Our Nine Final Days of Geo Tracker Repair Drama (Plus Lake Manatee, Oscar Scherer, MacDill AFB, and a Cracker Barrel)

To review: On Christmas Eve I blew the engine on our 1997 Geo Tracker while driving on I-75 through the Everglades. After eight impatient hours observing swamp flora and fauna I got it towed back to the edge of Florida Gulf Coast civilization and coordinated a follow on tow to a mechanic in Fort Myers. Said mechanic was willing to do a full engine rebuild and installation at a reasonable price, but could not find a replacement engine block upon which to begin the process. With a bit of internet/google luck I stumbled upon a Tampa area Suzuki Sidekick/Geo Tracker specialist, Xtreme Zuks Offroad, whose owner, Richard, agreed to do the rebuild and deliver it to the mechanic in Fort Myers. Which he did. Whereupon our man in Fort Myers began the installation process while we anxiously lingered in the area. During our six days at W.P. Franklin we learned of yet another stumble in our painfully long Geo Tracker repair process.

Gassing Up! Not filling up the big RV tank was nice for the couple of months we were in Sanibel, but its time to hit the road.

The new problem: following receipt and installation of the fully rebuilt engine, our Fort Lauderdale mechanic could not get it started. He spent days trying: redoing wiring, cleaning terminals, installing a new distributer, and even renting a compression machine to determine if there might be a problem with the valve job. I have paragraphs of text from him explaining all that he tried, but it was to no avail, and he was convinced of either his inability to solve what might be a very idiosyncratic Tracker/Sidekick problem, or that the engine rebuild job was flawed. You can guess how the latter might have sat with Richard at Xtreme Zuks Offroad, who described to me repeatedly and in detail the detailed and repeated instructions he had left for the installer.

The two pieces of good news in this evolving fiasco is that we at least had the ability to tow the Tracker ourselves, even with a broken engine, and that Richard said to bring the rig up to his shop and he would sort it out. So on Friday morning following our sixth night at W.P. Franklin we broke camp and swung by Fort Myers to pick up the truck (new engine installed, old engine in the back,) and towed it up to our South Tampa area campground for the weekend.

Life Pro Tip: If you might be the go to over the phone tech assistant for any of your technically challenged relatives, keep a picture of their remotes readily available. It will make walking them through procedures a bit easier.

Speaking of which: two posts back I gave an unnecessarily long explanation of our campground hunting method and updated it the next post with some happy results from this odd period of tow vehicle limbo. Even before the latest Tracker bad news we had started looking slightly north of the previous geographic triangle (between Okeechobee, Port Charlotte, and Naples) to one centered more on the Sarasota region. By expanding our search to include state and county parks at which we had never stayed, we managed to secure a week’s worth of reservations split between Lake Manatee and Oscar Scherer State Parks.

Trying to eat a bit healthier, though sometimes that just means fresher ingredients.

While writing this post it occurred to me that we tend to divide all Florida state parks (and to a lesser extent, county properties) into three categories, in preference order: on the ocean (Gamble Rogers, Bahia Honda, Topsail,) around freshwater springs (Rainbow, Wekiva, Gilchrist Blue,) and everything else (Koreshan, Lake Monroe, Trimble.) That prioritization is pretty much the same as every local and tourist in the state, regardless of the season, which makes our winter Florida campground hunt quite challenging.

Our site at Lake Manatee State Park

When such availability constraints force us outside of our accessible internet histories, half-hazardly curated webpages, and duplicative phone contacts, we often find unexpectedly fantastic places, as has been the case these past few months. We only recently “discovered” South Bay, this month we found W.P. Franklin, and this week we stumbled upon Lake Manatee State Park. Lake Manatee is what I would describe as a beautifully typical South Florida state campground: spacious but basic sites in a quite, often lakeside, lowland, scrub oak forest. I don’t know the ecological and botanical conditions that result in this type of woodland, but we thoroughly enjoy the combination of palms and heavily twisted oaks surrounding ever campsite, and strongly prefer it to the fully cleared and carefully manicured landscapes of most private parks in the state.

