Discovering Lookout Mountain Parkway – and more

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Little River Falls

With our urban meanderings out of the way for a while, we set our eyes on what Reader’s Digest called “One of America’s scenic drives,” the Lookout Mountain Scenic Parkway.  It’s 93 miles long and spans three states as it stretches from Gadsden, Alabama, through the northwest corner of Georgia to Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Lucky for us the the parkway begins right where we’re currently located, at Noccalula Falls Campground in Gadsden.

Lookout Mountain Parkway Map

Lookout Mountain Parkway

Because rain was forecast for later in the day, we set out early with map in hand, planning to drive as far as Desoto State Park in Mentone, Alabama.  After having lunch there we would wind through small towns, climbing several grades to see the lush and green scenery.  On the Parkway we expected to see waterfalls, canyons, unique towns and villages, state and national parks and preserves.  Although it was an overcast day, we were hoping to avoid the rain long enough to see and capture some beautiful waterfall pictures.

Lookout Mountain Parkway

Dekalb County Rd 1005

Lookout Mountain Parkway

Although rain clouds were hovering, like the cows we must continue on our mission!

Our first stop was at DeSoto State Park, where the water of DeSoto Falls plunges 120 feet into the river below.  The highest falls in the area, it was named for the spaniard Hernando DeSoto, who searched unsuccessfully for gold nearby.  Upon arriving and parking there, the first thing we saw was a lovely reservoir situated above the falls.

Desoto Falls

Desoto Falls

Desoto Falls

The state park featured miles of hiking trails, so we had to take some time to pick our favorite candidates.  The first one had several intersecting trails with the sound of water rushing through streams along much of its length.  It was also very fragrant with the smell of many wildflowers – the best-smelling trail we can remember!  Although not very strenuous, we felt like this was the first real hiking environment we’ve been in for many months, and we were glad we had brought lunch along so we could spend as much time as possible in its beauty.
Desoto Hiking Trail

 

By the time we got to Little River Canyon Preserve, the sky had already darkened and we felt some raindrops.  We forged on and discovered that Little River is a mountaintop river that plunges into a nature sanctuary.  It’s one of the nations’s longest rivers that forms and flows for most of its length on top of a mountain.  There is a boardwalk that leads to the Little River Falls lookout.

Little River Falls

Boardwalk to the Little River Fall lookout

Little River Falls

Little River Falls – actually it’s not so little!

Little River Falls

Rock formations at Little River Falls

It began raining lightly, so after quickly taking some pictures we decided to take another trail to nearby Martha’s Falls.  Bad idea, since we were wearing only light, non-waterproof jackets.  The trail was mostly flat until it got close to the river where it was very steep, and since it was pouring rain at this point we were trying to walk down a muddy path.  At the Falls, which were a bit of a disappointment anyway, Steve declared, “This is officially not fun anymore.”

Marthas Falls

Martha’s Falls – nice, but not worth walking through pouring fain for

Trail at Marthas Falls

Climbing up a muddy, slippery path in a downpour is “officially not fun”

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Uh-oh, being lost is what’s really on our mind!

We had intended to follow the 11-mile scenic drive along Canyon Rim Drive to view more of the river and canyon scenery.  Alas, it did not work out, as we somehow missed a turn and didn’t realize our error until it was getting too late to backtrack.  Seeing the “Welcome to Georgia” sign was the first hint that we were lost.  But there was a silver lining after all – Steve saw a roadside jerky stand and we stopped there to get directions.  While talking, we tasted several of Tony’s excellent jerkies and ended up buying two bags.  I discovered that Steve just can’t be upset about being lost when he’s chewing on a good piece of jerky!

Jerky

Must be really good, it says so right there!

“Tony the jerky guy” confirmed we were several miles off course, and that going back to complete the Canyon Rim Drive would have gotten us home pretty late. So, we started back on the more direct route and after a while Steve spotted a pickle store.  Well, the only thing he likes as much as a good piece of jerky is a good dill pickle, and we had never before seen a store dedicated to pickles.  We stopped to taste the array of spiced pickles and other products.  The owner/pickle maker told us the story of how the business began, and how she discovered that her products are very popular among southerners.  Forty dollars later (pickles, olives, tomato/mozzarella salad and roasted peanuts) we walked out with big smiles.  And that’s how our trip to the Lookout Mountain Parkway ended – we missed part of the scenic drive, but got enough yummy munchies to last a while in return.  Life is funny!

There were other hiking and biking trails to explore beyond our campground at Noccalula Falls.  One was the James D. Martin Wildlife Park and Walking Trail.  We found it located behind a large shopping mall and thought that was rather strange.  Then we learned that the land James D Martin Wildlife Parkbordering the H. Neely Henry Lake is too swampy for commercial use and was set aside as a flood plain and wildlife recreational area.  It turned out that we were pleasantly surprised by the two-mile long green trail that also provided a raised network of boardwalks.  It allowed us to walk out into a 300-acre lake which provided me with great bird-watching opportunities amongst the wildflowers, were in full bloom.

James D Martin Wildlife Park

Boardwalk on the Green Trail

We didn’t think we’d spend much time on this short trek, and since it was overcast when we started, we failed to bring our sunglasses and hats along.  We were sorry about that when the sun came blazing out halfway through our enjoyable walk.

