Posts Tagged With: Travel

Adventure on the Water

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Sun

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Kayaking Adventures at Fort DeSoto (Day 2)

Day 2 of our kayaking adventures took us to Fort DeSoto – a 1,136 acre nature preserve on the southern tip of St. Petersburg. Mullet Key is the big island of the park and it’s shaped like a “V” – the eastern part dips into Tampa Bay while the western part of the park is in the Gulf of Mexico.

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I had read that Fort Desoto is great for kayaking and birding. There’s a canoe trail that’s just about 2.5 miles long or for the really ambitious paddlers (and something that’s on my kayaking bucket list), the trail around the perimeter of the island is 10 miles. We launched our kayaks at the apex and paddled due north on our way to North Beach.

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Mangroves lined the waterways

It was a beautiful day for kayaking! I like to hit the water early so as to avoid as many other people as possible. For most of the day, we were the only kayakers paddling Mullet Key Bayou.

This park is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail

This park is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. This pelican was sitting at the very top of a mangrove tree, soaking in the sun.

This trail was different than the day before at Weedon Island, in that the waterways were much wider here and there were fewer mangrove tunnels. But there was definitely more active wildlife at this park!

The one mangrove tunnel we found - full of crabs and oysters

The one mangrove tunnel we found – full of crabs and oysters

Mangroves

Mangroves

We had quite a ways to go to get from the launch to the top of Mullet Key and eventually to North Beach. We’d paddle for a while, rest in the sun, talk, eat lunch…. one time we were resting and we started to drift closer to shore. I noticed we were approaching what looked like a random patch of sea grass…until the “sea grass” started moving! The waves pushed us within 5 feet of the “sea grass” until we saw a big snout come up to the surface – it was a manatee! The manatee looked like it was larger than our kayaks but before we could whip out our cameras to snap a picture, it meandered away from us. Because manatees are a protected species under Florida law, it’s illegal to chase them and/or approach them unless they come to you. As painful as it was for us to let it swim away without a picture, we bid the beast adieu and went in search of more excitement.

Perfect weather

Perfect weather

We paddled up to the top of the key and as soon as we rounded the tip from mangrove waterway to open water, the wind picked up. We didn’t have to battle whitecaps but there was enough of a breeze and current that made for a long trek to North Beach. By the time we beached our kayaks on the sand, our arms felt like Jell-O.

The open water was a bit rough because of the light wind but the breeze was nice

The open water was a bit rough because of the light wind but the breeze was nice

The tip of Ft. DeSoto is an island (at high tide) but we must have timed it perfectly because we ditched our kayaks and walked around the island looking for shells. It was nice to stretch our legs for a while and explore in the sand during low tide.

In 2005, Fort DeSoto was named America's Best Beach!

In 2005, Fort DeSoto was named America’s Best Beach!

Looking for shells

Looking for shells

A freshly dead horseshoe crab we dragged onto the beach  - about the size of a dinner plate.

A freshly dead horseshoe crab we dragged onto the beach for a picture – about the size of a dinner plate.

Once we got back to our kayaks, we jumped back in the water and headed across the channel to Shell Key.

The southern tip of Shell Key is just a few hundred feet north of the tip of Ft. DeSoto, so it's easy to access by boat.

The southern tip of Shell Key is just a hundred feet or so north of the tip of Ft. DeSoto, so it’s easy to access by boat.

Once parked on Shell Key, we scoured the untouched beaches for more shells. The shells here were smaller than the ones on Ft. DeSoto but we found some very cool calcified coral tubes.

Both Fort DeSoto and Shell Key are great for shelling

Both Fort DeSoto and Shell Key are great for shelling

Sep and me on Shell Key - the water was really that blue!

Sep and me on Shell Key – the water was really that blue!

We walked the beach for a while and on our way back to our kayaks, I spotted something weird floating in the water. Getting closer for a better look, I realized it was a JELLYFISH!

Taking pictures of the jellyfish!

Taking pictures of the jellyfish!

Neither of us has ever seen a jellyfish in the wild before!

Yes, it IS alive!

Yes, it IS alive!

