Category: Wildlife

Airboat Tour in Jean Lafitte National Park

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Sunrise on the Mississippi from my hotel room

On a photography workshop with Mark Zablotsky (https://www.markzphotoworkshops.com), our adventure of the morning was an airboat ride through the swamps of Jean Lafitte National Park. There are a lot of swamps, waterways and lakes at the end of the mighty Mississippi. How our guide found his way around must have come from many years experience. Pretty amazing where these boats can go and how fast they can go.

I enjoyed the whole trip and liked our guide, Rocky, a fitting name for this guy. He was barefoot, sometimes getting out of the boat to push off or walk on the shore. I told him I would be worried about cottonmouths, but he said you can smell them! He threw marshmallows to the gators, which I’m sure they get on a daily basis. They just swim right up to the boat. I don’t know how he a perfectly camouflaged barred owl sleeping on a limb as we cruised past. Also surprising that the owl didn’t move as he pulled the boat right beside the tree! In my past efforts to photograph owls, they are quick to leave as I approach. Like the alligators, they must be used to boats and people.

At the end of the trip, he said he was going to see a big alligator, and he knew right where to go, even calling the gator. From under a tree, it came toward the boat. Our guide pulled the boat onto the shore and got out a package of chicken. The gator walked right beside the boat and up to the front where our guide sat barefooted with shorts on, coaxing the gator to get right into the boat! Like old friends they met, our guide petting him on the nose, head and scratching his throat! Amazing!

Oak Alley Plantation

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

We are on a photography workshop with Mark Zablotsky (https://www.markzphotoworkshops.com) in New Orleans. Driving north, we crossed the Mississippi River, that always impresses me. It is big, appears to be rather fast and is heavily trafficked by barges shipping products.

We visited Oak Alley Plantation. Oak Alley is.a beautiful place with its oak-lined drive, gardens and slave quarters. Turning away from the house, I saw a ship making its way up the Mississippi. The plantation has rooms and cabins for rent as well as an excellent dining room, where we had breakfast.

After some initial shots, we went into the restaurant for a good breakfast.

Picture on the wall of he restaurant

Back outside, we walked the grounds and gardens.

Heading back, Mark had found an eagle’s nest with a young one taking short flights.

Then on to Middendorf’s Manchac Restaurant at the Manchac Swamp Bridge, known for its thin-sliced catfish. A lot of other things also looked good on the menu.

Back at the hotel, Mark reviewed and helped us with our images, pointing out ways to improve and showing us editing techniques and sequence. In the evening, we took a ghost tour, but it was rather disappointing, so we dropped out.

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

March 21, 2022

Mark Zablotsky (https://www.markzphotoworkshops.com) had recommended Magnolia Gardens. I knew little about it, except that there is a 60 acre Audubon Preserve. A big sign in front listed all the tours. Martha asked what I wanted to do, and I said, “All of it.” We started by walking through the extensive gardens. Extracting from https://www.magnoliaplantation.com/magnolia_history.html,

“Some time later, while in England preparing for the ministry, young John Grimké Drayton received word that his older brother Thomas had died on the steps of the plantation house of a gunshot wound received while riding down the oak avenue during a deer hunt. Thus, having expected to inherit little or nothing as a second son, young John found himself a wealthy plantation owner at the age of 22.

Despite the prestige and wealth inherent in ownership of Magnolia and other plantations, he resolved still to pursue his ministerial career; and in 1838 he entered the Episcopal seminary in New York. While there, he fell in love with, and married, Julia Ewing, daughter of a prominent Philadelphia attorney. Returning to Charleston with his bride, he strove to complete his clerical studies while bearing the burden of managing his large estate. The pressure took its toll, and his fatigue resulted in tuberculosis. His own cure for the illness was working outside in the gardens he loved. He also wanted to create a series of romantic gardens for his wife to make her feel more at home in the South Carolina Lowcountry. A few years later, as though by a miracle, his health returned, allowing him to enter the ministry as rector of nearby Saint Andrews Church, which had served plantation owners since 1706 and still stands just two miles down the highway towards Charleston. But until his death a half-century later, along with his ministry, Rev. Drayton continued to devote himself to the enhancement of the plantation garden, expressing his desire to a fellow minister in Philadelphia, “…to create an earthly paradise in which my dear Julia may forever forget Philadelphia and her desire to return there.”

