Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category

From Sun Worshipper to Sun Tamer

Sunday, May 20th, 2018

Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. Surprisingly, it is more prevalent in cloudier states, such as Vermont and Oregon, than in sunnier states such as Florida, California and Arizona. One reason is because people in sunny climates are more likely to protect themselves regularly with sunscreen, sunglasses and hats than those in states with intermittent sun. © iStock/lisafx

Sunlight produces warmth, life, fuel and a sense of well- being. However, like fire and water—two other forces of great good—sunlight can be harmful if used carelessly.

Most people are aware that too much exposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays can cause sunburn, aging skin, certain types of cataracts and skin cancer. But occasionally, it is helpful to be reminded of the dangers and how to be sun safe.

A primary goal is to avoid getting burned in the first place. Sunburn is evidence of damage to skin cells.

Repeated sunburns can lead to skin cancer and other sun-related health problems.

Limit exposure to the sun by covering up, seeking shade or planning activities around the sun. When in the sun, apply sunscreen and lip balm with an SPF 30 rating or higher. Reapply as needed, but at least every two or three hours. Don’t forget to apply protection to your ears, scalp and lips—three spots often overlooked.

Keep sunscreen handy at all times. Carry some in your tackle box, backpack or pocket every time you go outside.

Wear sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face and eyes.

Make sure your sunglasses block 100 percent of the sun’s UV rays. Wrap-around sunglasses and those with larger lenses add protection by providing more coverage.

On the other hand, lens color makes little difference. Dark-colored ones don’t necessarily offer more protection than lighter-colored ones.

The Outdoors: Easy on Children’s Eyes
Recent studies suggest children who spend more time outdoors are less likely to develop nearsightedness. The jury is still out on why there is a connection, but a theory is the outdoors provides better-quality light, as well as reducing the time kids spend watching TV, reading and on other close-up activities.

License-Free Fishing Days
June is not officially National Fishing Month, but it could be. This month offers prime fishing conditions and—better yet—there is no need to have a fishing license certain days in June and beyond.
Freshwater license-free days: June 9-10.

Saltwater license-free days: June 2-3, September 1 and November 24.

More Special Days in June

  • June 2, National Trails Day.
  • June 5, World Environment Day.
  • June 18, Go Fishing Day.
  • June 20, National Bald Eagle Day.
  • June 24, Swim a Lap Day.
  • June 25, National Catfish Day.
  • June 26, National Canoe Day.
  • June 27, National Sunglasses Day.

Got a Tip or a Whopper?
Send us your favorite outdoor tip, photo or story. If selected for publication, we will send you $25 for one-time use. Tell us the story behind the picture, and remember to identify people and pets. Email your submission to

Many of Curtis Condon’s fondest memories involve outdoor adventures with friends and family, whether fishing with old school buddies, backpacking in the mountains of the Northwest with his sons, or bird-watching along the Gulf Coast with his wife. He feels fortunate having the opportunity to write about the outdoors and other subjects for more than 30 years.

Pack Up the Pets

Sunday, May 20th, 2018

Depending on where you vacation, your four-legged friends might have fun, too. Photo courtesy of Pinellas County Marketing and Communications

Good news for Fluffy and Spike. No more being carted off to the vet’s or putting up with pet sitters. Now they can go on the family vacation.

More hotels, restaurants, beaches, parks and campgrounds are now pet-friendly.

Numerous websites help identify pet-friendly destinations and services.

PetsWelcome lists by state hotels and vacation rentals (

VisitFlorida gives pet owners a dog’s perspective of vacations, complete with photos and videos. It features pet-friendly hotels, resorts, beaches and restaurants (

BringFido can be searched by state, and lists events, activities, restaurants and services (

DogFriendly helps locate dog parks, pet-friendly events, campgrounds and city-specific pet information (
AAA has a complete guide to traveling with pets (
Among the highlights:

  • If you are traveling by car, stop about every two hours for a water and bathroom break for your pet. Please clean up after your pet.
  • Although your dog seems to like hanging his head out of the car window, it is not safe; he may be hit by objects flying up off the road or injured by a sudden stop.
  • Use a specially designed pet restraint system or crate in the car. This will protect both the pet and passengers if there is a collision.
  • A break in routine can be hard on your pet, so avoid changes in diet.
  • Leash your pet before you open your car door.
  • Take plenty of food and water for your pet.
  • Make sure your pet is current on vaccinations. Ask your vet for a health certificate to take with you.

Great Travel Websites
Before computers, people who traveled to unfamiliar places often bought travel guides.

Names that come to mind are Eyewitness Travel (, Fodor’s (, Frommer’s ( and travel expert Rick Steves (

My travel bookshelves are filled with guides to Italy, France, Turkey, Southeast Asia, Africa and other places.

Because attractions and cultural sites at most of these places don’t change much, I see no harm in holding on to them for return trips or to refresh my memories.

However, knowledge of the world is now at our fingertips through robust websites and blogs, which are constantly updated and offer the latest travel deals, up-to-the-minute weather, hotel promotions and even tips for out-of-the-way places that are must-see.

