Tag Archives: National Park

Not Quite Okey-Dokey in the Okefenokee

In January I attended a photo workshop presented by John Reed in conjunction with the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The noted preserve was established in 1936 to protect the unique freshwater ecosystem and head waters of the Suwannee River. I’d never been through the Florida/Georgia swamp even though it sits just 75 miles away.

Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge

The park is vast, listed at 402,000 acres or roughly the size of 300,000 football fields. Whoa! The strange name comes from Native Americans who called it Okefenoka, meaning “Land of the Trembling Earth.” The name is still appropriate as peat continues to build up on the swamp floor and the deposits are so unstable that trees and bushes tremble when you stomp the ground.

During the workshop lunch break, I spotted an alligator sunning himself near the Visitor’s Center. His skin looked gray and dry and I suspected he’d been there quite a while. One of the rangers mentioned that gators move slowly during the winter. Since I’d seen frost on the morning drive and the temperature hovered around 38-40 degrees at noon, I wasn’t too worried. I got down on my belly atop a raised boardwalk and snapped this photo.

A Swamp Gator

Later in the afternoon, I returned and noticed a second, smaller gator. The larger one had only moved about a foot from his previous location and both barely opened their eyes. Guess most of the creatures were sleepy because my group had only seen these two reptiles and a slew of birds all day.

A sunrise shoot was planned for the next morning and the weather stayed cold. Sadly, the sunrise didn’t opt to make a dramatic entrance, so the group decided to move along. We headed in the direction of a fantastic winding boardwalk and three-story viewing platform.

But, as photographers are apt to do; we stopped after noticing some interesting tall grass. Instructor John walked along the road surveying the landscape. I was not far behind when we heard a hissing sound, like an amplified snake. John caught site of  a gator’s head rising from a small mud-puddle. I wanted to photograph this wild critter, so I ran over. Sure enough, the small head was all I could see, surrounded in a thick mud bath. Was his body buried deep below?

Perhaps foolish thinking, but I stepped closer. That gator wouldn’t or better yet, couldn’t move quickly from his location, could he? Nah. Just as I was getting ready to click the camera, he hissed at me- VERY LOUDLY. That’s a sound I”ll never forget. I jumped back and my resulting shot is a bit blurry, but you can see his open mouth. Mr. Gator was mad and I was scared. As far as I was concerned everything was not okey-dockey in the Okefenokee.

I immediately departed the scene, leaving the fellow alone. Even if I didn’t get the photo, I at least left with a gator tale.

The Hissing Gator

For information contact:
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
2700 Suwannee Canal Road,
Folkston GA 31537
912-496-7836 912-496-7836
E-Mail: okefenokee@fws.gov

Valles Caldera National Preserve or the Super Volcano of New Mexico

The vast Valles Caldera National Preserve

The stunning Jemez Mountains of Northern New Mexico were created by volcanic activity over thirteen million years and once stood higher than Mount Everest. An eruption, estimated at 500 times greater than the 1980 Mount St. Helens event, caused the super volcano to collapse.  A 12-mile wide crater formed, known as the Valles Caldera, and gradually filled with about 5,000 feet of ash and debris.

The Grand Valley existed as a home to Pueblo people for centuries until they eventually fled. Between 1860 and 2000 it functioned as the  privately owned Baca Ranch.  In 2000, Congress purchased 94,000 acres, deeding 5,000 acres to the Santa Clara Pueblo and designating the remaining 89,000 as the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Under the terms of the Act, the Preserve is managed by a trust and must produce sustaining income, a new and demanding  policy as opposed to being protected as a National Park.

On a recent trip to New Mexico, my group explored Bandelier National Monument in the morning (see previous blog post here) then headed, by car, up a pass into the Jemez Mountains. Upon partial descent an enormous field of gold suddenly appeared. The 180 degree head turning sight was so unexpected and vast, it justifies the term jaw dropping gorgeous. Everyone in the van gasped with oohs and aahs. The hollowed out valley looked like a former test site for an atomic bomb now overgrown with grass resembling melted butter.  Unfortunately rain started to fall and low lying clouds and fog crept in, limiting the visibility and photo opportunities.

The ponderosa pines at Valles Caldera

Nonetheless, we met with guides who shared their telescopes permitting us to spy on an elk herd of 2,500-3,500 in the distance. Seeing hundreds of animals as tiny specs put  the enormity of the area into perspective.  The majestic acreage  including Redondo Peak at an elevation of 11,254 feet encompasses forests, grasslands and wetlands which are open to the public.

