July, 2012


July, 2012

Northwest Florida
Eden Gardens State Park—Santa Rosa Beach

The Eden Gardens title of this state park hints at what lies within. Even though the park is connected by Tucker Bayou to the Intracoastal Waterway it is hardly known as a boater’s paradise. The 163-acre park has no public boat ramps, no canoe launch facilities, and only a small tie up or fishing stake. “The shallows,” as the bayou is known is only of sufficient depth to float pontoon boats, kayaks, canoes and the like. Still there is more to parks than boating, and Eden Gardens beckons to antique aficionados, those many who are attracted to ornamental vegetation, and to anyone with an historical bent.

Over one hundred years ago this site was carved out as the hub of the Wesley Lumber Company that operated until after World War I. William H. Wesley went into the sawmill business with Simeon Strickland, building their mill on the edge of Tucker Bayou, in Point Washington. They also constructed a planer mill and dry kiln with a dock where barges were loaded for shipment.

Wesley built his home nearby, a sanctuary for his family until 1953 when his wife died. The Wesley’s had 9 children, so the house was organized like a dormitory, with the kitchen and dining room located in a separate building off the back of the house. They predominantly used the same yellow heart pine that they cut at the sawmill, but fashioned doors and frames out of cypress and juniper.

In 1963 the house and acreage was purchased Ms. Lois G. Maxon for a mere $12,500. But, she then invested an additional $1 million to convert the Victorian-style house into a Classic Revival home--reflecting the romantic image of an antebellum manor. Her goal was to create a domicile for her impressive collection of Louis XVI antiques and family heirlooms. (Today it is the second largest known collection of Louis XVI furniture in the United States.)

She also created the surrounding gardens and constructed a small reflection pond at the north side of the house. She planted more than 100 different species of camellias, many different colors and varieties of azaleas and other ornamentals, later adding a formal rose garden featuring Heritage roses. Bricks that were part of the house’s original chimney formed pavers for walkways through the rose beds. But only five years later, she gave her home and antique collection to the state, and now it stands as a cherished point of interest in the state park system.

The state improved the hand-dug reflection pond with a concrete-sided one and installed water lilies, goldfish and eventually koi. Her Four Seasons statues were moved to a fern garden at the south of the house. Over the years various organizations have added additional garden areas, including a Hidden Garden with quiet, winding trails.

July 4 is family day from 10am-noon with a ranger-led activity where each family (minors must be accompanied by an adult) will get the chance to build and sail their own pirate ship in the park’s reflection pond. Building supplies are provided. Space is limited and reservations are required (call 850-267-8320.)

July 24 is a watershed and natural communities presentation (25 minutes) and walk (20 minutes). It is free with the paid admission to the park.

This is a place not requiring all that weekend warrior paraphanalia—a place where you can just stroll and recall—maybe the most exorcising exercise one can get on a nonworking day.

Eden Gardens State Park is located at 181 Gardens Road at Santa Rose Beach. Hours for the grounds, gardens and picnic area (available at the old mill site) are 8am-sunset, 365 days a year.  Admission is $4 per vehicle; $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists. The hourly House Tour is from 10am-3pm, Thur-Mon and is $4-adults, and $2-children. Complimentary trail guides are available for the Garden Trail which winds around the edge of the property and highlights the rose garden, butterfly garden, camellia garden and Tucker Bayou. The park's pavilion and designated areas of the grounds are available to rent. For more information, call 840-267-8320 or go to www.FloridaStateParks.org/EdenGardens.

Camp Helen State Park – Panama City Beach

This hidden gem of 180 acres is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico on three sides, and by Lake Powell, one of the largest coastal dune lakes in Florida .Although not always open, Philips Inlet connects Lake Powell to the Gulf, allowing visitors to go directly from the lake to open water. While Camp Helen State Park is for day use only, you can discover prehistoric middens and mounds, swim, picnic, bird watch, kayak, beachcomb, study nature, hike, or bring your gear for freshwater or saltwater fishing.

The scene was set in 1928 when Robert E. Hicks purchased 185 acres of land overlooking Philips Inlet, where in 1931 he built a lodge for his wife, Margaret, who named the compound Loch Lomond. Originally intended as a summer home, Mrs. Hicks made it her permanent home a year later when her husband died. Unfortunately her decision coincided with the onset of the Great Depression forcing her to accommodate paying guests. She maintained the lodge as her private residence but employed a caretaker to manage 12 newly-built Rainbow Cottages (each painted a different color) for lodgers.

