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Fort Desoto Park – The Most Amazing Water-lovers Florida Campground!

On the road!

We just can’t say enough positive things about Fort Desoto County Park in Pinellas County, Florida. We’ve camped at a number of Florida Campgrounds, but at this point if we had to choose only one place to ever camp again, Fort Desoto would be that place.

I’ll start off by saying this was the longest camping trip we’ve attempted. We stayed a total of seven days in two different sites in our Coleman Newport pop-up and were surprised by the end to find seven days was not enough. Next year we’re aiming for ten days! We scrapped a planned trip to the keys and are planning a trip to Fort Desoto Park again instead. We think that may be as good of an indication of our feelings about Fort Desoto as anything else we can say, but I will of course go on writing anyway.

When we originally booked we could only find a four consecutive day stretch for any of the sites during our window of availability, so four days is what we were planning. After a few weeks of discussing the length of the drive, the effort required and everything we hoped to do while visiting Fort Desoto park we decided to see if we could secure another three days even if we had to book a different site and move part way through the trip. We were able to make those arrangements so we had the opportunity to check out two different sites during our trip.

Our first site was situated “on the water” on the eastern side of the southern end of the “no pet” section of the campground. “On the water” can mean a few things at Fort Desoto. You may find sites that have a beachy shoreline area, a shore lined with mangroves that have maintained access points every so often or sites that are on seawalls. The seawall sites come in a couple of versions. There are sea wall sites where the water remains deep enough to tie off larger boats, and sites like our second site where the water is as much as ten yards out from the wall at low tide. Our first site was of the variety with Mangroves and a strip of grassy median between the site and the water. The median is also a bike and walking trail.

Site #67. Our home for three days.

Out first campsite at Fort Desoto Park was level and well shaded for much of the day. There was a period during mid-day where the majority of the camper was in direct sun but that was only a few hours. Several campers cycled through our neighboring sites over the three days but everyone was either cordial or just stuck to themselves. Either is fine by us. Live and let live! The sites are populated by several varieties of palm trees and it is those palms that offer what feels like a significant amount of privacy. The nights were very quiet. The animals were very brave. This beauty strolled through daily.

Once we were all set up in our first location we got out on the kayaks for a couple of hours of fishing and sight seeing. The water around the campground is shallow in general other than in the channels and it was low tide at that time so most of the area we kayaked that night was less than a foot deep with grass filling most of the water column. It was quite windy so we didn’t venture very far. I don’t think we caught anything, but we saw our first beautiful sunset of the week.

As is usually the case we studied satellite imagery of the area before leaving for Fort Desoto Park. In the event we were unable to launch from our own site we wanted to have an idea of places we could visit with our kayaks. That planning paid off when we needed to decide where to go to deal with the strong winds. We located an area that offered a great wind shadow along the mangroves and after a five minute drive with our kayaks in the truck we spent our first half day casting artificial lures along calm mangrove shorelines. The first cast of the day paid off with a nice Red Drum, aka Redfish for me. The season was closed for Redfish while we were there so that beautiful 26 inch fish went back to be caught another day.

26 Inch Redfish going back.

The wind shadow gig was the name of our game for the week. One of the great things about Fort Desoto Park and the surrounding area is that kayak launch access is readily available. So even if the wind had been variable we could have always found somewhere with calm water to paddle.

Light wind and easy paddling close to the mangroves.

On our mid-week moving day we skipped our morning paddle in favor of packing up and getting moved as soon as possible so we could paddle out from our new site that afternoon. The campers who were in the second site #197 for the two days before us (yes we were stalking them hoping they might leave early) checked out a little early and the camp host welcomed us to go ahead and move in. The new site was wonderful and offered more privacy than some. We did see a handful of other sites that would meet our camping and activity needs even better than site #197 but not many. We hope to get one of those others the next time around but if we ended up in this one again we’d be fine with that too.

Fort Desoto site #197 site is on the northern tip of the “no pet” section of the campground. As mentioned above the seawall there near site #197 is not suitable to float a boat at low tide but did allow us to launch our kayaks no matter the water level. There is an oyster bar along the seawall bordering that site so tennis shoes of some kind are highly recommended. We left the kayaks tied up by the wall one night and they were sitting on the bottom the next morning. This wasn’t a problem for us but maybe a helpful nugget for you. We tried the local practice of dip netting shrimp at night as well but the wind was too strong and the shrimp seemed too few. We did see and catch a few though.

Fort Desoto Site #197 Seawall
Fort Desoto Site #197 Front View

Word to the wise, the raccoons here are well advertised and the legend is real. They operate day and night whether you are in the area or not. We had a whole family living in a palm tree right above our first site. Not only will they raid your camp right in front of your face, they know that bait buckets are tied up to the seawall at night. If the water gets low around your bucket they will open it and eat all of your live bait. Beware!

We again started out our stay at the new site with a paddle out to fish and sightsee. The tide was high that evening so the launch was as easy as can be. The tennis shoes made walking in the water near the seawall there much easier. You would not be wise to walk in that spot without shoes, as you would be seriously injured by the sharp edges of the oysters which can carry serious pathogens. The night was beautiful but the wind was still blowing hard so we again took advantage of the wind shadows along a couple of tree lines. We caught a few fish and I saw a large Snook in shallow water as I drifted quietly by. I would guess it was in the neighborhood of 30 inches. As another fun day ended we watched one of the most beautiful sunsets of the entire trip.

Since this site was open to the wind coming in from the northeast I had to get creative with a large tarp in order to create a protected area for our fire. This was necessary and non-negotiable if we were to meet the need for Smores. They’re a thing around here! We added a small TV and dorm fridge to our set-up this year and they both made this trip better than it might have been without the extra frills. The TV we purchased runs on 110 or 12 volt but Fort Desoto Park has electrical hookups so 110 did the trick this time around. Using the handy-dandy mounting system I created we can easily move the TV between both sides of the the inside of the camper or outdoors in the corner of our canopy where we can relax and enjoy the fire, the view and of course the company.

Sometimes Adventure is Easy to Find

The next couple of days remained windy both day and night so we visited a couple of the protected areas we had already located and enjoyed some easy fishing and paddling largely out of the wind, with one exception…

We were getting to the point where we were unconvinced the wind pattern would break and that we would get a chance to paddle the bay on a calm day. We had really been looking forward to paddling from our site over to Shell Key and so far the wind was not cooperating. After studying maps and satellite photos again we decided it would be relatively easy to paddle with the wind at our back most of the way across to Shell key if we launched from a spot outside of Fort Desoto Park. We decided that once we drifted across to the first of the small keys in the bay we would duck behind them to do a little lure casting while working our way the remainder of the way to Shell Key. We planned to island hop the wind shadows on our way back across the bay to avoid the bulk of the wind and waves on the return to our launch site later that day.

Parts of our plan actually worked out perfectly! So that was nice. Our float with the wind at our backs out to the first key was easy. Too fast, but easy. I saw another large Snook sitting calmly in the shallow water on the backside of that first key, but no strikes. We really didn’t get any bites to speak of that day. We were moving a little too fast on the way across and working too hard most of the way back. As we finished the trip across we worked our way slowly around the furthest keys to the southwest back toward the southern end of Shell Key, and it was at the southern point of that last key where we encountered the toughest part of that trip.

When we rounded that last point we were facing directly into the wind coming down the chute from the Skyway Bridge and beyond straight into that little hook that is the southern end of Shell Key. The wind was really intense and it took everything we had in us to make any progress forward. Foot by foot we struggled our way into the wind until we made our way to the beach along the inlet at Shell Key. That was an intense few minutes of paddling! The shallow water jacks the chop up easily. We took a brief stroll around the beach but at that point we were already dreading the paddle back a little too much to really enjoy the beach.

The first part of the return paddle was the most difficult because we had to start out back into that stiff easterly wind. Once we were behind the keys doing the island hopping thing the rest of the trip wasn’t all that bad. We weren’t the only fools to make the trip. We saw a few other people, so that was nice! We made our way to the eastern shoreline near the marine institute and paddled back south toward our parking area near the toll booths. This trip took a toll on our arms so we skipped the kayaking the next morning and enjoyed sleeping in and grabbing some hot breakfast.

On our second to last day of the trip the wind decided to let up and the conditions were ideal! With forecasts suggesting that we would have an easterly breeze at our backs paddling out to Shell Key and a healthy sea breeze at our backs for our return we were looking at a dream come true. The day did not disappoint. As we paddled over to Shell Key from our campsite we threw some artificial lures and prospected the waters on the way. We hooked a few fish here and there until we hit one area and things exploded! We were catching a fish or getting amazing strikes with almost every cast. Most were Spotted Sea Trout but Jacks and a few others were in the mix. The water was so clear that you could see individual and groups of fish chasing your lures! It was one of those days you can only hope to see every now and again.

Checking out Shell Key after catching a bunch of fish!

It is hard to leave when the fishing is like that but we did want to move on to check out Shell Key. We weren’t taking anything home to eat so all of our fish swam another day. We hung out on the beach at Shell Key, threw some lines out to soak and watched the people. It looked as if everyone in Tampa/St. Pete was out that day. I suppose people were stir crazy after such a windy week kept many off of the water.

There is also at least one mangrove tunnel to check out in the bay area and we gave it a look. We’ve never been in one of the tunnels before and it was really cool. It is so quiet inside.

