Swimming with the Manatees

For my birthday this past April, September and I took a trip 2 hours north of St. Petersburg to a little paradise called Crystal River. We swam with manatees, kayaked the freshwater springs and had a great time exploring the heart of Florida’s Nature Coast. We loved it so much, in fact, that went back for round 2 in November! I had planned an overnight adventure at our favorite motel, reserved our early-morning manatee tour with our favorite captain, Captain Rhonda, and packed the essentials for a perfect trip. We hit the road early so we could kayak all afternoon before checking into our hotel but 30 minutes into our trip….

A popped hood is never a good sign...

A popped hood is never a good sign…

… warning lights illuminated the dashboard like it was Christmas. We pulled off the highway to an auto repair shop and had the car inspected. The news was not good and we ended up having to drive back home to have our mechanic make some repairs. By early evening, the car was “fixed” and we headed north, once again, for our adventure!

We missed kayaking but we made it to our hotel in time for sunset and had a great Thai dinner.

Overlooking the marina from our hotel balcony

Overlooking the marina from our hotel balcony

The next morning we were ready to go, in our wetsuits, by 6:15.

Under the red light of the dive shop at the wee hours of the morning.

Under the red light of the dive shop at the wee hours of the morning.

When we swim with the manatees we always go with the company, Bird’s Underwater. Captain Rhonda is the best. She knows all about the King’s Bay area and Crystal River and knows the best spots for manatee sightings.

Snorkeling gear!

Snorkeling gear!

Bird’s Underwater provides all of the snorkeling equipment (wet suit, fins, mask and snorkel) as well as hot chocolate, coffee and doughnuts for each morning tour!

Fins

Fins

Our first stop was a sanctuary in the middle of King’s Bay. We anchored and scouted for manatees for about a half hour but they all must have been sleeping – we didn’t see any. Next, Captain Rhonda took us to our favorite spot in Crystal River – Three Sisters Springs.

The canals/waterways off of King's Bay are all idle speed, to protect the manatees that live there.

The canals/waterways off of King’s Bay are all idle speed, to protect the manatees that live there.

On our way to the spring, we passed a handful of manatees relaxing in the water. Some came right up to our boat and let us pet them!

Manatee swimming right next to our boat!

Manatee swimming right next to our boat!

The water is a constant 72 degrees but the air was only in the 50’s – so it felt freezing! But Captain Rhonda was prepared and stocked the boat with plenty of hot water for drinks.

Hot cocoa - yum!

Hot cocoa – yum!

September enjoyed a hot chocolate and I had my morning coffee. Thanks, Captain Rhonda!

Cold but excited

Cold but excited

We had a fun tour and as we were leaving the boat, Captain Rhonda asked us if we wanted to come back the next day for another tour! So awesome! We couldn’t believe it. We just love snorkeling and learning about the manatees.

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By putting our digital camera in 2 plastic Ziplock bags, we were able to “waterproof” it for pictures underwater. Unfortunately, the plastic gets rustled around and doesn’t stay clear for long. Many of our pictures came out blurry.

Makeshift underwater camera - not bad!

Makeshift underwater camera – not bad!

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Some of the more social manatees like to be scratched/pet behind their fins. If they’re really happy, they’ll roll onto their backs so you can pet their stomachs!

Some manatees really enjoy human interaction and will swim right up to the boat to be scratched!

Some manatees really enjoy human interaction and will swim right up to the boat to be scratched/pet!

Every few minutes, the manatees have to come to the surface for air… and it makes for fun pictures.

Breathing

Breathing

Bird’s Underwater is THE BEST tour company – we wouldn’t go with anyone else. Captain Rhonda makes our manatee encounters awesome every time! (We hope to go up this spring and get SCUBA certified with her!)

We wouldn't go with any other tour company - only Bird's Underwater. They are awesome. And Captain Rhonda is the best!

We wouldn’t go with any other tour company – only Bird’s Underwater. They are awesome. And Captain Rhonda is the best!

I love snorkeling. I wish I never had to get out of the water!

I love snorkeling!

I love snorkeling!

Two thumbs up!

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So long manatees – we’ll see you again soon!

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Happy Holidays from TKG!

