Thursday, March 28, 2013

Pigeon Key

Ohio Key, Florida
Yesterday was windy and started out cool in the 50s-no beach time, however providing a perfect time to take a tour of Pigeon Key.  Pigeon Key is a small (5 acre) island that is 2 miles west of Marathon and it played a very big part in the building of the Florida East Coast Railroad which in 1912 connected the mainland to Key West.

Pigeon Key from the water.  The railroad bridge is superimposed on the highway bridge beyond.  The piers on the 1908 railroad bridge in the foreground are massive compared to the much smaller piers on the highway bridge built in 1982.

Here is a photo of Pigeon Key and the railroad bridge taken from the highway bridge.  Although the tracks crossed Pigeon Key the newest highway bridge ( the Seven Mile Bridge) does not.  The reason that Pigeon Key was vital to the building of the original railroad is that this is where the main labor camp was for the building of this section.  Believe it or not, in it's hey-day this tiny island was home to 400 laborers, and included 4 bunkhouses, a kitchen and dining hall.  What I initially took for a harbor in the foreground was a pool built by later tennants of the island.
As I wrote in my previous blog, there are 2 ways to get to Pigeon Key.  One is to hike or bike in on the old rail bed from Marathon, and the other is to take the ferry.  We chose the latter, and were taken to the island by Captain Larry aboard the Fantasy Diver IV .

We disembarked at the pier on Pigeon Key and headed up to the museum for our tour of the island.
Our tour guide, Riet, showed us one of the four bunkhouses is still standing.  It was big, but we just couldn't picture 100 workers bunking in this one building.

This photo shows the original construction, pine floors and board and batten walls over timber frame.  Our photo only shows 1/4 of the whole building- the museum has installed walls and is currently leasing out parts of the building for classrooms, and meetings.  The photo below shows the exterior of the one remaining bunkhouse.

The foremen and engineers had much better quarters.

 These buildings were used by maintenance crews after construction was completed.  Why choose such a small island for all theses crews to be housed?  Flagler and his Supervisors wanted to make sure the men could not carouse and get drunk at the bars that  flourished in Marathon and other established towns.
 After a disasterous hurricane in 1935, the highway bridges were damaged and the railbeds were washed out on the land portions. Amazingly the bridge sections built by the railroad have weathered all the hurricanes since with very little damage. Money was not available to fix both the highway and the railbeds, so one had to prevail.  It was decided that the State would buy the railroad right-of-way and bridges (including the island of Pigeon Key) and modify them for use by cars.  In the picture above you can see where cross beams were installed and a concrete roadway was poured which cantilevers out on each side of the original rail bed.

The roadway was a ridiculously narrow 20 feet wide- allowing two 10 foot lanes each direction.  The iron rails were saved and re-used as guard rails on the highway.  The road was so narrow that it was called the road of lost mirrors- so many mirror to mirror collisions occured.

The construction geek in me was fascinated with the models showing how the concrete piers were formed and poured.  Much of the formworks was built on the land and barged into place.  The cement used in the submerged part of the piers was a special formula imported from Germany, that would set-up in salt water.  The whole 7 miles of bridge was built in 3 years- 9000 feet of concrete arch and 330 spans built with 80 foot  girder trusses.  AWESOME!  The railroad was built with many areas of construction happening simultaneously.  During the 3 years this bridge was being built much of the rest of the road bed and bridges were also under construciton

Remember these bridges are now 101 years old and still standing!

The largest construction challenges were the summer heat and the mosquitoes.  More workers quit because of the insects than any other reason.  The total cost of the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railroad exceeded $50 million dollars- in today's dollars that would be 1 billion 293 million dollars!
Why did Henry Flagler push for this?  He was convinced that when the Panama Canal was finished, Key West would become the premier port for cargo coming to the east coast through the canal, and the railroad would profit from hauling this cargo.  Flagler was also profiting from building resort hotels all down the east coast of Florida and wanted to do the same in the Keys.  I could never find out if the venture paid back it's investment.  Flagler died little over a year after the Keys Extension was completed.