The tunnels are awesome!

North Beach

We didn’t spend much time at North Beach at Fort Desoto but when we return we plan to spend at least one of our days there. We’ve heard that there are sand dollars galore but can’t confirm that yet. What we do know is that it is absolutely beautiful. White sand beaches, blue sky, and blue-green waters. We’ve seen some beautiful sights but not many any better than North Beach at Fort Desoto.

The Campground

We loved it. Can we live there? Somebody know somebody? Seven days in our pop-up was not enough. If that is torture, thank you sir, may I have another. Have I said enough? No wait, it’s horrible and you should never go there. It’s hard enough to get in now!

Okay, seriously though. We love that campground. Pinellas County Government, bravo, kudos, job well done! It would be a crime if the residents of Pinellas County ever let that park get bought out by developers. You know they want it!

The campground has a section that allows pets, a smaller camper area and a side that can handle small or larger campers. If you have one of the larger toys you may want one of the pull through sites. Our camper is small so I can’t help a whole lot there, but it does seem there are sites that can take the bigger toys. Both of our sites were in the same section and both were within easy walking distance of a restroom.

On the subject of restrooms, all are not created equal at Fort Desoto. We found the restroom at the north end of the campground to be the best of those we visited. It was in better shape, had better pressure, etc. That being said the others weren’t bad, that one was just better!

The Camp Store

The camp store has a quite a few handy items considering how small it is. You’ll find ice, fire wood, frozen bait, some snack foods, morning bagels, and hand dipped ice cream if you go that way… and we do! The store also offers bike and kayak rentals and the park itself offers great biking trails.

The Food

Oh yes the food. We love to check out some local food when we get the opportunity and with Fort Desoto Park being so close to town there is plenty of opportunity! We frequented Billy’s Stone Crab. The food we ordered was good, the drinks were cheap, and the view was fantastic. If you choose the rooftop bar you’ll get a panoramic view of the gulf and if you look closely you might notice some large Snook under the docks.

The Saddest Thing is Saying Goodbye

Yes, the saddest thing is saying goodbye and we were most certainly sad to be leaving Fort Desoto County Park. This was by far our best camping vacation yet and we can’t wait to return. Fort Desoto in Pinellas County has so much to offer it was impossible to see it all while we were there. Looks like we’ll have to do it again!

Fun and Adventure on the Withlacoochee River!

Have you ever asked yourself, “Who invited Murphy?” You know Murphy… that old fellow who likes to throw a stick in every wheel, and usually at just the wrong time? Yeah, that guy. He certainly came along for the first evening of our first day fishing the Withlacoochee River and bay.

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Let’s take a walk down memory lane… We arrived on a Wed about mid-day to B’s Marina and Campground in Yankeetown, Fl. It was a warm and beautiful day in May. Michelle and I towed our boat to Yankeetown with plans to camp for two nights in our 8 x 12 tent and to fish for three days.

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The person in that tent was kind enough to move it left a little bit so we could get into our reserved spot.

When we arrived we found another tent camper had put a little squeeze on our reserved tent site, but the camp owner assured us the person would be happy to slide over when they returned, and that was the case. The tent site was fantastic! The campground has six tent sites, and they are the best spots in the campground in our opinion. That being said, anyone looking to tent camp at B’s should be sure to check expected tides. When we were there the water at high tide was probably a foot or so below the grass-line, but I was told by a boater that the tide has been  known to come up onto the grass. B’s Campground also offers RV slots if that is what you are looking for, but as far as I could tell none are directly on the water.

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The owners were nice and accommodating but didn’t trip over themselves checking on us. That’s a good thing in my book. When camping it’s good to get what you need but to have some degree of seclusion if you want it. Ms. B’s is a family owned business with the owners living on-site.

B’s Marina and Campground offers a small Tiki on the property called the Chikn’ Butt Cafe’ that sells food and non-alcoholic beverages. The food was good and reasonably priced. The breakfast burrito special was great if you like a little spice in your life. They had kick! If spice is not your game there are other burritos and traditional breakfast items one might choose. It looked like the couple who owned the Tiki lived on-site as well. The small office store sells beer if you are looking to toss a few back. This campground is not an early rising place by most fishing standards, so if you are a break of dawn person for any reason and want breakfast or bait at that time of morning, think ahead and have something ready to go. They open at about 7.

The Marina at B’s Marina

The marina in B’s Campground and Marina consisted of a few small boat slips inside a small calm alcove, and several dock spots directly on the river. Some appeared to be occupied by long term residents working and in some cases living on their boats. The main dock on the river has power outlets, the inside slots do not. The owner will let you stretch a cord if needed, so bring a few if you will need to charge a boat battery overnight. Expect a wide tidal swing to deal with at the dock. Michelle is about 5 feet tall and was unable to climb out of our 16 ft boat onto the dock. She had to cross a neighboring boat moored on a lower section of dock to return to shore. The boat ramp was smooth and easy to access, with clear, deep water.

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The marina offers fuel, but again the place doesn’t stir early, so unless you want to stop elsewhere on your way out, plan your fuel needs the afternoon or evening before you want to get on the water. Same deal for bait. None is available at B’s, but there is a bait shop just a couple of minutes away by car and that shop is also accessible by water on the trip on the way out of the Withlacoochee River to the Gulf of Mexico and Withlacoochee Bay.

Withlacoochee River and Bay

Okay, let’s get back to Murphy now that I have provided a basic picture of the campground and marina situation. Michelle and I normally try to get to our destinations early enough to take a sunset cruise in the boat, or maybe even get in an afternoon of fishing if we’re really lucky. On this particular trip to the Withlacoochee River, we did plan to go fishing as soon as possible after we arrived to B’s Campground. We did some satellite research on-line in order to get a general feel for the area. The campground is close to the mouth of the river, Withlacoochee Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Be aware the ride to the mouth of the Withlacoochee River is a slow one for much of the year due to manatee restrictions. Keep that in mind when planning your runs to the open water. It takes about 20 minutes or so to get to the channel in the Gulf of Mexico, depending on your boat’s idle speed.

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After getting the basics unpacked in camp we took the boat out to the bay north of the river mouth. The Withlacoochee Bay  is beautiful with scattered tree covered rocky islands, shallow sandbars and oyster bars spread about the area. Shallow may be the spoiler word in this whole story. We knew the area was about eight feet deep at high tide and we knew the tide would be dropping throughout the afternoon. Charts showed much of the area at about one foot deep at low tide. We expected to watch the sunset and slowly make our way back to a deeper channel that was visible by satellite before the water became shallow enough to cause us a problem. My boat can easily float and even idle in 1 foot of water. Nice plan! Looked good on paper anyway… Everything up to the point of sunset was amazing.

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As we started back at about 1/4 maximum speed it didn’t take long to start making contact with the bottom of Withlacoochee Bay. When we can get up to planing speed my boat will run in less than a foot of water, but there was not enough water to get the boat on plane. I need about 1.8 feet for that to occur. We idled toward the channel for as long as possible as darkness fell. We hit the light switches and… the front running light was not working. We had never had even a hint of a problem with that light before, but Murphy decided it didn’t need to work that night (turned out to be a small amount of corrosion on a connection.) As the tide dropped it was clear that the big motor would have  to come out of the water and the trolling motor would have to go in. The trolling is only a 35 lb thrust motor, which is just enough to move us around if we aren’t fighting a stiff wind or current. Making any forward progress required me to use a cheap push pole along with the trolling motor running at full speed as the tide turned and a stiff southwest wind blew in our faces.

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Michelle was understandably nervous, and I was understandably frustrated with Murphy, myself, the wonderful world of saltwater marine electronics, and the curse of shallow water at night. To top the night off, both of our phones died and our spotlight was in the rear floorboard of my truck. Sinking wasn’t a concern in 8 inches of water and a hard bottom, so that was nice. Had I known the condition of the bottom I could have walked the boat back to the channel. Unfortunately, having no previous experience in the area, that didn’t seem like my best option.

After almost four hours of pole-trolling we made it back to the channel in front of the boat ramp at the end of highway 40 where it meets the mouth of the Withlacoochee River. In total that was probably about a 2 1/4 mile journey. My shoulders and back were pretty much toast by that point. It was a huge relief to drop the main motor back into the water, but the fun wasn’t quite over. There was no moon that night, and the ride back up the river was really dark and without lighted channel markers. There are some serious rock hazards on the trip in and out of the Withlacoochee River, so caution is seriously advised. I at least had a basic idea of how the Withlacoochee River meandered through the coastal marsh  from the satellite imagery I studied previously and was confident we were on the right track back to B’s Campground. Seeing the lights of the first houses as we rounded one of the final curves before getting back into the populated areas of Yankeetown, Florida was fantastic! We started our trip back at about 8:30 pm and made it to camp at about 12:30 am. Like I said, what an adventure!

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The rest of our trip, including on the water,  was much smoother. I fixed the running light the next morning before we pulled out. We had our spotlight back in the boat for the weekend, fully charged phones and no other little “Murphy” issues arose. We also had much better tidal conditions for the remainder of the trip with an incoming tide to work with for much of the day, and then a good deal of  the  early outgoing tide to get back to deep water as we wrapped up our fishing in the early evenings.