Leaving It All Behind
Adventurous baby boomers who have been able to retire early are setting a new trend: extended travel by RV.

They are renting out their homes for six months, a year or more, putting their possessions in storage, packing the basic comforts of home and driving cross-country.

Worried about how to get your mail? Want to find the least-expensive campground near your next destination? Need help about what to pack? Websites such as and offer tips and activities to do along the way.

What are you waiting for?

After months on the road, you will find you can go home again—and it will seem like a new place.

Florida native and travel enthusiast Pamela A. Keene is a freelance journalist who specializes in travel, gardening, personality and feature writing. She is also a photographer and accomplished sailor. Her website is

A Color Debate

Sunday, May 20th, 2018

When color doesn’t add to the content, feeling or mood of the photo, removing it allows the viewer to concentrate on the emotion. This picture of the late John Wooden in his den was originally shot in color (inset).
© Photos by David LaBelle

People often ask if I shoot in color or black and white.

Actually, I do both.

When I began my newspaper career, except on rare occasions, we shot and reproduced photographs exclusively in black and white.That changed as advertisers demanded color.

Early on, there were times I had to choose between black and white or color film, or chrome (slide film). Often, the choice was dictated by money. Chrome was expensive to shoot and even more expensive to process.

Though difficult to edit, color film soon replaced black and white and chrome. Like black and white Tri-X, color film had greater exposure latitude and, therefore, was more tolerant of exposure misses.

At the Sacramento Bee, we carried lights and were expected to make proper exposures. Shooting color film over transparency allowed us to focus more on the content, on storytelling moments. We converted color to black and white for publication, when needed.

Shooting slide film and lighting it helped me make the transition to digital, which poses the same challenging contrast and backlight problems we faced with slide film, until raw came along.

For me, the difference between shooting in black and white versus color is as different as using a 4×5 film camera and a cellphone.

As crazy as it sounds, I see in either color or black and white, depending on the film I have in the camera or the digital setting I am using—the same way I have learned to see the world through whatever focal length of lens is mounted on the camera.

It is as if I have an invisible mental switch that connects my brain with my eyes with each change. I even dream in black and white sometimes.

I feel black and white is about the past. Color feels more like the present or future.

While both have strengths, I generally photograph people in black and white and use color for nature and landscapes. Naturally, there are exceptions.

With digital (DSLR or cellphone), I mostly shoot in color and convert to black and white when the color distracts from the message, doesn’t add to the content or is too difficult to manage, as happens with many mixed-light sources.

My Great Picture Hunt books are in black and white. Most images were shot on black and white film or converted from color or transparency. The lessons—the images shared—are not color-dependent. Besides, color is more expensive to reproduce.

For those of us who cut our teeth on black and white photography, the world will always be richer and more dramatic in black and white.

For the purist, there is a difference between shooting black and white in camera and using software to convert files after the fact. Some photographers shoot exclusively in black and white, with no chance to change to color later. Others shoot in raw and jpeg simultaneously—the raw files holding color data and the jpegs the original black and white.

If you have access to a film camera, buy a couple of rolls of 100 ISO black and white film, or change the settings on your digital camera or cellphone so you shoot in black and white. Trust me. You will see the world differently.

Some photographs communicate information, even mood, almost equally in black and white or color. Others clearly offer greater impact or aesthetic mood with or without color. It is your choice. You are the artist.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit

Paradise and Pomegranates

Sunday, May 20th, 2018

Above, David and Cindy Weinstein settled in Hardee County and started Green Sea Farms because they enjoy the pace of life and the people in the community.

Adventurous couple drops anchor in Hardee County

After decades spent navigating the warm Caribbean seas and experiencing local culture, Cindy and David Weinstein set course for a new challenge: starting a new life stateside.

“We got back to the states and we didn’t even know what state we wanted to live in,” Cindy says. “We bought a camper van, and two summers in a row stored our boat and went camping around the states—everywhere but New England. We decided anything north of Interstate 4 was too cold!”

“Come September, we had to move south,” David adds.
The climate was important to the Weinsteins, but so was the lifestyle. David and Cindy say there was no real connection until Hardee County.

“We missed the pace of life,” David says. “Life was slower and everyone made time to visit, to say hello. That’s what attracted us to Hardee County. When you stopped and saw people, they were all nice.”

A life in the country it would be. Next was deciding what to do with the land.

“We don’t come from a farming background,” David says. “We lived on a sailboat.

“We asked the old farmer we got the property from, ‘So, a little farm like this, what can we do to make a living?’ He laughed and said, ‘If you ever find out, you tell me!’”

After some agricultural trial and error, the Weinsteins started Green Sea Farms and began growing pomegranates—something they knew little about, but were willing to explore.

Luckily for David and Cindy, their time at sea prepared them to take on challenges and make calculated risks, just like when they decided to travel the Caribbean and live on board their 39-foot Pearson 390.

“It was amazing,” Cindy says. “We were just into our 30s, so it was like really growing up. We learned a lot about life.”