Some goodies from the Englewood Farmers Market

On Monday after our three day weekend stay at Lake Manatee State Park (which should not to be confused with the nearby Little Manatee River State Park) we drove north of Tampa and delivered the Tracker to Xtreme Zuks in Land O’ Lakes. We then back tracked a bit south to Oscar Scherer State Park in order to visit Rosemarie’s mom, brother, niece, nephew and family in the Venice region. Oscar Scherer is our third “go to” spot for this particular family visit area. We started with the wonderful Rambler’s Rest, a nearby private RV resort located on the Myakka River, but a few years back after they were bought out by the huge RV Resort chain, Encore, they drastically cut back on Passport-America discount availability. Unwilling to pay their full $60 a night, we sought out other options.

And our site at Oscar Scherer

For a couple of years we made do with a quite affordable, semi-official storage situation at Venice Ranch Mobile Home Estates where we parked the RV while actually staying at Gloria’s house. Eventually this too became untenable, and we reverted back to hunting for low cost options on the state and private markets. This month we got lucky with a four day opening at Oscar Scherer. We have stayed here before, and like Lake Manatee State Park, quite enjoy the dense woodsy environment. While here we were able to not only visit Gloria and Jerry, but also to hold a casual BBQ night with the rest of Rosemarie’s local family.

During our stay we got word from Richard at Xtreme Zuks Offroad that the Tracker was good to go (he had it running within half an hour of us dropping it off, then smoothed things out during the next few days) and that we could pick it up at our convenience. On Friday we left Oscar Scherer and headed north an hour or so to MacDill Air Force Base’s Family RV Campground. Despite more than six years of full time RVing, an ever increasing dependency on low cost military campgrounds, more than a third of each year spent in Florida, and stays at 15 different Air Force spots, we had never stayed at MacDill.

Now we have. The large campground boasts more than two hundred sites, most of which are reservable, some of which are first come first serve, but you’re dreaming if you think you can get any of those on short notice during the winter. They do, however, have overflow sites, by which I mean a grass field (with no services) where you can stay for $12 a night. It was fine, it was safe, it was convenient to our needs, and after working through the typical military gate security and campground administrative check in process (registration and insurance paperwork for the RV and tow vehicle mandatory) we settled in for a one night stay. Honestly, it’s a nice campground right on the bay, and should we have the opportunity for a real stay there, we will likely take it, but it just wasn’t working for us for a full weekend.

The only picture we have from MacDill AFB’s overflow camping site

So Saturday morning we left the base and headed north a bit to pick up the Tracker. Though our Fort Myers mechanic had not been able to get it started, he did a professional job of installing the engine, and Richard only charged us a small fee (less than two hours labor) for the additional adjustments and checks he conducted to get things running right.

We had reservations for the last week of February and the first half of March locked in, but this weekend was still a hole despite our usually successful hunt for cancellation created availability, so we drove five miles up the road to the nearest Cracker Barrel. Like many RVers, we have stayed at our share of big box parking lots, usually as a one night stop over along a planned route. While Walmarts and Home Depot’s are often just fine, we prefer Cracker Barrels: the restaurant chain has designated bus/RV parking, allows overnight campers (unless city ordnance prohibits) and usually feels a bit more secure than the big lot options. Water tanks full and batteries charged, we settled in for a two night stay, taking the opportunity to stock up and make preparations for our upcoming travels.

And thus ends our nearly two month tow vehicle drama. Next up: two more new state parks to close out February.

This is not exactly a glammer location shot, but we are so glad to have our little truck back.

W.P. Franklin Corps of Engineers Campground

Surprisingly, despite more than six years of full time RVing and hundreds of different campgrounds, until this February we had never stayed in a Corps of Engineers park. For a while I had it in my head that Midway Campground along Tamiami Trail in the Everglades was a COE place, but no, it’s run by the National Park Service. And now, after having actually stayed in a COE park, the differences between the two are stark. While Midway’s location is convenient and the surroundings quite natural, the reservation system, quality of sites, available services, and condition of facilities are well below that of a COE campground, particularly since, in this “compare and contrast” example, they are the same price.