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We made some 5 – 6 mile runs north of the Withlacoochee River mouth to check out spots that were indicated on a commercially available chart of the area.  At least one of the islands we visited was for sale! I wish I had that kind of flow, but unfortunately not. Maybe you are better situated. If so please shoot me an invite when you build your new fish camp!

Where you see the white areas on satellite images, there are often oyster bars. In some cases there are clean, white sand bars but they were the exception rather than the rule. Most were oyster bars. We trolled around a few of each of those and saw other boats doing the same. We caught a few fish here and there, but nothing to brag about. A few decent sized Redfish, Spotted Sea Trout and Sail-cats were in the mix. We had a few take our bait, run and never stop before breaking us off. In a place like the Withlacoochee Bay it could have been just about anything that swims so I won’t even offer a guess as to what it was or could have been.

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Take old shoes that you can get wet. Not just flip-flops, but real shoes with decent soles, reasonably thick sides and be sure they will stay on your feet if you need or want to get out on or around the islands. You also never know when you may break down or encounter some other kinds of “Murphy” problems that could require exiting the boat. Better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them. The rocks are sharp, there may be a little muck in some areas and the oysters are plentiful. If you’ve never had the joy of slicing your feet on oysters, take it from me; they are sharp like razors and can be dirty like little portable sewers. Oyster cuts can develop some nasty infections. Shoes are your friend.

Once you make it on to the accessible islands they offer some great views and you will clearly see that people camp on them. It was nice to see waste receptacles on the islands in the form of 5 gallon buckets hanging on trees. It appears people  in the area are taking the time and effort to clean up and to empty the buckets that are left on the islands for refuse. Cheers to you friend(s)! I was pleasantly surprised at the limited amount of litter in the area given the world’s issue with plastics in general and the amount that I normally see in other areas.

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Back to the Campground

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The B’s Campground and Marina restrooms are nice as camping facilities go. They appeared to have been recently remodeled, were nicely tiled, with hot and cold water at the sinks and in the showers. There is an open air shower that accommodates one or more persons along with restrooms with solo showers. There was at times a mild sulfur smell so I assume the restrooms use well water. That was not an issue for us. We’d take those restrooms at a campground any day. The restrooms also had jokes written on small chalk boards that changed daily. We thought that was a cool touch.

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Solo option.

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Large Shower if group hygiene is needed or preferred.

The Chickens

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Be sure to check out the chickens while you are there. When we visited B’s Campground and Marina the chickens were probably about  or 7 weeks old, so when you get there they’ll be big girls and boys and if you’re lucky you may be eating some of their eggs at the Chikn Butt Cafe!

Wildlife Encounters

You’ll see all kinds of wildlife around the Withalacoochee Bay. We saw many types of birds, fish, and a few alligators basking, but by far the best encounters we had were with the manatees and dolphins. We had some really close encounters with both!

We see dolphins in the river, marshes, and near the boat at home and on our various vacations. I’ve had some seriously close encounters with them while surfing as well, but the experience in the boat this time around was different than any before. In this case we were cruising across the Withlacoochee Bay in about 6 feet of water as several dolphins started riding the bow waves of our 16 foot Bass Tracker boat! I could feel their presence as the feeling of the boat against the water changed from their body pressure as they hugged close to the boat. It was so cool to see them riding so close to such a small boat relative to their own size. We continued to see many dolphins from a distance, but none as close as those.

The second night brought us a manatee fest just in front of the boat ramp at the end of Highway 40. The ramp was under construction at the time and the manatees seemed to be taking advantage of the lack of boat traffic. As we fished the evening away, we watched them toss and turn in balls of several animals in the shallow water. Some came near the boat to check us out, and one gave us a little bump before moving slowly away. It’s cool to hear them exhaling, or to see the occasional young calf floating at the surface as the adults get social.

Michelle and I agree that this was a trip to remember. While if we had it to do all over again, we would probably do things differently that first night, but since that isn’t possible we will always have some great stories to tell, and will always have something to laugh about. We’re thinking that we may head a little further south in the future to the Crystal River area. We can’t wait! So many places to see and so little time.

Camping Near Lake George in Astor, Florida

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It has taken a little longer to get around to writing this than we would have liked, but we enjoyed the Lake George, Florida area enough that we wanted to share what we found.
We searched for a campsite by checking out the 39,000 acre Lake George Wildlife Management Area (WMA) campgrounds on the Florida Wildlife Commission website, but unfortunately the WMA provides only primitive tent camping, with no pop-ups or campers of any kind allowed. Finding this to be the case, we searched for campgrounds near or along the eastern side of Lake George. There were several to choose from of various price ranges. I believe two to three of them are owned by the same family. Ultimately, we chose to stay at the St. John’s River Campground, in Astor, Florida.

Camping

The campgrounds were nearly full in the area at the time of our search in the fall of 2019. The St. John’s River Campground only had two open spots available: both very close to the State Road the campground sits beside. The owners live on the property, and they are amazingly hospitable and kind. There were quite a few long-term campers residing in the campground. There is plenty of shade to be found under mature oaks and the campers themselves were quiet.

I drove down on a Thursday night and Michelle joined me midday Friday. I had a difficult time sleeping that first night because of the frequent traffic traveling State Road 44. The vehicles coming toward the east over the Astor, Florida Intracoastal Waterway bridge throw their sound directly into the front of the campground as they round a curve. Our pop-up was the first camper in the front, and with so little material to block the sound I slept very little that night. The next night I placed my truck between the road and our camper. This and just becoming a little less sensitive to the sound allowed us to sleep fine for the rest of our stay. Those of you with larger campers may not find this to be an issue at all.

The restroom facilities were great. One set of showers is dated but functional and wheelchair accessible. There are also a set newly built showers with hand-sinks and toilets that are hard to beat for a small campground.

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The facilities.

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I’m 6’4″ so this was a tight fit, but I was still really happy to have it!

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Lake George, Florida WMA

We enjoyed exploring the dirt roads in our Tacoma and got off the beaten path on foot as well. Much of the area is comprised of mixed hardwood swamp and pine flat-woods. The borders between the two types of habitat were nice.

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A couple of the fire breaks that we walked snake past beautiful open grassy areas that border mature pine flats. Some of the lanes between the mature pines are open, with only a little undergrowth and loads of deer sign. We found one lane that had a deer rub or scrape about every 10 yards, and we saw deer on multiple occasions while in the area. Although I’ve never known any hunters who seemed overly excited about the Lake George WMA hunting opportunities, it has something to offer.

Lake George

We didn’t spend any time on the lake, which is world famous for the fishing opportunities it offers, and is also somewhat famous for a picture that has been widely shared on-line of a large alligator swimming across the lake with a deer in its mouth. Avoiding that fate is always on my top ten list of things to do in Southern waters. We considered taking the kayak down with us, but Michelle is a small person, and I think it is just too easy for her to imagine herself taking that deer’s place on a lake that size.

Oh well, we found plenty to do anyway and if you really want to fish you could wet a line at the local marina docks, as one of our camping neighbors did every day. He did well if his fishing stories are a reliable measure. He’s one of the seasonal regulars, so who knows, you may meet him and hear a story too.

Local Food

As usual we scored in the food arena. There are at least three places within a mile of the campground. Two serve lunch and dinner: the Blackwater Inn Restaurant and Lounge and William’s Landing are both in the same building on the western bank of the Intracoastal Waterway just south of Lake George. We tried William’s Landing but not the Blackwater. The Rose Garden Family Restaurant is just east of the St. John’s River Campground on State Road 44 and looks to be the place to be for breakfast, but we found that they also serve a great lunch.

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The Rose Garden is only open from 7 am to 3 pm so plan wisely if you want to give them a try. I certainly recommend that you do. During our stay we ate at the Rose Garden for breakfast and lunch twice, and all were good. I’d say the gyro was my favorite lunch item.

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Michelle tried a fried chicken sandwich and said it was good but she could have gone another direction and maybe been more satisfied. On a positive note, everything comes with a little soup.

Williams Landing served an older crowd that evening: most of whom I thought were locals.

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The food at William’s Landing was good in general but the fried mushrooms were some of the best I have ever been served. Even Michelle liked them and they are generally not her thing. The seasoning was great. I also had a freshly Panko breaded fish sandwich and fries. Both came out perfectly cooked.

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We saw one thing at Williams Landing that I didn’t know was still in use: a cigarette machine. I saw these everywhere growing up, and prior to this trip I can’t tell you the last time I had seen one. It had been a many years. Also pretty sure they didn’t sell for $8.00 per pack then either. Really glad I don’t smoke!

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Mushroom Hunting

There were mushrooms everywhere! Unfortunately, this was a state forest so we couldn’t take any of the perfectly edible mushrooms we saw. Suillus Dicipiens were everywhere in the pine woods and most were in pristine condition.

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Suillus dicipiens

Had this been a place that allowed it, one could have engaged in an epic foraging session. We captured some fantastic pictures of mushrooms in their prime as others simply withered away. We also saw an amazing flush of Russula hixonii, described by Arlene Bessette as a “rare and beautiful” mushroom.

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The oak leaves are a couple of inches long to give you an idea how large the caps can be.

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Notice the “Pepto” pink in the front, the white flesh and the browning gills in that middle mushroom? That’s a tell. Looks like something has been eating them.