To support themselves, the couple learned to be self-sufficient, creative and generous. They found work in several spots during their travels.

“I had a canvas shop on board, so I made cushions, awnings and whatever needed a cover,” Cindy says. “When I’d make a new awning, if the person didn’t want their old awning, I’d take them. When we’d go down into the isles, like down into Trinidad, Venezuela or Grenada, we’d find fishing villages where people were really poor. We’d give them the used awnings, used sails or whatever we had. We’d go back the next year and the awning would be a roof.”

David’s boat repair provided somewhat regular income. Living at sea, there was almost always work to do.

“We jokingly said the difference between a workday and a day off was whose boat we worked on,” David says.

While that work helped keep them afloat, it almost caught up to David—something he laughs about now—when he took on a repair job in Venezuela after their visas expired.

They got on well with the local boating community, but there was a high-level visit from Spanish leaders. The navy and coast guard were securing the docks and doing regular checks of all the boats.

“We saw the gun boats coming into the harbor, and we closed up our boat to go somewhere else so they wouldn’t catch us,” David says.

A week later, the couple received a radio call asking for some boat work to be done. After asking a few questions, David agreed to take the job on Margarita Island.

“I took the dingy ashore and here’s this guy in a suit and sunglasses, and an SUV with tinted windows,” David says. “He starts with the 20 questions, and I told him my wife gets seasick and she won’t let me leave the harbor.”

“It’s always my fault,” Cindy adds with a laugh.

After David fixed the boat, the man asked David the cost for the repair, to which he said $20.

“He says, ‘Well, that’s not going to help you where you’re going,’” David says. “My heart stopped!

“He opens his wallet and pulls out a U.S. $20 bill. My heart started again and then he gave me his card.”

The man was a senior national official. He warned David that he and others knew the security situation throughout the area and who he was.

“Then he said, ‘When you come back, I want you to work on my boat. But tomorrow will be just fine for you to leave.’

“So I get back to the boat and say, ‘Well, we’re leaving in the morning!’”

Fortunately, the good times far outweighed the nerve-wracking, and the Weinsteins have years of fond memories on which to reflect.

“Hog Island in Grenada was a great place—kind of family-oriented,” David says. “No one was allowed to play until noon. But then all the kids would go ashore and you’d see them running across the island. And they’re all taking care of each other. It was really cool.”

Cindy and David’s adventures at sea nurtured a desire for adventure, while challenges sharpened their resolve.

“When you’re out there on a boat, there’s no one but you,” David says. “You look forward, and that’s really helped us here.”

Answering the Call

Sunday, May 20th, 2018

Andrew Peters, left, has volunteered with the Walnut Hill Fire Department for more than 20 years. He is mentoring fellow Escambia River Electric Cooperative water department employee Austin Snyder.
Photo by Sabrina Owens

Volunteer firefighters provide critical emergency response

When Carl Seley was a teenager growing up in Ebro, Florida, he decided to join the Ebro Volunteer Fire Department. Volunteering “seemed like the thing to do,” says Carl, now 46.

“Ebro is a real small community—especially back then,” says Carl. “Everybody was related and close-related.”

Carl reckons Ebro’s population hovered around 300 people 30 years ago.
He says the town was so close-knit, “You could listen to a car coming down the road and know who was coming.”

Folks who live in small towns help each other out—both because they want to and because they have to. Small communities can be in isolated areas, adding to the need for people to help each other.

Looking to the example set by family members and friends, it seemed clear to Carl that he should step up and shoulder some community responsibility.

Carl studied, trained and eventually became certified as a firefighter I—the first level of firefighting certification. It is required of someone who wants to be a fully trained volunteer firefighter, Carl says.

There have been gaps in his service—times when he left for military service, for example—but Carl has been helping the fire department in one capacity or another since age 15.

Volunteer firefighters do more than respond to fires, Carl explains. They are first responders on the scene of car accidents and other emergencies.

Their presence is critical when paid emergency personnel are located long driving distances away.

In a vehicle accident, he says, every minute can mean the difference between a life saved or a life lost.

In a structure fire, every minute can mean the difference between a building razed by fire or a building saved from destruction.

Who Will Respond?
Volunteer fire departments in rural communities must rely on neighboring community departments, as well as their own members, to be successful.

Attending calls that happen during traditional working hours can be difficult due to a lack of available manpower, Carl says.

Members of volunteer fire departments cannot always leave their paid employment to respond to an emergency call, or they may work too far from their hometown to be able to respond in a timely manner.

Northwest of Ebro, Andrew Peters is captain of the Walnut Hill Fire Department.

Like Ebro, Walnut Hill is a small town.

The Walnut Hill department provides coverage for about 5,000 homes and relies on volunteers to serve the area as firefighters and first responders, Andrew says.

Andrew works in the water department at Escambia River Electric Cooperative. He says the co-op encourages him to leave work when a call goes out for the volunteer responders.

That permission is a saving grace for the community, he says.

“I’m a water guy,” Andrew quips, noting he attends as many calls as he can.

All joking aside, Andrew says he is proud of his employer.

