Wednesday, December 31, 2014


The National Museum of Naval Aviation (1-800-327-5002)  is located in Pensacola, Florida, on the military base known as the Naval Air Station Pensacola.  Although there is no fee to visit the museum, all visitors must pass through the highly regulated gates of the base, and show their driver's license to the armed guards at the entrance. If your identification credentials are satisfactory, you will be given a Visitor's Pass to display on your car dashboard.

One reason I was interested in visiting the museum is because my husband had been in the U.S. Navy, as well as some of my male cousins.  I thought of them when I saw this bronze statue at the entrance, representing the "Sailor" genre.

Once inside the museum, you can tour it at your own pace, or join an organized (free) tour, led by a volunteer who is a Navy veteran.  I was thankful that I had enough time to do both!  By taking the group tour early in the day, you are able to return to parts of the museum that are of special interest to you. 

For those not prone to motion sickness ( and the money to pay for the extra fee ) , there are flight simulators.  This seemed to be popular with many visitors, but my tendency toward motion sickness ( as well as a healthy dose of frugality! ) made me decide to pass on this opportunity!

In the Blue Angels Atrium, there are four A-4 Skyhawks suspended from the ceiling.  To give you a size comparison, notice the human figures adjacent to the American flag in the center of the photo.  Depending on the time of year that you visit, you may also have an opportunity to see the Blue Angels fly their practice formations.

Several planes have been "chopped", to allow visitors to climb up into the cockpit, and get an idea of what it is like to be at the controls of one of these flying machines.  It is a great photo opportunity, and I found a friendly-looking person to snap a picture of me giving the "thumbs up" gesture for this blog.

As you can imagine, getting the opportunity to sit in a Blue Angels jet simulator is very popular with youngsters ---  who can then envision a career in naval aviation!

There is a special section in the museum devoted to the history of women in the U.S. Navy.  Large screens run continuous video loops of female navy pilots who have achieved the pinnacle of success in their careers.

The reason I knew about this special women's section of the Naval Museum is because I had the WONDERFUL opportunity of viewing a video of a delightful 90+ year old former Navy WAVES veteran, that was filmed in front of the museum exhibit that showed how the uniform of female Navy personnel has changed over the decades.  The best part was that I was sitting next to this lady in her living room, while viewing the video of her being interviewed!  The video talked about her time in Hawaii, and how she learned the traditional Hula dance of the islands, which she proceeded to teach me!  What an incredible experience! ( As a reminder, WAVES is an acronym for "Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service", as well as an illusion to ocean waves. It was started in 1942 during World War II, as an all-women division of the U.S. Navy. )

The person I have to thank for this most unique opportunity is the WAVES veteran's daughter, Pam, that I met at a recent Road Scholar (,  ) week in Georgia.  On the first night of the Georgia event, the Ice Breaker for us participants, was to each tell our name, and where we would take a fellow Road Scholar participant, if they came to our area for a visit.  Pam said her choice for visitors to Pensacola would be the Pensacola Naval Air Station.  Little did she know, I would take her up on her offer!  In this picture, Pam is holding a photo of her mom (taken in the 1940's) that shows the WAVES uniform of that period.

Another wonderful experience that Pam facilitated, was a seafood dinner of fresh Gulf shrimp, with her mom and brother.  It was so moving to join hands with this Catholic family, as they all recited out loud together, a Blessing over the meal we were about to eat.  I thought of the hundreds of times their mom had no doubt led that blessing, over the table full of children that she had raised.  It was a wonderful audio and visual aid for my First Place 4 Health ( ) memory verse that says, "Give thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Ephesians 5:20).

(Note:  Pam had made a special trip to the famous landmark in Pensacola, known as the Joe Pattie Seafood Market  ( ) to purchase those shrimp.  Hearing Pam's family tell stories about visiting the market---plus, a recommendation from my tour guide at the naval museum---made me seek out a visit to the famous landmark on my way out of town.  It was DEFINITELY worth the effort, and I had a great time there, observing the boats unloading the fresh catch, as well as seeing the efficient way they handled the hundreds of customers who come through their doors!  Did I mention, they also have free samples of some of their products!!??  )

Meanwhile, getting back to the subject of the Pensacola Naval Base, it should be noted that you can also visit their picturesque lighthouse.  Since I was there just two days after Christmas, they still had the Christmas lights strung from the top to make it even more festive for the holidays.

