2010 RUNNING & TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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  HANGIN' OUT AT HUNTSVILLE STATE PARK

TUESDAY, MARCH 23

 
"Natural Features: This park lies in the pineywoods of the Sam Houston National Forest, near the western edge of the Southern Pine Belt. These woodlands, dominated by loblolly and shortleaf pines typical of the East Texas Pine Belt, provide attractive camping and picnic areas and surround scenic Lake Raven, a 210-acre impoundment. Lake Raven, fed by three major creeks, offers fishing for crappie, perch, catfish, and bass.

Hiking trails have been constructed so that wildlife and birds can be observed in a natural setting. White-tailed deer, raccoon, opossum, armadillo, migratory waterfowl, and fox squirrel are just a few of the creatures that may be discovered in their natural environment. Occasionally, alligators may be observed in the lake."

~ from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Dept. web page for Huntsville State Park

  
 
In addition to being a wildlife haven, Huntsville State Park (HSP)  is a great place for human sunbirds and other outdoors lovers to hang out during the fall, winter, or spring when temperatures are more moderate than they are in many other parts of the country.

Just don't expect to see any alligators in the winter months! We haven't seen Alligator One in all the times we've been to this park in the winter since the late 1990s, when we first ran the Sunmart ultras. The rangers swear there are some 'gators in Lake Raven, though. I still just shake my head every time I see the warning signs:


Yeah, sure. The only 'gators we've seen at HSP are babies in a tank in the Nature Center!

We do see lots of deer, squirrels, raccoons, possums, songbirds, and waterfowl during the winter, however.

I always love to see the blue herons and white egrets at this park. There are certain spots near the campground and the inlet end of the lake where these large, beautiful birds tend to hang out. I didn't see very many of them this time (maybe it was too cold for them this winter?) but I could always count on seeing the same ones in the same spots from day to day.

White egrets are easy to spot with the naked eye. There is one in the highlighted square in the middle of the photo below that isn't so easy to see. I just wanted to give you some context to its location:

When I zoomed in on the egret with my camera, I was able to see a great blue heron that I didn't initially see. It's to the right of the egret in this close-up:

Another heron appeared to have a nest in the cove near our campsite. Almost every morning and evening (s) I'd see it when I took Cody for walks.

When the birds weren't in their usual places, I was disappointed.

MORE WILDLIFE ENCOUNTERS

On each visit to this park I see a few nine-banded armadillos when I'm out on the trails. I probably notice them more than Jim does because Cody's usually running/walking with me and his radar is out for anything that moves. Sometimes I spot them before he does.

Armadillos fascinate me. Despite their tough armored shell, their little faces and fuzzy ears are kinda cute. I usually see the tail end of armadillos as they scurry farther into the woods, out of my way. Or more likely, out of Cody's way! He's never chased one but his curiosity is piqued by these unusual creatures. It's a treat to get to see their faces.


Ranger-led talk about armadillos at Brazos Bend SP: see the nine bands?

One day in late February Cody and I chanced upon Bill H., our ultra running buddy, in the woods and we shared a few miles of very fast walking. So fast, I did a hard face plant when I tripped and fell because I was busy talking or listening (?) and not paying enough attention to the roots. I re-injured the ribs I cracked in my bike crash last summer, too. Ouch.

Anyway, while we were crossing the long wooden bridging at the inlet to Lake Raven, Cody spotted an armadillo just a couple feet away. It was rooting around in the moist dirt and leaves for grubs and other yummy things to eat. My pictures came out a little fuzzy because I was holding a powerful, straining dog on its leash with one hand and trying to hold the camera steady with my other hand:


Above: an armadillo in its usual "pose," rooting around for food


Up, periscope.

Some folks only see armadillos after they're road kill. They're a lot more interesting if you can see them alive in their natural environment, sort of a cross between a turtle in its shell and an anteater rooting in the soil for a meal (no, an armadillo can't retract into its shell).

WE'RE BAAAACK!

This is our third winter trip to the Southwest to escape the ravages of winter in Virginia.

That was a joke until our neighborhood got a total of four feet of snow this past winter!!! That's more than the total in the five previous winters since we moved there.

