“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Whale Sharks and Jungle Trekking in Belize

OK, swimming with whale sharks was not the only reason we went to Belize.  We wanted to see the Yucatan jungle, visit some Mayan ruins, do some birding, explore caves and canoe a couple of rivers.  But the sharks were my primary goal.
So we loaded up and headed to the Yucatan peninsula to begin our quest.  We decided to combine time on the water with a trek through the Belizean jungle--a good decision.  We hooked up with Adventure Life, an outfitter we have used in the past for treks with great results, and flew into Belize City where we caught a ride to  Pook's Hill Lodge, deep in the western jungle near the capital city of Belmopan.

After a quick stop along the way at the Belize zoo, we arrived at Pook's Hill, our home for the next four days.  Nestled deep in the isolated hills and surrounded by lush jungle, it was a charming and restful home base for our week's excursions.  After setting in, we met the staff and Vicki, the gracious owner of Pook's Hill.  As it turned out, after the first night, we were the only guests for the duration and had the attention of the staff entirely to ourselves.
And grand attention it was!  Excellent food, knowledgeable guides and intact jungle trails at our beck and call.  Local guides took us on daily hikes in the morning and evening, searching our local flora and fauna.  I added 49 new birds species in our walks.  We also took advantage of local adventures including a visit to the ancient Mayan ruins of Xunantunich, a canoe trip on the Rio Macal, a visit to a butterfly farm, a hike (swim) into Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave, a canoe trip on Barton Creek and a stop at Blue Hole National Park.  Hard to say which one was our favorite but the ATM Cave trip was incredible--this is a wild cave tour, definitely not for the casual tourist.  Swimming and squeezing through narrow passages, all in darkness with only headlamps for light.  But the payoff is worth it, the cave is liberally littered with ancient artifacts, bowls, tools and human skeletons and skulls (it was a religious sacrificial site).
After our week of jungle adventures we moved onto the beaches of Placencia, a small and relatively undeveloped village on a peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico.  Robert's Lodge was our base for the remainder of the trip.  Located directly on the Gulf, it was a pleasant dream land for our whale shark trek. 
We loaded up for our trip out to Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve.  I had intended to scuba dive but after talking with Linda at Pook's Hill she convinced me that snorkeling would be just as productive.  I was glad I opted for snorkeling.  Our dive outfit (Seahorse Dive Shop in Placencia)  had snorkelers on one boat and divers on two others.   As it turned out, we (snorkelers) saw and swam with three whale sharks.  The two dive boats saw one and none respectively.  It was a wonderful experience, the thrill of a lifetime to swim with such magnificent creatures.  I will let the videos speak for themselves.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Adventures in Parasites (and Ants)

Like a lot of people, I liked The Revenant, and the grizzly attacking Leonardo DiCaprio was one of the most intense cinematic scenes ever.  After seeing the movie, people who know I travel a lot to wild places asked me if I’d ever had a dangerous wildlife encounter.  I’ve had sketchy encounters with wildlife so I tell them about stumbling on a black bear sow and her two cubs, a face-to-face encounter with a moray eel in a sunken wreck in the Bahamas,  skirting a caribou bull in Alaska and being charged by an angry bull elephant in the Serengeti.  I unknowingly parked directly under a leopard crouching on an overhanging acacia tree limb in Tanzania.  I’ve run across more snakes than I care to remember, found a scorpion under my sleeping bag in the Grand Canyon and tagged angry sharks in South Carolina
But my worst encounters were with nemeses smaller and much less menacing.
My most memorable experience (in many embarrassing ways) was caused by a microscopic critter called giardia lamblia.  Ran into this one on a canoe trip in Minnesota.  I picked up my little friend by drinking contaminated water in the northern backcountry.  My friendly giardia protozoa zeroed in on my gastrointestinal track where he immediately found things to his liking and proceeded to wreak havoc, his specialty being a nice little affliction called giardasis.    
 I don’t need to explain here the symptoms of contaminated protozoa in your small intestine, just suffice it to say that you don’t want to be on an airplane when those symptoms hit.  Which, of course, is precisely where I was.  Dominating an airline toilet when 150 other passengers are aboard does not make one a popular travel mate but I didn’t really care, I locked the door and spent the majority of the flight in rumbling seclusion.  Longest, most miserable flight of my life.  Followed by two more weeks of bathroom sprints and churning stomach aches before antibiotics finally kicked Mr. Giardia’s butt.  Lost five pounds and my dignity.

