The magic of bears: Wekiwa Springs, Florida

Florida is one giant strip mall in many respects and you never have to go more than 2 miles in any direction to find a Panera Bread. It’s also oddly like God’s waiting room, full of old people on their last leg. Surprisingly, it also has some outstanding natural areas that are truly wild, even in urban areas. Exhibit A: Orlando. Nothing is worse than Orlando. Tons of tourists spending their last dollar to entertain their hopeful children whose fantasies will be crashed on the shores of reality. (Note: my parents never took me to Disney World, so I am still bitter about this). Endless shopping malls and outlets where you can buy crap you never knew existed or that anyone would ever want. Concrete, traffic, noise and people everywhere. It’s loud and there’s no headset in the world that can drown out the incessant hum of tourist noise. All this is to say I was shocked by Wekiwa Springs.

The main pool of Wekiwa Springs.

Wekiwa Springs State Park is located smack in the middle of Apopka, Florida, a northern suburb of Orlando. On hot days, the spring fed pool is packed with screaming children splashing everywhere. We arrived on a Tuesday and stared at what seemed at first to be our worst nightmare come true. We hate crowds and we hate noise and there was a lot of both on display. I had heard of the fabled clear waters of Wekiwa Springs which hook up to St. John’s River and I had always wanted to kayak the area. On arrival, we parked in an asphalt parking lot and looked down on this pool which the State of Florida has thoughtfully rocked in around the sides. The manicured feel to the main attraction did not engender much hope in me that this was going to be something I wanted to do after all the hype. There is nothing natural about this pool. It’s nature that’s been made safe for the masses. It is of course, beautiful. The water is crystal clear and the scenery is drop dead gorgeous.

The water is really this clear.

As luck would have it, the launch for kayaking the river is at the bottom of about a 1/4 mile fairly steep trail. There is zero car access so this means kayaks and gear have to be carried down and what goes down, must come back up later.  The State of Florida has a park concession here that rents cheap kayaks, canoes and these ridiculous “exercise” boats you pedal and sit up in.  It didn’t seem to be very expensive for those so inclined, and I confess part of me wanted to just rent gear rather than haul it down and back up. This is because I am a whining sissy.

The majority of people who hit the river stick pretty close to the launch area. About a mile down the river is a commercial marina/bar just outside the park boundaries where drunk college students lay in the sun and occasionally, launch boats to go into the park to annoy older, more sober people. Once you get past this, it’s pretty quiet and you won’t see much except a lot of wildlife in the form of birds, fish, turtles, and the occasional alligator. The current is moderately strong going down the river which makes the paddle seem much easier than it will be on return. The water is very clear. You will see tons of dead trees in the water which I hope were left there to capsize drunken morons who high center their canoes on them. It pays to paddle in the middle of the river to avoid all the deadfall in the water, but you will have to work hard to avoid the incompetent masses paddling out of control.

Taking a left about 2/3 of mile down stream will take you to the Rock Springs Run, which is an 8-mile, narrow, winding and fast-flowing, spring-fed stream with amazing scenery. It is very frequently impassable after 2 -3  miles upriver as the water is very, very shallow. The current is strong and you will be fighting to go upstream against it. On the plus side, you will make record time on the return. Most of the crowds will disappear after a quarter-mile in and if you are quiet, you will see amazing amounts of wildlife.

Rock Springs Run in Wekiwa Springs State Park

This is the very best part of the park. Because I am lazy and wanted to turn around 1 1/2 miles in (paddling against the current is hard, kids), I sent Troy onward and told him I would meet him at the launch. Three minutes later, I got the absolute thrill of a lifetime. Because the current was strong, I was able to practically just rudder to get back without paddling and I was making no noise. With no one near and the only sound being the water and birds calling, I rounded a bend and came face to face with a beautiful cinnamon bear who was at the water’s edge. The moment was surreal and I paddled back to keep myself stationary in the water which was no more than 12 inches deep.  We sat there, the bear and I, five feet apart for five minutes or so, just watching each other. He was curious, but wary and I was mesmerized.  Finally, something startled him and he ambled off into the forest and I watched the sun sparkle on his wet fur. Naturally, the moment was rapidly ruined by drunken frat boys who saw him heading into the forest, but I got my golden moment with just me and the bear and it was fucking awesome. Suck it Disney World. You can’t compete with a bear.

