An Expensive Bargain

The $15 bargain tent may have been one of my most expensive garage sale finds. Until I purchased the eight man tent, we were perfectly happy with the small 3 person tent we’ve been using for the past two years.

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A $15 bargain?

But our trip to Hontoon Island State Park changed everything. We pitched the garage sale tent and loved the extra room. Space for our clothes and the ability to stand made for luxurious accommodations. The small tears around the zipper were not a problem, but the fly didn’t lay just right. How would it handle rain? And then I noticed the small tear in the seam near the peak. We couldn’t camp in a cheap tent and worry about the weather. We’d return to our tiny, but reliable tent.

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Small, but reliable.

However, that changed when we started packing for a three night trip during Spring Break. The weather report called for rain, not enough to prevent us from camping, but enough to convince us of the need to break down and buy a bigger tent so we could spread out and escape the rain if needed. The $15 tent was retired after two nights use and a new one costing 10 times as much replaced it.

We initiated the new tent at Oscar Scherer State Park just a few miles east of Sarasota and stayed dry despite the rainy weather so it was a good investment. Although the first night was a little cold, it was dry so we could roast hot dogs over the campfire.

We didn’t spend a lot of time at the campground since this was a beach trip, but the Legacy Trail borders the park and we rode the 14 mile round trip to Venice. The hiking trails and canoes will have to wait for a return trip.

Oscar Scherer State Park…a great place to initiate our deluxe camping quarters.

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Blue Springs

Instead of entering Blue Springs State Park the traditional way, by car, we entered by boat traveling upstream from Hontoon Island on the St. John’s River.

IMG_3417After mooring the boat we walked the popular boardwalk which serves as a manatee observation deck. The run to the spring was crowded with a variety of fish – too bad fishing isn’t permitted in the Blue Spring Run.

And despite the fact it was not a cold day, over a dozen manatee congregated in the warm water designated as a manatee refuge. For the first time I saw a manatee tagged with a tracking device. I can only imagine the embarrassment the belt-like contraption attached to the manatee’s tail must cause as the creature drags a small buoy as it swims.

The boardwalk leads to the largest spring on the St. John’s River and while it’s a popular destination for swimming, snorkeling, and diving, it’s closed to those activities from mid-November until March 15 during Manatee season. In addition, St. Johns River and Cruises and Tours offer two-hour narrated tours from the park and both canoes and kayaks are available for rent.

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The park is so popular during the spring and summer that it frequently closes when it reaches capacity so better to plan to be there early.

Image 2On our way back to Hontoon Island, we encountered a paddle boat and a couple of eight-man sculling boats. The sculling boats actually moved down the river more quickly than our boat  since our speed was limited by the no wake requirements designed to protect the manatee.

Blue Springs State Park…another of Florida’s treasures.

Hontoon: A Different Kind of Island

IMG_3404Sanibel Island, Honeymoon Island, Caladesi Island, Amelia Island, St. George Island…what do they all have in common? Sand, salt water, beach…not so with Hontoon Island. Instead, Hontoon Island State Park is located in the St. John’s River far from the Atlantic or Gulf and Florida’s famous beaches.

The only access to the island is by private boat or the park ferry. The ferry is limited to passengers and pets, no vehicles. And since I love ferries, that’s a bonus!

Boating, canoeing, fishing, and picnicking are popular activities for park visitors. Picnic areas include tables and grills as well as a playground. No fishing this trip, but Meghan and Jon paddled eleven miles around the island and John and I motored up and down the St. John’s exploring as far south as Blue Springs and as far north as the bridge at S.R. 44.

A three-mile nature trail follows the Dead River and leads hikers to a large Indian mound at the southwest corner of the island. We hiked each day, once to the Indian mounds and a couple times to the nest of a bald eagle trying to get a good view of the eaglets.

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We enjoyed camping in the one of the twelve tent sites, but since no cars are permitted on the island campers load their gear in wheel barrows and then the park van transports tents, sleeping bags, ice chests, firewood, food and other items to the campsite with a strict limit of one trip per site.

Cooking out, roasting marshmallows, relaxing in the hammock, playing bocce ball and board games occupied our time at the campsite between hiking, canoeing, and boating.

In addition to the tent sites, Hontoon Island has 40 boat slips for boat camping and six rustic cabins. We’re trying to figure out how we can boat camp since it looks like the perfect way to stay on the island, sitting out on the dock in the light of the full moon…we’ll need to find a boat to rent…buying is not an option.

The Hontoon Island Friends held a cookout with live music on Saturday, and not only did we buy tickets to the cookout, we ended up members of the Hontoon Island Friends. Guess they’ll be contacting us to volunteer for future events.