2011 RUNNING & TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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   WEEK #1 @ BRAZOS BEND STATE PARK:
WHERE ARE ALL THE ALLIGATORS??

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 13

 
"Alligators are aquatic, spending their time in or near the water. 
They use the water to control their body temperature. During warm days they  
can be found laying out on logs and low banks, absorbing heat from the sun.
During the hottest part of the summer the alligator spends most of its time in the
water to keep cool. During cold weather alligators will stay in areas of deep
water or they will excavate a den . . . up under a bank. During cold
weather alligators can hold their breath for up to 12 hours . . ."
 
~ from an information sheet we got at Brazos Bend SP about American Alligators
 
 
We're baaaack! Let's go find some alligators!!

Not so fast. They've been hunkered down pretty well this week and hard to spot.


Typical alligator territory: along the White Oak Trail  (2-12-11)

Even though this rather tropical state park is not all that far from the Gulf of Mexico, Jim and I still haven't found the summery weather we've been craving all winter. A week ago we thought we did, but we were wrong.

Huntsville State Park, which is about 90 miles north of Brazos Bend as the crow flies (111 miles the way we drove it), was finally starting to warm up a bit when we left last Sunday. Mid-60s F., sunshine . . . ahhhh. We had our fingers crossed that spring weather was here to stay in southern Texas, and that Brazos Bend would be even balmier.


Even in the winter, the views at Elm Lake are beautiful.   (2-6-11)

The warm weather lasted only a couple of days, however.

Then the temperatures started dropping until they reached the 20s F. on Wednesday, all the way down to 22 early Thursday morning. It was still in the mid-20s overnight until Saturday. This morning was a comparatively balmy 32, still considerably below normal.

Dang! It hasn't been a good week for 'gator-watching at Brazos Bend.


There are usually lots of 'gators along the Spillway Trail, but not this week.  (2-6-11)

Otherwise, our first week here has been pretty good. The weather at Brazos Bend sure beats the snow, sleet, icy roads, and 10F. temperatures farther north in Texas . . . and this afternoon the temperatures are back up in the 70s.

Yay!!

That's what I'm talkin' about.


A birdhouse and trees are reflected in the still blue waters of Pilant Slough.  (2-6-11)

It was so warm this afternoon -- and we are so un-acclimated to even the 70s F. -- that Cody and I had to turn around on our afternoon hike out on the remote Creekwood Trail before I wanted to; I wasn't carrying enough water for the two of us in the sudden "heat wave."

FUN & GAMES @ FLYING J

Die-hard football fans will note that Sunday, February 6, the day we drove through Houston from Huntsville SP to Brazos Bend SP, was The Big Day -- Super Bowl Sunday.

Jim and I are not die-hard football fans. The only reason we knew it was Super Bowl Sunday was because of the incessant media coverage that was impossible to completely ignore, try as we might.

Above and below:  two views of New Horseshoe Lake  (2-12-11)

We assumed mid-day Sunday would be a good day to travel through the metro area because so many people would be home, preoccupied with the game, and not out on the freeways. We were mostly right about that; traffic was fairly light for a Sunday, and moving well except for the construction that never seems to end in the Conroe area.

We needed diesel for the truck and propane for the camper, plus Jim really wanted to weigh the camper with and without the truck, so we stopped at Flying J at exit 64 on I-45.

We were surprised how crowded the place was when we drove in. The huge truck parking area and fuel lanes were absolutely PACKED with semis, even more than overnight when drivers stop for some shut-eye. The trucks were snugged up like sardines in a can. We were able to get into an RV lane to get fuel, but it took 20 minutes to cajole an attendant to come outside to fill one of our propane tanks. The employees were swamped.

What's going on? we wondered.


Birds of a feather . . . a line of ibis cross the levee trail from Elm Lake to Pilant Slough.  (2-7-11)

A clerk quickly clued us inthe truck drivers were hunkered down in the parking lot so they could get WiFi to watch the Super Bowl! Many also wandered inside to purchase food and drinks, pay for fuel, use the restrooms, chit chat, etc.

