Thursday, November 17, 2005

Paynes Prairie State Park

Got to the park early, at about noon or so. I had selected site #44 basically at random and it turned out to be ideal. The only other site I would recommend (this is from a tenter standpoint) at this park would be #11. There were other good sites as well, but those two got top marks from me. They both have 17' square tent pads on them. There is also a tents-only area. I did not even look at these sites as they are true "walk-in" sites--you park in a 6-car lot (there are several of them) and walk through the woods to get to the sites. I'm sure they are wonderfully scenic and no doubt private, but since I have my kayak with me and like to unload that at the site, and I use the car as a combination closet-and-all-purpose-cupboard for my stuff, having it not right there at the site wouldn't work. Maybe it would for you. I set up my campsite before heading out to paddle Lake Wauberg (see the paddling blog for all paddling info, linked below). The sites are spread out nicely and are slightly offset, so had anyone been in the site directly next to mine, they would have been set up slightly forward of me, rather than directly next to me, which I thought was a good plan. The other side of #44 is solid woods, as is the back.

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When I got back from paddling, I went for a short walk around the area. I saw some wild turkeys wandering through the campground--took their picture but it didn't come out as well as hoped. When I checked in upon arriving, the ranger said that there were deer "everywhere." I saw this group, and two darted away from me while on a hike, but that's all I saw. In fact, the deer and the turkeys were about it for wildlife spotting.

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I decided to drive to the tower that overlooks the actual prairie. This is a very large, spread-out park, unlike Ochlockonee. When I got to the tower area, which is also where the visitor center is, I found a parking lot and a paved trail leading to the visitor center and past it to the tower. It's a nice walk; the visitor center looks new. The tower is a tall structure--there's a picture of it in the "Photo Gallery" section of the park website, which I will link to at the end of this report. It has several levels, with an overlook area on each level. There are bison and wild horses in the prairie. Or so they say.....

When I got to the top, there were 3 people there. Far in the distance were some dark dots that might have been the bison (forgot to take the binoculars...whoops). Other than that....it's a wide open space. Granted, this is rare in Florida, but as an Ohioan, this is somewhat less than compelling or unique to me. Interstate 71 from Cincinnati to Columbus is essentially one long "prairie," and I've seen that enough to hold me for a lifetime. So I didn't linger at the tower.

I started to hike one of the trails near the campground, but it was getting late and I wanted to get in a shower before fixing dinner.

At about 5:30, it got somewhat unpleasant. It was still very hot out from the warm day, and there were hundreds (no, make that thousands) of mosquitoes that descended upon me at about the time my dinner was finished cooking. This sent me running into the tent to eat, since it was not possible to fight that many mosquitoes off, and I would likely end up consuming some of them with my dinner (ew). And of course there's that whole West Nile business to worry about.

So I basically hid out in the tent reading for hours. At around 9 pm I ventured out. I had bought firewood and had even laid out the fire--this was before the mosquito horde arrived. At 9, it was cooler outside and only one or two mosquitoes buzzed around me as I stood by the campfire trying to decide whether to light it. Conditions were less than ideal for a campfire--I was, after all, still wearing shorts and a t-shirt. But still.... it was all laid out... So I lit it.

That worked out very well. The smoke kept the few remaining mosquitoes away, and as long as I didn't sit too close to it, I wasn't overly warm. And there really is nothing quite like a campfire burning in the dark with some night sounds behind it.

Which brings me to the second problem I encountered at this park, and one more permanent than annoying seasonal insects. Paynes Prairie is really close to I-75. This interstate is a busy, major north-south route through Florida. The traffic noise is substantial. I live in a woodsy, rural area far from any busy road. We have train tracks half a mile away, but that's about it for man-made sounds at night. This road noise was a real problem. This road noise is why I will not be returning to this particular campground. If you live in a city or near an interstate, it would probably sound just like home for you, which can be soothing.

So after a less restful than usual night, I got up and made breakfast and decided to hit the trail. I took one that was to lead to a pond (why not?). It was a nice trail that changed as it took me through the woods. It started out sandy, then the ground became harder. It then merged with a road that was grassy underfoot. I turned off of that and was back in the woods, this time walking on pine needles. The vegetation varied from palmettos to tall pines. The trail varied from being one-person narrow to wide open areas.

But the only signs of life I saw were two park employees on vehicles (in two separate places), and these people who had taken their horses to the trail:

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I walked for about 2 hours in total. I never made it to the pond, and since I don't plan to return (it's too far to visit as a day trip), guess I won't be seeing that.

This is a nice park. It's very big and spread out, as I mentioned. The ranger station seems to be occupied during all open hours. They sell firewood there. There was no campground host, but one was due to arrive soon. If you don't mind traffic noise drowning out the quieter night time sounds, I recommend this campground.

The park website is at:
http://www.floridastateparks.org/paynesprairie/default.cfm

For Lake Wauberg and Orange Lake paddling photos and info, visit
Kayak Paddle Tales.

Next week is Thanksgiving week, so no camping planned, but I hope to get out the week after--when it will be cool enough, hopefully, to sit closer to the campfire.

Stand by.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Ochlockonee River State Park, in Florida

Ok, first post to the new camping blog, a companion site to my paddling blog, Kayak Paddle Tales. The point of this blog is to give somewhat in-depth information about the campgrounds I visit and the sites I occupy, and to display photos taken while in the campground and on the trails nearby. I don't always camp when I go out paddling in the kayak, but I will pretty much always paddle when I camp. All paddle-related stories and pictures will be on the paddling blog linked above.