We’d like to wish all of our followers and fans of Top Knotch Gear a happy holiday season and cheers to a great New Year! Below are some various Christmas pictures we took on Instagram. (We’re addicted to Instagram!) Safe travels!

Cheers

 

Tree

 

Salute

 

Lights

 

Prost

 

Ann Arbor

 

Snowflake

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Aloha! Christmas Luau – Part 1

Every Christmas Eve, my family gets together for a wild celebration. It’s super laid back, there’s lots of laughs and a fantastic amount of food and booze. Two years ago, September and I decided to turn our Christmas Eve soirees into a full-blown themed bash! And this year, we’re having a Christmas Luau! (My ukulele was part of the inspiration.) We hunted through the Goodwill stores here in St. Petersburg for Hawaiian shirts for everyone (they’re difficult to find this time of year up in Michigan) and some of them are so tacky! In order to get everyone excited for the luau, we sent them personalized invitations – messages in a bottle.

These little crafts were easy, fun and cheap!

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This project was actually really inexpensive! We recycled some plastic bottles from work, snipped a few Sea Grape leaves from a plant in our yard, and used some leftover scrapbook paper from a previous project.

 

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We rolled the paper in Sea Grape leaves, tied them with hemp (thanks Top Knotch Gear!) and put them in the bottles.

We left a string of hem

We left a string of hemp for recipients to pull in order to get their invitations out of the bottle – all bottles had sand and shells in the bottom (sand and shells from our beach!)

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Turns out, you can mail anything as long as it has the correct postage! It only cost $2 per bottle for postage.

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We fly up to Michigan tomorrow and will post more pictures of the family “hut” and decor. This party will definitely be one to remember – even if the memories are a bit foggy.

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Paracord + Color = Awesome Picture

This is a sweet shot I snapped of September’s Top Knotch Gear bracelet, the Peru, during the Color Run. Have a cool pic of your TKG gear? Post here or on our Facebook page for everyone else to see! Need some gear? Check out our store – we’re constantly adding new designs, cords and cool stuff so you’re ready for your adventures.

TKGColorRun

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The Color Run – St. Petersburg

Saturday was the big day! September and I ran The Color Run 5K in downtown St. Petersburg here in Florida. There were THOUSANDS of people, all dressed in clean white shirts and ready to run.

Bright white shirts to start the race.

Bright white shirts to start the race.

There were so many people, they had to start different heats every 20 minutes.

There were so many people, they had to start different heats every 20 minutes.

In our “swag bags” (the bag you get when you sign up for the race that’s full of complimentary goodies), we had sweat bands, temporary tattoos, free t-shirts and our own, individual bags of colored powder to use at the finish line.

My personal pouch of turquoise color. It was very tempting to open it and throw it at the start... but I'm glad we waited...

My personal pouch of turquoise color. It was very tempting to open it and throw it at the start… but I’m glad we waited…

At every kilometer, volunteers threw colored powder onto runners. First up was pink! And thank goodness we both wore sunglasses – you can’t see anything through cloud of color!

All you could see was a cloud of pink dust - thank goodness we wore sunglasses!

September running through color #1 – PINK!

Next up…

K #2 was all BLUE!

K #2 was all BLUE!

The third kilometer in the race was ORANGE.

The volunteers just get covered in powder!

The volunteers just get covered in powder!

So much color and we weren't even finished!

So much color and we weren’t even finished!

Kilometer #4 – YELLOW!

Approaching the yellow cloud...

Approaching the yellow cloud…

September running and taking video

September running and taking video

The last round of color was at the “finish festival”.

Made it to the finish!

Made it to the finish!

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When prompted, everyone open their color pouches and throws their colors in the air!

When prompted, everyone opened their color pouches and threws their colors in the air!

Crazy color!

Crazy color!

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We had such a fun time running this race! To see if there’s a Color Run coming to your city, click here!

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Grandma’s Thanksgiving Recipe – Tradition or Experiment?

As Thanksgiving approaches and Americans all over the country prepare to stuff their stomachs with their traditional family feasts, I decided to attempt to make my grandmother’s cranberry orange salad. We’re having Thanksgiving in Florida again this year, half the country away from my family in Michigan, but I wanted to try something new – something exciting and special.