Once we returned home, we found the jelly online and learned that it was Mushroom Cap Jellyfish and is harmless to humans. I must have taken 50 pictures of this thing – I was just so fascinated by it! Thankfully, as we began our trek back to the launch, the wind died way down. The water was calm, there were no waves and it made for easy paddling on our already sore arms.

Calm water

Calm water

On our way back to the mangroves, we found ourselves in the middle of a bunch of mullet (fish) jumping out of the water! There was so much splashing all around us as they leaped and skipped out of the water.

Resting for a picture

Resting for a picture

I think my tattoo does a pretty good job of representing me.

My tattoo

My tattoo: Adventure

We retraced our waves back through the mangroves and when we came out of the tunnel, we heard weird noises…

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… like water spraying…

Dorsal fin!

Dorsal fin!

It was dolphins! We heard them blowing water as they came up to the surface for air! September and I sat quietly in our kayaks, just floating, so we didn’t disturb them. We think there were 3-4 dolphins in this little cove. I think they could sense our excitement as we quietly took picture after picture of them because the more excited we were, the more they’d swim around our kayaks. One of the dolphins swam right UNDER my kayak and came up on the other side! It flicked its head and swam close enough to my boat that had I not been taking pictures and video, I could have touched it.

I did not zoom in this picture - the dolphin was really that close to me!

I did not zoom in this picture – the dolphin was really that close to me!

The dolphins played around our kayaks for probably 20 minutes. When we were entranced by one, another would pop up right behind us! It was absolutely incredible. People pay for that kind of experience and here we were, having a lovely day kayaking and nature-spotting when a group of wild dolphins thought it’d be fun to play with us. AWESOME!

Bye dolphins!

Bye dolphins!

Sep and I could hardly believe what we had just witnessed. We’re still in disbelief that we happened to be in the right place at the right time. The Florida wildlife continues to amaze us and this was, by far, the best kayaking experience we’ve ever had!

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Kayaking Adventures at Weedon Island Preserve (Day 1)

Last week, I decided it was time to get back on the water and go paddling. It has been months since our last kayaking trip and the 80-degree January weather is perfect for being outside. Marsha, our friend down the street, graciously loaned us her kayaks for two days while I mapped paddling routes that we’ve never explored before.

The first day, we were set to paddle Weedon Island – a marshy, mangrove-covered preserve on the west side of St. Petersburg (right on Tampa Bay). The kayak trail is 4 miles of loops, tunnels and swamps and we couldn’t wait to launch our boats!

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Weedon Island Preserve is in northwest St. Petersburg, right on Tampa Bay

There's a big map at the launch but it never occured to us to take a picture of it before we put in...

There’s a big map at the launch but it never occured to us to take a picture of it before we put in…

The trail is marked with these special signs. They’re especially helpful deep in the mangroves when it’s very easy to get turned around. However, in order for the signs to be effective, I’d have to look at them and make note of what markers we passed…

The trail loop is 4 miles long

The trail loop is 4 miles long

Being the excited, impulsive person I am, I failed to check the tide charts before launching our kayaks. We ran a couple of grounds, had to pull the kayaks over oyster beds and eventually, we had to turn around and do the paddling trail backward – finish to start.

Low tide made some of the trail impossible to pass

Low tide made some of the trail impossible to pass

It pays to pay attention to the tides

It pays to pay attention to the tides, I’ve learned

For Christmas, my parents bought me a new digital camera – one that’s waterproof and perfect for rugged adventures. Low tide was a great time to shoot pictures of the conchs and lightning whelks living in the sand.

Testing my new waterproof camera

Testing my new waterproof camera

The low tide also made for the easy stingray spotting! Unfortunately, they scoot away pretty quickly, so it was difficult to take good snaps. Plus, they seem to enjoy resting on the sand in the sun and we felt bad disturbing them.

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Both of these rays were maybe 10-12 inches in diameter

Both of these rays were maybe 10-12 inches in diameter

We’re not avid birders but Weedon Island is a fantastic spot to see all kinds of native Florida birds. We spotted Roseate Spoonbills (they’re pink like flamingos with a platapus-looking bill), Great Blue Herons, Ibis, Egrets and many others that we had never seen before.

