Tag Archive | hiking

Trail Review: Roberts Lake Trail

Roberts Lake Trail, Big Cypress National Preserve

Ochopee, Florida

Difficulty: Moderate

Rating: 2.5/5IMG_1894

The Roberts Lake Trail runs roughly north to south from the Tamiami Trail (US 41) to the gravel Loop Road for a distance of about 7 miles.  It is one of the southernmost segments of the Florida Trail.  I am ONLY reviewing the northern 3 miles or so here, which I did as an out-and-back hike.  The draw of this trail as a day hike is getting to an old-growth stand of bald cypress, which was neat but not incredibly impressive.  The trail itself is fine but wet and somewhat monotonous.  I’m glad I hiked it, but if you only have time for one day hike at Big Cypress National Preserve, I think you can do better.

As usual in south Florida, the terrain here is flat.  The trail is quite well worn in most places, so it is easy to find, but that has caused the actual surface of the trail to become slightly lower and more compact than the surrounding landscape.  In Big Cypress, that means that it holds water most of the time.  You definitely will not be able to keep your feet dry on this trail!  While that is par for the course in this region and not really a problem, the sloshing gets old after a while.  I also found that I got tired more quickly than I expected from keeping my balance and pulling my feet out of the mud repeatedly.  And finally, the murky water obscured holes in the bedrock and incipient cypress knees, resulting in sore toes after a while from all the bumping.  Remember, though, that the ecology here is fragile – it won’t do you any good to walk off the trail, as your feet will get thoroughly wet just down the road!

The trail passes through several of the ecosystems that are tiled together throughout the mosaic of the Everglades region. You will see bald cypress domes, small areas of hardwood hammock, and a lot of prairie dotted with pond cypress.  Most of the trail does not have much shade, which also means that the mosquito situation is tolerable.  I saw a few interesting wildflowers along the way, but not as much diversity as on other trails that I hiked in the region.  

We selected this hike on the recommendation of a seasonal ranger in the Oasis Visitor Center who told us about a stand of old-growth cypress a couple miles in.  I’m pretty sure we found it, because we came to a stand that seemed more diverse than some others I had been in, and seemed to contain more and larger trees in “fairy ring” formations.  A word of caution if you’re excited about large old trees: the IMG_1867“big” in Big Cypress refers to the size of the swamp region itself, not necessarily to the trees in it.  Bald cypresses can get to be good-sized, but they grow very slowly over their 600 year lifespan, so the girth and height never reach really huge proportions.  If you want to check out this particular stand, ask at the Visitor Center for instructions on how to find it (which are something along the line of, “when the trail jogs, keep IMG_1896going east until you get to some bigger trees”).  While the trail itself is well-marked with Florida Trail posts and periodic blazes, a compass or GPS will be handy if you plan to venture off to find this stand –  it is easy to get turned around in the swamp!

Tip: On a map, it seems like this trailhead is just across the road from the Oasis Visitor Center. In fact, you’ll have to walk down the highway a bit to get there, which feels longer than it really is. 

Note: Returning at dusk, we encountered several smaller cottonmouths curled up on the trail.  With IMG_1891cooler temperatures, they were not extremely active, and I personally thought they were cool to see up close!  I don’t know if it was the location, the time of day, or the time of year that brought them there, but if you are not a fan of snakes you might want to ask in the Visitor Center to see if they frequent this trail more than others.

 

Pros: Trailhead convenient to Visitor Center, visit to old growth cypress stand

Cons: Wet feet, mud, little shade, relatively monotonous scenery

 

Have you hiked the Roberts Lake Trail?  Do you agree with the rating, or have anything to add?  Comment below!

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Trail Review: Gator Hook

Gator Hook Trail

Big Cypress National Preserve,     Ochopee, Florida

Length: 2.5 miles (or less, see notes)

Difficulty: Moderate

Hike: February 26, 2017

My Rating: 4/5

This is a fun out-and-back trail leading through several of the ecosystems that comprise Big Cypress National Park, though primarily through a variety of cypress stands.  Warning: the mosquitoes here were the worst that I experienced on my whole trip – bring a head net or bug suit!  It is possible that I would have ranked this trail a little lower right after I hiked it, more like a 3/5, but almost two years later the great experience is still sticking with me, so I think it deserves recognition for that!