I first had my grandma’s cranberry salad last year at Christmas (one of the two times a year I can afford to go home) and I was so obsessed with its tangy, sour delight, that it nearly surpassed my favorite Christmas food of all time – Aunt Jan’s make-ahead mashed potatoes. As I ate the cranberry goodness, I couldn’t help but feel so happy inside.  Yes, it is delicious. But I was so proud of my grandma for taking the time to make it and sharing it with our family, even though I’m sure it had gone unappreciated many Christmases before. I was proud of my grandma, that in her old age, with her shaky hands and severe arthritis, she would take the time to make this family recipe – a recipe she learned from her own mother, many years ago.

I emailed my mom a few weeks ago, inquiring about the recipe (I didn’t have it written down anywhere). My mom, in turn, had to call my grandma (which I suppose I could/should have done in the first place) to decipher the directions on the worn recipe card. My mother and my grandmother discussed the process, step-by-step, as my grandma tried to recall exactly how her mother used to make the salad. Later that night, I had a wonderfully vague, completely confusing recipe in my inbox:

1/2- package fresh cranberries (think this is 1lb; or it could be 1/2 of a 1lb- package. . . who knows?)
 1 orange –  do not peel, but you might want to slice into sections so you can remove seeds
 1 apple, cored but not peeled
 3/4 cup sugar
 1 package orange jello (unclear if it is small pkg or larger pkg. . . “depends on how many cranberries you use, so I guess if you use all of the package of cranberries you should use a large package of jello”. . . don’t you think?)
 1 1/2 cups of water
 1/2 teaspoon orange rind
– She grinds the cranberries, orange, and apple in an old-fashioned, hand-cranked grinder. It produces a lot of wonderful, very sour juice. Save the juice for enjoyment later.  Don’t know if a food processor would work, but worth a try. Add the sugar. Set aside.
 Add boiling water to jello mix. She did not remember if it is 1 1/2 cups of boiling water, or 1 cup boiling water (as per package instructions) and 1/2 cup cold water to help it set up. Chill the jello until just partially set. Mix in the cranberry mix.
 “Then you must do something with the extra 1/2 teaspoon of orange rind. . . this is Grandma Burnett’s recipe from Arlington, I remember copying it in her apartment and she wouldn’t have had that in there if she didn’t use it. . . no, I don’t remember how I make it. . .” Maybe the orange rind is sprinkled on top? Or mixed in for even more orange flavor?  Give it a try.
 
GOOD LUCK
 Mom

I glanced over the ingredients a while ago, excited that I could find most at the produce stand around the corner. (Even Michigan-grown cranberries!). But as I read each line tonight, attempting to make this divine dish, I realized one thing: My family is not good at communication. I don’t have a hand grinder or a food processor – so a blender had to do. Mixing ingredients, I realized that I had something more like cranberry soup – not a scoop-able mixture that will soon resemble a salad. Frustrated, I thought about just freezing the cranberry mixture and eating it like sorbet tomorrow morning. I thought about using it in my smoothies or even putting it over pancakes. But no, that was not the recipe. That was not my grandmother’s recipe. While the instructions leave lots of room for improvisation, this is still my family’s recipe for cranberry orange SALAD, not sorbet, smoothies or pancakes. I called my mom to clarify directions, discussing the process step-by-step, as she tried to recall exactly how my grandma used to make it. Describing what I was staring at in my mixing bowl (and what I was wearing all over my shirt), it was debatable as to whether or not my work would turn out to be edible.

As tempting as it was to call it a night with what I had, I wanted to try and make this delectable holiday salad my grandma ate growing up as  kid – a recipe that my mom remembers from her own childhood – a recipe that (if I can get it right), will be a part of my own family’s holiday traditions someday.

As I write this post, it is still unclear if I even have cranberry orange salad or just cranberry orange goo. But at least I can call my grandma tomorrow, wish her a happy Thanksgiving and let her know that one of her fond childhood memories is a now part of another generation.

Happy feasting!

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Find Your Adventure

I bought this mug when we went to Yosemite National Park last month on our road trip. I just love drinking my morning coffee, thinking about future adventures….

