Tuesday, January 13, 2015


The J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge ( www.fws.gov/refuge/jn_ding_darling/ )is located on Sanibel Island, off the coast of the southwestern Florida panhandle.  It is a 5200 acre refuge established in 1976 to protect one of the country's largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystems in the U.S.    I had the opportunity to visit the refuge as a part of a Road Scholar ( www.roadscholar.org ) program held January 4 - 9, 2015. 
Because of the immensity of the refuge, Road Scholar had arranged for us to have a private tour by the official refuge concessionaire, Tarpon Bay Explorers ( www.tarponbayexplorers.com/ ) .
Our group of 28 folks from all over the United States boarded the open air shuttle shown in this photograph, to drive through the various private roads of the refuge, that allow you to get up close and personal with the wildlife.  Speaking of getting "up close and personal", if you are traveling alone on a Road Scholar program, you have the option of being assigned a roommate, or purchasing the higher priced "Single Room Supplement" option.  I chose to be assigned a roommate, and this cute lady (who I persuaded to turn around and look at the camera for this photo), was my roommate.  She was from north of New York City, and was an absolute delight to get to know.  At the end of the week, we both realized that getting to spend time with someone from a completely different region of the country, was about as educational as the tourist attractions and historic sites we visited!

One of the many enjoyable aspects of a Road Scholar trip is meeting very interesting people.  I was especially thankful to meet this couple from Tennessee, who demonstrated wonderful Southern friendliness to me.  It was especially nice to get to talk to them because their daughter has some of the same credentials after her name, as I do---M.S., R.D. (which stands for "Master of Science and Registered Dietitian"). 

As luck would have it, the seventy degree temperatures we had all week, took a nose dive on the day we were scheduled for the open-air trolley ride, so I was thankful I had lots of winter attire from my road trip, driving from Arkansas to southern Florida. 

refuge is famous for its bird population, and has the tagline, "America's Birding Hotspot".   One of the commonly seen birds in the refuge is the Great Egret.  The Refuge is part of the "Atlantic Flyway".  Flyways are routes that the birds fly (migrate) to get to their winter and summer homes.  There are four different flyways in the USA:  Atlantic, Mississippi, Central, and Pacific. 

National Wildlife Refuges are located along the flyways so birds can use them to rest and eat, while making their long journeys.  Refuges are important stopover sites for migrating birds.  Likewise, the refuges give visitors an opportunity to see wildlife that might otherwise be too remote for viewing.  Since nearly a million people visit refuges each year, it is important that visitors follow the rule of "Leave nothing, but footprints; take nothing, but pictures."

This elevated viewing tower is just one of many "photo blind" locations where dedicated wildlife photographers and birdwatchers can set up their tripods, to get some prize-winning wildlife photos.

When you look at the gigantic size of the lenses on this couple's cameras, it is a pretty good clue that these are some SERIOUS photographers!

Our guide told us that the mud flats visible in this photo are usually covered in water, and full of birds.  However, on the day we were there, the recent dry weather and the strong winds, were causing all the birds to huddle on the far  side of the viewing platform out of the path of the wind  ( the small white dots  that you can see in the distance in this photo, are the birds).

Just about four feet from the pavement where our trolley was driving, this very long alligator was out "soaking up some rays", as they say in Florida.  We were cautioned NOT to feed alligators because it causes them to lose their fear of humans.  This may cause them to approach humans, thinking the human will feed them.  In fact, we were told there had been two human  fatalities on the island recently, because of attacks by alligators. 

Once back at the Refuge Visitor Center, many of the folks enjoyed shopping at their gift shop that was stocked with all kinds of Florida souvenirs, as well as items related to wildlife. 

This antique sign was part of the Visitor Center Museum exhibits, and provided the perfect visual aid for one of my First Place 4 Health ( www.FirstPlace4Health.com ) memory verses that says, "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble."  Psalm 46:1 . 

The museum provided an "arts and crafts" area, where visitors could make rubbings with crayons and paper, of various types of wildlife found in the refuge.  I made some of the rubbings, got the Information Desk Volunteer to stamp it with the official , dated Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge stamp, and "Voila", I had a (FREE!) souvenir of my visit!

For those that prefer to do their wildlife viewing from the comfort of the indoors, there is an area overlooking the refuge that has large windows, binoculars, and explanatory kiosks available to tell you the names of what you are seeing.  

