May is when the memories of winter start to fade as plants start to grow and flower, the leaves of the trees become large enough to provide shade, and natures orchestra begins playing once again with the birds singing, frogs croaking, and the breeze moving through the trees. There are many things about this time of year that I truly enjoy. Flowers gracing us with their beauty and fragrance, the smell of freshly mowed grass, and the warmth provided by the sun. While these are great moments to enjoy one of the things I enjoy most about May is going on a darter hunt.
What’s a darter hunt you ask? Well it’s not really hunting as there are no guns or arrows. Instead a group of people are armed with the appreciation of nature and a few nets. A darter is a relatively small fish related to perch that are native to North America. Every May the Minnesota Aquarium Society plans a few trips near the Twin Cities in search of the different darter species that are native to this area. Along with members of the aquarium society they also invite members of the North American Native Fishes Association to participate of which I am a member.
Members of these two organizations get to take some of these darters along with other minnow species home to learn about and enjoy in aquariums. Some of these fish end up in school aquariums or even at the Minnesota Zoo allowing more people the opportunity to see native fish they probably never new existed. I do have an aquarium dedicated to native fish and will bring some home from these darter hunts but mostly I participate because I enjoy seeing what fish are in area lakes, rivers, and streams. A special permit is required by the MN Department of Natural Resources in order to keep these darters which the aquarium society obtains every year so this is the one time of year I can get this unique fish.
A darter hunt begins by donning waders or hip boots for those that do not want to get wet. The water is usually a little on the cold side but there are those that don’t mind getting wet so go without waders or hip boots. Once dressed for the water we grab a couple of nets and minnow buckets to put in our catch and head for the stream. Or lake. Or River. And don’t forget the cameras but the real trick is to keep them from getting wet. A couple of people go a short distance downstream and hold a net across a portion of the river or stream keeping the bottom secured to the stream bed and the top above water if possible while a few other people begin chasing fish into the net by shuffling feet across the stream bed. Once this group chasing the fish gets to the net they quickly reach down and grab the bottom of the net and pull this whole thing up above the water to see what was caught. If this is not done in unison with those holding the net the likely scenario is escape. Fish are quite adept at escaping and only require the chance to do so.
As the hunters begin combing through the debris caught in the net to reveal fish the look on their faces is almost always the same – amazement. Amazement at success of actually catching some fish, amazement at how colorful some of these fish are, and amazement that these fish actually live in these bodies of water. As soon as first timers actually see and hold some of these darters for the first time they are hooked and ready to spend an entire day searching for more. Sometimes they are ready to hunt for much more than a day. Watching someone’s reaction to this success may be the best part of a darter hunt. Although, the beautiful surrounding could also be the best part. I can’t really decide.
My first darter hunt took place a number of years ago now. I remember the hunt but I don’t remember which year it was. I was hooked on native fish and prefer to keep native fish above tropical fresh water fish and even saltwater fish. Mostly this is because very few people have or even know about these fish and knowing exactly where this fish was collected makes keeping them more memorable. There are many people who would like to collect tropical fish that they see and buy in fish stores but are unable to. Native fish allow a person to experience fish collecting without arranging a trip to some tropical place. This being written, I do still have a tropical fish aquarium and a saltwater aquarium.
Soon I came upon some cannons that had been put there from a shipwreck for people to explore. There were some fish swimming in and out of these objects. I was following one fish trying to get a nice photo of it when all of a sudden it took off. I didn’t move enough to cause it to disappear so what scared it. Immediately I looked behind me and saw what it was. A larger school of fish coming right at me. These fish were about 18 inches long or so and there were hundreds of them. At first I wasn’t sure if I should try and swim away quickly or if it was to late and they were going to hit me. After considering the situation for a few seconds I calmed down and just watched as I became a part of their school and they swam all around me. Above me, below, and on both sides. What an amazing experience something of which I have never been a part of before.
Once the school had vanished out of sight I quickly looked around for Karen who was snorkeling with me and could not find her. Popping my head above the surface I saw she was closer to shore and swam to talk to her. Excitedly I asked if she had seen the school of fish which see hadn’t however she did see one or two of them and wasn’t overly thrilled by it. She continued to explain that while she was watching a fish swim around a larger one came from behind and ate it. I realized at that point those fish had seeked us out because we were disturbing fish as we swam making them easier prey. I began to laugh at the circle of life and shared the experience of being engulfed in hundreds of fish. After a few minutes we continued swimming to see what else there may be to find and also search for a stingray if it was near.
There were some really interesting looking fish hiding out around the shipwreck pieces and around the ledge of the drop-off. I did build up the courage to go a little distance beyond this wall into the unknown but wasn’t really able to see much so returned to exploring shallower areas. After continuing on this little underwater adventure for awhile the school of fish returned and this time Karen also became part of the school. At first she was startled but then took it all in like I had the first time around. This time I was able to just enjoy the experience and take a few photographs. Once they had left Karen and I shared our experiences with each other for a few minutes and decided we have been shivering long enough that it was time to get out of the water and warm up.
While swimming back towards shore I was feeling extremely satisfied with the decision to enter the water in spite of the cold and potential disappointment of the area reserved for this. I also felt a little disappointed for those who were in the water before us and did not get to see the giant school of fish. We did mention it to another couple that had just entered the water in hopes they would get to experience becoming a part of a school if only for a few brief moments. We washed off and cleaned our gear allowing it to dry for a few minutes before walking saying good bye to the Florida Keys. In the end our decision to take to the water came down to one thing – would we regret it if we never tried to snorkel in this beautiful place? Without a doubt the answer would have been YES! Who knows if we will ever make it back to do it again and look at all the things we would have missed out on.
