Saturday, October 21, 2017

Big Lagoon State Park - Florida (September 2017)

What are the odds? You have to reserve campsites in most Florida State Parks nearly a year in advance to get a decent spot. Its ironic that we selected an arrival date at Big Lagoon State Park that turned out to be a couple days after Hurricane Irma hit Florida. In case you don’t remember Hurricane Irma, it destroyed and flooded property from the Florida Keys to the Florida panhandle.

We called the park the day before we were scheduled to arrive to make sure it was open. We were told that Big Lagoon was one of only two Florida State Parks that were open and able to accept campers. What are the odds?

You could not miss the convoys of utility trucks heading into Florida as we pulled Rosie, our 25 foot Airstream trailer to the Pensacola area. It is always comforting to see people arriving to help after a disaster. Thousands and thousands of homes stretching from the Keys to north Florida were without power and an army of power trucks were moving in to help restore service. Pensacola may have been one of the few areas of Florida that was not feeling the impact of Hurricane Irma.

Rosie in Big Lagoon State Park

Our campsite in Big Lagoon State Park

We noticed that the park was nearly empty when we arrived. That was understandable since many people probably canceled their reservations due to the unpredictable path of the hurricane. Those camping in the park didn’t appear to us to be normal campers as few awnings were open and we didn’t see the usual trimmings found at most campsites. It didn’t take long to figure out that the park had several hurricane refugees who fled their homes with their RVs and were waiting to hear that they could return. 

For example, there was an Airstream family parked across from us. They told us they had fled from the Keys and were leaving the next morning to start the long drive home. They hoped their home stood up to the wind and waves. 

We were probably one of the few campers in the park paying the camping fees. The governor of Florida waived park fees for Florida residents escaping the storm. That helped explain why some campers in the park didn’t appear to be there on vacation. 

We tend to associate certain activities with the campgrounds we frequent. Big Lagoon is our “kayak” park. We enjoyed watching the birds along the shore as we paddled through the lagoons. We also found a baby alligator along the boardwalk connecting the campground to the lagoon.

The boardwalk in Big Lagoon State Park

A walking trail in Big Lagoon State Park

The Bay

Our youngest son and his family were able to visit us on Saturday. We drove over to Johnson Beach so that our eight-month old grandson could have his first beach experience. By the way, he wasn’t impressed with the Gulf but enjoyed eating ice cream that evening.

Our son, daughter-in-law and grandson visit Big Lagoon

Our grandson's first visit to the beach

Our grandson in Rosie

Our family in the park's observation tower
 Pensacola Naval Air Station is only a few miles from Big Lagoon State Park. We visited the Naval Museum of Naval Aviation and watch the Blue Angles perform.

We found an A3D on the tarmac (the type of jet Steve's brother worked on while he served in the U.S. Navy)

Becky found the "Blues"

That probably was the wrong button to push!
Suzy wasn't too impressed with the Blue Angles

Here are some specifics about this park:
  • There were three primary camping loops in this park. 
  • Our site had 50 and 20 amp electrical service. Some sites had only 30 amps. 
  • Our site had a water connection with 40 pounds of pressure. 
  • Our site did not have a sewer connection. 
  • There was one dump station located near the campground exit. 
  • Our site was dirt and required multiple leveling tools. 
  • Each loop had a bathhouse. The bathhouse in our loop was well maintained and clean. 
  • There wasn’t a breeze flowing through the bathhouse and that meant it was hot and stuffy. 
  • Another bathhouse issue was that the timer controlling the lights wasn’t properly set. Too many campers found the lights off inside while it was still dark outside. 
  • There was a camp store in the first camping loop. It was tiny, but had a good selection of items that weren’t “tourist “ priced. 
  • The camp store sent a delivery cart around the campground every evening with firewood and ice cream, which are campground necessities for many people. 
  • AT&T placed a strong 4G voice and data signal over the park. 
  • The park did not offer Wi-Fi, but Wi-Fi was available at the public library just outside the park. 
  • We were able to watch off-air TV signals from: ABC, CBS, CW, COZI, FOX, NBC and PBS. We also saw digital signals from Antenna, Get, Grit, Ion and ME-TV. 
We continue to learn things on our camping adventures. We had two take-always from this visit. 