I did not realize until I made this visit to Sanibel Island, that J.N. "Ding" Darling, played a significant role in the development of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  He is credited with initiating the Federal Duck Stamp program, and designed the first stamp.  He was instrumental in securing funding for the National Wildlife Federation in 1936.   I am thankful for his realization of the need to protect habitat for the animal species that make their home here.

Education of our youth to the importance of the plant and animal kingdom on earth, is of prime importance to seeing that we do not lose species, due to hunting or habitat destruction.  That is why I was thankful to see numerous exhibits in the Visitor Center Museum that engaged youngsters to feel and touch things that might otherwise be "off limits" to little hands!  In addition, the Refuge sponsors numerous contests for students to foster their creative talents, while at the same time, raising their awareness of God's great outdoors.  We saw examples of photography contests, scenic artwork contests, as well as a contest that used "cartoon art" to get a conservation message across.

It is especially appropriate that the Refuge sponsor cartoon art contests, since J.N. "Ding" Darling was a cartoonist, who signed his work with the nickname "Ding".    His studio has been re-created as a part of the museum exhibits. He won two Pulitzer Prizes in the category of editorial cartoons. 

After learning that Ding Darling established the Duck Stamp to protect waterfowl, and that funds generated from the sales of the annual Duck Stamp issue go toward the purchase and operation of National Wildlife Refuges across the country, I have a much greater appreciation for the framed duck stamp wall hangings I often see in doctors' offices and people's homes.  I am thankful for the efforts of these Duck Stamp purchasers, and everyone, who made a visit to this refuge on Sanibel Island so enjoyable---it gave me "Miles of Smiles"!!  Tricia


The DeSoto National Memorial is located 5 miles west of Bradenton, Florida, and commemorates the 1539 landing of Hernando DeSoto on the Florida coast.  The DeSotoa expedition is considered to be the first extensive, organized exploration by Europeans, of what is now the southern United States. 

In 1539, Hernando DeSoto, along with an army of over 600 soldiers, arrived in 9 ships full of supplies---220 horses; herd of pigs; war dogs; cannon; matchlock muskets, armor, tools, and rations.  They were following orders of King Charles V of Spain, to sail to La Florida to "conquer, populate, and pacify" the land. 

The Memorial is operated by the National Park Service and has a visitor center, where folks can actually try on reproductions of the 70 pounds (or more) armor that the Conquistadors wore on their marches.  Do you recognize this modern-day conquistador, trying to take a "selfie" in the Visitor Center?

The mission statement of the Memorial says it exists to "preserve the controversial story of this exploration of America by the Spanish, and interpret its effect on American history".   The grounds of the park include nature trails, living history demonstrations, fishing areas, picnicking areas, bird watching, clean restrooms, and a fascinating Visitors Center/Bookstore.  There are many special events held throughout the year, and you can find out more by visiting www.nps.gov/deso/index.htm   .   There is no charge to visit the park.

There are numerous picnic tables and benches located throughout the park, that enable the visitor to sit and contemplate how this place must have looked when the early Spanish explorers first set eyes on it. 

Adjacent to the Visitors Center, an area called Camp Uzita depicts a 16th century encampment.  Between the months of December and April, there are daily demonstrations of various living history programs.  On the day I visited, a re-enactor was giving a demonstration of the various weapons used by the conquistadors.  This included the actual (VERY LOUD!) firing on a reproduction musket firearm of the era. 

The well-maintained nature trail winds along the peninsula where the Memorial is located, and goes alternatively through mangrove forests, open beach, and marshes. 

Several small beaches are located within the park, and provide access to the current of the Manatee River and the waves of Tampa Bay.  However, one beach called "Cove Beach" is more sheltered from the waves and current, and that is where I saw small pleasure boats taking advantage of the popular temporary anchorage that is allowed in that area. 

When the trail leads through marshy areas, or highly sensitive vegetative locations, board walks have been built that not only keep the visitors' feet dry, but also protect the natural habitat.

I enjoyed looking for shells as I strolled along this section of beach.  It was, in fact, a large pile of shells found in this area, that alerted archaeologists to the historical significance of this location.  The pile of shells---called a midden---were left by the Native Americans who originally inhabited this location.  They would use the organism inside the shell for food, then discard the empty shells into a pile.  Later, the discarded shells might be used to make tools, needed for the daily tasks of survival in this maritime environment. 

A large memorial is located near The Cove Beach that recognizes the significance of the 3 Jesuit friars that accompanied the DeSoto Expedition.  Catholic Spain of the 16th Century had a strong missionary zeal, because they had been engaged with struggles against the Muslims for the last four centuries.  Therefore, they were eager to convert those in the Americas to become Catholics, rather than Muslims. 

