Archive for February, 2011

While driving north along I-95 heading from Orlando to Savannah, Georgia, Mom made a very interesting discovery on the map.  We were going to drive by St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in the United States.  St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by Spain.

She had read many positive things about St. Augustine while researching this leg of the adventure, but mistakenly thought that it was located in South Florida near Miami.  St. Augustine had not made the list since we had not planned on driving that far south.  A quick browse of the internet on the iPhone (seriously, how did we travel before smart phones) and we found many interesting things to see including making a last-minute reservation with St. Augustine Eco Tours to take a dolphin cruise.

We had a 12:30 reservation for our boat trip, and were able to park and walk up to the marina about 12:29.  We were met at the dock by Captain Adam and headed out onto the Matanzas River.

The Matanzas River is part of the inter-coastal waterway that feeds into the Atlantic Ocean.  It is saltwater, and thus is full of all sort of interesting marine life.  The main goal of our trip was to see dolphins and we were not disappointed, seeing our first one about 30 seconds into the trip.

Captain Adam informed us that there are usually around 100 dolphins in the river during the Winter months and around 300 in the Summer.  We are not sure how the dolphins tell the difference since it was the last week in February and it was 80 degrees.  Later in the trip we got to float alongside a pair of dolphin swimming up river.  The kids and the parents thought this was pretty cool.

Captain Adam took us up into a canal in search of jellyfish, but unfortunately none were to be found on this day.  We then headed farther up river to see the bald eagles that have made their nest in a tree here for the last 17 years.  We were able to get a long distance shot of one of the parents, but the two chicks were not visible due to the fact that it was a very windy day.  The nest was about eight feet across in the top of a tree around 125 feet tall.  Quite impressive!

The boat also came equipped with a hydrophone (a microphone that allows you to hear under water).  We were unable to hear the echolocation of the dolphins we followed, but we were able to hear the sound of pistol shrimp on the bottom snapping their claws together.

We also got to view egrets, herons, pelicans, and seagulls. The trip was great and lasted around 90 minutes.  We would have enjoyed the boat ride even if we had not seen any of the wildlife.

After the trip, we headed next door to have lunch at the Santa Maria Restaurant.  The food was great, but the thing everyone enjoyed the most was feeding the seagulls.  Old bread is provided to feed to the birds through trapdoors they have installed on the window ledges.  The gulls obviously dine here often and know the drill.

After lunch, we walked through the old narrow streets of the town to see some really cool old houses and Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine Catholic Church built in 1565.

Next up was the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument.  This is the oldest fort in the United States and was set up by the Spanish.  It has defended against pirates and seen action during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and many other skirmishes.

The kids enjoyed going to the top of the building to see where the canons were fired.  The National Park Service does daily canon firings, but we were too late to see one.

On our way out of the park, we ran into Ranger Fritz, who graciously gave the kids a 15 minute private history of the fort which we greatly appreciated.  The kids did not have enough time to complete the Junior Ranger books, but we can mail the finished books back and the Rangers will mail us the badges.

Once the park closed we headed onto our original destination of Savannah, thankful for the unexpected stop in St. Augustine.  It has been one of our favorite places so far on any of the trips.


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One of the stops we were most looking forward to on Leg 3 of our Year Long Adventure was in Crystal River, Florida – the chance to canoe with manatees.  Crystal River is home to many manatees, especially in the months between November and March, due to the 72 degree temperature of the water. Manatees do not like the colder Gulf waters and move up into the river for the winter months.  There are many different tour operators in the area where you can either swim/snorkle with the manatees or canoe/kayak with the manatees.  As we discovered, “with the manatees” is a relative term.

We chose to go with the canoe instead of swimming since we felt it would be more difficult to swim for a long time in the river with our 4 year old.  We rented canoes from Crystal River Kayak Company in Crystal River.  It was very convenient because we launched in the canal that was right behind their shop.  We began with a 2 hour rental with the option to continue to the 4 hour mark depending on how things were going.  Mom and Allison manned the first canoe, and Dad was at the helm of the second canoe with his helpers Andrew and Audrey.

