Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Brotherhood of the Boaters Strikes Again

Cayuga Lake cottage: Do you not love the cuteness?

July 9: Sheldrake Point to Lansing

As you know, cuteness is a key quality for the crew of the Dragonfly. And as we continued our trip south on Cayuga Lake, we noticed a trend. The cuteness quotient of lakeside cottages increases with decreased distance to Ithaca. 

Maybe it’s because the cottages closest to town were built first, and turn-of-the century houses have more gingerbread, not to mention darling little boat houses.

After a peaceful float under hot sunny skies, we docked at a marina in Lansing, NY, sliding neatly between two sailboats on the “long dock” that bisects the middle of the marina basin.

I’m Getting a Friendly Feeling

Beautiful day for a cruise!
Like any other business, marinas have varied personalities. Cayuga Lake Marine Services is low-key—family-owned and family oriented. Not fancy, but neat and clean. 

And friendly—the couple across the way strolled by to offer us the use of their car for a grocery run, and also to let us know about their “secret swimming spot” just beyond the marina breakwater and encourage us to come take a dip.

If I Only Had a Piece of Plastic Pipe

Cap had been feeling a bit bereft ever since Seneca Falls. He’d been looking forward to sunset rows in the dinghy, but with a broken oar, this was not to be.

The oar itself is carbon-fiber construction, hollow in cross section at the spot where it had broken. If he could find a properly sized piece of plastic pipe, Cap theorized, he could insert it in one broken end, thread the other end over, glue or tape, and have a functioning oar again.
Our duckling among the swans

Now, he looked hopeful. Sometimes, marinas have ship’s stores, or repair shops, or both. He hustled off down the dock. In less than ten minutes he was back, smiling broadly. 

This marina DID have a repair shop, and the man in charge rummaged around a bit and came up with a piece of plastic plumbing pipe that was the perfect size. 

A few minutes fiddling with the fit, then applying gorilla tape, and the oar was, if not as good as new, at least usable. 

Not only that, but the repair shop foreman waved away Bill’s offer of payment. "Just take it," he said cheerfully.

It’s Great to Be in the Brotherhood

When you’re traveling on a boat, these little moments come thick and fast—times when people are kind to one another, and unexpectedly helpful. 

When we’re approaching a dock, other boaters will almost always step forward and offer to take our lines. (We always try to do the same.) This attitude of mutual support is called “The Brotherhoodof the Boaters.” 

Oh happy day! Rowin' again!
It’s one of the lovely things about boating, to discover that the vast majority of people who share your passion for water-based travel are also considerate and generous. 

Sure, there are oblivious boaters who throw up heavy wakes or play their music loud. But they seem to be the minority.

Kind of renews your faith that people are basically good.

Flush with victory over the broken oar—and also flushed with the 95-degree heat—we threw on our bathing suits and headed over to the secret swimming hole. The lake water was a perfect 78 degrees. 

And our new friends offered us a beer as we dripped our way back up the dock.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

What IS It?

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know that occasionally, we post images of perplexing objects and invite you to answer the question, "What IS It?"

Remember how Rocky and Bullwinkle used to say, "Fan mail from some
flounder"? Maybe this is a mailbox for lake trout.
This picture (right) was taken near Sheldrake Point on Cayuga Lake, but we've spotted these mailbox-sized structures elsewhere on the lake.

Doesn't Seem Ducky

We're familiar with the large wooden boxes that wildlife managers use to attract nesting wood ducks. This structure seems quite different. So, what IS it?

Write your answer on a case of Ithaca Flower Power IPA and mail it to . . . oh, wait! We can't get mail on a boat! You'll just have to use the comment function on this blog.

Yup, This Quiz Comes with a Prize

From all the correct answers we receive, a winner will be drawn at random (or based on the  humor quotient of your answer) and you'll be awarded the "What IS It" prize: a genuine old-fashioned tacky postcard, delivered by snail mail to your actual house.

If you're new to the blog and want to challenge yourself with some previous "What IS It?" quizzes, we flash you back to the past with the links below. (Sadly, the prizes have already been awarded.)