Troy went on to this campsite on Rock Springs run about 2 miles upriver. Sadly, he had the camera when I had my magic bear moment. It's lovely, but it's no cinnamon bear picture.

Also, just because it amuses me, I snapped this quick shot of an actual douche canoe on the river. Seriously, the people in the canoe were BOTH on their cell phones.

Hang up your fucking cell phone. I did not come out here to say "Can you hear me, now? Good."

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Wildlife on parade: things not to fuck with

Summertime is the time that hordes of tourists head to the national parks to enjoy wildlife. The key modifier in the term “wildlife’ is ‘wild’, meaning not tame. Mr. Badger does not want to be petted. Trust me. As you travel in late summer, here are some things you may see and some handy tips.

1. Elk.

Big elk hanging out in Rocky Mountain National Park

Elk are generally fine to be near. Except in the rut. “Rut” is defined as ‘an annually recurrent state of sexual excitement in the male mammal’. Think of it like going to a bar at 2 a.m. on drink and drown night and getting between two drunk guys fighting over a bleached blonde in a tube top. You want to be nowhere near an elk during the rut as they will hurt you. These are big animals and they are not Bambi. The rut gets ramped up by August.

2. Grizzly bears.

Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone sitting on a log, contemplating dinner

Grizzly bears do not want to be bothered by you. They do not want to maul you. They will, however, take time out of their daily schedules to maul you if you fuck with them. The most dangerous place to be is between a Mama grizzly bear and her cubs. This is why the tourist died in Yellowstone this year – he inadvertently violated rule number 1: do not fuck with Mama Bear, even if by accident. Bear spray is a very good idea.

3. Polar Bears.

I have no pictures of polar bears taken by me. This is because I have never been close enough to a polar bear to take a picture. I do not want to be near a polar bear, and certainly not close enough to get a clear picture. The Coke ads aside, polar bears are hard-core predators. Polar bears will seek you out and try to eat you. It doesn’t help that their habitat is disappearing. Avoid the polar bears. Also, do not climb over the enclosure at the zoo to pet the polar bear. He doesn’t like you and he is not smiling at you.

4. Black bears.

Black bear Mom and cub minding their own business

Black bears are generally shy and will avoid you. They are not inherently deadly and they aren’t out to eat you. They can kill you if you mess with them. The same rule applies to all bears in the lower 48: do not mess with Mama and cubs. (See special rule for polar bears above which is basically stay the fuck away from them). I have seen morons in Great Smoky National Park throw things at Mom and cubs to get a better picture of the cubs. This is a spectacularly bad idea. Also, these people deserve to be mauled. Alas, they rarely are.

5. Bison

Where does a bison go? Answer: Anywhere it wants.

Bison are big. Really big. Bigger than the car waiting for it to cross the road. Do the math – that’s 2000 pounds plus. It would be a really good idea to not get in their way. Every year, someone in Yellowstone gets it because they think this is a big woolly cow in the field. Not so much. Bison do not want to be messed with. True story: a tourist in Yellowstone wanted to get a picture in front of a sleeping bison. It was laying down and she thought the picture would be better if the bison was standing. So she kicked it so it would stand up. The bison killed her. Bison 1, stupid tourist, 0. Bison also have a rut season and you would be well-advised to stay the hell out of their way then.