We stayed at Huntsville SP for thirty-two days in two segments during January and February. Bill H., an ultra running friend of ours who lives in his RV full time, hung out nearby for three or four months this winter, going into the park most days to run on the fabulous trails while he also avoided the more harsh winter farther north of us.

It was fun to have a friend around while we were there. Although we didn't run or hike as much with Bill as we did out in Silverton last summer, we really enjoyed spending time with him for several weeks again. He's one of the most stimulating conversationalists we know.


Bill and Jim discuss how to safely vent the box that holds the four 6-volt batteries
we use when we boondock. Jim's using a different configuration in the new Cameo.

Huntsville is one of six Texas state parks and natural areas in which we've camped during our current winter odyssey. I've already written about our visits to McKinney Falls SP this past December (we spent another two nights there in mid-January this year) and both Balmorhea SP and the Hill Country SNA in early January. That was the first time we'd stayed at any of those three parks.

I'll include information about two more state parks we visited in Texas for the first time this year, Lake Livingston and Brazos Bend, in some upcoming entries.


Huntsville SP has lots of tall pine trees, palmettos, bog boards, multi-use trails, and water features.

In this entry I'll focus on our most recent stay(s) at Huntsville SP. I've already written a bunch about this inviting park and have shown a lot of photos of the lake, trails, and ultra races we've run there in the February and December, 2008 and February, 2009 journals on this website; I'll try not to repeat myself too much here.

If you want more information about the history of Huntsville State Park and the activities you can do there, watch a three-minute video about the park, and/or look at trail and campground maps, check out the official Texas Parks & Wildlife Department website specific to HSP.

OH, DEER        

Huntsville is one of several Texas state parks that allow limited deer hunting on certain days in December and January in order to maintain sustainable levels of the critters. Hunting begins soon after the Tejas Trail Runs (formerly Sunmart ultras) in early December and ends in late January. For safety reasons, visitors may use the park on the weekends but not on weekdays when the hunts are being conducted; you can see by the location of a couple dozen permanent deer stands along the trails that hunters are all over the park on official hunt days.


One of many deer stands in the park

Because of the hunts, we had to wait until Friday, January 22 this year to get into the campground for more than just a weekend.

The longest you can make an initial reservation in most state parks in Texas is two weeks. Our reservation actually began on the next Monday (January 25 to February 7) in order to cover the weekend of the Rocky Raccoon ultras. But we've learned previously that most of the state parks will let campers stay longer if the campgrounds aren't booked up. That often happens in the winter when there are fewer visitors.

From our previous campground experience at HSP we know there are only two or three campsites in the Prairie Branch CG (the one near the start/finish of both ultras) that are big enough for our camper. No one can reserve a specific site at HSP or most other TX state parks, only the particular campground. The first-come, first-served policy is just that: if people with tents or little campers take the biggest sites because they arrived first and wanted them, no one in the office is going to tell them it's bad form and they should leave those sites for folks with larger RVs. That's common practice in other Texas state parks we've visited, too.


A view of the wetland end of Lake Raven from the Prairie Branch Trail.

So our tactic is to arrive before most other campers, especially if we're going to be staying for several days or weeks. That usually means getting to a campground on a Monday or Tuesday when the fewest campers are likely to be there. Since check-out is often at 2 PM, arriving around that time on a Sunday afternoon is also good.

So imagine our angst that we couldn't get into HSP until a Friday! That's when most campers arrive for the weekend. Fortunately, we knew the park wasn't booked that last weekend in January. We knew we'd get in, but we didn't know if we could beat everyone to one of the spots we wanted.

There was only one way to do it: get in line first!

We were pretty anal about lining up outside the park gate early enough that Friday morning to get one of the few sites into which we could fit. But how early was that??

Jim called well ahead of time to learn the drillall the hunters were supposed to be out of the woods by noon and as soon as the rangers could verify that, they'd open the gates to everyone else. Park staff indicated there's always a long line when the gates are opened that day.

Jim and I debated about when we should get in line and decided on a time. We spent Thursday night about five miles away at WalMart in the city of Huntsville so it was a short drive to the park in the morning. We did get there first. Soon, however, a dozen other passenger vehicles and RVs were lined up behind us.

