Thursday, December 19, 2013

Fireside reflections from the north

Wrapped in a blanket and cozy by the dancing flames of the glowing fire, a cup of peppermint tea in hand and candy canes for dessert, and our yellow lab Bessie snoring at my feet - it must be winter break! Leaving the warm days and the springs many miles to the south, I have finally arrived in Rhode Island for some much-needed relaxing after a long but successful semester. It's the perfect time to catch up on not only Christmasy things that don't feel right in 70 and 80 degree weather but also a few Florida adventures dating back to the end of October, including a visit from my Dad, cave diving at Ginnie with Bethy and Kris, and the Santa Fe River Cleanup/Swallowtail Farm Festival.

Post-birthday camping weekend at Ginnie Springs, my Dad made the trek down to Gainesville for a mini tour of the south. I was so excited to have him down, although this year I felt bad since there wansn't a home-game weekend that worked for both of us… but that just meant more time for the springs/exploring :) October 24-27 ended up being a bit of a cold spell (or at least chilly if you're planning on jumping in the water), but it certainly didn't keep us from hitting some springs, the ocean, and a few places in Gainesville, including the Springs Eternal exhibit and Butterfly Garden at the FL Museum of Natural History.
Ichetucknee Spring State Park
We started off the trip with some swimming in the sky. This is my dad "free falling" into Ichetucknee Blue Hole (aka Jug Hole). It's one of my favorites for free diving but always seems to feel chillier than many others, maybe because you're off in the woods in the shade. It's more than worth the short hike out to the spring and being cold for a while!
Dad swimming in the treetops above as I snap some pictures from below.
Dad and me at the headspring. The lighting leaves much to be desired, but this picture makes me happy! We were chilly from swimming out at Blue Hole, so we didn't jump in, but it was beautiful above water too :)
Fall at the Ichetucknee headspring. 
This little 5-legged grasshopper came to visit us during lunch. He's pretty funky looking up close!
Florida Museum of Natural History
After a long walk to Alfred Ring Park for a quick look at Glen Spring and the creek and a trip to the Micanopy Art Festival, we stopped at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the way back into town... no trip to Gainesville would be complete without checking out the Springs Eternal Exhibit! I had fun looking at the exhibit with him and talking about the springs and John and Lesley's photos, but after a while our attention was drawn to the brilliantly colored, diverse selection of butterfly specimens at the back of the museum. I had somehow never been to the Butterfly Garden in the 2+ years I've lived here, so we decided to take a walk through - and I'm so glad we did…
Walking through the doors into the giant, screened room feels like walking onto another continent. You are immediately immersed in a magical, sunny, and extremely colorful world of exotic birds and hundreds of butterflies fluttering about, stopping intermittently to feed on the flowers, hang out on the trees (or museum visitors), or have a feast on the banana and orange slices in the gardens. Knowing basically nothing about butterflies, I could've stayed there for hours learning from the helpful staff or just observing the habits of the different species and soaking in the sun - it's a place where minutes fade into hours, which quickly become afternoons, or entire days. Sadly we only had an hour, but I was able to grab a few pictures as I tip-toed around, scared of stepping on any butterflies that happened to land on the path...
Up close and personal… love the deep pink color of the flower and the butterfly's curly proboscis!
Perhaps one of the most brilliant azure blues I've ever seen.
Flower feast.
Cedar Key Kayaking 
Since this was a weekend for firsts, the day after the Butterfly Garden, we decided to take a trip to Cedar Key to kayak around the islands and spend some time in the refreshing, salty air. As suggested by Danielle, we rented some boats from Kayak Cedar Key, conveniently located right on the beach. We spent 3 hours paddling around, checking out some beaches, and walking on a little trail - Greg wore the GoPro on his head, which was taking a picture every 60 seconds. Here is a mini video of all the photos stitched together… 3 hours of kayaking in 1 minute and 30 seconds:

Pelicans and cormorants galore! These birds took over a huge, dilapidated old pier on one of the islands that used to house a pencil factory. 
After a long paddle, we sat by the beach and had a picnic lunch, watching as the once-choppy ocean became calm and serene (of course after our kayaking trip…).
After lunch, we walked around the little town of Cedar key. There were a lot of beautiful flowers blooming as well as some neat and eclectic artwork, including two mermaids, a tile undersea-themed wall, and a huge fisherman statue catching a fish with massive red lips!
Cave Diving with Bethy and Kris
During the beginning of November, Florida was buzzing with divers from all over the country (and the world), all making their way to the DEMA trade show in Orlando. While I sadly couldn't make it down to the show because of school, friends visiting Ginnie the week after totally made up for it! Bethy and Kris met Greg and I at Ginnie on Monday morning, November 11, and despite the fact that a Monday morning during the offseason would usually be calm and quiet, this day was an exception. It seemed like everyone in town for the show decided to back their cars up to Devil's Eye and Ear and jump in the water - I swear I saw more people hovering around the entrance to the Eye than I saw all morning up until that point. There was a traffic jam when we first dropped down to enter the Eye and when we did finally make it in, it was almost comical. I felt like I was at the space station - but with added flow. The water was emanating from the spring full-force in our faces, so us and about a dozen others were all clinging onto the rocks just inside the cave to let divers exit. At one point, I looked up and there were about 6 divers in all sorts of positions like spiders on the ceiling above me. Others floated below while some hovered at eye level in their astronaut-like attire and bright beams of light, piercing into the dark passageways ahead. 
Greg free dove down around us as we entered the water and swam towards the Eye. He snapped this shot of me holding my deco bottle, ready for a fun dive!
Traffic jam at the Eye! Greg took this photo looking down at Bethy, Kris, and me as we patiently waited to enter the Eye (don't look at the guy entering the cave to the right if you're claustrophobic). Once we got settled in and started our dive, we were pretty much all alone and had a great time being back in the caves :) It was extremely relaxing and such a blast to have fun, chill buddies to share the dive with - wish they were in cave country more often!!

Santa Fe River Cleanup and Swallowtail Farm Festival
The following Saturday (11/16/13), it was time to jump back in the water - but this time, into the river! It was time for the annual Santa Fe River Cleanup organized by Current Problems, starting at Pete and Georgia's house and ending with a cookout and trash compilation at Kim's house. It was another successful year and we were able to remove 1552 lbs of trash from the river (mostly beer cans/bottles along with a few tires… my most interesting finds were some old sunglasses, a deflated tube, and an algae-encrusted sun hat). It was an exhausting but rewarding 2 hour dive, full of not only trash but over a dozen Suwannee Cooters darting about the semi-tannic river. It was an amazing effort by many volunteers who manned the canoe morans, organized people on land, weighed and sorted the trash, cooked a huge lunch, and put the whole event together. See my Facebook album for more photos!

Greg and Debbie roll a big tire towards the trash collection as Tom Morris emerges from the water after a long dive.
On the way back from the cleanup, we stopped by the Swallowtail Farm Festival and enjoyed their beautiful farm, flowers, and music as well as a visit with Kelly and Ian. I was absolutely exhausted by the end of the day but everything was 100% worth it :)