Myakka River State Park: Great Florida Hiking!

Myakka River State Park

I bought a pair of discontinued COLUMBIA Women’s Culvert Mid Omni-Tech Hiking Trekking Boots for the upcoming hiking trip to Greece.  I had managed not to have to buy boots for decades as my feet hate boots. The guides for my upcoming hiking trip to Greece, though, were adamant on the need for ankle coverage as the hiking would be rocky and dusty.

With two-and one-half months to go, I need to get movin’ and get these boots broken in. So every week I will seek out a place within an hour or two of home to break in the boots. With this in mind, Hubby and I set out for Myakka State Park, a little over an hour drive, near Sarasota. We hiked three trails using the State Park trail map we got at the visitors information center, an old Civilian Conservation Corps building.

We had a really nice trip and expect to go back another day as we missed out on getting permits to hike into Deep Hole Lake. Most of the hikes in the park are short unless you hike out onto the backpacking or bicycle trails, but you should try all of them. Everyone needs to visit the Canopy Walk, near the river. It’s ultrashort, but provides different view of the park from above.

Next, we hiked out onto the Birdwalk boardwalk.  We came upon a female Florida Softshell Turtle, busily laying eggs.  She was huge, probably two feet in diameter. Mostly these turtles aren’t easy to see as they only come on land to lay eggs.

Next, we headed onto the Myakka River trail.  Backpackers and mountain bikers use this trail to reach primitive campgrounds throughout the park. Although, we had the book and a park trail map, we found the trail to be confusing as there were red, blue and unmarked trails.  But I did get my boot workout.  Though it’s February, it is already warming up and so the unshaded parts of this trail are already getting warm.

If you don’t want to hike, a boat tour and rental kayaks may interest you.  This is certainly worth another trip in the future. The boots may even be comfortable by then.

Myakka River State Park View

 

A Great Year for Astrophotography

Wow! As I sit here blurry eyed, I marvel at what a great year it has been for photographing the sky! And really…I can’t say how much this has forced me to extend my knowledge and perhaps even my skills as a photographer.

Flowers are filled with Color
Florida’s Colorful Flowers

Moving out of my comfort zone, essentially that of a flower/garden photographer, with a passion for macro photography, has been a challenge. Florida is just such a great place to appreciate all that color. It always seemed strange to me that there were people out peering at a black sky, usually in the cold, just hoping to catch a glimmer of a bit of space dust. And.. doesn’t this flower look like something from outer space?

 

But, the eclipse in April moved me into a whole different world, forced me to use a tripod and to learn an awful lot about using my Olympus 75-300mm telephoto lens. I also came to appreciate the available expertise there is on the topic.  Interested? First do what I did and find a local camera club.  The Florida Center for Creative Photography, ended up being a great resource for tons of advice.  Then of course there are the myriad of websites which provide advice to the astrophotographer. These include the biggies, such as NASA,  Space.com, and EarthSky.org,   But a Google search will generate a whole slew of professional and amateur photographers: many provide product reviews and detailed advice on settings and the like. All of these photos were taken with the camera set for manual photography.  Step-by-step information was definitely out there for this low-light photography.

This has been such a great year to just look up.  We have had a total solar eclipse,

a lunar eclipse (only partial in Florida, but full in the west) and three supermoons.

Boat and Supermoon
A Boat Watching the Eclipsing Supermoon

I can even say I learned a lot from my mistakes. I was able to watch the first of the supermoon rise, but in the absence of a critical piece of my tripod, I ended up with an orange blob. Well..at least I have the experience etched in my memory.

A bad picture
How Not to Take a Photo of the Supermoon

Really though, the sky has been the limit and this morning I was able to set up my tripod alongside like-minded folks on Clearwater Beach, set the Olympus OMD-EM5 to manual setting, set my ISO, and shoot the moon.

Supermoon over the beach
Supermoon Eclipse Over Clearwater Beach

Taking to the Open Road in an RV Rental (Part 1)

Winnebago Travato

As with many retirees, my husband and I have bounced around the idea of chucking the whole “life with walls” for a life on the road in an RV. We discarded this idea for a variety of reasons.  Mostly, I felt that a life on the road limited me to traveling the US and Canada.  rather than seeing the world. My husband concluded that a life on the road would actually end up being pretty expensive as costs for an acceptable RV and campsites have risen with the popularity of the lifestyle. But we still had this idea in the backs of our mind, even if as something to do in a few years.

As I was doing some research on another topic a month ago, though, I stumbled on a local source for renting a Class B Motorhome.  These are large, self-contained, camper vans that sleep two.

Thus far I have found RV rental to be expensive, but this is as much an educational as  recreational experience.  For us this will be a “shake down” expedition for the lifestyle and a way to assess the long-term costs. We are renting this from Lazydays RV, located north of Tampa, Florida (also available in Colorado and Arizona). The base price for a Class B rental is $225 per night, plus optional extra costs for sheets and kitchen equipment. This will include unlimited mileage and generator time. We will be renting for six days. I’m still working through the issue of whether or not our insurance will cover the rental. We did a lot of the reservation online, but I spoke with Becky, the rental rep.

The other option for renting a Class B is RV share.  This site includes individual owners who rent through a service, similar to Airbnb. The price seemed comparable, but the rentals came with more restrictions. The service provides for roadside assistance.

We are planning a circuit trip around to the Atlantic coast, Key West and through Central Florida.

