Sanibel Island Vacation

This commentary is a summary of my notes taken during a vacation with our daughter and her two children. The oldest grandkid was on Spring Break and the youngest was excused from school to go on the trip. The Denver metro area is having a blizzard and our backyard has about two feet of snow accumulated so far today while Sanibel is supposed to be in the high 70s with sunshine today. Denver International Airport is mostly closed, but our flight came back two days before all that started.

We flew non-stop on Frontier with very small and uncomfortable seats to Fort Myers, Fl and drove our rental car over the causeway to the island. We stocked up on groceries at a Publix on the way. We stayed at the Sundial Resort, where our daughter negotiated a 40% reduction in the room rate. We had nearly perfect weather of sunny skies and mid 80 temperatures with only one impressive and short squall that dumped more rain in minutes than what we get in the Denver area in a normal month. The biggest disappointment was that we weren’t able to do snorkeling to look at all the sea creatures. We heard Lake Okeechobee had to be drawn down from the heavier than usual rains. That made the surf too murky for snorkeling. The people at the visitor center told us it is a common spring occurrence, and they are working to get the practice stopped or modified in some way. One warning is that we did not use insect repellent on early beach visits and paid the price with the very itchy “no-see-um” bites that have stayed with us until after the vacation.

There are many fun and interesting things to do on a Sanibel vacation. Walking or relaxing on the beach with the sound of the waves, watching all the birds and boats, and twice seeing a pod of dolphins chase schools of fish up toward the shore. The bike riding is great on the island with the extensive biking paths where the only changes in elevation are the raised bridges over canals. One bike ride was to the light house and fishing pier, which was crowded. Sheepshead and mangrove snappers had been caught. (The bikes were “complimentary, although there is a $40/night resort fee for those and other recreational equipment.) A visit to the sea shell museum was a hit.

Favorite things done on the trip were lounging at the pool or on the beach and the night low-tide “shelling” with flashlights. Probably the most common creature left above the water by the receding tide were beautiful “fighting conch,” which were commonly 2 inch shells of various colors. One night expedition found three of the very large conch. (We were told it is pronounced “conk.”) We read several warnings that keeping a shell with a living inhabitant was prohibited. It might be difficult to put a really beautiful shell back when you see it’s occupied, but it’s the right thing to do.

We saw two 5-6 foot alligators up close (from our rental van). One was beside the main road that connects Sanibel with Captiva. It hissed at us as we pulled up beside it and took its picture. The other was sunning beside the water during our drive through the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which is popular for all the varieties of birds. We saw numerous lizards and one of the endangered Eastern Indigo Snakes. It was crawling across the grass by our condo and disappeared into dense vegetation. An interesting fact about the snakes is that they kill prey by violently thrashing against whatever is nearby. Captive snakes are given dead animals to prevent them from injuring themselves in this violent activity!

There are many wonderful restaurants on the island, and we had a running conversation about which was the best that we tried. All were busy. The Bubble House is a strange place apparently so named because it has chandeliers made of bubbling Christmas lights. Our waiter was a young woman wearing Boy Scout shorts and shirt and a headband with cat ears. The meal came with wonderful cheesy bread and sticky rolls. The menu was a bit odd, not extensive, and relatively expensive. The key lime pie was declared the “best ever.” The best of Doc Ford’s was the pound of “Calypso” peel and eat shrimp. We tried the Island Cow, and thought it was so good we went back for our last meal on the island. The most interesting meal there was the “Holy Cow,” which was a combination of fried shrimp, oysters, clams, and calamari. Alligator could be and was added to make a meal that could easily be enough for two to three people. I’ve decided to leave the Lazy Flamingo for last because it was my favorite. Very friendly people in what I think of as a beach café setting with a mix of locals and tourists. We recommend that you try the fresh grouper there or anywhere else it is on the menu. There were two trips to Pinocchio’s, which is a very busy ice cream place. Try the “dirty sand dollar,” if you like chocolate.

I’ll close with a description of a memorable 16×20 inch cake decorated with a beach motif from Bailey’s for a tenth birthday celebration. The cake had blue icing waves on the sides, blue water and sand (graham cracker crumbs) on top, and a variety of sugar “sea shells.” There also was a miniature beach chair, palm trees, a beach bucket and shovel, umbrella, and sand castle. A wonderful birthday cake and wonderful vacation. Try Sanibel, you’ll like it!

Rocky Flats Back in the News

It has been a while since there has been a significant news story about the legacy of the Rocky Flats Plant. The production of plutonium parts for nuclear weapons was the part of the mission that was the primary focus of those who concentrated on protesting the plant. I’ve attempted to convince people that much more was accomplished at the site, but plutonium manufacturing continues to dominate the conversation even all these many years since the site was torn down and the surrounding area converted into a wildlife refuge.

