Cary State Forest and Campground

Recently Jake and I spent a weekend at Cary State Forest and Wildlife Management Area. We’ve been to Cary before, but hadn’t really been all that impressed. At first glance, you might feel the same. Driving through the main roads, which are mostly sand, you’re likely to think the place is just young pine flat woods and scrub. This year, we found out that is not the case. One just needs to know where to look to find some beautiful woods. While it is true that the area is mostly pine and cypress bottoms, it is the transition zones between the mature pine and swampy areas that we really enjoyed. The cypress bottoms here are not as thick as I have seen in other swamps, and can be walked when dry. This was the case on the weekend we recently spent there. Find some of those transition areas between the two types of woods and you won’t be sorry. I found that once I knew what to look for we were able to find great spots that were open and provided great views.  These woods were different from any we normally spend time in, and we really enjoyed the novelty. As with most places off the beaten path, protect yourself from biting insects such as ticks and mosquitos and watch for venomous snakes.

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During rainy periods this would be a swamp bottom. 8 inches short on rain, and you can walk it.
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More of the bottoms.
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View of transition area. The pines got larger a little further in.
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View of transition area. We really loved this spot. You could have walked quite a distance through the pines. There were game trails crossing in all directions here.

There is always a possibility that you will see wildlife when you visit a forest. There is a healthy population of feral hogs at Cary, as well as deer, turkey, gopher turtles, etc. Watch for sows with piglets, as they can be very aggressive. The area hosts management hunts through the fall and spring but remains open to other uses. If you are hiking or spending time in the woods during hunt periods, it would be wise to wear some hunter orange. You can find some cool plants on your walk, like the Sundew carnivorous plants I there.

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Little piggies running the road.
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Fox tracks in the mud.
Cary Sundew
Beautiful Sundew specimen. One of Florida’s carnivorous plants.

Although we weren’t camping, Jake and I did check out the campground facilities, and everything appeared to be brand new. There are full shower and restroom facilities, along with powered and primitive campsites. Although I don’t recall reading anywhere that walk-up sites are available at the Cary campground, there was signage on some of the sites stating that they were walk-up sites available. All the camp sites were spacious relative to other camps I have seen and were well spaced offering a good deal of separation from the few fellow campers inhabiting the seven available spots. That weekend it looked like only two or three were taken. There is also a dump station on site. Campsite Welcome SignFee Area Sign

Primative Campsite
Primitive camp site.
Hook-up campsite
Site with full hook-up. Brand new concrete pads.

Michelle found a page on the web that talked about a little girl who haunts the forest and hangs out at the camp. Jake and I had to go check that out! Jake found her sitting on the bench in front of the restrooms. IMG_20181103_191522614She seemed nice. Pretty sure all that stuff about her killing people is nonsense. Or is it…

 

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Chicken of the Woods (Southern Style) Laetiporus…cincinnatus and gilbertsonii var. pallidus

Okay, so this week I’m going to talk about what has become one of my favorite finds in the woods. Once you know what you’re looking for, you’ll see them from quite a distance, and if you’re like me you’ll get a big smile on your face when you do!

At least two varieties occur in my area:

Laetiporus cincinnatus which usually grows at or near the roots of Live Oaks and causes butt or root rot.
Laetiporus gilbertsonii var. pallidus is said to be pale pinkish orange to nearly white and is considered common on dead oaks in the Gulf states. They typically grow higher on the tree in the form of overlapping shelves or brackets. These mushrooms also cause a brown rot. When I’ve found them, I’m pretty sure they have been on dead or dying Live Oaks. Dead oaks? For what it is worth I have seen what I believe to be examples of each within a mile or two of one another near my home in Northeast Florida.

The common name for this group of mushrooms is “Chicken of the Woods” and as mentioned above they seem to grow primarily on Live Oaks in Florida. Our Florida varieties of Chicken of the Woods can go from light yellow, to a much deeper yellow with hints of orange. The inside of the mushroom is white and has a stringy texture like chicken breast when cooked. I know people say lots of things taste like chicken, but seriously… these taste like chicken! I think Chicken of the Woods could make the most convincing vegetarian chicken tacos one could hope for. Unfortunately, mass production would be an issue, so I wouldn’t go out anytime soon looking for “COW” taco specials at your local eatery. Of course, if you are a forager and your local fast food place is a park, forest or property that allows collection, while holding the right trees, then get you some!