First, always travel with a few truck/Rosie cleaning supplies. We drove through a colony of love bugs and that meant we needed to clean both vehicles as soon as we parked. 

Second, we need to pay attention to the season when we reserve a campsite. The park wasn’t full in part due to Hurricane Irma. The other reason was because other people knew better than to make reservations where it will be hot during September. A Ranger said that the campground usually fills in October when the weather turns cooler. I think the odds are good next year that we will head north or to the mountains. 

We lost power a couple of times during our stay and it wasn’t the park’s fault. A big motor home plowed over a water connection and a power box while attempting to park. The rangers disconnected power to our section of the park to make sure the destroyed power box was safe then switched the power off again while fixing the problem.

You can rent canoes in Big Lagoon State Park

Becky completed a plein air watercolor painting from the top of the observation tower

Enjoying the beach

Suzy plays with one of her toys

Big Lagoon State Park

Who is afraid of an alligator?

Boardwalk to the observation tower in Big Lagoon State Park

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Top of Georgia Airstream Park - Helen, Georgia (August 2017)

The last solar eclipse my wife and I saw was in 1970. At that time, we were several hundred miles apart and would not meet each other for another eight months.

My memory of that eclipse was that I was working at a radio station in Jacksonville, Florida. I went out to that station's transmitter site for the eclipse. As expected, the tower nighttime lights turned on, I could hear the sounds of the night critters and it was strangely dark that afternoon. A few minutes later, the sky started getting lighter, confused night critters went back into their daytime modes and the tower lights switched off.

My brother was at an outdoor wedding that day that was timed so that the pronouncement of "husband and wife" happened at the maximum point of darkness during the eclipse. I wondered if the peak of a solar eclipse was the optimum time to start a marriage. I guess other people see it as an exciting time to get married because I heard of some people planning their weddings around the eclipse this year.

Why am I talking about a solar eclipse? The answer is simple as we were about to see our second total solar eclipse. The difference this time is that we wouldl be together during the solar event.
The next question is why were we near Helen, Georgia? Our home was in the 90 percent range for the eclipse while Helen was in the 100 percent footprint. Besides, this was our first visit to an "Airstream" park. It simply sounded like fun to watch a total solar eclipse while camping in northeast Georgia.

The Top of Georgia Airstream Park

The Top of Georgia

We went outside Rosie, our 25 foot Airstream trailer, about an hour before the total eclipse. It was disappointing to see that the sun was hiding behind some clouds. You could hear a loud cheer about half-an-hour later as the sun broke through the clouds. It remained clearly visible throughout the eclipse.

Waiting for the eclipse

We purchased eclipse glasses from the planetarium in our home town. Those glasses were manufactured in Tennessee and met the safety requirements for looking at the sun. That was important because of the news stories about counterfeit glasses that were unsafe being sold by major retailers and online companies.

Suzy wears eclipse glasses

I'm not sure if eclipse glasses existed back in 1970. I know I didn't have a pair and I observed that eclipse by looking down at the shadows as I watched the day turn into night then back to day. It was very different having the eclipse glasses and being able to track the moon's progress as it blocked the sun's face.

Becky observing the eclipse by looking at the shadows on the ground

You could hear cheers from across the campground as the eclipse reached totality. It only lasted two minutes, but the experience was amazing and we were glad we decided to travel north to be in the 100 percent total solar eclipse footprint.

Approaching the total eclipse

Yes, it really was dark during the total eclipse

A Moon Pie is the perfect snack during an eclipse!

Checking on the progress of the eclipse

What about the Top of Georgia Airstream Park? We have been at rallies before when Airstreamers tend to dominate in the park. This is a park that caters to Airstreamers. They have a public address system with speakers throughout the park. We heard announcements of "watermelon time" a couple of afternoons. You would see people leave their Airstream campers and head to the park's clubhouse. As advertised, they were serving slices of cold and amazingly sweet watermelon.

There are big hills surrounding the park. We enjoyed hearing the sounds of the stream that ran through the middle of the park.