James D Martin Wildlife Park

Great Blue Heron

Sentries of the swamp

Heronry

Great Egrets and Great Herons are nesting here through June

Biking the Chief Ladiga Trail was also on our must-do list here.  This trail is Alabama’s first extended rails-to-trails project.  It covers 33 miles through the countryside of Calhoun and Cleburne counties in northeastern Alabama, and ends at the Georgia state border. Although we were off to an early start, it quickly got hot and humid so we clocked only 16 miles on this ride.  The rails-to-trails paths are usually paved and offer a maximum of 2-3 degrees of slope at any point, because that’s all the train locomotives could handle at the time.  Although not physically challenging, these trails have proven to be a very enjoyable way to leisurely bike on tree-covered paths with lots of bridges and birds singing to us along the way.  They often go through several small towns so you can get a real feel for the area, and sometimes even stop for lunch along the way.  Not a bad way to spend a half day!

Chief Ladiga Trail

Farmland along the Chief Ladiga Trail

Our one-week stay at Noccalula Falls Campground in Gadsden, Alabama was active and outdoorsy, as we enjoyed mostly sunny weather.

And that’s how we spent our last few days in Alabama, now onward to Tennessee!

 

Up Next:  Chattanooga, TN



 

The real Iron Man, Lady Liberty and a Cherokee Maiden…

Comments 27 Standard
Vulcan

The five-day stay at our favorite Corp of Engineer (COE) campground in Gunter Hill, AL (you can search back to Steve’s review from March 2013 here) was more of a downtime stop – we’re calling it the calm AFTER the storm.  It’s not like we don’t have enough downtime, but this was one stop where we didn’t even leave the campground.  We took our tour of Montgomery  last year while we were here, one of many history-laden stops enroute to the northeast.  If you want to see that part of our travels, click here to see what we learned in Montgomery.  This time our efforts were concentrated on drying out  one of Betsy’s compartments (which took 4 days) and trying out some new stuff that Steve got for Betsy – more on that in an upcoming post.

We were able to take several walks and bike rides around the wooded campground, and since our WiFi was pretty lousy I spent some time cleaning up my digital library – getting back 10G of space!  Steve was right, I do take a lot of “duplicate” shots of my feathered friends.  But I can’t help myself!

Gunter Hill, Alabama

Down time at Gunter Hill Campground

wpid24873-2014-05-05-AL-1290952.jpgAs you may be noticing, our current pace is slower compared to this time last year, and now that the weather is allowing us to proceed north our only obligation is not until June 13th when Betsy’s chassis maintenance and new tires will be done in Gaffney, SC.  So, we’ll be hanging out in Northern Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina a bit longer than anticipated, which will give us plenty of time to check out the Great Smoky Mountains.  Gadsden, AL is our home base for a week now, as we check out the city of Birmingham and the Lookout Mountain region of Alabama.

Birmingham, Alabama

Yellow wildflowers dot the beautiful green hillsides

Our friend Ayn of RoadLife, who lived and worked in Birmingham for many years, gave us a short list of things the city has to offer – in fact only two items, to be exact.  The city is proud of its two statues, one is the original iron man – in somewhat revealing attire – and the other is a more moderately-dressed replica of a very famous statue.  However, both are displayed raising their right arm – one with a spear and the other a torch – to the heavens.

Meet Lady Liberty and Vulcan, the iron man!

At 31 feet tall and weighing 10 tons, Lady Liberty is one of the largest replicas of the Statue of Liberty.  She was cast in the same foundry in France as the original.  This lady can be seen from I-459 at the Birmingham area Boy Scouts headquarters.  The small park area at the base of the statue is open to the public and free of charge during daylight hours. Unfortunately, people aren’t allowed inside this one.  The Boy Scouts headquarters and a memorial to all Eagle Scouts who served in North and Central Alabama are nearby.

Boy Scouts of America

Eagle Scouts Memorial

Eagle Scouts Memorial

Vulcan, on the other hand, stands 56 feet tall from toe to spear point and sits on a 124-foot tall pedestal, rising to a total height of 180 feet.  This one weighs in at 101,200 pounds.  He is the largest cast iron statue in the world, and the largest metal statue ever built in the United States.  To promote Birmingham and Alabama at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, it was decided to build a statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and forge.  Vulcan was created to highlight the area’s growing industrial capabilities, and to personify Birmingham’s pride in its local iron industry.  Vulcan was awarded the “Grand Prize” at that fair.

Vulcan

Over 100 years later, Vulcan now stands atop Red Mountain, over the iron ore mine that was instrumental in Birmingham becoming the Iron City.

Vulcan

The highlight of our visit at Vulcan Park and Museum was climbing the 157 stairs to the top of the tower (there’s also an elevator for those so inclined) for a panoramic view of Birmingham.  Looking up at the statue, the first thing we saw was his big old iron butt 😉 The statue’s naked behind has been a source of humor for many years, and some folks actually protested its move to Red Mountain because they didn’t want to look up from their homes and see that butt every day!  A novelty song, “Moon Over Homewood”, refers to the fact that the statue moons the neighboring suburb of Homewood, Alabama.

Birmingham Alabama

Panoramic view of Birmingham, Alabama

Top of Vulcan

Just another tourist …

Here are some items at the museum that we thought were interesting:

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Steve loved this “sculpture” of the many iron items cast right here in Birmingham

Finally, back at our campground at Noccalula Falls, we visited the Cherokee maiden. Located only about 1000′ from our campsite, she stands at the edge of the Falls.  Legend says that the daughter of an Indian chief committed suicide at the beautiful Black Creek ravine to avoid marrying a man forced upon her by her father that she did not love.  The statue stands poised and ready to leap at the very spot where she, Noccalula, supposedly jumped to her death over the falls to the rocks below.  The Falls and several area attractions have subsequently been named Noccalula Falls.

Noccalula

Noccalula Falls cascades more than 90 feet into the Black Creek ravine, and is the centerpiece of this popular park and recreation area in Gadsden, Alabama.  The city campground where we stayed is part of the park complex there, and it’s a nice green area.  You can see Steve’s campground review here.