COW
The Chicken of the Woods from the pictures below getting the wok treatment.

The inner part of the mushroom closest to the tree can become tough or dry in age with a brittle, mealy texture. The outer edge of the mushroom is where the good stuff is found, so if you find them focus your efforts there! Of course, how much you can harvest from that outer edge depends on the size of the whole specimen, and they can get big. Many pounds of big. You’ll feel the difference between the inner portion of the mushroom and the outer edge when you find one for yourself. If you take only the soft outer edge with a sharp knife, you may be able to come back later for seconds if the conditions remain conducive for growth. If you don’t frequent an area often and you see one I vote for taking it if you are allowed, because if you don’t get it something else probably will. I can say with great confidence that you aren’t the only one in the woods that is looking to capitalize on this delicious resource. The mushrooms will become infested with maggots and/or beetles when the weather conditions are poor for mushroom growth, and I sometimes find these mushrooms with the outer two or three inches of the edges eaten away by squirrels when they are fresh. Squirrels giving us lessons in sustainability? Maybe. I don’t mind sharing with the squirrels, but I hate seeing great food go entirely to the bugs!

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It was growing at base of dead live oak and is a rosette, so should be cincinnatus.
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Nearly this entire mushroom was soft enough to eat!
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Notice two different colors of the Chicken of the Woods in this picture. Not all of the other mushrooms in the basket were edible, or desirable if technically edible.

David Arora states in Mushrooms Demystified that the Chicken of the Wood mushroom is one of the “foolproof four” – an unmistakable mushroom. I have his book and use it for reference, but I don’t know if I’d go that far because there are multiple varieties of chicken, and anything can happen. Then again, I don’t have my own book nor his years on knowledge about mushrooms, so… These are quite distinctive mushrooms so once you have identified them correctly once, you’ll probably be good to go.

According to Kuo on mushroomsexpert.com the group of mushrooms known as Chicken of the Woods are now known to contain at least five different varieties which can act as parasites on living trees or saprobes feeding on decomposing trees. Like bounty hunters in the old west, they’ll take them dead or alive. These mushrooms produce various forms of brown rot, and if you see it on your trees there is not much you can do but monitor the tree for safety hazards. I think you should assume that eventually large branches or possibly the whole tree will become unstable. Your own environmental situation will have to be considered when assessing safety concerns. If you decide that you can allow your tree to die a natural death, enjoy your harvests to come!

There are also northern varieties of Chicken of the Woods that look a bit different from our Florida varieties and I have zero personal experience with them, so I can’t really offer much on those. If you live in the Northeast I have seen it mentioned that you should be wary of Chicken mushrooms growing on conifers. If you live up there, I recommend doing research on that variety so that you recognize it when you see it.

Be safe and as with any edible wild plant or mushroom, eat only a small amount the first time you try. Only try mushrooms or other wild edibles you have researched and feel 100% confident on ID of, and always be sure that you have your specimen identified by an expert before you try it yourself. Even better if you can see them eat it themselves and live to tell you how it was! Occasionally people do show sensitivity to southern varieties of Chicken of the Woods. If you aren’t sensitive, you’re in for a treat! If you live in my area, and see what looks like Chicken of the Woods on your trees, I am happy to check it out for you!

Enjoy your hunt for Chicken of the Woods!

 

 

Reference:

Arora D. 1986. Mushrooms Demystified: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fleshy Fungi (2nd edition). Berkeley: Ten Speed Press. ISBN 0-89815-169-4.

Kuo, M. (2017, November). The genus Laetiporus. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/laetiporus.htm

 

 

Tavernier, Florida, and the Upper Keys

 

