It seems no matter how much planning my wife and I do for each trip we take, we find at least one unexpected gem along the way. Amelia Island, Florida was just such a place on a recent trip to the Sunshine state.
The unpretentious island initially was to be no more than a one-night layover to our final destination, Sarasota. It didn’t take long to realize what a diamond in the rough we had found. The island’s natural amenities alone deserved a closer look.
On the way home, we stopped at Amelia Island for a two-day self-guided tour. Once we started to uncover the island’s riches, we could have spent two weeks there.
Steeped in history and oozing with natural beauty, Amelia Island’s chief charm seemed to be its modesty. Just inside the Florida line from Georgia, I sensed the island and its people knew what they had, but just didn’t want to flaunt it.
On the Atlantic Ocean side, Main Beach runs the entire length of the 13.5 mile long island. In the off-season, resident and migrating birds far outnumbered the exploring humans combing the beach or local teens windsurfing.
On the inland side, historic Fernandina Beach graces the island’s picturesque waterfront. Here’s where the island’s modesty reigned. The beautiful little town was actually settled three years before St. Augustine, which bills itself as the oldest in the country.
Fernandina Beach lost its historic distinction when the Spanish conquistadores massacred the French settlers and all the island’s indigenous people, too. An open grassy square in the old town section still marks the spot.
Ironically, one of the many distinctive houses in the town stands adjacent to the infamous slaughter. The old place was used as the setting for the 1988 Pippi Longstocking movie.
Back in town, the oldest bar in Florida was temporarily converted into an ice cream parlor for a scene in the movie. The island’s elementary children were recruited for an ice cream fight until the reality of the hot Florida weather melted the main prop. Colored mashed potatoes were instant replacements to complete the filming.
Well-preserved historic buildings make up the impressive downtown. Locally owned restaurants serve locally caught seafood, while upscale boutiques attract shoppers from near and far. Stately, well-maintained homes from bygone years line the north-south streets off of the main drag.
To say Amelia Island’s attitude is small town would be an understatement. A fender bender outside our hotel brought four cruisers.
The desire to keep things as they are reaches far beyond the town itself. An outstanding state park features a Civil War fort. Egan Creek Greenway runs down the middle of the island for birders, joggers and bikers to enjoy. A charming lighthouse, still in operation, keeps watch over it all.
Take a boat cruise and you discover even more gems about this unheralded island. Rare birds, bottle nosed porpoises, wild Spanish stallions, and salt truncated live oaks are all part of the treasure chest of Amelia Island.
Even in the two additional days of exploration, we couldn’t uncover all of the island’s hidden nuggets. That will make our next visit all the more exciting.
I feel sorry for anyone born on Feb. 29. They only get to celebrate their birthday every four years. If it is a century year like 1900, they have to wait eight years.
I haven’t known very many people in my life who were born on leap day. So it’s not like I was influenced to complain about the dubious day on their behalf.
My good wife’s grandmother, Maggie, was a leap day baby. Neva remembers turning 16 the same year her dear grandmother was 16. Indeed, Maggie had to wait eight years before she could celebrate her first birthday. She was born in 1896.
People born on Feb. 29 get cheated. Sure they have a birthday every year. But it has to be celebrated on Feb. 28 or March 1 or perhaps a day of their choosing. How would you like to consistently celebrate your birthday on a day other than the actual day?
I understand the reason for leap day. An extra day has to be added, generally every four years, to keep pace with the earth’s real speed of rotation. That fact alone reemphasizes my main point. The current calendar system is inaccurate, messed up, verhuddelt, as the Amish would say.
To make matters worse, leap days usually occur during presidential election years, except on most century years. Do we really need an additional day of negative national campaign hyperbole? The year 2000 was an exception because it was divisible by 400, which is why 1900 wasn’t a leap year.
Now that I think about it, having a leap day would be an excellent question for the candidates to debate. If you compare that suggestion to some of the idiotic comments and ideas that they have been espousing on their own, I think it fits right into the political verbal fray.
In fact, given some of the witticisms by the candidates so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one of them thought leap day was a reference to a frog-jumping contest. Who could argue with that?
Officially a leap day occurs in most years that are divisible by four, like 2012. Years that are evenly divided by 100 do not contain leap day, unless they are divisible by 400, like 2000 was. See what I mean? Unless you’re a math wizard, leap day is simply confusing.
This is reason enough to eliminate leap day. If we have to follow all of these crazy exceptions to even have a Feb. 29, why bother? Why not just wait until an entire year needs to be added, and do it all at one time. It would be like an entire year of jubilee, only in reverse. I’ll be dead by then anyhow, so I wouldn’t have to deal with the ensuing consequences.