Noccalula Falls

Noccalula Falls

We were not satisfied with only viewing the Falls from the top, especially when we found out there was a “hike at your own risk” path leading behind the cascading waters. Although the hike was fairly strenuous and we were concerned about the mist from the Falls ruining our camera, it was worth it to get another angle on the rapidly-flowing water that has carved a deep ravine into the western end of Lookout Mountain.  This mountain stretches from Gadsden, Alabama all the way to Chattanooga, Tennesse – which just happens to be our next destination!

Black Creek Gorge

Black Creek Gorge

Noccalula Falls

Behind the cascading Noccalula Falls

Under Noccalula Falls

Although it was 80 degrees and humid outside, the cavern under the Falls was cool and beautiful – we didn’t want to leave

The trail to the foot of the falls was conveniently accessible from our campsite.  It had been a while since our last real hike, so we were a bit sore the next day after scrambling up and down the boulders and steep paths.  We also took several walks on the  Black Creek Trail a 2-mile crushed stone path  which was literally right behind our site, making our daily exercise super-convenient. The trail is lush with tall green trees and meanders along the Black Creek gorge.

Noccalula Falls Campground

Walking up the hill from the trail to site #A19 in the campground

Each afternoon after our day of activities, we would sit outside reading and watching hikers passing by.  And like every afternoon our entertainment is watching  these little black squirrels as they went about their daily routines, running around, eating and just having fun.

Black Squirrel

Check out this guy as he played in our fire pit and got himself all powdered white.  We don’t know what he was doing, but he seemed to be having fun and we enjoyed watching him make a mess of himself! Life’s little pleasure.

Lastly, a trip down scenic Lookout Mountain Parkway begins right outside our park at Noccalula Falls.  And that’s where we’re taking you next time, so hop in and enjoy the ride!



 

 

How do you catch a snake? A GBH knows!

Comments 47 Standard
Great Blue Heron

Jacks up, slides in and we were out of there, happy to be heading north from the Alabama coastline into new territory.  Like other folks we’ve been following, we’re glad we came through that vicious storm relatively unscathed.  As longtime Californians, we just aren’t used to this kind of crazy weather!  But we’re reminded that we need to continue keeping weather monitoring at the top of our list as we begin heading into parts of the midwest that are also known for unpredictability.  Among other things, we must:

  • Have the necessary tools to be aware of and track storms.  We use the Weatherbug and MyRadar Pro apps that send alerts, and we have a handy solar/hand-crank NOAA Weather Radio (thanks, Ben!) that will function even while we’re boondocking.  Our cell phones are also programmed to send us severe weather alerts.
  • Eton microlink FR 160Stay tuned to the Weather Channel and monitor the prediction and progress of storms, whenever possible.
  • Always know which county we are camping in, since warnings are usually issued by county, not city.
  • Have some emergency clothing and other items ready by the door, in case we need to get out in a hurry.
  • Learn where any shelters or sturdy structures are around the campground.

Although we realize we can’t outrun a tornado, we hope this short list will help keep us on the go with a minimal chance of major weather problems.   Any other tips you more experienced travelers can add to our list?

Well, that little rant was totally off-topic, but I had to digress and share our recent learning experience.  With that out of the way, here is the real story behind the title – it’s about a snake and a big bird, a Great Blue Heron (GBH for short).  This is a leftover story from our stay at Gulf State Park, where the Great Blue Heron was a familiar sight.  They usually stood at attention around the campground, by the lake, in the woods, on the beach or even on top of a tree, posing for me.  Always focused and waiting for unwary prey, they are really fun to watch!

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron primping its breeding plumage

The tall, long-legged Great Blue Heron is easily spotted, and many of you have probably seen them since they’re very large birds with one of the widest wingspans in North America.  But I doubt that most of you have taken as many pictures of them as I have!  We spent a lot of quality “heron-watching”  time while at Gulf Shores, even witnessing one of them stalking and catching a snake.  I thought it might be worth sharing some of those moments.

Great Blue Heron

Lets have fun with a few heron facts – Great Blue Herons are identified by their red-brown thighs and a pair of red-brown and white stripes running up their flanks.  The neck of these herons is rusty-gray in color, with black and white streaks running down the front.  They have a mostly white face, with the rest of the head being more pale.

Great Blue Heron

This is who I am – tall, pretty and proud of it!

Great Blue Herons look huge in flight, with a wingspan of up to six feet.

Great Blue Heron

Just another day at the beach…

In flight, a Great Blue Heron’s neck is folded back into an “S” shape, and the legs are stretched out behind its body.

Great Blue Heron in flight

A Great Blue Heron is capable of swallowing a fish many times wider than its narrow neck, which has been known to choke and kill them on occasion.

Great Blue Heron

No, no, no!  Don’t put fish parts in the dumpster – that’s my lunch we’re talking about here!

Although they typically nest in colonies, herons hunt alone and that’s why I’ve never seen a group of herons hunting.  Besides fish, they eat a wide variety of prey such as frogs, salamanders, turtles, snakes, insects, rodents and small birds.  Just look at that menacing beak!

Great Blue Heron

Hey, don’t get too close or I’ll put your eye out!

They have special vertebrae in their necks that allow them to curl it into an “S” shape. This allows them to make a long and lightning-fast strike at their prey.

Great Blue Heron

On one of those days before the storm hit, Steve and I were reading and relaxing outside when we caught a glimpse of a GBH stalking around.  Of course, I ran for my trusty camera while Steve grabbed the binoculars to enjoy the show.  We watched as it stood completely motionless for a long time, then walked very slowly – almost like a cat – getting into striking range of its prey.  Then, with a quick thrust of its sharp bill, it snapped up a snake and tore it in half.  That poor snake must have wondered what the heck had just happened, as it continued to wiggle around in the heron’s mouth.