Bessette also mentions in a paper she co-authored that the mushrooms were or are being considered as a possible “Red-line” species because of the fact that their distribution is thought to be quite limited. With the rise in the numbers of people joining mushroom groups and sharing pictures of these russula on social media, I personally have begun to question how rare they really are, but I am primarily exposed to mushroom hunters in the state of Florida. I have seen Russula hixonii posted and identified by experts numerous times in those groups. I have personally found them in northeast, central east, and central Florida in a few locations. They are large and beautiful. Their “Pepto” pink is distinctive and their browning gills can be another sure sign when you think you see the right color on the cap. They dry to be much smaller than their original size when fresh. Mrs. Bessette mentions that they may smell like cake when drying, but I can’t say that I have found this to be the case in the couple of samples I have dried over the years.

There were some great looking Pulcroboletus floridanus around too. These are another edible mushroom if you happen to find yourself in a place where you are allowed to harvest them and know how to identify them. All that heavy reticulation on the top of the stem is something to look for on these mushrooms. The caps have a bit of a tart taste. Not my favorite, but when I am allowed to take them I will certainly grab a few.

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Pulcroboletus floridanus. I love that beautiful reticulation.

We looked around in the St. John’s River Campground and found a couple of boletes, and bunches of Armillaria tabascens, aka Ringless Honey Mushrooms. The Honeys were well past prime and too far gone to eat. Armillaria tabascens are also an aggressive tree pathogen, so you don’t want to take them home to your own yard, as there is a reasonable chance they will kill a number of your trees over time and they don’t seem to be all that picky about the types they infect.

All in all, this was another successful trip that we greatly enjoyed. We are not sure whether or not our paths will take us back to Lake George, Florida area again, but if it does we’ll be happy about it!

Fishing and Sightseeing Indian River Lagoon

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Sunrise on Indian River Lagoon.

Finally! We visited Indian River Lagoon, a place I’ve personally wanted to see for years! Almost bucketlistish! Let’s make that a word. Indian River Lagoon and the nearby Mosquito Lagoon are world renowned for the fishing opportunities they afford. Specifically both areas are known for world class Spotted Sea Trout and Bull Redfish. Michelle enjoys the sport of fishing as much I do, so when we decided to make a quick weekend trip for her birthday, she chose Indian River Lagoon! How could I refuse?

We rented a small two bedroom one bathroom cottage on a canal in Edgewater, Florida just off of Indian River. The rent was less than $100 per night plus a few reasonable fees. We managed to make it to town early enough to get a first night sunset run in the boat.

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The canal! Headed to the home away from home.

It was beautiful, but we also quickly learned where the area got its name. The mosquitoes were out in force! Thankfully we brought along bug spray thinking that flying bugs might be a problem, and the spray was definitely needed that night in the Indian River Lagoon.

Fishing

I’ll start by saying, we didn’t exactly have a record weekend when it comes to the number or size of fish that we caught in the Indian River Lagoon. We caught a few, and had a few big ones break us off. The highlight of the fishing was probably the two nights we fished the well lit waters around local docks. You could see Snook and Sea Trout hovering in the current around the docks. It was a great time watching them strike our baits and fighting them to the boat. So, while we didn’t land any record fish, we definitely enjoyed the fishing.

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Time for a little night fishing action in the backwater  and the docks!

Sightseeing

This was the best part of our trip, and certainly the part that left us with the most entertaining stories! The views were beautiful as soon as we left the canal, with the mangrove back-country directly east of us. The sunsets were beautiful with rain showers falling in the distance.

 

A short run with the outboard motor allowed us to spend most of our time using the trolling motor in waters averaging one to three feet deep. When we weren’t actively fishing we took some sightseeing runs along the eastern shoreline down to the wide open main body of the Indian River Lagoon, along with many of the backwater areas in between.

Prior to going on our trip we reviewed satellite imagery that showed a parking area connecting the lagoon shoreline to an ocean access. We thought this was a great opportunity to get the best of both worlds. We planned to fish most of the the morning, run down to beach the boat on the lagoon side, walk to the beach side for a swim, then return to the boat to run back home for a late lunch. The plan worked out perfectly! Well, almost…

We beached the boat on the east side of the Indian River Lagoon as planned, and started walking across the beach and lagoon access parking lots. The signage suggested pretty clearly that we were in a public area. As we walked across the lot, a grey haired gentleman gave us a little giggle. I just thought he was feeling friendly… We walked down the boardwalk beach access toward the water and all was well. As we stepped onto the sand, we were both focused on the water in front of us and looking forward to sweet relief from the blazing hot day.

It was then that my eye panned slowly left, only to see a rather large, naked man walking toward me down the beach. I thought, ” Well he’s bold. Pretty sure he is going to get a ticket.” Then I panned my eyes right, only to see two more men walking toward me in their well tanned birthday suits. Okay then, there wouldn’t be any public indecency tickets passed out on the beach that day, because clearly… we were on a nude beach! I looked over at Michelle and told her what I had just discovered, and it was then that she also looked around to take in the view. Happy birthday babe!

We weren’t the only ones wearing swim suits though. That being said, on this particular beach, the men seemed to be the only ones feeling particularly “free”.  The ladies seemed to keep their suits on. After a moment of laughter about our unexpected surprise, we took our swim in our swim suits, as an older guy with a long grey beard surfed naked about one hundred yards to our north. Hang five brother. There are so many directions I could go with jokes right now… but this is a family blog! We swam for about ten minutes and then went back to the boat to return home for our planned late lunch with a funny story to tell!

The Wildlife

The wildlife in the Indian River Lagoon was plentiful. Manatees seemed to be everywhere. We saw them every time we stopped the boat, and dolphins were pretty much the same. The difference is that the Manatees don’t hurt your fishing. Not sure I can say the same about the dolphins. They were like aquatic stalkers at times. But first the Manatees. I’ve seen them plenty of times at home, so they aren’t new to me at all, and I have seen them interacting the same way in my home range as we did in the Indian River Lagoon. I have never seen them interact in the way that you’ll see in the video for such an extended period of time. Mating? Maybe. It went on and on, so we eventually just went on our way. Below is a short clip of the Manatees.

Now, back to the dolphins. We saw them during the day frequently but they didn’t hang out close to us. The nighttime excursions to the brightly lit local docks were a very different situation. Those dolphins were on to us as soon as we started fishing, and they followed us to every dock. I wish I owned a better camera that would have been able to show them in such low light, but no such luck. You could hear the dolphins exhale through their blowholes, and what started as slow, relaxed breaths became more frequent, louder, and more abrupt sounding. It was as if you could actually feel them getting more excited at the thought of stealing a fish. At least, that was my impression of what they had in mind. People fish those docks all the time, and I’m guessing the dolphins have become efficient Indian River Lagoon fish thieves.

There were seabirds abounding in the area. We saw Pelicans, Roseate Spoonbills, Herons, Egrets, Ospreys and more. No doubt the experienced birdwatchers out there would see many more.

Food!

We ate at the Florida Roadhouse, which was good, but didn’t exactly wow us. We also ate at a local seafood spot called Goodrich Seafood and Oyster House that you may never find unless you know to look for it. The food there was good as well, and we would go back, but again it didn’t leave us wowed. It was right on the water, but it was pouring rain while we were there so we sat inside.

A little strip mall breakfast place called C’s Waffles was the highlight of our food experience in Edgewater. It was a small family owned place that has been there for many years, seemed to have a solid clientele, a great staff, and fantastic breakfast food. We stopped in for breakfast on our way out of town. Michelle had the waffles and I had hash-browns, eggs, bacon and toast. It was all delicious. Michelle said the waffles were up there with the best waffles she’s ever had. Bravo C’s. You made it feel just a little OK to be leaving our short vacation behind. Until we meet again…

 

 

 

Camping at Hillsborough River State Park

Hillsborough River State Park covers nearly 3383 acres, 1040 of which are upland, with the remaining acreage being submerged or mostly wet. The park is located off of Highway 301 about 15 minutes North of Tampa. Hillsborough River State Park is composed of Pine Flat-woods, mature hardwood hammocks, and low floodplain swamp. The park was opened in 1938 and was one of the earliest Florida “New Deal” projects according to the Florida State Parks website.

Camping

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This looked like a small pond the next afternoon.

All types of camping are available at Hillsborough River, from primitive camping to RV sites with full hook-ups. You have to hike in to reach the primitive camp, but maybe that’s the idea if you really want to get the full experience of primitive camping. We didn’t personally walk to the camp so can’t offer any specific details as to what it’s like. The main campground looks to have taken some damage from Mathew and Irma the last couple of years, but nothing that would interfere with camping now. Many of the sites had large sections of oak or pine trees bordering their edges. I’m guessing it was easier to use them than move them after they came down. A few buildings had tarps on their rooftops.

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Camp while it was dry.

The camp sites were for the most part pretty level. One fairly significant issue you’re likely to encounter at this campground in the summer rainy season is minor flooding. Being from Florida ourselves, we know to expect summer storms in the afternoon, but the layout of this particular area seems to exacerbate the situation a little. The sites that sit to the inside of the camp site loops probably held the least water while it was raining, but they also have the fewest trees, shade, etc.

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The water had come down some by this point.

If privacy is an important aspect of your personal camping experience, the outer sites may be your best bet. You may have to make a concession one way or the other. Either deal with the water buildup on the outside when it rains hard, or deal with the lack of privacy on the spots with better drainage on the inside.