I am surprised about one thing with leap day. It hasn’t been made a national holiday. What a great way to stimulate the economy? Establish yet another card buying, gift giving holiday, especially right after the sales for Valentine’s Day and Presidents’ Day. That would put three holidays in the shortest month of the year, a marketer’s dream come true. Sorry. Ground Hog Day doesn’t count.
In all seriousness, if you were born on Feb. 29, I wish you a happy birthday. If my birthday fell on Feb. 29, which it doesn’t, I would only be 17 this year. On second thought, let’s just keep the calendar the way it is.
I had often heard about the sugar shack. A group of guys I knew, mostly from our church, had formed an informal co-op. The goal was to make and offer maple syrup, with the donated proceeds going to a scholarship program for students in rural Honduras.
My journalistic nosiness finally got the best of me, and I ventured out one chilly day when the sap was running strong. My intent was to write a story for a local weekly newspaper. What I discovered went far beyond what any feature story could represent. Here were a few good men who through sheer determination made this sweet enterprise work. They worked cooperatively out of a common desire to succeed, not out of individual or corporate profit. Indeed, there were no profits. The money collected through donations went to the scholarship program.
This endeavor was borne of commitment, desire, effort, camaraderie, purpose, joy, ingenuity, and sacrifice, all with rewarding results. And to think that it all started with the landowner, Gary Miller, standing in the rain dreaming of making maple syrup. Miller never envisioned how far his idea would go.
“Three years ago,” Miller said, “I was standing in the rain under an umbrella boiling sap in an assortment of old used pans on my grill.” Miller lives on a small farm west of Millersburg, Ohio.
Miller shared his idea with his friends, and the sugar shack quickly became a reality. The structure itself was donated to Miller. A friend, Paul Conrad, had an old shed he told Miller he could have, and Miller’s sons moved it in seven different sections for him. Once on site, the building was reassembled, reusing the old lumber. Since then, its design and size has been tweaked and expanded.
That process set the tone for what was to come. Much of the equipment used by Miller and his friends has been refurbished as some part and purpose of the maple syrup operation.
Indeed, when the sap is moving like it is now, so does this voluntary collection of Miller’s friends and family who assist with the project. They placed 400 taps in sugar, red and black maple trees.
“We are careful about how many taps we place in a tree,” Miller said. “We don’t want to stress them.”
Like most farming efforts, preparing for the sap harvest takes a lot of preparation, and can be an ongoing project. Recently a shed was built to store the chords of firewood needed to heat the boiling process. Of course the friends also helped split and stack the wood that fuels the fire that boils the sap on a homemade evaporator. True to form, the gregarious crew also put that together. Much of that ingenious system consists of recycled metal and other repurposed materials.
The wood stove that holds the fire that boils the sap belonged to Scott Sponsler, another friend. The stove was extended with metal from old toolboxes from a pick up truck that Miller owned. Miller had a fan rebuilt and some ductwork manufactured locally. Together they help distribute the heat generated by the wood stove. The heat evaporates the sap into syrup.
The sap enters the sugar shack from another recycled item, an old bulk tank rescued from an unused milking parlor. It is held up by a repurposed metal stand so the sap flows by gravity into a smaller holding tank inside the old wooden shed.
From there, the sap runs into a customized sheet metal maze that allows the sap to be evaporated as it circulates up and down the four parallel troughs. After entering a second connected metal maze, the sap begins to change color. It is closer to the firebox and the pre-heated sap really begins to boil. Its darker color indicates that the moisture is being bubbled away.
Miller said that the sap isn’t officially maple syrup until its consistency is at least 66.9 degrees brix, as measured by a hydrometer. Miller said with this set up, it takes 51 gallons of sap to produce a gallon of syrup.
Miller and his friends make the syrup when the sap is running. He said warmer days and cooler nights are the best conditions to make the sap run. When the sap runs, so does this gang of close friends and family members. When the sap is running, his shack and the surrounding woods are very busy places indeed.
Before it is pumped into the elevated holding tank, the sap is gathered into 15-gallon containers from each tap bucket. The containers are carried on the back of a small tractor. In keeping with the pattern, the tractor was loaned, too.
All the free equipment and labor is only appropriate. Miller said the maple syrup that is produced is not for sale, although it does have a name, Smoke Pit Maple Syrup.
“This is not a commercial operation,” Miller emphasized.
Instead customers get to donate whatever they feel the syrup is worth. The money is used for an educational scholarship program in Honduras. Miller’s Sunday school class at Millersburg Mennonite Church is financially sponsoring the schooling of several children there.