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Wildlife on Demand

Pretty nice dock for a winery!
July 11: Thirsty Owl Winery on Sheldrake Point to Finger Lakes Marine Services in Lansing NY

Soon after we started work at Everglades Park last winter, we noticed that questions from visitors were predictable. “Where’s the bathroom?” “Where do we get boat tickets?” And, “We just have half a day here, where can we see alligators?” (Or, insert the charismatic megafauna of your choice: Manatees? Wood storks? Flamingos? Sea turtles?)

Again and again, park visitors gave us the message that they’d like to be able to see these species by appointment. Go to the appointed place at the appointed time, and voila, an alligator! Or a manatee.

But wild animals don’t pop out on demand. Their populations are small, their home ranges are large, and their habits are . . . well, sometimes regular. But not always.

Also, many species tend to be most active at dusk or dawn . . . times that are outside of normal park visiting hours.

We had some memorable wildlife sightings while we were stationed in the Everglades: a couple manatees on the Blackwater River lolling just arms-length from our kayaks; wood storks by the dozens, clustered in the marsh at sunset at the 10,000 Islands National Wildlife Refuge;  a loggerhead sea turtle rearing his head, the size of a fishing float, ahead of us in the channel by Sandfly Island.

But that was because we spent lots (and lots) of time outside. If we’d calculated “exciting-sightings-per-hour,” the yield would have been pitiable.

Low Expectations

When we started this trip, we had low expectations for wildlife sightings. We knew we’d feel perfectly happy to see the predictable local denizens: bald eagles in Montezuma Marsh, ospreys on their nesting platforms, great blue herons around almost every bend.

Early Bird Gets the Worm . . . or Something

We shut up the boat Monday night after a relaxing afternoon at the solar-powered Thirsty Owl Winery. We were feeling pleased at the sunset show we’d just enjoyed. But we had no particular expectations that the winery docks would hold any adventure or excitement for us.

At seven the next morning, I rolled over to the sound of Bill opening the rear double doors. But he didn’t charge up the steps as he usually does.  Instead, I heard an urgent whisper.

“Berge, come here! And bring your binoculars!”

I scampered out of bed to join him at the door.

“Look between those two arms of the dock!”

And there, glowing in the morning sun, was a mama merganser with a whole flotilla of babies, eight in all, steaming along purposefully.

One alternative name for the common merganser is the “sheldrake.”

The spit of land that juts into the lake, right where we were docked, is Sheldrake Point. I’d never really appreciated that name before!

Don't Put Away the Bins Just Yet

As we admired the spunky baby ducks, paddling at speed to keep up with Mom, a mink scampered onto the dock in front of us.

He snatched up a chunk of fish (perhaps dropped by a gull or osprey) and started gnawing on it like a hungry dog.

Usually, when you see a mink, it’s just a flash of brown at the edge of the channel. Almost as soon as you realize what you’re seeing, it’s gone.

But this mink was taking his ease, chewing and swallowing, gnawing and chewing.

When he was done, he patrolled the length of the dock and back, nose to the boards, looking for other tidbits. Then he slipped fluidly down to the end of the dock, along the shore, and into the undergrowth.

The Conservation Report

Although many North American bird species are seeing precipitous declines, Common Merganser populations are stable or increasing. Later that morning, we spotted a sizable flock of females loafing together on a snag.

Minks are also considered a “species of least concern” in New York State.

Water pollution is the greatest threat to both species.
What a great way to start the day!

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

What Lurks in the Lake?

Grocery run!
On Monday, July 8, we left Cayuga Lake State Park and headed south. The first order of the day: a provisioning stop in Union Springs, which has a nice grocery store within walking distance of the town dock.

The bulletin board at the dock had the usual notices about fishing regulations and the importance of wearing a life jacket. There was also an interpretive panel about Cayuga Lake’s mystery monster.

Champ’s Cousin, Perhaps?