This was a very interesting and fun side trip- I recommend it to anyone who visits the Keys.

Our RV park has over 400 spaces and was full to capacity when we arrived at the first of March.  Joan and I have noticed in the last week that many of the snowbirds here for the winter are now either leaving or preparing to leave and head north
Now there are many spaces available, some of which are filling with families on Spring Break.

We are in a period of minus tides, meaning all the low tides this week will be lower than normal.

We have more fun combing the tidepools and checking out the sealife.  We'll be leaving in 3 more days- We can't belive how fast the month has gone by!

Jeff and Joan

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Upper Keys Excursion

Joan and I found it necessary to take a trip to Florida City to refill some of our prescriptions. It is really unfortunate because we will be taking this same route with the motorhome when we leave the Keys next Monday- However we decided to be philosophical about it and make a day of fun and exploration.
The weather forecast is for rain showers and windy today so it is a perfect day to travel versus going to the beach.

The GPS estimated the 90 mile trip to take 2hrs 40 mins each way. If you are doing the mental math that works out to 34 mph- unfortunately it was very accurate.
---Rant Warning---
I've going to do a little rant here- so I'll warn you to skip a paragraph if you want.
The health insurance provider we have through Joan's former employer gave us a list of in-network providers for our prescriptions. We chose Walmart because we needed a pharmacy that would be available in any state or town we were in. What could be better- a provider with a computerized national database- all we would have to is call into the closest store and go pick up our products- right? Somehow It just never works out that way- and we are getting smarter about the information we provide up front, AND budgeting more time for everything to happen. Seeing as how we will have to drive 90 miles each way- we called ahead to be sure everything was set. The pharmacy could not verify one of the prescriptions- even though we had just had it filled in Fort Myers 30 days ago. So a phone call to the doctor and re-fax the prescription to the Florida City Walmart- good to go. Nope- when we got to Walmart they had one of four meds ready. REALLY? We did end up with all four but it took us from 1PM to 3:30 PM.
---End of Rant---
Wind gives Joan a punk hair-do this morning
The trip was going to be fun- it's one of the most scenic highways in the US . We also planned to stop at the History of Diving Museum at the half way point in Islamorada, however with the delays in Walmart, we didn't get to the museum until 4:20 and they close at 5- not enough time. We will do this on another day.

 The wind was whipping up white caps on the gulf as we left our RV park this morning.  We were surprised that the wind died down as we drove north.

While we were in Florida City the wind was a breeze, and the temperature was in the mid seventies. As we drove back down the Keys (south and west) the wind was till there. Thankfully, the rain was gone- sun was out!

On Knight Key is the start of the longest bridge in the overseas highway. The Seven Mile bridge.
The railroad bridge built by Henry M. Flaggler (to the right side of this photo) was the first to bridge the gap between Knight Key and Little Duck Key.  Much later when the highway was built, the bridges were nearly parallel. I say nearly, because the railroad bridge bent to the west, and landed on a tiny  island named Pigeon Key at mid span- and the highway bridge bypasses Pigeon Key.  Pigeon key was important to the railroad in ways that I'll explain in a later posting.
At present,  the only way to get to Pigeon Key is to take a boat or the old railroad bridge. The buildings date back to the early 1900's and house a museum.
The only way to get on this section of the rail road bridge is through this gate.  The cost is $11 per person, and includes admission to the museum.   Much of the old railroad bridge throughout the Keys has been renovated with proper height guardrails and is  open to the public at no cost. They make great walking, and bicycling paths, as well as fishing piers.

As with all the other sections of the old railroad bridge open to the public, the 2 mile section of the old railroad bridge to Pigeon Key is walking or bicycle only.

Some sections of the old bridge have not been re-pourposed yet and are falling into disrepair.  As with all man-made objects- whenever maintenance ceases- mother nature takes over.
Here a tree seed has caught a toe-hold, and sprouted in a crack in the bridge and nature will slowly rust the steel and pulverize the concrete, unless man intervenes soon.  This section of the old bridge is not open to the public and parts of the span have been removed at both ends to ensure no-one can sneak out there.