At the end of the war, with the country entering a new era, Avondale Textile Mills of Sylacauga, Alabama purchased Loch Lomond from the Hicks family, renamed it Camp Helen, and operated it as a resort destination for their employees until 1987. The story may have ended there were it not for persistent area residents who believed the space should become a state park. In 1996, their dream became a reality and today the Big House, as it is affectionately called, welcomes visitors to Camp Helen State Park.

The most discernible landmark, standing for more than 70 years, is the Camp Helen Water Tower, visible from both land and sea. The tower stands 40 feet high and originally housed a 1,000 gallon cistern tank to ensure adequate water pressure for the Rainbow Cottages.

The Hicks family had also built a gazebo on the edge of the bluff in front of their house that matched the design of the lodge. When Avondale Mills purchased the property, they removed the log-siding to create an open gazebo that made it the entrance to the steps leading to the boathouse and dock. Although the gazebo still stands, the original support pilings are the only remnants of the boathouse, after being destroyed by hurricanes in 1975 and 1995, and a concrete staircase has been replaced with a new wooden one.

Another of Camp Helen's other well-known landmarks was the pier on the Gulf. Built by Avondale Mills for its guests, they enjoyed fishing for sharks from its safety as well as taking leisurely sunset strolls. Though badly ravaged by time, the historic pier still partially stands as a reminder of Florida's vaunted past.

You can choose your favorite of the many activities at Camp Helen State Park—or simply lean back in the rocking chairs on the Lodge veranda and relax as you gaze over the rare coastal dune lake. There are edifying displays at the Visitor Center for your benefit, or you may want to hear about the park and its history: on July 7 from 10-10:45am (included with park admission) the monthly guided-tour history walk around the restored historical buildings is presented. On July 24 from 10-10:45am is the monthly watershed and natural communities presentation (25 minutes) and walk (20-minutes). Whatever your choice—the typical weekend activity, or nostagic fulfullment—Camp Helen State Park is a wonderful place to unwind and enjoy.

Camp Helen State Park is located at 23937 Panama City Beach Parkway at Panama City Beach. It is open from 8am until sundown, 365 days a year, the cost is $4 per vehicle (maximum 8 per vehicle). $2 for pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers. Call 850-233-5059 for information or go to www.FloridaStateParks.org/CampHelen.

                            Northeast Florida
The Marine Discovery Center – New Smyrna Beach

The Marine Discovery Center (MDC) was formed over 10 years ago  to protect the Indian River Lagoon. Their focus is on this fragile natural resource—providing  Florida coastal ecosystem education, research, restoration and preservation with special attention to the northern Indian River Lagoon and surrounding waters. This estuary, where fresh water from the land mixes with saltwater form the ocean, is North America’s most diverse estuary and has been designated as an Estuary of National Significance. It is home to more than 4,000 species of plants and animals, including 35 listed as threatened or endangered.

The Marine Discovery Center is about more than boat tours—although they provide them. They also monitor water quality, conduct bird censuses and rescue, restore oyster reefs and mangroves,  eradicate invasive species, and conduct coastal clean-up efforts.

The MDC is suitably housed in the old high school, and sponsors educational field trips with instruction on the general ecology of the coastal systems. Moreover one-hour lectures and short films are given monthly concerning plant and animal life along with the examination of fascinating things like killer Conchs in their touch tanks (check their calendar for exact times, dates and subjects.)The MDC also offers a variety of hands-on and feet-wet summer adventures. There are island and laboratory investigations, arts and crafts, plus kayaking, fishing, snorkeling, SCUBA diving, and surfing.

The Marine Discovery Center is located at 520 Barracuda Blvd. In New Smyrna Beach. Hours are 9am-5pm. Check their calendar for lectures and films, day camps, or arranging a birthday party. Go  to  www.marinediscoverycenter.org or call 386-428-4828.

        Marine Discovery EcoTours-New Smyrna Beach

Traveling Up and down Florida’s coasts, east and west, there is an abundance of boat tours. Some are known for their extraordinary scenery while others flaunt mere relaxation and fresh air on the open water. And, of course there are the twilight cruises with music and libations as the main attraction. However, legitimate educational cruises like the one offered by the Marine Discovery Center in New Smyrna Beach can be counted on one hand with a finger or two missing.