After walking through the gardens, we took the house tour. No photographs were allowed. Although the house isn’t grandiose, it is comfortable, and the huge porch is wonderful. The original home burned three times, once by Union troops. It was rebuilt as a cabin at first, then gradually, additions were made. The property is still owned by the family through 12 generations.

From https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/summer-2016/the-other-drayton-hall-south-carolina-plantation-architecture-in-the-documentary-record

“After the Civil War and through the Civil Rights Movement Magnolia continued to function, though in a distinctly different way. Among the many challenges was establishing a new relationship with the formerly enslaved workers who remained on the plantation as sharecroppers, tenants, and day laborers. All of Magnolia’s residents worked to find a new level of social and economic understanding and accommodation. The plantation’s main house was rebuilt in the 1890s. Increasingly mechanization would replace the need for tenant farmers; what began in the 1930s was accelerated by World War II bringing the end of plantation agriculture at Magnolia. In spite of difficulties the African American community still maintains a strong presence in the Cane River region. Traditions rooted in African, French, Native American and Spanish influences give this area its character.”

Next we hopped on a trolly that would take us through the Audubon Swamp. They have built ramps in the water where alligators, birds and turtles sit. The trees were loaded with roosting Egrets, Great Blue Herons and Anhingas. John James Audubon spent time here, studying and painting wildlife. Some of his work hangs in the house.

Fortunately, we brought sandwiches and snacks, so we had a quick lunch before the boat tour through the rice fields. Thomas and Ann Drayton came to Magnolia near “Charles Towne” in 1676, having made a fortune with a sugar plantation in Barbados. They tried many things including sugar, but none worked in this unique land. Finally they they found success with rice, namely Carolina Gold Rice. Cultivating rice was the most dangerous kind of farming there is. Several on the boat tour simultaneously asked, “Why?”. The slaves walked through this flooded 60-acre field where it is hot, out in the sun. There are alligators all over the place. Cottonmouths live here amongst other snakes. Mosquitoes carried yellow fever, but the most deadly was a cut, which could become quickly infected in these stagnant waters.

Now the fields have returned to marsh, which is a wonderful place for wildlife. It still has gates to control the water. As a duck hunter, I had visions of ducks flocking into flooded rice fields.

After this tour, we went for a walk through the Audubon Swamp. Photographers with tripods were wandering trails and boardwalks. What a cool place in this blackwater swamp where Audubon himself once roamed.

On the way home, we stopped at Mt. Pleasant Seafood to get something to cook for dinner. You don’t know what you are doing when you walk into an unfamiliar place, even though it is highly rated. I wandered around while I listened to Martha ask the nice, patient lady what she recommended for a fish to cook over an open fire, and how to do it. She recommended a Red Snapper that would be big enough for four. I came up to join her and noticed the oysters and asked for a dozen. I was impressed by the knowledge, patience and enthusiasm of this lady. Later I would learn she is an owner, Sarah Fitch. For 75 years and four generations, the family has run the market. From an article in Mt. Pleasant Magazine:

MPM: When did you decide to go into the business you are in?

Fitch: Mount Pleasant Seafood first opened its doors back in 1945, on the banks of Shem Creek, with my great-grandfather and grandfather, Captain Walter G. Toler and Captain Walter D. Toler. For four generations now, we have been serving fresh local seafood to both our local community and tourists from around the world. Whether it’s the fresh catch of the day, the Ready-to-Go Shrimp Boil or we are catering a special occasion, we are extremely grateful for the opportunities that allows our family to serve others.

