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Out on the highway – Street Gliding the Everglades Headwaters

November 13, 2013

After 10 days of ferrying the family around theme parks and shopping malls ‘Dad’ was given his day in the Florida sun to use as he wished 🙂

Now that my eldest is increasingly making her own way in the world, I doubt that we will head state-side on a family holiday for quite a while now so I thought I’d go for a full-on American experience and decided to hire a Harley Davidson for a day, head down south for some alligator spotting in the swamps and then have a go at firing some weapons at a gun range.

Street-Glide-2014I’ve never ridden a Harley before and as I’m fast approaching 50 and the age at which my family seem happier for me to own another bike then it was a good opportunity to experience what this style of ‘laid back’ classic motorcycling has to offer.

The bike I chose was the 2014 Street Glide model which is the latest output from Harley Davidson’s ‘Project Rushmore’ – an initiative from the iconic company to incorporate over 100 renovations into their 2014 product range that are based on close collaboration with customers.

The guys at Harley Davidson in South Orlando were very helpful to this HOG world newbie, giving me the full run down on this new machine and some of its ‘awesome’ features, such as the on-board infotainment system that includes bluetooth connectivity.

A few circuits of an adjacent car park to familiarise myself with the basic controls and handling and I was ready to get out on the highway.

harley1The swamp tour location was an hour south and when they heard I was travelling by motorcycle it was commented with strong southern US twang that I’d “have a lovely ride out there”. Sure enough, after 20 minutes of stop/start riding through the outskirts of Kissimmee and St Cloud, during which the beast of a 1700 cc air-cooled engine between my legs was throwing off a lot of heat to add to the unseasonably hot temperatures generally, the distance between traffic lights and intersections became greater and then they disappeared altogether to leave wide open road with fewer and fewer houses.

After 30 minutes or so I was in open countryside on straight roads with virtually no traffic at all and could really start to enjoy what this bike had to offer. The fairing and screen design, combined with the low seating position meant very little wind buffering at higher speeds and the bike felt incredibly solid and secure on the road surface. An empty road also meant I could seek out the bike’s powerband. That gut-wrenching surge of acceleration as a bike hits its stride is one of the great joys of motorcycling. The bike pulled well in second and third but didn’t deliver anywhere near the thrill of the Japanese sports tourers I am more used to riding. However, it was a joy to sit back, relax and cruise at high-speed with the sun beating down and the vultures circling overhead seeking out roadkill. It was at that point I understood how the Harley rider I’d seen on the Interstate a couple of days previously had, unbelievably, managed to sit on his bike with his arms folded and feet up on the highway pegs at speeds up to 70 miles an hour. That, coupled with the fact he was not wearing a helmet and was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt is not a sight you see on a British motorway. Having just deposited $2000 on my credit card however, I was giving the bike as much respect as possible and holding back on using and abusing it fully.

J_on_harley2With a continued empty flat road I had time and opportunity to discover a new experience on a motorcycle – music. After a bit of trial and error with the thumb navigation controls on the infotainment system I found WJRR – the local Orlando rock station and pumped up the volume. Fortunately, the old-fashioned pudding bowl style Harley branded crash helmet the rental guys had given me shielded my hearing aids from excessive wind noise but didn’t cover them in a way a full face helmet would. This meant that they honed in surprisingly well on the sound coming out of the big speakers either side of the fairing. For the rest of the journey to the southern tip of Lake Kissimmee I was street gliding to favourite sounds from the likes of Led Zeppelin, Foo Fighters, Nickelback and Papa Roach. During those last moments of that trip south I think I reached some kind of hard rock biker nirvana – particularly when Smells Like Teen Spirit drifted across the airwaves.

james-swamp2The Kissimmee swamp tour place was located at the end of a long straight track but the gravel and potholes had me riding this stretch of the journey very carefully. As I pulled into the car park, they came out to meet me and gave me useful instructions for the start of the tour.

