Thursday, July 30, 2020

Camping In The Age Of the Virus: Part 8

By the end of the trip, I realized that the very best parts were the long quiet walks on the secluded beach, the simple but great meals we had, and generally the time away from worrying about the end of the world. I would be remiss not to mention that we did have a small flatscreen TV and enough reception to watch the Japanese channel at night, so we did get enough information to know that the rest of the world was worried that the USA might infect them. However, that was going on just once an hour. The rest of the time, it showed stories about how some yuppie guy left his village in search of fortune in Toyko, and then returned home to show the elders how to take their ailing rice farm and turn it into a hipster saki bar. In fact, with a little twist on that, we could do the same story in Tennessee.

I was at peace with going home skunked in the fishing department, but my son was having none of it, and he would call once a day to get a fishing report. He was concerned enough that he was ready to take a day off of work and come down to make sure I got a fish, even if he had to buy it.

I decided that I needed once last trip out into the mangroves, and that last outing gave me a couple of lessons that I should already have known: 1) When you are at home or at the beach and you see storm clouds moving quickly towards you, you can leisurely stroll back inside or get in your car....when you are out in the middle of a body of water on a paddleboard...different story.  2) I finally figured out what those snake birds were up to. I thought they were my friends, but as in nature as in life, they were just using me. They were not following me because they thought I would lead them to the fish....that would have been a compliment. Nope, they somehow knew that my board passing over the shallow beds of grass spooked the little pinfish out of their hidey spots.

So, it was that on my parting excursion, when I was thinking I really needed Pam out here on her board, that I almost had my last fishing trip. I got out on the water at first light, jumping and moving so fast that the no-see-ums never had a chance to get a good bite, barely noticing the light ripples on the water. The main thing I noticed was that the light was looking good and I didn't see whitecaps on the water. A note here would be that it is much more difficult to paddle a standup paddleboard against the wind than a kayak or canoe. What I should have paid attention to was the wind blowing away from shore and how hard it was blowing. Instead, I was intent on getting a fish and hitting at least 3 promising stops before it was time to leave. I only had a few snakebirds with me this time, which probably should have been warning enough. These guys weren't playing around and were diving under my board and coming up with fish that Fly Fishing guys up in the mountains of North Carolina would have been excited about. Right off the bat, I snarled up the line on one rod, and nodded approvingly to myself that I brought a second rod along. I almost fell in trying to put one up and grab the other and was thinking why was this so difficult? I looked up to see serious storm clouds moving faster than I could remember. The waves were growing in size and it was getting tricky just standing on my board not fishing. This was early in the morning and I did remember the news folk saying 80% chance of rain, but in Florida that usually means in the afternoon. I decided to heck with the fishing and got to the business of paddling back, and then realized it was going to take everything I had in me to just get back to the beach....and then the thunder started.

Camping In the Age Of The Virus: Part 7

It turned out that the boatload of tourists from the mainland only wanted to put their toes in the sand for a quick minute before heading on to the next stop on the tour. Soon, I was left to fish in peace while Pam was busy collecting shells. I heard her muttering at some point that "this is no Sanibel", but she was content to shop for shells at her own pace, while I was busy figuring out precisely where the big fish must be. After a while, I decided this must be the Isle of No Fish and was ready to collect Pam and her shells, when something quite encouraging happened. As most people in sports will tell you, there are things you can do where you'd better be really good at the sport if you do this thing. For example, if you wear bright orange running shoes, you'd better be able to run, or own a really flashy better had know how to ride it. In this case, a really big open fishing boat was pulling up into the channel right in front of me. It was a high-sided deepwater boat, over 24 feet long, sporting a tuna tower, twin 250 hp Yamaha engines on back that looked like they hadn't seen a day of saltwater, and 2 middle-aged guys that looked like they knew what they were doing. One was at the helm and the other was up on the bow, pole in hand, and checking the depth while they slowly crept forward into the lagoon. The driver killed the engines and the first mate carefully dropped the anchor without a sound. They let things sit for a bit and then started rigging up their baits. I was too far away to see what they were using, but if these guys showed up here and now, I knew I was going to be in serious fish very soon.
You are probably wondering why I was so sure that these guys had any clue what they were doing. As it turned out I was wrong, because they fished for about 20 minutes and gave up. They started up the motors and putted away in hopes that the fish to be caught were somewhere else nearby.
It's not that two guys in a new boat is that big of a deal, or that they even knew how to operate it, navigating the narrow channel without banging the hull, or dropping the anchor without making every bird in 50 yards take flight, it was something that was immediately obvious, and something almost nobody but a pro fisherman would dare do: The whole outside of the hull was wrapped with a fish scene depicting a snook and a bottle of Jack Daniels with the boat name prominently displayed: "Wasted Seamen"'d better be able to catch fish with a name like that!