MPM: How do you find your passion?

Fitch: I wouldn’t say I found my passion, but more so I was born with it. From the time I was old enough to shuck an oyster myself, I fell in love with our family’s legacy and the people of this community. It was a natural fit for me to assume this role and work hand-in-hand with my family, doing what we love to do.”

MPM: What or who inspires you?

Fitch: “My family’s history inspires me and the future of our community motivates me. Along with sharing recipes and smiles with the folks we serve, I equally enjoy working with today’s youth, both within my church community as well as inside our market. To me, the greatest thing we can do to ensure the success of our future is to create a space for them to learn and grow. I believe we do this well at Mount Pleasant Seafood.

MPM: Tell us about how you grew up and who shaped you into the woman you are today.

Fitch: I’ve been fortunate to grow up in a family that has taken pride in hard work. Also, even with our community growing larger and larger by the day, there is a small-town sense about this place that instills care and concern for our neighbors and environment. I think I’ve benefited greatly from my family and community all around.

MPM: Give us some success tips for someone just starting out in your line of work.

Fitch: Keep your eyes and ears open all the time. The natural resources around us are incredible, as are the men and women cultivating the waters for our seafood. Listen to their stories and learn the rhythms of seasonal products to fully enjoy everything the Lowcountry can provide. When we know what goes into the art and hard work of harvesting local seafood, I think it tastes even sweeter and tastier.

For more information on Mount Pleasant Seafood, visit mtpleasantseafood.com.

We had cocktails and dinner enjoying outstanding oysters, while Martha cooked the Red Snapper to perfection. It was a great day.

Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park

Just east of Jacksonville, Florida is Kathryn Abbey Hanna State Park is an unusual spot. To its north is Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve. In fact there are many reserves to the north and west. There is so much water in this area, it boggles the mind – Back River, St. John’s River, Pumpkin Hill Creek, Clapboard Creek, Trout River, Ribauld River and more. We went exploring some of these reserves, but they are so vast, one could spend a lifetime exploring all the waterways. But then, as often happens, the best was right in our back yard – in Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, a great blend of beautiful beach on one side and a number of lakes on the other, where birds and alligators abound. While Martha, Ruff and Sandra took a Tuk Tuk tour of Jacksonville, I explored Kathryn Hanna.

Anhinga

St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park

Mark Zablotsky told me to go to the Alligator Farm. Then my acupuncturist, Deborah Farley, said she couldn’t wait to go to the Alligator Farm. So off we went, not really knowing what to expect. How are there migrating birds at an Alligator Farm in St. Augustine? We walked around for the first 15 minutes, looking at alligators, lemurs, parrots, ducks and other things. Then we came upon a boardwalk winding through a lake. Trees were loaded with birds making their nests. Birds were flying everywhere. They weren’t caged, free to come and go, but they chose this place to roost. They are so used to people walking around, they were totally at ease. There is another advantage. No predators are going to swim past the gators to get to their nest. I could have spent the day there, but I was still able to get a lot of good shots. What a cool place!

Green Tree Python

Tomoka State Park, Florida

We drove east across Florida from Manatee Springs State Park to Tomoka State Park, passing near beautiful Ocala. It’s like Lexington, Kentucky, with gorgeous horse farms. This is the height of show season, and big horse trailers were traveling to events. Tomoka sits between Orlando and Jacksonville, just north of Daytona Beach and south of Flagler Beach. It is a very nice state park with well-protected campsites and sand roads. The Tomoka River runs through the middle of it, providing a great place to kayak.

We have never been to this park, so we drove around exploring “The Scenic Trail Loop”. It is certainly scenic. It was Bike Week, so lots or Harleys were also driving the loop, mixed in with local travelers. I came to a frantic stop at Boardman Pond, a beautiful spot on the Halifax River. I grabbed my camera, tripod and walked back up the busy road, and for 40 frightening minutes took a hundred pictures of ducks, little blue herons, big blue herons and great egrets as cars whizzed by a few feet behind us. It’s a dangerous place to shoot, but would prove to be the best of the trip. I would later learn there is a viewing platform on the other side, but we would not see so much at that location.

