Baby Gators and Thunderstorms

Over the years, I’ve written a number of blog posts recounting my adventures at Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland, Florida.  It’s an absolute favorite spot of mine and, on most visits, I am usually blown away by the fantastic wildlife sightings and encounters I have there (especially during the more active gator season!).  When I first moved to Florida a few years ago, I thought my hiking days were pretty much over – I was used to hiking mountain ridges and dense forests and Florida didn’t really have any of that.  But Circle B Bar Reserve has proved to be one of my favorite hiking places of all time.  On my penultimate trip there (…I recently moved house and no longer live near it! So sad!!) I got to see some baby alligators, got super close to some wildlife, and outran an incredible thunderstorm. Of course, I took pictures 😉

When I arrived at Circle B, I immediately noticed the posted signs indicating that the major trail, Alligator Alley, was closed.  There wasn’t a specific reason given for the closures, but my assumption is that it had to perhaps do with the many alligators and sightings there recently.  With the main trail closed, I decided to just head up the trail that leads to it, which fortunately still offers incredible views and opportunities for wildlife spotting.

The trail I walked up sits in the middle of a large wetland area.  I had my infamous massive-gator-encounter here (see the gator here!) and was hoping to actually see another.  There weren’t any large gators this time, but I did spot a number of baby ones! So cute!

It was gorgeous and sunny as I headed down the trail in hopes of some more wildlife sightings, as evidenced by this lovely photo here (lol):

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Perfect skies, perfect temperature! It was seriously gorgeous.  I continued my way down the trail and even explored part of the Alligator Alley trail until I was met with the closed-off area and warnings not to dare attempt entering it (which I did not).  I did, though, make friends with a brave and fearless squirrel!

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After becoming acquainted with my new squirrel friend, I began making my way back and, for the first time, noticed how extremely dark it had gotten.  The sky was no longer a beautiful and clear blue, but a dark and storm grey.  Thunder sounded in the distance.  I was standing in an open wetland… So I booked it back to my car.

The storm that rolled through was impressive.  The wind gusted so hard, Spanish moss rained down from the trees and large branches fell to the ground.  I had a hard time keeping to the center of the trail as I headed back, the wind was that strong!

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I made it back to my car just before it started down-pouring.  The whole experience was a reminder of just how powerful mother nature can be, and how quickly a really nice day can turn really dangerous in a matter of minutes (weather in Florida is so fascinating this way!).

So, although my hike didn’t include my favorite trail and was cut short by the extreme weather, it was still an eventful and worthwhile adventure! I’ll certainly miss you, Circle B!

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A Wild Gator Encounter!

I decided to go for a hike at one of my favorite places to spot wildlife in Central Florida, Circle B Bar Reserve.  I’ve written a number of blog posts about my animal encounters there and, each time I go, I am never disappointed.  My most recent visit this past weekend was certainly no exception.

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I began by walking down the Heron Hideout trail. This trail is accessible directly from the parking area and leads to the biggest trails on the reserve.  It has very little shade (wear a hat or sunscreen!) and so it gets pretty hot.  The trail is surrounded by marsh on both sides and offers prime viewing for birds, small fish, and gators.  The Heron Hideout trail eventually reaches a crossroads, where you can opt to continue forward onto the Eagle Roost trail, right to the Marsh Rabbit Run trail, or left (most popular) to Alligator Alley, which parallels Lake Hancock.  I decided to continue forward on the Eagle Roost trail.

The Eagle Roost trail has marsh and ponds bordering both sides of it before the trail turns farther up and becomes more open and sandy.  While walking up the trail, I noticed a gator moving nearby in the water.  It was pretty cool to see! I turned around at the bend in the trail and, on my way back, I became absolutely startled.

The gator I had seen swimming in the water suddenly popped its head out of the tall grass to the side of the trail just five feet ahead of me.  He was huge!  I immediately backed up, mentally running through the list of all the safety tips I had learned in the Everglades.  The gator proceeded onto the trail and I was in awe at his size – he stretched the whole way across! It was certainly a sight to see.  His gait was slow and almost crooked.  When he made it to the water on the opposite side of the trail, I waited a minute before quickly passing.  I was still catching my breath!

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Perhaps almost ironically, I turned onto the Alligator Alley trail next.  I didn’t have any more personal gator encounters, but I did see a bunch more! Along the trail were beautiful birds, rabbits, and turtles.  There were some baby alligators sitting in the marsh off to the left side of the trail, and larger gators swimming around in the lake to the right. There was just so much wildlife to see!

Circle B Bar is one of my favorite places for wildlife sightings and this visit definitely tops my list.  That alligator encounter was incredible! I’m glad I went when I did! 🙂

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A Central Florida Hike: Circle B Bar Reserve

One of my favorite places to visit in Central Florida to escape to nature is Polk County’s Circle B Bar Reserve.  Located off of route 540 between Orlando and Lakeland, Circle B is an area of protected lands and is a fantastic place to enjoy incredible wildlife sightings and to experience the outdoors.  Each time I visit, I’m amazed at the things I get to see!  On my most recent visit, I had some up close and personal encounters with gators, waterfowl, and some huge insects.