This park first came up while researching things to do in the Florida Keys a couple of years ago but we ran out of time so were never able to visit. There is a trail or two to hike and a visitors center to explore but John Pennekamp State Park is all about the water. One trail meandering through the mangroves needs some maintenance with broken and rotting boards and an entire section of the trail closed. Unfortunately the section that is closed includes an observation tower where you could look over the mangroves out towards the ocean reefs. Once your focus turns to the water though this park shines.
While exploring Pennekamp we kept trying to decide if we wanted to go snorkeling and if so where. The water in Dry Tortugas National Park was cold and that was further south indicating that the water in Key Largo must be even colder. Enjoying the reefs is something we rarely get to do so when the opportunity arrives we try to take advantage. There was still plenty of hesitation do to a couple of factors. First, the water was cold as people continued to remind us as they were coming out of it. Secondly, in order to snorkel the reefs you need to purchase a snorkeling or scuba tour and we had already spent what is a lot of money to do this already on this trip. So if we weren’t going to snorkel why did we go to Pennekamp State Park?
There was never really the intention to go snorkeling with a paid tour however through researching this place there were reports of designated snorkeling areas right from the shore. Our hope was find some of the colorful reefs near shore however after arriving we found that the designated swimming/snorkeling areas where sea grass beds which tend not to be as colorful thus reducing the motivation even further to enter the water. Back to trying to justify spending more money on a snorkeling tour. While exploring the park and discussing our options to spend our last afternoon in the keys we went into the visitor center. This is a nice building with several aquariums to display the ocean habitats around this part of Florida. Yes, the motivation to go snorkeling increased while looking at these reef aquariums but not yet enough to get our gear.
Walking around the visitor center and exploring the park on foot seeing the swimming areas and mangrove trail was a nice way to spend the day. Fortunately it was sunny and warm and we were content just enjoying the scenery and weather without getting our gear wet which would require us to wash and dry it so it could be packed for our flight home the next morning. After strolling around John Pennekamp for an hour or two we sat down on one of the beaches taking in the views and talking with a few people who had braved the cold water to snorkel. They mentioned seeing some fish but nothing really extraordinary and getting use to the water took some time. That about seals it, we’ll enjoy this place from the land for today.
And then we witnessed something I have never seen before…. Check out the next post for more on this story.
Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park is the first place in the United States to see the sun rise during the winter months. This is because this location is far enough east in Maine and high enough to see the sun rise before areas that are further east. People like to be the first to do many things or experience something for the first time. Here is a place that anyone can do something before anyone else in the United States – watch the sun pierce the horizon. Unfortunately we did not make it to Cadillac Mountain to witness the sun rising but we still enjoyed setting foot in the beautiful Mountain. Even if we had it was during the summer so the first place to see the sun rise would have been Mars Hill, Maine.
My first impression of Cadillac Mountain was looking at it on a map while looking for the highlights of Acadia National Park. It was puzzling how this could be considered a mountain at only 1530 feet above sea level. I’m use to mountains being several thousand feet above sea level. After getting there and learning more about this place, I now understand why it’s considered a mountain. First of all the steep ascent from sea level to the top suggests a mountain. Also, according to geologists, what is currently the top of Cadillac Mountain was the center of the volcano which helped to shape this area. Apparently the mountain use to be considerably taller until the glaciers moved through and cut it down giving us the scenery available today.
After watching the sunset in other areas of the park we headed back to the top of Cadillac Mountain to witness a beautiful star filled sky. Most impressive was seeing the Milky Way. I have not seen it in a number of years so it was nice to be reminded of its’ spectacular display. Also, fewer and fewer people are able to see the Milky Way so it was nice to show our children what it looks like. Unfortunately I need to work on my photography skills capturing stars so I don’t have a picture that shows the milky way in all its glory. I was able to get a nice photo of the big dipper.
The itinerary for the last part of our trip to New England was to drive from Bangor, Maine to Montpelier, Vermont. We just finished seeing the areas of Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island in Maine and decided it was time to move away from the coast as Hurricane Irene was expected to move in within the next 24 hours. The day was growing long with any remaining light fleeting. It was about an hours’ drive to Bangor where we decided to find a place to sleep and weather Irene. Forecasts called for the Hurricane to diminish by morning giving us hope that we could still travel. Before falling asleep the girls were a little nervous and scared of being in a hurricane as this was a new experience for all of us. I assured them that they would be alright because this hurricane was losing strength and we have been in storms with a lot of rain and wind before.
During the night we could hear the rain falling, heavily at times forcing the realization that this was it, Irene was here! I wondered on occasion if we would wake to find a lot of trees blown down or other storm related casualties. Once the morning light began entering our room we turned on the weather and began discussing what to do for the day. Hurricane Irene had been downgraded to a tropical storm with winds gusting to 65 miles per hour and periods of heavy rain. We have driven in these conditions before and what else was there to do if we stayed put? At the very least we wanted to get to a hotel that has a pool for the kids to swim in. Our decision was to head for Vermont. The drive time should be about 6 hours and then we could relax for the rest of the day in the hotel.
After breakfast we packed up and headed out. Driving was as expected with rainy conditions and the occasional compensation for wind gusts. There were occasional downpours which required traffic to slow down but all in all we made it to New Hampshire without any problems. After getting a ways into New Hampshire our first detour was encountered due to a tree which had fallen over power lines and onto the road. This was only a 10-15 minute delay in our overall trip and we were back on our way. This detour was actually quite a nice drive going onto gravel roads by a couple of small waterfalls and swerving for the occasional small tree in the road. It felt like we were going to a cabin on a lake -a very comfortable and serene feeling. Little did we know that this was going to be the easiest detour to take.
To Be Continued…