Within minutes of boarding  it was clear why this particular tour outfit’s strapline is ‘Everything else is just an Airboat Ride’. The two-way radio sets and headphones we’d been given enabled an exchange of information and questions with Captain Bud and I’m pleased to say that my hearing aids behaved admirably again by not screaming with feedback when covered up and adapting to the processed sound of the Captain’s voice perfectly. It was wonderful to be able to hear all of the knowledgeable commentary on the history, issues and wildlife of this part of the headwaters.

gator_spotting1

Here are just a few of the things I learned between alligators of increasing size being pointed out to us.

  • The big problem in the Everglades headwaters is not the enormous Burmese Pythons that are merrily swallowing all the wildlife elsewhere in the swamps but invasive plant life from ornamental ponds and aquariums that is repeatedly washed into the ecosystem through the storm drains and, like the snakes, grows rapidly in the favourable climate. The oxygenating plant Hydrilla and Asian Water Hyancinth are the main plant pests and many millions of dollars are spent each year on spraying herbicides to unclog the lakes and waterways and get things flowing again
  • Although the weather was unseasonably hot, the water temperature was dropping as winter approaches and therefore the alligators were coming out of the water more to sun themselves and regulate their body heat.
  • The larger alligators we saw were around 15ft in length and as they can leap their own body length from a virtual standing start, Captain Bud wisely didn’t get too close to these bigger beasts.
  • There are around 35,000 alligators in Lake Kissimmee alone so it was hardly surprising we saw one every few minutes during the 90 minute tour
  • Much of the bird life is attracted to the swamp areas by the massive water snails that live on the floating islands of plant mass. Some of the bird species, such as the majestic snail kite, have become endangered in Florida due to water-level controls that have reduced the snail population. We were lucky enough to see two kites during the tour.

After a thoroughly enjoyable and informative tour of the swamps and some interesting conversation with the other airboat captain about riding Harleys I headed back north on the open and still deserted roads for 40 minutes and then spent another hour on the express ways heading for a popular gun range that had some great online reviews from UK visitors.

44magnum1

As per the comments I had read, the staff at Oak Ridge Gun Range were extremely welcoming and helpful. I had an air pistol when I was a teenager and have fired a shotgun a few times but I’ve never got to grips with any serious weaponry before.

The first gun they introduced me to was a Glock 17 pistol. With a sarcastic note it was described to me as the firearm the ‘six British police officers who are licensed to carry guns’ use. It is also the gun that the MOD has now specified for all UK forces.

After a quick demonstration of how to load the bullet clip into the handle and prime the gun for use, I selected a target to shoot at from a selection on the wall that included, probably unsurprisingly in the US, an image of an Islamic terrorist holding an RPG and one of a crazed zombie. I opted for the straightforward body target you see in the movies. We then put on ear defenders and safety glasses and headed to the range. Once again, my new hearing aids worked well even when covered and I was able to hear the guidance clearly.

My instructor hooked up the target and sent it a quarter of the way down the range then showed me the best stance and way of holding the pistol before firing a shot straight into the red top score. It was then my turn and after firing off a couple of rounds he advised me I was anticipating the recoil and therefore shooting off-target.

The next few shots improved and once I used up all the bullets in the clip he showed me how to reload. When it came to my turn to reload, the reality of using a gun became far more apparent. Judging by the mess I made of trying to get a bullet into the clip these things take a lot of practice and after reloading another 5 times, I was still struggling to line up the bullets properly and push them against the force of the spring into the clip. They certainly make it look a lot easier in the movies.

I was comfortable and confident enough with this lower calibre pistol after 50 rounds to head back into the shop and ask to try a different gun.

As a fan of the Dirty Harry films, I’ve always remembered the scene where Harry Callahan describes his .44 Magnum as the ‘most powerful handgun in the world’. Obviously that was 40 years ago so I’m sure there are much more powerful models around today. However, as it was the first gun name to come into my head just 5 minutes later I was back on the range filling the six chambers of the hefty revolver with the first of fifty new rounds.

It felt much more powerful than the Glock and was punching much bigger holes in the target sheet at the full length of the range. It was also far simpler to load but I struggled to get the hang of releasing the spent cartridges. Once again, it all looks a lot easier in the movies.

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