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Camping In The Age Of The Virus: Part 6

As much as I loved Fort DeSoto Campground, it was pretty much no fish, and pesky birds and lots of no-see-ums. Hopefully, the little bugs need no explanation, but I should say that once upon a time, I thought this was a problem specific to Florida. Then I went on a trip to Scotland and found out what "Midges" are. Bottom line, "Midge" is Scottish for no-see-um. And they have some kind of cousin up in Maine as well. Usually the locals will tell you 'yeah, only crazy people go outside THAT time of day/year'. If you are reading this and have never heard of such a thing, please contact me and let me know about the housing market where you live. In Florida, the one thing that can save you is wind. As long as the wind blows, the bugs can't land long enough to get a good bite. There was probably somebody long ago (I think it was my Dad) that thought you would be fine camping if you just kept the screens closed. I can still remember sitting all night long at a Dunkin' Donuts during a camping trip, in hopes that the sun and wind would keep the bugs away long enough to run down to the ocean and jump in. We had found out the hard way that a tent screen didn't even slow the no-see-ems down a little bit.

This trip, we had the air-conditioned camper, so it was quite different than the old days, and once we found one of the most beautiful beaches ever, we decided to spend our days on the beach and the nights in the camper. My initial thought was the beach could not be that great, because I frequented local beaches near where I lived. However, I was not prepared for the turquoise clear water and the little lagoon in the middle...anybody that wanted to take their towel and chair to the edge of the gulf had to wade through at least waist deep water to get there. I say "at least" because a few of us made the mistake of trying to find our own path through the lagoon and found a few of the deeper spots. Unfortunately, Pam had been following right behind me and what was a little bit deep for me was up to her eyeballs. She had wanted me to follow another group of people and I had insisted that I could do better....I'm still living that down.
It ended up that the very best part of the day was a mile long walk down to the end of the island where boats had come to have a picnic. It was a quiet stroll through a bird sanctuary and seemed to be as far from civilization that one could get in a 3 hour drive.

I was in heaven, with the breeze, the tranquil water and holding hands with my lady and fishing pole in my other hand. Oh yes, I was still determined that a big snook catch was in my immediate future. Plenty of birds were about, and people occasionally walked by with binoculars at the ready, just in case a blue-footed Booby made an appearance. Apparently, none of these birds thought I had a chance in hell of catching anything, because they left me alone.

Soon we were at the end and there was a perfect little cut where the water was rushing in as the wind was blowing the other direction, and I just knew this is where the fish of my dreams would be hiding. I gave Pam the camera and told her to be ready to get the whole thing once I yelled out that I had a fish on. Until that moment I would feel the sound of the wind and the contentment that I had found the one place in the world where I could totally forget politics, the virus and everything that went with it.
It was about then that the huge pontoon boat with 50 people on it beached right near me....