In 1897 an Ithaca resident told the local paper he was certain he'd spotted an enormous serpent.
Note: The hitchhiker riding with him said it was a muskrat.
Scotland has the Loch Ness monster. Lake Champlain has Champ. And Cayuga Lake—which like these first two lakes is very long, very narrow, very cold, and very deep, is also reportedly home to a giant, eel-like creature, affectionately called “Old Greeny.”

An often-cited Ithaca Journal article reported in 1897 that a local man, driving the eastern shore, spotted an enormous water serpent. The article stated that this was nothing new;  residents had been seeing Old Greeny every year since 1837!

More recently, in 1974, a boy reported to a local emergency room with a broken arm, allegedly the result of an encounter with the monster. And a reputable professional diver claimed to have spotted it on a dive in 1979.

A Monstrous Problem

Back on the water after scoring some provisions, we scanned the water with new enthusiasm. The serpent stayed submerged, but we had a pleasant floating lunch. (Want Boat Gourmet's recipe for Farro Salad with Edamame and Feta?) 

Then we docked at Taughannock State Park so we could hike in to see the famous waterfall (see image at right).

I stopped at the park office to pick up the “vehicle pass” that would let us tie up for an hour (the ranger directed me to display it on my windshield!) 

As I left, I heard two young men speaking a little loudly with another ranger. “No swimming?” they said with some heat. “We came all this way! Isn’t there another beach?”

I found Bill at the concession stand, ordering an ice cream cone, and asked the kid behind the counter if he knew why the swim beach was closed. 

“Blue-green algae” he replied, and riffed into a 5-minute dissertation on the cause of the bloom (phosphorus run-off from dairy farms and the septic systems of lakeside cottages) and the harmful effects of the toxins released by the algae.

Seriously? Harmful Algal Blooms Here?

I’d always heard that Cayuga Lake was exceptionally clean.  It was a shock to learn that the ice cream guy got the story exactly right. In recent years, harmful algal blooms have plagued the southern part of the lake. It was listed in 2002 as violating the U.S. Clean Water Act.

Yuck! Cayuga Lake is the primary drinking water source for about 100,000 people, and plenty of lakefront cottages get their water directly from the lake.

Those little floating cells are heck of a lot scarier than a snake-like monster.

At the end of the day, we docked at the Thirsty Owl winery. Check out the pix on Facebook!

Monday, July 8, 2019

We Didn't Sink the Boat Today (Barely)

Street scene: the bustling metropolis of Clyde, NY.

We had a peaceful evening in Clyde, NY, after our gongoozlers departed . . . peaceful except for the moment we turned our gaze on the nearby bridge and saw a truck sideswipe the guard rail.

The cargo, a tall, translucent plastic cylinder, toppled sideways and exploded like a giant water balloon, spewing pale green liquid into the gully below.

It took about 20 minutes for various emergency response vehicles to arrive. We later learned that what we assumed was lawn fertilizer was, in fact, a hazardous chemical. Dangerous to breathe. Good thing we repressed the urge to walk over and investigate!

Good Stuff Did Happen Today

Entrance to the Cayuga-Seneca canal
features underwhelming signage.
The next morning, July 5th ,was another blazing day. We set out east from Clyde, and just as we made the turn from the Erie Canal south onto the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, an adult bald eagle flew low over the water in front of us. THAT seemed auspicious.

After few miles the canal cuts briefly across the top of Cayuga Lake. Those cool green waters . . . it was like seeing an old friend. Before we moved to State College, we lived near Ithaca, New York, so we’ve spent lots of time exploring the lake.

Damn You, Hydro Dam!

Lock CS 2-3. Doesn't look too scary, right? But the current hurled us against the left-hand wall just before the lock.
Once we turned from the lake back into the canal proper, the current was strong, knocking our rate of travel back to about 2 miles an hour. We transited the first lock on the canal without incident, admiring its smooth, unpocked walls and sturdy gates. Clearly these locks had been refurbished more recently (or more effectively) than the Erie locks between Macedon and Clyde.

As we approached the next lock, we noticed the hydropower dam to the right. Sometimes, if there’s a lot of water coming over the dam, you get whirlpools as you approach the lock—very disconcerting. 