Little blue heron

We drove over to Ormond Beach and went into Hull’s Seafood Market, maybe the best we have ever been into and bought a big Tripple Tail filet to grill over the fire. After lunch, we put the kayaks in and paddled Tomoka River for an hour or so. In the middle of the float, I was surprised by my phone ringing. It was Nick from The Apple Core. I find it difficult to understand people on a cell phone in perfect conditions, but with the wind blowing in my ears, I could barely make out what he was saying. He said he need to replace some chips and a board, that cost $450. The labor would bring it up to $920, and did I want to go ahead? “Yes, go ahead Nick.” That was an expensive bottle of wine!

Manatee Springs State Park

This is the second time we have been to Manatee Springs, and we will be back! The campground is excellent and the springs and boardwalk are very cool. It is a short stream from the springs to the lovely Suwannee River, but don’t underestimate it. Depending on the time you come, there will be opportunities to see a large variety of wildlife. This site lists 179 species of birds sighted: https://ebird.org/hotspot/L127260. Of course, there are manatees which we were fortunate to see. This is a place for kayaking, swimming, picnicking, hiking and diving, so it is a popular spot.

We hiked a beautiful trail through the park, then went to dinner at Suwannee Belle Landing, a very good restaurant on the river. Using a shuttle service to take us up stream, we kayaked the Suwannee for two hours down to the springs. I wasn’t too excited about floating what seemed to be a docile river with little wildlife, so I didn’t take a camera. As luck would have it, I was once again proven wrong. The Suwanee is a beautiful river teeming with wildlife. We watched 50 Ibis fly into the trees, herons along the edges of the river, fish jumping, black vultures migrating and a tree full of wood storks. Sometimes it’s nice just to float along and enjoy the ride! Next time we will take a longer float and take the camera.

Suwanee River at dusk
Belle Landing
Alligator tacos
Key lime pie

Six Mile Cypress Slough

The Audubon Corkscrew Swamp is one of my favorite places anywhere. Similarly, Six Mile Cypress Slough is a winding boardwalk through a swamp with a great opportunity to see wildlife along with cypress trees, epiphytes and flowers. I spent the morning looking, but it was one of those days when the wildlife was hiding out somewhere else. It was still pretty, and was lucky to have a young girl spot a cottonmouth that I never would have seen.

Leaving Cataloochee

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

We went for the wildlife drive. It was very foggy, but the forecast was for a sunny day and the rest of the week was just afternoon showers. We saw the herd in the field. Some were lying down, some in the road, but all were fat and happy. We drove to the other end, a bit disappointed we haven’t seen any bears. There are also no deer. Ginger said the elk have driven the deer away. Still, there seems to be plenty of room for deer.

We turned around at the far end. The adjacent stream has gone down considerably, and looks like it would be fishable in a day or two. Through dense fog, we were surprised to see a single elk, because the herd was a half mile away. As we got closer, we could see it was big, with a huge rack. He was half again the size of the other bulls. He was eating fallen apples around a tree across the field. He bugled twice, the first time we heard that. Ginger would later tell us the big bulls stay on their own until time to mate.

At camp, we made pancakes for breakfast. I went over to offer some to Ginger, but she had eaten. She said she had to go to town. Her home town of Canton had historic flood levels. The Pigeon River had flooded several towns, and her mother was without water. I told her we might have to leave today, since our batteries were getting low. She said the road out was fine, but with all this rain, we should stay off the shoulders that might be soft. She said to stay in the middle of the road and make other drivers move over. I asked if she drank wine, and she said she did. I took her a bottle. She is simply the best! 

I went to the “phone booth” and called Greg at Autostar. He said he didn’t know when they could see me. His technician’s home was flooded. I thanked him for their help and paid only $100 for all their efforts. They have been very kind in these crazy times.