First, a quick review of why we are camping in the area at all: it’s winter and this is Florida, our tow vehicle is still in the shop, Key West Naval Air Station Campground at Sigsbee remains closed, and there is an ongoing (and still raging) global pandemic so we won’t go to our crowded destinations for craft and farmers markets. With our desired region for this time period defined as a rough triangle between Lake Okeechobee, Port Charlotte, and Naples, we used AllStays.com, cross referenced to user review sites, to develop an expanded list of local RV park options, some of which had never previously appeared on our proposed campground radar. Normally we would also use Passport-America for this research, but these months are almost universally blacked out for the PA discount for participating parks in Florida.

Our efforts, loosely begun during the last weeks of our tenure at Periwinkle Park in Sanibel, intensified while at South Bay. Within our target triangle there were about 50 private RV resorts, most of which we dismissed as overly expensive, poorly reviewed, or inconveniently located, though we kept a few as part of our back up plan. Instead we focused on the handful of state parks, a couple of county options, and two COE properties: W.P. Franklin North and Ortona South, both on the Caloosahatchee River.

From this list we sought to secure sites using the appropriate online or phone systems, aiming for a minimum of three day stays, a week if possible. We are old hands at the Reserve America website, which handles reservations for thousands of federal, state, provincial and local government owned parks in North America, including all Florida State Parks. Though we have less exposure to the Recreation.gov system, which operates many federal properties including COE parks, we definitely gained experience and appreciation for it during this month’s reservation efforts. It has similar functionality and appearance to Reserve America’s website, but with a few features we found more convenient. The best aspect of the COE system over RA’s is the clear and unadulterated pricing: the final cost is “as listed,” with no extra reservation fees or taxes popping up during checkout.

After checking for cancellation generated availability multiple times every day at various state and COE spots, we managed to secure six days at W.P. Franklin, divided between two sites. What a fantastic park. The COE property straddles the Caloosahatchee River, the main westward outflow from Lake Okeechobee. W.P. Franklin exists due to a century old effort to make the Caloosahatchee navigable by commercial shipping from The Gulf to The Big Lake, back well before environmental concerns might constrain such a large scale engineering project. This meant not only dredging and straightening the winding river, but also putting in locks to control the lake level and freshwater flow due to the limited but discernable elevation change from Central Florida to the coast.

The COE property includes the southern shore day use area and lock, the northern shore campground and boat ramp, and a controlled flow damn between them. There is no public bridge to get across the river, even on foot, without going about five miles west, so plan your route accordingly. The northern section and campground is on an old river oxbow a dozen miles northeast of Fort Myers. It is a small park with only 30 sites, all electric and water only, but nearly all of them are waterfront. The low Florida elevation, proximity to The Gulf Coast, and lack of nearby vertical construction results in excellent sunset views for all.

Though close to Fort Myers, without a tow vehicle this place felt quite isolated, much more so than South Bay, for example. At the latter the bodegas and fast casual dining where but an easy one mile bike ride away. Here it was five miles just to get to a Shell gas station. We didn’t worry about that, because we didn’t worry about leaving the property, other than for evening walks. We satisfied ourselves with the abundant wildlife, fantastic sunsets, and peaceful mood generated by proximity to a quite, slow running river. We watched the gators and turtles, pier fishers and boaters, and herons and osprey. Rosemarie dared to even rise before dawn one morning to take in a sunrise, though it was obscured by heavy cloud cover.

As a result of our excellent experience at W.P. Franklin, we are absolutely sold on COE parks, and will include them as high priorities in our future travel planning, especially when back in Southwest Florida.