Once you have driven past the outside of the Naval Museum (shown in photo above) from the light house, you can drive in the opposite direction to visit Fort Barrancas.  It is one of several forts built by the U.S. Corps of Engineers in the 19th century along northwestern Florida's coastline.  A dry mosat surrounds the inner walls, and makes access to the fort possible only by way of a drawbridge.  Fort Barrancas is run by the U.S. Park Service, since it is a part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.  It is free to visit, and gives visitors time to stretch their legs and enjoy the Florida outdoors.  There is a Visitor's Center, with explanatory video, as well as a small gift shop and clean restrooms.

Can you tell I enjoyed my time in Pensacola??!!  If you would like to explore this scenic location, just  log onto for additional ideas.  A trip here will give you "MILES OF SMILES"!!  Tricia


For years I have read about and seen television programs about how one can dive/snorkel with the manatees, in certain parts of Florida.  One of the cities most noted for this opportunity is Crystal River, Florida---located on the western side of the Florida panhandle.  As luck would have it, I found myself driving down Crystal River's "main drag" after dark, on December 30. 
Then I saw it!  A neon sign on the end of a large building, beckoning me to "SNORKEL WITH THE MANATEES".  I didn't really think they would be open, since it was 6:10 PM, but I decided to open the front door and find out.
Although they close at 6 PM, the door was still unlocked, and the clerks were behind the counter, in the process of closing up for the night.  A very nice and patient young man stopped his closing-down tasks to answer the one gillion questions about snorkeling with the manatees that I peppered him with.  They only had one spot left for a trip the next morning, and it would be departing before daybreak.  I paid my money, signed the paperwork, and proceeded to my hotel to check in and try to get a little sleep before my big adventure, scheduled for VERY EARLY on New Year's Eve!  I took this photo of the front on their store, before we departed (by a caravan of private cars) to our destination of Homosassa Springs.

I would like to say that I thoroughly researched the various outfitters that operate manatee trips, and after a thorough analysis, chose the American Pro Diving Center ( ).  However, that would be inaccurate.  I ended up on their boat for one reason only---they left the light on for me!  As a stranger driving through Crystal River after dark, their lighted sign was the only one I saw!  Fortunately for me, they provided an OUTSTANDING experience for me, and I would highly recommend them!

The American Pro Diving Center has a well-stocked store of all items needed for diving and snorkeling.  Plus, there is an indoor pool, where they teach scuba diving.

This is the patient young man that signed me up on the night before the trip, and he was in the shop early the next morning as well.  He is shown here getting the numerous thermos bottles ready, and filled with hot chocolate, for loading onto to each of their boats going out that day. 

The folks who will be snorkeling go into the shop's equipment room, to be fitted with their dive fins and wet suit.  They also provide the dive mask.  I had a copy of my eyeglass prescription with me, so they were able to fit me with a dive mask, with lens to correct my visual inadequacies.

Before we departed the dive center, we were all required to watch a video that told about the manatee, and the rules that swimmers/divers/snorkelers/boaters must follow, in order to not disturb, harass, or endanger them.  Manatee information if provided by the Florida Department of Fish and Wildlife, and is available at

It was just starting to get daylight as we finished loading the pontoon boat at Homosassa Springs.  The location we used is considered their "premium" tour because there are fewer people, fewer boats, and less boat traffic.  Plus it is a shallow location, making it easier to spot the manatees.  Our guide told us the manatees would look like giant brown potatoes, laying on the bottom.  One reason the tour leaves so early is because as the day wears on, the manatees leave their overnight site at Homosassa Springs, and head out into the Gulf waters during the day. 