My Nemesis
The most painful encounter I had was with a one-inch insect.  I was hiking in the central cordillera of Costa Rica and my guide had just told me to watch for bullet ants—one-inch black ants with intimidating outsized pincers.  “They have a very painful bite,” our guide said and he barely had those words out of his mouth when I reached over a ledge and felt a searing pain in my middle finger.  I pulled my hand back and, yep, bullet ant with both pincers embedded.

Now you have probably been bitten by a fire ant and know the unpleasantness of that pain.  Trust me, you don’t know pain.  The Schmidt Insect Pain Scale Index (yes, there is such a thing), developed by Dr. Justin Schmidt, ranks insects based on the severity of pain of their bite or sting, 1.0 through 4.0, increasingly more painful.  Fire ants rank a lowly 1.0, bullets ants are alone at the top of the heap, the most painful of any insect on the planet, an excruciating 4.0+.  Schmidt further provides incisive, and rather humorous, descriptions of the various stings (a raving masochist apparently, he actually allowed himself to personally experience the bite or sting of each of the 150 ranked insects).  He describes a fire ant as “like walking on carpet and getting a static electricity shock.”  A bullet ant is described as “walking on hot charcoals with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.”
I was hurting—HURTING—for eight hours, the pain crawling up my hand, my arm, into my chest.  I thought I was having a heart attack. I broke out in sweat, I panted, I was nauseous, I almost threw up.  Searing pain surged through my hand and arm, a severe debilitating pain that lasted for more than four hours.  I wished I had encountered a lion or tiger or bear instead of an ant. Our guide led us into a nearby village where the local shaman offered a cure, which I declined after seeing the concoction he wanted me to drink.  I gained a new-found respect for bullet ants.

So there you go Leonardo, take your wimpy old grizzly attack, ants and parasites are what I fear.



Friday, September 9, 2016

Shark Tagging in South Carolina

I was fortunate to spend time with two biologists with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources capturing and tagging sharks.  Here is the full story from South Carolina Wildlife Magazine.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Florida Panhandle Wildlife Excursion to St Marks NWR, St George Island and St Vincent NWR

Took a spur-of-the-moment trip to the panhandle to visit some of our favorite wildlife areas.  I called this one my "pilgrimage to the saints" since we went to St. George Island, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge.  Our primary goal was to venture out to St. Vincent NWR (an unoccupied NWR that can only be reached via boat) to catch a glimpse of the endangered red wolves there.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service runs a breeding program there for the wolves, we hoped to see one of these rare canines in the wild.

 Ran into these three Canadians on one of the bayous. They are eight months into a kayak trek from Montreal to the Yucatan--with another eight months to go. Epic. Their trip blog is at defigofetch.com
Gorgeous sunset near St. Marks Lighthouse
First stop; St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, always a favorite and a sure things for seeing great numbers and varieties of birds. We were not disappointed on this trip, spotted great numbers of waterfowl.

Beautiful shot of a Vermilion Flycatcher courtesy of photographer George Lee.  He was flying around near a marshy area on the road into St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  Saw him three days in a row.
St. Marks has an abundant white-tailed deer populations.  These guys were as curious about us as we were about them.
Unfortunately, despite extensive trekking through the interior of St Vincent, we did not see any red wolves, but we did see plenty of wolf tracks--encouraging evidence of their presence on the island.
Plenty of gators out sunning on this late Spring day

...and not eager to get off the trails, had to gingerly tiptoe around them!

Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake, also not eager to move.

....but he finally crawled away.

Great egret posing

Unfortunately, never spied the endangered red wolves, but saw plenty of wolf tracks like these.  Looks like a return trip is needed!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Normandy and the D-Day Beaches

Omaha Beach today

I've always been a huge WW2 buff and always wanted to visit the D-Day beaches.  I have visited a number of other WW1 and WW2 battlefields and sites including Bastogne, Verdun, Okinawa, Berchtesgaden and a number of Allied cemeteries in Europe but Normandy and the beaches of D-Day have always been my Holy Grail.

So when we decided to make the trip we naturally chose to go during the first week of June to coincide with the annual anniversary celebrations.  I highly recommend going during that week, the commemorative events and activities that occur each year add to the flavor of the visit.

We started our adventure with a drive through the Normandy countryside and it isn't hard to imagine what Allied and German soldiers saw as they fought here.  It hasn't changed much; narrow country roads, century old houses, bocage along field and country lanes and stone walls give the area a distinctly mid-20th century feel.  It's easy to let your mind trick you into thinking it is 1944.

