Wednesday, May 28, 2014

An enchanted day at the Audubon Corkscrew Sanctuary

I always enjoy my time in western Florida, particularly while exploring the areas surrounding Naples. My time at Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary was no exception. 

My day started off with my "trusty" GPS taking me to the wrong end of the preserve, but hey -- it's an adventure, right? Once I shut off the GPS, I was able to navigate out of the maze of potholed back roads and locate the entrance of the Sanctuary.

The weather was humid and just cool enough to inhibit the activity of any pesky mosquitoes or flies, but not too cold for the lovely Eastern Lubber Grasshopper in the above photo. I spent a few minutes with that 'biggun,' who was larger than my thumb. I was lucky enough to get a photo of her (it was almost assuredly a female, given her size and the fact that most grasshopper females are larger than their male counterparts) with the morning dew still clinging to her face and eyes.

It was at this Sanctuary that I started to fall in love with Alligator Flag, the green, leafy plant you see in the preceding photo. They waved slowly in the wind, and whenever a water droplet fell from the branches above them, it would slap the broad leaves with a resounding, hollow *SPLAT* that echoed across the swamp.

 There were little informative signs placed on the boardwalk throughout the swamp. This one was situated on the railing right over all that lovely lichen you see in the above photo.

The most magical moment of the day occurred after I made the decision to move slowly and very quietly down a side branch of the boardwalk. I turned the corner....

...and I spotted not one, but TWO otters! They were chortling and gamboling about as only otters do. One of them climbed up onto the boardwalk to groom himself while his partner wandered forward underneath. I was overwhelmed by how amazing these creatures were, and I am unashamed to admit that this dual sighting brought me to tears. I was staring at them for so long that I almost forgot to take a photo!

After the two otters wandered off into the depths of the swamp, I explored onward. The swamp's famous Ghost Orchid was not in bloom, but I was able to see the plant itself with the help of a diagram on the boardwalk. You can read more about the Ghost Orchid, its prime blooming period, and other plants inhabiting the swamp right here.

I had so much fun here; the Sanctuary is lovingly well-maintained by the staff and volunteers, and the plants and animals are all so beautiful and plentiful. I even managed to spot a pair of (my personal favorite) Sandhill Cranes on my drive out of the Sanctuary.

Friday, May 16, 2014


In 2007, I had a wonderful opportunity to experience Scotland during what was probably the most perfect week -- weather-wise -- the country had seen all year. So many little details of that trip are now lost to time, but I still have my photos to remind me of where we went, what I learned, and how I got to see first-hand how another culture lives.

St Andrews castle ruins

We visited St. Andrews castle (above, and below on the left) and Cathedral (below right). Both places were in ruins; the castle had been built and destroyed several times throughout its life, and finally succumbed to ruin when orders were given to take materials from the castle walls to repair a nearby pier.

St Andrews ruins, entranceSt Andrews cathedral ruins, cemetery

The cathedral shared a similar fate; during the Scottish reformation, its altars were stripped and icons removed. It was subsequently abandoned and left to its own slow decay. St. Andrews Cathedral was eventually scavenged for building materials.

"Nemo Me Impune Lacessit" -- no one attacks me with impunity. This gorgeous reminder is mounted above the entrance to Edinburgh Castle. 

Edinburgh architecturepossibly my favorite building in Edinburgh ;)

 My sister's choir performed in a number of cathedrals, castles, and halls in Scotland. The acoustics made every song ethereal. It was a pleasure to hear over and over again.

I hope I can recover more of the photos from this trip; they're on one of my many SD cards. If I find them, I'll either add to this post or create a new one to share the rest of my story.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Duchess: a pound puppy's tale

Now that you've seen her a few times, I figured I would tell you a bit about Duchess's background and how I came to find her.

I spent several weeks driving down to the Miami-Dade Animal Shelter, trying to find a dog that was a good match for my living situation (there were two other dogs in the house to think about, as well as a few other factors). I met so many cool dogs - I remember one MASSIVE Cane Corso with a head as big as my torso (rhyme!). 

I put my name on waiting lists for several dogs that seemed like good matches, but I never got called. Sometimes I would just sit and fuss over dogs that I knew I couldn't adopt due to my situation, and were unlikely to be adopted themselves. I petted and loved on them and I silently cried beside them. Dogs don't deserve what people do to them.

One day when I was at the shelter, I spotted a sweet-looking black dog that went by the name of Missy. I asked to see her, and a volunteer went to get a leash to bring her to the 'play room.' As I was waiting, I walked around to the hallway where they kept the smaller dogs in tiny cages. Among the chihuahuas and dachshunds I found her: too big for her cage and curled up in a frightened ball, facing away from anyone who walked by. I stooped down to look at her, and the volunteer came back to tell me that "Missy" had already been adopted, and the new owners were coming by today.

By that time I had already forgotten about that dog. I asked to see the scared little girl in the too-small cage. The information on her paperwork stated that she was five days overdue -- if you get my meaning. In a high-kill shelter, that's a lifetime. I felt a sudden sense of urgency as I impatiently waiting for the volunteer to get a leash.

The dog wouldn't walk on a leash, and so she had to be carried to the play room. The volunteer set her down, and I sat in the middle of the room and waited.