When my wife and I met, neither of us was in a position that provided us a great deal of disposable income. When we became engaged, we knew that coming up with the money to get married would be challenging. As I’m sure many of you may know, there is really no such thing as getting married inexpensively once you decide to hold the ceremony somewhere other than a courthouse lobby.
My opinion from day one was that we should go to the Keys to get married, as we really didn’t have the money to get married at home and still afford to have a honeymoon. In my opinion combining the two in some fashion was the way to go and I felt I could afford to make it happen. Initially Michelle felt differently and wanted to marry close to home where she believed as many people could make it as possible, so we agreed that we could take a serious look at having the wedding near home. We looked at many venues, and all were well outside what we had available to spend if we also wanted to have a honeymoon trip. Decisions, decisions…
We decided to explore having our ceremony at Michelle’s grandparents’ home that had the space and a nice view, as well as the emotional bonus for the simple fact that it was her grandparents’ home. Over the first few weeks of planning my wife cried nearly every day (I have come to understand since then that this is common) as she tried to satisfy the opinions and suggestions of her fellow wedding planners. I became frustrated at seeing my wife crying so frequently and again pressed for a destination wedding. My thought was that this would reduce the size of the wedding somewhat, lower the overall expense, and still allow us to have a great wedding and amazing honeymoon. There will always be some people who can’t attend a wedding no matter where it is, and if you are unsure how many times you will be able to take such a trip I say that as a couple you do what is best for you during this special time in your life, and hope that everyone understands. After a few difficult discussions about what we could and could not afford and discussing whether the people who absolutely had to be there could be there we agreed to change direction and start looking more seriously at getting married in the Florida Keys.
To prevent a blog from becoming a novel, we settled on renting an amazing home in Tavernier, Florida on the bay side that was able to house us, our parents and the wedding party. The home was on a canal with access to the bay, had the space we needed for the wedding ceremony and had a great feel to it. We managed to have an amazing wedding thanks to help from Michelle’s parents and a couple of their best friends, along with an amazing vacation for about the same amount of money that the wedding alone would have cost us at home. Those memories will live on with us for the rest of our lives. Winner, winner chicken dinner!
Now with the back story complete, on to the reason we are writing this blog entry. We want to kick off our vacation destination and restaurant reviews now as we await our next camping trip in December. I hope you’ll find some reviews of the amazing restaurants we visited in Tavernier and the Keys useful, or maybe they will just remind you of the amazing times you spent there yourselves. If so, please feel free to comment! You may notice that we tend to be appetizer people. Both of us really like to have a variety of flavors available, and this allows us to satisfy our tastes. Coconut shrimp was a thing for us in the Keys, so if you like those, we may have a few places for you!

Anglers Cafe & Live Bait Islamorada – 90515 Old Hwy, Islamorada, FL 33070

Anglers Cafe Storefront

First, let’s talk about a little place called Anglers Café & Live Bait. Islamorada. Unless you fish, you would probably never see it despite driving right past it on your way through Tavernier. It’s a small place with a limited menu. The building is divided in half between the bait and tackle shop and diner. Customers can pass freely between the two when inside, and don’t let the idea of it being a bait shop throw you off. There are no foul odors or anything gross. All the bait is handled outside. There are just a few small tables to sit at on the diner side of the building. Since we were visiting early in the day we had the BLT’s. If you like mimosa’s, rumor has it that those are pretty good as well! The bread was fresh and crusty, and the lettuce and tomatoes were cool and crisp. We went back a few times for breakfast throughout that week before taking our boat out on the bay. The owners/operators were friendly and provided great service and a little free local fishing advice. We’ll certainly stop again if we go back to Tavernier.

Our Food Selection:

BLT – $6.99

MEAT Eatery & Tap Room – 88005 Overseas Hwy, Islamorada, FL 33036

MEAT storefront

 

MEAT, what can we say about this place? Want to know what they’re known for? MEAT! Yes, if you are a fan of some delicious, juicy, meaty goodness, this is the place for you! What’s that you say? You also enjoy fried food? Then oh my gosh, a day that involved a meal at MEAT would be a lucky day for you! Now to be honest I have never been a big fan of pimento cheese and burgers are not a food I crave very often, but this Inside-Out Juicy Lucy burger was A-Mazing! The cheese is stuffed inside the burger and the burger was cooked perfectly to order. The cheese mixing with the juicy burger was delicious! Being a fan of onion rings and bacon, they were in my opinion the perfect topper for this burger. You could add more, but why? Some things are great just the way they are, and outside of a dip in some ketchup I didn’t add anything else to mine. But you do you! The fries were crisp and tasty. I hate a soggy fry, and these were not at all soggy. We both enjoyed the flavor that little sprinkle of parmesan cheese provided.
The establishment has a selection of adult beverages, and of course sodas and tea. If you spend any time in Tavernier, this is a great choice for the meat loving crew! This is another one that we visited more than once. We ate in and picked up carry-out for the house on one occasion.