“EREC is a co-op, and they are so good about helping communities and schools,” he says. “They serve the people.”

Like Ebro, the Walnut Hill Fire Department must call on neighboring fire departments to help out if manpower is thin. Fire departments are like extended families, Andrew says, noting that when a call goes out for help, firefighters respond.

Andrew became a firefighter because he was inspired by someone already on the fire department.

“I think what got me going was the fire chief came and spoke to our church group,” Andrew says. “I thought I’d like to help.”

The message Andrew took away from the meeting was that without volunteers, communities suffer.

In 1997, Andrew became certified as a firefighter 1.

After serving more than 20 years on the department, he says being of service in the community—serving something greater than himself—is a draw.

“I enjoy helping people, and it’s something to be part of the team,” he says.

A Life of Service
Volunteering as a firefighter means a life of service. Emergencies can happen at any time and any day.

Both Carl and Andrew have left their beds in the middle of the night on numerous occasions.

“We can have nighttime calls, lunchtime calls, calls during church,” Andrew says. “It can be inconvenient, but there’s something about it when you’re dedicated to it.”

Volunteers don’t have to go on every call, Andrew says. Through the years, he says he has learned there is a fine balance of knowing when he should respond and when an emergency has enough response already and he can let someone else take the call.

Balancing home life with work and the life of a firefighter is important, says Andrew, who has been married 37 years.

“It is a sacrifice, especially to a family man,” he says. “It can affect family life.”

He says he has been careful about how his service affects the family, and that he tries to give his wife, Carolyn, and their four grown children the time they need from him.

“The reason I realize I have been successful is that I don’t always want to go out and she will say, ‘The poor people are hurting, you should go,’” Andrew says, crediting his wife.

Carl says a firefighter learns that some emergencies will leave a lasting imprint.

One incident he remembers involved a fatality caused by a drunk driver.

“That hangs with you forever when you see that,” he says.

In 2010, Carl was called to a scene and discovered he had lost one of his sister-in-laws.

Talking about that incident is still hard.

“There are times when you just have to suck it up and do your duty,” he says. “When you get home, you hold your young ’uns.”

The Next Generation
Carl’s son, Lucas, 19, is also a firefighter. He and a cousin are taking classes to earn their firefighter II credentials, which means they can become career firemen.

“It is a big family thing,” Carl says, noting that of the 13 volunteers with the Ebro Fire Department, only two are not related by blood or through marriage. “You’ll find that most of the rural fire departments in the area are like that.”

Lucas says he has always wanted to serve people in whatever profession he chose. He considered joining the Army before contemplating a firefighting career.

“I’m a daredevil,” he says, adding that he knew he wanted a career with varied daily activity.

He says he had always seen his dad going on fire calls, but never thought of firefighting as a paid career.

“He inspired me,” Lucas says of Carl.

Lucas has already completed firefighter I training. His series of firefighter II courses have taken about seven months and cost about $2,000.

There is a big difference between being a volunteer and a professional firefighter, Carl says.

“He’ll see in six months what I’ve seen in a lifetime,” Carl explains. “I’m just as proud of him as I can be. He’s got a bright future ahead of him in the fire service.”

Carl says he sometimes wondered if his experiences would scare Lucas away from firefighting.

“With me being in the service, he’s seen me getting up in the middle of the night, and sometimes he’s seen me come home, knowing we’ve had a bad wreck, but he still wants to do it,” Carl says.

Leading By Example
Andrew is also mentoring a member of the next generation of firefighters in the Walnut Hill Volunteer Fire Department. He helped recruit Austin Snyder, 23, who works with him at EREC.

“He’s the one that convinced me to come join,” Austin says. “I didn’t really think about it.”

With Andrew’s encouragement, “I felt good about it,” Austin says.

Volunteer fire departments always need more help, Andrew explains, noting the lifestyle is not for everyone.

“Usually, it seems like there’s a type of quality of person that gets inspired by it,” Andrew says.

The ones who come to the fire department ready to serve the community “and have that perspective come and stay and get dedicated to it,” he explains.

Austin also volunteers at the nearby Atmore, Alabama, volunteer fire department, where his father-in-law is chief.

“I’ve always wanted to be a police officer,” Austin says. “Maybe I saw myself doing it (firefighting), but Andrew really helped me out. I was really shy about going. I went and I really enjoyed it.”

Austin says both fire departments feel like family—something he appreciates.

“I haven’t been there long, but it doesn’t take long to feel like that,” he adds.

Austin is working to achieve his firefighter I certification. Because he has not earned it yet, he is not allowed into a burning building. He will be when he completes his certification.

In the meantime, he does have his first responder certification, which means he can assist with medical emergencies during calls.

“I can’t wait to get certified,” Austin says. “That’s what we’re working on now. It’s a 240-hour course.”

Slowing Down
These days, both Carl and Andrew admit they are working toward a slower pace in their roles as volunteer firefighters.

Both men know they are needed as mentors to the next generation so their fire districts can continue to thrive.

They say it is a gradual passing of the torch.

“I got my replacement,” Carl quips.

