Fontana Dam

One aspect of the beauty of the Smoky Mountains is the amount of water features. There is water everywhere. The entire area is criss-crossed by creeks or branches, as they are called down here, rivers and lakes. The mountains act as funnels concentrating the water as it flows down to the valleys and into the bigger rivers such as the Nantahala, Oconaluftee, Tuckasegee and Little Tennessee.

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Most of the roads follow along the creeks or rivers flowing along the valleys, gorges and hollows until they make their way up and over the mountain gaps, making for some very scenic roadways. The vegetation enveloping the roads is always lush and green. There is an abundance of wild mountain laurel and rhododendron down in the valleys which transitions to more alpine habitats as you climb the higher mountains up to the ridge line. The steep terrain and abundance of flowing water also provides the ideal conditions for lots of whitewater and waterfalls.

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Surprisingly, there are a large number of lakes for such a mountainous area. Most of the lakes exist due to a large network of dams built for flood control and the production of hydro-electricity.

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The steep mountainsides provide ideal natural reservoirs for the dammed rivers . The largest lake in the area is Fontana Lake which is practically in our back yard. It is approximately 17 miles long and with numerous coves and arms has 238 miles of shoreline. The lake is a natural border for the southern side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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Fontana Lake was formed by damming the Little Tennessee River with Fontana Dam. This dam is part of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and at 480 feet is the highest dam east of the Rocky Mountains. The TVA was part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s and brought numerous jobs and a better quality of life to a large portion of the South.

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The main objectives of the TVA system were to provide flood control, electricity and navigable rivers to the rural Tennessee Valley while providing much needed jobs during the Great Depression.

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Fontana Dam was built during World War II, mainly to provide electricity to the Alcoa Aluminum plant in Knoxville. Construction began in 1942 and continued nearly around the clock until completion in 1944. A new town, which was later transformed into the Fontana Village Resort, was constructed to house over 5000 workers and their families brought in to build this massive project.

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We paid a visit to the dam where they have a nice little information center and viewing platform. The TVA also provides a hiking shelter and hot showers  at the dam for Appalachian Trail hikers. The path of the AT follows right across the top of the dam making its way over Fontana lake before winding up into the National Park.

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We walked out across the dam enjoying views of the lake and the gorge, powerhouse and spillway far below. The concrete spillway tunnels used to divert water and control the water level of the lake were very impressive dropping steeply out of sight. After dropping 480 feet nearly straight down, the water shoots out of tunnels at the base of the dam like a cannon.

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The lake has several marinas, boat launches and campgrounds and is providing many opportunities for boating and fishing. We took the kayaks out on a nice sunny day and explored some of the coves and railroad trestles along the shoreline. The one negative is that the mountains running down into the lake are so steep that the shore is pretty much inaccessible to getting out of the boat to stretch or to go for a swim to cool off.

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The dams also provide a controlled release of water into the rivers which supports opportunities for whitewater rafting and tubing. We were lucky enough to meet a former river guide through Ironhorse who treated us to a very low cost rafting trip down the Nantahala River. The river is fairly tame with only one Class III set of rapids but was a great way to spend a day off. We got to enjoy the scenic river with a few thrilling rapids along the way while getting to know our new friends a little better.

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We are totally into the groove of our jobs at Ironhorse now. We are very comfortable with the menus and have been cruising through dinner service. It has been fairly slow, which is normal for this time of year. We have served as few as 20-25 on some nights and a few meals have been cancelled for lack of people signing up ahead of time. This week we hosted a HOG Chapter from Bergen County in northern New Jersey. I’d have to admit it was a little refreshing to experience that northern attitude once again. It reminded us of home just a little bit.

We usually go for a nice motorcycle ride on one of our days off, always exploring new territory. We have also managed to get some things done on The Breeze and gave the roof a good cleaning and three new coats of wax. Washing and waxing the rest of the rig is next on our list of projects.

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Moonshiner 28

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We had one more day of riding with Jim before he headed home so we chose do the last of the big three roads in the area, the Moonshiner 28. We rode to the southern end of the route and took it all the way north back to Ironhorse. We put on a lot of miles so didn’t make too many stops for pictures and sightseeing. We did stop at a couple of waterfalls along the way, one of which was Whitewater Falls. Whitewater is the highest waterfall east of the Rockies but unfortunately the wooden stairway to access the best views were burned up in the forest fires last fall so we only got a limited view. The contractors were in the process of rebuilding the stairs so it may be worth a trip back in the fall.

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After being disappointed at Whitewater, we followed the signs for Licklog Falls a little further down the road. The signs led us miles down a side road before directing us for another few miles down a gravel road. The road got narrower, rougher and more rutted as we went and even had a couple narrow stream crossings. Unfortunately, the signs stopped and we had no idea where the falls were. We went as far as we could, until the road turned into more of a trail through the woods than a road, before we finally turned around without ever seeing any sign of a waterfall. We were 0 for 2 on the waterfalls so far.