Like everything else in south Florida, the terrain on the Gator Hook Trail is flat.  The trail travels primarily east-west, but there is enough curvature that you rarely feel like you can see the trail far ahead. It is clearly actively and safely maintained by brush and tree clearing. However, due to minor elevation changes and surface bedrock, the trail surface changes frequently and the footing can be difficult.  Most of the trail was dry when we were there in late February, but we had to do some rock-hopping and log-balancing, and eventually reached a point where we had no choice but to slog through the water.  These aren’t complaints – it is just the way hiking is in this area – but you should bring appropriate footwear for the situation.  Also remember that the ecology here is fragile – try not to walk off the trail just to avoid a little water, you cannot keep from getting wet in the long run!

 

The trail is well-marked with blazes… until it isn’t.  For much of the distance, there is a well-beaten path, but after a while it is clear that the trail becomes less frequently traveled.  We had to start searching for the next blaze, sometimes walking in a couple different directions until we found it.  I’m not sure if we reached the end of the trail or not, but we eventually couldn’t find any more blazes or see any convincing evidence of a footpath.  This, the fact that it just peters out after a while, is my only real negative to the Gator Hook Trail. 

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Yellow trail blaze, Gator Hook Trail, Big Cypress National Preserve

There were several other hikers when we were out there, but my sense is that most of them didn’t hike the whole way.  That is, we saw more people closer to the parking lot (which is large and easy to find) than farther out.  They probably got scared away by the bugs!  There are not many hiking trails in the area (since it is 4,000 square miles of wetland after all), so it stands to reason that signed and maintained trails would be used extensively.  That said, I was eager to be able to take a hike out into this wetland under my own power and it didn’t disappoint!

 

My favorite part of the Gator Hook Trail was observing the changing surface under my feet and the IMG_1788corresponding change in vegetation around me.  The ecology of the region is completely dependent on small changes in water level, so small changes in elevation or holes in the karst bedrock would create different ecosystems within the greater region.  I had read about this, and been told about it, but actually walking around in it helped me to understand so much better!  Plus, it was cool to actually see and touch these features!  

Pros: Ecological diversity, surface geology, moderate hike, mostly well-marked

Cons: out-and-back, poorly marked at the end, buggy, occasionally too linear feeling

 

Have you hiked the Gator Hook Trail?  Comment below and let me and your fellow travelers know what your experience was like!

 

Big Cypress

One of my favorite trip planning methods is poring over a map and deciding what looks interesting!  As I did that for south Florida, I discovered another National Park Service property tucked into the Everglades National Park: Big Cypress National PreserveIMG_1811 The name alone intrigued me, and I was curious about its separate designation within the Everglades ecosystem, so I decided to investigate.  I learned that Big Cypress consisted largely of cypress swamp, that it is the primary range for the last remaining Florida panthers, and that its National Preserve status meant that it was more developed for recreational use than Everglades National Park.  What my internet research did not tell me is that the mosquitoes are horrendous!  I guess the “swamp” part was supposed to give that away.

We spent two nights at the Midway campground, went on a couple of long hikes, attended a fun ranger-led program, and drove the scenic loop road, all of which were well worth it!  These were conveniently located in a small area just off of the Tamiami Trail (US 41), but I would happily go back to explore some parts of the huge (729,000 acre) preserve that did not get my attention this first time.

