Swimming with the manatees (Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge)

The week started off with nothing planned for the weekend
.  No pending engagements led to my coworker and friend, Chris, and I to discuss a camping trip to somewhere far away from our current accommodations in Columbus, GA.  First a trip west towards Texas was the idea stirring around in our heads, but our local outdoor shop had a trip to go swim with manatees which sparked our interest.  A quick trip down to discuss the trip with the group leader at Chattahoochee Outdoor Academy, and we find out the trip has been canceled due to lack of interest.  At this point, Chris and I had already decided that we were going to swim with these mystical sea cows of the south, so that is what we would do.  So with no plans, five days off, and just two days to map out details,  a desire to see new things is running through our veins. Requirements for the trip included good local food, local beer, no hotels, and make memories every day….EASY!

25FEB16

Thursday has come and the truck is packed with camping gear, cookware, food, canoe, kayak, snorkel gear, andWatermark635928874088848903 Thor (the overland adventuring, brewery hoping, canoe riding German Shepard).  First stop was Composite Fx, the builders of the mosquito single person helicopter (http://www.composite-fx.com/Compfx/Welcome.html).  Some people’s idea of adventure is traveling the globe seeing new places, while these gentlemen’s get there adventure rush from cramming themselves into an experimental aircraft that most people wouldn’t dare even think about flying.   To finish off our long day of driving, we made a quick stop into a couple breweWatermark635928876692499339ries (Swamp Head & Infinite Brewing) to grab some beer for camping and headed into a remote spot in the Ocala National Forest just north of Orlando.  To add to the adventure of camping we had no plans on where we would stay in the forest, just Google maps and some luck which quickly led us to a secluded spot.

26FEB16

Every morning you wake up in the wilderness the feeling of freedom is upon you.  Day two of the trip started just this way.  Not knowing the actual surroundings of our camp site, since we had arrived late night, I walked around in the morning to check out what was around.  A single dirt road with dense forest lay all around us with no civilizatiWatermark635928889641568343on to be seen.  It is truly amazing how just a couple miles into the woods can make you feel so far away from everything.  After a leisurely morning packing up the tents and making, bacon and eggs our minds wanted to know what was farther in the woods along the sandy paths ahead of us.  Typically a trip into the woods alone to go off-roading is something I stay away from, but we thought the road would be just an easy packed, sandy road that would show us some more of the beautiful forest we had come across.  Oh were we wrong.  After 20 min of exploring we discovered that the recent rains had converted these easy sand roads into mud bogs that could engulf mWatermark635928886007724136y fullsize overland rig.  After pushing through the very small and shallow pits, a long mud bog
begged to be conquered, but smart minds decided forgo it.  Without another vehicle, sufficient recovery equipment, or a winch we decided that we would remain on the easy roads and head back out of the forest toward lunch.

Lunch on the road can sometimes be hard to find away from all the fast food chains that litter the highways of America.  With a quick Google search and a keen eye for places that look like they will satisfy our pallet, we came across Las Tapas Restaurant and Brewery.  Adding Brewery or Brew Pub almost always increases the chance of someone interesting working there.  Getting to Las Tapas before the lunch crowd allowed us to bring Thor inside to avoid the cold breeze that was moving through that morning.  We set up are computers and notebooks and worked away as we waited for our lunch to arrive.  The outdoor pictures on our computers sparked the interest of our waitress Belisa, who then precede to tell us she had just finished up a two month road trip from Washington D.C. to California with her boyfriend before moving back to Florida to start saving for her next adventure.  The bravery of this girl to not only make this journey but also talk to two strangers about it gave Chris and me a great idea: why don’t we ask people what they would do on an adventure, or what would they do if they, like us, have five days to leave home and do something new.

With full stomachs and eager minds we set off for the Chassahowitzka campground to set up for the night. Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge is 31,000 acres devoted to protecting waterfowl habitat, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals, located halfway down the western peninsula of Florida.  The area is home of the endangered West Indian Manatee, which go there in the fall to escape the cold waters of the gulf.  These gentle giants rest in the creeks throughout the day making it easy to view them from boats or by snorkeling.  Eager to go out and see these amazing animals we realize that one last stop to grab some forgotten snorkel gear is required.  After setting up the tents we head out to the first dive shop we could find.  Running to the door of Air Tank Divers we find that the shop is closed.  As we backed out of the driveway in search of the next dive shop the steering tie rod sheered a bolt rendering the truck undriveable.  Sure glad we didn’t stay in the Ocala Forest longer than we did!  This breakdown turned out to be a great experience, both learning how to fix the truck and also meeting the gentleman who helped us.  Just minutes after the breakdown, the owner of the shop pulls in and seems slightly annoyed my truck is just sitting in the middle of the entry to his shop.  I walked up and explained what happened and I will get the truck out of the way as soon as I can.  With that information he quickly goes from annoyed to very friendly and helpful saying “breakdowns happen, let me see what is wrong” as he slides under the truck.  Don is the owner of his own dive shop, helicopter pilot, and chief airplane mechanic at the local airport.  He recently broke his arm, reset it himself, and then put his own cast on.  We found this out halfway through the repair on the truck when he asks for some help when trying to remove a bolt and rolled up his sleeve to reveal his cast.  After two hours under the truck and a quick run to the parts store the truck was back up and running, thanks to the sheer luck of breaking down in the driveway of a true badass.  Back on the road the sun had started to set as we purchased the gear we had previously set out for, so swimming with the manatees would have to wait for the next day.