We hooked into The Moonshiner in South Carolina and dipped a few miles into Georgia before heading back into North Carolina. The twisties on this road rival the Dragon and went on for miles and miles. We had lunch in the cool little town of Highlands, NC (elevation 4117 feet). The cool temperatures at that elevation have long been a draw to southern tourists looking to escape the heat and humidity of the long summers.

A few mile north of Highlands we finally had success with the waterfalls. Bridal Veil Falls are immediately adjacent to route 28 and you can’t possibly drive by and not see it.

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These falls are so close to the road that vehicles used to be allowed to drive behind the water cascading off the overhanging cliff. Vehicles aren’t allowed anymore but you can still walk behind the falls.

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I tried to tempt Jim into riding behind the falls anyway but he didn’t go for it.

The Moonshiner continued north with a very challenging section through Cullasaja Gorge. It would have been nice to sightsee but you definitely need to keep your eyes on the road! The road straightens out a bit as it approaches Franklin, NC then follows the Little Tennessee River for a bit before climbing back toward the Smokies with another twisty section.

Overall, the Moonshiner 28 is was great choice for our last ride. It combines some very challenging roads with great views, scenery and some cool little towns to stop off and explore while the appeal of the Dragon is simply for the high concentration of twists and turns over a relatively short stretch of road.

Riding the Dragon

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Jim and I headed out on Monday morning to ride the Tail of the Dragon, a stretch of U.S. 129 which is the most infamous of all the twisty roads in this area. 318 curves in 11 miles and talk around Ironhorse of numerous accidents and fatalities had us feeling just a little bit intimidated by this stretch of road.

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We started out heading up route 28 to get to the Dragon. 28 is known as the Moonshiner 28 or the Hellbender and was a good warm up, getting us comfortable with our bikes on the tight turns, hills and dips.

We stopped at Deal’s Gap which is at the southern end of the Dragon. There is a motel, restaurant, gas and a couple of gift shops where you can get all kinds of Dragon related merchandise like T-shirts, pins, patches and decals. One shop has some cool metal sculptures of the Dragon where many stop to take pictures.

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We were there early, around 10:30 and it was pretty slow with only a few other bikes in the parking lot. That was a good sign that we would have the road mostly to ourselves without running into slower traffic or being pushed from behind by more aggressive riders.

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This is also home to the Tree of Shame. The tradition is that anyone who gets bit by the Dragon and has a wreck leaves a piece of their bike behind tacked to the tree. It’s a sobering reminder of what can happen on the road. Some parts and pieces have become memorials to the many fatalities that have occurred on the Tail of the Dragon.

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We browsed the shop and got our pictures in front of the Dragon before heading north on U.S 129.

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The serious twisties start about a mile or so up the hill and don’t quit for the full eleven miles. The cool part about the road is that the curves are all banked like a race track which helps you maintain traction and really lean into the curves. After a bit of practice, it’s easy to get into a rhythm, slowing or braking for a curve and then powering through it before setting up for the next one. It was fun!

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About half way in, the overcast skies finally let loose with some pretty steady rain. We pulled off, put our rain gear on and waited for the worst of it to pass. We headed out again with the added challenge of the wet road. It forced us to slow down a bit and ride more cautiously which probably wasn’t a bad thing for our first ride on the Dragon.

We stopped near the end and agreed that all the hype was a bit overblown. We had seen roads like this in New England though maybe not to this degree with the concentration of steady curves over such a long distance.

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The banking in the turns was new to us but a welcome change that made the ride easier and more fun. It’s just important to ride within your own ability and respect the challenge of a more technical ride. The problem, as with most riding, is worrying about what the other guy might do. The main problem on this road is probably dealing with aggressive riders or daredevils who push their limits or do stupid things and end up crossing the center line into your lane or recklessly passing slower riders.

Jim and I stopped at the U.S. 129 Dragon Harley dealership at the far end to decide where to go next. It was a pretty easy decision to head right back over and ride the Dragon again. The road had dried and we knew what to expect so it was even more fun heading back over to where we had started.

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We were surprised to see the parking lots at Deals Gap filled up with bikes when we got there.

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We were really lucky to experience the road with as little traffic as we did. We had lunch and  spent the rest of the day riding around on some less famous but just as impressive roads as the Tail of the Dragon.

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Work and a Surprise Visit

Life here at Ironhorse is moving along as we get better acquainted with our new job and surroundings. We are cooking dinners in the lodge five nights a week and will serve anywhere from 30 or 40 up to 90 or 100 guests per night depending on how many are onsite or if a group is in for the weekend.