Roy Miller, a retired Holmes County family physician, serves as the unofficial coordinator of activities. He even travels to Honduras several times a year and meets with the students, their parents and the local church leaders who oversee the scholarship program there.
With all that said, Gary Miller revealed the secret ingredient in the maple syrup production as far as he is concerned.
“It’s not about the syrup,” Miller said. “It’s about the fellowship.”
Indeed, laughter and kibitzing among the friends intermingle with the steam from the cooking sap in the cold, small shack. The steam and merriment waft together out into the cold air through the open doorways. The good-natured ribbing helps make the labor-intensive sugaring efforts all the sweeter.
In that initial visit, I was impressed with the care given to producing a quality product, and with the interpersonal interaction that makes this particular micro business the all around success that it is.
It was clear to me that two pure products are produced at the sugar shack. High quality maple syrup created for a great cause is the tasty finished product. Genuine, committed friendship that knows no bounds and has no earthly measure is the dividend.
Persons interested in obtaining some of the Smoke Pit Maple Syrup should contact Gary Miller at 330-763-0364.
Vacation is one of my favorite words. Perhaps it’s because it’s one of those duplicitous words in the English language that can be used as either a noun or a verb.
I love to go on vacation. We will vacation at the beach. Either way, the end result is still the same. Vacation is vacation.
My wife and I are fortunate to be at a point in our lives where we can get away, if only for a few days, without much hassle. When friends invited us to share a house with them in sunny Florida for a week, we cleared our schedules and confirmed our reservations.
When you live in northern Ohio and it’s wintertime, there’s only one direction to go on vacation, and that is south. Clearly, I’m not a snow skier. At my age, I prefer the warmth to cold, and so do my old bones.
It’s more than climate that draws us away from our familiar digs, Holmes Co., Ohio, where up to four million visit annually. Most visitors to our area, however, choose spring, summer and especially fall to roam the bucolic Holmes County hills.
Our curiosity and desire for adventure draw us away from our own congenial vistas as much as anything. We love to explore new places as well as revisit familiar ones.
Our gracious Florida hosts planned plenty of interesting activities for us during our weeklong stay. Fortunately, we enjoy many similar activities as our friends. Like us, they prefer to pace themselves. It was vacation after all. No reason to rush.
I could bore you with a verbal slideshow of our trip. I’ll just say we had a great time, whether we were on the most beautiful beach in the country, which we were, or enjoying an enlightening and informative historical tour, which we did.
Instead, I want to tell you about some of the people we encountered along the way. It happens wherever we go. I am fascinated and appreciate the kindness of pure strangers we encounter on our travels. Meeting new people is one of the vacation perks.
Sure, there are a few goofballs almost everywhere. But for the most part, we have found people to be absolutely engaging, matching the gorgeous scenery that surrounds them.
It is hard to single out any one person in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. Everyone we met seemed like a familiar character from Mayberry.
The young and enthusiastic park ranger near Mt. Mitchell on the Blue Ridge Parkway was most helpful. He directed us to Asheville when we found the road unexpectedly closed.
The kind lady at the Venice Rookery who encouraged us to return at dusk to watch the hundreds of nesting egrets, herons and ibises settle in for the night was a pure gem. Even a non-birder would marvel at that experience.
Another amazing individual was our tour boat captain at Fernandina Beach, Florida. Captain Dave was as cordial and passionate about his lovely habitat as the history of the area was interesting. His trademark bright red Elmo pajama pants fit his personality and his passion for nature’s handiwork that he so eloquently pointed out.
Finally, there was 2-year-old Juniper, the petite and perky daughter of some friends in Charlotte. We had never met her. Yet by evening’s end, she wanted “Pruce” to read her one more book.
To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, Oh the places we’ve been and the people we’ve met. Together they make vacation a charmed word in our household.
My wife, Neva, and I had been asked to host the dessert portion of a progressive supper for our church’s small youth group. Given her gift of hospitality, Neva quickly accepted the offer.
The group had been to two other homes before arriving at our place for the 1960s themed desserts. Neva made finger Jell-O, Rice Krispies bars and pistachio cake baked in an authentic bunt pan. We added some 60s era candies that I found in a local store, and had Kool Aid to drink.
We wanted to get the kids in the 60s tempo as best we could by making the house look cool, you know. Neva loves to decorate, and she did a groovy job this time. In fact, I don’t know where she came up with all the 60s stuff she displayed.