There is pride and fondness in his voice when he speaks of Lucas’ choice to become a professional firefighter.

“I’ve gotten older and slower—I know that—a little more cautious, too,” Andrew says. “I’ve noticed that when you’re young, you’re the go-ahead guy. I’m 57 now and learning to work with a younger generation.

“I grew up being a worker and still like to work, but I’m learning the skill of backing off and letting someone else do the job. It’s special to watch them.”

May Offers a Smorgasbord of Fishing Opportunities

Friday, April 20th, 2018

Pier and surf fishing can be productive, but are often overlooked.
© iStock/meinzahn

Bass, bass and more bass.
For some anglers, it’s the only species worthy of their time.

No doubt bass are superb game fish, but for many anglers, fishing for the same fish year-round would be like eating your favorite food at every meal. No matter how much you loved it, after a while your favorite is bound to lose its allure.

That’s why change is sometimes a good thing.

There is almost no better time than May to change it up. The month offers excellent fishing for scores of species in areas across the state.

This is the height of the season for channel catfish, especially in the Panhandle. Seatrout are hot along the south-central Atlantic Coast, and the Keys is the place for yellowtail snapper.

Also in the Keys and along Florida’s southern coasts, May is prime time for hard-fighting behemoths of the deep: marlin, tarpon and goliath grouper. It’s also a good month to hook tasty red drum and pompano, or ladyfish, if you’re hankering for a good fight instead.

Most bait shops and charter outfits know what’s biting and where. Also, dozens of websites and apps are dedicated to Florida fishing.

For example, Florida Go Fishing ( offers comprehensive information about fishing prospects throughout the state, as well as a chart of species and peak months to fish.

Outdoor App of the Month
Fish/Hunt FL is a free app developed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It allows users to access fishing and hunting regulations, get weather and seas information, and determine sunrise and sunset times. Users can even buy and download hunting and fishing licenses and permits from their smartphone.

What’s Special About May?
National Bike Month
National Wildflower Week (May 7-13)
May 12, International Migratory Bird Day
May 16, Love a Tree Day
May 18, National Bike to Work Day

Got a Tip or a Whopper?
Send us your favorite outdoor tip, photo or story. If selected for publication, we will send you $25 for one-time use. Tell us the story behind the picture, and remember to identify people and pets. Email your submission to

Many of Curtis Condon’s fondest memories involve outdoor adventures with friends and family, whether fishing with old school buddies, backpacking in the mountains of the Northwest with his sons, or bird-watching along the Gulf Coast with his wife. He feels fortunate having the opportunity to write about the outdoors and other subjects for more than 30 years.

Cruising for the Time of Your Life

Friday, April 20th, 2018

A passenger gets a scenic view from the top-of-the-ship zipline. Many cruise lines also have climbing walls for active guests.
Photo courtesy of MSC

Looking for a luxury getaway without spending a fortune? Check out a cruise from one of Florida’s five port cities: Ft. Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Miami, Port Canaveral and Tampa. If flexible, you can pick up last-minute deals for a weekend, a week or longer.

Cruise ships as floating cities, with anything and everything you need: plentiful food, diverse entertainment, comfortable staterooms, activities for all ages and shopping.

The MSC Seaside (—the flagship of the Italian-based line—launched its maiden season in December 2017, sailing to the Caribbean. Billed as “The High-Tech Cruise Ship,” common areas feature futuristic black, gold and chrome décor.

Guests board through a soaring four-story atrium with lighted crystal curved staircases, lots of glitz and an elevated stage for live music.

The 5,600-passenger ship is packed with amenities: ziplines, giant waterslides, an aquapark, specialty fine-dining restaurants, a Balinese spa and theatrical shows ranging from tributes and famous entertainers to Broadway hits and a 45-minute adaptation of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.”

Carnival, Celebrity, Disney, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean also provide options to the Caribbean and the Bahamas, with ports of call including Nassau, Jamaica, Bermuda, St. Thomas, Cozumel, the Grand Caymans and San Juan.

The best way to get your feet wet with cruising is to start with a short trip, a long weekend or a four-day adventure. Surf the internet for deals, then pack up the kids or that special someone and head out for life on the sea.

Think Small
Digital media company PureWow named Micanopy, just south of Gainesville, as Florida’s cutest town.

Nicknamed “the little town that time forgot,” Micanopy embodies classic old Florida with moss-draped oaks, rambling two-story Victorian homes and a historic district listed in 1983 to the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1991, it was the backdrop for the film “Doc Hollywood,” starring Michael J. Fox.

Check out another relaxing and laid-back town—Perdido Key—near Pensacola. According to The Active Times, pristine beaches, unspoiled parks, a wildlife preserve and minimal traffic make it a hidden gem.

Traveling While Pregnant
If you are pregnant, here are tips from Huffington Post about enjoying a vacation:

  • Schedule your trip during the second trimester, after you have had your bouts with morning sickness. Dr. Aron Schuftan, co-founder of Embrace Her Health and its free Pregnancy Companion mobile app, suggests traveling between 20 and 30 weeks.
  • Choose a domestic destination to avoid uncertainties about unsafe drinking water or contaminated food.
  • Carry copies of prenatal records and medical notes.
  • Plan ahead and locate the closest hospital or medical facility to your destination.
  • Travel by car for more pit stop flexibility for bathroom breaks, to stretch your legs and get fresh air. It also helps if emergency medical care is needed.