Stalking a Great Blue Heron

The following short clip shows that the snake almost got away, but the heron was quicker. And to think I was right in that area a little earlier taking some pictures!  I called that heron our “guard bird” for getting the snake before it could come into our site.

Do I detect a smile on this guy’s face as he enjoys his lunch?

Great Blue Heron

Wildlife scenes such as this may not be spectacular, but to us they’re fascinating and make our lifestyle even more rewarding.  More so when it happens right outside our door, like when the Sandhill Cranes visited us in Sebring, Florida, or when the little Black Bear emptied out our bird feeder in Lake Monroe, Florida.  Good times!

 

 



Enjoying and NOT enjoying Gulf Shores, AL

Comments 48 Standard
Brown Pelican

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While writing this post, violent thunderstorms were hammering us again – the worst either of us has ever seen.  We were right in the path as severe storms and even a few tornadoes moved through the area, and at one point there were reports of over 70,000 lightning strikes and 5 inches of rain being dumped per hour.  We had our slides in and did not sleep that night, as the sky looked like a flickering light bulb as lightning struck the ground all around us and the wind blasted for over 5 straight hours.  This was truly an epic weather event that broke all rainfall records for the area, and something we don’t care to experience ever again.  But we weren’t about to head north as originally planned, since tornadoes were occurring and predicted to continue in the Montgomery, AL area.  We thought it would be best to hunker down here, since only moderate storms were predicted, but when the weather spiraled out of control we weren’t so sure.  By the time the “experts” realized how bad it really was, the roads were impassible and we were stuck in the park.  Not a good feeling!

Gulf State Park

The calm before the storm?

Gulf State Park

Yep, looks like it!  The lake came to within about 5 feet of Betsy, and we were watching it all night.  Large areas of the park were flooded out, but fortunately we were on high enough ground.

We feel very lucky to have apparently come out of this with only one wet compartment, and both of us cranky after almost no sleep for 2 nights.  But our new friends Bob and Rox, whom we met through RVillage, were not so lucky.  Their 5th wheel was struck by lightning and suffered some damage.  They are both OK and in the process of having their rig fixed. We wish them and their doggies all the best!

Nature Center, Gulf State Park

The park’s amphitheater before the storm…

Nature Center, Gulf State Park

…and after the storm – we’ll pass on those front-row seats!

In between storms and while the sun shone brightly, we ventured out of Gulf State Park. There’s much to do in the Gulf Shores area, and the city seemed to be “party central” during spring break.  We obviously avoided those crazy kids – we never acted like that when we were their age 😉 – and went where they usually don’t.  Our main focus was on daily biking and walking, to burn off calories from the lumpia and bread we consumed.  And most importantly, we made the most of our last few days to walk on the beach, since there will be no more of those in sight as we head north.

The only “new” outdoor activity we did while here was a visit to Weeks Bay Pitcher Plant Bog.  This is a reserve where fascinating plants like the Gulf Coast Pitcher Plant thrive.  A bog is a unique habitat formed by a combination of water, soil and environmental conditions that are low in the nutrients needed for plant growth.  Because of these poor soil conditions, many of the bog plants have developed interesting and unusual ways of obtaining necessary nutrients.  Carnivorous plants like the Pitcher Plant, Sundew and Bladderworth obtain nutrients by capturing and “absorbing” insects – a fascinating adaptation!

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Heading out to find me a Pitcher Plant

Weeks Bay Pitcher Plant Bog

There are many wooden walkways at Pitcher Plant Bog

Walking along the extensive boardwalk, there were a few Pitcher Plants starting to bloom. The White-topped Pitcher Plant is considered a true beauty of the bog, and is rare in the sense that it occurs naturally only in a very restricted range between Apalachicola, Florida to near the Louisana state line.  Its tubular leaves are death traps for insects.  The other unusual plant here was the Purple Pitcher, locally known as “frog britches.”

The pitcher plant bog is a rare habitat, and many bog plants are habitat-specific.  That’s exactly why the Weeks Bay Reserve exists – to preserve the habitat for future generations.

Pitcher Plants

Pitcher Plants

We also revisited the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Alabama’s last remaining undisturbed coastal barrier habitat.  Like last year, we didn’t see anything spectacular except that it remains a natural oasis of wildlands where wildlife can exist without harm. The name Bon Secour comes from the French meaning “safe harbor”, which is exactly what it is for the plants and animals here.  And, it’s a great place to walk several miles without encountering many other people.  Oh, and it’s free!

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge

Little Lagoon, Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge

Pine Beach Trail

The refuge consists of approximately 7,000 acres of coastal lands, ranging from constantly-changing dunes to rolling pine-oak woodlands.  We followed the 4-mile long Pine Beach Trail, which starts in a maritime forest, then we continued on to a pristine beach.

We were bummed that we couldn’t take the 2-mile Centennial Trail, which would have connected us to the Jeff Friend Trail and added some distance to our walk.  It was flooded from an earlier storm, so we turned around and drove to the trailhead at the other end and walked the 1-mile loop from there.  That gave us another nice view of Little Lagoon.

Jeff Friend Trail

Taking a break on the Jeff Friend Trail

Finally, we took our last walk along the ocean, knowing we won’t be seeing any more of these sugary-white sand beaches for many months to come.

Gulf State Park Beach

Under the Gulf State Park Pier

Gulf State Park Pier

Gulf State Park Pier

Gulf State Park Beach

Rough seas on the day before the big storm

Gulf State Park

Goodbye, Gulf Shores!

With that we bid our final farewell to Gulf Shores, Alabama.  It was an interesting stay!

 

Next up:  How do you catch a snake?  A GBH knows how!