Florida in January: A Great Place for Horsing Around

 

Opening the Lippizan Peformance

Central Florida  in winter is ideal for photographing horses in a variety of appealing settings. Not only will you enjoy our sunny days, but you will come away with some amazing shots. You can go to Tampa Bay Downs to see Kentucky Derby hopefuls; spend a day watching polo ponies at the Sarasota Polo Club at Lakewood Ranch;  marvel at the gorgeous Lipizzans practicing “Airs Above the Ground” at Hermann’s Farm. Other options include rodeos and fox hunts. Horse and rider make great photographic subjects as they appeal to a wide audience; these photos are portraits of the coordination and athleticism of horse and rider united to achieve a goal. To take full advantage of this opportunity, a telephoto lens would be ideal. Most of these photos are taken with an Olympus OMD-EM5  75-300mm lens.

Racing at Tampa Bay Downs
An Exciting Race at Tampa Bay Downs
Polo Players Ride Down the field
Polo at Lakewood Ranch

But in addition to the excitement of competition, there is an intimacy between horse and rider to capture as they work as a team. Most of the venues in the area have opportunities to capture these moments in stables or after events.  Below is a photo from one of the practice sessions at Herrmann’s Farm and a post-race photo from Tampa Bay Downs.

So enjoy our bright sunny days watching horse and rider work while you create some great photos.

Lipizzan Horse

This Year It’s All About the Shoes!

Appropriate Footwear for the Travels Ahead

If you haven’t already done so, it’s time to finalize those 20018 travel plans. My plans (details in future posts) thus far include a hiking trip with REI to the Greek Islands (thus the need for new hiking boots); a  trip to the Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks (gotta actually use the boots now); and a destination, to be determined, with a rented Class B motorhome. As usual we plan family visits to Chicago and the environs during the nicer weather.

The Chicago Loop

Chicago makes a nice hub for visits to midwestern destinations. Likely we will revisit the Chicago Jazz Fest

One of many concerts at the 2017 Chicago Jazz Fest

and the massive arts and craft fair in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Ann Arbor Art Festival

Wow! A great year awaits.

2018 New Years Resolutions for the Travel Photographer

Sunrise

On the first of the year I sort through my photos from the previous year.  I’ve had various goals in doing this. Last year I vowed to be better about using titles and folders to make my collected photos more manageable. This year I decided to use this annual chore to inform a New Years resolution’s list for travel photography.  The next blog posts will be more congratulatory, as I did find quite a few hidden gems worthy of travel stories.

Well the first thing that I discovered was that I took far too many photos.  I made over 16,000 photos in 2017. So my first resolution for 2018 is to 1. Take fewer photos.  It’s far easier to reflexively photograph everything and then look at photos later.  Maybe, though, if I spend more time thinking about, composing and considering significance, I could reduce a lot of the “photo bloat” and improve quality.

I  find it unfortunate that I have traveled to some amazing places where I have been able to take boring photos.  I evaluated my photos to try to: 2. Identify and correct weaknesses. For me the thing that popped out of my year-end review was the flatness of my landscapes.  It seemed that no matter which of my lenses I used, I didn’t capture the majesty of the landscape.  This year I had been to Panama and the Colorado Rockies.  But my photos didn’t “pop” for me.  I can do better!

There probably isn’t anyone out there who can benefit from: 3. Being more organized. I missed out on photographing the December supermoon  because I had misplaced the tripod plate for my camera.  I also hadn’t even looked at a lot of photos that I had taken.  I guess I was too busy taking 16,000 photos to take the time to review and classify photos.

I could also have saved myself a good deal of aggravation by  4. Being a better planner. In my posts on Panama, I mentioned how I ended up visiting Panama during the rainiest month because I hadn’t properly researched the weather or really even Panama until after I made my flight reservations. Though my travel plans for 2018 have already been solidified, again in a kind of random fashion, this year I will prioritize, research, and yes even pre write a draft of some of these blog entries;

Everyone needs to 5. Seek feedback. Social media used to be the way to go.  Sad to say that ship has Cruise Shipsailed as the entire world posts photos to Instagram and Facebook. I don’t have an answer for how not to get lost amongst the billions of photos being posted, but perhaps acknowledgement of success via payment or contests is the way to go.

6. Photos in the Moment,  I need a great camera phone. I already posted on the need for all of us to become expert phone photographers.

 

Exit

 

 

 

Happy Holidays: A Gallery of Favorite Florida Holiday Photos

Well this has been a lovely year to photograph holiday displays.  Here are a few of my favorite places: St. Augustine, Gulfport, Ft. Myers, and Tampa. We still have another week to visit more holiday displays.  May you, your camera, your family and your tripod enjoy another year of great photographs.

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Which Camera Phone Should I Buy (Part I)?

Taking a Photo With a Phone
Phone Cameras Are Everywhere

Many photographers look down on those folks  with their phones taking pictures. We chuckle as we are sure they won’t ever get high quality photos. But lately, for me at least, the value of a high quality camera phone has become obvious.  First, as I have become more active in social media, I have come to realize that my trusty Olympus isn’t my first choice for posting. Sites such as Instagram and Snapchat require mobile technology.  Posting to Facebook requires that I download to a computer from my camera and then post.  A phone provides  access to the photo, basic editing, and immediate posting for all of the various social media sites. Secondly,  phone cameras have improved remarkably in just a few years.  My husband takes some amazing photos with his phone, even under adverse conditions, such as low light.

My current phone works fine but  Microsoft has announced that it will no longer support Windows Phones.  Sad, since over the years, I saved hundreds of dollars by using Windows phones. But even if the Window phones weren’t dying, I would need to make a change. The camera on my phone is fine for “pictures of my morning run”,  shared with my Facebook Friends, but not so much for my more business-oriented Facebook page, Florida Traveler. And sometimes when you are out and about, all you have is a phone to record a great shot.