Long story short, we got our first choice of campsites because we were first in line to register in the office. It was worth the wait. We were able to stay in that site for three days plus the two weeks in our original reservation.

PRIORITY SHIFT

It was during this time in late January that we traded the HitchHiker 5th-wheel for the Cameo 5th-wheel. We were so busy with that transaction, thoroughly cleaning the HitchHiker, dismantling the solar panels, batteries, inverter, generator, monitoring panels, and other off-grid energy equipment, moving all our belongings into the new Cameo, and getting settled in our new home on wheels that neither one of us ran, walked, or cycled as much as we'd planned.

We did manage to get out on the trails most days despite some colder and wetter than average weather, which was par for the course during most of this trip. So much for heading south to avoid cold winter temperatures! At least we were noticeably warmer in the much better-insulated Cameo than we were in the HitchHiker.

Jim decided he was too under-trained to sign up for the Rocky Raccoon 50-miler. We just worked and socialized at the event, which included a 100-miler. I already posted our volunteer view of that race.

SPLIT FRAME

At that point in early February our plans for the rest of the winter were somewhat amorphous. All we knew was that we wanted to avoid even worse winter weather farther north and not go back to our house in Virginia until it was warmer. We didn't know if we could stay at HSP the rest of the month, as we did in 2009, or if we even wanted to. We get bored with the same trails all the time; maybe it'd be fun to check out one or two other parks in southern Texas!

But we didn't make reservations right away --we had it made at HSPa nice paved site on a high spot in the campground where we could see what was going on, a scenic view of the lake, great trails to run, hike, and bike, and all the goods and services we needed in Huntsville, Conroe, and The Woodlands.

Here's a sampling of the awesome sunsets we could see from our camper:

 

 

 

 

Jim continued to call the park office and monitor the campground reservation site on the internet as the Presidents' Day weekend approached but no spots opened up at HSP. We remembered how packed the campground was that weekend last year and didn't have much hope we'd be able to stay the rest of the month.

Instead of taking the risk that no one would cancel and we'd end up at WalMart during the holiday weekend, we reserved a site for a week at Lake Livingston State Park about fifty miles to the east. The description of the park sounded nice and it looked like there would be enough trails to explore. We also reserved the two weeks after that at Huntsville SP (February 15-28).

We were so glad to get back to HSP that we ended up staying one extra day, March 1. It turned out that the Presidents' Day weekend was wet and miserable and a lot of campers cancelled their reservations at both parks. We could have stayed at Huntsville but we didn't know that until several days after we moved to Lake Livingston.

BACK "HOME" AT HUNTSVILLE SP

We got our same campsite at Huntsville SP by returning on Monday afternoon (the holiday) after everyone went home. To our surprise, there were branches and pine cones all over the paved driveway where our camper had been parked just a week earlier. A large pine tree had come down!

Our first thought was relief that our new Cameo wasn't there when the tree fell. Later we learned that park staff deliberately cut it down preemptively because it was weak and they didn't want it to hurt someone or damage a camper if it came down unexpectedly.

I removed the larger branches before Jim backed the camper into the spot again. Then we cleared off most of the rest of the tree debris (above) with a shovel and our small broom. When the crew returned on Monday to work on the water line behind us, we borrowed a larger broom to move the remaining branches and pine cones off the pavement next to the camper and picnic table.

Park staff never did come back to clean up our site. They were probably waiting until all the utility work was done (more about that below). At least we had one less tree to worry about every time the winds kicked up.

The weather was still colder than normal for the rest of February but we could see some signs of spring as bright, new leaves began popping out and a few blooms appeared out of nowhere. It's always fun to see spring creeping in.

These trees were about the only thing blooming during February.
The close-up shows what the flowers look like, if that's what they are.

A few days were absolutely perfect: 60s-70s F. and sunny. Most days were only in the 40s and 50s, with a few nights at or near freezing. Averages for late February in this area are mid-40s at night to mid-60s in the afternoon.

On warm weekends the park came alive with campers, picnickers, hikers, cyclists, anglers, and boaters:

This little sailboat looks like fun!

