Tag Archive | tour

Ten Thousand Islands

IMG_1728An often-overlooked aspect of Everglades National Park is that about 50% of it is covered with water… but only a few feet.  The Ten Thousand Islands is so-called because of the many mangrove islets that dot the tidal flats for over a hundred square miles before giving way to the open Gulf of Mexico.  This is an estuary: a place where fresh water from the rivers meets salt water from the ocean.  This brackish water that results in estuaries forms the basis for the most productive and diverse ecosystems on earth – and the 10,000 Islands are no exception!

This particular estuary is a result of both a submerged coastal plain (basically a continuation of the very gradual slope of land in south Florida) and the development of shoals from oyster bars.  Oysters are one of the unique organisms that not only survive but thrive in brackish water and tidal flats, and it’s only a little exaggeration to say that this area is one huge oyster bed!  The pelicans in the photo above are standing on one

Sunset boat trip (7)

These pelicans are standing on an oyster bar, a few hours before low tide.

such oyster reef.  Oysters, and other estuarine species, make up the plentiful bottom of a food chain that feeds local and migratory animals of all sorts – but especially birds and fish!  These reefs/bars/shoals also protect the mainland from storm surges and hurricanes, breaking up the force of waves before they hit shore.  When these shoals get filled in with a little sediment coming down the rivers, the mangroves are able to get a toehold, and eventually they grow to form the islets, with some higher, drier ground at the center.  For the most part, only mangroves grow there, though as debris gets caught in

Sunset boat trip (12)

Rabbit Key, a barrier island at the edge of the Gulf

the mangrove roots, some other plants are able to gain a footing themselves.  The outermost islands in the Ten Thousand Islands are true barrier islands, made of sand and shells and supporting a variety of hardy plants that grow above the high-tide line.

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A Brown Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, and Royal Tern stake out posts on a shoal as they wait for a meal to swim by.

Some visitors spend their entire vacation in the Ten Thousand Islands – paddling or boating, fishing, birding, camping.  We had other stops to make, and only spent an afternoon here.  We took a private boat tour out among the islands and saw an abundance of wildlife, both mangrove and barrier islands, and capped it off with a sunset over the ocean.

Sunset boat trip (39)

Our tour was operated by the Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee Island, which has an interesting history itself.  These tours came well-recommended, and I had hoped to get a smattering of local island lore from someone who had spent their lives in the islands, but unfortunately out guide had only been there for a few months and was about to leave for his next job elsewhere.  He enjoyed talking about the wildlife and the Islands, but not all

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All of the boat operators know how to find dolphins for the tourists! It was admittedly fun to watch them play in the wake of the boat.

of his ecological facts turned out to be true (I don’t blame him – I think he thought he was giving us accurate information!).  This was a pattern I noticed while we were down there, that most tour guides (both park staff and private companies) had memorized a little bit of information but couldn’t really extrapolate from that, and sometimes mixed up what they had learned.  This is a very heavily-visited area, and most people don’t wonder about the things I’m interested in… but if you do, I suggest reading up before you go, rather than relying on guides or interpreters to inform you!

Final note: last fall I read a novel called Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, which takes place in a fictionalized version of the Ten Thousand Islands and southwest Florida.  If you’re looking for something less science-y to read, I highly recommend it!

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Buffalo Trace

IMG_1523_2Though the Jack Daniels tour was a great experience, I thought I might get something else out of a smaller distillery, and I still had a hankering for a sip of bourbon.  On the last day of my trip, barely following a breakfast of tea and donuts, I arrived at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in the capitol city of Frankfort, Kentucky.  It was a foggy Tuesday morning, but the 10 am tour had ten people on it nonetheless.  Buffalo Trace, as a brand, has been around since 1998, but the distillery has been in continuous operation longer than any other in the United States, since 1870.   That’s right – “continuous.”  The OFC distillery was one of four in the US that continued to distill spirits during the nearly 14 years of Prohibition, as a medicinal product!  Although the Buffalo Trace label is considered a small batch, there are many other bourbon products produced there, some at a more premium level (Blanton’s, Eagle Rare), some slightly less so.  They also bottle a wide variety of other products that were produced elsewhere, including vodka, rum, tequila, etc.  As a result, though Buffalo Trace is certainly produced on a smaller scale than Jack Daniels, the size of the operation is not noticeably different.

Seen through the fog, "Warehouse C" is one of the oldest buildings on the Buffalo Trace campus, bearing the initials OFC at the top, which stands for Old Fire Copper, the original distillery name.  It is full of barrels of tasty bourbon whisky... so tempting!