As well as uncommon, it should be noted that “educational,” at least in this case, does not equate with boring. Although instructive, the cruise still encompasses the merits of the first two scenarios, and while the libations are absent, the continual narration of the on-board naturalist is music to the ears of nature lovers.

The first attraction is only a couple hundred yards from the dock—a  mangrove rookery—a roosting and nesting habitat for scores of various shore birds. While sight and sound are enticing, the olfactory sensation is not—but that’s nature—and typical of the tour that’s a whole series of the hackneyed “teachable moments.”

The Marine Discovery Center is a not-for-profit corporation established about ten years ago with protection of the Indian River Lagoon as the primary objective. The Indian River Lagoon has been designated the most bio-diverse estuary in the entire United States.  It’s an estuary where fresh water from the land mixes with saltwater from the ocean, where an abundance of mangroves is favorable to harboring nearly 4,000 species of plants and animals, 35 of which are on the threatened or endangered list.

What better place to develop a project for the safeguard of nature, and simultaneously showcase the biodiversity of those natural treasures? The Center says their program is the only factual “in the water” educational experience—no doubt true, although most prefer their interaction “on the water”—and that’s the purpose of the 40-passenger boat.

It’s an excursion comprising two hours of stop-and-start observation with a stimulating dissertation that one imagines necessary for a doctorate, combined with a show-and-tell imitation from the secondary grades.
Most water tour captains point out interesting scenes as they sail by, but on this cruise they stop to take it all in. We spent a full ten minutes circling and treading the current while bottlenose dolphins gyrated around the boat in sync with the Master Eco Naturalist’s story.

And, she has many stories, from shoreline restoration to stock enhancement by releasing of red drum and sea trout into the estuary. Particularly intriguing is the importance of mangroves. The Red, White, Black, and Buttonwood are essential in maintaining shelter and food for “animal and botanical” in the extraordinary Indian River Lagoon. It’s explained that in addition, mangroves stabilize shores from erosion, and cycle pollutants from runoff, at the same time discharging huge amounts of oxygen into Florida’s atmosphere. Startling is the fact that since the 1940’s we’ve lost nearly 85% of the mangroves due to development and contamination.

In addition to cruising on the appropriately named “Discovery” the Center offers kayak tours also guided by a certified master naturalist. It’s safe even for the novice as the guides are skilled veterans and watchful of participants. It’s a slow journey of the lagoon backwaters where you can get a still closer view of the beauty and elements that make this place special. There are always fiddler crabs and snails clinging to the Spartina grass, and with luck you may spy a manatee munching on its favorite greens.

Marine Discovery Center is located at 520 Barracuda Blvd. in New Smyrna Beach. Advance reservations are required.  Sunset and Twilight Eco Tours costs $25 for adults, $22 for seniors and students, $60 for family with 2 children; $10-children under 12. Kayak Ecotours are $30-adult, and $20 for children ages 6-12.  For more information, call 386-4284828 go to www.marinediscoverycenter.org.

                                Central Florida
                Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing

The name Don Garlits rings a bell with almost everyone. Non-racing enthusiasts may be unable to recite his precise accomplishments, but even in pop-culture, no one confuses Big Daddy with Puff Daddy. Big Daddy Don Garlits is the real thing—originator, innovator, and motivator—in his chosen profession, he stands above everyone.

Like many, Garlits was caught-up in the post WWII car craze. By the mid-Fifties the most ordinary of cars generated top speeds that exceeded the limitations of highways at the time, so “king of the road” was more often than not determined stoplight to stoplight.

It was a new sport, getting traction, mostly in California, but Garlits, from Tampa soon led the way—figuratively and down the quarter mile. His first car for running on strips that were usually old airport runways, was a modified Model “T” roadster with a souped-up ’48 Mercury flathead for motivation.

It was an era of great memories. I too, loved the speed—the torque to churn those rear wheels. In the late fifties I bought a ’40 Ford coupe with a ‘47 Merc under the hood, from someone in a distant town who had taunted the local gendarmes to the point of no longer being able to show the car on the street.
To prove the Merc could still sing I challenged a friend with a good opinion of his’55 Ford. At 80 MPH I had him by a hood length even though the shift linkage was so badly worn I had to hunt for the next gear. The old coupe’s suspension too, was “loose as a goose,” and had me all over the road. It scared me so thoroughly I never drove it again—stripping it down for a restoration that was never finished.