This photo shows the youngest and oldest females on the trip.  I will let you guess which one is me! 

Our boat captain gave each of us a squirt of the special solution to put on our masks to keep them from fogging up when we got underwater.  Likewise, he reminded that it was THE LAW that we had to keep our snorkel tops above the water surface at all times.  Diving down to touch the manatee is forbidden.  However, he told us that IF the manatee approached us, it was okay to let them nudge us.  They are mostly herbivores (plant eaters), and do not have teeth that would cause injuries to humans. 

As we motored to our snorkeling location, the captain gave us some information about manatees.  They are marine mammals that grow up to 12 feet long, weigh as much as 1300 pounds, and have paddle-like flippers.  The word "manatee" is a reference to the mammary glands that are under the flippers of the female.  They are also sometimes called "sea cows" and dugongs.  Their closest living relative is an elephant, which is one reason their thick, wrinkled skin resembles that of an elephant. 

Since manatee spend about 50% of their day sleeping, one section of our snorkeling location was completely roped off, and swimmers were NOT to go beyond those markers.  That was the official "Manatee Sleep Zone"!  It would have been rude to wake them up early---especially on New Year's Eve!  However, the manatees have to surface for air about every 20 minutes, so pedestrian visitors who use the viewing dock shown in this photo, are likely to see them if they wait around long enough.  When the manatee are not sleeping or surfacing for air, they spend the rest of their time grazing in shallow waters of 3 - 6 feet.

When our boat arrived around daylight, there was only one other dive boat in the vicinity, so our captain was quite pleased!  The light boat traffic is probably one reason we were able to see about a dozen manatee during our swim.  I felt very fortunate, because on the previous day, the group had only seen two!  The "close encounter" I had with a manatee was magnificent!  As soon as I got into the water, I could tell the excitement had my heart beating really fast, so I just held onto the anchor line, to let myself get calmed down and get comfortable with my mask and snorkel.  After the silt cleared, I realized I was floating directly above one of the creatures---maybe just one foot above it!!  About the time I realized how close I was, it rolled over, looked directly into my eyes, and raised both flippers above its head at the same time---like it was giving that same gesture that I have with the photo at the end of my blog!  That is the Hebrew symbol for praise!  Believe me, I was praising God, right along with that manatee!

When we came out of the water, we were all quite cold, and told to get out of our wet suits as soon as possible, to keep from getting even more chilled.  The captain poured up hot chocolate to get the warm-up process started.  It really hit the spot!

The pontoon boat was equipped with clear vinyl sides, that we lowered for the trip back to the dock.  That helped keep us a little warmer.  Also, as you can see there are life jackets on the boat, so that anyone who wants to snorkel with the aid of a life jacket is able to do so. 

When we got back to the marina, the captain started a pot of fresh coffee for us, and proceeded to download the video he had taken of all of us swimming with the manatee.  He had told us in advance that he would come around to each of us when we were swimming to get a close up of us for the video, so it was fun watching not only the manatee, but also waiting for our "cameo appearance" in this SPECTACULAR New Year's Eve video!

Considering the low light conditions and the amount of silt stirred up by our movement, I thought the videographer did a good job!  The videos were available for purchase when we got back to the diving center in Crystal River.

Once we got back to the diving center, we turned in our gear, and looked around for a souvenir to remind us of our experience.  Seeing all these books about manatees brings to mind a trivia question for you:  "Are manatees mentioned in the Bible??"  The answer is "YES!"  In the Old Testament, there are detailed descriptions from the LORD, to Moses, about what the Israelites are to bring as an offering for the Tabernacle.  Exodus 25:5 says, "These are the offerings you are to receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and scarlet yarn and fine linen; goat hair; ram skins dyed red and hides of sea cows;..."  I am thankful that these magnificent mammals, known as "sea cows" or manatees,  were around in the ancient days, and are still here today!  Likewise, I am extremely thankful that I had this opportunity to see them up close and personal, as it gave me "MILES OF SMILES!"  Tricia

Monday, December 15, 2014


Although you cannot tell by looking, this is a group of "citizen scientists", who, less than 24 hours earlier, had all been complete strangers to each other!  However, they all had at least one thing in common---a desire to make the world a better place through wise use of our natural resources.