6. Snakes

A water moccasin on the trail

Snakes do not want to be fucked with. Most people get bitten because they are not paying attention. Do not stomp through the underbrush in a pair of flip-flops. If you come upon a snake, do not fuck with it. This means in very basic terms, do not get a stick and poke at it. If you lived in Africa and did this, you would die quickly because their snakes are lightning fast and mean business. Pay attention to where you are and don’t mess with them. Unless you are a herpotologist, odds are you couldn’t quickly identify any poisonous snake other than a rattle snake.

7. Badgers

I have never stuck around long enough to take good pictures of a badger. I don’t have a good enough lens to take them from far away either. Badgers are not friendly and they do not enjoy being disturbed. Think of them like you would your Great Uncle Elmer who hates everyone and would like to hit them with his cane. Badgers are small, but they have sharp teeth and they can haul ass when they want to. Badgers will stick up for themselves and size of the opponent has no bearing on what they will take on. If you happen to cross paths with a badger on your way through the back-country trail, get to steppin’. To get a sense of what I’m saying, check out the video of Mr. Badger versus the Bear.

8. Fire Ants.

I don’t have a picture of these either because every time I get close enough to a mound to take a photo, the bastards swarm out to sting me. Also, ant mounds are boring. Fire ants suck. They are aggressive and they will swarm out in defense of their colonies. For those north of the Mason/Dixon line, you have no idea how fortunate you are. Best line of defense when hiking is wear hiking boots and avoid their mounds. Wikipedia has some pretty pictures of what you will look like if you get swarmed.

9. Alligators.

This alligator is lazy, but he will bite morons

Alligators generally do not want to bother you. They are like middle-aged women in Vegas – they want to soak up the rays by the water during the day and at night, they’re out looking to get lucky. Alligators will not mess with you unless you mess with them or unless you are stupid enough to enter their world. If you’re on land, they are big enough to eat you if you venture too close, but they generally are only after your dog. Do not let your dog go to the water’s edge in alligator areas to play or drink. Don’t be stupid – do not swim where alligators are. Alligators will eat you if you are an idiot. The grim reaper report of fatal alligator attacks is here. Note how many deaths were attributed to people swimming where alligators lurk.

Other animals I would not want to fuck with: killer bees, sharks, wolverines, minks, seals, snapping turtles. If it falls in the animal kingdom and you are alone with it in nature, decide if you could take it bare-handed if you had to. If the answer is either ‘no’ or ‘not without a boat load of collateral damage’ then do not mess with it. Keep in mind that even the smallest animals can be quite vigorous in their defense of self. The Russians did not fare so well in their battle against kung-fu hamster. Size is not everything.

** All photos here were taken by Troy, many in the process of him trying to kill me.

Glacier National Park, Montana

There is something about this place that makes me want to break into a stirring rendition of ‘The Hills are Alive’  even though I really hated that movie. I know it’s an anti-American sentiment, but I wanted to slap every last one of them. But I digress.

You know you want to break into song

Montana is Big Sky Country. I’m not sure what that means since all states have big sky over them. However, when I stepped off the plane, a part of me immediately conjured up fantasies of living in some ranch house with huge acreage while admiring handsome men who bring home trout. This is part of my Legends of the Fall fantasy. I know, Brad Pitt was eaten by a bear at the end (more on this later) and everyone he loved died, but the scenery probably made all that misery worthwhile, at least during the summer when the air is not so cold as to freeze your lungs.

Some scenery:

Brad Pitt probably fished here

When you enter the actual park, they hand you a brochure with a bear on the front that warns you that bears are dangerous. I know Troy brought me here to feed me to the bears for nagging. So far, though, we have seen no bears. This is somewhat disappointing. I wanted to ask the park ranger what time the bears would show up but Troy wouldn’t let me. So far, my wildlife count includes squirrels, deer and mountain goats. I love the baby mountain goats.

Baby mountain goat posing for me

I also was hoping to see golden eagles. Troy saw them when he hiked earlier today, but then he told me the rangers said golden eagles eat baby goats.