It was about the same time that Don Garlits was challenging the west coast “rodders” who anointed him with the epithet of “Swamp Rat” for his Florida origins—a term that quickly became one of endearment, respect, and the signature of all 34 cars he subsequently built.

It was later that the name “Big Daddy” was dropped on him—sometime during the three National Hot Rod Association world championships and the 144 wins of national events. Garlits, after all, was the man recognized as the “father” of drag racing.

His last qualifying race was in May, 2003 at the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series in Atlanta. At the age of 71, he qualified with a quarter mile run well under five seconds and just a tick less than 320 miles per hour.
So prominent was his career—winning and pioneering design—that on October 20, 1987, his Top Fuel dragster, Swamp Rat XXX, the sport's only successful streamlined car, was enshrined in the National Museum of American History, a branch of The Smithsonian in Washington D.C.
In fact it was years before that Garlits decided that the sport should be glorified in his home state with a museum telling the story of drag racing from the beginning. Easy to find, the museum was opened in 1984, just off the interstate in Ocala. The collection includes most of the “Swamp Rat” cars and others made famous over the years—more than 90 racecars in all—plus all sorts of paraphernalia from the sport.

For anyone who has never looked closely at one of these drag machines—they’re probably more a blending of engineering and art than any other. Horsepower, yes but they are sculpted wheeled missiles. The latest iterations can leap from a dead stop to a quarter mile, spearing the wind at nearly 500 feet per second in about the time it takes to read this sentence.

The museum not only covers the complete mechanical evolution of the sport, but in addition serves as home to the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame providing a history and the contributions of inductees.
Best of all, it’s not a pure racing venue. The automobile has no doubt been the single most important influence on American culture—a scene that covers much more than racing. In a separate building Garlits has another collection of about 50 antique cars that will spark memories in those for whom four wheels were never more than mere transportation—those nostalgic moments at the drive-in or maybe that first date.

Personally I’d savor just a few moments behind the wheel of one of his ’40 Ford Coupes. Nirvana.

The Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing and Internatioinal Drag Racing Hall of Fame is located at 13700 SW 16th Ave. in Ocala. Phone 352-245-8661 or go to www.Garlits.com.

Safari Wilderness – Lakeland

I was never much into those fad dances, but I think I looked pretty good recently doing the camel walk, although most of the credit goes to Chewbacca. Our friendship was brief, but she stepped lightly and we swayed gracefully as I snuggled between her lovely humps. She didn’t spit at my assessment of her otherwise homeliness, and never once stomped on my foot. As encounters with camels go… it was pretty nice.

Actually, it was exciting. Riding a camel has never been on my bucket list, but if you have the opportunity, why not?  And, in fact there were numerous unexpected pleasures found at Safari Wilderness.

There are several enterprises in Florida that bill themselves as safaris, or as nature tours, and such. But their forte is exhibiting indigenous creatures in the wild, like gators, black bears, wild hogs, and snakes. Those species, from time to time, (and with much concern) turn up in people’s back yards, but the odds of finding an African water buffalo in your pool are pretty slim.

Scarce too, are the other animals at Safari Wilderness—some extinct in the wild—rarely even found in zoos. This is a licensed working game ranch—only open to the public since March of this year—specializing in exotic wetland species. It’s near I-4, yet way out in the boonies, but where else can you have 260 acres simulating native habit for these colorful herds to roam.

Exiting our car upon arrival, there was a cacophony that sounded like the mating of a foghorn with an elephant’s trumpeting. Actually it was the result of mating of a zebra with a donkey—a zeedonk named Buster—strange in his appearance (black stripes on brown) as well as resonance. They thought he might be good at pulling a carriage, but he refuses, and seems to be good only at scaring off coyotes with his booming discordant braying.

Buster may be an accidental exotic, but there are numerous legitimate genus’s found farther out on the range, and accessed in a manner to your liking. Customized carriages are pulled by Haflinger horses—exotics themselves that the farm has concentrated on for years—coming from the Austrian/Italian region of the Alps. They’re small horses known for their beauty as well as exceptional strength.