At this lock, there didn’t seem to be much water coming over the dam. Yet as we made our approach, an invisible hand suddenly gave Dragonfly a hard shove toward shore. The dam must have been releasing water below the surface . . .

We had lashed our dinghy right alongside Dragonfly, so it wouldn’t be trailing behind us in the lock. Now our 14 tons of steel were crunching the slender fiberglass hull against the cement wall to our left!

Cap reversed the engines and fended off with the boat hook. Whew, no major damage done, but a scary moment.

Do Si Do Your Boat

The lock doors open and . . . yikes, those boats are comin' at us!
 And they want our space on this wall!
We’ve been boating (and navigating locks) for 9 years. Things that used to amaze us now seem routine. 

A flight of locks, one after the other? No problem. A lock that’s an elevator, where your boat rides up in a pan of water? We’ve done it. A lock where your boat gets pulled out of the water for a train ride? But of course! 

The double lock right before the town of Seneca Falls had the power to surprise us. You enter one chamber, lock up about 25 feet, then the doors open, into a second lock that takes you up another 25 feet or so.

Well, the doors opened . . . and in the next chamber were a gaggle of boats, headed DOWN. This lock was taking boats in both directions. We'd never seen THAT before. How efficient!

We were already sharing our chamber were three other boats, including a very large tug. The other lock had three boats. Boats on the left, boats on the right, no walls free! It was a regular boat square dance as everyone do-si-do’ed left and right, switching places in the two locks.

Lock and Roll

Gosh! we thought the bike would be safer on the roof than tied to the stern rail
Now we were secure on the wall in the second lock . . . and then, something happened. 

Maybe the tugboat revved its engines. Maybe the lockmaster, as he was opening the valves, let some water into the chamber extra fast. 

Whatever . . . Dragonfly’s bow swung out, then slammed back into the wall, hard. 

And my bike, which was loaded on the boat roof, fell off.

It was roped up, so it didn’t fall far. But now the bike was hanging beside the boat, getting crunched as we continued to swing out and back against the wall.

Cap quickly secured the line he was holding at the stern (a practice generally frowned on in locks), scampered out on the walkway, hoisted the bike back on the roof, then returned to his station and loosed the line. Total elapsed time, 5 seconds. Phew! Crisis avoided.

Bad Things Come in Threes, Right?

Sunny day. Rowing for groceries. What could go wrong?
We were both feeling a little spooked after two near-disasters, and the powerful thunderstorm that pounded us just as we tied to the dock in Seneca Falls amplified our doomsday feeling. 

Luckily, the next day, July 6, was calm--and fun.  We had the pleasure of boat visitors: Bill’s mom, Ann Carlsen; his brother Pete; and Pete’s son Ned. Seneca Falls was bustling with its annual canal fest. 

Our view across the harbor included a petting zoo, with a camel. How can you help but laugh when you can camel-watch from your boat?

The morning of July 7, Bill headed out in the dinghy, aiming to row to the grocery store 3 miles away. Surprisingly soon, he was back with a rueful expression on his face. He’d been rowing flat out when his oar struck a piece of rebar sticking up from the channel. With the impact, the 13-ft carbon-fiber oars (not cheap!) snapped cleanly in half.

What Else Could Possibly Happen?

We headed out of town, grocery-less. The transit through the combined lock was blessedly uneventful, and with the current on the canal now in our favor, we were soon at the head of Cayuga Lake.

It was Sunday afternoon, and a regular parade of boats passed us in the narrow channel—everyone headed home after a weekend on the water. Despite the “no-wake” signs, one powerboat passed us at speed, setting up a line of waves that made us roll so heavily, the port gunwhale went underwater.  A wave of green water sloshed across the deck.

It was an awful, heart-stopping sight. We’ve never had a wave break OVER the side before, not even on Lake Ontario, where we had four-foot waves on our beam!

Luckily the scuppers (drain holes) on the stern deck did their job. And though we heard china and glassware clinking and clashing inside the boat, nothing was broken.

Even the Weeds Are Out to Get Us!