Peace signs drawn on paper plates dangled from the dining room light fixture. Party balloons, secured in a paper bag festooned with smiley faces, and a smiley face Pez dispenser adorned the dining room table.
I found a magazine completely dedicated to Bobby Kennedy that I had sequestered. I also brought out an old black and white 8 x 10 photo that my late father had framed for me. It was a shot of a fellow Plain Dealer intern and myself dressed as hippies. That’s a 1969 story for another time.
Neva hung a few clothes we had saved from the 60s, including a lacy dress and a checkered sports jacket. I also resurrected my senior year high school letter jacket. It still looked like new, while I don’t. But I can still fit into it.
Neva also exhibited a variety of purses she had from the 60s along with a few pieces of china. She also found an old dress pattern in its original package.
The center of attention in the living room was a treasure trove timeline of 60s items. Included were some Archie and the Gang comic books, popular children’s books from the era, a Winnie the Pooh bear, and of course a small collection of Beatles record albums. It was a shame we no longer had a record player on which to play them.
The real treat came when the 10 teenagers arrived. Most were dressed in cool clothing from the 60s obtained at thrift stores. Psychedelic T-shirts and paisley dresses and shirts were suddenly back in vogue, if only for the evening. One savvy dude somehow found a brown checked suit that perfectly fit him.
We briefly explained the reason for the dessert offerings, and the food was quickly consumed. Other Baby Boomer adults also attended to help share their growing up experiences.
It was during that time that the real spirit of the turbulent 60s was revealed. The kids seemed spellbound by the personal stories. And well they should. The 1960s were a tumultuous, passionate time of change, drama and societal conflict. Reliving those long forgotten moments seemed to energize everyone in attendance.
Of course, one of the adults, no names mentioned, went a little long. Nevertheless, the kids courteously listened to what was said, and their attire certainly helped everyone feel in the mood.
Oh, yes, I forgot to mention my skinny knit tie, white shirt, white socks, mohair sweater, and rolled up blue jeans that I wore. Other than the hippie outfit, it may have been the only other time in my life that I was considered cool. Or were they just being kind?
The weather was dreary and cold, with occasional snow flurries. It was just another winter’s day in Holmes County, Ohio as far as I was concerned. But it turned out to be so much more than that.
I drove the nine miles east to check on my mother, who lives in a local nursing home. I kept my visit short as usual, making sure I had refilled Mom’s bowl of jellybeans before I said goodbye.
As I was driving home a flash of white caught my attention to the right just east of Berlin, center of the world’s largest Amish population. Besides the color, the bird’s large wings, small head and short tail were all instantly noticeable.
I checked traffic and slowed my vehicle. The bird’s rapid, steady flight cut directly across my path right to left, giving me a full, close view for nearly a minute.
By its distinctive wingbeats, its size and color, I reckoned it was a Snowy Owl. Given my situation, I had no other choice. I had to keep alert driving, yet I tried to keep my eyes on this rare bird.
I didn’t have either my binoculars or camera along. The only thing to do was to keep driving and hope that I could spot it again as I made my way west through town.
Snowy Owls recently had been reported all across the midwestern part of the country, including Ohio. This was far south of their normal winter range. Experts speculated that the owls came in search of food. Normally nocturnal, Snowy Owls will hunt in the daytime when stressed by hunger.
As I motored through two signal lights and the usual clog of traffic in the busy unincorporated village, I kept looking south. I spotted the bird off and on, and saw it gliding as if it was going to land southwest of town.
Once I reached the open area west of Berlin, I again found the white owl, this time flapping its large wings. As I headed down the hill colloquially dubbed Joe T. hill, I lost sight of this magnificent bird. I didn’t know if it had landed or flown out of sight.
My only option had been to observe every detail of the bird that I could while driving. In the birding world, that process is called reckoning, meaning noting the birds shape, size, flight pattern, and behavior.
To be sure of my sighting, I consulted several bird books when I got home. They confirmed what I had seen. I reported the sighting to the rare bird alert. That way others in the area might see the owl, too.
That’s the way birders are. Half the joy of watching birds is sharing what is seen with others.
Ohio’s Amish country is blessed with an abundance of excellent birders, many of them in their early teens. It is not uncommon for them to get a group together, and bike for miles to go birding for a day.
They keep track of what they see, species, numbers and locations. And if they happen to spot an unusual bird, the word gets spread quickly so others may enjoy the opportunity as well.
In this case, I couldn’t believe my good fortune to be at just the right place at just the right time to see a Snowy Owl. I considered myself extremely fortunate to have seen this rare bird.
When birding, like so many other situations in life, timing is everything.