This was THEIR Super Bowl party!


Numerous birds dot the sky above Creekfield Lake.  (2-8-11)

I was surprised that Jim still insisted on weighing the camper. The scales were in that crowded parking lot but no one was using them. We had to wind around through the trucks with our 5th-wheel in tow to get positioned correctly on the scales.

We wondered what the truckers thought of us -- probably that we were looking for a place to park to listen to the game, too! Not.


I forgot to take a picture of the truck and camper on the scales together.
The Cameo is in the background (red box) while Jim weighs the truck by itself.

After weighing the camper and truck together, Jim parked the Cameo behind a row of trucks he knew wouldn't be going anywhere soon, put the Big Foot hydraulic levelers down, unhitched the truck, weighed it on the scales alone, then returned to hitch the camper back up.

The whole weighing process took maybe 20 minutes, including the time it took Jim to go back inside the store to pay for the privilege. It gave us some useful information (we're within our various weight limits -- axels, tongue, etc.) and it was fairly painless, considering the things that could have gone wrong.


Another birdhouse and ducks along the Spillway Trail  (2-12-11)

Then we were on our way again to Brazos Bend, thankful there were that many fewer trucks on the freeway.

GOOD KARMA + EXPERIENCE PAY OFF

We were smitten with Brazos Bend State Park after spending most of the month of March here last spring. It was far enough south that we finally found the warm weather we'd been craving all winter in Arizona and Texas -- kinda like this year, too!

In 2010 I suggested going to BBSP somewhat on a whim that began with the enticing description of the place in the Texas State Parks brochure. We'd never been there before. We researched further on the official park website and thought it'd be a nice place place to spend a few days.

We were right!

We lucked into a campground host position simply because one was unexpectedly available when we arrived and we had the nerve to ask for it. Our original three-day paid reservation ended up lasting four weeks -- and most of it was "free." (I expounded on the subject of "free" camping not really being free in an earlier entry this year.)


One of the paying customers in our campground loop this week;
almost all of the sites are large and well-spaced.  (2-7-11)

We enjoyed the park and being CG hosts so much that we signed up to do it all over again this year -- except we wanted to get here a few weeks earlier, in hopes of warmer weather sooner. There are lots worse places to be in February!

We've also discovered in the past few months that some of the hosts in other Texas parks we've talked to are rather envious of our position at Brazos Bend. Several folks told us they've applied but have always been told there aren't any positions available in the winter ('course, there are plenty of host jobs available in May-September when it's unbearably hot and humid!).

We already knew BBSP is one of the top state parks in the entire country. We didn't realize until talking to these people just how selective a popular park can be, not only with choosing its paid staff but also its volunteer hosts. We are truly glad we lucked into the position last year and did a good enough job that they'd invite us back again.


Waterfowl enjoy a sunny late winter day on Elm Lake.  So did we!  (2-6-11)

It really pays to be a "veteran" host with a particular park. From what we've read and experienced, that's generally true with local, state, and national parks everywhere, not just in Texas. We've inquired the last two years about hosting at Huntsville SP during the winter since we spend so much time there but the same hosts keep returning there, too. So far, there haven't been any positions available at Huntsville until May. That doesn't work for us.

Our plan is to stay here at Brazos Bend for about nine weeks this time, leaving April 8 or 9 to go back to our house in Virginia.


Lots of colorful shirts for volunteers and staff to sell at park HQ.  (2-9-11)

The volunteer coordinator would like us to stay until the end of April so we can work Easter weekend, which is even busier at the park than Spring Break in mid-March will be.

We told her the first day we saw her that we wouldn't be able to stay that long. We have too much to do in Roanoke in April, including getting my three-week series of Orthovisc knee injections again. We need to leave Virginia in early May for the Jemez Mountain race in New Mexico and the rest of our summer trip to the Rockies.

Picnicking (above) and fishing (below) at Elm Lake are enjoyable every month of the year. (2-12-11)

We are already on a waiting list to host here in January and February, 2012; March shouldn't be a problem, but earlier in the winter the folks with more seniority than us have already put in their dibs so we aren't assured of a position then. We'll just have to wait to see if any couples change their mind.