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Waterfront property!

Our site had water up to about 4 inches deep thanks to rafts of leaves creating dams. We cleared the dams and created a small trench to drain the fire pond… I mean pit… that looked like a pond… The site drained fairly quickly thanks to our efforts. We kept our wood covered and elevated so we had a fire going strong before the rain had even completely subsided.

Trails

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Love this!

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Short trail to the rapids.

Approximately seven miles of trails meander through the old growth woods and along the river’s edge. We didn’t have the opportunity to explore the trails, but these particular trails along the river appeared from the canoe to be more suitable for hiking than biking. The wetlands trail is said to be appropriate for mountain biking, but as a result of our short stay there wasn’t time to check it out. A bike lane runs the entire look of the paved road in the park.  The area around the campground has some fairly open woods that looked ripe for exploration on foot, but if you do so I advise taking precautions against ticks, chiggers and as always watch for snakes. There are fitness stations at some of the viewing platforms around the park, so as you make your way around to check out the natural sights, you can enhance your workout at the same time.

Wildlife

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This thing was as big as it looked! Probably three inches or even a little more from tip of one leg to the tip of leg on opposite side.

As you can see, Florida always offers a large supply of crawly critters, but Hillsborough River State Park offers opportunities to view a wide range of wildlife. Bird watchers might see large read-headed woodpeckers, wading birds, hawks, and many other species of birds. Feral hogs abound on the property, to include the campground areas. Sows with babies can be very aggressive, so steer clear if you see them. There were clear signs of fresh hog rooting a few camp sites down from our own, so no doubt they are there in the evenings. Alligators are a possibility in any of the bodies of water on the property, so keep an eye out and never feed them.

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Hello Alligator!

If you walk, bike, or drive around the park loop in the early morning or late afternoon, you may find a rabbit, deer, or feral hog feeding just around the next corner. We caught a pretty little doe feeding in the median around the parking area near the pool, and had a quick sighting of a rabbit as it darted back into the brush.

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Don’t think I don’t hear you back there…

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Fishing – Canoeing – Kayaking

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Beautiful old Florida.

The park has canoe and kayak rentals at the park store, or a small launch area for those who bring their own.

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Public kayak launch area.

The supply is limited if you do want to rent canoes or kayaks, so earlier is better to be sure to get a ride. There seemed to be more kayaks available than canoes. They actually ran out of canoes while we were on the water, and when we returned with ours someone else was in line waiting to take it. The canoe’s are just a little “tippy” at first, but we got used to it and stayed upright the entire ride with only one close call. I have seen many couples canoeing or kayaking together over the years, and for some it seems to truly test the relationship. Luckily, Michelle and I are great boat companions and seem to stay pretty well in sync when on the water. So far we have come out of our aqua adventures largely unscathed mentally and physically!

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Really smooth float.

The ride down was calm and slow. We mostly drifted with the current for the two miles you can travel with park equipment. We threw a couple of lures around along the way but didn’t have any luck. Obviously the trip back against the current is more challenging, but it wasn’t that bad. The store employees told us that we couldn’t paddle north from the launch because it gets too shallow, and the rapids, which are said to be Florida’s only Class 2 rapids, are protected.

The river offers a number of freshwater fish species for those who enjoy fishing. Large-mouth bass, catfish, pan fish, gars, and the ever aggressive Shoepick, a.k.a. Bowfin, a.k.a. Mudfish. We caught a Shoepick of about 3 or 4 lbs in a small shallow stretch of backwater right behind our camper. If you aren’t looking to eat everything you catch, they’re a great fight. If you’re a Cajun you just might have a family recipe for them! Michelle and I saw a fish chasing bait along the opposite bank from us at the public kayak launch in the late afternoon. I threw a floating frog lure about six inches off of that bank, and in the blink of an eye a fish absolutely crushed the lure! The fish was so large that when I attempted to set the hook, I cracked my rod in half and the plastic frog came flying back at me! I’m guessing it was a fairly large gar.

Hunting

No hunting allowed.

Foraging

Hillsborough State Park is not open to foraging. You are free to explore and identify, but items can’t be removed from the park. There were numerous mushrooms and other forage foods to look for and identify around the area. I found several types of mushrooms in the campground alone, some of which are edible or medicinal, but as stated couldn’t take them. Below are some the the more visually appealing mushrooms we came across.

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These looked a little like oysters but not convinced they were.

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Gymnopolis sp. Toxic.

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Clamshell Polypore

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Favolis brasiliensis.

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Favolis brasiliensis. top view.

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Schizophyllum commune.

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Neolentinus lepideus a.k.a. Train Wrecker – edible if you are somewhere where you can keep them. Never eat wild foraged foods without the advice of a local expert.

Pool

The campground has a large pool that serves 261 guests. The pool increases gradually in depth from the outside toward the center from about six inches deep to five feet deep in the center. The pool does require a separate fee of $4 per person per day. There are additional fees for lawn chairs, and no outside food or drink is allowed in. There is a small dining area and kitchen in the store at the pool that serves basic sandwiches and sides. Lunch would probably average about $10 or $12 per person. Park admission is $6 per vehicle.

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History

Many of the original facilities built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the group who built this and other state parks as part of the “New Deal” works in Florida, remain on the property today. I love the idea that since the day the park opened, everyone who has gone through the gates at Hillsborough River State Park has seen largely the same sights, just as the designers intended them to be seen. There is a replica of Fort Foster on park grounds that is open to the public. The fort was used during the second Seminole war and is said to have protected an area of the river frequently used for crossings. Paid tours are available on weekends or by reservation.

Location and Links:

Hillsborough River State Park – 15402 U.S. 301 North Thonosassa, Florida 33592

Contact Info

813-987-6771 or 813-326-5867 Open 8 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year
Fort Info

Pool Information

Information on pool operations and closures is available at the National State Park Concession office: 813-986-6772. Park entrance fees are not refunded for patrons unable to enter pool once capacity has been reached.

Trail Map Link – FloridaHikes.com

Hillsborough River State Park trail map

Osceola National Forest – Camping and Recreation

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Osceola National Forest covers nearly 200,000 acres of land and is located northeast of Lake City, Florida and is bisected by Interstate 10.  Osceola is a “Flat-woods” forest composed of low pine ridges with Cypress and Bay Swamps riddling the area. The forest was named after, and in honor of the well-known Seminole Indian warrior, Osceola and became a national forest in 1931 by Herbert Hoover’s Presidential proclamation. The area helps to protect Pinhook Swamp, the Southern end of the Okefenokee Swamp.

Camping

There are camping sites on the area to suit most tastes. Ocean Pond Campground, Cobb Camp and Hog Pen Landing are the three main camping sites, but there are other designated hunt camps. All three of these camping areas are located just south of I-10, or about an hour west of Jacksonville, Florida. This trip was planned on short notice and ocean Pond camp was full, so we stayed at Cobb camp this time around.

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Cobb camp has quite a few sites, and I don’t recall ever seeing the campground full. There is a Civil War re-enactment event that happens at the nearby Olustee Battlefield in February every year, and the campground is in more demand during that week. Things pick up again during the early weeks of deer hunting season, and again in the Spring for turkey hunting season, which happens to coincide with Spring Break season. We camped during this busy period and were still able to get the camping sites we wanted at Cobb. The Cobb Camp sites range from sitting beside the main forest road, to sites further back into the trees. During hunting seasons, camping anywhere other than  marked sites is prohibited. During non-hunting seasons you can camp anywhere in the forest that is not closed to public access.

Two of the campgrounds sit directly on the shores of Ocean Pond, a 1760 acre natural lake. The largest is the main “Ocean Pond Campground” that offers 67 campsites, with 19 offering electric hook-ups and some sites sitting waterfront. The Ocean Pond camp also offers shower and toilet facilities. A dump station is provided near the entrance, but the sites themselves do not have sewer hookups. Ocean Pond camp sites range from $8 to $18 per night. The other is “Hog Pen Landing”. This campground does not offer hook-ups or amenities, and spaces are quite limited.

Fishing and boating are allowed in the lake. I fished ocean Pond once before and didn’t do very well, but I’m not going to pass judgement based on one day of poor fishing, so I say have at it! The campground and lake offer great scenery, to include large old cypress trees with their Spanish moss dangling like jewelry above the water.

Trails

Approximately twenty-three miles of the National Scenic Trail meanders through Osceola National Forest, so if nature watching is your game, this might be a great place to go! There are miles and miles of 4 x 4 trails that can be used by licensed and unlicensed vehicles alike. There are some rules for off-road vehicles, such as no late night trail riding, and you must remain on numbered roads but otherwise you are free to explore. The forest service offers trail maps, but I’ve tried to save you the goose chase. You can find Osceola trail maps in the “Links” section below.

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Cross-roads.

The basic WMA map will not provide you all of the info you need to navigate the four wheeling trails, so if you have a poor sense of direction or just like to have an insurance policy, take the trail maps along for the ride. Also be aware that there are some deep mud/water holes along the way, and trees do sometimes fall across the trails. There is also a very real chance you will encounter other riders coming in the opposite direction. On this trip I came head on with a side by side on a blind curve and had to take it into the palmettos to miss them. Caution is encouraged even on familiar trails!