There haven’t been any mass media reports about the plant until a recent news story in the Denver Post titled “Neighboring Rocky Flats” by Electra Draper. There is a subtitle, “The more I learned…the more horrified I became.” I will give the article credit for resurrecting at least some of the words and phrases that were used frequently in new reports to criticize the place while the plant was still in operation. One example is the description about “…plutonium fires in 1957 and 1969 that wafted toxic smoke over the metro area”. Another is the concern that the proposed Jefferson Parkway and development of hiking and biking trails in the area now designated as a Wildlife Refuge will “…kick up plutonium-laced dust”. There was a new descriptor used to explain the concern that “…the site’s toxic legacy has faded…”and that people would move into the “plutonium dust bowl without understanding the potential risk.” Continue reading

Actions on Parkway Next to Rocky Flats

I haven’t posted an article that directly relates to the former Rocky Flats plant for quite some time, but there is recent news about the area where the plant was located .There have been plans to transfer a parcel of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge for a right of way to construct part of the Jefferson County Parkway near where the plant operated.  The court recently threw out law suits to stop the transfer ownership of the strip of land. The suits were based in part on “…the lack of a comprehensive environmental assessment of its impacts.”

The parkway has been vigorously opposed by people who object to the development and resulting congestion that would result. A focus many who opposed the project was plutonium contamination in the area. One article explained, “Opponents say building the road along the route currently proposed, which skirts the eastern edge of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, could turn up soil laced with dangerous levels of plutonium in the area, which was the longtime site of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant.

The $10 million dollar land swap for the right of way officially went through on New Year’s Eve Day. The court action to reverse a last-minute injunction was undoubtedly celebrated by the cities and governmental agencies that see the positives of completing a high-speed highway around the metropolitan area. A spokesperson for one of the environmental groups that had sued to block the transfer, “…called the closing a setback, but said his group will continue to look into ways to fight the building of the tollway.” Continue reading

Jefferson County Parkway and the Rocky Flats Plant II

This is an update based on a news article published in the Arvada YourHub the day after the original post. The article by Karen Groves says that Golden has withdrawn their support for the project and filed suit “…challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to transfer land from the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge to the proposed Jefferson Parkway toll highway.”  Golden had originally agreed to the road after being offered $57 million for traffic and noise mitigation after “…months of negotiations between Golden and parkway proponents (Jefferson Country, Arvada, The Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority, and the Colorado Department of Transportation to reach an agreement.” Golden official decided to file the litigation after an outcry from citizens despite the fact “…the outcome would be expensive and uncertain.”

Golden citizens mentioned the “…danger of plutonium disturbance…” during construction of a highway next to the site where the Rocky Flats Plant built nuclear weapons components for the military. I will reiterate my comments that I disagree with the contentions about the risk from the plutonium. The entire world and all inhabitants are contaminated with plutonium from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. Details about that and the Rocky Flats Plant’s record of plutonium releases are discussed in Chapter 25 of “An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats, Urban Myths Debunked.”

The battle over a parkway has been going on for decades. I recently received a message from a former Rocky Flats Plant official mentioning that proponents of various parkway options had wanted public support from the plant in the late 1980s while Greenpeace had requested they officially oppose the project.

Jefferson Country Parkway and the Rocky Flats Plant

There has been long-time opposition to completing the metropolitan beltway by constructing a parkway for vehicles and bicycles on the eastern edge of the site where the Rocky Flats Plant once constructed plutonium components for nuclear weapons. There was a previous posting about the controversy, which is mostly about the plutonium contamination in the area of the proposed parkway. I’ve exchanged emails with the group that was formed to oppose the parkway to discuss and disagree with their contentions about the risk from plutonium. Chapter 25 of the book “An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats, Urban Myths Debunked,” gives detailed information about plutonium releases from the plant, and there was much less released than critics would like you to believe. The bottom line is that plutonium is everywhere from the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, and disputing construction of the parkway on the basis of plutonium contamination is, in my opinion, a flawed argument.

A recent article in the Denver Post by Bruce Finley describes recent developments. Some of the long-time opponents of the Parkway have recently changed their positions because of a proposed land swap that would open more public open space and lock in “…an open-space bridge to the mountains.” “The emerging green ring around Denver includes Rocky Flats, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Barr Lake State Park, Cherry Creek State Park, Chatfield State Park and seven or so county and municipal parks set against the foothills.”

The city of Golden recently modified a proposal to create a bicycle and pedestrian trail where the parkway is proposed to be constructed. They then withdrew their opposition to the toll road after being promised $57 million for traffic and noise mitigation. However, the town of Superior plans to file a lawsuit to block the swap because of failure “…to conduct a sufficient review of likely environmental impacts…”

An article in Westword by Patricia Calhoun titled, “Plans for the Jefferson Country Parkway are kicking up lots of dust,” expresses some skepticism. The regional director of Fish and Wildlife commented, “Accepting this exchange proposal will significantly expand the Rocky Flats NWR (National Wildlife Refuge) not only for the benefit of wildlife, but it will also anchor a network of green space for the people of the Denver metro area to enjoy for years to come.”

The author then adds, “If you don’t mind a little radioactive dust in your picnic.”