I did an initial Google search to check out the current reviews for camera phones.  PC Magazine has a  ten best rated cameras list.  Interestingly they  were all Verizon CDMA phones. My preference, though, is to go with an unlocked GSM phone (my current configuration).   My recent trip to Panama convinced me of the value of the flexibility of GSM.  My T-mobile service worked great all over Panama, with no tweaking or extra charges.  Since I have been an Apple User all of my computer life, an iPhone would be my preference as it will be compatible with my existing iPad and MacBook Pro.  However, a $999 iPhone X is well outside my budget. So, I will use the upcoming blog posts to scan the landscape and do a personal cost-benefit analysis of  camera phones to identify a replacement for my Windows Phone.

Stay tuned to see what I decide.

 

St. Augustine’s Magical Holiday Lights

St. Augustine Florida’s holiday lights celebration lasts the entire month of December with countless opportunities to see lights on foot or by any number of conveyances and tours.

We were warned about crowds, even on Sundays. In order to avoid some of the stress, we stayed at the Best Western Spanish Quarters Inn which is directly across from the National Park Visitors Center and the main Old Town trolley stop.  I highly recommend staying at a centrally located hotel or a Bed and Breakfast ( B&Bs, decked out for the holidays, have daytime tours).

Sunday through Thursday, crowds are less and you have your pick of lodgings; weekends are more expensive. Weekend lodging in Old Town sells out early.  Most tours run during the week, especially on Monday and daily, close to Christmas and New Years. so you won’t miss out.

Our visit in early December reminded us that Florida does have weather cold enough to justify funny winter hats, and hot chocolate, so be sure and bring winter clothing.

Winter in Florida courtesy of James Mellicant and his Lumia 950 XL phone

For the photographer, viewing lights on foot provides the best opportunity, but had we wanted to ride the trolley, tour by boat or ride a horse-drawn carriage, we could have done any combination of tours.

After 7:00 PM, on Sunday, at least, crowds and lines began to abate when families and day-trippers headed home making for less harried photographing

Though I used my tripod as recommended for low light, I don’t think it added much except the hassle of carting it around over a couple of miles.  The lights are quite bright and almost feels like daylight. Hand-held shots are more likely successful with a boosted ISO (I used 2400).   You might also want to photograph during the hours before and after sunset. Holiday Lights look great early in the evening when the sky is still blue. I used my 12-50mm lens for nearly all my photos simply because switching out lens wasn’t really convenient. Lenses are a matter of preference and there are no wrong choices.

Photo from Jim Mellicant’s 950 XL Phone

St. Augustine literally has miles of holiday lights. I could easily spend more than one night here.

Waterfront Lights
Waterfront Lights Are Most Spectacular

Spectacular Lights

 

Victorian Christmas Stroll at the Plant Museum

Henry Plant Museum

Tampa Bay is host to many lovely holiday displays. Tampa’s Henry B. Plant museum’s Annual Victorian Christmas Stroll takes advantage of this grand dame Tampa Hotel to transport visitors to a Victorian Christmas celebration.  This display is a great place to photograph as once you have photographed all the lovely trees and decorations inside, you can photograph the equally lovely hotel exterior.

I set aside the better part of an afternoon and early evening to photograph the interior and exterior shots.  The twinkling holiday lights and the blue hour opportunities are simply magnificent all year round, but extended holiday hours make for some great opportunities.

But there are some challenges here.  I arrived in late afternoon, knowing full well that the rooms are lit in a fashion similar to the late 19th century, in other words, dark.  I came prepared with a tripod.  Turns out the museum prohibits tripods.  Not surprisingly, flash photography is also not allowed.

“Edison lights” cast a lovely glow

Edison Lights
Edison Lights

but not necessarily for photography. About twelve rooms,  decorated in lovely Victorian detail, show off the lovely museum collection with lovely holiday ornaments.

I saw a few people photographing with phones. It seems unlikely that will work well.  I set my camera ISO  variously at 640 and 1200, I tried to find rooms with windows, to get a bit of  additional light. Despite that, I needed to do a lot of post processing…simple stuff really. I used the Apple software program Photo to lighten most of these photos and improved the black balance. I also reduced the noise.

If you are photographing during the holiday celebration, I think it is best to set your ISO at around 640 for most of the shots rather than at 1200, to control for noise. Christmas trees are inherently “noisy”, as it is.  I took all these with my  Olympus Zuiko 12-50mm 1:3.5-6.3 EZ Lens.

I think the best shots were those  taken up close, where noise was less of an issue.  These glass ornaments are all quite lovely:

Trees decorated all of the rooms. Each room had a theme. Some fun ones included Sherlock Holmes and Poinsettia.

My favorite, though was “Welcome to Florida”, where a tiny train travels around a tall tree, covered in oranges and Florida memorabilia. It is apropos for Henry Plant, who founded a railroad.

Feathers and a full-size nutcracker make for interesting  photos.

I took a break after a couple of hours of shooting and returned sans camera to enjoy walking around as the sun set outside.  Once back outside, after the sunset, I retrieved my tripod and set my ISO to 1600. The night view of the hotel is free and I never tire of photographing this grand dame of a building, no matter what the season.