I went back to camp and we packed up our wet, soggy stuff. Putting the camp chairs in the truck, there were three yellow bugs on them – Yellow Sallies!

I had driven this road a number of times now. It is no doubt a bit scary, but I went slowly and honked at every blind turn. As we headed down the other side, a man stopped to tell me there was a big tractor/mower coming up the mountain a quarter mile back. “You won’t be able to pass him.”, he said. “Thank you. I’ll wait here.”

The “phone booth”

After waiting 30 minutes, Martha walked down the road to meet him. She texted me to come on, as he pulled into a driveway to wait, but I didn’t get the text. Walking back up the mountain, she yelled at me to come on. We passed him and waved happily.

The GPS took us north to Asheville. Martha had some views of the flooded Pigeon River, and it looked bad. After Asheville, we got on interstate 26, which was very nice, not too crowded, winding through the big mountains. By the time we got on 81 and passed Abingdon, I was getting a bit sleepy. Martha declined driving on a busy 81, so we looked for a place to stay the night, finally deciding on Raccoon Branch, a cute, little campground where we had stayed before.

I26 overlook
From I26 overlook

When we got there, Raccoon Branch was closed. We didn’t know where Grayson Highlands was, but we thought it was close, so we continued up the mountain. It wasn’t close. By the time we got to the state park, no one was at the gate. Driving to the campground, a ranger met us and said that campground was closed because they had no water. GEEZ! It made for a difficult place to turn around, but we made it.

Driving to the Equestrian Campground, I thought, we could have been past Roanoke by now. Thankfully there were lots of campsites. We chose #8, thankful to have a place. Martha took a shower for the first time not in the trailer. 

Grayson Highlands State Park picnic area
Grayson Highlands State Park

We enjoyed a quiet evening sitting by the fire playing some music, and discussing the trip. All I could think about was when I could go back to fish the Smokies. 

So how is the possessed truck you might ask. Thankfully, when driving, there are no problems. If I don’t lock the truck, there are no problems. Then I learned if I lock it with the key, there are no problems, so I removed the electric fob and removed the battery. When I get home, I will change the battery and see what happens. I am happy to not carry the bulky fob in my pocket anyway. If I lock the doors with the button inside, and then unlock with the key, the horn honks until I put the key in and turn it on. If I lock the door with the key, then unlock with the key, there is no honking. So I think it’s all the fob’s fault. Whether it just needs a new battery or not is soon to be determined. Whether is is possessed by the spirits of Cataloochee will be determined when I go back to fish. Right now I am just happy to be relieved of flashing lights, horn honking and very spooky doors rapidly locking and unlocking. And what the heck was that message about opening and then closing the driver’s side window??? As Willie commented, Gayle would have loved that kind of prank. I can hear her laughing to tears now.

Cataloochee Campground and The Possessed Truck

I got up wondering about the possessed truck. Martha and I read the owner’s manual about the alarm system. The only thing it said was to unlock the door and start the engine, but we did that last night. We did find out where the horn fuse was, so I pulled the fuse and reconnected the batteries. Nothing happened. Perhaps that solved the problem. 

I put the horn fuse back in and we drove to the viewing area. We stopped at lovely Palmer Chapel Methodist Church. With the windows rolled down and the doors unlocked, the truck madness hasn’t happened. We drove up to the end of the field, but at 10:00 the elk were likely in the forest. 

We drove past the Beech Grove School and the Palmer house. I couldn’t help but think about these poor people living in such a paradise being driven from their land and homes. We are certainly happy to have such a wonderful National Park, but was a thriving community in the late 1800’s, shipping apples and other crops all over. Some stocked the streams with rainbow trout and rented cabins to fishermen. One of the concerns was timbering. There might not be any forest left if something wasn’t done.