It took a few minutes to get the hang of maneuvering the boats, but we were soon on our way.

It was about a ten minute paddle to the Three Sisters Springs where we had our first manatee sighting.  The pools and springs where many of the manatees hang out are protected by buoys beyond which  swimmers and boaters are not allowed.  Since we were there on President’s Day Weekend (poor planning), we were on the river with HUNDREDS of other manatee fans snorkling or watching from large pontoon boats, speedboats, paddleboards, sailboats, canoes, and kayaks.  It was difficult to watch for underwater manatees while trying to avoid all the other things in the water.  Most of the manatees wisely remained in the protected area, so we had to admire them from a distance.

We paddled on to the next spring where we hoped to find a better human-to-manatee ratio.  There we had better luck, and even had a manatee swim directly under one of our canoes.  Unfortunately, those manatees are much faster than Mom and the camera, so you’ll have to take our word for it.

After more paddling up the river and out into the bay, we beached our canoes on a small island to stretch our legs.

In total, we spent about three hours on the water and between the two canoes, we had close encounters with about ten manatees.  It was a beautiful setting and we could not have asked for better weather.  It was 80 degrees in the third week in February!

If you are thinking of coming to meet the manatees, be sure to make a reservation.  Our suggestion would be to avoid weekends if possible.  There was a LOT of traffic on the water with all of the tour boats and private boats, and would have been a much better experience without all of the people.  A second bit of advice would be to hit the rowing machine at the local gym before taking the trip.  It wore us out to paddle for three hours.  Despite the people and the muscle fatigue, we all loved it and would do it again tomorrow….as long as we can find some substitute paddlers.

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The kids completed a Civil Rights unit with Mom before our trip to the Southeast, so we were looking forward to visiting some of the places that they had learned about.  We had our first opportunity when we visited Birmingham, Alabama.  After filling up on pizza at The Mellow Mushroom (yum!), we drove to the 4th Street Historic District to visit the Civil Rights Institute in Downtown Birmingham.

Our 8 year-old Audrey found the institute very interesting and was impressed at the amount of artifacts here that had been saved from the 1960s.  Focusing mainly on the local people and events, the Civil Rights Institute uses a mixture of actual news footage, life-size dioramas, and interesting displays (including an actual bombed bus from the Freedom Rides) to illustrate the history of Birmingham before and during the Civil Rights Movement.  Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside.  The Institute also houses a research center which has preserved the personal narratives of people who experienced these events first-hand.

Despite the hardships and inequalities caused by the Jim Crow laws, the black citizens of Birmingham built a vibrant community in the 4th Street area with strong businesses, churches, and schools.  Unfortunately, this city became known as “Bombingham” in 1963 because of all the bombs regularly set off  in Civil Rights activists’ homes and churches.  The park across the street from the Institute was the site of the May 1963 protest during which the Police Commissioner Bull Connor ordered his men to use attack dogs and fire hoses to disperse the singing children who were peacefully marching.  It was these violent scenes televised across the country which helped turn the tide in the struggle for Civil Rights.

Across the street from the Civil Rights Institute is the 16th Street Baptist Church where on September 15, 1963, a bomb was detonated in the basement that killed four young African-American girls.  The church is still an active congregation today.  It was really moving to stand in front of this church and to ponder all that happened on this block in 1963.

After Birmingham we traveled South to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama.  Our focus here was learning about the famous 50 mile march from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965.  The National Park Service has declared the road between Selma and Montgomery a National Historic Route.  The NPS Interpretative Center in Lowndes County is located on this road halfway between Selma and Montgomery.