The weather this afternoon and into tonight will be quite windy, and the overnight temperature here at Ohio Key will be in the 50's. When we got back from Florida City we had a quick happy hour with the neighbors and caught up with all the latest gossip. We had our chairs huddled around the leeward side of John's Raptor 5th wheel to block most of the wind, but we headed back to the warmth of our respective RVs as the sun set.

This weeks low tides are going to be lower than usual, so tomorrow will no doubt involve getting wet and hunting trophy shells.  We'll post our results intomorrow's blog.  Meanwhile enjoy the sunset.

Jeff and Joan

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Air Show in Key West

Joan and I were enticed to drive the 30 some miles to Boca Chica Key to the Southernmost Air Spectacular, at NAS Key West. The top draw ( besides the Johnsonville Brats) was the Blue Angels.

The show was spectacular!  We left the RV Park on Ohio Key at a little after 9AM and arrived at the Air Show at 9:45.  We were very surprised that the traffic was not nearly as bad as we thought it might be.
Highway 1 is one lane each direction with no passing most of it's length, so if you get behind someone who wants to dawdle along it can really back up traffic.  No problems today- We cruised along at the speed limit.
The event was a very big success and drew quite a large crowd. I won't bore you with all the details- suffice to say we enjoyed ourselves. Here are some of our favorites.
The Blue Angels never disappoint.
Awesome starburst pattern!

The Special Ops Paracomandos did several drops from very high altitude-

And of course despite a pretty good breeze found show center on their landings

The ground displays included, several military jets, some law enforcement Cessnas with extras like FLIR (Forward Looking Infared Radar) several aerobatic planes, a display of military vehicles, even - TA-DA!

The Budweiser Clydesdales

Jeff got a chance to sample the special accessories in this Monroe County Sheriff's cruiser.
Radar, Lights, Sirens, Laptop,I've found our next family car- Wonder if it will tow 4 down behind the MH?

Sitting for 5 hours in the sun on the ramp at the Naval Air Station without any shade, was going to be a challenge for the two of us northern white folks. We both lathered up with SPF 70 sun protection, wore our wide brim hats, Jeff had on a long sleeve T-shirt. We did get toasted in the face and neck, from looing up at the aerobatics, but escaped major damage. Tomorrow will be a shade day...

Jeff and Joan

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Reef Madness

Odometer - taking a rest
Trip Meter- getting dusty

We are just over the half way point in our stay here at Sunshine Key, and we have made an amazing discovery! We have been swimming and snorkeling off all sides of the island of Ohio Key, and some experiences have been better than others. I explained in an earlier post that the margins of the islands here are typically shallow- sometimes VERY shallow. We have been swimming off the east beaches which taper off more quickly into 4-5 foot deep water, but the tidal currents also make the water a bit more cloudy and harder to see. We decided to walk over to the north beach last week.

It stays shallow for hundreds of feet from the beach-I'm talking 12-18" of water. When we walked out in our wading shoes we immediately started to sink into the muck on the bottom. As soon as we could, we put on mask and snorkel and tried to swim. I say tried, because it was still so shallow we ended up pulling ourselves along with our hands. The weedy bottom and clouds of silt kicked up by our hands soon rendered us blind. After hundreds of feet we finally got to the dredged boat channel and even there the visibility was less than 3 feet. We swam into the boat marina and abandoned our exploration of this "beach".

There are mangroves on many of the margins of the island and if you have not seen mangrove thickets before they grow in very tight (impenetrable) stands that completely cover the beach to the low tide line.

The mangroves limit beach access on this (Gulf) side of the island, to one large north beach and to a couple good sized east beaches. Crossing under the highway bridges and walking to the Atlantic side of the island opens up more beach. Lots of seagrass to plow through.