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There are a number of open lots available for parking when you enter Circle B, but I recommend driving all the way in and parking in the paved lots near the Discovery Center building (you can’t miss it!).  I started off my hike from there, taking a mowed grass path to the Lost Bridge Trail.  Last time I ventured onto this trail, it was citrus season and the oranges and grapefruit were ripe.  This time, though, I was interested in seeing what other plants would be in bloom, since many of Florida’s flora blossom semi-annually around this time.

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As I passed the educational Cow Camp area and made my way to the wooden bridge that crosses a swampy wetland, I was enthralled with the finds of beautiful plants, large lizards, and some really interesting insects.  I unfortunately had to turn back around once I crossed the bridge, though, because the other side of the trail was flooded out.  This was unfortunate since I had been looking forward to seeing the citrus trees, but turning back afforded me the opportunity to see a large locust crawl up onto the bridge.  I’ve never seen a locust before – it was huge!

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I followed the Lost Bridge Trail across the entrance road and over to where it intersects with the trail and path leading back toward the Discovery Center. I normally end my hikes at Circle on this trail, but I worked in reverse this time since I came from the opposite direction. On this part of the trail, water borders both sides of the trail. It’s a prime location to see some stunning water fowl!

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Eventually, this route runs into the lake trail, which is the most commonly traversed path. It follows Lake Hancock on one side and a marshy, swamp area on the other. This is where the gators are! I was lucky enough to catch some glimpses of some really big ones up close. They tend to stay in and near the water, but one in particular looked very close to coming ashore.

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I also had the pleasure of making friends with a limpkin, a tall, brown bird with a long beak. He was happy to quite literally walk along the trail with me for a little ways. I was worried he’d get too close to one of the gators I had spotted in the water, so I sort of ushered him further along the path. It seemed like he was definitely content to have some company for awhile!

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I also spotted a few other fantastic birds, from an osprey to a large blue heron. There is so much to see – you have to seriously look everywhere because you never know what you’ll find!

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Toward the end of my hike, heading back toward the Discovery Center area, there’s a fantastic grove of large trees with Spanish moss. It feels to me like something straight out of a movie. It captures that “southern” feeling so well and, especially with the sun going down and dusk settling in, it almost felt magical.

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I love seeing how Circle B changes in both wildlife and greenery with the seasons. There’s always something new to see! It’s never too crowded on weekdays, so it’s the perfect place to really go out on your own and do some exploring!

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6 Things To Do Before Starting a Hike

Who doesn’t love a good hike? Whether for just a day, a weekend, or a months-long stretch on a trans-continental trail, it’s always important to make sure you’re super prepared before you leave. Here are six things to always do before heading out on a hike, no matter the distance or location!

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1. Check The Weather – I’ve hiked cold, snowy mountains and hot, humid desert environments. Checking the weather is crucial to knowing what you’re in for, or if you should even go at all. Do not just rely on The Weather Channel or your local news; become accustom to reading live weather maps and radar yourself. You can even download apps for your phone to check as you hike (this has saved me more than once!).  There is nothing more terrifying than being out in the open when a storm hits or not knowing a snow squall is coming through.

2. Tell Someone – If you’re hiking in a group, this may be less of a pressing matter, but is still good to do. If you’re hiking solo, even if just for a few hours, always tell someone where you’re going. Even something as simple as just texting a friend that you’re going for a hike can save a lot of time and distress should something go wrong. If no one knows you’re gone or where you went, no one will know what to do or where to look if you encounter an injury on the trail or become lost.

3. Dress Appropriately – This means getting hold of the proper attire and footwear. Heading into the heat? Lightweight wicking material is a good choice. Heading into the snow? Specialty socks and gloves will be your best friend! This goes beyond the simple, “it’s hot, I’ll wear a t-shirt” sort of thinking. This means proper footwear for the type of terrain you’ll be on and clothing to keep you functioning at your best.

4. Bring Food and Water – Even if you don’t plan to be out for long, bringing plenty of food and water is always a good idea. Plan to take more water than you think you need and an extra granola bar never hurts. You never know what might happen out in nature and these survival essentials are crucial to staying safe and healthy out there!

5. Plan For The Necessary Supplies – This should go without saying, but be critical of the items you need and don’t need. First aid kits, flashlights, fire starters, tents, sleeping mats, etc., are all important items to consider depending on your hike. A communication device (cell phone, CB radio, etc.) is also advisable, particularly if you’re headed out solo.

6. Read Up On Plants and Wildlife – This could really save you. Become familiar with the plants and wildlife in the area you plan to hike. For example, growing up in the mountains of Pennsylvania, I’ve always known how to deal with bears, coyotes, and things like poison ivy and ticks. When I relocated to Florida, I had to do some serious reading on what was out in the wild – I had never heard of chiggers before and didn’t know that wild boars lived here and were so hostile! So it’s definitely important to be as read-up as possible and know the possible dangers and how to avoid or solve them.