We drove the other direction from the campground to find another house and beautiful barn along Cataloochee Creek. We continued across a bridge and up a gravel road toward Big Creek and Waterville. I wanted to see how tough this road was. All of these mountain, gravel roads are somewhat tough, but certainly drivable. I have seen many cars on these roads. A jeep would be nice, however.

Back at camp, we fixed lunch and sat for a bit, and then the truck went crazy again, horn honking, lights flashing and door locks going up and down – it’s possessed! Ginger came out with a sympathetic face, telling me there is a Chevrolet place in Waynesville. I had best go get this problem fixed, so I drove over the mountain and called Autostar Chevrolet in Waynesville, North Carolina to see if they could help. They had an opening at 2:00. It was 12:30, so I just drove to the dealership. I told serviceman, Greg, the problem, and he looked at me funny. He asked if I had put any aftermarket things on the truck like running board led lights, inside lights or other electronic devices. No, I hadn’t. I did tell him about the ditch we drove into while looking for bears, and God knows we have hit plenty of big bumps.

I went into the lounge to wait and go through 274 emails, which were almost all junk. I got a message from Sandra that her roof had blown off her trailer on Smith Mountain Lake by a tornado that only hit her trailer. Luckily, no one was there. Danis also left me a message that Dick’s surgery went well and he would be home by now.

After a couple of hours, I walked out front, where there is a beautiful view of the mountains. A young salesman came up to ask if he could help, and we chatted for a while. He apologized for not having much inventory of trucks, but there are just no chips. I walked around looking at used trucks similar to mine. They all looked the same, even the newer ones. I walked around the service bays and saw my truck on the lift, but I couldn’t see what they were doing.

By 4:30, I asked if they knew anything. The technician was in touch with GMC, the question being whether to replace the computer for $1,000. Geez! Greg said to take it home and he would text me tomorrow when they knew something. 

Going over the mountain is becoming familiar, yet still a bit dangerous if someone comes around these blind turns too fast. I honked at all of them. We had an early dinner, then went out for wildlife viewing. We watched the elk, some right beside the car. Two babies laying in the middle of the field were so cute, their heads sticking above the grass.

I got out to take a picture of the barn with the “smoke” on the mountain behind. I noticed something flying close to the grass, but didn’t pay much attention walking around them until they started stinging me. Small yellow jackets were all over me as I made my attempt at running up the road. Every time I thought I was free, another would sting. I kept moving up the road and they kept following. I started fighting back, swatting them, killing my share. One stung me on the lip, and one in the armpit under my shirt. Swat, swat, run. I called to Martha to bring the truck up. A couple got in the truck with me, so I jumped back out swatting away. Finally free, we drove to the end of the road and turned around.

I entertained the idea of taking a Benadryl, but thought I would be OK with a couple of Advil. We went into the trailer and started getting ready for bed when the truck’s alarms went off – horn honking, lights flashing and door locks going crazy. Ginger came over as Martha held the flashlight while I disconnected the batteries again. I apologized for the noise, but she dismissed it. I took the horn fuse out of the fuse box, but we could still hear the door locks. It’s so creepy, especially in the dark. Ginger said there are weird electronic things that happen here. Clocks change time, GPS doesn’t work right and there was something else I missed as I tried not to get shocked.

With the job done, I crawled into bed trying to think of some logical explanation. It doesn’t go off while we are driving, fortunately, and it doesn’t go off if the doors are unlocked. When started it this morning, there was a message to open the driver window and then close it!? What?, but I did it. I have done that twice now…..to no avail. I have looked for a emergency flasher fuse to pull, but can’t find one. It has been quiet for hours and not gone off, only to start it all over again. Two ways stop it – driving it or unhooking the batteries.

Then I considered that it really was possessed, and I got a chill. I could picture a figure inside the truck, messing with me. Were they trying to make me leave? Did they put the yellow jackets on me? Did I have some ancestor who was in charge of making these 1,200 people leave their homes, their schools, land and way of life? Or did they want everyone to leave?

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