What to do when you’re cooped up for three days?

Comments 47 Standard
Fried Lumpia

Being former Californians, we’re used to fairly stable weather and not a lot of surprises. But while traveling in this lifestyle, we’ve had to get used to being prepared for whatever Mother Nature throws at us.  For example, we were amazed by the non-stop rain for 3 days at Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and the sustained high winds while at Alamogordo, NM.  Then there was the sand storm we endured at Death Valley National Park, CA.

Here in the southeast, we’ve had to deal with storm systems that triggered severe weather events resulting in numerous thunderstorms and soaking rain.  We’ve learned that it’s what we do during this inclement weather that keeps life from getting too depressing. At these times, we usually catch up on our reading, do blogging or trip planning, or just watch the raging weather outside as we hunker down.  We’re getting pretty good at planning upcoming activities around the forecasted weather.  I mean, if the sun is out and the birds are chirping, who wants to be stuck doing computer work or taking care of inside maintenance stuff?  Not us!

Gulf State Park

Get ready, here it comes!

So, what did we do during the latest big storm?  Lots, considering we live in this tiny house on wheels.  For one thing, Steve was able to expand his culinary interests into Filipino cooking.   As you may know, he not only sits in the captain’s chair, but he also makes his mark in the kitchen.  He likes to experiment and learn new recipes, and I have to laugh because whenever something doesn’t come out just so, he wants to try it again right away until he gets it perfect.

For years since we met, Steve’s been hinting and goading me to teach him how to make Filipino lumpia.  I kept postponing, since it’s tedious and involves frying.  Well, as the storm approached I finally ran out of excuses, since I knew we would be RV-bound for the next couple of days.

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“Chef Steve” begins preparing the ingredients for his first batch of lumpia. I wish you could see his smile here, but it was too big to fit into the picture!

Filipino lumpia is the Filipino version of an egg roll or a Chinese spring roll.  It can be a mixture of several veggies (like cabbage and carrots), and meat (usually pork and/or shrimp), rolled into a thin wrapper.  In any Filipino gathering, lumpia is usually the king of appetizers – those of you who have tasted home-made lumpia would probably agree.  It’s that good!

Steve found a good Filipino lumpia recipe (not mine, sad to say) and gathered all the required ingredients.  There are several recipes and styles that are very good, he used this one for his first try.  As usual, he took this project very seriously and even watched Youtube to see several experts rolling lumpia so he would be prepared.

After preparing all of the ingredients, cooking the mixture (we made some pork and some shrimp) and letting it cool down, the fun began as I showed Steve how to roll the lumpia. He caught on quickly and went on to roll the remaining 30 pieces himself.

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Hey, this ain’t no thang!

We then fried a few to taste his labor of love, and stored the rest for future happy hours.  We fried ours in a small amount of oil in a pan, rather than deep frying, to make it a bit healthier.

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Lumpia is often served with a sweet-chili sauce, but we like it dipped in vinegar with fresh garlic pressed in and some black pepper

Well, that was it for the lumpia experiment.  What else did we do during the imperfect storm?  Read on…

We love fresh bread, no doubt about it.  One issue in our gypsy lifestyle is that finding good, fresh bread can be problematic.  After talking with John and Sharon of On the Road of Retirement about how they bake all their own bread, we were inspired.  I was surprised when Steve suggested we buy a bread making machine to try it ourselves.  Now, John and Sharon make their breads completely by hand, but we decided to be a bit less ambitious and try a highly-recommended machine that would allow us to “set it and forget it”.  That would allow us to have fresh home-made bread whenever we wanted it, without having to be present for every step of the process.

So, as the storm raged on we went to pick up our new Panasonic SD-TD250 Bread Making Machine at the local Walmart.  And what a fun day it turned out to be while we were cooped up!

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After our first successful loaf of wheat bread, I decided to go crazy and try for a loaf of honey walnut!

The manual that came with the machine had recipes for many excellent breads.  We started with a loaf of regular whole wheat, and it came out so good that we confidently proceeded to make a loaf of honey wheat.  Then we baked a loaf of french bread that was out of this world!  And I say that as a connoisseur of quality breads from San Francisco. Since most of the “base ingredients” are the same, it’s easy to make many types of breads with this machine, even pizza dough!  All we have to do is whip the ingredients together and then wait a few hours for our next fresh loaf.  We’ve been having a blast with this machine, and we love how our house smells like a bakery when it fires up!

Panasonic Bread Bakery

Fresh from the oven!

Bread Bakery

“Success!” declares the new baker…

Whole Wheat Honey Walnut Bread

This honey walnut bread turned out good, and we’ll keep baking until we find the perfect loaf!

I also got myself busy with some other inside projects.  After showing my hubby how to wrap a lumpia, I rummaged through our closets and started purging clothes.  This has been on my to-do list for quite a while, and it was a good time to do it.  I realized once again that I need even fewer clothes to live this lifestyle.  Going through my closet, I located the “never worn” and “special occasion only” clothes that I never got around to wearing, plus some really old stuff that I must admit I was sentimentally attached to.  After two big bagfuls of give aways, my closet now seems a bit empty.  Perhaps its time to hit the mall and get new clothes?  Oh, I hope Steve doesn’t see this…

In between these in-house activities, we caught up on some reading of our favorite authors.  Between the two of us we finished several books – two Ken Follet’s, two David Baldacci’s and a Jeffrey Archer best seller.

And the aftermath of the big storm?  A nice sunset and the promise of better weather for our upcoming planned activities.

Sunset after storm

Water everywhere after the big storm

Being cooped up can be fun and productive after all, and this time we learned some new cooking skills.  How about you?  What do you do when the dreaded cabin fever hits?