Plant Museum at Night
The Plant Museum in all Its Glory

Panama’s Lake Gatun: Monkeys, Monkeys, Monkeys

Geoffroys Tamarin
Geoffroy’s Tamarin Eating a Grape

We Traveled on Lake Gatun after our walk along the Pipeline Road. The Lake has a touch of Disneyland to it, but it is well-worth the visit. People have likely been visiting the Lake because of the ease of seeing wildlife for hundreds of years, so the animals don’t seem to be bothered by us.  It didn’t hurt that the gentleman piloting our small boat came with a supply of grapes, something that seems legal in Panama. The Geoffroy’s Tamarin in the trees have been a look out:

Once it let the troop know, about a dozen or so of these small monkeys boarded our boat. In exchange for grapes, they pose for photos.

Waiting For a Grape

We also encountered more White-headed Capuchins, though they stayed up in the canopy.

The canopy around Lake Gatun also held quite the assortment of wildlife. Fabio, my EcoCircuitos guide, who accompanied me on the boat (the boat captain didn’t speak English) spotted these tiny bats (definitely taking to the limit of the capability of the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300mm lens here).

This next photo is interesting. I was going through my photos at the end of the trip and I couldn’t quite remember why I took it and nearly deleted it.

Before: Can you see anything?

As I looked at it a bit more closely, I started enlarging sections. Much to my surprise, I found this Green Iguana. These guys grow to six feet in Panama.  Unlike here in Florida they are Panamanian natives.

After: A Green Iguana

Given that I live in Florida, I tend to be selective in the birds I photograph. Egrets for example; well let’s just say an egret needs to be doing something pretty special to garner my attention. And, well some birds are just too fast for me (I do keep trying). This Broad-winged hawk, on the other hand, was neither too common nor too fast for me. It  just sat and stared at us, so I had to take this photo.

Broad-winged Hawk

We only spent about an hour on Lake Gatun before we headed out to the Panama Canal to take photos of a very different sort. It was well worth the visit.

Jungle Boat

 

 

Panama: Photographing the Pipeline Road

If you have been following my Panama blog posts, you know that I primarily visited Panama to see the Panama Canal and learn more about its history. But I did want to spend some time learning about the rainforest. I have worked with the travel planners at EcoCircuitos.  So when my educational trip to the Smithsonian Research Institute fell through,  EcoCircuitos instead organized my trip to the rainforest with my guide, Fabio. We hiked about a mile and a half, along the muddy, Soberania National Park Pipeline Trail, about a thirty minute drive from Panama City, near Gamboa. Because we stopped every few feet to photograph something, this was more of an amble, than a hike.

Almost immediately after we started our hike, Fabio spotted a troop of white-headed Capuchin monkeys up in the canopy. They weigh about eighteen ounces or thereabouts.

White-Headed Capuchin Monkey

Our next wildlife visitors were a couple of these Central American Agoutis. To me they look a tailless squirrel, but they weigh in at close to five pounds. They seemed to not even notice us.

Central American Agouti
Central American Agouti

Next up the ants. Central American leaf cutter ants build roads and cities. Some sources claim they have the second-most complex social structure on the planet, with royalty, casts, farms and gardens of beneficial fungus, slaves and armies.  They crossed the trail on their road and just kept on going across the trail and up a tree. The folks a Science Nation  have a great video and a description of the ant cities can be found at Elegant Entomology

We next caught sight of a mantled howler monkey troop.  I was fortunate to get this awesome photo before he made a point of exhibiting his underside for the rest of the time I watched.  He’s about two feet long and weighs in at about ten pounds.

Howler monkey
Mantled Howler Monkey

We saw quite a few lovely Blue Morpho butterflies, quite common in Panama, but they seemed in a hurry and refused to pose for a photo.  This little butterfly was far more accommodating.

butterfly

The canopy is lush and ripe with fruit during the rainy season so no need for a bird to drop down to eat and few plants flower in this shade.  I do love this little kissing lips plant, though.

Kissing Lipa
Kissing Lips
Consulting with the Ranger
Consulting with the National Park Ranger

We were only on this trail for a few hours, but it was time well-spent. In particular a guide familiar with the area and my trusty telephoto lens made this a most enjoyable photo expedition. November is the rainy season, so the canopy shades the rainforest and often the afternoons are cloudy and drizzly. The lush, green, canopy mutes the light, even on sunny days.  A telephoto lens is mandatory as so much activity takes place in this canopy. Needless to say, my lite-weight Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300mm F4.8-6.7 lens, extended out to its full 300mm, did a great job here. I can’t wait to go back during the dry season!

Historical Panama: Transported Through the Ages

Museum of Biodiversity

Panama’s history as a transportation cross-roads of the Americas intrigued me.  On this ultra short six day trip, I steeped myself in canal history in the morning and Panama’s Spanish history in the afternoon. I learned just enough about Panama’s history to plan for a future trip.  Start studying Panama’s history at the Museum of Biodiversity. The museum, housed in world-renowned architect Frank Gehry’s most colorful building provides a timeline of Panama’s history, beginning with the volcanic eruptions that created the isthmus.

Panama's History in 3D
Panama History in Three Dimensions

From the start species moved back and forth across the newly created isthmus. This land bridge changed our world. Don’t miss the multi-dimensional movie on Panama’s history.

Many species moved across the isthmus
Species Movement Across the Isthmus of Panama

Visiting the Spanish Ruins

I visited three different historical sites, all UNESCO World heritage sites. Unfortunately, drizzle and grey skies marred these visits. It was, after all, the rainy season! I’ll be back some day on a bright sunny day to get better photos and experience all of Panama’s past. I barely had enough time for the canal and Spain.