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We have been through most of the menu items at least twice so Chuck and Deb have been leaving us on our own for the most part. He will stop in to see how we’re doing and answer any questions that come up but we’re handling it pretty well.

There isn’t anything very difficult or technical about the meals we are serving. The hard part is timing everything to be ready and dealing with the constantly changing number of dinners reserved. We don’t like to cook too many dinners to have leftovers or throw food out so we try to cut it pretty tight on what we prepare. Guests pre-order their meals through the front desk so we have a basic idea of numbers when we go in at three or four o’clock but that number can change drastically by the time we start serving at 6:30. The numbers can even change during dinner service for late arrivals or walk-ins until we finally stop serving at 8:30. It’s always a scramble to start more entrees cooking and to make sure there are enough side dishes prepped as the numbers go up during the night. No matter how hard we try to coordinate things we usually come up one short of one entree and two over of something else. We serve desserts until 9:00 and then have about an hour or so of clean up before we head home.

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We went on a nice ride with Chuck and Deb and a few of their friends on one of our days off. We went up to the Blue Ridge Parkway up near Asheville and the rode it south to where it ends in Cherokee, NC.

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We stopped for lunch at the Pisgah Inn, a beautiful park service lodge with an amazing view of the Smokies. As we waited for our table the weather went from partly cloudy and blue skies to stormy, gray and overcast.

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We watched a storm approaching off in the distance and could see the rain getting closer and closer as we had lunch. We felt the first raindrops as we walked out to the parking lot to leave so we put on rain gear and rode the first ten miles or so in a fairly heavy rain. It eventually stopped and ended up being a really nice ride. We stopped at the highest point on the parkway for some pictures.

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Later that week we got a really nice surprise. Jim Cunningham, who I had worked with at Excelsior called to let us know he was coming down to visit and do some riding. He called on a Tuesday and got here just a few days later on Friday night. He was pretty waterlogged after riding 500 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway in the pouring rain.

It was great to see a familiar face again and we spent Saturday just hanging out, drying his wet clothes and relaxing.

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We caught up on all the news from back home and told him about our adventures on the road. Jim pitched his tent and really enjoyed the biker friendly vibe of the Ironhorse. He said the prime rib dinner on Saturday night was delicious.

He was ready to get back on the bike by Sunday to start exploring our twisty roads. We headed out for the Cherohala Skyway a scenic road that winds through the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests into Tennessee.

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It’s a very scenic ride with lots of turnouts to enjoy the endless mountain views. The roadway is in great condition, nice and smooth running up and down the mountains with a combination of wide sweeping curves and sections with tight, twisty turns.

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We stopped for lunch at a little cafe in Tellico Plains, TN and then headed home on some back roads. We went over the Hiawasee Dam before hitting Joe Brown Highway back into Murphy, NC. Joe Brown was a little rough due to a recent tar and grit paving job but was like a roller coaster with quick ups and downs and lots and lots of curves. We had to work dinner that night so after a quick stop in Murphy we continued on back to Ironhorse on some four lane highways.

Lightning Bugs

Sometimes, along our travels, we happen to be in the right place at the right time and such was the case for the annual firefly viewing at Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I know, you can see fireflies all summer right in your own back yard, what’s the big deal? These are special fireflies. Of the nineteen different species that live in the Smoky Mountains, synchronous fireflies (photinus carolinus) are the stars.

We read about these critters on other RV’ers blogs and it got our curiosity going. It took some luck and pre-planning to arrange but it worked out for us. The fireflies only put on this display for about a two week period when they are breeding so you need to be here during that period which can vary from year to year. Also, the event has become so popular that access to their habitat has been limited by the National Park Service.

The Park Service actually issues permits for the viewing on a lottery system, (NPS Firefly Permits). They try to predict the peak of the mating season and set the dates for the event in early April. They have a three day time span to accept applications and then choose the lucky winners about a week later.  They used to issue permits first come-first served online and by phone but they would sell out within minutes every year. The lottery system was started to give more people a chance. We learned that they issue only 1800 permits over the two week event from over 18,000 applications. There are other lesser known areas to see this phenomenon in case you’re not lucky enough to win the lottery.

I checked the web page back in April and found out that we would be getting here at just right time. Our first two nights off from work were the final two nights for viewing the fireflies. I applied and found out a week later that we had been won a permit which has a fee of $2.75. So, we were very lucky to be here at the right time and to win the lottery.

We woke up on the day of our permit to pouring rain. That wasn’t good because rain and cool temperatures can curtail firefly activity. We watched the weather all day and it looked like our night might be  a washout. It started to clear up in the afternoon so we headed over the mountain for an hour and a half drive on the main road through the National Park. It turns out to be a beautiful drive with some light rain turning the tunnel of trees along the roadway a dark, lush green. We stopped at a few overlooks to see the ridges and hollows enveloped by the mist and clouds that gives the Smoky Mountains its name.