Although we got a fair amount of rain at HSP during February and some quagmires developed, the sandier trails usually drained quickly enough that we didn't get too muddy when we ran, walked, or biked on them.

Near the end of February Old Man Winter got in a couple last jabs at the park, delivering sleet and fat snowflakes that melted when they hit the ground one day (nearby Bryan-College Station had 4" of snow then) and half an inch of snow that did stick briefly a few days later (next photo).

Jim was glad the snow melted fast. I wasn't concerned. We weren't going anywhere and we didn't have to shovel it. I was hoping Cody would have more snow to play in; he loves snow. 

Those were the only times Jim and I saw snow on this winter trip. We knew it was coming each time but didn't run away farther south. If we'd known how nice Brazos Bend SP was, however, we would have gone down there much sooner!

The cold weather didn't affect our running and walking too much but we were more reluctant to go out on either of our bikes on cold, windy, or rainy days. Riding just makes it seem even colder, windier, and wetter than it really is. On days like that I'd rather work on our website or curl up with a good Vince Flynn book.

In one way I was glad for the colder than average weather. Last year spring came early to HSP and I was uncharacteristically suffering from allergies to some pollens I wasn't used to. I didn't have any problems like that this year. It wasn't as green during our visit this time and not as many plants were blooming.

I have two photos of the wet area at the inlet end of Lake Raven, one of my favorite places to watch the herons and egrets. The photo I took on January 25 looks identical to the one below that I took 34 days later on February 28! Last year it was significantly greener by then.

Exposure to the plants that caused my problems last year may have increased my immunity this year. I have fared well even during March at Brazos Bend SP -- spring is definitely in full swing here! It's been very, very green and lots of plants are blooming. We'll see how I do in Atlanta soon. It has some of the worst pollen on earth and it's predicted to be even worse this year.

CAMPGROUND IMPROVEMENTS

As on previous winter visits to Huntsville SP we almost had the campground and the whole park to ourselves on weekdays. Several days we were the only campers in our loop besides the CG hosts:

On weekends more folks came in, including these two campers that parked near us:

Two things that were different this year may have contributed to fewer campers during Februarythe unseasonably cold and/or wet weather and the utility work in both Raven Hill and Prairie Branch campgrounds.

Workers have been upgrading the water and electricity lines in both campgrounds and the screened shelter loop since November or December and adding sewer lines to about twenty-five of the RV sites in Raven Hill. Although we were able to remain in our campsite the entire thirty-two days we stayed in Prairie Branch, some sites in both campgrounds were closed temporarily for a few days.

TWPD has construction updates on the Huntsville home page while work continues through the spring. It shouldn't affect day visitors, only folks using the screened rooms and campgrounds.


During:  crews dig a trench behind our campsite for new water lines through Prairie Branch CG.

Although our water service was interrupted several times the workers usually gave us enough advance warning so we could fill our water tank and use the pump inside the Cameo. We were more concerned about surprise power disruptions or spikes and decided to get several good surge protectors for our computers and appliances so their circuits didn't fry

All in all, we found it more interesting than inconvenient to watch the utility work progress. We joked with each other about "supervising" the job from the comfort of our camper (my brother will appreciate that!). I often rode my bike to the Raven Hill campground with the incentive to see what was going on over there, too. That was always a good hill workout.


After:  the utility crew did a good job covering up the trenches through the campground.
That's our camper in the background; it was one of those gray weekdays we had the place to ourselves.

Work was still ongoing in both campgrounds when we left on March 1. Park staff anticipated completion of the project in April. Although we've never had problems with the water and electrical service here in the past and we didn't get to benefit from the improvements this trip, we will in the future.

FEE INCREASES

The only downside to the new utilities is that it gives the park a tangible excuse to raise prices when all the work is done! However, Huntsville has had lower fees than some of the other Texas state parks and probably would have gone up anyway.

Currently all the sites with water and electric service are $16/day. As I write this, the website still reflects those prices. Soon they will increase to $20/day. Sites with water, electric, and sewer hookups will be $25/day. We don't know if HSP will continue to have cheaper weekly rates during the winter but we hope so; it's the only Texas state park we've visited so far that offers that discount.