South American riches traveled from South America, north to the Caribbean town of Portobelo, across the Panama isthmus on the cobbled Camino Real, through the Pacific coastal town of Panama Viejo (Old Panama City) and finally traveled on to Spain by ship. Through the eighteenth century British pirate attacks disrupted these Spanish settlements, not infrequently burning then to the ground. Casco Viejo finally replaced Panama Viejo, during the 19th century because of its more defensible location and port.  Time brought independence from Spain, inclusion in Gran Columbia and irrelevance.   In the 1840s, however, gold prospectors transited the isthmus on that same Spanish Camino Real to reach the Pacific Ocean and California. American speculators built a small railroad to transport the prospectors. Finally the canal saga began, first by the French and then the US.

Panama Viejo

Panama Viejo is open limited hours. The day I visited (a holiday) both the visitor’s center and the park were closed. I was able to see tops of the extensive ruins, including churches and schools, over the fence and at the entrance, though.  Apparently, large parts of the town, along with many other historical buildings, was dismantled to build the Panama canal. (Leave it to us to dismantle old historic buildings!). The town literally sits at the edge of the Pacific Ocean and on the day I was there, the water was simply a mud flat. It seemed an odd place for a port

Puente del Matadero, Panama Viejo

Historic Casco Viejo

Historic Casco Viejo (Panama City), more centrally located near modern-day downtown Panama City, is a work in progress. Panamanians have restored many old buildings as restaurants, coffee shops and museums. After a long day of touristing it was great to find the Casa Sucre Coffee House, one such repurposed building.

Casa Sucre Coffee House

Many historic churches have remained in Panama;  however, other buildings are still simply shells that will need much work.  Contrast this yet to be restored building with the Iglesia San Francisco de Asis.

Unfinished building Iglesia San Francisco de Asis

One can imagine extensive restoration producing a town similar to Florida’s St. Augustine.

Portobelo

Christopher Columbus named Portobelo when he visited in 1502. Portobelo became a major Spanish trading center, holding three-month long annual trading fairs at the peak of Spanish influence from the mid-sixteenth to early nineteenth century. My ecoCiruitos guides, Fabio and Roberto transported me into the center of this small town built amongst the ruins of this highly fortified town. Dark clouds threatened and when it began to rain  we moved quickly…not necessarily the ideal circumstances for photographing ruins. The extensive ruins of forts and the village show evidence of  tropical humidity and age the ruins as they are covered in soot, but they are otherwise in reasonably good shape for building of such age.

Camino Real: The Terminus to the Road to Panama Viejo

This area, like the ruins in Panama City is somewhat of a work in progress. The lovely restored customs house awaits content. It certainly has the bones to become an historical museum. This little slide show below is a sample of two and a half centuries of Spanish rule in Portobelo, including the forts and the customs house. With the Smithsonian Research Institute nearby, it seems that they would have another opportunity to develop a lovely regional museum here in Portobelo.

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The other attraction here, Iglesia de San Felipe, houses the Black Christ. Portobelo celebrates the Black Christ statue at an October 21st festival. The church was the last building that the Spanish built before leaving Panama.  Many believe that the Black Christ cures illness.

A Visit to Panama: The Canal Four Ways

Panamax Ship

 

The Path Between the Seas

I think that it was the Lonely Planet guidebook that suggested that before visiting Panama visitors should finish David McCullough’s exhaustive book on the building of the Panama Canal: The Path Between the Seas.  Great advice and well worth the effort!  I downloaded the audio version and finally finished listening to all 35 hours of it somewhere near the end of my six-day trip. I now understand the great importance of this wonder of the world and the cost associated with its building. I was lucky enough to view the canal from three perspectives, the train, a partial transit, and a jungle boat.

 

The Panama Canal Railway

My guide, Fabio and our driver Roberto of,  EcoCircuitos, the guide company that had organized my tour, dropped me off on my first full day in Panama. (more about that in a different post). The first “mass transit”  across the Panama isthmus  was the train.  Once-a-day this brightly colored commuter train leaves Panama City, traveling alongside the canal, as the sun rises on the Pacific, its destination, Colon, on the Caribbean.  Mostly commuters use this train and tourists head for the  restored antique passenger car or small observation car at the front. I traveled with a bunch of high school-aged students on a  field trip and a few independent tourists like myself.  Most tourists leaving the train travel elsewhere in the area, since the train does not return until evening. Options included the guided tours to ruins at Fort San Lorenzo or Portobelo. Some return to Panama by bus.

Early Morning Views of the Canal

 

Transiting the Canal by Tour Boat

Panama Canal Tour Boat
Panama Canal Tour Boat passing the Museum of Biodiversity

A number of companies in Panama City provide the opportunity for full or partial transit of the canal. The EcoCircuitos folks arranged for my half-day partial transit on Panama Marine Adventures  Pacific Queen. Roberto, dropped me off at the Flemenco Island dock for my five-hour trip on the canal and through two of the three sets of  canal locks (Miraflores and Pedro Miguel). The tour boat, filled with folks from around the world, transited alongside another filled tour boat and behind the Miltiades II, a bulk carrier ship. The commentary was in both English and Spanish.

Miltiades ll

The photo opportunities here were outstanding. Last year the Panamanians completed locks capable of handling larger neo-Panamax ships and we did see one of those transiting the nearby larger lock.

Most folks gather outside at the front, but the views from the back are also outstanding as you watch the massive metal gates of the locks open and close.

Lunch and breakfast provide breaks for the non-stop photography and there was even a local band entertaining us on the trip.