How many times will Cap
have to do THIS?
A few miles down the lake we cut across, aiming for Cayuga Lake State Park. This part of the lake is shallow, and the water weeds are so thick, they strangled our prop a few hundred yards shy of the dock.

Time for Cap to go swimmin’! He stripped down and plunged in, pulling bushels of weed free. 

We weren't surprised to see water weeds on the Champlain Canal, where the water is warm, dirty, and sluggish. But it was a shock to see them in clean, cold Cayuga Lake.

Our Strategy for Securing a Dock Space: Show Up and Look Cute

The park "marina" has tiny slips in shallow water--it isn’t really made for big boats like us. Luckily the ranger in the park office took pity on us and let us lash to the face of the dock, usually reserved for fishermen.
Only a hard-hearted ranger could refuse dockage to THIS adorable pair!
And there was a bustling waterfront bar a few yards beyond the park boundary, pouring a nicely bitter local IPA. Our traditional toast --“High five, we didn’t sink the boat today!”--felt peculiarly resonant.

Our luck just HAS to change, right? So we also bought a PowerBall ticket.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Goozled Again

Goozlers at Lock 2-3 on the Cayuga-Seneca Canal. Please don't a) spit, b) drop your cigarette butt, c) drop your water bottle!

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that wherever Dragonfly docks, her extreme cuteness attracts gongoozlers—a term that author Terry Darlington, author of the inimitable “Narrowdog” canal boat books, defines as “people who stare at boats.”  

When we docked Thursday evening in Clyde, NY, a gaggle of gongoozlers was there to greet us. A posse of preteen girls clad in crop tops and flip-flops swarmed down to the dock like sleek otters down a mudbank and proceeded to peer unashamedly and energetically through the open side hatch.

Their leader, a confident girl with hair dyed the color of cotton candy, turned to confront me where I was working (sweat profusely in the heat), to secure the lines. She had a few questions, and she wanted answers NOW.

“Is this YOUR boat?
“You OWN it?
“Do you LIVE on it?
“ALL SUMMER, you live on it?
“Where did you come from? 
“Where are you going?
“Is that a BICYCLE? Do you ride it?
“Is that a STOVE? 
“Do you have a fridge? Do you cook food ON THE BOAT?
“Is that a BED?
“It’s really little. Do you BOTH sleep in it?
“Really? You both fit in there?
“Can we come on board and look around?”

By now, I was frantically scanning the little waterfront, looking for parental units who could call off the assault.  

A likely looking young couple was ambling our way.  I made eye contact, gestured to the little pack of pre-teens, and made the universal parental face that means, "Please take over here!"

“Is this YOUR boat?” asked the man. “Do you LIVE on it?” the woman chimed in. 

Curiosity satisfied, they smiled and walked on. No relation to Miss Pink and her crewe.

And she wasn't quite done with me. She was looking me up and down, scanning my face carefully, as if she might have met me before. 

Finally, she blurted out her final question. “Are you FAMOUS?” she wanted to know.

“Well, no . . . “ I demurred.

She gave me and the boat one more once-over.  I could almost see the gears turning. 

Like flipping a switch, her attention shifted to the other boat on the dock, a shiny plastic live-aboard houseboat in nautical white and blue.

“Yup! THAT’s more like a boat a famous person would live on,” she said with some satisfaction. And trotted off, entourage in tow.

Friday, July 5, 2019

We Can Do It!

Rosie the Spider Remover
There’s a lot to do before you start a voyage. Cap has a checklist for the boat’s propulsion systems: Bolts secure? Wires connected? Batteries watered? And so on.

My checklist addresses other boating essentials: Fridge stocked? Laundry done? Bird poop scrubbed from windows? Boat exterior hosed off and sparkling? Spiders evicted? Check and double check!

After all, a clean boat is a happy boat!  

Great Journeys Start with a Single Step (or Four Locks)

Departure day: July 4th 2019. At 7:00 AM the air was still cool. We gently motored out from our home dock in Macedon, headed east.

