San Rafael Valley, AZ ~~ Photo by Bill Haas

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Florida was an unexpected gem. It was so much more than just rows of high rise pink condos and gross McMansions; it was like going on a giant, hands-on natural history tour of the tropics. I discovered and learned so much during my visit, but as I left, I did have one major regret: the absence of manatee sightings.

As I came through the Panhandle where I expected to swim in one of the many spring-fed rivers meeting the sea, it thundered and poured day after day. So much so that parks were flooded and closed to camping, then opened but closed to swimming. Alas, guess I'll just have to plan a return trip. And next time, it will be during the dry season!

On my way to Georgia, I did manage a few more stops in Florida: In White Springs, the Stephen Foster Folk Cultural State Park on the Suwanee River and Ginnie Springs Outdoors "Campground and Dive Resort" on the Santa Fe River (more campground than resort!!!).
The Florida state park that pays tribute to Foster and his work as America's first troubadour consists of a visitors' center with hand-constructed, painstakingly-detailed, animated dioramas illustrating one of Foster's songs (while the song plays in the background); a museum of magnificent antique pianos, and a 96-bell carillon housed in an awesome 200-foot high campanile that played one of over 200 of Fosters' gentle compositions several times a day.
A note here about Stephen Foster: He was not a Southerner; he visited the south just once, and the closest he got to any river in the south was on his honeymoon on a MISSISSIPPI RIVER riverboat. He was born, raised and lived in Pennsylvania and later New York and never once went near the Suwanee River!
Fourteen artists spent two years creating eight of the ten dioramas in the museum; and from beginning to end, the creation of each diorama averaged 1500 man hours each. This one depicts "Old Folks at Home." In the one illustrating "Way Down Upon De Swanee Ribber," paper leaves were fastened to wire stems, stems to twigs, twigs integrated into plants then painted and bolls of cotton attached to make the cotton rows in that diorama. Just imagine the planning and research that went into them!
Likewise, the exhibited pianos were more than simply lovely instruments. They are magnificent works of art you won't find in a Yamaha: exquisite woods, elegantly carved, with mother-of-pearl keys and delicately painted and bejeweled details. There were several of these beauties.
And then this one...a Steinway Concert Grand Piano, equipped with a very rare Paul vonJanko' keyboard. vonJanko', a Hungarian, invented this keyboard in 1882 hoping to simplify piano technique.
From the museum's handout: "The vonJanko' keyboard is designed so that any given tone can be struck in different places, allowing the pianist to choose the keys most convenient to the position of his hand at any given instant."
Although it was a revolutionary idea, not too many piano players were inclined to learn the new (simplified) fingering -- the keyboard didn't catch on.
The park's exhibition of beautifully-crafted, stately pianos is just that and has no historical relevance to Foster's music. This simple keyboard, however, is one that Stephen Foster actually played!
The daily programs of Foster's melodies are played by specially trained carillonneurs; at other times, by the automatic electric player. The bells also ring out the time in quarter-hour increments. Such sweet music for sweet, uncomplicated times.

Ginnie Springs is a giant family camp developed around seven springs on its 200-acre property that feed into the Santa Fe River. Because there are dozens of crystal-clear springs scattered all up and down the river's banks, there are several campgrounds and resorts hoping to draw vacationers to this (northern) part of the state. The springs' boils and runs are a refreshing 72*; the river is tea colored and acidic from tannins in the vegetation.
In my simple mind, the springs are for swimming; you won't find me in that brown river water!
Because hundreds of millions of gallons of water boil out of each of these springs daily, the "boils" are loosely capped, presumably in an effort to reduce the potential for injury.
Ginnie Springs also claims to be a world-wide draw for derring-do scuba divers who come to explore its extensive underwater limestone cave and cavern system.
Taking tubing to a whole new level! Except for its "No Pets" policy (for which I had to get a special dispensation from upper management and agree to leave before by Friday so the weekend crowds wouldn't see Sambo), this was a delightful place to stop for a little fun and refreshing frolic.
Is it just me ... or have times really changed?!!
Next stop: Georgia