We arrived at the Sugarlands Visitor’s Center, near Gatlinburg, a little after 6:30 gave our permit and parked. We got into line for the shuttle buses that take us up to the viewing area near the Elkmont NPS campground. While we were waiting in line the clouds started to break up and offer views of a clear blue sky, giving us hope of not being washed out by the predicted rain.

It seems hard to believe but all of these people are standing in line waiting to go see fireflies.

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We had a nice chat with one of the park rangers while we were waiting in line and she gave us a bunch of interesting facts on lightning bugs and the history of this event. Most interesting was the story of how the event got started back in the 1990’s. A professor from a local college had been way off in Indonesia to study rare synchronous fireflies. When he got back and started telling everyone about what he had experienced, a local spoke up and told him they have been watching such lightning bugs for years just a few miles away in the National Park. At first, he was in disbelief that they could be there right under his nose but was proven wrong when he went up to investigate. From there, word spread and the event has been growing in popularity ever since.

The shuttles picked us up and took us up the mountain a few miles to the viewing area which was a gravel path through the woods with a creek running alongside it.

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The ranger said that one spot was as good as another so we just walked in a bit and sat in our chairs to wait for darkness.

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As it got darker and darker we started to see a few lightning bugs starting to flash so we were hopeful for a good showing. Activity started to pick up around 9:30 and we could start to see the phenomenon of the synchronous flashing. It would be dark, then we would see a few flashes before the underbrush in front of us started twinkling with hundreds of individual lightning bug flashes for thirty seconds or so. Then it would go dark again. Ten or twenty seconds would pass and they would start up again. They repeated this pattern over and over.

Unfortunately, the bugs were concentrated in the underbrush and not as numerous as they would be under more ideal conditions. I guess the rain had kept them close to the ground instead of wandering up higher in the trees. The ranger we had talked to earlier said that under ideal conditions it looks like a waterfall of Christmas lights with the flashes starting way up in the canopy and cascading down to the ground with the twinkling of thousands of lightning bugs. 

It was impossible to catch this show on my camera so here is a link to an excellent Youtube video from our favorite show, CBS Sunday Morning:  Tennessee fireflies: A summertime light show

All in all, we were glad we went, even with the subdued showing of the night. We did get to see the effect and learned a lot in the process. We caught the shuttle back down to the parking lot and headed home around midnight for another hour and a half ride over the twisty mountain road through the Park.

We would recommend trying to see this interesting show of nature if you are in the area at the right time. Just remember to plan ahead and check for permits in early April.

Summer in the Smokies

We are settling into our latest workamping opportunity in Stecoah, NC which is located on the southern border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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We will be living and working at the Ironhorse Motorcycle Lodge and Resort. We are located about 20 miles from the Tail of the Dragon, a section of U.S. 129 through Deals Gap that has 318 curves in 11 miles of roadway. The Dragon and several other routes such as the Cherohala Skyway and Moonshiner 28 make this area a mecca for bikers from around the world.

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We applied for this job way back in January and after a bit of negotiation on our start date were hired on for the season which lasts until November 1. Our benefits include a full hook-up site with free wifi and cable TV and free dinner on the nights we work. We will be making $10 per hour after our first 15 hours of work. Giving up 15 hours of work for our site hurts a little but should be partially offset by a lower grocery bill since we will be eating most of our dinners at work.

Our site is really nice with a wooden deck overlooking a pretty stretch of nice green grass. Our daily commute to work consisits of a walk of about 100 yards across the grounds to the main lodge.

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Ironhorse rents a variety of cabins, bunk rooms, tent and RV sites to the huge influx of motorcyclists to the area. They have great facilities here with a communal fire pit and patio overlooking the creek, a TV lounge with comfy chairs and sofas, meeting rooms for large groups, a pool table, covered bike parking and a gift shop.

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They also feature the Chuckwagon Grill, an onsite restaurant offering breakfast and dinner to Ironhorse guests. That’s where we come in. We will be working in the kitchen, cooking and serving dinners Wednesday through Sunday nights. The menu offers two entrees per night along with a choice of side dishes. It is mostly comfort food such as barbeque, burgers, chicken sandwiches, meatloaf or spaghetti and meatballs. Saturday night dinners feature their famous prime rib or baked salmon. Many guests say it is the best prime rib they have ever had.