I read, but didn’t really understand until I got there, how the cypress swamps fit in to the overall Everglades ecosystem.  Rather than being a vast area of forested wetland, which is what I picture from Midwestern swamps, the cypress stands are spread in patches within the freshwater marsh.  These patches exist in areas of slightly increased elevation above the grassland.  When I say “slightly,” I mean a difference of a few feet!  Cypresses are wetland trees, they need to be flooded much of the year, but they also nIMG_1780eed a spot that is periodically dry for their seed cones to germinate.  During the wet (summer) season, they are inundated by the broad, flat river of water flowing from the north towards the sea, while during the dry (winter) season, patches of dry ground are found within the stands.  There are two species in the area: Bald Cypress and Pond Cypress, and both grow either along rivers (called a “strand” of cypress) or in circular patches (called “domes”).  Within a cypress dome, the tallest trees grow in the center, and we were taught that the height of the trees roughly mirrors the depth of the water – the tallest trees in the deepest water, while the shortest ones were in shallower areas.  Cypress trees grow tall and straight, but they have to have some way to stabilize themselves in mucky soil and changing water levels over their long lives.  They grow structures on their lower trunk that look like buttresses, and sprout “knees” all around to help hold themselves up.  A final fun fact about cypresses is that they are deciduous conifers – they reproduce via cones, but lose their needles annually and regrow them (maybe why they were named “bald?”).

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A cypress dome in the distance, surrounded by marsh grassland

Our first hike, picked from several recommended at the visitor center, was on the Gator Hook Trail.  It mostly followed a series of cypress stands and was therefore well shaded – and full of mosquitoes!!  It was actually an awesome experience, but we realized that we’d forgotten our head nets.  Don’t leave those behind!!

The second afternoon we headed south from the highway on the Roberts Lake Trail, which is part of the Florida Trail.  We did not make it all the way to the backpacking campsite, but turned around when we felt we were ready.  There was a lot more open grassland on this trail, and smaller Pond Cypress trees, so overall our feet got wetter, but there were fewer bugs.  It was neat to see a different aspect of the same ecosystems.  You can read more about both trails and the Midway campground on my subsequent Trail Review and Campground Review posts!

IMG_1825The Swamp Walk program, led by a seasonal park ranger, was pretty cool even though group tours aren’t really my thing.  The ranger led us off-trail into a cypress dome, talked about ecology, and took us into an alligator hole to see what we could see.  We didn’t go that far, but it wasn’t necessarily easy going, as we were standing in water most of the time, sometimes almost waist-deep.  The pace was easy, and there was lots of standing-around time as he answered questions for the group.

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Ranger behind a cypress “knee”

 

 

 

 

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Air plants, roots, mosses and lichens grow on the bark of a bald cypress tree

Normally I’m a go-go-go kind of hiker, but in

this case it was useful to be able to stand in one place and look more closely at the new ecosystem I was learning.  Other visitors often asked questions that hadn’t occurred to me, so I probably both learned and observed more than I would have on my own.

 

 

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The ‘gator hole.  Sadly… and gladly… there was no activity when we stopped there.IMG_1907

 

 

Tip: The park provided walking sticks (basically long dowel rods) for the tour, and we were able to keep them “checked out” for our afternoon hike.  Ask to borrow one at the Visitor Center for your hike, and use their handy hose outside to rinse off when you’re done!

Looking at the ground in a cypress stand, it seems rather barren – it is either water or muddy, peaty soil with few plants growing in the dark shade and flooded terrain.  Looking up, however, it turns out that the trees themselves are what the rest of the ecosystem is based on.  A variety of air plants and mosses hang from the trunk and branches, and land-based plants find root where soil and water accumulate in bends of the cypress knees.  Palmetto shrubs sprout where they can get a foothold, and then suddenly the dome gives way to its outer fringes and grasses and flowers are all around!  Alligators aren’t the only amphibious reptiles in the park, with snakes and lizards frequently present when I stopped to look.

On the Loop Road drive, we also had an opportunity to see many of the iconic wetland birds of the region.  It was a pleasant drive, primarily through desolate cypress swamps and hardwood hammock, with some pines thrown in.  Given all of the other experiences we had in the region, I don’t think this added a lot to the overall trip, but it was nice to have a relaxing drive between strenuous physical activities.  If you are not spending much time in the area, this is a great way to get a sense of it along with a few photo ops. IMG_1921 At the east end, it became much more developed and our early morning drive coincided with local residents leaving to get to work.  This was an interesting reminder of the origin and management of Big Cypress National Preserve.  It was created in the 1970s, after residential development had begun, to protect the are from large-scale commercial development.  Due to the flat, relatively treeless landscape, there had been plans to construct the largest “jetport” in the world in the middle of this fragile ecosystem, forever disrupting the flow of water and irreparably disturbing the animals and plants that depended on it.  When Big Cypress was established, it was done with the cooperation of local residents as well as native tribes, who wanted it to remain open for traditional uses.  This is why the park is developed with swamp buggy/ATV trails, airboat trails and campgrounds, is open for regular hunting seasons, and contains both tribal villages and modern western subdivisions in places.  Despite this, it feels like a truly wild place, because the annual floods make permanent development or use nearly impossible over most of the vast area.  Definitely one to put on your list for exploration!!