 

Next up:  Venturing back out and about at Gulf Shores.



Outdoor fun before the storm – Gulf State Park, AL

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Hugh S Banyon Backcountry Trail

Bugs BunnyWe have been dilly-dallying near the Alabama coast before continuing our trek north, wanting to make sure that Spring has sprung and temperatures are on the rise before we continue our adventure.  So here we are, hanging out at Gulf Shores for the next three weeks.  There’s lots to do here, but because this is our second trip into the Gulf Shores area, we’re trying to do a little more relaxing this time around.

While staying at Gulf State Park, we have finally found what we consider a perfect “10” campground.  Hearing a lot of good things about this huge 496-site park in the past, we tried to make reservations for our stay last year but discovered they were fully booked through March.  This is the only state park we are aware of that allows monthly stays from November through March, and a 14-day maximum all other times.

Gulf State Park, Alabama

Gulf State Park as seen from Gulf Oak Ridge Trail

What’s to like about this park?  First, it met all of our personal criteria; park location, site levelness and spacing, and not too much road or “people” noise.  It was just a great atmosphere to hang out in.  Easy access to several hiking/biking trails and many other amenities were icing on the cake.  If we were really going to be picky, we might complain about the lack of hills or mountains to scale or look at.  But that’s not the park’s fault, and besides, the white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast are only a mile away!  To see more things to do while at this park, click here.  We strongly recommend it to anyone coming to this area.

Live Oak Road, Gulf State Park,

We’re at site #37, Live Oak Road

Middle Lake, Gulf State Park

Middle Lake as seen through our dinette window

After birding with Laurel and Eric on our first two days here, we began to explore the park and hit the trails before the forecasted storm, wind and rain arrived.  Just walking through the campground can be a workout – it’s 2 miles end-to-end, not including any of the side roads or walking trails.  But to make it even better, it also has easy access to the Hugh S. Branyon Back Country Trail.  Traveling between Gulf State Park and Orange Beach, this complex of 6 attached paved paths covers 12 miles.  It’s believed that the area is historic, as it was once used by indigenous people and early settlers.  It took us 2 rides, one at 19 miles and another at 15 miles to cover all of the paths and get back to the park.  The Hugh S. Branyon Back Country Trail traverses a wide diversity of habitats, running along marshes, secondary sand dunes, swamps and over several creeks.

Hugh S Branyon Backcountry Trail

Trailhead of Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail from within the park

We took our rides early in the day and observed that the paths got busy later on. Leaving early also allowed us to encounter some wildlife along the way.

Lefty, the alligator

This mother alligator was seen along Rosemary Dunes Trail with her five babies on board

Gulf Oak Ridge Trail, Hugh S Branyon Trails

We liked Gulf Oak Ridge Trail, as it was shaded with a few mild elevation changes to keep our hearts pumping

Catman Road Trail, Hugh S Branyon Backcountry Trail

Looking at yet another water snake along Catman Road Trail

Rattlesnake Ridge Trail, Backcountry Trail

Steve with “helmet hair” at Rattlesnake Ridge Trailhead

Great Blue Heron on top of tree

Can you find the Great Blue Heron?

On other days, we walked all 9 of the unpaved connecting trails within the park.  It was flat, but we got fairly good workouts nevertheless.

Alligator  Marsh Trail, Gulf State Park

No, we did not see any alligators on this trail

Gulf State Park

Along Campground Road

Bear Creek Trail, Gulf State Park

Bear Creek Trail

On these walks I practiced capturing some wildflowers up close and low to the ground using my Point and Shoot Panasonic DMZ-ZS19.  It got some pretty decent shots.

We took the one-mile walk to the beach and then added several miles while walking along the shore.  There are over 3.5 miles of white sand beaches available in both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama.  Best of all, it’s free!

Gulf State Park Beach

Gulf State Park Beach

Brown Pelicans

Brown Pelicans in a feeding frenzy were fun to watch

Common Terns

Unlike the Common Terns in Florida, these guys were skittish and wouldn’t let us get too close

Lowes RV Adventures

Yes, we are enjoying our last few days at the beach before moving on!

All of these activities were done within the confines of the sprawling Gulf State Park, with no driving required.  The park also offers birding, golfing, boating, fishing, kayaking and canoeing.  After four days of active fun the storm hit, and it was a doozy just like the forecasters predicted.

 

Next up:  What do you do when cooped up for three days?



The blogger’s biking and birding bonanza in ‘bama

Comments 26 Standard
Painted Bunting

Baltimore OrioleLike last year, when we moved from Dauphin Island to Gulf Shores AL, I took the car on the ferry while poor Steve had to drive Betsy 85 miles around on the highways (Betsy is too big for this ferry).  Arriving at the Fort Morgan ferry landing, I drove straight to Fort Morgan State Historical Park to meet up with Eric and Laurel of Raven and Chickadee, while Steve set up camp at our new site in Gulf State Park across town.  As you may recall, we initially met Eric and Laurel a few weeks ago in Apalachicola, Florida. We had no idea our paths would cross again so soon!

In addition to blogging about our travels, birding and biking are other interests we have in common with them.  Since the spring migration of neotropical birds was at its peak here at Gulf Shores, Alabama birding was pretty much the focus of our activities together.  OK by me!

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Eric and Laurel, real birders!

Our first get-together was to observe bird banding at Fort Morgan State Historical Park. The bird banding sessions are operated by the Hummer/Bird Study Group, which was created by Bob Sargent and his wife Martha.  Along with a group of dedicated volunteer bird lovers, they’ve been doing this for the past 20 years.  They gather here to band hummingbirds and other neotropical migrating songbirds in order to study and preserve them.