The stream running through the Top of Georgia Airstream Park

Here are some specifics about this park:
  • This park is owned and operated by the Georgia Unit of the Wally Byam Caravan Club International. WBCCI members receive a discount in this park.
  • When space is available, the park will allow campers with other RV brands to stay in the park.
  • There are two loops in this park. We picked a site in the lower loop.
  • Our site had 20 and 30 amp electrical service.
  • Our site had water and sewer connections.
  • Most of the sites in this park have level concrete pads.
  • AT&T did not place a signal over this park. No voice. No data. Nothing. Our neighbors using Verizon said they had a marginal voice signal.
  • The park provided decent WiFi service. Without cellular phone service, we had to rely on text messages to communicate with our family members.
  • The park provides TV cable connections with analog TV signals from Atlanta. A couple of basic-tier cable stations were included.
  • There are several covered pavilions in the park with porch swings. These appeared to be popular places to meet fellow campers in the park.
  • This is a pet friendly park.
The Top of Georgia Airstream Park is about seven miles north of Helen, Georgia. Becky's brother, who lives about an hour away, was able to visit us while camping there. We went into Helen and enjoyed lunch at a restaurant featuring German cuisine. Helen is a quaint little town that appears to be modeled after a German Alpine village.

Helen, Georgia

View of Helen, Georgia

Becky and her brother in Helen, Ga

Becky and her brother Dan outside Rosie

If you enjoy nature instead of a touristy town, there are several waterfalls and nice trails in the area. This park is located in a nice area to explore.

Close to Top of Georgia Airstream Park

Walking to the falls

The falls

We enjoyed our time at the "Top" and will return one day.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Big Oak Campground - Muncie, Indiana (July 2017)

Any way you look at it, it is a long, long way home from Escanaba. Google maps, our Garmin GPS and our truck's navigation system all recommended that we head south to go home. That meant driving through Chicago and we were hesitant about introducing Rosie, our 25 foot Airstream trailer, to late afternoon Chicago traffic.

The alternative was to head back across Michigan's Upper Peninsula, over the Mackinaw Bridge and through central Michigan. That added an hour and a half to the trip, but it avoided traveling 50 miles on two-lane roads and Chicago's roads, which both Google Maps and the app Waze were showing as very congested with multiple areas of stop-and-go traffic due to accidents.

Which way did we go? We felt that traffic problems around Chicago could easily add 90 minutes to that route. Besides, our navigation devices tend to be too optimistic about estimating travel times. We went with the path we knew and headed towards the Mackinaw Bridge.

A lighthouse seen as we drove across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan

Waiting to pay our toll to cross the Mackinaw Bridge

Starting to cross the Mackinaw Bridge

We figured that we could make it home after two long days or we could stretch it out to three more comfortable days. We opted for two exhausting days.

After more than 10 hours on the road, we were ready to stop for the night. Our All Stays app found the Big Oaks Campground near Muncie, Indiana. It was close to the Interstate and a quick phone call confirmed that they could put us in site 10 for the night. The park attendant asked the size of our rig and requested that we call 30 minutes before we arrived to make sure someone would be there to meet us.

Site 10 quickly became a running joke to us. We think that site 10 is one of the few sites the park has for campers passing through the area. The remainder of the park was full of seasonal and long-term residents.

Site 10 at the Big Oak Campground

The question about Rosie's length also became apparent when we arrived at the park. There is a 90 degree turn onto a small country road with no room for error heading into the campground. The ditches on either side of the road would be very unforgiving to larger trailers.

A park full of long-term residents usually is not a good sign for RVers. You always feel as if you are invading their habitat by parking there for the night. This park was different in that the long term residents seemed very willing to simply ignore the nightly campers.

The park's name seemed to be very appropriate in that there were several big oak trees throughout the park.