Many of the deeper holes seem to be where swampy areas surrounded by pine and palmetto flats cross the Osceola Forest trails. During wet seasons the water in some of these spots can be several feet deep, without considering the depth of the mud at the bottom. It is not uncommon to see a second trail bypassing some of these deeper holes. In other cases, you either go through, or go back. Your choice! I’ve seen an Exterra 4 x 4 club and a Jeep 4 x 4 club out riding the trails more than once, most of them sporting snorkel kits on their trucks. If you are going to make a serious run at the trails in a vehicle and don’t intend to backtrack, I would say the snorkels are a good addition to your equipment. During some times of the year the area is bone dry, so just pay attention to what the weather, be prepared, and go have fun!

Wildlife

The area offers a wide array of wildlife for your viewing pleasure. Alligators are an ever-present possibility in any Florida body of water, so be smart and be aware. Never feed wildlife! Black bear populations are on the increase in Florida. Years ago I never saw bears in Osceola, but over the last three years I have seen bears on three occasions.

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Bear talk.

The most recent sighting was a mother with two cubs, and is featured in one of our previous blogs. Check it out! The “no feeding” rule goes double for bears. Feeding a bear is likely to eventually end in the bear’s death when it becomes a “nuisance bear.” Florida held a bear hunt a few years ago as an effort at population control, but activists were successful in their efforts to have the next planned hunt cancelled before it occurred. No matter your position on hunting, the growing bear population and the likelihood of more human/bear interactions will mean the issue will have to be addressed at some point. Your guess is as good as mine on how the issue will ultimately be addressed. Personally, I suspect that the bear hunt will return in some form.

Keep an eye out for trees with white-painted rings around them. These are known nesting sites for the Red Cockaded Woodpecker. I see these large woodpeckers frequently in Osceola, and if you don’t see them, you are likely to hear the rather loud sound created by their pecking on trees. Once you know the sound of that and their call, you’ll always know when Red Cokaded woodpeckers are around. You may also be able to catch sight of endangered Gopher Tortoises, Eastern Indigo Snakes, or Florida Panthers. You can see a baby Gopher Turtle in one of our other blogs. Check it out if you have time. Don’t touch these animals if you do see them. They are protected for a reason. The forest is also home to more common animals such as skunks, coyotes, foxes, opossums, wild turkey and squirrels. Bobcat tracks were in abundance during this trip. Watch for snakes! I have personally seen some very large Timber Rattlers, Copper Heads and Water Moccasins in the area, along with an assortment of non-venomous species.

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Bobcats on the prowl!

Feral hogs are becoming more common in Osceola Forest. Prior to about 3 years ago, I had only seen hog sign in one area. Now I see it in most areas I frequent, and each year the sign becomes more abundant and obvious. The amount of damage a few feral hogs can do is amazing and sad at the same time.

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Feral Hog Damage in another North Florida Wildlife Management Area.

Fishing-Boating-Kayaking

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Ocean Pond boat ramp.

There is of course Ocean Pond. The pond holds many species of fresh water fish, to include Large Mouth Bass, catfish, and several popular pan fish. The Ocean Pond campground offers a boat ramp for campers, as does Hog Pen Landing. This camp does not have amenities. Cobb Camp has a couple of small ponds nestled in among the campsites which hold a few fish. I saw a few bass along the edges of the pond as I explored the area. I’ll be taking a rod and reel with me next time I go!

Hunting

As stated earlier, the area hosts  hunts from September through March. During these times camping is allowed only at designated campgrounds. Throughout the remainder of the year camping is allowed anywhere in the National Forest open to public access. When camping during hunting periods, be cautious, and personally I advise that if you are going to be using the trails even as a non-hunter, I would wear brightly colored clothing. Blaze orange would be ideal.

Foraging

Unlike most state parks, foraging in a National Park is allowed, but only for personal use. Please don’t ruin it for others by trying to forage for products to sell. There have been issues in Florida with people collecting Saw Palmetto berries by the truckload to sell to vitamin makers and the like. Taking wild forage on this scale creates a hardship on animals such as deer and bears that rely heavily on these foods for their basic survival.

As previously stated the forest area is expansive, and offers a number of different habitat types to explore. There are hardwoods scattered here and there, often along the edges of the more swampy areas, as well as cypress bogs, pine woods, and a few large planted food plots.

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A strip of flooded mixed woods amongst the pine.

As with almost anywhere, there are both mushrooms and greens to forage. The most recent trip was a bit mushroom deprived. We found a few both nothing highly prized.

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Clam Shell Mushroom

Greens such as Bull Thistle, Smilax, False Hawksbeard and Japonica were plentiful. I introduced several family members to Bull Thistle stalk, sautéed with salt and pepper, and they loved it! I gathered up a nice serving of Smilax for my own consumption and gave it a quick steam on the grill with some salt, pepper and butter. Again, they were very tasty!

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Bull Thistle. Wear heavy leather gloves and use a long blade!

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Peeling the stalk. It’s a lot like celery,

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Grilling it up! It can be eaten raw though.

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Smilax. I love this stuff. As good or better than asparagus in my book.

Biking/Hiking/Horseback

While the trails in the forest do not appear to have been designed with biking in mind, there is nothing preventing a person from using the forest roads to bike. The main forest roads are “improved” with limestone gravel. The unimproved roads would be a tough bike ride during wet periods given that there is more flooded road than dry during those times. The Ocean Pond campground has paved roads perfectly suitable for more leisurely family type rides around the immediate camping area and entry road.

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Ride the loop.

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The other side.

You could hike the 4×4 off-road trails, but bring tall waterproof snake boots and wear long pants in case you have to bust brush to get around deep spots. Throughout much of the year you are likely to need them.The Western portion of the forest offers approximately 50 miles of equestrian trails.

Osceola offers a wide array of activities for outdoors enthusiasts, is in easy reach of historical sites and the city of Jacksonville. Go out and give it a try!

Links:

Osceola National Forest Camping Reservations: https://floridastateforests.reserveamerica.com/

https://.myfwc.com/hunting/wma-brochures/

https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd573704.pdf

Off-Road Vehicle Guide Book: https://www.freshfromflorida.com/content/download/31616/769009/Florida_OHV_Guidebook_2017.pdf

Where to Ride Guidebook: https://www.freshfromflorida.com/Divisions-Offices/Florida-Forest-Service/Recreation/Off-Highway-Vehicles-OHV/Where-to-Ride#nationalf

1991 Coleman Pop-up Camper Remodel

So… sometimes I have a tendency to get deeper into a project than might actually be required to solve the problem at hand. Recently I’ve gone that direction with our Coleman pop-up camper. The camper needed one new bed-rail slider when I bought it and the other rail worked okay but had a slight bend that needed to be bent back into position in order to slide comfortably into the receiving guide rail when stowing the beds. The dealer rigged the broken rail so that the bed could be set up and returned to the stowed position for travel, though not smoothly or easily. I used it that way for about three years, then when it fell apart I fashioned a home-made replacement that worked reasonably well for another year’s worth of camping. I’ve always intended to replace that damaged rail with a new unit and to bend the other rail closer to where it should be while I was at it, and about two months ago that little project finally rose to the upper end of my to-do list.

The bed rails were a simple project since I already knew how the system operated. Luckily there are still parts and parts manuals available for this and many other older pop-ups, so I was able to buy a brand new slide assembly complete with all installation hardware. Upon closer inspection it was clear that the rivets on the bent but functioning bed rail assembly were starting to loosen, so I replaced those while I had the bed separated from the camper.

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I had to bend the aluminum on this side to get it off of the wheel so the rail would slide more smoothly. Removing those two pins at the top and bottom of the rail are the key to removing the slide rail from the guide rail.

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As you can see, no rail on this side. You can still see metal shavings from the two home-spun solutions the dealer and I came up with.

As one might imagine, time, temperature and our wonderful Florida humidity have all taken a toll on the interior of the camper. It was usable, and far from a piece of junk, but the particle board had disintegrated around many of the cabinet screws and the interior looked dated and tired. Several of the screw holes holding the long piano hinge into the stove cabinet base were completely stripped, and I really need this piece to function properly for the sake of easy set-up and take-down.

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Dated!

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Tired!

Demo

I started by removing all of the screws to the bases of the cabinets, bench seats, etc. Then I removed the screws holding the benches to the walls, as well as the screws holding the countertop to the long storage cabinet on the left in the picture below. Next, I removed the piano hinge screws that attached the stove and sink cabinet to the base section. The other side of the hinge is riveted to the upper metal cabinet, and since I planned to repaint and use the cabinet, I left the hinge attached on that side. I removed this section of cabinet in one piece. Later I separated the stove, sink and faucet into their individual pieces so that I could make a new countertop and paint the various parts.

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You can see the original bench layout in the picture. Notice the long wall extending into the floor space. It is now even with the front of the cabinets.

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You can see some of the peeling on this cabinet door.

The Floor

I pulled the old linoleum up, which was easy. Much of the paper backing remained on the floor. Trying to remove this from the strand board would have probably created more issues than leaving it, so I didn’t attempt to do so given most of the surface was really smooth with the paper remaining on. The corner areas and a few edges near the walls were a different story. Moisture had affected those areas over time and the paper backing came up with the rest, leaving exposed particle board.

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That’s a stylish floor!