 

Jungle Boat Ride

The "Jungle Boat"
The “Jungle Boat”

Finally, there was the “jungle boat”.  To be honest when this showed up on my proposed itinerary, I scoffed.  This sounded so… touristy.  Unfortunately, my first choice, visiting the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute was filled (I needed to make reservations months in advance!), so I went with this…not wanting to completely miss a trip into the rainforest.  This was actually a combined hike (more in a future post) through Soberania National Park and a boat ride from the Gamboa Rainforest Resort on the Chagres River and onto the canal.  I really enjoyed this canal view.  We entered the canal north of Pedro Miguel Lock and in the small boat we were able to get quite close to the massive ships transiting the canal. A great photo-op.  Take a look!

Panama: Planning (Part 2)

Orange and yellow hibiscus

I have for most of my travel years traveled independently. Pre-internet, I would use travel agencies to buy tickets, and the like. In recent times, though, I’ve had occasion to develop what I call hybrid travel plans, where I still travel independently, but I use local travel agents to organize parts f my trip.  I started doing this after a trip to Japan in which I discovered that in Japan travel agencies receive deep discounts, priority tickets, and finally they are a necessity to pay businesses that lack online payment systems and English-language websites. We also worked with an Alaskan company for a DIY trip that also included tours.

With this trip to Panama, my Frommer’s guide recommended hiring a guide if one isn’t renting a car. As it turned out, hiring a tour operator or joining a group during  the rainy/off-season isn’t necessarily simple, as many tourist-related activities shift into low gear. Many of my email requests went without response. I did finally find Ecocircuitos.

However, though they had a tour listed on their website that matched my interest, I was told that it would not be available as a group tour since not enough people had signed up. But, they would work with me to do a semi-private tour. After a day of emailing, we settled on an itinerary. This would include: 1) A partial transit of the Panama Canal; 2) Transcontinental train and a visit to Portobelo; and 3) A visit to Barro Colorado Natural Monument; 5) Five nights of lodging and transportation.  All for $1430.  (In Central and South America you are also charged 5% if you use a credit card which you will likely have to use).

Case closed, correct? Well not quite.  As I was busily transmitting my payment info, my agent emailed me that the Smithsonian would cancel the trip unless there were four people.  Arghh!!! Stay tuned!

Panama (Part 1: Planning)

Flowers

This month I’m off to my first visit to Panama, just in time, as it turns out, for the absolute worst of its rainy season!  I’m retired, thus pretty flexible in my travel availability, so  how did this happen? Well, I had some time in the Fall and I had hoped to visit South America (I have on my bucket list, visiting all the continents), but the more I looked at a trip to South America, the more I wanted to spend some time planning and prioritizing, so…

The trip to Panama morphed from a trip to Patagonia. In the interim I had also considered the Galapagos, a combination Galapagos-rainforest trip, Costa Rica, combined Panama and Costa Rica, and finally Panama. I found an incredible bargain trip to Panama but it had too many stops and too little time at the canal so I decided a DIY Panama trip was my trip (I couldn’t convince any of my relatives to come along, though).

I was able to make a booking.com reservation for five nights in a Panama City hotel cost for as much as one night in most other major cities of the world. This convinced me that I had chosen well.

Unfortunately, I failed to modify the time that I planned to travel:  November in Patagonia would have been a good idea;  In Panama, though,  it is apparently  the REALLY, REALLY, REALLY rainy season. Sad to say, a change in flight would have cost me $200 and Copa Airlines wouldn’t negotiate a change (I miss my Southwest). Well, I am  Floridian, so I think that I can deal with a little bit of rain (she said hopefully).

I initially tried researching the trip online, but beyond the hotel and flights, I have found the Internet time-consuming for researching  locality attractions. Google search generates Google and TripAdvisor reviews, and not much else.  So, as I have been doing for years, I bought a paper guidebook. After testing out the various options (researching a specific question), I chose Frommer’s Panama guidebook as my cheap travel assistant, and horror of horrors, bought it at an actual bricks and mortar bookstore (Yes, I know, very retro and reflective of my age).

Frommer wisely suggests that the DIY traveler not completely go it alone. So, with the list of local Panamanian tour operators from Frommer in hand,  I went back to the Internet with a better plan.  I looked at the various local tour operator websites.  Many have multi-day tours, but as I found out, most are only available during the peak tourist season as they have minimum number of participants. As always, traveling alone creates extra costs and issues. But I think that I finally found a tour operator through my various email inquiries that may provide me with what I need: a relatively  inexpensive custom tour. We’ve been working out an itinerary. In my next post, I’ll know better and can report on the rest of my plan.

Photographing the Eclipse in 2024: Lessons Learned From 2017

Eclipse

 

Well the 2017 eclipse has come and gone, so it’s time to prepare to photograph the 2024 eclipse. Wait, you say, you haven’t even gotten your 2017 prints developed. Trust me, this is a good time to review the experience and lessons many of  the 2017 eclipse.  Remember, folks were making reservations for hotels and rental equipment two years in advance for this last eclipse. Place some strategic reminders on your Google calendar for 2023 and consider incorporating some of our lessons in your plan. First lesson: Plan ahead! Second Lesson: Have contingency plans!

Eclipse Preparation

We did have a plan for 2017, albeit many things seemed to go wrong.  Here is what we did:  About six month in advance we examined our map and chose a Holiday Inn close to the totality in South Carolina where we could watch. We arranged to rent a Tamron 150-600 mm lens for my daughter’s Nikon D5100 and planned to use my Olympus OMD EM5’s 75-300 mm lens. We ordered solar filters for both my lens and my daughter’s rental lens. We ordered our eclipse viewing glasses from Amazon and a new, sturdy, tripod from Adorama.

What Can Go Wrong Will Go Wrong

That all sounded great, right? So… this is what really happened.