We drove down into the Preserve through a flourishing grove of ponderosa pine and seized the opportunity to get out of the rain and picnic inside a three bedroom bunkhouse.The rustic but upscale rental property felt log-cabin cozy and the living room offered panoramic views of  the valley. The bunkhouse, another lodge which sleeps sixteen people, as well as primitive campsites can be reserved- think family reunion.

The Valles Caldera Trust is experimenting with methods to use, sustain and fund the Preserve with activities and events such as:  cross country skiing , snowshoeing, sleigh/wagon rides, fly fishing,  turkey hunting, equestrian trail riding, hiking, van tours, photography workshops, mountain biking, marathon races and archery contests. They also run educational workshops and camps while continually watching for ecological change.

A small cabin rests within the Valles Caldera

Rob Dixon, Recreation Program Manager said, “We keep the numbers of visitors small so you’ll feel like you have the place to yourself. This means you can really experience a sense of solitude. I’m sure you’ll find the visit unlike any other you’ve had in a park or national forest.” I was impressed with the park and the dedicated staff. Let’s hope this type of national  preservation program works.

Park Service Junior Rangers Defend the Fort in St. Augustine

Touring Castillo de San Marcos National Monument

Entering Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
Entering Castillo de San Marcos National Monument

Got house guests? Bet you have a favorite place to share with out of town visitors. During my childhood days in Arlington, Virginia, we took friends and family to Mount Vernon.  When I moved near Philadelphia, the choice became the Liberty Bell or the Franklin Institute. Now that I reside in Jacksonville, Florida, I venture to nearby St. Augustine and tour a National Park site-Castillo de San Marcos.

St. Augustine, founded in 1565, holds the honor of being America’s oldest city and the fort (Castillo de San Marcos) remains the oldest fortification. Walls of coquina blocks (compressed shells) surround the bastion which has withstood numerous bombardments, sieges and hurricanes during its 335 year-old history.  Each time I return, I learn something new.

Recently I invited my two oldest grandchildren, RJ, age seven and Kyra who is five, and their Mom, while they were here for Camp Lander (their holidays to Florida).  RJ wanted to become a Park Service  Junior Ranger, which he would report to his Boy Scout troop, and Kyra wasn’t about to be ignored.

RJ and Kyra with the Park Service Ranger
RJ and Kyra with the Park Service Ranger

We entered the fortress via a drawbridge through the Sally Port, the only way in and out and passed below the portcullis. We stopped at the Ranger station and the kids were given an activity book to complete and return.

The booklet included a guided tour which pointed out the important artifacts in each area. To be completely honest, I wish they gave these brochures to everyone because the information proves very helpful.

RJ and Kyra had to fill in the blanks, answer true-false questions, match pictures of objects with corresponding parts and organize steps in the proper timeline. They also had to find and ask a volunteer and a Ranger questions about their job. Lastly, they wrote their own opinion about the place.

We watched a video, inspected supply rooms used for food storage, gunpowder, cannonballs, troop quarters, and the all important “necessary”.  We climbed up to the gun deck and saw canons and watchtowers, as well as enjoyed the view of the harbor.

When our self-guided tour was complete, we listened to an animated talk given by a Park Ranger in authentic Spanish dress. Then, the children submitted the completed booklets, their answers were checked and they were asked to take the Junior Ranger Pledge.

Taking the Jr Ranger Pledge
Taking the Jr Ranger Pledge

“I, (fill in name), am proud to be a National Park Service Junior Ranger. I promise to appreciate, respect, and protect all national parks. I also promise to continue learning about the landscape, plants, animals and history of these special places. I will share what I learn with my friends and family.”

The process was pretty impressive and elicited big smiles as they received their badges.  I’ll take that pledge,too, if I can become a Junior Ranger.

Then, we headed off for ice cream cones! What a joy for me, as a grandparent, to share my love of history and one of my favorite destinations.


Junior Ranger programs are offered at about 286 of the 388 national parks, in collaboration with local school districts and community organizations. Go online to The Ranger Zone (http://www.nps.gov/learn/juniorranger.cfm) to check out individual parks for information about a specific program.

Debi within Castillo de San Marcos
Debi within Castillo de San Marcos