One of the oak trees in this park

Here are some specifics about this park:
  • Our site had 30 amp electrical service.
  • Our site had a water connection.
  • Our site had a sewer connection.
  • Our site was grass/gravel and surprisingly level.
  • There was a bathhouse at the rear of this park. It appeared to be sparingly used, but was clean.
  • There was a nice pond behind the bathhouse.
  • The campground was surrounded on three sides by soybean fields and by corn on the fourth side. It was nice camping in the middle of agricultural land.
  • AT&T placed a strong 4G signal for both voice and data over the park.
  • We were able to watch ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and PBS using Rosie's TV antenna. We also saw Antenna, Bounce, Comet, Escape, Grit, Me-TV and This digital channels.
You need to be careful when walking around this park. There are many feral cats living there who are also aggressive. Several ran towards me as I walked Suzy, our Yorkie, and tried to attack her. I had to quickly pick Suzy up and tried to scare the cats away. I took Suzy out for several other walks while we were there and she refused to walk in the direction of the cats.

Soy bean field next to the campground

More soy beans

The corn field

Monday, September 4, 2017

Escanaba Fairgrounds- Escanaba, Michigan (July 2017)

The Michigan Upper Peninsular State Fairgounds in Escanaba was the site for the Wally Byam Caravan Club's 60th International Rally. Rosie, our 25 foot trailer, was one of more than 600 Airstream trailers and motor homes at the Rally.

The Fairgrounds

Sign at the Upper Peninsula Fairgrounds in Escanaba

When you arrive at a WBCCI International Rally, the check-in crew asks you to follow a "parker" in a golf cart who leads you to your camping site. Our site ended up being next to the fairground's Antique Village.

What was the Antique Village? It was a representation of an early American community. It had a saw mill, a wood working shop, a glass blower and a general store along with several other interesting buildings. The building I enjoyed visiting was the railroad telegraph, which was the local amateur radio club's station.

Rosie's camping site

The Railroad Telegraph office and Ham Radio Station

Inside the Ham Radio station

The local Escanaba ham club provided the WBCCI Amateur Radio Club with access to their building and radios during the WBCCI International Rally. I ended up having less than 100 feet to walk to get to the telegraph office. That turned out to be very fortunate because the WBCCI Amateur Radio Club asked me to open up the telegraph office every morning and to check into the RV Service Net.
That task turned out to be fun as four or five hams usually joined me in the radio room. The local radio club's antennas and 75 foot tall tower made it easy to check in to the Eastern RV Service Net, sponsored by the WBCCI Amateur Radio Club.

Looking at several hams working on the antenna at the top of the tower

You always learn from fellow Airstreamers when you participate in a WBCCI event. The best tips we took away dealt with the maintenance of the awnings on Airstream trailers and propane gas safety. I learned that I need to be very generous with the silicone when I lubricate our awning supports and that there is a small relief valve on the propane tanks that may emit small, but detectable amounts of gas, that may be picked up during a safety check.

Here are some specifics about this park:
  • They were able to pack more than 600 trailers on the fairgrounds for the Rally. In order to reach that number, some trailers were creatively packed in where few would have imagined one could fit.
  • Our site had 30 amp electrical service. It was evident that the fairgrounds rarely had 600+ trailers because the voltage hovered around 110 and occasionally dropped lower.
  • Our site had a water connection.
  • Our site did not have a sewer connection, but the WBCCI provided two pump outs.
  • We had a grass site that was easy to correct for level.
  • Utility connections were shared between two trailers. That meant one trailer had to face north and the other south. It also meant that you were parked very close to your neighbor.
  • We were fortunate in that we were parked near the Antique Village. Some trailers were parked along the fence near the highway. That group could give you an accurate count of the number of trucks passing through Escanaba every night.
  • The fairgrounds had Wi-Fi near several buildings. The problem was that it was very slow and ineffective.
  • AT&T provided good 4G service for both voice and data over the park.
  • We were able to watch ABC, CBS and FOX using Rosie's TV antenna. We occasionally saw NBC and PBS signals.
A popular option at any WBCCI International Rally are the local excursions that you can sign up for. We had already seen most of these sites while on the WBCCI Upper Peninsula Caravan last year, so we opted out at this time. Instead, we enjoyed exploring the area on our own.

The lighthouse in Escanaba

Sunset over the Airstream trailers in Escanaba

An old fire boat from Chicago

A view of some Airstream trailers parked at the Escanaba International Rally

Downtown Escanaba

We see Bevo at the Pet Show

Suzy ready for the Pet Show

Suzy and Becky at the top of the Escanaba lighthouse

Steve had a similar radio when he was a teenager!