IMG_20190218_132627495There’s one of the ugly corners I was talking about. Leaving brackets on the wall when possible made it easy to line everything back up.

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The floor turned out pretty well after painting.

I picked up two boxes of light grey oak vinyl planks at a local store while on a camping trip several months ago thinking maybe I would use it for something at some point. When I decided to do the camper it was clear I didn’t have enough to do the whole camper floor so I bought more of the same brand on-line thinking it looked like a product of sufficient quality for a project like this. The planks went down easily, and the glue seemed sticky enough to do the job. Looks great right?

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Looked good at this point.

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Then it happened… before I was even finished installing the furniture a few edges and corners were lifting. At that point with a planned trip coming up soon and rain in the forecast, I had to correct the issue or have a mess on my hands so I spent a little more money on higher quality planks from a major retailer and had a little do-over party. Good times! I installed the new planks over the first planks with the seams overlapping to lock the old ones in and it worked out great! Moral of this story is: READ REVIEWS BEFORE YOU PURCHASE! I didn’t and it wasn’t until the stuff started coming up that I did so and saw that most people who bought this product seemed to be having the same experience no matter what surface they laid the planks over.

Making the new pieces of cabinetry was relatively easy given that I had all of the factory parts to use as templates. Using 1/2 inch sanded and primed plywood I made sure to trace out each new cabinet door from the original doors rather than tracing new patterns from whatever new door I had just cut. I hoped to avoid amplifying any deviations by doing it this way.

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Everything getting a coat of primer and quality paint.

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New countertop not yet sanded or painted.

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New base top for stove and sink cabinet.

I used the original cabinet hinges and other hardware, but did have to pick up a few new screws, as it appeared rust had done a few of them in. I was never a fan of the factory floor plan and thought I had an idea that would open the space up, but that would still allow us to use the bench area as a bed should we need to sleep five. I left the furniture wall brackets up where I could, which made putting the furniture back in really easy. Luckily I was able to design the new benches in such a way as to allow the use of the factory bench frames and front panels. We have never used the folding table that came with the camper, so I removed it from the equation. It was probably the piece of furniture in the worst shape. I plan to make a new top for it, and if we ever need it we can take it along.

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Mock-up of the folding bench base section.

I only had to design and build one piece of the furniture from scratch. I needed something that would fold down to form the base for the couch cushions, make a bed, and to act as the couch seat, arm, and back. I came up with what I thought was a cool idea, and it actually worked out well. What do you think? You saw it here first. Call me Coleman. Call me…

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Folded down for travel or bed set-up.

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Folded up to act as couch.

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I bought a new piano hinge much like the factory hinge used on the stove and sink cabinet.

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I am really happy with how this piece of the project turned out. It really opens things up when the camper is in use, and can be set up as a couch, a bed, or a lounger of sorts, while fitting like a factory piece when it comes to take-down and travel.

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The new couch in the open position.

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Lounger anyone?

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A bed when needed.

The cabinet doors were pretty simple to install using the same holes in the cabinets and drilling new holes in the new cabinet doors. Be sure to either screw them in by hand or set your drill at the lowest setting so as to not strip the holes out. I set my cordless 20 volt drill on 1 and 1 1/2 and it worked great. None of the screw holes stripped.

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New countertop for the sink and stove.

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Bottom view of water faucet. Center feed is city water. The other goes to the reserve water tank.

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This is the piece the long piano hinge screws into. The screw holes were in terrible shape on the factory piece. I shortened the side panel since I turned the bench sideways against the wall. Now the floor is wide open when couch is set up.

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The vinyl was already coming up here, but you can’t tell in the picture.

 

My factory stove lid was peeling and rusting in spots, so I removed it from the cabinet, stripped the paint, sanded and primed with high build primer. I wasn’t worried about taking all of the deep pitting off but I do want a reasonably smooth, durable surface. I spray painted the lid ivory-white then coated with a moderate coat of a heavy urethane that you may have seen on some restaurant tables. I’m hoping it makes the surface as durable as we need it to be. We often sit things on the lid, so I know spray paint alone would be ruined in no time. I forgot to take a picture before I closed up the camper, but maybe I’ll get one later and update this blog. It turned out well. Sorry!

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This is with the new vinyl planks. Similar color but thicker and more color and grain variation.

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The wall paint was something I picked up along the line and just happened to work out for this project.

I have done a few maintenance tasks on the camper previously. Those included taking off the front panel to tighten the chain (watch for wasp nests if you do this!), replacing the tires and rims, lubricating the lift system, and fixing the leaking corner caps. I still need to repaint the roof, which will also require removing the AC unit and gasket so that I can get to the entire roof surface. If you need to know how to do any of the other tasks I just named on these Coleman campers, shoot me a question. Happy to help if I can.

In all, this interior remodeling  project didn’t take up too much time. I probably spent about 4 weekend days, sun-up to sun-down working on it. Outside of the issue with the floor, I couldn’t be happier with the rest. This pop-up should now last my family throughout the rest of my camping years, and hopefully will continue on with them when I am past my camping prime!

Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park – Camping With the Family

Hanna Map

Hanna Park is a 400 + acre city park in Duval County on Florida’s northeast coast. The park lies just South of Mayport Naval Station in Atlantic Beach, Florida. Atlantic Beach is part of the incorporated city of Jacksonville. Hanna Park is a rare treasure. A piece of mature, accessible oceanfront coastal hammock that has a little something for just about anyone who loves the outdoors.

Camping

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Hanna Park offers a beautiful campground that showcases great old Live Oaks, Sweet Gums, Palm trees, and many other coastal species. The campground has full camping hook-ups for tents and RV’s and other smaller campers. Some spots are more desirable than others. Checking the park map before you go helps, and while you camp for the first time be sure to look around for spots you might like to try in the future. The kids love meeting new friends around camp.

There are showers and restrooms but user be warned, they are kind of gross. They were probably fantastic in 1562 when installed by a small group of French Huguenots, but since then they have gone way downhill. Ok, I may be exaggerating on their age a little. Some of the trees and palmettos inside Hanna Park may have been around since the French landed in the area we now call Jacksonville, but pretty sure the French weren’t calling it Hanna park and the third tree on the left was the restroom. So bottom line, if you’ll need to use the facilities, bring shower shoes and some sanitizer! They do at least hose the restrooms down. Seriously… they hose them down. The campground has a small store where you can pick up a few basics and rent equipment.

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You’ll see lots of beautiful mature oaks, palms and other majestic trees.

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Mature trees in the campground itself.

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Hammock views are the best!

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One of many beautiful old oaks in the park.

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The sea fog looked cool wafting through the campground lights.

The campground provides easy access to all of the following activities.

Biking

Bring your own or rent one in the camp store. If you are going to ride the trails, a mountain bike is recommended. The technical trails are challenging, and you will need a bike that is up to the challenge.

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Hanna Park has biking opportunities for all skill levels. Whether you enjoy a leisurely ride down the hard-pack sand on the beach at low tide, riding the paved roads throughout the park, or the more technical mountain bike trails, there is something at Hanna Park for you. The mountain bike trails are marked with skill level and the direction of travel. With people riding the courses at speed, you definitely don’t want to be traveling in the wrong direction. Helmets are required for youth and advised for all.

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Nice spot to stop and smell the roses.

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Headed up the road to the lake and the next trailhead.

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Plenty of paved roads if trails aren’t your thing.

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Another cool old oak tree.

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Can you find this “Hanna” sign carved into a tree on one of the bike trails? Let us know if you do!

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The red trail is technical!

Hiking

Hannah Park offers great hiking trails that are intertwined with the bike trails, but separate from them. Unless someone is riding where they shouldn’t be, you are unlikely to run up against bikers when using the hiking trails. The hike around the Wellness Trail is approximately 6 miles.

This time of year is great because the mosquitoes are minimal, and the temperatures are relatively mild. This year has been an exception with mid to upper 70’s on NewYear’s Eve and New Year’s Day. If you’re going to be in the woods or campground, take precautions to protect yourself from ticks and be sure to check yourself occasionally, especially before bedding down for the day. Michelle and I both found one each on our legs. Hers was from camp, and I believe mine was from the trails.

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Fishing

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Hanna Park has several fresh water lakes, as well as the beach itself. You can catch an array of fresh and salt water species. Personally I wouldn’t recommend eating the fish from the lake. You can fish either salt or fresh water, but be sure that you obtain a Florida Fishing license if you are a non-resident, or if you are a resident who will be fishing from a boat, kayak, etc. If you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse or two of the otter I saw this weekend!

 

 

 

 

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Kayaking and Canoeing

Rentals are available or you can bring your own. No motors allowed! The lakes hold a few alligators, but as far as I know of there have never been any issues involving the gators at Hanna and humans. Just keep your distance and don’t feed them if you do see them.

Wildlife

You’re not likely to see large mammals such as deer or pigs here, but there are a lot of raccoons and squirrels. A raccoon walked directly into our seating area as we sat by the fire on New Year’s Eve. There has been a recent increase in coyote sightings around the beaches and Hanna Park. As with many other areas facing an increase in coyote populations, vigilance is required to ensure people and pets remain safe. Be smart and don’t feed wildlife. The park provides food and shelter for birds of many kinds. We saw a big group of birds roosting on the small island in the middle of the lake.

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Birds roosting on island in the sea fog.