Eben Ice Cave

Eben Ice Cave.  The cave is formed as melting and seeping groundwater trickles over a rock overhang and freezes.  This cold winter was great for ice formation!

Eben Ice Cave. The cave is formed as melting and seeping groundwater trickles over a rock overhang and freezes. This cold winter was great for ice formation!

This winter, everyone was talking about the Lake Superior ice caves up in Bayfield, Wisconsin.  I thought about going, even tentatively planned to go, and then it got so popular that they were seeing crowds of 10,000 or more on the weekends!  I visited the Apostle Islands last summer, and had had the opportunity to kayak out to those “sea caves” in a small group.  I thought that it would be pretty neat to see them frozen, but that the huge crowds might detract from my enjoyment of wild nature.  Of course, if this weather keeps up, the big lake will stay frozen all summer and I’ll get to go see them in July…  just kidding!

Instead of making the three-hour drive to Bayfield, I took a 1.5-hour trip to Eben, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula, south of Munising.  There is a rock overhang there surrounded by seeps which turns into an “ice cave” of its own every winter.  On the day we visited (slightly warmer than average for this winter), there were maybe 150 other people there while we were, including the half-mile hike in and out.  It was quite windy and lightly snowing, which meant that this 3/4 mile through the woods was infinitely more pleasant that a half mile out on the open ice of Lake Superior would have been!  The cave itself included spectacular formations, and was well worth the visit!

From the inside, looking out

From the inside, looking out

These kids have obviously been exploring the Eben Ice Cave for quite a while!

These kids have obviously been exploring the Eben Ice Cave for quite a while!

 

 

I love these falls of ice seeping out from the wall under the overhang!

I love these falls of ice seeping out from the wall under the overhang!

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The cave is on public land, but within a federally-designated wilderness area, which means no motorized use is allowed. The access is on private land, thanks to a generous landowner.  From the tiny town of Eben, small signs point the way to the parking lot.  Someone, perhaps the landowner or perhaps the Forest Service, had set up portable toilets for the crowds to use, and a donation box for them, and there was a small private concession stand in the parking area as well.  The first part of the walk parallels the snowmobile trail across an open farm field, and after that it enters the Hiawatha National Forest, Rock River Wilderness.

The ice at the very top of these interior seeps was clear enough to see through like glass

The ice at the very top of these interior seeps was clear enough to see through like glass

More ice forming...

More ice forming…

These stalactites of frost grew off the ceiling of the cave

These stalactites of frost grew off the ceiling of the cave

National Forest Wilderness Areas are intended to be managed free of human input, so no vegetation management (eg: timber harvest, trail clearing) is allowed, and there are no facilities for those recreating in the area.  For me, this makes for an ideal adventure.  There were plenty of down trees for my dog to jump over and under, side trails to explore (if the snow weren’t so deep…), steep ravines, and old-growth trees.  It is a beautiful hike, but will take some effort!  Snowshoes are likely to be unnecessary, since the trail is so well-packed, especially on weekends.  Ice cleats (or commercial ice-walking grips) are highly recommended… but we didn’t have them and didn’t feel that we needed them, either.  [Note to readers: three weeks ago I slipped on ice and broke my leg, so I advise that you do as I say, not as I do!]

Check out that slippery floor!  It was awesome to get to walk around among these formations!

Check out that slippery floor! It was awesome to get to walk around among these formations!

The Falls

It goes to show that change is good, every cloud has a silver lining, etc. I may have had to alter my travel plans, but they wound up leading me instead to the tallest waterfall in the eastern United States!

Fall Creek Falls, at 256 feet, the tallest waterfall in the eastern United States.

Fall Creek Falls, at 256 feet, the tallest waterfall in the eastern United States.