Then there is the camel safari that lasts about an hour and a half, led by experience camel drivers. You can choose a Dromedary or Bactrian, (one hump or two humps) either species about as strange as the other.

Looking at these beasts you have to conclude that our Creator surely had a sense of humor. Anything more ugly and less harmonious is hard to find in the animal world, yet they’ve been domesticated for more than 6000 years for their unchallenged capabilities. The Safari Wilderness farm has been working with camels for three decades, and claims that their camel-backed game viewing is the only such safari known outside of Africa.  

Our excursion was the motorized variety—an old bus with the top chopped off and a custom built canopy offering shade and an exceptional view. The driver doesn’t follow a trail or road, but simply cuts through pastures—a bumpy ride, but all the more authentic.  

Fenced ranges separate animals according to their continent of origin, and some species are indeed strange. Watusi cattle for example have enormous horns that look too heavy to hold up, but are hollow and function as radiators to keep them cool.  There are herds of zebra, Barbary sheep, water buffalo, axis deer, fallow deer, eland, waterbuck, and blackbuck Antelope to name just some—almost all eager to approach and eat the provided food right out of your hand. Living unrestricted, as nature would have them, nearly every species exhibits a few babies that especially charm visitors.

At the end of the ride you may want to enter the ring-tailed lemur habitat. It’s a colony of "threatened" little refugees from Madagascar, here to avoid extinction. They closely resemble a cat—even purr, but they are primates and unlike felines they are very social. The guide provides grapes, which seems to be their favorite dessert. They will grasp a grape from your palm with little human-like hands (four fingers and an opposing thumb) and insert it in their mouth. Not at all timid, they will wrap those tiny hands around your finger with amazing strength, and pull you closer, with pleading eyes asking for more.
Being communal the lemurs seem disappointed when you leave, but there is one last option to consider. If you haven’t chosen to ride the range on a camel you may at least want a short jaunt for the experience. Chewbecca and I had a great boogie, but you can choose your own partner, and it’s absolutely guaranteed that you will find the same prospect nowhere else. And, after all the live viewing, if you’re souvenir minded, this place has the most unique collection of animal toys and gifts you will probably ever find.

Safari Wilderness is located at 10850 Moore Road in Lakeland (off exit 38 of I-4). Hours are 9am to 5pm. Vehicle safaris (2 ½ hr): $70-adults, $65-seniors, and $60 for children under 12. Or choose optional safaris: horse-drawn carriage, llamas, or camels. Other extras: $20 short camel ride, $10 short horse or llama ride, $20 lemur hand feeding; $5 stick budgie hand feeding. Reservations are a must and only taken by phone. Mention FlaTrips.com or check their website for a special discount. Call 813-382-2120 or go to www.safariwilderness.com.

Southwest Florida
Crowley Nature Center and Museum - Sarasota

Crowley exhibits exactly what the title indicates: a natural and cultural history of old Florida. It’s an extraordinary place, not just for the environment, but also for the location. Crowley is only minutes east of Sarasota--one of Florida’s most sophisticated cities--where surprisingly, you drive dead into a time warp—so close geographically to the glitz of the coast, yet stuck culturally at a century’s distance.

Crowley is an anachronism—undeveloped, rudimentary, and wonderful. In this modern information age a place like this could not be happenstance. Indeed it is deliberate—and informative as well.

The Crowley’s homesteaded this land when it was the country’s final frontier.  Railroads were already transporting worldliness that took the “wild” out of the west when pioneers on the peninsula struggled against hostilities of nature more than natives, and an isolation that only the toughest could endure.

The Crowley descendants wanted to preserve the “Cracker” culture to ensure knowledge that forging the interior was as important to Florida’s development as sand, sunbeams, and glamorous hotels.

The Crowleys formed a non-profit corporation that along with universities and foundations has done productive work on crops and livestock—usually of interest only to esoteric groups, but the major attraction is for nature lovers and history buffs.

On the grounds are the Tatum House and the Tatum Ridge School House, original structures of the late 19th century relocated to the Crowley site. There is also an authentic blacksmith shop and a homestead cabin furnished with Crowley heirlooms and built of wood reclaimed from an ancestor’s cabin. However, most appealing is the Pioneer Museum arranged like a period general store, stocked with merchandise and paraphernalia of the time, and bulging with “Cracker History.”  