 The beaches on Atlantic side tend to have firm sandy or rocky (limestone) bottoms and fair snorkeling depths at mid to high tide. Walking to the south end of the island the mangroves take over to the waterline.

  We can wade out around them because the water is only 24-30" deep.  Here is where we made the exciting discovery- there is a tiny island about 300 feet off the southern end of our Key that has a few sandy beaches and AWESOME snorkeling waters.

 We were able to wade with our gear out to the island and snorkel around in the beautifully clear waters. We found 6-7 conchs in about as many minutes. By late afternoon we had spotted over 3 dozen beautiful conchs- some the size of a football.

 Conch are endangered and the live ones must be left in place and only the empty shells can be harvested. We came away with 3 large and several smaller shells. The snorkeling was the best ever, due to the great visibility (10-15 feet) and the abundance of sea life.

Finding an empty shell becomes the goal, as live gastropods are the general rule here.

Even the "empty" ones are not entirely empty.

We felt kind of foolish when we discovered one of our "empty" shells had dropped off the picnic table and (we thought) rolled away. We replaced the shell on the table display, only to find it on the ground again the next morning. This time we discovered that a hermit crab had taken up residence, and was trying to get back to the ocean.
Our neighbors just laughed at us- they too had made the discovery- watching one of their shells scoot across their patio rug. We return them to the ocean when we make these discoveries.

Last week we took a trip to Big Pine Key to see the "Blue Hole".  This is the name given to a gravel pit made by the Flagler Railroad crews when they needed rock.  The pit filled in with rain water and made the largest fresh water lake in the lower Keys.  The lake is within the boundaries of the Key Deer Refuge so it was natural that it should become a refuge for all kinds of wildlife.

Including this red turtle and..

this American Alligator.

Continuing down the same road that took us to the Blue Hole we found a small subdivision of homes and being the nosey types we are we decided to take a look.  We spotted this all concrete home being built at waters edge.  We were especially impressed with the garage being elevated above the normal flood level- these folks weren't going to see their cars damaged either!
That's one sturdy house- all poured concrete and concrete block.  According to the Trulia website- the average home price for homes in Big Pine Key is $422,000.  That is down from $550,000 five years ago.  Consider that many homes are either on the ocean or have a canal in the back yard for water access, and the price seems a little more reasonable.  (and this is the KEYS after all!)  The home shown above is definately above that average costing well over a million.

We have made many friends here at Sunshine Key, and that is one of the most rewarding things about this lifestyle.  Our neighbors the Tevelonis' invited us over for chicken wings at happy hour- we ended up staying an talking until well after dark.  Jan and John Tevelonis have a very nice home on acreage in Pennsylvania, and tell us we are welcome to come stay anytime.  We also met the neighbors two down from us Claire and Jacques from Quebec.  Claire and Jacques have been coming to Sunshine Key every winter for 7 years.  They agree with Joan that we should go see the Dry Tortugas and say the hell with the budget.  Hmmm. $300 buys a lot of diesel...

Joan and I still wake up each day and pinch ourselves thinking that this has to be a dream- if it is -please don't ever wake us up.

With Love,

Jeff and Joan

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

RV Lifestyles- Part II

Location: Sunshine Key RV, Ohio Key, FL

I never know what I'll want to write about in this blog, but stuff just comes to me and I start to grin... then start thinking about ways to present the idea to you, my readers. Today a couple of  topics came my way. The first thought was another twist on the RV lifestyle theme that I started in my last blog- this time it would be site lighting.
In a typical RV park the sites are by necessity fairly similar. Some have a view, some will have a tree or shrub- but the vast majority of sites are, shall we say- generic. In order to show individuality many RVers decorate and enhance their site.   The longer one stays the more customized the site becomes. One very common way to exhibit an individual flair is to decorate with lighting, which has the dual purpose of providing lighting where there was none, and to show some creativity, and individuality.

Some sites are quiet and understated like this one:

A very neat laser light paints everything with little green dots, the photo doesn't do it justice.  The motorhome in the distance is also part of the effect- completely covered in shimmering green dots.