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Camping In The Age Of The Virus: Part 5

If you're a Florida fishing person then you know what a Snake Bird is. Of course, Florida is almost totally made up of people that are not native fisher folk, so we get a lot of talk about "Are you sure it was a Cormorant and not an Anhinga?" To which we reply "It was a dang Snake Bird, I'm telling ya!" I have a pretty good feeling that this happens all around the world. Some people spend a lot of time out in nature and discover than the wildlife has figured out how to deal with us. In this particular case, at least one flock of Snake Birds have figured out a real easy way to get their food.
My experience with saltwater fishing around inshore west coast of Florida is that snake birds hang around fishing boats, in hope of getting some of the fish the fishermen throw back because they are too small...or to steal bait from their hooks if they have something really tasty on that hook. Most fisher folk see them as a relative nuisance, and the birds seem pretty territorial. I can still remember driving an hour to a special "secret" fishing spot and with in seconds of shutting off the motor we had 2-3 snake birds coming in for a landing. They would hang around until they were certain we had no live bait and weren't going to catch anything. As a matter of fact, when the birds left the scene, it was a bit depressing to think that even the birds thought we were losers.

As I left our campsite to head out into the mangrove waters, I was pretty excited. The area looked just like the kind of place where one might find a Redfish tailing around or a mangrove snapper that was extra hungry this time of day. Instead what I found was that the water was only about 2-3 feet deep in every direction, and although I was in a great position to sight fish, I saw nothing but a growing crowd of snake birds following me around the place. I quickly grabbed my GoPro camera to record this crazy bunch of groupies that I had and found that although I had backups for everything, I had no SD card in the this point I still had high hopes that this was the only thing I had forgotten to bring.
The birds were brave, very brave and I was not certain at all that they wouldn't climb aboard and start pointing out where I needed to paddle. They seemed to really like it when I paddled faster and grew restless when I stopped. I tried to search for meaning in their eyes, but all I saw was a pale blue stare that seemed to say "Did I say stop paddling?". All in all, I was feeling pretty cheerful, even without the rare footage of an SUP guy surrounded by birds, helping him fish. At this point I was still taking it as an omen, that they could tell I had the right gear, the right look, and was indeed the serious fisherman that would be providing dinner that night...of course, all of this was before I found out their real intentions...

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Camping In The Age Of The Virus: Part 4

If I have one quality that is both a super-power and a super-weakness, it's that I'm considered a 'nice guy'. Oh, I'm certain that there are a number of people in the world that are certain I'm a jerk, but overall it is the niceness that pigeonholes me in this society. Fortunately, I am surrounded with family members that can stand as surrogates in the event that my niceness power is useless, for example when people butt in line at the grocery store. I have my wife to make sure we don't get taken advantage of, and we have me to deal with park rangers. I have no problem admitting when I make mistakes and owning the results of those mistakes. Either I met the ranger that has the same superpower, or she felt pity on the guy that could almost park his trailer in one try. She came back smiling (again), saying that I probably thought she wasn't coming, but she did find me another space that was supposed to be used for a camphost, but they could not come, plus we could stay there as long as we wanted! I was ready to ration out the food we had, but Pam realized we had a hard deadline because of certain medicines that she took and she only had enough for a few days. We settled on 3 days and I went from dismayed to overjoyed in short order.

As soon as was possible, I had Pam stretched out in yoga attire with a good book and the air conditioner running, while I rummaged through all of my gear.
Surprisingly, with all of the stuff I had managed to pack, it still seemed like I was missing other things, like fishing tackle that one could use in very shallow backwaters. I got out my big paddleboard, and clipped enough tools on my waist to ensure that I would sink like a stone in the event I fell in, and then started arranging all of my fishing gear. I had done a lot of reading online recently and was excited about using a small Engel cooler with fishing rod holders and a special new tool that was meant to hold my paddle while I was fishing.

Apparently the no-see-ums had decided not to take a break this summer, and I was dancing around in circles to keep them from landing on my skin long enough to bite, while I gathered my gear together to go out and land the first fish...days later I would marvel at that optimism.

As it turned out, the exciting parts of the trip, were things I had not imagined, and the very first thing was the birds...I'm a Florida guy, birds are around everywhere, and water birds, while very cool, are not something I would consider exotic, but this time was different....