Invasive Species

Be aware of the dangers of spreading invasive species. The park asks that you not move firewood from areas outside the region, or that has been elsewhere. Firewood is available for purchase on-site if you want to purchase it there. There is information available in the campground about specific pests of concern and tips on helping prevent the spread of invasive species.

Fungal Finds

We’ve had a few wet weeks, and the first couple of days of the trip brought heavy sea fog, so there were of course plenty of fungi to be found in the campground and along the trails.

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Oyster mushrooms on Magnolia cone.

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Lycoperdon – Puffball Mushrooms

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Pisolithus tintorius – aka “Dog Turd” fungus, aka “Dye Maker’s Puffball”

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Dog turd… I wonder why they call it that?

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Clathrus columnatus Stinkhorn in egg form.

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You can see the columns developing inside the “egg.”

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Beautiful edible Pleurotus mushrooms.

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Oysters from the underside.

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Oysters growing in a rosette.

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May be a hygrocybe of some kind. Honestly not sure.

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Mushroom, possibly Tramates lactinea, exuding water droplets.

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Nice shot of Pleurotus – aka oyster mushroom and mycelium on wood.

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Spongipellis pachyodon – considered inedible. New mushroom hunters often think this is Lion’s Mane or some other edible toothed mushroom. This mushroom actually has a pore surface that quickly break down to look like teeth.

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Pachyodon being attacked by slime mold. Slime mold for the win.

Play Areas and Public use Facilities

The kids will enjoy playing in the small campground parks or taking a cool splash at the water park during summer months! There are water cannons, jets that shoot up from the ground, and several other cool things for the kids to play with when the weather is warm.

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The water park is all shut down this time of the year. Looks like it has truly gone to the birds! Can you see the large vulture in this picture?

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Now can you see it?

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Main campground park.

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Indoor gathering area. May need permit. Call park for details on this and other sheltered areas.

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Lots of outdoor picnic areas and open space around lake.

The Beach

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Heavy sea fog rolled in all day.

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Shells were plentiful Sunday up above this tide line.

The beach  at Hanna Park is beautiful. The sand is clean, and on days when the wind and waves work together to uncover them, Hanna’s beaches provide some of the best shelling around. Sharks teeth are plentiful, with large specimens being found on occasion. Are you one of those people who says they can’t find shark’s teeth? Believe me; you can! They are there by the thousands. If you believe you will find them, you will. If you believe it is impossible, then I’ll come behind and find them for you!

Surfing

Hanna Park holds one of North Florida’s premier surf spots, know as the “Poles”. Thanks to the way our St. John’s River jetties build the sand up around the inlet, the Poles provide what most locals describe as the best break in our area. The jetties offer great wind protection on good days, making the form of the waves that much better. If you are a surfer, bring your board and join me at the Poles!

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Surf Gators!

We hope you’ve enjoyed this review of Hanna Park. Let us know how your experience goes there!

Resources

Hanna Park Trail Map – http://www.coj.net/departments/parks-and-recreation/recreation-and-community-programming/docs/preservation-(1)/kathryn-abbey-hanna-park-trails-maps.aspx

Florida Invasive Species Listshttps://www.fleppc.org/list/list.htm

Freshwater Fishing Regulations  http://www.eregulations.com/florida/fishing/freshwater/

Florida Freshwater Fishing Regulations http://www.eregulations.com/florida/fishing/saltwater/

Mayport Poles Surf Report & Forecast – Surfline
https://www.surfline.com/surf-report/mayport-poles/5842041f4e65fad

Park Informationhttp://www.coj.net/departments/parks,-recreation-and-community-services/recreation-and-community-programming/kathryn-abbey-hanna-park.aspx

Park Informationhttp://www.coj.net/getattachment/Departments/Parks-and-Recreation/Recreation-and-Community-Programming/Oceanfront-Parks/Kathryn-Abbey-Hanna-Park/Hanna-Park-Brochure-2-Apr-2018.pdf.aspx?lang=en-U

Mushroom Forage and Sightseeing Near Middleburg Florida

It’s been raining hard the past few days, and we have the mushrooms to show for it! There were too many types of mushrooms and other forage to share at once, so I’ll go over some of the best. It needs to be very wet for Exidia recisa, or the Jelly Roll fungus to be noticed in the woods. IMG_20181215_101449808A trained eye might find it when it’s dry, but it wouldn’t be easy. Several fungi are bundled into the common name of Jelly Roll. Exidia recisa is brownish to amber in color and looks like small ear like appendages when wet. They can grow closely together but don’t usually joining into one large mass. The fungus can be found on oak and possibly other hardwoods in Florida. This is an edible fungus though reportedly without a great deal of flavor of its own. The mushroom expands impressively when wet, so it can absorb whatever flavors or liquids it is cooked in. You’ll look for this fungus on fallen wood when the ground is wet.

Yellow staining milk cap

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Notice the milky yellow latex?

Milk caps are mushrooms that exude a latex when cut or damaged. Many are quite tasty, but some are toxic or too bitter to be edible by all but the most desperate. The taste and color of the latex are significant clues to edibility in this group of mushrooms. This yellow staining milk cap is one of the toxic milk caps. We won’t be eating it!

Deer Moss

 

This is a lichen, not a mushroom but is edible when processed correctly. Processing involves boiling and disposing of used water multiple times. If you needed carbs badly enough, you could get them from this. These are reported to be slow growers, and some that I saw were as tall as six or seven inches.

Cortinarius (Cort)

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Not and edible mushroom, but beautiful just the same. There are said to be over 2000 types of cortinarius. Some are said to be lethal, and as a general rule many foragers don’t eat cortinarius of any kind.

Lactifluus paradoxus

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I love the colors of paradoxus.

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These are beautiful mushrooms. They boast a number of different colors, often showing several colors on one mushroom. Blues, greens, greys, pinks, peach and salmon are all commonly seen. The salmon colored gills are distinctive. These are edible but require care to get back home in one piece. They are delicate and break into pieces easily.

Baby Gopher Tortoise

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If I head, nobody will see me!

No, this isn’t forage, but it is too cute and rare not to share! Saw this little one twice in a week’s time. Tiny little thing. Probably just dug one of its first of many tunnels in its hopefully long lifetime. These are endangered so look but leave them be when you see them. Take one of these for a pet, and it may be one of the costliest pets you ever get!

Lentinus

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This is the most beautiful lentinus I have ever seen! Not generally eaten, but beautiful to look at. Shiitake mushrooms are a part of this group, and they ARE eaten.

Russula (Possibly Murrill’s hixonii, a rare mushroom)

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The hixonnii russula were first noted around Newnan’s Lake just outside Gaineville, Florida. I camped there frequently while attending school. They are described by mycologist Arlene Bessette as “rare and beautiful.” The “Pepto” pink is a giveaway, as is their large size. Bessette reports that they smell like cake when drying. They may be found frequently in some areas, but overall are considered threatened. I find them in several areas from about 25 miles northeast of Gainesville to Pumpkin Hill Preserve southwest of Fernandina, Florida.

Coral Mushrooms

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You really must know these well to chance eating them, and I don’t know them well. I saw a lot of them, so I wish I was able to make a positively ID.

Turkey Tail Mushroom – Tramatese versicolor

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Look for white pores. If they aren’t white, it isn’t Turkey Tail.

We’ve written about this wonderful mushroom before. It has compounds which are currently used in the treatment of cancer and is said to be medicinal by many. Full disclosure, I know of no scientific studies that support that assertion and have read posts by experts saying the same. Don’t shoot the messenger. In the absence of proof that they do help, I don’t know of any that say they can’t help if you want to give them a try! I’ve made tea with them and found it quite enjoyable. You can find preparation methods online.

Clathrus columnatus, Stinkhorn

 

The first person to give these a common name didn’t need much creativity. They truly stink! They produce a smelly substance that stinks, which attracts flies, who carry the mushroom spores on their feet to new and exciting places. This particular variety looks really cool. These start out in an egg form underground before bursting from the sack to extend above ground. If you can find them in egg form, some are said to be edible. You can just see one busting out of its egg in the photo.

Amanita persicina

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Motherload of Amanita Persicina. Hundreds of them.

IMG_20181216_203402277This is a local variety of Amanita mushroom that is related to the Fly Agaric known in northern regions. It is the red mushroom with white spots on the cap that you see in so many pictures. Our local variety comes in shades from red to nearly tan when old. It is important to understand; the Amanita group contains some of the deadliest mushrooms known! When people imagine deadly mushrooms, they are often thinking about an Amanita even if they don’t know it. If you are not an expert, leave anything in the Amanita group alone! That being said, for the experts this is one of the Amanita mushrooms is toxic but tat can be prepared so as to be made relatively safe for consumption. I say relatively because this is also one of those mushrooms that reportedly sends some into an altered state of consciousness. The experience is reportedly not something to be taken lightly, and can include fits of projectile vomiting, sweats, and other less than pleasant physical symptoms. Some reportedly experience little to no physical effects, so I guess to quote Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, the question is “Do you feel lucky?” Not me! I’m guessing law enforcement would have something to say once you began processing for that purpose. If you are a binge tv watcher, this mushroom also plays a role in the Amazon series “Fortitude.” Great series if you haven’t seen it!

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Referenced Arelenne Bessette et.al. “Mushrooms of the Southeast”