Back to Lake Okeechobee and South Bay While Awaiting Loki Repairs

For any given destination, we generally prioritize our campgrounds like so:

  1. Military Campgrounds
  2. State or County Parks we love or that come highly recommended
  3. Passport America Private Parks
  4. State or County Parks new to us
  5. Other Private Resorts
  6. Cracker Barrel or Walmart parking lots.

During our hectic tour of Southwest Florida this February we got to experience four of those six options, plus an entirely new category, during stays at eight different locations, with only private parks left out of the mix. Even for us “flexible” (i.e., often last minute) planners, this late winter jumping about is unusual. COVID continues to mess with our schedule (in past years we would likely still be in Key West) but this February’s game of musical campgrounds is more the result of ongoing drama with our Geo Tracker and the need to stay relatively local while awaiting completion of the engine rebuild and installation. Not knowing exactly when that would be forced us to continually seek out last minute options to remain in Southwest Florida.

PKM in her usual starting spot, on the dashboard, when we are on the road.

As we wrote in our January Report, Richard at Xtreme Zuks Offroad rebuilt an engine and even agreed to deliver it to our local mechanic in Fort Lauderdale, the place we had arranged for the Tracker to be towed the weekend after I blew the engine on Alligator Alley. While waiting for the thing to be installed and everything worked out we secured a week long reservation at South Bay RV Campground, the county park we discovered last November as a replacement for staying in Xavier and Joy’s driveway (which, if you recall past posts, was eliminated in 2019 by a visit from Coral Springs Code Enforcement.)

Without our tow vehicle, Loki, errands have to be done in the rig or by bike. Here we are dropping off books and videos at the Sanibel Library the morning of our departure from the island, bound for South Bay.

I remain a bit surprised that South Bay had week long, late notice reservations available for us twice this winter; it seems to defy my Law of Florida Winter Campground Reservations: affordable, available and local, pick any two. Seriously, if you had told me I could secure a last minute winter reservation for a week in South Florida (with full hook up services, in an attractive park with spacious sites, in a safe place) at just over $25 a night, I would have been quite skeptical. But we did. Twice.

After a few minutes on the dash, PKM demands her usual travel accommodations.

I suppose the main reason for this unexpected availability is the somewhat isolated nature of the specific location; sure it’s in South Florida, but unless you are a serious fan of boating on Lake Okeechobee, there are not many other reason for coming here. The region boasts a handful of small towns in the middle of farm and swamp land. There are no nearby beaches, major cities, or tourist destinations, and there are only so many locals likely to have snowbird relatives with RVs coming down for visits.

The pond between the two RV loops, complete with 6′ alligator.

Another likely reason for the unexpected availability: South Bay is West Palm Beach County owned and operated. During our more than six years full time RVing through 48 U.S. states and 5 Canadian provinces, we have found that county campgrounds are the “hidden gems” of RV parks, often not even known about by locals or considered by out of towners, which is why they are near the top of our list when researching options. This goes not just for new regions, but also for familiar areas where our usual places aren’t available, or when we want to change things up and try something new.

Out on our bikes along the dirt roads between agricultural plots

Now, not everything at South Bay is puppy-dog tails and glitter covered ponies. When researching the place back in November I ran across some reviews indicating that road noise was quite loud in the row of sites along US-27. Accordingly, during the phone reservation process I requested and received confirmation that we would be assigned a site other than that row, and we ended up with a great spot without significant road noise, at least none audible from inside the RV. I forgot this little nugget of knowledge when making our recent week long reservation, and we ended up in a site which thoroughly validated the noise complaints in those past reviews.

I would say that this place is one of Kitty Meow Meow’s favorites, but honestly, anywhere with warm sun, grass, and lizards is awesome for her. Throw in some particularly stupid chipmunks, moles, or mice, and you have heaven on earth for her.