Florida native and travel enthusiast Pamela A. Keene is a freelance journalist who specializes in travel, gardening, personality and feature writing. She is also a photographer and accomplished sailor. Her website is

Staying On Track

Friday, April 20th, 2018

Few things capture our imagination and connect us to the past the way the iron horses of yesteryear can. These 19th century machines trigger deep memories—either good or bad, depending on our relationship to them. For most, trains represent freedom, progress and the romantic wonder of the Old West. To others, they are grim reminders of wartime and Holocaust nightmares from Europe.

Growing up, I was fascinated by both real trains and models. I remember Little League baseball games temporarily halted as a whistling engine and rattling boxcars passed the field.

I still get goose bumps when I hear a train whistle.

Photographers are often drawn to trains and the railroad culture. One of my all-time favorite photographs, “Hotshot Eastbound,” was made by O. Winston Link in 1956 of a train passing a drive-in theater in West Virginia.

I have a student who began photographing trains before he was in high school. His love of trains—shared with his father—set him on the photographic path he now follows.

I must begin with a safety warning. These big, beautiful, romantic machines can be deadly. A train cannot maneuver or stop quickly.

I am sadly reminded of a former student and dear friend who watched in helpless horror as his brother, who he was photographing for a fashion shoot, was struck and killed on the tracks by a train.

Another warning: The tracks and trestles are property of the railroad. Walking or playing on them is trespassing.

I remember walking across a trestle in Virginia to get in better position to photograph an oncoming train when I was whisked into a car and detained by railroad officials. Thankfully, they didn’t arrest me. It is not only illegal, it is extremely dangerous and dumb to navigate trestles, especially with a train coming.

Warnings aside, photographing trains can be challenging and rewarding. Consider these techniques:

  • Scout locations for the best perspective. Often, the landscape the train passes through is more interesting than a close-up of the train itself. Be prepared to wait. Freight trains are hit and miss. Passenger trains are easier because routes and times are posted. Sometimes getting above a train on an overpass is the best angle to see the shape and length of the train.
  • Using a slow shutter (1/15th or slower, maybe even a half a second) can help create a picture that captures the feeling of motion while dragging and smearing trails of color across the frame. Panning works best if you have clutter—trees, poles and wires—rather than a clean landscape of sky.
  • A fast shutter speed, say 1/500th and above, will freeze the motion if you want to see details: texture, words, graffiti or faces of people.
  • Use a telephoto lens 300mm or more straight-on to squeeze together the field of view so things near and far appear to be on the same plane, with background elements appearing closer and larger than they are. This can create a feeling of power and urgency. The greater the lens magnification, the more subjects will be compressed.
  • Consider using foregrounds to add depth and make pictures more than one-dimensional, creating a cause-and-effect narrative while also providing context and scale.

There is something nostalgic, even magical, about hearing the whistle of a train on a silent morning and watching a mighty metal steed appear, snorting smoke from its nostrils. It’s even better when you capture and forever preserve those images in camera.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit

Powering the Community

Friday, April 20th, 2018

Planning Engineer Jimmy Vallejo never imagined working at an electric utility until Peace River Electric Cooperative hired him as an intern. He is now a full-time employee who enjoys the camaraderie of the utility.
Photo by Mark Sellers

Electric utility jobs fuel local economies and the nation

Electric utilities offer much more to their communities than instant gratification at the flip of a switch. Aside from supplying the lifeblood of our nation—electricity—the industry provides an asset crucial to the prosperity of every community: jobs.

Electric utilities bring working professionals in communities across the country competitive pay, a sense of community and stable career opportunities.

In 2017, the leading public power associations—the American Public Power Association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and Edison Electric Institute—joined forces to produce a study about the power sector’s economic benefits in the nation’s job market.

The report found nearly 2.7 million jobs across the United States are directly provided by the electric power industry, including employees, contractors, supply chains and investments. This creates a ripple effect, supplying more than 4.4 million additional jobs that support the industry.

In total, that is 7 million American jobs, or about 5 percent of all jobs in the United States, according to the public power associations’ report published by M.J. Bradley & Associates LLC.

“The direct jobs within the companies, cooperatives and municipally owned enterprises number just under half a million, and these are well-paid jobs,” says Paul Allen, senior vice president at M.J. Bradley. “The median annual wages for direct electric power industry employees were $73,000 in 2015. This is twice the national average.”

Many Options Available
Jobs available at utilities are diverse—from hands-on linework and system planning to accounting and management, says APPA Vice President of Education and Customer Programs Ursula Schryver.

On a local level, these positions are filled by neighbors, loved ones and residents who help local economies thrive.

“Public power utilities are unique in the electric utility space as they are community-owned and not-for-profit,” says Ursula. “This presents a unique opportunity for qualified individuals to work in an exciting and challenging field while supporting their community.”