This was only my third camping trip, so we are starting near the beginning. Camping season in Florida will run till around April or May, when the nights may get too warm for camping, at least for me...

This was my second trip to Ochlockonee ("Oh-clock-nee") River State Park. This is about 2 hours from where I live, an easy drive, enabling me to get there early. Last time I had site #22, which was excellent from a tenter standpoint--all of these campsite reviews will be from the perspective of a tent camper. I had eyed site #19 last time and reserved it for this trip. This is the most remote site at the campground and the nearest to the river. It's even more remote if no one is in sites 18 or 20, as was the case when I was there. Those two sites face each other. Site 18 is better than 20, as you can set your tent up deep in the back of the site and then park your car to block the view of your site from anyone in #20, and no other sites are visible from there. Another site I can recommend is #16, which is on the main dirt road that runs through the campground, but is sheltered on either side by greenery, and only palmetto plants are across the road from it. I suggest you avoid tent sites 12 and 14--they are filled with attractive scrub oak trees with low-hanging branches but there is almost no ground vegetation in the area.

The bath house at this campground is clean, though it could be more attractive if they had not chosen prison-gray as the color to accompany the institution-green walls. However, there's hot water, soap and paper towels, and spacious shower stalls, so just ignore the poor color choices. The present campground hosts are from Newfoundland and have a large Canadian flag in front of their RV. They are very friendly and helpful.

I got there at about 1 pm and set up camp.

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I then decided to go for a walk around the trails. Spotting and photographing deer is one of my main objectives on any hike (or paddle trip). Not an easy thing, though my experience with 3 deer on my last trip to this park indicated that these deer are somewhat used to people and not as skittish as those not living in the woods near a campground in a National Wildlife Reserve area. Both times I have been to this campground I have awakened to find deer tracks in my campsite that were not there when I went to bed.

The land around the campground is all piney flatwoods.


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The trails are wide and flat and well maintained. They are not, however, marked in any way except at the entrances. This is a serious oversight. Once you get deep in these woods, on a winding trail, it's easy to lose track of which way the road is. And so when you come to a fork in the trail, or an intersection of two trails, there is no way to know which way to go to stay on a loop that will take you roughly back to where you started, and which way will take you deeper into the woods and possibly to the next town. It's a big forest. They really need to mark their trail intersections. At the head of one of the trails is a paper that tells you the length of the trails. It's .8 miles from one point to the Reflection Pond. I thought it would be nice to see the Reflection Pond. I can now tell you, since I just happened to make the correct turns, that if you leave from the parking lot at the picnic area, you make your first right when you have a choice, and then make a right at the bench (there are all these benches seemingly in the middle of nowhere--probably for hikers who have been wandering these unmarked trails for hours, if not days), you will come to it. If you want to do a sort of loop, then make that first turn a left and you will come back out on the paved road--turning left there will take you to the campground. If you continue on past the Reflection Pond, you are on your own, I have no idea where that leads. But I'm pretty sure you'll come to a bench.

[I mentioned this lack of signage when I checked in at 4:00.]

I sat at the Reflection Pond (there's a nice wooden overlook with--of course--a bench) for awhile, hoping a deer would come by for a drink. No such luck.

One of the reasons I wanted to be at site 19 was so I could take my chair down by the river and have my morning coffee there. So, after a peaceful night's sleep, I did just that.

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It was such a lovely morning, still somewhat cool (daytime temps for both days were mid-80's or above....still summer here!), and so I decided to hit the trails one more time before breaking camp and getting out in the kayak for the rest of the day.

I followed that same woodsy trail as the day before. As I got near the Reflection Pond, a startled deer took off to my left. I was in mid-stride at the time and came to a complete halt, somewhat like children playing the game of statues. To the right was a mother deer and a younger deer. They had not seen me, they had only registered that the other deer had bolted. Then the mother deer spotted me.

My left foot was forward, with the weight on it. My right foot was behind me, with only the ball of my foot on the ground. The camera was below my waist. And the deer was watching me very closely for movement. I really wanted a picture of this deer.

After standing utterly motionless for what felt like an eternity but was probably only about 3 minutes, my right calf muscle was really fussing. I could hear my watch ticking and smell the powdery freshness of my deodorant, which I assumed was also wafting over to the deer. A small biting fly was having a great time on my ankle. The deer finally lowered her head to graze and I was able to move my feet and get more comfortable. I started to raise the camera.

Surprisingly, the deer started to move toward the path I was on, which would have her crossing right in front of me. Great! I got the camera turned on and watched through the viewfinder for her to come into view.


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Got it! She was quite close to me, both of us on the trail. The young one had followed her up to the trail's edge but was wary of getting closer. I decided it was now or never to get a picture of that one.

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At about this time the mother began stamping her feet at me. This is such a curious thing that they do--does it ever work? I felt like I had been standing in one position for hours and I had many pictures, so I started to back away and the two deer went prancing off down the trail.

I went back to the campsite and headed to the boat ramp (see Paddle Tales for that stuff).

This is a great park and I highly recommend it. Here's the website:

http://www.floridastateparks.org/ochlockoneeriver/default.cfm

Another camping trip to another destination planned for next week. Stand by for that.