The article also provides more detail about the basis for Superior’s lawsuit. “The conclusion of the environmental assessment should have been that a full study leading to an Environmental Impact Statement was necessary to fully understand and evaluate the impact of the expansion of the refuge and the building of a four-lane toll road.”

I’ve told opponents of the toll road that I am not taking a position; several friends are opposed to the road. My position is that opposing the road because of plutonium contamination in the area of the proposed construction is a very weak argument.

J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

I was interested in the refuge on Sanibel Island barrier partly because the area surrounding what had been the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapon production facility where I once worked has been designated a wildlife refuge.  The Sanibel refuge was created after Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, a political cartoonist, urged Harry Truman to sign an executive order to create the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge in 1945. The designation blocked the sale of land to developers.  The refuge was renamed after the pioneer conservationist in 1967. The refuge has over 6,400 acres of mangrove forests, sea grass beds, cord grass mashes, and West Indian hardwood hammocks. It makes up the largest portion of a total of five wildlife refuges on Sanibel with large populations of fish and the more than 220 species of birds and other critters that depend on fish for food.

Sanibel Island and the southwest coastal mainland of Florida were inhabited by Calusa Native Americans when Spanish explorers arrived and brought diseases that eventually mostly wiped out the tribe. It is thought a few might have made it to Cuba. The Calusa were still there in substantial numbers when Ponce de Leon organized a colonizing expedition using two ships that traveled to the southwest coast of Florida in 1521.  The word “Calusa” was described to mean “the fierce ones,” and in keeping with that description the tribe attacked the expedition.  Ponce de Leon was struck by a poisoned arrow, died of the wound in Havana, Cuba, and was buried in Puerto Rico.

We decided to take the narrated tram tour of the refuge which is operated by Tarpon Bay Explorers. The four mile tour is $13/adult and $8/child. You can pay five dollars to drive your own vehicle, but we decided we preferred the narration by an expert. Our guide was Barry Litofsky, and we were pleased with our decision to do the guided tour. We didn’t see any mosquitoes, but did get some bites from “No Seeums.” It would be a good idea to have insect repellant.

Barry said the most common question is, “Why do the mullet jump?” The fish were frequently jumping high enough to clear the water in the estuaries and landing with a splash. The answer to why they jump was something to the effect, “We don’t know. We don’t know how to ask a mullet.” However, the speculation is that they jump to dislodge sand that collects in their gills while they are bottom feeding.

We saw multitudes of birds, and I thought the two most memorable were a roseate spoonbill at a distance and an anhinga standing near the road with its wings spread to dry. The bird is called “snake bird,” because it leaves a ripple similar to that of a snake when it is swimming under water. The one we saw had a fishing lure stuck in its beak with a short piece of monofilament fishing line attached. There have been discussions on how to capture the bird and take it to the local rehabilitation center to remove the lure. The latest report is that the bird was never captured for removal of the lure and line. We are hoping that that the lure dissolved or fell out.

There are three bald eagle nests and over a hundred osprey nests on the island. Barry told us there are twelve types of small shore birds in the refuge, and they are collectively called “LBJ,” or “Little brown jobbies.”

Much of the discussion during the tour focused on the mangrove trees and their remarkable multiple roots that anchor them. There are three kinds of mangrove trees in Florida and Sanibel and many more in other parts of the world. The mangroves aren’t related except for the common trait that they live in salt water. All of them need to provide fresh water to their leaves. One type filters the salt out in the roots, another gets rid of the salt through pores on the leaves, and the other concentrates the salt in old leaves that then die.  All three methods are variations of the reverse osmosis process that provides fresh water to Sanibel residents and visitors.

The mangrove trees are protected in part because they provide impregnable resistance to hurricane winds. The guide told us that mangroves were removed from Captiva to plant citrus trees. Hurricane winds ripped out the trees and eroded a trench across the island. Another reason to protect the mangroves is that the network of roots provides a nursery for fish. The fish in turn feed the predators, including the many species of birds.

There are American alligators in the refuge, and there was one crocodile that died along with much of the snook (fish) population during a recent incredibly (for the area) cold snap. The crocodile had lived on the island for decades, and over 200 people attended its memorial service. One lonely bear has taken up residence. Barry pointed out half dollar-sized black crabs that had crawled up out of the estuary onto the trees.

There was an interesting discussion of the Sabal or Cabbage palmetto trees, which is the protected State tree of Florida. The center of the trees was used by the Calusa as food. Floridians continued harvesting the trees, especially during the Depression, and the food was commonly called “swamp cabbage.” However, the extreme tenderness earned it a reputation as a delicacy, and the name became “millionaire’s salad.” Almost all of the “hearts of palm” sold in the U.S. is from South America, with just under half coming from Brazil. The trees are grown commercially and harvested when they are about five feet tall at the age of a year or a bit more.

Fishing is allowed in the refuge, and it looked to me to be quite productive. We saw one man with a really large needle fish (three feet long?) Crabbing is allowed only with dip nets. We certainly would enjoy a return visit to the refuge, and I’m hoping next time I have some fishing equipment and the required license, of course. I’m also hoping funds become available to open the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge so I can take my family there for a visit.