Fall Creek Falls is striking not only because of its proportions, but also as a result of its beauty. I’m glad that I got to see it in the fall of the year, with low water levels. I find that it brings out the facets of falling water best, when there isn’t too much rushing over at once. I loved seeing the different shapes of the rocks, the cracks and troughs that the water had formed and flowed through.

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Very of surrounding bluffs from the Fall Creek Falls overlook.  The trail back to the visitor's center offers a "challenging" variant, that will allow you to walk out to the edge of the bluff near the middle of this photo!

Very of surrounding bluffs from the Fall Creek Falls overlook. The trail back to the visitor’s center offers a “challenging” variant, that will allow you to walk out to the edge of the bluff near the middle of this photo!

The falls, along with several others, are located within Fall Creek Falls State Park, which offers a ride range of recreational amenities and lodging options.  If you just want to see the water and move on, you can park in a parking lot which is approximately 300 paved feet from the falls overlook. I recommend the somewhat rough 1-mile walk from the interpretive center, though. A waterfall as impressive as this one can be appreciated even better if you work for it a little bit! Though, I admit the hike would be easier if I hadn’t done 12 boulder-strewn miles the day before!

Holly bedecked with berries helps to make the Tennessee woods a beautiful place in autumn!

Holly bedecked with berries helps to make the Tennessee woods a beautiful place in autumn!

Rock doves seemed to enjoy flying around and perching behind the cascading water - fun to sit and watch at the mid-way point in the hike!

Rock doves seemed to enjoy flying around and perching behind the cascading water – fun to sit and watch at the mid-way point in the hike!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you are even more adventurous, or a glutton for punishment like myself, you can take the half-mile hike/staircase down to the bottom of the falls. It was lovely, and a great workout! Perfect preparation for the trip home – fourteen hours of sitting in a car, eating gas station food. I earned every bite!

View from the bottom of the trail down to Fall Creek Falls; I chose to rest rather than clamber closer on the rocks.

View from the bottom of the trail down to Fall Creek Falls; I chose to rest rather than clamber closer on the rocks.

The park contains several more waterfalls, including this one, which fell as a mist and was only visible as it hit the pool below

The park contains several more waterfalls, including this one, which fell as a mist and was only visible as it hit the pool below

 

Savage

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Though my goal had been to get to the Smoky Mountains, I never made it… but had great fun exploring the Cumberland Plateau instead.  Covering much of central Tennessee, this plateau is nearly 1,000 feet above the height of the Cumberland River (to the southeast), and contains an incredible diversity of plant and animal species.  It has been carved over millenia by many creeks, and the geology of the area is apparent at every turn.

I decided to take a short backpacking trip (one night… though now I’m convinced to go back for more), and decided on the Collins Gulf sector of the Savage Gulf State Natural Area, which covers nearly 16,000 acres on the western edge of the Plateau.  On a longer trip, I could have traversed the area, which is cut through by several rivers and creeks, giving it the aerial appearance of “a giant crowfoot.”  If you are handy at reading a topographic map, you’ll find this one quite impressive.

Despite the topography, I figured that a twelve-mile hike in one day was do-able, if potentially exhausting. The volunteer at the ranger station had told us that in the drought and late fall conditions, there was “no water” on the trail, so we packed in all we would need.  It turned out that there was enough water to filter in several places, so I will do my research better next time.

View from the top of the plateau, with shortleaf pine in the foreground, and hardwoods blanketing the hillsides

View from the top of the plateau, with shortleaf pine in the foreground, and hardwoods blanketing the hillsides

Twelve miles should have been do-able... if several sections of the trail hadn't looked like this!

Twelve miles should have been do-able… if several sections of the trail hadn’t looked like this! On several signs and in the park brochures, we were repeatedly admonished, “No hiking after dark.” Foolishly, I didn’t think much of it until we started encountering sections these rickety boulders!

Blazes marked the trail to keep us on track, here winding between trees and rocks in the upland

Blazes marked the trail to keep us on track, here winding between trees and rocks in the upland

The trail traverses the edge of this cliff, which would have included "the spectacular triple waterfall of Rocky Mountain Creek" in a wetter year.