Our Food Selections:

Inside-Out Juicy Lucy Burger with fries on the side  – pimento cheese and bacon stuffed Angus burger topped with American cheese, lettuce and tomato served with house fries – $12.00
Truffled Bistro Fries with parmesan and rosemary a la carte – $7.50
Fried Onion Strings with beer cheese dipping sauce $4.50

Marker 88 – 88000 Overseas Hwy, Islamorada, FL 33070Marker 88 Bouy

 

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Marker 88 was a beautiful place to have a meal. The bayfront tables were fantastic, and we loved the food. As with several of the other places we visited, we earned at least a couple of frequent flier miles with this place. The coconut shrimp was amazing. If you’re a fan of Bloodline on Netflix, you’ll recognize the scenery and tables at Marker 88. Michelle and I saw the exact table we sat at in one episode. We stopped here on the way back from Key West and picked up a carry out order to take out on the boat to eat as we watched the sunset carry us into one of our last nights in the keys. That night we were also treated to an amazing lightening show from a thunderstorm that was out over the Gulf Stream. It was such a great way to close out our week.

Our Food Selections:

Crab Cakes – $17.00
Hot Blue Crab dip – $16.00
Coconut Shrimp – $16.00

Hogfish Grill – 6810 Front St, Stock Island, FL 33040Cool Hogfish signsHogfish front

You’ll wonder where you’re going as you’re following your GPS to this hidden treasure. Luckily, they have signage to help you out! This isn’t in the upper keys, but we took a day trip to Key West and I imagine most people do the same so I’m sharing a place or two from the day trip that we really enjoyed. Hogfish is well off the beaten path in what I would describe as a keys fishing village. You’ll see lots of work trucks and some residential areas with flavor, but when you get to Hogfish, you’ll know it. The building is eclectic and seems perfectly suited to its location. Parking is slim, but we lucked out and found a spot right in front of the building as soon as we pulled up. Upon entry, it seemed as if there were more locals than we tourists, which is a good thing. We just had one appetizer at Hogfish. The fried Dragon Shrimp with special Dragon sauce and pineapple salsa. The shrimp was crispy, and the sauce was sweet and spicy. The food was great, and it was worth the trip off the main drag to get there.
On our way out, we stopped at their t-shirt stand and bought a few things, including a t-shirt for each of us. Michelle absolutely loved her Hogfish t-shirt, but unfortunately soon after returning home she accidentally splashed a small spot with bleach, and of course it was in the front where it was highly visible. I hated seeing her upset over her shirt so I checked the Hogfish website in hopes they would have an on-line store, and unfortunately, they did not. Unwilling to give up I called Hogfish a couple of times over the next few days until I was able to catch a manager there and asked if I could purchase a new shirt over the phone and have it mailed to our home. He agreed to help me out, sent me pictures of the shirts they had available (not the same ones they had when we were there previously), and accepted my payment over the phone. He even went out on his own time to mail the package to me. I am so appreciative of these guys. If you find yourself in the middle or lower Florida Keys, go check them out.

Our Food selection:

Fried Dragon Shrimp with special Dragon sauce and pineapple salsa – $13.95

What’s the Fish? Rolls and More – 90775 Old Hwy Unit 6, Tavernier

What's the Fish logo

This was a small location that was easy to miss if you weren’t looking. Don’t let the small size fool you. The flavor is anything but small. We split a blackened fish sandwich. While it was not blackened New Orleans style in a white-hot cast iron skillet, the blackening seasoning was flavorful, and the fish was cooked perfectly. We enjoyed a cold soda and our sandwich outside in the tiki area. It was a nice light lunch and the service was great which is as much the reason for our positive review as the tasty fresh food. Give them a shot if you are in town, and tell them we sent you. They won’t know us, but I’m sure they’ll appreciate it anyway!

Our Food Selection:

Fresh Catch Sandwich with coleslaw and fries – $17.00

Islamorada Fish Company – 81532 Overseas Hwy, Islamorada, FL 33036

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Nurse Sharks and tarpon

It was cool to watch the tarpon and Nurse sharks being fed right off the deck where the tables are located! The little spit of land that sticks out and is lit up at night is beautiful, and offers up some great photo opportunities.

Our Selections:

Neither of us really remembers what we had there. The fish tacos and crab cakes look familiar, but that’s about all we can say about the menu, except that we know we didn’t have a bad food experience and the view alone is a good reason to stop so we don’t mind sharing.

We could offer a few other suggestions of cool things to see, but exploring is half the fun so maybe it’s best we don’t. Food isn’t cheap down there, so at least we can point you in the direction of a few places that it just may be worth it. Enjoy!