The museum’s only yield to contemporary is the air conditioning—necessary for the time to comfortably read the large placards of information and cracker dialogue, and to consume details of remarkable early photos. You’ll learn of the hardscrabble, self-sufficient lifestyle credited to their Celtic background, and that unlike their counterpart in the west, Crackers were not cowboys, but cow hunters. Enthralling too, is the anecdote of Frederick Remington who was conditioned, through his painting and sculpting, to the rough and tumble life on the western frontier, but upon his visit to Arcadia in the late 1800’s found living so difficult after a shortened stay that he never returned.

For those enchanted with outdoors, the half-mile long boardwalk through the oak hammocks, pine flat woods, and marshlands, offers natural elements in a close proximity that is rarely available. It’s primordial—a surgical cut through a dense wilderness, otherwise undisturbed, but designated with more than twenty points of interest explained on a pamphlet map. The thick overgrowth provides almost total shade, and along the way there are rest stations and an observation tower at the end where you can easily become lost in reverie. There are also miles of self-guided trails on this 190-acre property including a discovery path with five stations—each with hands-on activities for children’s learning of animals and insects.

Each Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. there is a farmers market on the grounds selling everything from vegetables to homemade soap and goats milk. The market mascot is an overgrown turkey gobbler named Mr. Darcy who struts the place like he owns it. Also dubbed the “mayor,” it was explained that he recently got into a dispute with the dogs guarding the compound against bobcats, and got his feathers ruffled a bit. But he looked quite presentable again when we saw him, and was back on the job.

There are so many activities offered they couldn’t all be related in detail. Examples are concierge camping that requires only a sleeping bag and a desire to learn camping skills; a three-day outing to learn survival skills; horse whispering classes; beginning photography classes; cane grinding, syrup making and taffy pulling. These events are conducted at different times throughout the year. Costs and dates can be found by consulting the web site or calling.

For adventurers and especially those interested in history this place is a must.

Crowley Nature Center and Museum is located at 16405 Myakka Road in Sarasota. Hours are Thursday-Sunday from 10am to sundown. Admission: seniors-$4.50, adults-$6.50, children-$2 and free for those under 5. Call 941-322-1000 or go to www.CrowleyFl.org.

Art of the Olympians Museum and Art Gallery-Fort Myers

The Art of the Olympians Museum and Gallery at the Al Oerter Center for Excellence is located on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River in the historic River District of downtown Fort Myers. In this 10,000 square feet arena you can discover the history of the artists and the stories behind a competitor’s journey.

Immediately upon entering the lobby enormous black and white blowups of Al Oerter and Bob Beamon in Olympic performances are visible…and you realize that this is not an ordinary art gallery.

To be represented in this gallery, the artist must also have been an Olympian. You’ll see their inspiration to achieve excellence through art, sports and education. Both the Gallery and Museum host evolving exhibitions featuring works by USA Figure Skating gold medalist, Peggy Fleming, renowned Polish architect and Polish Fencer Wojciech Zablocki; USA Luger Cameron Myler, Swiss Fencer Jean Blaise Evequoz, etc.

The Olympic rings are visible on the front of the two-story museum (one of the few in the world given the rights to display them.) Their unique Olympian stories span the idea of whole-body living—excellence in mind, body, and spirit.

In ancient Greece, competitors were expected to be role models, embodying excellence in mind and spirit. They were not only expected to possess great agility and strength, but also to understand and nurture the arts. By training both the body and mind, the Olympic Games were the inspiration that produced more responsible and enriched citizens.

Al Oerter was a discus legend. Never favored to win because of accidents and injuries, this four-time consecutive Olympic gold medalist defied odds, overcame adversity and grew as a man and athlete by setting goals, establishing a strong work ethic and working to be his best. He upheld life’s simple values of friendship, respect and fair play.

Besides setting 6 national Championship records, he was the first athlete to win four gold medals—in  ‘56, ‘60, ‘64, and ‘68 at four successive Olympiads and the first athlete to set four consecutive Olympic records.