The dog paced the perimeter of the room, wary and distrusting. She sniffed this and that and ignored me altogether. I called to her a few times, snapped my fingers, made kissy sounds. No response. All of my knowledge, all the tips and tricks I read about how to choose a rescue dog suggested that this one was not for me. For some reason, I chose to sit and wait.

She continued her pacing around the room and then circled inward. She walked right up to me and gave my face a brief lick. Relief washed over me like a wave and I burst into happy tears and I told the volunteer that I would take the dog today. 

I paid my fees and carried her to my car (she wouldn't walk on a leash, remember?). She rode all the way home with her face wedged between my back and my driver's seat. I had no idea what I had just gotten myself into.

She didn't always look so cute and cuddly; when I first got her, she was underweight, she had worms, her right eye was infected and she had some mange on her face and back. Here's one of the first photos I ever took of her:

In the first two weeks I had her, I focused on getting her back to health and making her comfortable in the house with my other two dogs. Here's a photo of her a week later:

Her eye infection was just about healed, and her mange was almost gone. She was very shy. She kept digging under the fence in order to escape. she wouldn't make eye contact with me and she never wagged her tail. I was incredibly patient with her; she'd probably never been inside a house before, so every experience she was having was most likely brand new, and very scary for a 5-month-old dog.

I have a fair bit of experience with dogs, but training her was less like training and more like taming a feral animal. 

After a few months of mishaps and runaways, I finally snapped. She had run away -- again. I got into my car and followed her usual escape route through the neighborhood. I spotted her running through everyone's backyards, and then into an empty lot. I made a split-second decision to drive right into the empty lot with my little 4x4 hatchback, swung the car around, opened the door (I was way too mad to take the time to roll down the window), and screamed at the top of my lungs: "GO HOME!"

I'll be damned if she didn't do exactly that; she spun around and ran the hell home. By the time I had pulled back into the driveway, she was sitting at the front door of the house just like this:

It would have been funny at the time if I wasn't so over it. I had never yelled at her before; it made me feel terrible. I couldn't look at her the rest of the day. But I will tell you this: she never ran away again. Ha!

Things with Duchess got a lot easier after that. I was firmer with my discipline of her -- something that is important with strong-willed breeds, like shiba inu and shepherd mixes. There cannot be any question as to who is the alpha in that relationship. I came to the understanding that it was my lacking disciplinary skills, and not the dog, that was the issue. Once I figured that out, everything fell into place.

Nowadays, I can call her out of a full-on gallop with a word or a clap of my hands. She understands and obeys complicated commands and has a firm grasp of the nuances of what I ask of her. She knows the exact difference in the meaning of "Stay with me" and "Wait for me" when we're hiking on the trail. She's still strong-willed, and sometimes we disagree on things, and sometimes she makes a fuss and plants her feet when it's time to go to bed, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that she is the smartest dog and the best dog I have ever -- and will ever -- own.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Wandering the trails at Jonathan Dickinson State Park

I had wanted to go on a hike at Jonathan Dickinson State Park for a long time. It just never seemed to be the right time to do it; I once started a hike there with my younger sister, but the weather was hot and unforgiving out there in the open pine flatwood habitat, so we bailed.

One chilly December morning, a few years back, I finally got my chance to get out there and do a proper hike with the dog. I'm glad I did: there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the temperatures never rose above 55 degrees. The ranger at the main station -- a native Floridian -- even laughed and wondered why I wanted to go out there when it was "so cold." I smiled and shrugged; it's generally no use trying to explain hiking to non-hikers, as some of you probably know all too well.

We started out by following the park's equestrian trails, grabbing a few connecting trails in order to reach the section of Florida Trail that wound through the park. Hiking through the pine flatwood was delightful this time around, and Duchess enjoyed the new sights and smells.

At one point, she became hyper-alert; this is not something she does during hikes, so I knew that there was something out there in the palmettos. Her hackles went up and she became oddly defensive of me, standing between me and whatever "it" was that was causing her such offense. 

Then that oily-dirty-musky scent hit me like a truck and I realized we had wandered too close to a black bear. It was in that moment that I heard a sort of huffing growl, and I slowly backed away, pulling firmly on Duchess's leash and calmly calling her off the scent. I continued backing away for a few more yards, and then finally turned around and we continued our hike without incident. I never even saw the bear. But it was definitely aware of us.

We continued along the equestrian trails until we reached the Florida Trail. The photo you see of that bridge was Duchess's first ever trail bridge crossing! She handled the rickety bridge like a pro. I was proud of her that day; she obeyed me while in a stressful situation with the bear, and she tackled new problems, like the bridge, without hesitation. She's a good girl.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Foggy morning on the Florida Trail: White Springs

If I am not mistaken, this is the Little Shoals section of the Florida Trail at White Springs. It was nice and cool, and the river took on a mysterious quality under a veil of morning mist. 

When the fog lifted, we were left in a world of bright, springtime green. There was new growth everywhere to be seen. I love the flowers of spring as much as the next person, but this 'newly-spring' look really speaks to me -- it speaks of the promise of all good things to come. It's altogether enchanting to behold a season in its infancy.

My hiking companions and I were chatting, laughing, and making a general ruckus, so we didn't see much in the way of larger wildlife, but I managed to scout a couple of brightly-accented insects; just look at those colors! Bugs are awesome.

Thus ends the saga of my visit to White Springs. I'll update the blog if I ever do return to that area, but with so many other places to see, who knows where my feet and wheels will take me?