A Chance to Stay Home
What does this mean for people looking for a job?

Take Gary McCaskill, a senior lineman at Escambia River Electric Cooperative.

In 1979, Gary started his career right out of high school as part of the right-of-way crew. He says a desk job was never in his plans.

Through classes and on-the-job training, he advanced to become a lineman while remaining in the town he has always called home.

“I was born and raised here, and anytime I go anywhere I know everybody,” says Gary. “It is just great working for people around here that you know. I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else doing this kind of work.”

On average, electric utility employees work in the industry for more than 15 years, in careers that support their families and allow them to put down roots in their communities, according to the M.J. Bradley report.

In his 30 years at EREC, Gary says he has enjoyed learning about electricity and watching his utility grow, including upgrading from one bucket truck to eight.

Most of all, he says his work for the community has been rewarding.

When disaster strikes, Gary and his fellow EREC linemen answer the call for local residents, and occasionally travel to other utilities throughout the state to help restore power.

Five times, Gary has been deployed to other cooperatives, including Peace River Electric, Clay Electric and Choctawhatchee Electric.

“We do a lot of stuff for people,” says Gary, who adds that the community response makes him proud. “It is a good job knowing you get the lights back on.”

Next Generation Steps Up
When Gary retires, he will leave behind big boots to fill.

As baby boomers reached retirement age in 2010, the industry reeled. There was concern whether younger generations would step up to replace the professionals who had spent their entire careers building the electric utility industry into what it is today.

The fear was there would not be enough skilled labor to fill the technical positions required and being vacated at electric utilities.

That was eight years ago. Retirements and new recruitment are still big topics of conversation.

The Center for Energy Workforce Development’s 2017 survey reported that between 2012 and 2014, the number of employees with the potential to retire in the next one to 10 years declined 7.4 percent.

While the mass exodus may be slowing down, many utilities have put infrastructure in place to continue recruiting and training the next generation of workers.

Peace River Electric started an internship program as a possible succession plan for a retiring engineer. The internship introduced Jimmy Vallejo to opportunities in the electric utility industry.

Jimmy knew he wanted to be an electrical engineer, but he had not considered a career at an electric utility. With the help of his guidance counselor at South Florida State College, Jimmy landed the internship at Peace River.

Little did he know it would shape his future.

“As a student, I didn’t know what industry to get into,” says Jimmy. “Peace River was the first to reach out to me and give me the opportunity. I didn’t really look for anything else outside of that.”

Jimmy started his internship in 2015. He was hired as a full-time planning engineer when he graduated in 2017.

Jimmy now helps plan distribution service for subdivisions and redesigns new substations.

When it comes to on-the-job experience, Jimmy says his internship taught him the skills he needed to be a successful utility worker.

“They really didn’t teach anything like this in the classroom,” he says. “All this stuff I’ve been doing is new to me.”

Jimmy says an unexpected perk of working at Peace River Electric is the kinship among employees. He notes that fellow engineers at the cooperative embraced him.

“I think the people I work with really got me into this spot and made everything a lot easier,” says Jimmy. “Everyone in engineering are humble, God-loving people. They got me in there, and I want to stick with it.”

Job Diversity Attractive
For Jimmy, working at a utility is anything but mundane.

“I do something different every single day,” he says. “Just being able to do things differently and not being in the office everyday makes it feel like it is not just one job, it is a lot of jobs—and that is what I enjoy doing.”

The power industry is broad and complex, with many roles that require specialized skills and training. There are a variety of roles people can fill, reinforcing the vital role the industry plays in the local community.

“For small communities, the jobs in the electric industry are particularly important for several reasons,” says Paul of M.J. Bradley. “The power industry needs people to provide customer service and billing information. The power industry needs people to communicate with the public. The power industry needs accountants and economists, and it even needs lawyers. Taken together, these skills provide the backbone of the economy everywhere and contribute to the base of knowledge and stability in every community.”

Depending on the size of the community, many utility workers become well-versed in a wide range of skill sets. This can be a result of new positions coming available to meet new needs. In other situations, utility workers take on new responsibilities.

Advancement Potential
For Jason Richards, a new position at Florida Keys Electric Cooperative meant a way to expand his skills and better serve his community.

Jason started on the right-of-way crew right out of high school 27 years ago. When a utility forester position was proposed at Florida Keys Electric Cooperative, Jason pursued it even before it officially came into existence.

“FKEC redid the work chart, and it was a job that was going to come open eventually,” says Jason. “I went ahead and prepared for the certification so I could be ready for the job.”

Jason became a certified arborist and, as he says, “the rest is history.”

His daily work includes supervising utility crews and communicating with members about trees that need to be removed. During his 14 years as utility forester, Jason has refined his workflow to better serve those in the utility’s service territory.

“Most of the houses here are on small lots, and trees play a crucial role in the landscape,” says Jason.

Recognizing this, Jason and his team started the Trade-a-Tree program. FKEC removes a problem tree and plants a suitable native species tree on the property—one that will not interfere with power equipment.