We’ve worked three meals so far including prime rib night and we think it will be very manageable once we get used to it and learn the system and have experienced the various menus a few times. Chuck and Deb are the workamping couple who are training us. They have been full-timers for six years and have returned to Ironhorse for the past three years. They rave about John and Charlene, the owners, and the entire staff and say they have become part of the family and will continue to come back in the coming years. That’s a pretty good endorsement and a reassuring indication that this will be a good summer for us.

There will be plenty to keep us busy in our off time besides the miles and miles of awesome roads to explore on the Harley. There is a huge lake just to the north of us for kayaking, swimming and fishing. We can go whitewater rafting on the Nantahala River, along with lots of hiking and waterfalls in the National Park and Nantahala National Forest. There are many Appalachian cultural museums and even a few breweries to sample. The city of Asheville also has much to offer and is only an hour and a half away.

Virginia Update

We just finished up our two month stint volunteering back at the New Kent Forestry Center in Virginia (follow this link for our post from last year). It was very enjoyable working with most of the same crew from last year. Lee and Edie joined us again after spending a few weeks back home in North Carolina on their way back from Florida. Our supervisor, Jeff, was great to work for as usual. He makes it an easy, comfortable place to return to year after year. We always enjoy sitting around after work talking and listening to his stories. We also got to know his wife, Wendy, who is super sweet and friendly.

I spent most of my time on the zero-turn mower, keeping the grass around the main office and other buildings looking pretty.

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Lee concentrated on keeping the pine orchards mowed with the big tractor while Art does a lot of hand trimming, Round Up spraying and general clean up. Mary Ann and Edie did a lot of cleaning in the office and conference center and spent one day helping out with a big school group that came for a field trip on the nature trails.

We arrived just in time for the pines to release their pollen. It was an impressive sight! Somehow, an entire tree will release its pollen in one huge burst. You could see it exploding off of the branches in huge yellowish green clouds of pollen dust. It was almost like fireworks going off. The air had a haze to it for about two weeks as tree after tree released its pollen. Of course, living in the middle of thousands of pine trees meant that everything in sight was coated with a thick layer of pollen. It was everywhere and we would kick up a cloud of yellow dust just walking around the campground.

The highlight of our time in Virginia was spending time with our grandson, Duncan. 

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We went up two days a week to spend the day with him while Damon and Chelsea were at work. He was a lot of fun, always on the move and into something. He is very curious and enthralled by anything with buttons or dials. He also loves his great-grandfather’s Wheel Horse tractor that has been handed down to Chelsea and Damon. Duncan goes into a tantrum when we have to pull him off of it to do something else.

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He was just starting to talk when we got there and would learn new words almost daily. We took some field trips with him such as story time at the library or going to visit the farm animals at the park and the huge aquarium at Bass Pro Shop. He had more fun pulling all the gadgets off the racks and shelves than looking at the fish. We got to visit with Damon when he came home for lunch and would often stay to have dinner with Chelsea.

We got together with Chelsea, Damon and his family several times during our stay. We spent Easter Sunday with them and took a trip to see the birthplace of the great racehorse, Secretariat, on the weekend of the Kentucky Derby. 

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Meadow Farm in Caroline County, Virginia is no longer a functioning horse farm but several of the barns and the foaling shed where Secretariat was born have been preserved.

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Groundshaker, one of Secretariat’s great-grand daughters lives there and we got to spend some time with her.

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The tour guide told us a great inside story about Secretariat. It seems that during one of his training sessions he broke loose from his groom, bolted across the pasture, jumped the fence and across busy Route 30, right in front of an oncoming pick-up truck. Luckily, disaster was averted. He wasn’t hit and was quickly caught and returned to his stable. The interesting part was that this story somehow didn’t get back to his owner, Penny Chenery, until almost 40 years after it happened.

Of course it was a sad day when we had to say goodbye to everyone, especially Duncan, but if we were back in our old life we would never have had the extended, quality time with them that our workamping lifestyle affords us.

We were also in the right place at the right time for a surprise visit from our friends Keith and Jamie. They are living a similar lifestyle to ours except they live aboard a sail boat instead of a motorhome. They had just sailed into South Carolina from the Virgin Islands after spending several years cruising the Caribbean and Panama. They were driving up to New Jersey for a wedding and we were a convenient stop over for them along the way. They picked up some delicious BBQ for dinner on their way in and we had a fun night comparing adventures and plans for the future. They are spending the summer sailing out of Montauk, NY for a day charter outfit, sailingmontauk.com.

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Our two months really flew by but we were able to get some maintenance and projects done on The Breeze. We put in a new backsplash behind the stove, fiberglassed a cracked battery box, replaced a defective GFI plug and managed to give the roof and exterior a thorough cleaning.

We also had some fun times, of course, with a couple trips up to Richmond for hikes along the James River and a picnic in a nice park overlooking the city. We hit a winery with Lee and Edie and also had a great time with them at the Stone brewery in Richmond.