Seeing the large cross as I approached the Catholic Memorial, brought to mind the history I had read on the placards throughout the park, that spoke of all the insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties that those Jesuit friars ( and those they accompanied ) endured during their four-year expedition.  It was the perfect visual aid for my First Place 4 Health ( www.FirstPlace4Health.com ) memory verse that says, "For Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong."  2 Corinthians 12:10  .   As a native of Arkansas, I studied about Hernando DeSoto, in my required Arkansas History schoolroom classes, so I knew that DeSoto had explored in Arkansas, and that four years after arriving in Florida to start his expedition, he had died of "a fever"  in Arkansas, in a place now known as Ferriday, Arkansas.  However, this visit to the DeSoto National Memorial very much broadened my knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the DeSoto Expedition, and gave me "MILES OF SMILES"!  Tricia   
(Editor's Note:  I want to say a big THANK YOU to the ladies behind the front desk of Cedar Cove Resort (www.CedarCoveResort.com ) on Anna Maria Island,  for telling me about the DeSoto National Memorial.  When I mentioned to them that it was my first visit to this part of Florida, they suggested The DeSoto Memorial as a great place to visit---and they were right!  Sometime I would like to go back and spend more time at the lovely, seaside Cedar Cove location, but for now I will just have to use this photo I took from their beach, to take a "pretend vacation in my mind" when I yearn for the beaches of the Gulf!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014


The National Museum of Naval Aviation (1-800-327-5002)  is located in Pensacola, Florida, on the military base known as the Naval Air Station Pensacola.  Although there is no fee to visit the museum, all visitors must pass through the highly regulated gates of the base, and show their driver's license to the armed guards at the entrance. If your identification credentials are satisfactory, you will be given a Visitor's Pass to display on your car dashboard.

One reason I was interested in visiting the museum is because my husband had been in the U.S. Navy, as well as some of my male cousins.  I thought of them when I saw this bronze statue at the entrance, representing the "Sailor" genre.

Once inside the museum, you can tour it at your own pace, or join an organized (free) tour, led by a volunteer who is a Navy veteran.  I was thankful that I had enough time to do both!  By taking the group tour early in the day, you are able to return to parts of the museum that are of special interest to you. 

For those not prone to motion sickness ( and the money to pay for the extra fee ) , there are flight simulators.  This seemed to be popular with many visitors, but my tendency toward motion sickness ( as well as a healthy dose of frugality! ) made me decide to pass on this opportunity!

In the Blue Angels Atrium, there are four A-4 Skyhawks suspended from the ceiling.  To give you a size comparison, notice the human figures adjacent to the American flag in the center of the photo.  Depending on the time of year that you visit, you may also have an opportunity to see the Blue Angels fly their practice formations.

Several planes have been "chopped", to allow visitors to climb up into the cockpit, and get an idea of what it is like to be at the controls of one of these flying machines.  It is a great photo opportunity, and I found a friendly-looking person to snap a picture of me giving the "thumbs up" gesture for this blog.

As you can imagine, getting the opportunity to sit in a Blue Angels jet simulator is very popular with youngsters ---  who can then envision a career in naval aviation!

There is a special section in the museum devoted to the history of women in the U.S. Navy.  Large screens run continuous video loops of female navy pilots who have achieved the pinnacle of success in their careers.

The reason I knew about this special women's section of the Naval Museum is because I had the WONDERFUL opportunity of viewing a video of a delightful 90+ year old former Navy WAVES veteran, that was filmed in front of the museum exhibit that showed how the uniform of female Navy personnel has changed over the decades.  The best part was that I was sitting next to this lady in her living room, while viewing the video of her being interviewed!  The video talked about her time in Hawaii, and how she learned the traditional Hula dance of the islands, which she proceeded to teach me!  What an incredible experience! ( As a reminder, WAVES is an acronym for "Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service", as well as an illusion to ocean waves. It was started in 1942 during World War II, as an all-women division of the U.S. Navy. )

The person I have to thank for this most unique opportunity is the WAVES veteran's daughter, Pam, that I met at a recent Road Scholar ( www.roadscholar.org,  ) week in Georgia.  On the first night of the Georgia event, the Ice Breaker for us participants, was to each tell our name, and where we would take a fellow Road Scholar participant, if they came to our area for a visit.  Pam said her choice for visitors to Pensacola would be the Pensacola Naval Air Station.  Little did she know, I would take her up on her offer!  In this picture, Pam is holding a photo of her mom (taken in the 1940's) that shows the WAVES uniform of that period.