We learned a lot at the center, and the kids added another Jr. Ranger badge to their collection.  The march took place two weeks after “Bloody Sunday” when the Alabama State Police used tear gas and batons to stop the first attempt.  Under Federal protection, four thousand people started walking in Selma and the group had swelled to 25,000 when they reached the state capitol in Montgomery five days later.  The four spots where the participants camped each night during the march are marked along the route.  The purpose of the march was to bring attention to the fact that despite laws to the contrary, African-Americans were not given the same voting rights as their white counterparts.  Even attempting to register to vote had dire consequences.  The actions here in Alabama lead to President Johnson presenting the 1965 Voting Rights Act to Congress.

After our visit to the center, we headed to Selma and drove across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of “Bloody Sunday”.  Allison, our 11 year-old, was impressed that the marchers were able to cover such a long distance in only 5 days.   The most surprising fact we learned was that despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act, hundreds of African-Americans in this county who registered to vote still lost their jobs as sharecroppers as a result.   With no place to live, they gathered to live in a large tent city for 18 months.  The Interpretive Center was built on the location of this tent city.

It is hard to believe that these events in the Civil Rights Movement happened only forty-five years ago.  Our children struggle to understand how these things could have happened, but they agree that it is important to remember and pay tribute to the bravery of those who stood up and demanded change.  Audrey put it quite well.  “If we don’t learn about history, it could happen again.”

To read about other Civil Rights Movement sites we visited on Leg 3, click here.

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Leg 3 of our Year Long Adventure has us touring the Southeast U.S. in hopes of avoiding snow and ice.  As usual, we took MUCH longer than we intended to load the van on Tuesday morning, resulting in our estimated departure time of 10 A.M. looking a lot more like 3 P.M..  As we pulled out of the driveway, we felt like we must have forgotten something big because there was so much more room in the van than on the first two trips.  The truth is that we have become a mean, lean, packing-machine.  If only we were faster…

We drove from Richardson through Louisiana to Vicksburg, Mississippi.  (We are touring Louisiana on our way home).  Nothing like a seven hour drive to get the family back into the traveling groove.  We checked into our room at the La Quinta in Vicksburg, and we were quite pleased with the accommodations.

Early the next morning, the adventure began with a visit to Vicksburg National Military Park.

We used our National Park Pass for free admission (a must if you plan on going to a lot of the National Parks), and headed into the Visitor Center to do some learning.  The adults of the group needed some of this education since neither one of us could answer with 100% conviction which side won the Battle at Vicksburg.  (Please don’t tell Mom’s AP History teacher!)

After viewing the standard NPS Visitor Center movie and obtaining our Jr. Ranger booklets, we headed out on the Audio Driving Tour of the park.  Each of the states that had troops fight in the battle have placed a monument in the park, and some of them are quite impressive.

This area of Mississippi is surprisingly hilly, making this site high above the Mississippi River very desirable to both sides.

The Union desperately wanted to capture Vicksburg to gain control of the river, but found it virtually impossible to invade.  In the end, it was keeping new supplies out of the city that won the battle.  After 47 days of brutal fighting and incredible numbers of casualties, the Siege of Vicksburg ended when Confederate General Pemberton surrendered the city to Union General Grant on July 4th, 1863.  The 5,000 Confederate soldiers who died are buried in a city cemetery in the city of Vicksburg, while 17,000 Union soldiers are buried here in the park.  Graves of unidentified soldiers, 13,000 in all, are marked with smaller concrete posts instead of headstones.  It is quite sobering to see the cemetery stretching out in front of you.

One of the coolest things in the park is the U.S.S. Cairo Museum.  The Cairo was a Union ironclad gunship that was sunk in the Yazoo River by the Confederacy.  One hundred years after the sinking, the ship was raised and restored.  The restored ship is in the park, and you can actually walk onto the deck.

The entire driving tour took about two hours including stops, and is totally worth it if you find yourself in the greater Vicksburg Area.  (You can read about another great Civil War site we visited here.)

Our next stop after lunch was to head to downtown for lunch and then head to the Biedenharn Candy Store which houses a Coca-Cola Museum.  It was at this location in 1894 where Coca-Cola was bottled for the first time.  It was only sold in soda fountains before this.