The sun was unimpeded by clouds (OK, great for solar panels), and soon our indoor-outdoor thermometer read 94 degrees inside the boat.

We touched at some familiar ports. In Newark I put ashore to bike the towpath for a few miles. In Lyons we plugged in to sip some extra electricity.

Amusing sighting: Did one boat have engine trouble, requiring a tow? Or did these two captains
simply decide they wanted to have a coffee and a nice chat while they piloted?
All in all, after 11 hours, 32 miles, four locks, and several gallons of sweat, we docked in Clyde.

Appearances Matter

The master painter wishes you
a glorious Fourth!
Before we started this voyage, solar canal boat Dragonfly got a complete makeover. Cap painted her topsides white (OK, to be technical, “Hatteras Cream.” Doesn’t that sound nautical?).

The goal was to keep her a little cooler in the sun. (Dark colors absorb heat, light colors reflect, and all that.)

Testing with his infrared thermometer after the paint dried, he found that his strategy worked: the surface temperature on the light surfaces was 20 degrees lower than the surface temp on dark blue surfaces.

Just image how hot we would have been if he hadn’t changed the paint color!

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

The Compleat Erie Explorer

Looking for the Great Loop blog? Start here. Looking for the "Little Loop" blog? Start here.

All aboard! And please admire the handsome new paint scheme. Keeps the
interior MUCH cooler in the hot summer sun!
We’ve been boating the Erie Canal for almost 10 years. You’d think we’d have seen every inch of her waters.

Nope. A few stretches are still terra incognita. This summer, we'll check some as-yet-not-visited corners off our "must see" list. Here’s where you’ll find us.

A Passage to Ithaca

In July we’ll be cruising from our home port of Macedon, NY (just southwest of Rochester) down to Ithaca, New York. (And then, of course, back to Macedon. A whopping 160 miles round trip.)

We’ll start by transiting canal towns we’ve visited before: Palmyra, Newark, Lyons, and Clyde. Then we’ll leave the main canal, just where it passes through the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, for the Cayuga-Seneca Canal.  

After a stop in Seneca Falls (to worship at the National Women’s Hall of Fame, naturally) we’ll head down the west side of Cayuga Lake. We’ll dock at Treman Marina (right in downtown Ithaca!) for about a week, mid-month. It’s been our longtime dream to boat up to the Ithaca Farmers Market. (When the kids were little, we used to kayak to market!) 

But sadly, the Farmers Market folks tell us we’re too big for their dock. Pout. (Maybe we’ll still try our reliable SlowBoat strategy: just show up and look cute).
English canal boats have
castles on their doors. 

Buffalo—at Last

From Macedon, we’ve cruised as far west as Lockport several times. (Did you know this town’s eponymous and historic flight of locks is pictured on Dragonfly’s stern door? See image at right.)

But we’ve never cruised all the way to Buffalo, the western terminus of the Erie Canal. So this August, we’re doin’ it.

Some of the towns we’ll transit include Pittsford, Spencerport, Brockport, Albion, Medina, Middleport, Gasport, and of course Lockport. Phew, that’s a lot of ports!

Visitors Welcome

If you’re a long-term blog follower, you know that one of our missions (right up there with "living sustainably," "experimenting with technology," and "taking pictures of boats with funny names") is “spreading the joy of canal boating across America.” 

So if you’d like to cruise with Dragonfly, let us know. (Berths are filling up fast!)

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Intermission, with Mangroves

Dragonfly will be cruising the Erie Canal in summer 2019. Check back for regular posts about our adventures starting July 4, 2019. New to the blog? To read about SlowBoat's Great Loop Adventure (a 6,000-mile circumnavigation of eastern North America), start here.

Where Do SolarBoaters Go in the Winter?

If you’re wondering where we went after completing our 2018 “Little Loop” cruise through the historic canals of Canada last summer, the answer is, “Intermission, with Mangroves.”

Can you spot our shiny tiny home, rear right?
We spent November 2018 through April 2019 working as volunteer ranger-naturalists for the U.S. National Park Service in Everglades National Park

Our home base for six months was the smallest of the park’s four ranger stations: Gulf Coast Station, in Everglades City

We lived on site—though not on our boat. For this expedition we acquired  another small, metal-clad residence: an Airstream trailer.