Spoonbill looking for shrimp

Spoonbill looking for shrimp

Heron stalking fish in the water

Heron stalking fish in the water

Because we didn’t have a map (nor did we take a picture of the map at the trailhead) and we were paddling the trail backwards, it was up to my [very good] innate sense of direction to get us on the trail and keep us from getting lost. While we were figuring out the numbered sign system, we stumbled upon a beautiful mangrove tunnel. The tunnel was so long and had such a relaxing current, it was like floating down a lazy river. We hardly had to paddle!

September riding the current in the mangrove tunnel

September riding the current in the mangrove tunnel

Mangrove tunnels are so quiet and relaxing and provide nice shade from the direct sun.

Mangrove tunnels are so quiet and relaxing and provide nice shade from the direct sun.

Once we made it through the mangrove tunnel, we finally figured out where we were and the numbered signs were easier to follow. (Before we realized we had turned around and were doing the trail backwards, it was so confusing to go from marker #3 to marker #37!) We decided to deviate from the trail a bit and check out Tampa Bay.

The Bay looks HUGE from the water level - boy did I feel small!

The Bay looks HUGE from the water level – boy did I feel small! That’s the city of Tampa in the background.

Back on the trail again, we spotted some more stingrays and various birds and oyster beds. The last part of the trail (which is really the first part of the trail, if you follow the markers in order) was our favorite – it was 1-2 miles of mangrove tunnels, one right after another!

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We were the only ones in the tunnel for a long time and while we floated through the scraggly branches, we heard little noises coming from the trees…

CRABS!

CRABS!

Mangrove Tree Crabs were everywhere! What we thought were just knots in the bark of the mangroves were really dozens of crabs climbing the plants’ roots. THOUSANDS of crabs scurried around us as we floated through the tunnels. And once we realized how many there were, it gave us the jitters. After a bit of research, we later learned that the crabs are primarily herbivores. Thank goodness.. because there were a ton of them and only 2 of us.

The winding tunnels were incredible

The winding tunnels were incredible

I floated through the various tunnels with my mouth agape the whole time – in awe that something so amazing was just a few minutes drive from our house! We eventually made it through the last of the tunnels and back to the beginning of the trail (for us, the end of the trail).

We made it back to marker #3, right where we turned around at low tide.

We made it back to marker #2/3, right where we turned around at low tide.

It was a successful kayaking adventure. I was still riding the high from the amazing mangrove tunnels, convinced that nothing else could top the experience we had just had. Little did I know, the next day would go down as one of our TOP kayaking adventures of all time…

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Killer Mango Salsa Recipe!

Our 2013 is off to a great start, not only has it been full of adventure already, but we’ve perfected some awesome recipes we’ve found on Pinterest. September and I have both been vegetarians for years but since moving to Florida, we’ve experimented with fresh seafood. (Nothing too crazy, just things like shrimp, mahi mahi, scallops and grouper.) One of our new favorite recipes is this killer mango salsa we mix with sautéed shrimp and eat over quinoa. All ingredients for this salsa can be found at the local farmers market and the salsa itself only takes a few minutes to whip up.

The recipe below makes approximately 2 servings but that really depends on how much of it you want to share. The original recipe is great but I love spicy food – the more my throat burns, the better. Play with the recipe and see what works best for you!

Killer Mango Salsa:

  • 1/4 of a medium onion (I like 1/2 an onion for more flavor – just don’t breathe on anyone afterward)
  • 1 tomato, diced (I’m not a huge fan of tomatoes, so I use 1 but I’m sure 2 would be just as good. Use fresh tomatoes, canned tomatoes tend to have a metallic flavor.)
  • 1 ripe mango, diced
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, minced (I like 1-2 jalapenos plus 2-3 other spicy peppers, seeds and all. A cherry pepper would be great and super spicy. I just add whatever hot peppers I picked up from the produce stand.)
  • Juice from 1/2 a lime (I like to use a whole lime, if not more. Depends on your taste.)
  • Salt to taste
  • Optional: Clinatro (we’re not fans of cilantro, so we omit it)

Mix all ingredients and devour. Serve with tortilla chips, serve over rice, eat it with a spoon – it’s all good!