Off the field, Oerter had a strong passion for arts and a strong business sense. When diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, he turned to art for rehabilitation. He found freedom of expression by creating an impact series of abstract paintings and was encouraged by his wife, Cathy Oerter, who was not only a pioneer in women’s track and field history—having created the Iowa State (ISU) track team, but spent 20 years as an art teacher. After Al Oerter’s death in ’07, she felt that his many works should anchor the Art of the Olympians Museum and Gallery at the Al Oerter Center for Excellence—a natural way to honor his life and Olympic spirit.

Olympic gold medalist and record-breaking track and field star, Bob Beamon serves as the CEO. He’s best known for breaking the world record for the long jump in 1968—29 ½ feet. He beat the previous record by nearly 2 feet and was the first man to jump more than 28 feet. This record remained unchallenged for 23 years. “I find creating a piece of art in many respects mirrors my long-jumping efforts--illustrating that hard work and inspiration will always be the foundation for success.”

It’s an attitude that is prevalent in many of the best athletes. There are no statistics available, but the number of artists among Olympians seems to be much greater than the ratio of artists to the general population. Perhaps it’s determination and perseverence or maybe it’s nothing more than the exceptional bodily coordination that can be translated into beauty on canvas and sculpting materials—that extra spark of greatness. Whatever comprises that extra something, it is worth witnessing in the art.

The museum and gallery opened in January, 2010. It overlooks the Caloosahatchee River and provides breathtaking views. Currently there are more than 50 participating international Olympian artists of various nationalities and sport backgrounds. The Gallery has unique exhibits featuring equipment, uniforms, films, autographs and official Olympic memorabilia.…or you can get inspired by the creative spirit through these Olympian artists’ paintings, photography, drawing, and sculpture.

The Art of the Olympians Museum and Gallery at the Al Oerter Center for Excellence  is located at 1300 Hendry Street in Fort Myers. Open Tue-Fri and on Saturdays from 10-4. Admission is $5 and free for members and children under 12. Call 239-332-5055 or go to www.artoftheolympians.org.

Southeast Florida
Oleta River State Park – Miami

Located on Biscayne Bay in the busy Miami metropolitan area, Oleta River State Park is Florida’s largest urban park—composed of more than 1,000 acres. Although it offers a variety of recreational opportunities, it’s best known for miles of off-road bicycling trails. It has over 10 miles of challenging trails for the experienced, and over 4 miles of novice trails for the beginner. The 3 miles of paved trail also offers great conditions for roller blading. And if you forget, the park provides a bicycle helmet loaner system.

In 1841, the river was named Big Snake Creek and was part of the route used by Federal troops in the Second Seminole War to travel south from Loxahatchee. In 1891 Captain William Hawkins Fulford explored the river and settled in the area known today as North Miami Beach. Other settlers arrived and by the 1890s pineapple and vegetable farms sprung up along this river which linked the Everglades with Biscayne Bay. An Indian trading post was established at what is now Greynolds Park.

In 1992, Big Snake Creek was renamed the Oleta River. The historic Blue Marlin Fish House Restaurant was established in 1938 as a commercial fishing operation and evolved into a smokehouse until the 1980s. Reopened in 2007, the Blue Marlin (located outside the park at 2500 NE 163rd Street, with hours from 11 am to 7 pm) offers tasty smoked fish and wraps.

Along the Oleta River, at the north end of the park, is a large stand of mangroves, which is home to an abundance of wildlife. Canoeists and kayakers can explore this area--whether choosing a mangrove trail to paddle or the calm open water of Biscayne Bay adjacent to the Haulover Inlet. There is a 1200-foot sandy man-made beach/saltwater lagoon where swimming (at your own risk because lifeguards are not present) and saltwater fishing are popular.

Picnic tables and grills are available and there are nine pavilions (first-come, first-served) that can be rented. All have water nearby, and the largest has electricity. Hiking trails are available and the fishing pier is a popular site for angling as well as the eastern shores of the park along the Intracoastal Waterway.

For overnight visits, there are 14 rustic air-conditioned cabins, and one is  ADA-accessible. Linens are not provided. There are no kitchens, TVs, phones, or bathrooms, but a restroom with hot showers is located nearby. Pets are not permitted in cabins. Cost is $55 per night (minimum 2-night stay on weekends and holidays). Call ReserveAmerica at 800-326-3521 (8am-8pm) for reservations.