Morning inspiration

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Awesome, Easy Smoothie Recipe

I’m on this new health kick and have been making lots of smoothies for breakfast and lunch. (Dropped 4 lbs in 1 week!) I’m not really a fan of recipes (too many directions – I don’t exactly follow directions) – I prefer to experiment in the kitchen. Smoothies are fun to play with because you can mix a bunch of fruits, veggies and dairy together and the creations are endless! My most recent concoction is absolutely DELICIOUS and was the result of portion-controlled experimentation. Packed with protein and antioxidants, this smoothie makes for a fresh breakfast and is great post-workout.

 

 

Recipe (throw all ingredients into the blender and liquify!):

  • 1 c. lite soy milk
  • 1/2 c. non-fat Greek yogurt
  • 1/2 c. blueberries (frozen)
  • 1/2 c. grapes (frozen OR thawed – I usually freeze them)
  • 1/2 c. cranberries (frozen OR thawed – I usually freeze them)
  • 1 Tbsp. Agave Nectar (optional – for a little sweetness)
  • A couple shakes of ground cinnamon

About the ingredients:

Soy milk – I’ve never been a fan of milk (despite my obsession with cheese), so I use soy milk. September’s also lactose-intolerant, so soy milk is a perfect alternative. Soy milk is a great source of protein and calcium without the possibility of hormones from regular cow’s milk.

Greek yogurt – TONS of protein, twice as much as regular yogurt! It has probiotics that are good for your gut, loads of potassium (good for muscles post-workout), and up to 20% of the daily recommended amount of calcium! Not to mention, it’s a perfect substitute for lots of other things in the kitchen.

Grapes, blueberries and cranberries – all are full of antioxidants that help prevent disease and slow aging. They’re heart-healthy, digestive-healthy, good for urinary tract health, and Vitamin C. In this smoothie recipe, they’re just the right fruits for a tangy, slightly sour morning burst.

Agave Nectar – this is a great, NATURAL substitute for sugar. It’s made from the same agave plants that tequila comes from (no wonder I love it so much!) and doesn’t have any preservatives.

Cinnamon – in this recipe, I add cinnamon for that extra spark. In addition to being delicious, it’s health benefits include stabilizing blood sugar, lowering bad cholesterol, anti-clotting effects, and is a good source of calcium, manganese, fiber and iron.

Enjoy!

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Travel Tip Tuesday

Tip 1: Don’t want to carry your purse when you go out? Use a binder clip as a key ring/money holder. You can clip it directly to your money belt for safekeeping and not have to worry about toting around your purse or bag while you explore.

Tip 2: Use a plastic soap container as a camera case! Most containers are waterproof (or water resistant at the very least) and are just the right size for a digital camera.

Tip 3: One of the best parts of traveling is eating. If you go out to eat or hang out at a bar that has cardboard coasters, consider snagging a few – they make very original, super crafty gift tags… especially for beer drinkers!

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The Color Run – America’s Twist on India’s Holi Festival

On December 15, September and I will run a 5K race (3.1 miles) called The Color Run. Unlike many other races, The Color Run is about fun fitness with friends and family, not speed. It encourages people to be come out and be active through COLOR. At each kilometer of the race, volunteers douse racers with neon-colored powder. Participants wear white shirts at the starting line and by the end of the race, everyone looks like a tie dyed rainbow covered in yellow, orange, pink and blue ! (It makes for great pictures.)

Photo courtesy of The Color Run

Photo courtesy of The Color Run

Photo courtesy of The Color Run

In addition, if you’re familiar with Indian or Hindu culture, you may have heard of the Holi Festival or the Festival of Colours. This annual celebration in India commemorates the beginning of Spring and the defeat of evil. (While not an overly religious holiday in India, it does mark the death of the demoness, Holika, who was defeated and burned by Lord Vishnu. I.e.: good triumphing over evil.) The highlight of the Holi Festival, like The Color Run, is the brightly colored power thrown at people. There’s dancing, food, music and even a wickedly big bonfire.

Who would have thought that Festival of Colours half the world away would inspire a running event here in the states?! Very cool.

Even elephants participate in the Holi Festival!

Look familiar?

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