Our departure for North Carolina was delayed by a few days due to mechanical problems with the truck. We were due to leave on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and take our time getting to our next destination but when we stopped to gas up the truck on Thursday we noticed fluid leaking from a rear wheel. It turned out to be a bad rear axle seal. We managed to get it into the shop on Friday but  they weren’t able to finish it by closing time. They were closed for the rest of the long holiday weekend so the truck wasn’t ready until the following Tuesday morning.

It was an unexpected delay and expense but on the bright side we were able to spend another day with family while they were camping for the weekend at Westmoreland State Park.

We were still able to get to our next job on schedule but it was a no nonsense drive on the interstates and a quick overnight at a Walmart to get here by early afternoon on May 31.

Next up: Our new home and job for the next five months.

Micnic Farm Wrapup

Our final day of work at Micnic Farm in Hudson, FL came with some relief. We made it!

Five and half months of some of the hardest, back breaking work we have ever done. On top of that were the personality clashes, broken unreliable equipment, troubles getting tools and supplies and conflicting work priorities. We were getting direction from two or three different people and their requests often conflicted with what someone else had already asked us to do. As a result we were often jumping around from job to job without being able to finish anything. It was very frustrating.

In spite of it all, we are glad we took the job. Instead of paying $800-900 per month or more to be crammed into a campsite among hundreds of others we earned over $10,000 and camped for “free” on a beautiful piece of property practically by ourselves. The 200 acre farm was quiet and peaceful with nature all around us. We got to experience some incredible Florida wildlife that was all so new to us. There were so many new birds, plants, lizards, tortoises and even some interesting insects to learn about.

 Rock Lake provided some great fishing, I would routinely catch and release 4-5 nice largemouth bass while fishing from the kayak for an hour or two.

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We watched the fox squirrels prosper, feeding among the bounty of acorns under the massive oaks. Fox squirrels, also known as monkey squirrels, are much larger than gray squirrels and with their masked faces look like a cross between a squirrel and a raccoon.

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We unsuccessfully tried trapping coyotes by the lake and took some raccoons in the traps instead. Lee skinned them out to try his hand at tanning the hides and instead of wasting the meat we tried raccoon meat for the very first time. We cooked up a couple of stews from the rich, lean meat and enjoyed some tasty meals.

The sandhill cranes were with us all winter, keeping us entertained with their trumpeting calls and awkwardly graceful dancing. One pair nested down on the lakeshore and we waited anxiously for the baby cranes to hatch. Unfortunately, we left before they hatched though they were due anytime.

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We raised 35 new chicks from three day old babies to the point that they were ready to go out with the rest of the flock.

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A new experience for us, we incubated and hatched out another clutch of eggs from some Sebright bantam chickens. The chicks were ten days old when we left, doing well and growing bigger every day.

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The property was transformed while we were there. We turned acres of woods into beautiful park like landscapes. These areas started out as vine choked, overgrown jungles with downed trees and mangled limbs covering the ground. Our sweat and sore muscles at the end of every day proved our efforts. The beach down by the lake was the last area we tackled and it looked incredible.

A new horse barn was built while we were there and hundred of yards of fencing were built and painted by Hekrem and his crew. We smoothed and seeded and constantly watered the new paddocks in hopes of getting some nice pasture started in the sandy, dry soil.

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One of our more enjoyable projects was to spend a couple of days building a wedding arbor from limbs and vines we cut from the property. Hopefully, it will be used for the wedding of the owner’s son and his fiancé at the farm in early May.

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I think we learned a lot for future job prospects. We need to be more specific and get more complete job descriptions before signing on. Duties, hours expected and weekly work schedules should be described in detail. I think we also learned to try not to get caught up in the daily drama of the workplace. Just go in, do the best job possible and then go home. Trying to get along with everyone really helps and dealing with conflict is way to stressful. I think as time wore on at this job we let things just roll off our back more and more and it became much easier to deal with.

I think our efforts were appreciated though. On our last day of work we came home to find a nice travel cooler filled with fruit, cheese, chocolates and snacks waiting on our steps. There was a card with a nice personal note of thanks and a totally unexpected cash bonus. This recognition of our labor was very satisfying and we were glad to leave under good terms.

Would we return for another season at the farm? Probably not. At least not right away. If we were to return someday the heavy land clearing tasks would have to be eliminated. Animal care and property maintenance are one thing but being lumberjacks and heavy laborers are quite another. Besides, there are too many things to experience and new places to explore.