Planted in appropriate areas, these trees also help members improve energy efficiency.

“We are very community-minded, and we’re really invested in our community down here,” says Jason.

Pursuing the Successors
After spending his entire career at an electric utility, Jason says he enjoys educating high schoolers about the benefits and opportunities of working at an electric utility.

“I talk to the students in schools because I was in their boat,” says Jason. “I didn’t want to go to college. I tell them that if you’re not looking to go to college, this is an industry that has openings. You can make a good living for your family.”

In reflecting on his career, Jason notes the rewarding work and the people he gets to work with. He considers them family.

“We’re all the same community,” says Jason. “Whenever someone needs help, we’re there. It just feels good to be able to help somebody.”

Whether an employee is just starting out or has spent their entire working career at a utility, what is never lost is the sense of community that powers the industry.

Public power utilities are designed to serve the community and employees with stability and opportunity.

“I think the most important thing about public power utilities is their motivation,” says Ursula of the American Public Power Association. “They strive to provide safe, reliable, affordable and environmentally responsible power to their customers. They are motivated by service—not profits.”

A Path to Success, Book by Book

Friday, April 20th, 2018

Abby Hamm, far left, distributes books to excited students at Just for Girls Elementary. Coloring books and spiral note pads are included from time to time.

Palmetto High School student starts traveling library to help combat
local literacy challenge

As a kid, Abby Hamm’s favorite book was “The Library Dragon,” which tells the story of a fiery dragon who kept “sticky little fingers from touching and clutching, pawing and clawing, smearing and tearing her precious books.”

In many respects, Abby has become the heroic character featured in the Carmen Agra Deedy tale, unlocking access to books for children and adults in her community.

Committed to improving literacy rates in Manatee County, the 18-year-old Palmetto High School senior founded “Book by Book”—a traveling library program that supplies children with reading materials.

“At 7 years old, I was already saving the world with fictional friends and exploring the sea with make-believe monsters twice my size,” says Abby. “My heart was broken for those who had not experienced the excitement of reading that I discovered at an early age.

“As someone who had been instilled with a love of reading as a young person, it was heart-wrenching to see a child denied the same privileges I had.”

Abby’s effort to improve literacy rates in Manatee County began when she was a high school sophomore seeking admittance into the Junior Manatee Leadership program.

In an essay detailing the biggest problem in Manatee County, Abby wrote about a brokenness in children rooted in illiteracy. She noted the hardships, discouragement and hopelessness spawned from a lack of reading skills, and the slim opportunities to escape from the problem.

Determined to demonstrate someone cared enough about their success to provide them a book of their own, Abby created Book by Book.

“The impact of handing out Dr. Seuss, Junie B. Jones, The Magic Tree House and other examples of literary genius is unimaginable,” says Abby. “Putting books into the hands of children who would otherwise not have reading materials available opens the opportunity to perform on grade level.”

Statistics show children who are not on the proper reading level by third grade are four times less likely to graduate on schedule, and 60 percent more likely to be incarcerated later in life.

“When I first began giving out books, all I had was a big dream, a family that believed in me and a box of classics with tattered covers,” Abby says. “From the beginning, my goal has been to put reading materials into the hands of children in my community.”

She organized book drives to grow her portable libraries, reaching out to teachers and clubs at her school and other schools, churches and support groups.

“An influx of books came to our house, and our garage was filled with them,” Abby says. “I thought we would be collecting books only for children, but a great variety of books became part of the mix, including books for adults, Christian books and baby books.

“More opportunities for distribution just kept popping up. Sorting them for proper distribution became my next challenge.”

Now, two rewarding years later, the sorting and sharing of donations has resulted in more than 4,000 books distributed in Manatee County.

“A variety of reading options are made available,” Abby says. “We want to make sure students are introduced to non-fiction as well as fiction. But the children most often find their favorites in zoo- and animal-themed books.”

Book by Book provides reading material to local schools and organizations, including Palmetto Elementary, a Title I school. It has two 500-book libraries in low-income neighborhoods. Also benefitting is an alternative school, Just for Girls Elementary, in Bradenton.

The girls line up in gleeful anticipation for free book fairs or when the Book by Book library cart arrives. On occasion, the girls get to select from customized baskets filled with a mix of books and extras, such as spiral note pads, coloring books and drawing pads.

“Rather than reinvent the wheel, I attempt to connect with rooted nonprofits like the Salvation Army, the North River Pregnancy Center, Anchor House at Port Manatee, Head Start and local nursing homes,” says Abby.

At Mt. Carmel Resource Center, recipients are both children and adults. El Crucero Church in Palmetto offers weekly tutoring sessions, where books can be checked out from the cart.

As Abby approaches graduation, her goals remain firmly planted in community service. A recipient of a Florida Bright Futures Scholarship, Abby plans to attend Palm Beach Atlantic University and major in ministry, with a concentration on Christian social ministries.

“My heart is in helping people,” she says. “My dream is to be in an internship program where, at the end, I can be plugged into a group that is making a difference.”