 Hummer/Bird Study Group

Sargent said, “These birds are all just amazing.  They’ve got a brain the size of half a pea and a navigation system that, even if we live to be 1,000 years old we’ll never understand.”

Once a bird is captured in one of the dozens of nets strung through the Gulf woods, it is weighed, measured, fitted with a tiny metal identification band, recorded, given a quick physical, and then released to continue its northward journey.

Observing the bird banding was a fun and educational experience.  Being able to actually hold and release these beautiful little creatures back to the wild was very exciting for me.

Bob Sargent preparing me to release the bird

Bob Sargent preparing me to release the bird (photo courtesy of Eric and Laurel)

Am I happy or what?

Is this awesome, or what?

Laurel with "her" bird

Laurel with “her” bird

Upon our arrival at Gulf State Park in the afternoon, we were delighted to discover that we were practically next door neighbors.  Steve had checked us into site #37, not realizing that Eric and Laurel were at #32.  That made our happy hour celebration very convenient!

Lowes RV Adventures

Happy Hour at site # 37

On our second outing early the following morning, I loaded my bike into Eric and Laurel’s truck and we drove back to the Fort Morgan ferry landing to take our bikes over to Dauphin Island.  Since I had just come from several days of bird watching there, it was my turn to play tour guide for the day.  And bikes are the perfect mode of transportation for visiting the birding areas, which are all within a radius of only a couple of miles.

As our time on the island was somewhat limited, we went straight to the birding hotspots; Shell Mound Park, Goat Tree, Cadillac Square and finally to the Audubon Bird Sanctuary.  Fortunately, we were also able to catch the Great Horned Owl and her owlets, still at their nesting roost by the beach.

Cadillac Square, Dauphin Island

Lunch break at Cadillac Square

While birding with Eric and Laurel I was able to pick up a few tips, like how to identify the many types of Warblers present on the island that day.  We enjoyed our time together and have planned to meet up again in Texas next winter for more birding adventures.

Green Heron and Prothonotary

The Prothonotary warbler can stand on its own cuteness next to a Green Heron

In addition to my initial bird sightings a few days ago, our two days of birding together resulted in enjoying even more of the colorful, cute little jittery creatures.  The three of us had a great time traipsing through the woods in search of these elusive migrants. Going with real birders made it all the more fun!

Steve stayed home to take advantage of the gorgeous weather and our nice paved parking spot to complete some overdue maintenance under Betsy.  We met up with him at the end of the day and went out for a great dinner at the Tin Top Restaurant.

Lowes RV Adventures

Excellent dinner at the Tin Top restaurant

I learned during our two days of adventures that Laurel is far more than just a blogger. She is an author of several books including Herbal Healing, which you can check out at Amazon.  As an herbalist she is also a columnist and contributing editor for Natural Health magazine.

It was indeed a birding bonanza for the bloggers!

 

Next up:   Just ‘chillin at Gulf Shores, AL



The Sunset Capital of Alabama

Comments 26 Standard
Dauphin Island Sunset

The enjoyment of our two-week stay at Dauphin Island was dictated by the weather, and we had a double whammy of severe thunderstorms, rain and overcast skies.  But on days when the weather cooperated, we headed to our favorite locations to watch the colors of twilight and sunset that the island is known for.  In July 2013, Dauphin Island was deemed by its town council as the Sunset Capital of Alabama.  In reality it’s a logical choice, since the island sits several miles south of the mainland where there’s really nothing to obstruct the western horizon.

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Geographically, its location is at the westernmost white-sand beach in Alabama, and also on the Gulf Coast – unique features that the town likes to point out.  We drove to the west end of the island where we could see the clouds and colors changing 360 degrees around us.  Of course, there were days when Mother Nature produced a dud, but most evenings it was well worth the drive and it’s not like we had a lot of other important things to do.

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The only other time I have posted about incredible sunsets was when we were in Arizona, where the sky in the desert had spectacular twilight hues of oranges and reds, and the cloudscapes were spectacular.  Other than birds, sunsets have become my other photographic inspiration.  I try to catch at least one wherever we go.  But here at Dauphin Island the panoramic sunsets are something to behold, and we have tried to view and enjoy them from various locations.

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Sunset afterglows…

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Dauphin Island has given us several memorable sunsets that I’ve been able to add to my collection.  The hard part is picking which ones to delete!

And that about wraps up our two weeks of hanging out on our favorite southern island.

 

Up Next:  Bloggers Biking and Birding Bonanza!



Going our separate ways…

Comments 32 Standard
Lace Hydrangea

…but only for a day 🙂 No, it’s not what you might think.  We just decided to kill two birds with one stone by pursuing our different interests one beautiful day.  To add some variety to our island living, we checked out things that we missed last time we were here. The choices were flowers and gardens or a warship – guess which of us did which activity?  Steve dropped me off at the Bellingrath Home and Gardens so I could spend my day with the flowers, then he headed up to Mobile to check out the USS Alabama warship and USS Drum submarine.

The USS Alabama on display in Mobile, AL

The USS Alabama on display in Mobile, AL

Steve wrote about his experience:

We have visited several warships during our travels, but I still enjoy them and am always fascinated by the complexity of these vessels that were built over 70 years ago. Considering the technology available at that time, it’s pretty amazing how they were able to navigate, communicate and accurately fire their huge guns while underway on the pitching ocean waves.  The USS Alabama was loaded with weaponry of all sizes and pointing in all directions, to handle anything that could be thrown at it.

USS Alabama

This ship is loaded with weaponry – large and small – from one end to the other

16-inch gun turrets

Inside one of the 16-inch gun turrets

The submarine USS Drum is also on display in Mobile, right next to the Alabama. Whenever I tour one of these old submarines, I’m amazed that dozens of men could live in such a small and claustrophobic place for weeks on end.  Submarine duty was obviously very difficult back in those days.