Another wonderful experience that Pam facilitated, was a seafood dinner of fresh Gulf shrimp, with her mom and brother.  It was so moving to join hands with this Catholic family, as they all recited out loud together, a Blessing over the meal we were about to eat.  I thought of the hundreds of times their mom had no doubt led that blessing, over the table full of children that she had raised.  It was a wonderful audio and visual aid for my First Place 4 Health ( www.FirstPlace4Health.com ) memory verse that says, "Give thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Ephesians 5:20).

(Note:  Pam had made a special trip to the famous landmark in Pensacola, known as the Joe Pattie Seafood Market  ( www.JoePattis.com ) to purchase those shrimp.  Hearing Pam's family tell stories about visiting the market---plus, a recommendation from my tour guide at the naval museum---made me seek out a visit to the famous landmark on my way out of town.  It was DEFINITELY worth the effort, and I had a great time there, observing the boats unloading the fresh catch, as well as seeing the efficient way they handled the hundreds of customers who come through their doors!  Did I mention, they also have free samples of some of their products!!??  )

Meanwhile, getting back to the subject of the Pensacola Naval Base, it should be noted that you can also visit their picturesque lighthouse.  Since I was there just two days after Christmas, they still had the Christmas lights strung from the top to make it even more festive for the holidays.

Once you have driven past the outside of the Naval Museum (shown in photo above) from the light house, you can drive in the opposite direction to visit Fort Barrancas.  It is one of several forts built by the U.S. Corps of Engineers in the 19th century along northwestern Florida's coastline.  A dry mosat surrounds the inner walls, and makes access to the fort possible only by way of a drawbridge.  Fort Barrancas is run by the U.S. Park Service, since it is a part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.  It is free to visit, and gives visitors time to stretch their legs and enjoy the Florida outdoors.  There is a Visitor's Center, with explanatory video, as well as a small gift shop and clean restrooms.

Can you tell I enjoyed my time in Pensacola??!!  If you would like to explore this scenic location, just  log onto  www.visitpensacola.com for additional ideas.  A trip here will give you "MILES OF SMILES"!!  Tricia


For years I have read about and seen television programs about how one can dive/snorkel with the manatees, in certain parts of Florida.  One of the cities most noted for this opportunity is Crystal River, Florida---located on the western side of the Florida panhandle.  As luck would have it, I found myself driving down Crystal River's "main drag" after dark, on December 30. 
Then I saw it!  A neon sign on the end of a large building, beckoning me to "SNORKEL WITH THE MANATEES".  I didn't really think they would be open, since it was 6:10 PM, but I decided to open the front door and find out.
Although they close at 6 PM, the door was still unlocked, and the clerks were behind the counter, in the process of closing up for the night.  A very nice and patient young man stopped his closing-down tasks to answer the one gillion questions about snorkeling with the manatees that I peppered him with.  They only had one spot left for a trip the next morning, and it would be departing before daybreak.  I paid my money, signed the paperwork, and proceeded to my hotel to check in and try to get a little sleep before my big adventure, scheduled for VERY EARLY on New Year's Eve!  I took this photo of the front on their store, before we departed (by a caravan of private cars) to our destination of Homosassa Springs.

I would like to say that I thoroughly researched the various outfitters that operate manatee trips, and after a thorough analysis, chose the American Pro Diving Center ( www.americanprodiving.com ).  However, that would be inaccurate.  I ended up on their boat for one reason only---they left the light on for me!  As a stranger driving through Crystal River after dark, their lighted sign was the only one I saw!  Fortunately for me, they provided an OUTSTANDING experience for me, and I would highly recommend them!

The American Pro Diving Center has a well-stocked store of all items needed for diving and snorkeling.  Plus, there is an indoor pool, where they teach scuba diving.

This is the patient young man that signed me up on the night before the trip, and he was in the shop early the next morning as well.  He is shown here getting the numerous thermos bottles ready, and filled with hot chocolate, for loading onto to each of their boats going out that day. 

The folks who will be snorkeling go into the shop's equipment room, to be fitted with their dive fins and wet suit.  They also provide the dive mask.  I had a copy of my eyeglass prescription with me, so they were able to fit me with a dive mask, with lens to correct my visual inadequacies.