In fact, we may change our plans and spend more time in southern AZ next winter. We aren't sure we want to host at Brazos Bend every year. There are too many other places to see!

WELCOME TO OUR HOME FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS

When we checked into the park last weekend we weren't sure which of the two campground loops we'd be assigned for the duration of our stay. We were clear that we didn't want one of the new host sites in the maintenance area. Photos of the two sites that the volunteer coordinator e-mailed us were downright ugly and we don't like the location, even (especially!) after seeing them. We really wanted to be near the visitors in the campgrounds. Being available to answer questions and mingle with the other campers is one of the best parts of the hosting job.

Not to worry. We were assigned to what I consider to be the el primo host site, #141. It has a large yard and is the ultimate "gatekeeper" site:


We're in the first site on the left in the 100-Loop AKA Burr Oak Camping Area. 
The 5th-wheel past ours belongs to the other host couple in our loop. (2-7-11)

We assumed Ben and Bev were still in site #141. That's the site they always had in recent years. Last year we were camped next to them in #139. The volunteer coordinator told us we'd probably be in one of the two host sites in the 200-Loop this year.

Alas, Ben and Bev had to leave earlier than planned this winter and their site was suddenly available at the end of January. Did we want it?

You betcha! We love it:


Another view of our campsite (2-7-11)

We are also pleased to have Leo and Rilla, a retired couple from Ontario, Canada, as our next-door neighbors for the next six weeks. They are in #139, our previous site. They've been hosting here during the winter for about five years. They left about the time of our arrival last year and we didn't get acquainted with them then. They will be here until mid-March this year.

The host sites have full hook-ups, including sewers. When they are vacant other visitors can use them for $25/night but they cannot be reserved.

The other 70+ RV sites in the 100- and 200-loops have water and 30-amp electricity but no sewers; they are $20/night. Our host site has outlets for 30 and  50 amps but the 50-amp circuit doesn't work. That's not a problem for us. We're used to having only  30 amps at most of the public campgrounds where we stay. Heck, we boondock (no hookups at all) so often that 30 amps are a treat! We just have to juggle which energy-hungry appliances like the AC and microwave we use at once.

The only real downside with the sites at Brazos Bend is a very weak Verizon MiFi signal. At least it's better than the Verizon broadband set-up we had last year. When Jim wants to download a large file like a video or upload lots of my pictures to our website, he takes his laptop to the Nature Center or HQ and uses the park's free WiFi.

We have good TV reception with our standard RV roof antenna. Folks with satellite service have even better reception.

I wrote quite a bit about the park's facilities and accommodations in last year's journal so I won't reiterate all that here.


The view from my desk (2-7-11)

The best thing is that all of this is "free" for nine weeks! Do the math for nine weeks at $25/day and you'll see that we are saving a big chunk of change that will make our average daily CG cost quite attractive this winter. I'll let you know the final number after we get to Roanoke and park the Cameo for a few weeks.

HOW WE'LL PAY FOR OUR "FREE" CAMPSITE

We do have to contribute some sweat equity to get this deal, of course -- a minimum of 25 hours of volunteer work per week per couple, to be exact.

We quickly learned last year, however, that it's real easy to put in a lot more hours than that without realizing it. Although it's up to the individual or couple whether they put in extra hours, there's some peer pressure to do so -- and it looks to be worse this year than last.

I'll let you know how that goes!


Typical winter Monday when the 100-Loop is mostly empty; it fills up every weekend, though. (2-7-11)

So far we've been busy with several jobs we did last year and we're in training for some new ones that should make our jobs either more interesting . . . or more stressful. The volunteer coordinator's expectations of us are higher this year since she knows more about our mental and physical capabilities and we'll be here longer this time.

Our goal is to keep the work as fun as possible and have enough time for ourselves.

I'll talk more about our various jobs in subsequent entries. Now I want to show you what the park looks like in early February.

(Continued on the next page so the photos will load faster.)

Happy trails,

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

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2011 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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