Friday, July 24, 2020

Camping In The Age Of The Virus: Part 3

The peace and serenity that I longed for were gone and replaced with my mind getting used to the idea that I had driven here for a single night. I remembered that we recently passed the 'host' campsite and was hoping that somehow, I could quickly get online and grab that next night in this elusive place that always seemed to be booked solid. I found the ranger in her truck along the way and explained my problem. She was a sturdy person, amiable, and totally comfortable in the heat of the Florida outdoors. I was sure that she could take my van, sight unseen and back my trailer into any spot in the park while wearing a blindfold. she was wearing a khaki uniform and long bits of hair that had once been red, pulled back into a vestigial ponytail. The most noticeable feature on her was the large welcoming smile. She pulled her truck over to the side of the trail, and pulled out a large iPad that somehow did not seem incongruous in this campground setting. She did a quick search and found that somebody else had already booked the next night in my spot. I was incredulous. "You mean, somebody jumped in within the last 2 days just to book 1 night here in the middle of summer with the sand fleas?!" She laughed easily and replied that it happened all of the time. A lot of the local people come out here whenever they can find an opening. I was steeling myself for the inevitable, and told her it was my mistake, and I should have known it was too cheap. Her smile widened when I mentioned that I thought perhaps with my senior discount it was only $20 a night to stay on the water. Obviously, my thoughts of how difficult it was to get this place, were on the side of conservative. She said that the campground is usually booked up for 6 months, which is as far as you can go. Summer is a little bit different because the heat and the bugs are bad, but with the pandemic on, the summer bookings are up in the realm of the winter time...the only thing throwing little bits of open nights here and there, is the idea that many people do not want to travel to Florida, the epicenter of virus in the universe.
My ranger, did a quick scan again of the iPad and said that she had an idea that might work, if I was willing to move to another campsite....I was up for anything at that point and she took off, with a promise to be back in 30 minutes if she could pull it off....peace and serenity were long gone...but hope was back for a hot minute...

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Camping In The Age Of The Virus: Part 2

Somehow I managed to convince my wife to go along with my idea of camping in the middle of summer in the most virus-ridden place in the world...good idea? She kept asking how badly I wanted to do this, but I stayed the course and eventually the time came that we were actually driving down the road, the van loaded to the roof with my sports gear and the Bambi was right behind us.
It was a Sunday, in this strange time we were going through, tourism was down because of the pandemic. This meant the notorious stretch of highway that runs through Orlando and down to Tampa was less than half filled with vehicles frantically trying to see who could get to their destination first. Normally it was a race between souped up little foreign sedans and large pickup trucks with giant tires and loud exhaust pipes. Our big black van and the pill-shaped camper that much looked some kind of overweight airplane minus it's wings, served merely as a large rock in the river of traffic and most cars that ducked right in front of us, gave enough room that I could stop if I had to.
I was driving slightly under the speed limit for two reasons: 1) I had a long history of things going wrong while pulling trailers, going back to when I was 18 years old and my Dad had me driving our large family Oldsmobile while pulling a 31' Airstream trailer down the freeway in Minnesota. The car broke down while I was driving and we were stuck for days while the repair shop tried to fix the car...and that was the not the end of my troubles with trailers. 2) Our beloved van was not known for sipping gasoline. With all of the electronics built in, there was not one way to determine your average gas mileage...but I added a device that could do it, and I was hoping to find out how well I could do if I drove carefully, i.e., keeping it at 65 mph.

The drive to St. Petersburg, Florida was peaceful, which is not something one can often say about any trip in the state. In less time than I had planned, we were looking at the entrance to the Fort DeSoto Campground. We bounced down an old sandy road to find our designated spot and it was wonderful. We had trees, a great view of the water, and I had backed the trailer in right on the first attempt...well almost the first time, and my wife gave me plenty of encouragement until I got it least all of the neighbors didn't drop by to watch the spectacle.

