Sunday, January 31, 2016

We're Feeling Very Greek in The Woodlands

As we moved along the Texas coast, we looked with trepidation to the day we must drive through Houston.  So Denisa wasn't looking forward to the move from Brazos Bend to our next stop near The Woodlands.  But Mark did a great job of driving through the traffic and the construction, and we landed safely in our two-night stop in a county park in Tomball, Texas.  We forgot to take any pictures, but we were really impressed with our full-hook-up site in Spring Creek Park, that was available for free!

Our location in Tomball allowed us to visit some dear friends, Marti and Andy.  We are almost related, since they are Mark's brother's son's wife's parents.

We got to wish Andy a happy birthday on the first day we were there, and they invited us to his delicious birthday dinner.  But we had to leave earlier than we wanted.  We found that the only disadvantage to our free parking spot was its 10:00 curfew.  So we returned the next day, as we hadn't gotten to play ping pong and other games that we had planned.  

Denisa was also so bold to request a special Greek cooking lesson. We especially wanted to learn how to make the deliciously flaky Greek dessert--baklava. We had tasted Andy's baklava at the wedding, because he has made enough for all the guests at all of their daughters' weddings.  So we shopped for the ingredients that they didn't have on hand, and started the two-hour process of assembling the layers of sweetness.

This is obviously a health food.  Each paper-thin layer of filo is brushed with butter. You can see the filo on the table to the right. We brushed in five layers of filo on the bottom of the pan before we started layering it with the sugar and nut mixture in the pan. To complete the ambiance, there was a picture of a Greek island looking over our shoulder. After Andy got us started, we followed his lead and started building the layers.  

We found that Mark was best at spreading the filo on the stack, and we shared the task of butter brushing.

Denisa was busy writing down the recipe as Andy mixed up the sweet and nutty mixture that goes between the layers of filo.  He didn't use any standard measurements, so she wrote some things like, "enough cinnamon to cover the snow."  That would translate into a little over one teaspoon cinnamon sprinkled over the mound of white sugar.  But when he sniffed the mixture later, we added more cinnamon until it smelled just right.  We were watching a master of baklava! After all the layers are stacked in the pan, it is time for the hardest part--cutting those perfect diamonds.  We had no idea that the baklava are cut before it is baked.

It was 43 minutes before the pan came out of the oven, a perfect golden color.  Then it is drizzled with a special syrup mixture that has been simmering for 15 minutes.  That is a beautiful pan of Greek bliss!

Marti is the perfect hostess, serving the special Greek bread that she had purchased at church this week. The Greek bread was called Vasiloptia--also known as St. Basil's bread for those of us that aren't good at pronouncing those 5 syllable Greek words that sound so foreign to us.

We left to eat dinner, and Denisa was disappointed that we weren't actually eating baklava for dinner!?!  We did eat plenty for dessert, and took most of that pan home with us when we left right before our 10:00 curfew.  We've been snacking on this delicious dessert as we savor our time with Andy and Marti, feeling very Greek and very blessed to get to spend such good time with our friends.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Galveston, Oh Galveston!

When we visit a town associated with a song, we sing and hum that song all day.  So along with Glenn Campbell, we hummed "Galveston, Oh Galveston" while we visited some new (to us) parts of the city.  We've been here several times to board cruise ships, but today our main destination was the Ocean Star Drilling Rig Museum.

In the past, when we left Galveston's port on those cruise ships, we saw miles of off-shore drilling sites sprinkled in the water throughout this Gulf region.  Now we have learned more about that drilling process.  We also learned about the unusual method for transporting the workers and their luggage to and from the off-shore site.

We also saw robot-like suits used by very non-claustrophobic repairmen that can travel a mile below the ocean's surface to fix problems under water.

It was interesting to find that there are many different methods of drilling and maintaining an off-shore site.  One method used in very deep water is to actually chain the platform to the ocean floor up to 6000 feet below.  This is the size of a single link in a chain that is over a mile long.

One of the reasons this museum was so interesting to us was that our youngest son is an engineer at an oil and gas company.  It was good to see some of the things we have heard him describe in his work.  This would be a display of different drill bits used in drilling the oil well.

We also took a picture of the oil field's version of a Christmas tree--a stack of valves and gauges that control the pressure of an oil well.

This museum is actually located on a retired off shore drilling rig--the Ocean Star.  We were allowed to walk out on the drilling platform.