There is also a youth campground available for organized groups. There are three primitive campsites with two tables, a fire circle, restroom, cold water shower and a community pavilion. There is no electricity available, and pets are not allowed. To reserve, call 305-919-1844.

The Blue Moon Outdoor Center is open from 9am until 1 ½ hours before sunset. The concession rents canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and mountain bikes. The store has general merchandise, bait and snack items.

The Oleta River State Park is located at 3400 NE 163rd Street, off I-95 in North Miami. Admission is $6 per vehicle with 2-8 people; $4 for single-occupant vehicle or motorcycle; $2 for pedestrians, bicyclists, and extra passengers. The park is open from 8am until sundown, 365 days a year. Call 305-919-1844 for more information or go to www.FloridaState Parks.org/Oleta.

The Barnacle Historic State Park - Miami

If you like to reminisce about the bygone era of early Florida, take a walk in The Barnacle Historic State Park in downtown Coconut Grove. The entry offers a glimpse of its original landscape--one of the last remnants of the tropical hardwoods of the Miami Hammock.

Ralph Middleton Munroe purchased 40 acres of bayfront in 1886 for $400 and his sailboat, Kingfish, valued at an additional $400. The boathouse he built in 1887 became his home, workshop and favorite gathering place for the local sailing community. Later it was the initial home of the newly-founded Biscayne Bay Yacht Club, where Munroe served as Commodore for 22 years.

The boathouse/home offered little privacy, so in 1891 Munroe built a sanctuary for his family he christened “The Barnacle” and it’s the oldest residence in Miami Dade County remaining on its original foundation. Munroe and his family lived here until 1973 when it became a state park and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Munroe discovered paradise here and The Barnacle offers a glimpse of his legacy. He was a seaman (and drew plans for 56 different sailboats), a naturalist and photographer who cherished the natural world around him.

Munroe employed his building know-how again after the original boathouse collapsed in the 1926 hurricane: Munroe rebuilt, anchoring cables into limestone and securing them to iron beams—so that the boathouse has survived every hurricane since.

In designing the Barnacle, Commodore Munroe drew on the principles of boat design and traditional Caribbean home construction (Bahamians were some of the first settlers in Coconut Grove. Commonly referred to as Kebo, that old sector of Bahamian-style homes is just a few blocks away). Munroe found that the hipped-roof is more stable and less likely to blow off. He situated The Barnacle 18 feet above sea level and set it on pilings which allow air to circulate below to prevent wood rot. His two-story porches shielded from direct rays of the sun and strategic windows opened--making use of ever-present winds to cool the house.

Munroe’s masterful architecture is now on exhibit as part of this historical state park. The house is built from pine and salvaged lumber from the Bay’s many shipwrecks and used a cupola ventilation system (with transom windows operated by ropes and pulleys.) The attic was used for storage and an indoor playground. The second story was a quiet family area with the balcony and rooms offering breathtaking views of Biscayne Bay. The upstairs has 4 bedrooms, a sitting room, sewing room, linen closet, and two bathrooms. The house is decorated with photos taken by the Commodore, various tools of his trade and family belongings.

The view from his front porch changes daily. This habitat ranges from the Miami Hammock to shallow seagrass beds—an oasis providing shelter and food for many local and migratory birds and animals. This is a place where you can lean back in a rocking chair on the porch or sit on a bench under a tree—to commune with nature and breathe in a bygone era.

Upcoming Events:  At the Old-Fashioned July 4th Picnic, there’s kite and boat making, lawn and board games, a scavenger hunt with prizes, and music by the Cool Ol’ Dudes. In August, celebrate Dog Days of Summer. Bring your dog to compete in pet tricks and dog/owner look-alike contests. See working dogs in action and agility demonstrations. Yoga by the Sea continues each Monday and Wednesday at 6pm.

The Barnacle Historic State Park is located at 3485 Main Highway in Coconut Grove. The Park is open Friday-Monday from 9am-5pm with tours at 10, 11:30am, 1, and 2:30 pm. Admission is $2 per person (honor box-correct change required.) Interpretive exhibits, picnic tables, and ADA-accessible restrooms are available. Museum tour fee is $3-adult, $1-child ages 6-12, and free for children 5 and younger. Pets permitted on park grounds, but not inside historic buildings, nor at special events, including the Moonlight Concert Series. Call 305-422-6866 or go to www.floridastateparks.org/barnacle