The trail traverses the edge of this cliff, which would have included “the spectacular triple waterfall of Rocky Mountain Creek” in a wetter year.

The author, on a trail switchback along rock wall terraces, built by early settlers to provide areas flat enough for grazing livestock!

The author, on a trail switchback along rock wall terraces, built by early settlers to provide areas flat enough for grazing livestock!

The loop trail we took crossed the "Gulf" (a local term for ravine or hollow) twice, on suspension bridges.

The loop trail we took crossed the “Gulf” (a local term for ravine or hollow) twice, on suspension bridges.

We took a rest where the trail encountered Fall Creek, the waterfall a trickle of its springtime glory, layers of geology exposed to our autumn view

We took a rest where the trail encountered Fall Creek, the waterfall a trickle of its springtime glory, layers of geology exposed to our autumn view

Though the sun still shone, it got harder and harder to see our way in the evening, under the shadows of cliffs and trees.  We crossed our last boulder field after the sun had set, but just before all of the light was gone.  The last mile or so, though, we hiked in the dark, returning to camp to make a well-deserved supper by our headlamps!

Though the sun still shone, it got harder and harder to see our way in the evening, under the shadows of cliffs and trees. We crossed our last boulder field after the sun had set, but just before all of the light was gone. The last mile or so, though, we hiked in the dark, returning to camp to make a well-deserved supper by our headlamps!

Something Great in the Hoosier State (after all)

I left northern Wisconsin after a half-day of work, hoping to arrive in northern Indiana before making camp for the night.  I picked a spot on the map that was both far enough from the Chicagoland area to mean I was really on vacation, and that had a little campground symbol.  This place was Tippecanoe River State Park, and it turned out to be just far enough out of urbanity that my eyes had trouble staying open by the time I got there.  It also turned out to be a pretty cool stopover.

Large oaks in an open woods

Large oaks in an open woods

 

Arriving in the middle of the night, this state park did not seem very promising, from an “experiencing nature” perspective.  Although a Tuesday evening in October, the campground was quite busy.  Busy with large RV’s, generators running because temperatures were near freezing, and decorated for Halloween.  Apparently there is some sort of annual competition for the best Halloween decorations at this park.  And by “decorations” they apparently mean copious lighted objects, string lights, flashing lights, and other light-type apparati in the orange-and-purple spectrum.  Think your neighborhood’s obnoxious Christmas decorations… in October… in a campground.  Not that appealing for those of us in a tent, but so be it.

By morning light, though, the party lites lost their luster (and got turned off), and there was time for a quick walk to stretch the legs before getting back in the vehicle and driving south.  Turned out to be not so quick, partly because the trail system was a little bit confusing, and partly because it was so darn

Uh...what?

Uh…what?

cool.  The park had a variety of ecosystems, from floodplain forests along the Tippecanoe, to a wetland impoundment, upland white oak woods, grassland, etc.  Most of my hike meandered through the oak woods, and even into a (very) small section of “barrens.”  A few white pines grew here and there in the area, at the southern end of their range, and white oaks grew alongside post oaks near the northern end of their range.  The barrens had many of the same trees and wildflowers that we see in sandy soils of central and northern Wisconsin – neat to see, a few hundred miles to the south.  From a land management perspective, it was immediately apparent that the park staff were doing an excellent job of maintaining an open woods, and keeping invasive plants under control.  Go Hoosiers! (Might be the first time I’ve said that).

Barrens habitat and changing fall colors... several weeks behind northern WI!

Barrens habitat and changing fall colors… several weeks behind northern WI!

Wetland at Tippecanoe.  They had drawn down the impoundment, so only shorebirds were using the mudflats... but I was a little too late in the year for shorebirds!

Wetland at Tippecanoe. They had drawn down the impoundment, so only shorebirds were using the mudflats… but I was a little too late in the year for shorebirds!

If walking around a labyrinthine trail system in deep sand looking at trees isn’t your bag, I’ve heard from a friend that the Battle of Tippecanoe historic site is also in that area.  I missed it in the middle of the night, but if I had it to do over again, I would want to stop there.  Check it out and let me know how it is!