Across the harbor, we could see more active drilling platforms all around us,

and tankers full of oil floating by.

The Galveston harbor also plays host to fishing boats and shore excursion boats.  We watched as this one unloaded its catch of the day at the port.

We decided to explore the southern part of the island, some place we have never seen.  So we headed to Galveston Island state park to walk the beaches on this cool day.  We almost had the place to ourselves.

We can't go to the beach without looking for shells.  This would be a first for us--our favorite shells displayed on a gloved hand.

We did some hiking on the bay side of the state park before driving home via the southern tip of the island.  We saw miles and miles of houses built on stilts looking out over the Gulf as the sun was setting over the bay.  As we drove and hummed, "Galveston, oh Galveston," we realized that even though we have been here many times, we can always find new places to explore on a cool January afternoon.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Brazos Bend Blessings

We are loving our time at Texas state parks, because we pretty well have the place to ourselves during the week.  We can take long bike rides and never see another person!

We just have to brag on our great camping spot again.  It is so big that this is the picture taken from the back of our site towards our motor home.  One of the biggest sites ever!  


We also have to include a picture of the huge vines that wind their way up the trunks of most of the trees in the park.  Mark has been eyeing this vine all week, sure that it would help him climb our tree.

In Texas state parks, you can make reservations, but not for a particular site.  So someone (like us) that shows up without a reservation, but in the middle of the week when no one is here, gets to pick the very best site.

This park is very popular among people from nearby Houston, and we found out that every camping spot has been reserved for this weekend for several months.  So we hoped for a way to stay in our beautiful camping spot, but it didn't look very hopeful.  But then we were "blessed" with the same cold front that dumped three feet of snow on the northeast.  Our version of the cold front was temperatures that dipped into the 50's, with strong winds during the day.  That was enough to scare away most of the 300 boy scouts that were converging on the park for the weekend, so we got to stay!

By the end of the week end, we again had the place to ourselves. This picture was taken as the sinking sun illuminated our now empty campground.

We take advantage of these cold, windy days to catch up on laundry, and we made a batch of cookies!  We had to burn off those cookie calories, so the next day we continued our long bike rides and hikes around the 34  miles of trails in the park.

The little white dots under that big live oak tree are two ibis.  We've seen hundreds of these birds in the park.

Actually, some of the park trails are closed because they are too muddy.  We got on a few trails that should be closed, as riding a bike through the mud is one of the hardest and messiest things we have tried so far.

We found out this park was closed last spring because it was totally covered with water.  You can still see the water mark on the trees and bushes throughout the park.  It looks like our campground was under about three feet of water at the time the park was closed.

The water birds and alligators didn't seem to mind the flooding, and we can attest that they are doing well.  We saw lots of these curious birds with bright red foreheads.  A google search taught us that they are common gallinule.

We were easily entertained by this gray heron, intently watching the water for his next meal.

There is also a huge flock of vultures in the park.  They must keep the dead animal carcasses cleaned up in a hurry with this size of clean-up crew.  We counted over 150 vultures in the air at one time.

The park has a great nature center and very friendly staff.  We also enjoyed this "clock" outside the nature center.  Called an analemmatic sundial, it uses the sun's movement pattern to measure time. Denisa is the gnomon, a fancy name for any object used to cast a shadow on the dial.  But since she is a moving gnomon, she can move to different areas of the dial to reflect the sun's position in the sky during different months of the year. By standing on the square marked as "January," her upraised arms point at the correct time of day.  It was actually 2:50 when we took this picture--very accurate!

We are learning some of the curious hunting styles that God has given to some curious birds.  This is an anhinga--also known as a snake-bird.  Instead of floating on top of the water like a duck, this bird will be totally submerged under water except for that long flexible neck.  He looks like a snake going through the water. Those wings don't shed water, so he must come to the beach to spread his wings to dry.

This is a close up of an anhinga that let us get unusually close. When we saw the way he was holding his wing we kept our distance because we thought he was either injured or perhaps a juvenile.

God gave this little snowy egret a great hunting tool.  On the end of those long black legs are bright yellow toes.  He wiggles his yellow toes to stir up aquatic life that might think they are chasing a worm for lunch--only to find that they have become lunch for the egret instead.

The turtles also seem to be doing well at Brazos Bend. We are looking at them with a different degree of respect after watching one inside the jaws of an alligator.