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Packing For An Airplane Trip

In my travel experience, there is nothing more worrisome and anxiety-inducing than having to worry about keeping up with your luggage as you travel. Whether it be paying for checked bags, wondering if your carry-on will fit in the overhead bin, or being that person who can’t lift their suitcase into the overhead bin to begin with and then toppling it over onto everyone, the right bags and luggage help make any trip go much smoother.

For those seeking to travel easier via plane, here are my do’s and don’ts of packing for an airplane trip.

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DON’T Check A Bag – Most people who fly frequently will tell you this first thing.  Save the time and hassle (and money if your airline is one of those which charges for checked luggage regardless of weight) by simply packing into carry-on bags.

DO Pack Efficiently – This is a given, but we’ve all been there… That time you packed things and swore you’d wear and use everything but totally didn’t and then ended up wasting a bunch of space in your bag.  Be smart about what you bring.  Select coordinating outfits with pieces you can re-wear.  Don’t bring a million pieces of jewelry when you know you’ll end up only wearing your favorite pieces anyway.  Four pairs of shoes? Not in this bag.

DON’T Bring A Bag You Can’t Lift – This is from personal experience as well as from watching other people struggle.  That piece of luggage you brought may indeed be within size limit for a carry-on, but did you check and make sure you can actually lift it up above your head to put in the overhead compartment?  Sometimes carry-ons get heavy pretty quickly and there is nothing worse than not being able to pick up and lift your own bag above your head in a crowded plane cabin.  Trust me.  I’ve seen people drop their bags on the people sitting beneath the overhead bins and it’s not pretty.

DO Utilize The Space Beneath The Seat In Front Of You– When dealing with luggage and bags on an airplane, the best thing is to be able to have your bag right with you.  If you’re able to keep your purse, computer bag, or backpack under the seat in front of you, do it! Taking up unnecessary space in the overhead bins is basically a sin.  With that said…

DON’T Take Up Unnecessary Space In The Overheads – I see it time and time again on flights – people putting their jackets or laptops bags in the overhead bins.  What makes this crime so heinous?  Because that space is reserved for actual luggage, not the items you can keep in your lap or stow beneath the seat in front of you.  This is often the reason why the passengers in the last boarding zone can’t find space for their bags, which in turn holds up the flight.  Save everyone time and frustration by keeping your smaller stuff AWAY from the overhead compartments.

DON’T Use A Rolling Suitcase As A Carry-On – Now this one may seem odd to some, but hear me out.  Carry-on sized suitcases are super popular because you don’t need to check them and you can just wheel them behind you through the terminal and to the gate.  Convenient, right? But what happens when you’re in boarding zone 4 or 5 (because you’re thrifty about your traveling!) and the announcement is made that there’s no more overhead space left (darn you, small-item-overhead-compartment-users!).  And there you are – still standing at the gate with your rolling suitcase.  Now you have to check it plane-side. Now you might not make that tight connection because you have to wait for your bag when you land.  In some cases, carrying-on isn’t always better if this is what the result might be (and with more people traveling and less overhead space available, it’s a very common situation). So here’s my solution…

DO Use Packs, Not Suitcases, As Carry-Ons – This is my secret weapon.  I ditched rolling suitcases (yes, even carry-on sizes!) a long time ago and have switched to using packs instead (see picture below).  Why is this, you ask?  Simple: it saves time and room.  Remember that nightmare scenario I described above – where you have a carry-on suitcase and you’ve just been told as your about to board that the overhead bins are full and you’ll have to check your bag plane-side now? (it happens ALL the time nowadays – refer above about being that person who takes up unnecessary overhead space!).  It’s a crappy situation because now you have to wait for your bag when you land which, if you’re carrying-on, you probably didn’t anticipate doing (and can totally kill tight connection and layover times).  So my solution is instead to bring a pack!

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Since I’m an avid hiker, I always use my light hiking pack (the super big ones are too big to carry-on with and have to be checked instead; this one is basically a three-four day hiking pack).  I can carry it easily on my back through the airport and there is ALWAYS room for it in the overhead compartments, EVEN if the flight attendants have announced that the overhead compartments are full.  Why?  Because it’s much narrower than a rolling suitcase and easily slides into whatever room is left above.  And even if there is absolutely NO room at all, it easily “hides” under the seat in front of me.  Not having to worry about not fitting my bag on the plane with me; no worrying about wasting time and not making a connection; and no worrying about dealing with bulky luggage in the cabin.  And yes, a pack like this can fit just as much as a traditional, rolling, carry-on-sized suitcase!

*If you’re flying on one of those small prop planes, where everyone has to check their bags plane side (even carry-ons), this hiking pack will STILL fit in the small overhead compartment! That means no time wasted waiting for your bag when you land! This is tried and true for me!

Along with my hiking pack that I travel with, I also use a traditional backpack for things like my laptop and a book.  That backpack always fits under the seat in front of me so I never worry about not having space for my bags.  It’s a great travel hack if you’re someone who wants to travel quickly and efficiently.  Being able to just literally grab your bags and go is amazing.

Traveling is fantastic and, when possible, it’s always best to make your travels easier and worry-free whenever possible.  My takeaway advice is simple – be smart about your bag and where you put it! 🙂

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