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Heading North

Thursday was our last day of work at the farm so we finished packing up and getting back into travel mode for our trip back to Virginia for another volunteer stint at the New Kent Forestry Center. We said our goodbyes and were on the road by 9:30. We made a stop at the Flying J truck stop to fill the propane tank and then headed north on I-75. We  were kind of in a hurry to get back to Richmond to see Duncan, Damon and Chelsea so were planning on making the 800 mile trip in 3 days, which is a pretty quick pace for us.

Lee and Edie left a bit before us and texted that they were sitting in bumper to bumper traffic just a few miles north. They were on their way to St. Augustine for a few days of relaxation on the beach. Instead of driving into the traffic we got off the interstate and hopped onto US 301. It loosely parallels the interstate up past Ocala and though slower, we’d at least be moving and enjoying better scenery along the way.

We took 301 all the way up to I-95 just south of the Georgia state line. It’s mostly a four lane divided highway except for where it passes through a few small towns. A couple of those towns, Waldo and Lawtey are infamous as being speed traps. AAA has huge billboards on 301 warning drivers about the situation. We always carefully drive the speed limit through that stretch of road and haven’t had any problems.

I got a call from Lee along the way, it turned out that there was a huge festival in St. Augustine and they couldn’t find a single open campsite in the area. We were planning on just making a quick stop at a Walmart for the night so we ended up meeting them at the Georgia Welcome Center before heading another 45 miles to the Walmart in Brunswick, Georgia.

A Walmart parking lot isn’t the most glamorous spot to spend the night but makes for a quick easy stop without having to take the time to check into a campground, park and hook up water and electric. We pick a Walmart with easy access to the interstate and just pull in and park without having to spend any time setting up camp for the night.

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We found a nice quiet corner where out back by the auto center and by the time we turned in for the night there were at least ten other rigs scattered throughout the parking lot.

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There was a security car that continuously cruised the parking lot and passed by us every five minutes or so. There were even a couple of benches out under the trees so we sat and chatted with Lee and Edie for a while after dinner.

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We had a nice view out our window of some tall pines to wake up to in the morning.

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There is a bit of etiquette among the RV community concerning overnight parking at Walmart or other businesses that welcome overnight stays. The point is to be as unobtrusive as possible so you are not supposed to use leveling jacks or put your slides or awning out. Pulling out the lounge chairs to catch some sun or setting up the BBQ grill to cook dinner are also frowned upon. It’s also recommended to always ask the manager or customer service desk for permission and it’s always nice to do a little shopping while you’re there. It’s all in the interest of encouraging these businesses to leave the welcome mat out for us.

It was great to sleep in a little the next morning without worrying about getting up for morning chores and work. We said goodbye to Lee and Edie once again as they headed up to see his parents in North Carolina.

Our plans for the day included a stop at a museum near Savannah, Georgia that we have been wanting to visit for awhile. The National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force sits right beside I-95 and we’ve passed by it several times but haven’t had time to stop. Mary Ann’s father served with the Eighth Air Force in WWII as a ball turret gunner on a B-17. It was extremely hazardous duty and he flew 35 missions over Europe. The main focus of the museum is the role the Eighth had in winning the war.

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We knew that Mary Ann’s dad was with the 34th Bomb Group, based in Mendlesham, England so it was cool to see banners and displays specific to his unit.

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The best part was a program that took us through a typical day in the life of a bomber crew. It was part video presentation with comments added by another excellent tour guide.

We sat in on morning briefing in a Quonset hut and saw how the ground crews prepped the bombers for the day’s mission.

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They were totally dedicated to their ships and would go so far as to steal parts off of other planes in order to keep their own in the best possible condition. Planes that returned too damaged for repair were also scavenged for parts to keep the rest flying.

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The final stage was a simulated mission featuring archival footage from actual bombing missions. It was an excellent presentation with the sounds and flashes of anti-aircraft flak, machine guns, enemy fighters, loud engines and blowing wind.

The guide finished with a very emotional explanation of the dedication and bravery of these crews where only one of the three planes returned safely from their mission early in the war. The conditions they fought under were horrendous, flying at 28,000 feet with open bays for the gunners. Temperatures at that altitude were 20-50 below zero and the planes were unpressurized so they had to fly with oxygen masks and electric suits for warmth. He emphasized how much we owe these brave crews and their sacrifice for the freedoms we enjoy to this day.

The main exhibit hall includes a vintage B-17, The City of Savannah, undergoing complete restoration.

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When finished it will be the only B-17 with all working systems including the gun turrets. We got an up close inspection of the ball turret where Mary Ann’s father flew his missions.

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We saw the controls he would have used to swivel the ball around to face the enemy fighters and the sights and triggers to fire his guns.

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The ball is a tiny space with two 50-caliber machine guns situated only inches from the gunners head. The noise had to be incredibly loud. It must have been a lonely feeling hanging all alone under the belly of the plane out of sight of the rest of the crew. We realized how very lucky we are and that Mary Ann is here only because he somehow made it home alive.