The museum mainly shows Coca-Cola memorabilia from over the years, but it was pretty entertaining to show the kids some of the items that reminded us of our youth.  They were interested to hear about returning empty bottles to the store and getting the deposit money back.  We thought it was cool to get that quarter back in the late 1970’s for returning a 32 oz. bottle, but they had those same bottles on sale at the museum as collectibles for $20 each.  If only we had known at the time.

After leaving Vicksburg, we headed on eastward toward our destination of Tuscaloosa, Alabama (home of The University of Alabama – “Roll Tide”).  On our way in, we used the iPhone to search for good Bar-B-Q places.  We found that there were quite a few, and decided to visit Mike & Ed’s Bar-B-Q.

It was REALLY good.  Mom liked it so much that as we were driving to the hotel later she said, “Man, that was so good, I don’t even know what to do”.  Take that as a strong recommendation.

Feel free to check out our Facebook page for more timely reports on where we just ate or see pictures from State Welcome Centers…

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We are currently between trips of our “Year Long Adventure” spending our time at home in the Dallas area before heading out to the Southeast on Leg 3.  Last weekend we were blessed with “Spring like” temperatures in the high 70s.  (It is 15 degrees outside as I write this post four days later, showing you how quickly the weather can change here in North Texas.)  We decided to take advantage of the great weather and go out on a family adventure of Geocaching.

Geocaching.com describes Geocaching as a high-tech treasure hunting game played throughout the world by adventure seekers equipped with GPS devices. The basic idea is to locate containers called geocaches which have been hidden outdoors and then share your experiences online. Geocaching is enjoyed by people from all age groups, with a strong sense of community and support for the environment.

Our family had tried this with some success twice before by using the Geocaching App on the iPhone, so our kids were very excited to go hunt for caches.  We drove to a park near our home and turned on the app to locate the three closest caches to our location.  The closest one was with .10 miles of where we parked.  It is amazing how many geocaches are out just waiting to be found.  The online clues lead us to a light pole to find our first cache of the day.

Most caches consist of a waterproof container of varying sizes.  Inside you will typically find a log in which to sign your name and the date you found the cache.  It is fun to see when the cache was last found and how many people have been there before you.  This first cache was the size of a film canister, so it wasn’t large enough to have a pen.  Luckily, we were near the car and could get one, but this reminded us to keep a pen with us as we continued our hunt.  Larger caches will sometimes contain trinkets that you can take as long as you leave something similar in return.  Some caches will contain a rubber ink stamp to record the find in a log of your own.  Really serious geocachers will hide “travel bugs” in their cache.  These items have a GPS tracker attached which will track the item as it is moved from cache to cache across the country or even the world.  Each travel bug has a unique number stamped on it which allows its journey to be followed online.

We changed parks to head to one with better walking trails in search of our next cache.  This cache was .27 miles away from our new parking spot, but much harder to find.  Unfortunately, the curving walking trails did not always take us in the direction we were trying to go.  We followed the GPS and compass directions for about 20 minutes before we were finally headed in the right direction.   Once we were within 50 feet of the cache, we left the cement path and headed into the woods.  This large cache was located in the base of a tree in a hollow spot.

The guest log inside showed that the cache had been placed in this location a little over a year ago and found 25 times since.  After celebrating our find and carefully placing the container back in its hiding place, we were ready to call it a day.   Because we were unfamiliar with the layout of this particular park, our wandering path to the cache left us not knowing where the van was.  Luckily, iPhone Maps pointed us in the right direction.

We did attempt one final cache on the way back, but we were unsuccessful this time.  The GPS said we were within 10 feet of where the cache was supposed to be located, but we were unable to find it.  We accepted this small defeat in favor of finding some lunch.

Two tired Geocachers

Our kids really enjoyed the hunt and using the GPS and compass to find their way.  They did not even realize that they were having family bonding and exercise to boot.  We had such a good time that we plan to geocache through the Southeast and maybe even hide a cache of our own.

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