Some are bright and opulent like this one.
This lighting effect  will complement an evening party.

It is obvious that someone has invested quite a bit of time and taste into this light show
There is a tent canopy behind the vegetation that is lighted with rope lights and a central chandelier.

In this site, hundreds of lights have been spiraled around the palm tree in the foreground
Again- a well lit shelter invites a late evening of  food, spirits, games or conversation.

Those of us that share the park with these creative folks, get to enjoy the light shows as we take our evening stroll, and it has a lifting effect that adds variety to what could be too much sameness.

Earlier in the day today Joan and I were taking a bike ride through the park for exercise and enjoyment.  We have a habit of visiting the marina several times a day as we are out walking or riding, because manatees have been known to visit, and we have not gotten our fill of these gentle giants.  Today we were in luck!

This manatee was intrigued with the waterhose which was dangling in the water.  It stayed for quite a while, and was not the least bothered by our presence.  What a treat, especially knowing that there are probably less than 5,000 of this species left in the world!

The evening before, we saw a squid while walking through the marina.  I apologize for the grainy photo, but the combination of low light and water reflectivity made all my photos murky

One of the captains in the marina said is his 40 years working out of this marina, he's never seen a squid come into the harbor before.  This one put on quite a show for us, cavorting back and forth by the seawall and was not even frightened by several camera flashes.

When my father died last June, several of  our family members took some of his ashes to distribute in places that were important to us or places we thought our father would have liked.  I have a small container of ashes that I brought with me on this trip, and earlier in the afternoon today, Joan and I took some of my fathers ashes out onto the bridge connecting Ohio key from Scout Key and sprinkled his remains in the breeze above the clear caribean blue waters.  Rest in peace, I miss you more than I can say, and I think of you often.

Jeff and Joan

Sunday, March 10, 2013

RV Lifestyle- Toys

As I was walking around the RV park this morning I was checking out what each of my neighbors had done to make their space all theirs.  And that is what we all do- carry along just what we need to make whatever space we are in- reflect our personality, needs, and desires.  Another thing many RVers do is either buy, bring, or rent a cart to get around in.   The variety of mobility options is what I wanted to share with you in this post.

The range of options is endless, but I'd say that it starts with bicycles.   The bikes shown here,  have strange proportions that make them look like clown bikes- however there is a purpose for the design.

Dahon 6 speed bikes

The bikes fold up to fit into the storage bays of an RV or inside a car trunk or the back compartment of a SUV.

This RVer brings his Victory motorcycle on a custom made carrier on the back of the motorhome that will allow him to drive on at ground level and then raise the motorcycle up to travel.  The regular 2" receiver hitch is still available to attach to a towed car.

Here is your basic un-modified golf cart.  It gets you around the park and down the street if you like. Looks like it would be tough to give your friends a ride with
you to breakfast, or the beach.

Here is a four seat model that should solve the problem of taking the neighbors with you.

 Now some would panic about not having the Dodge 4x4 Ram to drive- so there is this jacked-up model to carry them over until their next highway trip.

This bad boy has the high ground clearance and the knobbys that you need for some of the rough roads you'd expect in an RV park.  :->)

Then there are those who suffer separation anxiety about leaving the Rolls at home so they usually opt for this scale model of the real thing...

We have seen Corvette, Jeep, and even Hummer model golf carts in addition to this Rolls

Lastly there are RVers who have lots of things and have the means to bring them along.  We recently spotted this two story trailer.  He who has the most toys... well you get the idea.

Our own philosophy is that less is more.  At least for now, no boats, no carts and no garage for us.  In fairness, if we were staying in one place longer than a month, we probably would collect some stuff, but while we are still exploring the wide open spaces of the US- we will stay slim and trim.

 In our opinion this Margaritaville sign says it all- especially the 2nd sign from the bottom- "Dinner Is Poured"  This really is a laid back lifestyle!

Who knows- years from now maybe this is what we'll be calling home?

Until then, we've got some travelling to do!

Jeff and Joan