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The grounds of the museum include a memorial garden with lots of plaques from various units of the Eighth and a recreation of an English chapel with beautiful stained glass windows also memorializing the men of the Eighth Air Force.

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We spent over two hours at the museum before getting back on the road. The traffic was backed up by that time and we had an hour or so going about 35 mph. Traffic eventually thinned out and we made better time at our usual 60-62 mph. It was a pretty uneventful drive and we pulled off around 6 P.M. for another night at Walmart, this time in Dillon, S.C., one exit before South of the Border. This time we were the first RV to arrive but by dark we were joined by three others.

We slept in the next morning and didn’t get on the road until 9:30. We only had 4-5 hours more to go so we weren’t in much of a  hurry. We had another boring but easy drive up 95 and pulled into the New Kent Forestry Center a little after 2 P.M. We did a quick set up and headed off to Richmond to see Duncan at last!

Kayaking Silver Springs

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Lee and Edie, our co-workers, have been a wealth of info on fun things to do here in Florida. They have been wintering here for years and have visited amazing places throughout the state. We took them up on their suggestion to kayak the Silver River, starting at Silver Springs State Park just east of Ocala. Even though it was nearly a 2 hour drive to get there we are so glad we did.

Silver Springs is one of the largest natural springs in the world and was once Florida’s major tourist attraction, featuring its famous glass bottom boat tours of the springs and crystal clear river. Like many of Florida’s natural springs attractions it fell on hard times after the success of Disney World but was saved by the Florida State Park system.

We trucked the kayaks up to launch at the headwaters of the springs. We thought that a shuttle service was available at the park to give us a ride back after the five mile trip downstream but found out, after we arrived, that was not the case. We scrambled and luckily, found a private outfitter not connected with the park who could shuttle us back. The only catch was that we had to be at the takeout point by 2:45.

We managed to get on the river around 10:00 and were quickly amazed at the wildlife we were seeing. We started out on the Fort King Waterway which is a narrow creek off of the main river. It was the route used by the Jungle Cruise attraction open when Silver Springs was in its heyday.

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We immediately started seeing birds and turtles and quickly encountered our first alligator while in the kayaks.

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He sat there in the weeds looking like he was totally ignoring us. The birds were very tolerant of us and allowed us to sit and watch them close up without flying off.

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After a while, we joined up with the wider Silver River and continued downstream. The land on both sides of the river is protected so there is absolutely no development along the route.

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We saw more gators, birds and turtles and lots of fish easily visible in the crystal clear blue water. One gator was HUGE, I didn’t get close enough to him to get a decent picture. I drifted up on this smaller one and probably got just a bit closer than I should have. He looked like he was smiling so I figured he was friendly.

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A rustling of some large branches downstream alerted us to the star attractions of this trip, wild rhesus monkeys.

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The monkeys aren’t native to Florida but have thrived in the wilds since the 1930’s after being put on an island as an attraction for the Jungle Cruise. They promptly escaped and have been living on their own in the woods ever since. Apparently, no one was aware that rhesus monkeys are good swimmers.

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We passed several groups lounging in the trees close by the river. It was fun to watch the younger monkeys playing, eating and grooming each other while their elders sat by watching and resting.

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We continued to be amazed at the variety and number of birds we saw. There were herons, osprey, wood ducks, ibis, songbirds, cormorants and anhingas, hawks and one owl. We paddled along slowly so we could take it all in and soon found that our time for catching the shuttle ride was running out. We had about an hour left and were only slightly over halfway to the take out point.

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White Ibis

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Great Blue Herons

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Green Heron

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Cormorant

We had to decide whether to continue our pace and find another way back to the park or hurry it up to catch the shuttle. At the leisurely pace we were going it could easily have taken us another two hours to get there. Since it would have been over three miles to walk back to the truck we decided to pick up the pace. We did a steady paddle for the last two miles down river and with arms as limp as wet noodles, made a left turn up the canal to the boat ramp to see the waiting van.

We got a ride back to the parking lot and then took a walk around the touristy area of the park.

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It was interesting to see the deep hole and underwater caverns of the spring head, which is the water source for the entire river. The grounds were well groomed and peaceful with nice walking paths along the river bank.

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The glass bottom boats are still there but the crowds are nothing like it must have been when the attraction was at its peak in the 1960’s.

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We were very impressed with this kayaking trip and highly recommend it if you are ever in the area. We will get the chance to enjoy it again because we have already reserved a site at a nearby campground for part of next winter. It is located right on the adjoining Ocklawaha River, just past the take out ramp so we can paddle all the way down without having to worry about catching about a ride back. We can just drag the kayaks up the bank and be home.