side trip to see the dam built by the CCC in the early 1930s, and I was thrilled we got to see another good-sized gator while there! We decided that even though we had enjoyed riding the other bike trail through the open pine lands the morning before, we all enjoyed this one much better. Arriving back at the beginning of the loop road, I noticed they had a table set up with assorted nature objects for kids to enjoy. So while my dad and brother went back to camp to help take down and pack up, Tyler and I went over to talk with the nice ranger lady, and she shared with him all kind of neat nature stuff. Bones and skulls, different types of animal scat, with the neatest being the gator scat! Tyler got to feel a Black Bear pelt, and turkey feathers and was proud to answer some of her questions about animal behavior correctly! I then took him into the CCC museum, where he enjoyed seeing the artifacts used by them and the photos of the workers. He also got to play checkers for the first time, and was very proud to have beaten his Aunt NoNo!
We then rode back to the campsite, loaded up our bikes and helped with the final packing-up jobs, before sadly telling our temporary home goodbye. It was a wonderful time for us all and we made so many awesome memories! Tyler and Haydyn shared their favorite parts of our time spent there while riding back to Okeechobee with my dad and I. Haydyn’s was the playground, Tyler’s was learning about “red touches black”, the difference between a Coral Snake and a King Snake, while my dad and mine was riding through the hammock and walking the trails at night. Back home we unpacked everything and rested up before leaving for Tennessee the next morning. Monday morning, we told my dad goodbye and began the journey home, bringing my mom with us. She has been here this past week and has seen everything from the beautiful, bright yellow blooming Forsythias, to snow falling! I’ll be sharing highlights from her visit the next time.
March 16 – April 13, 2014: Premiering at the Ella Carothers Dunnegan Gallery of Art, Bolivar, MO
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Until next time ~ Rachelle