Since we were blessed to get to stay through the weekend, we were looking for a place to attend church on Sunday morning.  Right outside the park is Brazos Bend Baptist Church, and we enjoyed the service here with the friendly congregation.  If you look closely on the sign, you can see that there was a chili-cook off, and we were invited to stay and help judge the best chili.  This is the second time we have been a soup judge in the past week.  We're wondering if this could lead to a second career for us as professional food judges.  What a delicious career!

Staying through Sunday also meant watching the professional football playoff games on Sunday afternoon.  On this beautiful afternoon, Mark finally had the opportunity to watch the games outside. We have been on the road for over a year, and this is the first time we have used that outdoor television.  It was also a good time to sort out the citrus fruit that we brought with us from the Rio Grande Valley.  You can see the piles of oranges, tangerines and grape fruit on the ground beside the motor home.  We have certainly been enjoying eating and sharing the citrus we picked off Denisa's Mother's trees in Mission.

With the beautiful weather, we started a campfire and had a hotdog supper.  That would also include a smorse dessert while the football games wound down.

A herd of deer wandered into the site next door.  This has to be one of Denisa's favorite park pictures.  It includes campfire toasted marshmallows, wildlife, and a beautiful Spanish-moss-draped oak tree, all taken from our huge camping spot.  We have been blessed with our stay at Brazos Bend State Park!

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Alligators of Brazos Bend State Park

While we were staying at Goose Island, Denisa struck up a conversation with a regional state park employee.  When she asked what his favorite state park was, he immediately answered, "Brazos Bend State Park!" He also added, ". . . and they even have alligators!"  Since we don't have any set itinerary, we naturally made plans to head north to go there next.  We love the flexibility to add new stops and adventures! We definitely agree that this is a great park, and we have one of the biggest, most beautiful camping sites we've ever seen.

This park is full of some huge live oak trees that are draped with Spanish moss.  We are falling in love with these giants!

Denisa is sitting on a bench under a tree, looking out over one of the many lakes that cover much of this state park.

All that water and wet lands is good habitat for the most famous wildlife at Brazos Bend--the American alligators.  This is the first one we spotted on our first day at the park.

A teacher who had brought her high school students for a field trip snapped this picture of the three of us--Mark, Denisa, and the alligator laying behind Mark.  There is something spooky about turning your back to a gator just a few feet behind us.

We've never been in a park where there were so many signs warning about the alligators.  We thought it was fun that one was lounging in the water right below the sign.

But the most interesting alligator we saw was this big boy on the spillway.

Then we saw why he had that big toothy grin.  Peeking out of his mouth was his next meal.

This would be a close-up of the red-eared slider turtle that was upside down in his jaws.  The turtle was obviously not having a good day.

We watched as the live turtle would use his legs to inch his way towards the front of the alligator's mouth.

Then the alligator would raise his huge head, and fling the turtle deeper down his gullet.  Mark caught this picture when the gator's mouth was wide open to show the situation.

We sat on the bridge for over an hour, watching the life and death drama unfold.  We must be easily entertained, because this was the slowest nature documentary we have ever watched.
We were cheering for the turtle, as he worked his way to the front of the gator's teeth each time.

One more picture of another attempt of the alligator to swallow this uncooperative lunch.

After an hour, we finally continued down the trail.  It looked like a stand-off (or an upside down lay-down) as the turtle and gator were still in the same positions when we returned another hour later.  It's at this point that we should write how this struggle ended--but we don't actually know.

What we do know is that finding alligators at Brazos Bend is more fun than hunting Easter eggs.  We would find 10 on our first day when the park was quite busy and the weather was beautiful.  It was fun spotting them in the murky waterways along the bike paths.

The easiest to spot were those soaking up the sunshine on the shores. 

 The second day there were fewer people in the park, and we counted 22 different alligators.  That would include this mother that some times has babies riding on her back.  We were really disappointed that she didn't have any hitch-hikers today.

Some times those sneaky alligators try to entice unsuspecting bicyclists to come read the signs that they are hiding under.  But Mark didn't fall for it.

That wasn't the only alligator on the trail.  We circled four in a row.

If seeing the big boys in the park gets boring, there is also a chance to see and touch some of the resident baby alligators.  This 5-month-old gator is at the nature center.  One of a group of 30 hatchlings that had to be moved within the park, most of the siblings were returned to the wild.  There is a one percent survival rate among hatched babies, as they make a tasty meal for the resident birds.  For the one percent that do survive, they will return the favor and make tasty meals of those same birds.