Setting up your camper is something that must be learned, just like putting a boat in the water at the ramp. The whole time you are trying to getting everything done, you just know some old geezer is sitting back in a rocking chair laughing at the city slicker that 'don't know how it's done'. Actually, I've been around this stuff all of my life, but it was mostly my Dad that enjoyed deploying all of the gizmos on the RV, while the rest of us got out of the way. I was doing my best not to be the local source of entertainment, while Pam pulled out a good book to read and sweetly asked how long it would be before I had the air conditioner running. We had a really nice spot or 'pitch' as the Scots would call it. It was level, had a beautiful view of the water, and plenty of shade from trees. The trip was shaping up into something much better than I could imagine and all I had left to do was pull out the paddleboard and grab a fishing pole. It was then I noticed the little red card taped to the electrical pole. It said that we had the spot for tonight only. Wait a minute, I was certain that I had booked 2 nights, and after driving all this way and hooking all of this stuff up, I'd better have more than that! There's no way I could have made a mistake on their website, but it did seem awfully cheap...I was thinking it was a senior discount, but the doubt was creeping in. It was almost impossible to get 2 nights in a row here, but I had done it...or had I?

Camping In The Age Of The Virus: Part 1

I have an image burned into my mind, from the movie "Seeking A Friend For the End Of The World", where everyone on the planet knows they are going to die very soon from an Extinction Event, and you are looking out a bedroom window at a guy mowing his lawn....for some reason that stuck with me more than anything else in the film, and sometimes, I think am that guy.
As the number of people with the virus creeps up higher than we could ever imagine and people in Italy shake their heads in pity at the poor people in Florida....I'm out camping. I mean, I really was mowing the yard two days ago, but camping while the wheels are coming off the world sounded like a good idea to me. Now I'm back in the adventure zone and hoping to land a nice snook from my paddleboard before I come home to zombies shambling down the street.

We had almost everything we needed already: Megavan and Bambi, the mini Airstream camper, in the driveway, just sitting there. Bicycles, fishing tackle, paddleboards, suntan lotion, and it would all fit inside the van..

Our extremely large shiny black Nissan van, dubbed "Megavan" (or the church bus depending on who you ask) had to have a name. In this modern age, once one buys something significant, one must join the correct Facebook forums to learn more about the people that also thought buying something like that was a good idea. In this case I joined the Nissan Families group, which is composed of large families that needed something that could transport 12 people...and they all have named their vans...or at least their kids have. Megavan is beautiful, but was really meant for work and right now it had no work to do. In one awesome pivot, Megavan became the ultimate tow vehicle for Bambi, that and it also can hold a lot of toys inside.
With the world gone crazy, no more Farmer's Markets for us to work (or not any that we felt safe in working) we were left at home, like everyone else...mowing the yard.
In early March, my big problem was figuring out how we could take off for a camping trip when we were always either working a Market or getting ready for the next one...suddenly, we have all the time in the world, but the parks were closed..then opened and everybody else in the world seemed to have the same idea, "Let's Go Camping!"...that is except my wife.  It's too hot, it's too cold, it's too crowded. She was getting into reading every book in the library and then discovered that she didn't really need me to get books from Amazon after all...I finally lost my tech edge and she was shopping more than me.

But...the idea kept boiling back up and one of the constants in my life was my son, prodding me to get out and have a good time with Mom. Soon I was surfing the web for something to do someday in the future when the weather was bright and clear, and the water was warm and crystal blue. My wife poked her head in my studio and reminded me that I was actually talking out loud and she could hear me...she said to include the ability to go to nice restaurants without worrying about getting sick and slowly dying in a hospital at great expense, to the wishlist.

On a really strange turn, I was looking at Fort DeSoto park in St. Petersburg, Florida, a bucketlist kind of place. Since I was a kid, I've only been there about 3 times and hoped to camp there but could never figure out how. It used to be that you had to reserve a site in person..and I live 2 1/2 hours away. I didn't even know that they had moved to reserving sites online, but once I discovered that, I also discovered that everybody in the world already knew this and it was booked solid for the next 6 months....except for 2 days that were coming up quick.