If you examine the campground map, the even numbered sites between 76 and 88 along with 75 and 89, are the ones of concern, and for a week we were dead in the middle of that row. In all of those unfortunately positioned spots there is nothing more than a thin line of mangrove trees and bushes to cut the noise in the mere 100′ between the back of the site and US-27, which has a lot of large truck and tractor trailer traffic. We used head phones, ear plugs, television, and fan noise to alleviate things, but we were thrilled to move to the other loop for our two day extension at South Bay.

Our second spot this visit to South Bay. We could use a few more trees, but this is much quiter.

Without our tow vehicle we were a lot more limited than usual in our exploration of the area: there would be no geocaching or trips to Martin Tacos in nearby Belle Glade. We made the best of it with our feet and bikes. Miles of agricultural land, canals, and the big lake made for plenty of natural beauty, while a handful of nearby gas station bodegas and strip malls provided the essentials. Next up: our first Corps of Engineers park.

73 Months Fulltime RVing: January 2021 Report

The Distance: 99 miles. After two full months in Sanibel we began our meandering journey out of Florida with a westward run to South Bay, a small town with a county campground on the very southern shore of Lake Okeechobee. Obviously, our total for 2021 is also 99 miles. February will see a significant increase in our movement, but still all of it in the southern half of Florida.

This block of Southwest Florida was our home region for a big portion of 2020, and continues to be so for the first couple of months of 2021. The next few posts take mostly within this map as we linger in the area, partly because we love it, but also because Loki’s repair is taking a lot longer than we anticipated.

The Places: We spent most of the month at Periwinkle Park in Sanibel, one of our favorite places that we have visited many times, including the entire Spring of 2020 as we self isolated when the pandemic hit. We ended January at South Bay RV Campground, a county park we enjoyed for the first time back in November. This month we spent 27 days in a private park and 4 in a county campground, with full hook ups the entire month.

A small portion of Rosemarie’s shell haul from our latest two months on Sanibel. We did not have the best shelling conditions, and red tide effects made some days difficult to spend on the beach, but we made the best of it.

The Money: At 44% over budget for the month we are not, financially speaking, starting 2021 off well. Though we received our $600 per person stimulus checks, we also had to pay for the bulk of our tow vehicle’s engine rebuild. We did what we could to limit daily expenses, but it was not nearly enough to counteract the repair costs and our high RV resort fees (averaging nearly $50 a night despite the monthly discount at Periwinkle Park.)

We have enjoyed all of our sites at Periwinkle Park, but some more than others. January’s site was excellent.

You might think that the lack of a daily driver would help us limit our expenditures, and I am sure in some ways it did. But the need to rent a car for a few days to visit Rose’s family across the state and a couple of associated Lyft fees pretty much erased whatever savings that might have created.

The remnants of an American version of a folly castle on the Gulf Coast near The Ten Thousand Islands.

The Drama: Loki, our previously super reliable Geo Tracker, remained in the shop for an engine rebuild. Getting that done on any vehicle would be drama enough, but this particular job has turned out to be extra special: our Fort Myers mechanic could not locate a suitable engine block upon which to base the project! To his credit, he was dead accurate regarding how limited Tracker engine cores for our model are.

We have been trying to eat better this year, with particular focus on fresh and local ingredients. Sure, the pasta was basic Barilla thin spaghetti, but topped with fresh basil pesto, and local clams, garlic, and mushrooms it made for fine dining.

Luckily I found a Xtreme Zuks Offroad, a Suzuki Sidekick specialist (Trackers and Sidekicks were a joint project between Chevy and Suzuki during the ’90s) north of Tampa that had exactly one available engine block. The shop’s owner, Richard, agreed to do the engine rebuild, though rarity and specialist involvement meant it would be about 30% more than our Fort Myers man had expected. His shop is quite busy, so it took him a few weeks, but he not only finished the engine, he delivered it down to our Fort Myers mechanic himself. All’s well that ends well, right? Not this month it ain’t: after installation our Fort Myers guy could not get the tracker started, even after several days of extra effort and research. You will have to wait until a later post to read the final outcome.

Next up: A couple of inland campgrounds in Southwest Florida, including our first Core Of Engineers park.