The group met at the Harp Environmental Field Station, located on a mountain top, above the Buffalo River at Toney Bend.  We were there to participate in the longest running Citizen Science Survey in the world!

A plaque on the wall at the entrance to the field station, gives a history of the person for whom the station is named.  The Field Station is under the "umbrella" of the National Park Service, and serves many purposes in the on-going mission of the park service, to be a steward of the Buffalo National River.

The large space has several rooms with bunk beds: there are also conference rooms, dining room, laundry room, restrooms, kitchen, and expansive outdoor decks.

Our host for the event was National Park Service Ranger/Interpreter, Michael Simpson.  He arrived with five large pizzas from the prize winning artisan pizza making spot called "Nima's", of Gassville, Arkansas

Seeing the beautiful design on top of this pizza, makes it easy to see why they have won numerous national pizza competitions!

We were told that preparing the ingredients for a pizza like the one in this photo, takes two days, because of the special marinades they use on the fresh ingredients.

Even though it was a bit of a drive for the park ranger to get from Nima's in Gassville, Arkansas, to the Rush, Arkansas, area where our group was located, the overwhelming delight of the diners showed the trip was worth it!  We owe a big THANK YOU to the Buffalo National River Partners ( ) for making it possible for us to enjoy such a gourmet treat!

After supper, we had a program by Jack Stewart (A Director for the National Audubon Society), that taught us about the Christmas Bird Count.  This is a census of birds in the Western Hemisphere done annually by volunteer birdwatchers, and administered by the National Audubon Society ( ).  Previous to the twentieth century, it was a common practice in the days around Christmas to have "side hunts", where the only goal was to see how many birds could be killed in a single hunt.  However, in 1900, a U.S. ornithologist proposed counting birds at this time of year instead of killing them.  Since then, the counts have been held every winter.  The first year, there were 25 observers in 27 places in the U.S. and Canada.  During the 113th count (2013), 71,531 people participated in 2,369 locations!

Jack Stewart explained to our group that the census is performed in a "count circle" with a diameter of 15 miles. 

To make sure our volunteers were "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed", there was plenty of hot coffee prepared for us, as we all got up long before dawn!

It was a beautiful sight to see the white fog above the Buffalo River Valley in the first light of the day, as we emerged from out mountain top location, to greet the birds!

We started out with flash lights, but slowly the morning light revealed the vastness of the landscape in front of us. 

It is customary for every small group to have a recorder, who writes down the name of the bird seen, and makes hash marks, to indicate how many of that particular species. 

It was an interesting coincidence that two of the ladies in the group---both of them graduates of Harrison High School (albeit in different centuries!)---would each be sporting embroidered patches that read "Ski Marble Falls--Dogpatch, Arkansas"!! 

As our group was finishing up their dawn bird census, the sun was just beginning to rise above the horizon.  We had done an "owl prowl" the night before, but the birds heard from that experience could not be counted, because the Christmas Bird Count does not officially start until one minute after midnight on December 14, and runs through January 5, 2015. 

It wasn't until I started writing this blog, that I realized that the people shown in this photo are doing what Jesus Himself told us to do!  Jesus said, "Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?"  Matthew 6:26.

Participation in the Christmas Bird Count is open to all, and is free.  I was there as a volunteer from the Arkansas Master Naturalist group ( ), but other folks helping with the count were not members of any particular organization; rather, they just wanted to be a part of such a worthwhile endeavor as the Christmas Bird Count.  If you would like to participate, go to the Christmas Bird Count ( CBC ) section of the Audubon web site, to find out more details.

want to thank National Park Service Ranger Michael Simpson for being an inspiring host/interpreter for our group, and recommend you check out the park service website (  ) to find out more about the wonderful outdoor opportunties that await you in the Ozarks!  It will give you "MILES OF SMILES"!  Tricia