Stone churches and old houses that saw battles still stand tall.

One of many Calvados producers along the Route de Cidre 

Of course, no trip to Normandy would be complete without stopping for a taste of Calvados, apple brandy unique to the area.

Route de Cidre, the "Cider Route".  At least 20 Calvados producers on this road.

But enough of that, on to the D-Day beaches and battlefields, the real purpose of the trip.  Along the way we came upon this WW2 cemetery, unique in that Allied and German cemeteries sit side-by-side.
The German cemetery

German soldiers were buried two to a headstone. This one has the name of one, the other simply identified as "Ein Deutscher Soldat"--A German Soldier

The Allied cemetery.  French, British and American soldiers rest here.

After a brief stop we headed on to Omaha Beach, one of two American landing beaches and the one that saw the most action on D-Day.
There are still remnants of the battles.  These were originally placed on the beaches to prevent landing craft from beaching.

This house is just up the beach and survived heavy bombing and swirling battles.

The view from Omaha Beach to the bluff above.  The remains of a German bunker still stand guard. 

If you're a WW2 buff, the names of the towns are familiar.  Lot of action occurred here.

A battle scarred German emplacement.  Notice the damage from artillery hits.

There were reenactments and other events taking place during anniversary week.  We ran into reenactors and got to talk with them.

This man was French and was an avid reenactor. 

He has taken on the persona of a soldier from Alabama and inscribed info on his helmet chin strap.  He was excited when he learned I was from Alabama.  He is also a Civil War reenactor--go figure, a Frenchman!

There were numbers of WW2 era vehicles--Jeeps, motorcycles, trucks.
We ran into this gentleman and wife.  He was aboard the HMS Prince Albert on D-Day and landed troops on Juno Beach in the British sector.  He was 90 years ad was a 21-year old sailor on D-Day.

He showed us a picture of his ship, HMS Prince Albert

Also showed us a picture of he and his (then future) wife, circa 1944.  They had planned to get married before the war but when he joined the Royal Navy they postponed the wedding and were married after the war.

How often do you get to shake hands with a D-Day veteran?  What an honor!

On to Pointe du Hoc, where some of the fiercest fighting took place on D-Day.
Overlooking the beaches below Pointe du Hoc. Army Rangers had to scale these cliffs to take out a German battery.

Battle scarred but still standing after 70 years.  The Germans knew how to build batteries to withstand  bombardment.

Plaque honoring the Rangers

Standing in a crater to show its size.  Pointe du Hoc was the most heavily bombed site in Normandy.  Massive craters and destroyed bunkers litter the point.  Both American heavy bombers and Navy guns hit the Germans here but they still survived to put up a brutal fight against the Rangers.

More craters and damaged bunkers

Inside the German bunker.
As we walked among the ruins of Omaha Beach, a P-51 Mustang, British Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane flew over.  How fitting.

We walked Omaha Beach, up the draws where Americans fought to gain a foothold on France, and looked out over the waves and imagined hundreds of ships approaching the French mainland.  What a moving visit!
Then we moved on to Utah beach and the villages of the French countryside where so much fighting took place.  In Carentan we met Duncan Hollands, an ex-British soldier who served in the Scots Guards and is a WW2 expert,  Duncan is a font of knowledge on Normandy in WW2 and I highly recommend him.
Duncan Hollands (in center) giving us the history of D-Day at Utah Beach.
Utah beach monument

We ran into this gentleman, an American WW2 vet, at Utah Beach.  It is such a privilege to meet these men.
One of my favorite stops was at the village of Angoville-au-Plain.  In the church there American troops from the 101st Airborne division set up a field hospital and cared for wounded as the battle raged on in the surrounding countryside.  Eventually German wounded joined the crowded church.  sometime during the battle a mortar round came through the roof and struck the floor but failed to explode.  A miracle.  The pictures tell the tale:
Notice the hole in the cupola where the mortar round came through.

Shattered floor where the mortar round hit and failed to explode

Blood marks still visible on the church pew.
Our last stop was at the American cemetery at Colville sur Mer.  So many stories rest here.  Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who died of a heart attack during the battle rests here.

We continued touring through the French countryside, visiting Ste Mere d'Englise, Carentan, Bayeux, Deadman's Corner, Vierville and the French hedgerow country where Allied soldiers fought so hard.

If you are interested in WW2 history, this trip is a must-do.  Do yourself a favor and engage Duncan Hollands for your tour at  http://www.normandysightseeingservices.com/