Before we departed the dive center, we were all required to watch a video that told about the manatee, and the rules that swimmers/divers/snorkelers/boaters must follow, in order to not disturb, harass, or endanger them.  Manatee information if provided by the Florida Department of Fish and Wildlife, and is available at www.myfwc.com

It was just starting to get daylight as we finished loading the pontoon boat at Homosassa Springs.  The location we used is considered their "premium" tour because there are fewer people, fewer boats, and less boat traffic.  Plus it is a shallow location, making it easier to spot the manatees.  Our guide told us the manatees would look like giant brown potatoes, laying on the bottom.  One reason the tour leaves so early is because as the day wears on, the manatees leave their overnight site at Homosassa Springs, and head out into the Gulf waters during the day. 

This photo shows the youngest and oldest females on the trip.  I will let you guess which one is me! 

Our boat captain gave each of us a squirt of the special solution to put on our masks to keep them from fogging up when we got underwater.  Likewise, he reminded that it was THE LAW that we had to keep our snorkel tops above the water surface at all times.  Diving down to touch the manatee is forbidden.  However, he told us that IF the manatee approached us, it was okay to let them nudge us.  They are mostly herbivores (plant eaters), and do not have teeth that would cause injuries to humans. 

As we motored to our snorkeling location, the captain gave us some information about manatees.  They are marine mammals that grow up to 12 feet long, weigh as much as 1300 pounds, and have paddle-like flippers.  The word "manatee" is a reference to the mammary glands that are under the flippers of the female.  They are also sometimes called "sea cows" and dugongs.  Their closest living relative is an elephant, which is one reason their thick, wrinkled skin resembles that of an elephant. 

Since manatee spend about 50% of their day sleeping, one section of our snorkeling location was completely roped off, and swimmers were NOT to go beyond those markers.  That was the official "Manatee Sleep Zone"!  It would have been rude to wake them up early---especially on New Year's Eve!  However, the manatees have to surface for air about every 20 minutes, so pedestrian visitors who use the viewing dock shown in this photo, are likely to see them if they wait around long enough.  When the manatee are not sleeping or surfacing for air, they spend the rest of their time grazing in shallow waters of 3 - 6 feet.

When our boat arrived around daylight, there was only one other dive boat in the vicinity, so our captain was quite pleased!  The light boat traffic is probably one reason we were able to see about a dozen manatee during our swim.  I felt very fortunate, because on the previous day, the group had only seen two!  The "close encounter" I had with a manatee was magnificent!  As soon as I got into the water, I could tell the excitement had my heart beating really fast, so I just held onto the anchor line, to let myself get calmed down and get comfortable with my mask and snorkel.  After the silt cleared, I realized I was floating directly above one of the creatures---maybe just one foot above it!!  About the time I realized how close I was, it rolled over, looked directly into my eyes, and raised both flippers above its head at the same time---like it was giving that same gesture that I have with the photo at the end of my blog!  That is the Hebrew symbol for praise!  Believe me, I was praising God, right along with that manatee!

When we came out of the water, we were all quite cold, and told to get out of our wet suits as soon as possible, to keep from getting even more chilled.  The captain poured up hot chocolate to get the warm-up process started.  It really hit the spot!

The pontoon boat was equipped with clear vinyl sides, that we lowered for the trip back to the dock.  That helped keep us a little warmer.  Also, as you can see there are life jackets on the boat, so that anyone who wants to snorkel with the aid of a life jacket is able to do so. 

When we got back to the marina, the captain started a pot of fresh coffee for us, and proceeded to download the video he had taken of all of us swimming with the video.  He had told us in advance that he would come around to each of us when we were swimming to get a close up of us for the video, so it was fun watching not only the manatee, but also waiting for our "cameo appearance" in this SPECTACULAR New Year's Eve video!

Considering the low light conditions and the amount of silt stirred up by our movement, I thought the videographer did a good job!  The videos were available for purchase when we got back to the diving center in Crystal River.

Once we got back to the diving center, we turned in our gear, and looked around for a souvenir to remind us of our experience.  Seeing all these books about manatees brings to mind a trivia question for you:  "Are manatees mentioned in the Bible??"  The answer is "YES!"  In the Old Testament, there are detailed descriptions from the LORD, to Moses, about what the Israelites are to bring as an offering for the Tabernacle.  Exodus 25:5 says, "These are the offerings you are to receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and scarlet yarn and fine linen; goat hair; ram skins dyed red and hides of sea cows;..."  I am thankful that these magnificent mammals, known as "sea cows" or manatees,  were around in the ancient days, and are still here today!  Likewise, I am extremely thankful that I had this opportunity to see them up close and personal, as it gave me "MILES OF SMILES!"  Tricia