“Warehouse C” is one of the oldest buildings on the Buffalo Trace campus, bearing the initials OFC at the top, which stands for Old Fire Copper, the original distillery name. It is full of barrels of tasty bourbon whiskey… so tempting!

The standard (free) “Trace” tour includes two half-shot samples, a couple history stops, a visit to a small

Our tour guide turned bartender at the end, pouring us half-shots of various products distilled and bottled on-site.

Our tour guide turned bartender at the end, pouring us half-shots of various products distilled and bottled on-site.

warehouse, and a walk through the smallest bottling room.  There is also a self-guided walking tour of the grounds, with identification of the historic buildings.  Seeing the bottling room was pretty cool, especially since it was in normal operation when I visited on a weekday.  I didn’t really miss seeing the production facilities, but that was partly because I had seen them at Jack Daniel’s.  Based on my extensive visits to breweries, I surmise that the basic production does not change significantly from one facility to the next.  If this is the only place you plan to go, though, you should make reservations for the “hardhat” tour which will take you through some of these other buildings, or even the history tour which will go more into architecture and history.  As for me… maybe next time!

The bottling room... very cool part of the tour!  They were bottling single-barren Blanton's that day.

The bottling room… very cool part of the tour! They were bottling single-barren Blanton’s that day.

The one thing that I wasn’t able to photograph in either location was the scent.  If you like whiskey, that might be your favorite take-away from an in-person visit.  In the warehouses, the leaky barrels fill the old buildings with intense whisky fumes, known in the industry as the “angel’s share.”  Outside, the pervasive smell of fermenting corn mash is reminiscent of a sweet, extra-flavorful bread or breakfast cereal.  Mmmm.

Mammoth Cave

I found myself winding through the hill country south of Louisville as the sun began to set.  There was no need to get off onto side roads – the scenery was amazing from the highway (and the same was true on the trip back north through Lexington).  I was having trouble deciphering the Kentucky State Park campground information, so decided to spend the night at Mammoth Cave National Park.  After a sub-freezing night among the oaks in the campground, I decided to wake up early, pack up quickly, and get in line for the first cave tour of the day.  The second accidental detour of the trip was another wonderful experience!

The scenery at the Mammoth Cave NP campground is lovely, but if it would have been busier, the quarters might have seemed a bit cramped.

The scenery at the Mammoth Cave NP campground is lovely, but if it would have been busier, the quarters might have seemed a bit cramped.

The park was busier than I would have expected for a weekday in October, and the tour I was hoping to take sold out with the customer in front of me.  After chatting with the very helpful park staff, I decided on the “Historic” tour, which was also enjoyable.  After my limited experience, I would recommend that you not visit the park as I did!  Plan to spend two full days, and include some above-ground hikes and maybe two different cave tours, one each day.  It really is an amazing natural wonder, and worth a little bit more attention!

The lobby at the park was lovely - a brand new building that evoked some of the earliest National Park architecture.  The line for tours curled around one side, while the other had a small museum so you could get a geology lesson while you waited.

The lobby at the park was lovely – a brand new building that evoked some of the earliest National Park architecture. The line for tours curled around one side, while the other had a small museum so you could get a geology lesson while you waited.

Mammoth Cave, unlike many of the other “show caves,” is largely a “dead,” or dry cave.  That is, in most of the cave there are no showy stalactites and stalagmites, no pretty colors with minerals trapped in the calcite, or water dripping into pools.  In fact, as the Historic tour showcases, the cave was dry enough to have had many uses throughout history.  The cave was carved as a channel of the Green River passed underground, eating away at the limestone in the process.  Over millennia, the above-ground river carved a deeper and deeper passage through its valley, and the altitude of the underground portion of the river decreased accordingly.  This created several layers of passages, connected by vertical tunnels, and in the lowest of these, the river continues to flow today (in the cave, they call it the River Styx).   As a result, Mammoth Cave is, with 365 miles of known passages, twice as long as any other cave in the world!

Early visitors to the cave had to tour by the light of flares, which they used to inscribe their names in soot on the ceiling!

Early visitors to the cave had to tour by the light of flares, which they used to inscribe their names in soot on the ceiling!

Members of my cave tour ahead, in the dim light.

Members of my cave tour ahead, in the dim light.

It is possible to take a hike through the oak- and maple-dominated upland to the point where the River Styx comes out of the ground and re-joins the main Green.  I wish I would have taken that hike, as well as one to areas of the park which contain older-growth forest.  If you go, spend more time than I did, and tell me all about what I missed!