Sometime during late-July, a few weeks before the eclipse, Holiday Inn left us a voice mail to let us know that they had cancelled our reservation; the folks who rented us our lens emailed us to tell us that they did not have the lens we arranged to rent; Amazon emailed to tell us that our glasses were not approved for solar viewing; the solar filters we ordered weren’t the proper size (this one mostly our mistake) and finally the tripod was out of stock.

All’s Well That Ends Well

We pretty much redid everything at the last-minute. We ended up at a Quality Inn in Spartanburg, South Carolina, north of the totality. On the day of the eclipse we drove an hour to the Clemson Campus to do our viewing ($90 donation to the scholarship fund). We ended up with a different  a 200-400 mm, Nikon lens for the D5100 that cost us an extra $100 to rent. (As it turned out, we only used the Nikon during the totality as filters for this rental lens sit in slots in the center of the lens. Had we done this we could have damaged the lens mechanism, left unfiltered during the partial eclipse phase). We bought a different colored tripod and found certified glasses at the 7-Eleven convenience store.

Some of the things that we did actually do right included 1) attendance at a class on eclipse photography that our camera club Florida Center for Creative Photography, held the month before the eclipse; 2) identification of the exact seconds for the totality for our location (found on the internet); and 3) practice taking photos.

In the end it all worked out. So here are some of my best shots from the OMD.  I did minimal editing, mostly just some cropping. The “people pictures” are from my daughter, Emily.

 

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Lessons Learned

  1. If you have never photographed an eclipse, consider taking a class. Try to do this as far in advance so that you can make any needed purchases.
  2. Know your camera: It is necessary to use the manual setting for this…something that I finally learned to do before the eclipse. I also learned a lot about my menus.
  3. Practice…a lot. The eclipse is not a static event so you should be comfortable repositioning the camera.
  4. Have your planned settings and timing on some type of portable media, such as paper or a tablet. You will need to change these throughout the eclipse. This is especially helpful during the totality period.
  5. Check your camera settings often. I know someone who inadvertently changed his ISO: lots of ruined photos
  6. Make as many arrangements online as far in advance as possible
  7. Follow up these logistical arrangements by phone, if possible. Online ordering and reservations may be problematic for such a huge event. There were questions that I should have asked about lenses and filters.
  8. Prepare for large crowds and traffic.
  9. April will more likely be a time of cool and changeable weather, rather than hot as it was for 2017. Plan your location well. Check out the weather history on one of the weather websites.

More about the next eclipse at space.com.

St. Leo’s Benedictine Abbey

 

San Antonio, Florida, in Pasco County, has many photo opportunities:  The San Antonio Pottery,  lovely places to hike, and the St. Leo Benedictine Abbey,  justify a trip to this tiny town north of Tampa.  Often in passing through town to do the other two, I had seen a sign on the campus of St. Leo’s University for the Abbey.  Last week after a quick visit to SaintLeoAbbey.org, I set out with my trusty Olympus OM-D, EM5, to take some photos.

On arrival, sandhill cranes congregated in the parking lot and made me feel welcome as did the welcome center.

Gathering in Greeting in the St. Leo’s Benedictine Abbey Parking Lot

I’ve always wondered about San Antonio as It seems fairly isolated. The 1880s, though, things were hopping.  The South Florida Railroad passed through nearby Dade City and the Orange Belt Railroad stopped in San Antonio on its way to St. Petersburg.

In 1889, Benedictine monks established a monastery and Catholic high school and founded the town of St. Leo (later incorporated into San Antonio). The monastery became an Abbey in 1902. The Benedictines constructed the first concrete block building in Pasco County, St. Leo Hall, begun in 1906, completed in 1911 and still standing.

St. Leo’s Hall

The construction of the Abbey church began in 1931 and the church was finally consecrated in 1948.  The  Abbey website has more detail on the history and construction. I love the part of the story where the monks barter oranges for church furniture and building material with another group of monks in Indiana. Great stuff!

The lovely abbey, typical of many important pre second world war buildings, is in the Florida Mediterranean style. I have more description of this architectural style in a couple of my posts: Wakulla Springs and Bay Pines VA.

 

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The intensely hot, bright July day proved attractive to multiple butterfly species.  It gave my telephoto lens quite the workout.

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I hope to go back on a day where I can photograph the lovely stained glass windows (the light was just too much) and the grotto on the grounds. Stay tuned for Part 2!

 

 

Two “New” Small Chicago Musems

Well a museum that has already been open for nine years isn’t exactly a new museum, but for a native anything that I didn’t visit on a YMCA field trip as a child, I classify as new.  I left Chicago for other parts during the 1980’s but have visited pretty much every year since.  Of course, visits with children tend to usually include lots of family events and visits to those tried and true museums I visited as a child.  But life moves on and since the kids are grown, we decided that the time has come for new explorations.

Unlike the lucky folks who live north, when we South Siders visit the central city it always requires planning.  Driving has never been an option. Even less so now that every Chicago parking spot requires an investment. Traveling downtown by public transportation usually means caging a ride from a willing family member or a long, tedious bus ride.

Riding the El in Chicago
Riding the El in Chicago

On this last visit when the weather was looking good, we caught a ride to the Orange Line and set out for the north loop. The Driehaus museum and the  recently opened American Writers Museum  are less than a mile apart and  we thought would be a great way to spend a day in the city.

We started at the Writers museum.  The lobby is lovely (despite snide comments in many reviews), with nifty elevator doors and a great looking guard desk. Ordinary, perhaps, when built, but now unique.

Museum Lobby

The American Writers Museum requires a slow ambling view, or you may miss the point here.