Tips:
-Don’t like spicy things? Skip the seeds. The oils that coat the seeds are what make peppers spicy.
-Really don’t like spicy things? Substitute bell peppers for the jalapenos.
-Shallots can be substituted for onions; They’re less potent but still have a good onion taste.
-Refrigerate the salsa for 15 minutes after you mix all the ingredients. The longer you refrigerate it/let it rest, the more the flavors come together and the better the salsa tastes.

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Travel Tip Tuesday!

Today’s travel tip: Use a water bottle as a snack container – saves space, stays fresh, and is great when you have dirty hands!

Most of us outdoor junkies have more than one water bottle, so just use one for snacks on your next adventure!

Most of us outdoor junkies have more than one water bottle, so just use one for snacks on your next adventure!

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[How to Throw a] Christmas Luau – Part II

This year, my family changed our traditional Christmas Eve party into a wild Hawaiian bash! Everyone wore flowered shirts, leis and flip flops and the house was covered in palm tree cut-outs and crepe paper parrots. In addition to drinking tropical cocktails out of coconut cups, we served Jell-O shots, gummy bears soaked in vodka and cake pops infused with liquor!

This Santa sculpture sat by the front door and held the leis that our visitors received upon arrival. It kind of looks like he has dreds!

This Santa sculpture sat by the front door and held the leis that our visitors received upon arrival. It kind of looks like he has dreds!

Everyone was "lei'd" at the door

Everyone was “lei’d” at the door

Every wall in the house had something Hawaiian on it.

Every wall in the house had something Hawaiian on it.

Tiki head cups my parents dug out of their basement - perfect for tropical drinks!

Tiki head cups my parents dug out of their basement – perfect for tropical drinks!

Jell-O shots: Strawberry Margarita, Pineapple, Mango and Fruit Punch

Jell-O shots: Strawberry Margarita, Pineapple, Mango and Fruit Punch

Vodka-soaked gummy bears: so easy, so strong, so good

Vodka-soaked gummy bears: so easy, so strong, so good

One of the best parts of the luau was the spiked cake pop bar. Guests selected a cake pop, a liquor to infuse it with and used the syringe to shoot up the cake pop with the liquor! It’s hard to mess up spiked cake pops and we had a variety of liquors to choose from – peppermint, sugar cookie, salted caramel…. delicious!

Cake pop bar - choose a cake pop, choose your liquor and shoot it up (syringe included, thanks to my uncle who

Cake pop bar – choose a cake pop, choose your liquor and shoot it up (syringe included, thanks to my uncle who’s a doctor.)

One of my newest obsessions is Pinterest and there were plenty of crafts I found that were perfect for luaus! I made this cocktail umbrella wreath thanks to a great idea from a fellow Pinner!

Cocktail umbrellas have so many good uses!

Cocktail umbrellas have so many good uses!

I think one of the reasons our themed Christmas parties are so highly anticipated is because of the “costumes” we get to wear. Whether it’s ugly sweaters or Hawaiian shirts, it’s fun to dress up pretend!

My younger brother wore a shirt my grandma brought back from Hawaii. The hat, courtesy of Goodwill.

My younger brother wore a shirt my grandma brought back from Hawaii. The hat, courtesy of Goodwill.

September and me donning our Hawaiian getup!

September and me donning our Hawaiian getup!

After a few drinks, my cousin thought the hibiscus flower clips looked mighty fine in his hair (rather, clipped to his head.)

After a few drinks, my cousin thought the hibiscus flower clips looked mighty fine in his hair (rather, clipped to his head.)

Throughout the night, many conga lines were danced.

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Many family portraits were taken during the evening.

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My aunt, uncle and cousins… pre-partying the actual party.

My immediate family: Brother, mom, dad and myself.

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Mele Kalikimaka!

September, me, and my younger brother Philip

September, me, and my younger brother Philip

One of my favorite family Christmas traditions is lighting the bayberry candle. Each Christmas Eve, we light a long, bayberry candle. The candle has to burn down by midnight and then the next year will be full of good luck. We do this every year, regardless of the crazy party theme.

Bayberry candle burning on Christmas Eve

Bayberry candle burning on Christmas Eve

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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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