Paddling’s Part of the Job Description!

Gulf Coast station is a portal to the Wilderness Waterway, a 99-mile trackless “trail” for canoeists, kayakers, and fishermen.

Just another day at the office, right?
The Waterway winds among the convoluted coastal mangrove islands stacked up along Florida’s southwest coast. It ends in Flamingo, another remote Park Service outpost at the very tip of the Florida peninsula.

Some friends and family members were bewildered by our decision to spend six months in an area best known for heat, biting insects, alligators, and gigantic snakes--working 32 hours a week for no pay.

But hey! As science nerds who love to paddle, and as newly retired digital nomads who want to do something useful with our free time, we were ecstatic to get picked to be what USPS calls “VIPS” (volunteers in the parks).

This is my other office. Yes, those are
white pelicans in the background.
The job description includes helping rangers lead half-day paddle trips for visitors. (YES! It was our job to paddle. How cool is that?) 

Also part of the job: 1) Serving as naturalist on tour boats looking for dolphins, 2) giving nature talks a couple times a day (Cap’s interactive talk on stone crabs was quite a hit!), and 3) issuing Wilderness Waterway back-country camping permits (this item mostly translates to “Making sure people without much paddling experience don’t get in literally over their heads.”)

We also staffed the visitor center desk, answering everyone's favorite questions ("Where's the bathroom?" and "I'm only here for a day/hour, what should I see?")

Still Recovering from Irma

Gulf Coast Station was hit hard by Hurricane Irma in fall 2017. The visitor center was flooded and ruined. For months, the rangers (and last year’s hardy volunteers) worked out of an open-sided picnic pavilion—no air conditioning, no screens, no running water, no educational displays, none of the usual visitor center resources. 

The temporary Visitor Center. It's December 2018 and the damage from Hurricane Irma in September 2017 is still visible.
The only amenities were a couple of port-a-potties in the majorly potholed parking lot. 

Conditions were a bit less merciless when we arrived. The facilities had been upgraded . . . to a small trailer. (See photo above. The fire department sign said "max occupancy 5 people," which we exceeded just by showing up to work).

Conditions slowly improved. The potholes got fixed, and we moved to a bigger trailer, where we could set up a few nature displays and make coffee.

We Interrupt This Interlude with a Government Shutdown

We learned to hang soffits!
But when the government shut down for six weeks in winter 2019, we were also temporarily out of work. 

(You might think that, as volunteers, we could still hang out and answer visitor questions, clean the bathrooms, pick up litter? You would think wrong).

We’d come down to volunteer. So we picked up some shifts with Habitat for Humanity, an hour north in Immokalee. 

The High Points

People always ask, "What was the high point of the Great Loop Cruise?" The answer is always, “The people we met.” It was the same for our Everglades experience. 

Our colleagues were awesome! The park rangers here hold on to their sense of humor and sense of purpose despite working for an underfunded, understaffed, and sometimes overwhelmed agency where Catch-22 is alive and well.
Gulf Coast Rangers. When life gets tough, the tough go mini-golfing.
It was deeply gratifying when park visitors circled back to let us know that our suggestions for places to visit and things to do resulted in a memorable day. Swearing in little kids as "Junior Rangers" never got old.

And we were humbled by how many visitors thanked us gravely for our service, as if we were military veterans posted to a danger zone rather than polo-shirt-wearing science nerds having the time of our lives. 

We used our days off for day- and overnight paddle trips, for hiking and biking and bird-watching, and (literal high point) for a sightseeing trip in a small plane where we reveled in the vast views of the convoluted coastline we’d been exploring.

As for wildlife: turns out my careful research on "how to survive an alligator attack/ python attack" was unnecessary. 

The gators we encountered were timid slugs. And the region’s estimated 100,000 pythons are very good at hiding. 
Flying high above the coast, it's easy to see why they call this the 10,000 Islands region.