27FEB16

Finally, after waiting all week, Chris and I were about to go get on the water.  Even with all the excitement we still relaxed,      had breakfast, and laid in the hammocks for half the morning before packing up and heading to the river.  With the canoe loaded with paddles, dry bags, and cameras we pushed the boat into the water and moved Thor close to the boat.  Thor has never been a great fan of the water and this was his first time getting in a canoe, but with a little carousing, up and in he went and quicklyWatermark635928160299472518 realized standing was not an option for him.  We moved down river to enjoy the sights and find some manatees to go snorkeling with.  Nature surrounded us as we moved down the river.  We took in all we could as we passed all the wildlife around us.  Not knowing the best location for the manatees we talked to a local couple who direWatermark635928153444306374cted us to a jetty that was just a short paddle away, and we were off.  With the boat now up on shore, we donned our snorkeling gear and plunged into the water to have our first interactions.  Right off the bat we learned how gentle and interested the manatees were.  They quickly moved towards us and stayed near us whileWatermark635928157952990890 we moved around the dozen or so that were in the small area that we were at.   We swam and played with the manatees till the cold water chilled us to the bone and sunlight was need
ed to warm our core back up.

Once back at the dock we ran into the couple we had previously received advice from and they pointed us upstream to an area with springs that we could swim through.  Not wanting to miss out on this opportunity we quickly made some Mountain House for lunch over our MSR Whisperlite stove, and packed our gear into the canoe again.  This time we pushed the boat in and swam beside it letting Thor be the master and commander of his own canoe.  Now with some time under is collar, Thor knew to just lay in the boat and enjoy the fresh air

around him.  Once at the location of the springs, another group of locals gave us advice for navigating the springs before we set off.  After receiving our new advice, off we went to swim while Thor enjoyed the sun.  Again, we swam till the cold water chilled us to the bone and then we called it a day.

Wanting to catch dinner at a local hot spot we drove north to Peck’s Old Port Cove Restaurant in Crystal River, FL.  Pulling up we knew we had come across a great spot for dinner.  Cars filled the parking lot, the line ran out the door, and everyone leaving looked happy and full.  A valuable lesson learned on the trip was that people will help out when there is a dog involved.  The outdoors dining was empty and contained no wait staff due to the relatively cold (for Florida) temperature.  With Thor at our side we decided it would be easier to sit outside and enjoy the sound of the ocean than have him get tripped over in the restaurant.  Seating ourselves we found a menu, selected our meals, and Chris set off to see if we could eat outside.  After quickly letting a waitress know that we had sat outside because of Thor and we already knew what we wanted to eat, she obliged and our order was taken.  Perfect! We had a table, view, and it was quiet all without a wait.  By the end of our amazing meal the crowd had died down, so we decided to ask our waitress, Hannah, what her idea of an adventure was.  She pulled up a chair and explained how she ended up in Crystal River and that she was planning to drag her boyfriend to Hawaii and begin a life of adventure there.  With a plan and ambition, we here at FamilyAdventuresOverland hope that she follows her dreams and makes it to Hawaii.

28FEB16

It was time to pack up and head to new destinations and adventures.  After cleaning up our campsite and a quick dip into the lake to say bye to some of t20160227_083517_wmhe manatees we hit the road towards Tampa to see if we could find some interesting people, and that we did.  Three locations visited and three interesting people met.  Being Sunday, brunch was a must, and beer, yes beer.  So off to Cigar City Brewpub for brunch, beer, and a cigar.  Here our waiter, Aaron, wanted to bike across the country and visit breweries in New Orleans and Asheville, NC (one of the beer meccas of the United States).  As a school teacher, waiter, father, and husband hopefully he will push himself and his family to partake in the adventures that are within him.  After lunch Aaron Informed us of the local cigar shops in Ybor City, and we set on our way.

7th Street, Ybor city brought us in contact with Aisha, an immigrant for Turkey working at Istanblu, a restaurant at the end of the street.  Enjoying 20160228_193134_001_wmthe company of other creates a bond and new things are learned.  After talking to Aisha about Turkey we found out one of her favorite things there was the coffee, and that she is related to the creators of the Kurukahveci Turkish Coffee. This is the same coffee that I recently started drinking because a friend from Kosovo
got me into drinking Turkish coffee several months earlier.  During our dinner we all enjoyed laughs over Chris, who ate a hot pepper and looked like death before Aisha brought him another Turkish beverage called ayran (a mixture of greek yogurt, water, and salt) to sooth away the spiciness.

Our last stop for the night was Cigar City Brewing Cider and Mead, where we walked in right before closing and stayed wa20160228_203139_wmy after their close of business.  Because the brewery was closed to additional patrons, we were able to sample several types of cider and mead, talk to the bartender, and allow Thor to run around as if he 20160228_233132_wm_wmowned the place.  For the next several hours we talked about our trip and learned that are bartender Kim was half Korean and her next adventure was going to be a trip back home to revisit places she hadn’t been in many years.  After picking Kim’s brain about things to do and places to see in Korea, it was time to head back north toward Ocala for the night before driving home the next day.

Chris and I have had several other small adventures in the past were we have gone camping for a night here and there, but this was our first multi night adventure.  It was a great learning experience for both of us and we will build on what we learned during our trip.  In the end though, the biggest thing we learned was that our thirst for adventure needs further quenching.  This trip only scratched the surface of what we want to accomplish in the future and we hope that you follow along with what will be an amazing ride.

 

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