Just one more thing to see…

Nov 5, 2010

Miles 9071-9133

Silver Hill, AR – Mountain View, AR

The previous night, around the fire at the Buffalo River, someone had inquired whether I was going to “the Caverns” or not.

“Uh…,” I replied, “I hadn’t planned on it.  What is it?”

The group went on to explain to me that Blanchard Springs Caverns, within the Ozark National Forest, was an attraction not to be missed on any trip to the Ozarks, so I figured I’d stop by there on my way out the next morning.

When I pulled into the parking lot that morning, it was already full of cars and school busses, and I was told that it would be a while before I could get onto a shuttle to the cave’s entrance.  Pretty popular for a Friday in November.  I went to check out a small hiking area to the spring’s outlet while I was waiting, to keep from shivering in the frosty fall morning.  I nearly decided not to pay the $10 admission fee for the cave proper, but decided on one last splurge  – and it was certainly worth it!

A short waterfall at the outlet of Blanchard Springs

Ceiling of the cavern at the outlet

Blanchard Springs Caverns formed as a byproduct of the same geological forces that created the rest of the Ozarks.  Hundreds of millions of years ago, an inland sea covered the central United States, including Arkansas, and laid down millennia of sediment on the ocean floor, including tons of calcium deposits from decomposing shells and bones.  That sediment was compressed by the weight of the water above it, and when the ocean receded it became the newly-exposed bedrock, composed largely of limestone.  After that, but still hundreds of millions of years ago, the earth shifted and lifted up the crust of what is now northern Arkansas and southern Missouri.  This is known as uplift, and it is what created the Ozark Dome – see my previous posts for some pictures of relics of this.  As water rolled downhill from this plateau, it naturally sought out cracks in rocks, and wore away softer minerals from on top of and within the stone.  Millennia of this process created the steeply rolling topography of the Ozarks as we see them today.   Eventually, in much more recent geologic time (but still tens of thousands of years ago), the trickling water began wearing away the softer stone under the bedrock in what was to become the Caverns.  At this point, the water was able to tap into the source of a natural spring, which gave it a quick outlet from the interior of the rock.  This increased the speed and quantity of water coming through, and the water’s erosion of the limestone intensified as well.  Over time, the amount of water flowing through decreased, leaving empty cavernous rooms under the bedrock.  In places, the ceilings collapsed once the support of the water was removed; in others they became sturdier as the rock walls shored them up.  Small amounts of water continued to pass through, eroding and depositing minerals as it went, creating the Blanchard Springs Caverns as we know them today.

The “Dripstone Tour” takes visitors past the most dazzling of the cave formations, or speleothems as they are technically known.   Blanchard Springs Caverns is an “active” cave, which means that the formations are still growing as water is still dripping through.  The $10 fee includes a shuttle to the

The "Curtains" formation was as thin as potato chips

cave entrance, a short lecture on cave formation and history, a self-guided tour recording, and the elevator back up to the top.  You can get through it in an hour or spend all day in the dark, humid, 58-degree depths.  In the summertime, two other, more extensive (and expensive) tours are offered, but the Dripstone was my only option in November.  While there were plenty of other people down there with me, it never felt really crowded – that might be different in the heavy tourist season, so I felt lucky in my timing.  I’m not going to both saying any more about the cave, because my photos can probably explain it better.  I don’t have equipment for fancy cave photography, but good theatrical lighting helped me out, and my photos turned out better than expected.  To get a really good look at the place, you’ll have to visit for yourself!

Baby stalactites grew from the ceiling until the water in this area stopped flowing and they became inactive.

The variety of formations in the cave was astounding!

The enormous cavern, before descending the stairs to walk among the formations.

These forked stalacmites looked just like saguaro cacti - not everyone is lucky enough to see them at Blanchard Springs less than a month after walking among the real thing!

The ceiling in the cave, where it hadn't collapsed, was almost perfectly flat - the underside of the Ozark bedrock I had seen at King's Bluff a few days before.

A visit to any cave these days requires some mention of the bats that inhabit it.  The Blanchard Springs Caverns is the only cave currently open to the public on any National Forest, and visitors who have visited another cave or expect to are required to sterilize their shoes and change clothing before entering this one.  The reason for all of this security is the spread of White-Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease that is devastating bat populations across North America.  I’ve touched on it in a past post, and for more information on the latest research, the official web page is a great source: http://www.fws.gov/whitenosesyndrome/.  I won’t say more about it now, but I have plans to devote an entire future post to the subject, so stay tuned.