USS Drum

The USS Drum on display in Mobile, AL

Engine room of the USS Drum

Engine room of the USS Drum

Torpedo room of the USS Drum

Torpedo room of the USS Drum

Now it’s my turn to tell about my own excursion…

In the early 1900’s, an overworked rich person was advised by his doctor to “learn how to play”, so he bought an abandoned fishing camp on the Fowl River.  Walter and Bessie Bellingrath converted the camp into a country estate.  Over the years, Mrs. Bellingrath beautified the property with flowers, and hired a local architect to help her transform it into a formal rose garden and conservatory.  In April 1932, the Bellingraths placed an ad in the Mobile newspapers inviting locals to see the spring flowers.  Thousands of people took them up on their invitation, and the Bellingrath Gardens was born.

Bellingrath Gardens

Bellingrath Gardens

I just wanted to enjoy the flowers and all the beauty of nature on a sunny day, so I decided to forego the home tour and instead spent lots of time wandering through the gardens.  They were expansive, and it took me about two hours to smell the flowers and enjoy all of the beautiful colors.  The price for this tour was $12.50 per person.

Bellingrath Gardens

The roses were not in bloom yet, and in a matter of days the Azaleas would be an additional explosion of color.  A variety of other flowers, like the Tulips (my personal favorite) and Hydrangeas were already in bloom, and the 65-acre garden was in full spring blossom.

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Azalea

Bellingrath Gardens

Tulips

At the end of the day over wine and a dinner of steamed Blue Crab claws, we shared our experiences and photos.

Blue Crab Claws

Tasty steamed Blue Crab claws

We both agreed it was a wonderful day to be apart for a while, and a great way to spend some “alone time”.

 

Next up:  Enjoying the Sunset Capital of Alabama



Dauphin Island is for the birds!

Comments 35 Standard

I know what you must be thinking – I just completed four months of gawking at birds while we were in Florida, and here I am talking about birds again.  Lucky for me, we arrived at Dauphin Island, AL where neotropical migratory birds make their first landfall at the beginning of the spring season.  Migration begins in March and peaks in mid-April. If you’re not a “bird fan”, then you probably won’t be interested in the rest of this post. Even my hubby gave me an agonized look when I asked him to edit yet another bird story!

Dauphin Island

But first, what the heck is a neotropical bird?

A neotropical migratory bird is one that breeds in Canada or the United States during our summer, then spends our winter in Mexico, Central America, South America or the Caribbean islands.  The majority of neotropical migratory birds are songbirds, such as warblers, thrushes, tanagers, and vireos.

Dauphin Island is the first landfall for many neotropical migratory birds after their long flight across the Gulf from Central and South America each spring.

Map of Dauphin Island Alabama

Map of Dauphin Island, Alabama

After a recent storm here I ventured out to the Audubon Bird Sanctuary and the Indian Shell Mound Park, where I was amazed by the abundance of “fall out”, a term used to describe these large groups of arriving migrants.  The cute little colorful birds were all over the place, hopping and foraging.  And it seemed like their stopover lasted only a single day, for when I went back the following morning the area was already quiet.

Audubon Bird Sanctuary

Audubon Bird Sanctuary

The Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary Center lists 347 species that have been sighted on the island.  The Center distributes a migration calendar which lists each bird species expected to arrive, and on what dates.  This year, it’s estimated that the peak spring migration will be around April 15-25 – depending on the weather – but I’ve already seen lots of birders and photographers swarming the island.  Although we’ll be at Gulf Shores in late April, I might just hop on the ferry to come back here for another look!

Dauphin Island Shell Island Park

Some of the many birders and photographers at Shell Island Park

Here are a few snaps that I managed to capture that day.  These tiny birds are skittish and move around a lot.  To make it more interesting, I added some fun facts that I learned about these particular neotropical migratory birds:

  • Migrating birds cross the 600 miles of the Gulf of Mexico without resting.
Hooded Warbler

Hooded Warbler – these cuties were literally all over the place that day.

  • For most long-distance migrants, the birds are born genetically programmed to fly in a certain direction for a certain amount of time.
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

The most challenging bird for me to capture – Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

  • The time it takes a single bird to complete a full one-way migration can range from a few weeks to up to four months, depending on the total distance, weather, flight speed, route and stopovers.
Yellow-throated Warbler

I froze when this Yellow-throated Warbler posed right in front of me.

  • Ninety percent of migrating birds fly at airspeeds between 15 and 45 miles per hour.
White-eyed Vireo

The White-eyed Vireo was checking me out as well.

  • Many songbirds migrate at night, in part to avoid the attention of predators that are also migrating, such as raptors.
Prothonotary Warbler

Four of these Prothonotary Warblers were competing for seeds.

  • Migrants have an internal clock that controls the onset of migration and their pre-migration preparations.
Scarlet Tanager

The Scarlet Tanagers were way up there in the trees

  • Migrating birds use the stars and sounds from the earth below to find their way at night.  Buntings specifically use the pattern of stars around the North Star for navigation.  Amazing!
Indido Bunting

Steve was even excited when an Indigo Bunting visited our site (blue is his favorite color)

And that’s just a few of the gorgeous specimens I’ve seen the last few days!  In addition to all of the migrants passing through, we’re also being entertained daily at our campground (Steve’s review here) by the constant sounds and visits from the locals – Cardinals, Finches, Mockingbirds, Grackles, Doves and Blue Jays, who seem to rule the island.  These guys are eating us out of house and home, as we’ve been refilling our feeder every day.  But there’s nothing like waking up every morning to the sounds of all these wonderful birds singing to us!

Next up:  We go our separate ways