As with many small museums, one needs to look up, down and all around to truly appreciate the setting, as designers must work within a small space.  The museum entry has a ceiling covered in books and all walls display important info.

Museum Entrance
Look up at the Entry Canopy

The main hallway has authors in a chronologically ordered timeline.  Walk too quickly and you will miss moving the informational blocks to study different aspects of the writers. Clearly many of the authors will be known. I found it to be great, that I had somehow missed knowing about a few of these authors.  Flip the blocks and find out more or take a photo for future research. Each author has an in-depth discussion of why they were significant. I just started reading a book by Francis Parkman, one of America’s first travel writers.

Check out the word waterfall!  This, on the surface, looks to be simple phrases lighting up. A look through the camera lens reveals a 3D multimedia sculpture.

Book Scroll
Jack Kerouac’s Scroll of On the Road

A special exhibition of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road included the original scroll. I’m a fan, but I did not realize that one of my favorite books was written in this fashion.  Very cool!

After a lunch at Protein and Kitchen Bar, a favorite, we set out for our next museum

A pleasant walk across the now sparking Chicago River (a shock to those of us with long memories) lies the Driehaus Museum.  This museum, housed in the former Gilded Age home of banker Samuel Mayo Nickerson had spent most of the twentieth century as headquarters for the American College of Surgeons. Philanthropist Richard H. Driehaus purchased the building in 2003. After a five years restoration,  the building now appears as it did in the 1800s.

Dramatic Entrance to the Driehaus Museum

The building houses surviving furnishings paired with elegant, historically appropriate pieces from the Driehaus Foundation  Collection of Fine and Decorative Arts. The first floor houses the collection and the second floor a rotating gallery.

Poster
Posters at a Special Exhibition

On this visit the gallery exhibition, an Art-Deco poster collection, featured five different artists.  The guides in the museum were incredibly helpful, offering many additional insights.

They have an amazing collection at the museum as the tradition of the time amongst the wealthy was to employ as many different crafts people to decorate and buy as many things as they could afford in order to impress their peers.  These buildings would have been completely packed with paintings and other artwork.

We certainly enjoyed our visit to these two “new” museums and look forward to finding more of these small gems.

I took these photos with an Olympus Tough as I was traveling light this trip.

Tiffany Lamp
The museum Houses an Impressive Tiffany Collection

Rainbow Springs State Park: An Antidote to the Florida Heat

Rainbow River

According to the Website floridasprings.org, “Rainbow Springs is Florida’s fourth largest spring and is designated a National Natural Landmark…The spring pool is about 250 feet wide and shallow, with especially clear blue water flowing over the beds of green aquatic plants and brilliant white limestone and sand…Seven vents contribute to the first-magnitude group near the spring bowl and are augmented by five more springs and hundreds of sand “boils” to create the Rainbow River. The river runs about 5.6 miles before joining the Withlacoochee River.

During the early twentieth-century the area was home to phosphate mines, parts of which can still be seen on park hiking trails.

Waterfalls built on old phosphate mining waste

The 1930s brought tourists and the spring became a theme park that included a zoo, gardens, rodeo, monorail, a swimming pavilion and artificial waterfalls built on old phosphate tailings.

Like many of Florida’s older tourist attractions, it couldn’t compete with the mega attractions in Orlando so closed in 1974. It reopened as Rainbow Springs State Park in the 1990s. after local volunteers supported the acquisition and restoration of the park.

Today pleasant  gardens and shady hikes invite a visit.  Butterflies and ancient trees abound.

Monarch enjoying a meal

 

Zebra: A common Florida Butterfly

 

Gulf Frittilary

The  Park provides a great place to escape the heat and swim in seventy-two-degree water in the head springs or kayak or tube down the river.We try to visit the park about once a year as this is the closest major spring to the Tampa Bay region. Florida springs are the perfect antidote to beat the Florida heat.  The gulf water and pools around our areas are all in the 90s.  The spring water though, ah a lovely seventy-two degrees!

Rainbow Springs State Park Swimming Area

The park tubing concessionaire, Nature Quest, rents tubes and provides tram service every twenty minutes up the river.  You grab your tube, float with the current, and two hours later you are pleasantly cool.  Tubing is available between April and the end of September (Before Memorial Day and after Labor Day rentals are limited to weekends)

Nature Quest Rents Tubes and Kayaks at the Park

We arrived around eleven: a reasonable time for a week-day but we probably would have been too late on the weekend as the park closes when the parking area fills. Early arrival is also advised because of frequent afternoon thunderstorms in the summer. For people, desirous of a quieter experience, I suggest a visit during the week or early or late in the season. Between the entry and two tubes, it cost us $45.  This includes the state park admission, tube rental and the tram ride north.

We floated two miles in about two hours. All manner of boats, tubes and kayaks take advantage of the cool water.  Given the crowds, we still saw quite a few birds, including anhingas, blue herons, and ibises. The water is clear, and feels just wonderful, as the air temperature was in the nineties.

A few important details: alcohol, coolers and disposable packaging (water bottles, food packaging and the like) are all prohibited on the river. The outfitter will keep your keys for a small fee. Additionally, even if you bring your own tube, you will still pay the $15 per person fee.

Perhaps the only drama occurred when I tried to pose for a photo at the end.  I did find out that the current near the end is strong enough to make it difficult to paddle the tube against the current.  Thus, into the water I went to paddle back to the ramp and off floated a sandal and hat.  Just a word to the wise.

An Unplanned Ending to a Great Tubing Trip (Photo Courtesy of Caity Mellicant)