All the new bridging that went in during early 2009 cost a bunch, too!

The entry fee will also increase from $4/day to $5. That won't affect us since we have an annual state parks pass. We've heard the cost of the pass is likely to increase this year or next, and that will affect us. It'll still be very cost-effective for us even if it goes to $70 or $75/year.

We aren't thrilled with fee increases but at least the Texas state parks are still open, prices are in line with or cheaper than other parks around the country, and I still believe that it's fair for the people who use the parks to help keep them financially sustainable.

ALLIGATORS INSPIRE OUR NEXT MOVE

I don't remember ever attending a naturalist's talk at Hunstsville SP, although we've done this in other parks around the country. In fact, this was our first time at HSP that we even went into the little nature center. It's not open very many hours during the winter.

While visiting the nature center I fell in love with the two cute little baby alligators swimming around in a tank. Those are the ONLY alligators we've ever seen at HSP.

Awwww . . . isn't this one cute?? He was born last August or September and is about 11-12  inches long now:

I've been disappointed at never seeing a 'gator on any of our visits to Huntsville SP. They are there, according to the rangers, but tend to stay on the side of the lake where trails aren't close to the water. And on chilly winter days, they prefer to be under water as much as possible. They can stay underwater for quite a while, as the little one is doing in the tank above.

Still, whenever I see one of the cautionary signs about alligators at HSP, I always think, "Yeah, what alligators??"

We decided to attend a volunteer's presentation about 'gators one Saturday. About twenty people were present, most of them kids. Here are some cute young girls who sat in front of us:

There were several kids that were only two or three years old. Most listened attentively and were rewarded at the end of the talk with getting to pet the baby alligator the speaker brought outside. In all the nature talks I observed here and at Brazos Bend SP, including the ones on 'gators and snakes, the majority of the children in the audience were girls, not boys. Cool.

It tickled me when these two young girls took pictures of the 'gator with their digital cameras:

The younger one, who looked to be about four years old, is also holding a camera; she took a picture right after I took mine. I'm envious that I didn't have the opportunity as a young child to use a digital camera, computer, or all the other tech "toys" with which today's kids are so proficient! I do remember an old Kodak Brownie camera I had when I was a kid, so maybe I wasn't so deprived after all . . . just born too early.

I learned a lot about alligators during that nature talk and developed a new appreciation for a species that I'd never really studied before.

I may have been "born too early" to grow up with the advanced technology we have today, but I've always been blessed with a healthy curiosity. The presentation sparked my desire to see some BIG alligators, not just foot-long babies. The naturalist mentioned that the two babies at Huntsville had come from Brazos Bend SP, which is 'Gator Central in Texas.

You can probably guess where I'm going with this!


A boggy area at Huntsville SP -- but we haven't spotted any 'gators in it.

When we got back to the camper I dug out my Texas state park "wish book" and found the description of Brazos Bend. . . one of America's top parks . . . a diverse ecology . . . 35 miles of multi-use trails . . . lots of alligators . . . We found much more information on the TPWD website.

Did I mention that Brazos Bend is about a hundred miles south of Huntsville, between Houston and the Gulf? That meant warmer weather, too! It didn't take me long to convince Jim to head farther south.


Palmettos are common at Huntsville SP

How could we go wrong?

Although the campgrounds at Brazos Bend were already booked the first weekend in March, we made reservations for Tuesday-Thursday that week and hoped to be able to stay Friday through Sunday if someone cancelled. Then we'd head north to Decatur, AL so Jim could run the Delano 12-Hour Run on March 13 and the SweetH2O 50K near Atlanta in early April. We figure by then the weather in Roanoke would be better and we could safely head back to our "stick" home!

We were a bit sad about leaving Huntsville State Park after being there so long. It's so familiar to us that it feels like home. Soon we'd feel the same way about Brazos Bend. If you read an earlier entry about park closures and how we can all help keep parks open, you know we ended up staying at Brazos Bend as campground hosts for most of March.

Next entry:  let's take a little tour of Lake Livingston State Park, where we camped between our two stays at Huntsville.

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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