Retired RVing Couple Visits All 160 Florida State Parks
The bucket list for Pat and Ray Ciemniecki is a work in progress. It was in that spirit the 70-year-old couple managed to check off the first goal on the list.
Visit each of Florida's state parks.
There are 160 of them.
It took the retired Manatee County educators four years to do them all, beginning with Lake Manatee State Park and finishing up last February with Paynes Creek just north of Wauchula, the Bradenton Herald reported.
They received a nice letter of acknowledgment from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, as well.
It complements the four scrapbooks Pat Ciemniecki assembled chronicling their adventures.
"People our age don't all go marching around state parks and we're thankful we could do it," she said. "It's an exciting accomplishment."
Just 25 people have done it since Florida State Parks began keeping track in June 2008.
Others completed the circuit before then — state parks average 20 million visitors annually — but not many.
"They're in exclusive company," parks official Pat Gillespie said of the Ciemnieckis.
How they got started was simple enough. They'd gone to a festival at Lake Manatee and one of the things offered was a state park passport — a collector's journal for planning park visits, recording experiences and collecting each park's unique stamp.
The Ciemnieckis were inspired.
High school sweethearts from Linden, N.J., they've been RVing and camping for 40 years and saw virtually the entire country with their two children who now have their own children.
This journey was for grandma and grandpa.
"We said why don't we make it a goal go to every state park in Florida?" Ray Ciemniecki said. "We started out small, went to this one and that one and then really got going.
"We didn't care how long it took. Whether it was four years or 10, we decided to go to every single one."
They'd map out an area and hit the road in their 40-foot motorhome with car in tow for more than a month at a time.
That some parks didn't have overnight camping wasn't a problem.
They'd hook up the RV at one that did and drive to the smaller parks in the area on day trips.
On other trips, if the park was unreachable by car — i.e., Honeymoon Island, Caladesi Island, both west of Tampa — they'd take a boat.
"It's no more expensive than staying at home," Ray Ciemniecki said. "Except for gas ($300 a fill-up), you're living in your own little cottage. It works out pretty well."
Thanks to senior citizen discount rates, the couple stayed at some state parks for as little as $6 per night.
"A lot of Manatee County people like to have a second home in the mountains, but we've never wanted that — going back to the same place every year," Pat Ciemniecki said. "We go to a different place all the time."
Their favorite area was the Panhandle with 34 state parks, Topsail Hill Preserve State Park on Santa Rosa Beach foremost among them.
"It was the most elaborate of the state parks in terms of accommodations — 50-amp electricity, water, sewers, swimming pool, cable TV, tram to the beach," Ray Ciemniecki said. "It was like being in a resort."
At the other extreme were parks like the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve, 25 miles north of Okeechobee that felt like 250.
"It's so remote I told the ranger the only people who stay there are in the witness protection program," Ray Ciemniecki joked. "You never see another human being."
They saw things they never knew existed in Florida.
Like caverns and waterfalls.
They saw plenty of critters, too.
"We went canoeing at Myakka and we must've seen a thousand alligators easy in a four-mile stretch," Ray Ciemniecki said. "It was cool."
So was a chance meeting with some Apalachicola oystermen while the couple was visiting St. George Island State Park.
"We were canoeing in Apalachicola Bay and they were coming into the boat ramp where we were," Ray Ciemniecki said. "I thought about buying some oysters. They said sure. How fresh can you get them? So I went over with a big pot, filled it up and said how much? He said $3.
"There were 50-60 oysters in that pot. We ate four dozen right there."
As pleasing as that sounds, there were parts of their trips to state parks they found disturbing. Legislative budget cuts have had an impact.
"They've lost a lot of staff and programs, roads need repaving, the general upkeep has slackened off," Pat Ciemniecki said. "Parks have suffered."
Yet if anyone qualifies as passionate advocates for Florida's state parks, it's them.
"My advice is go to your nearest state park," Ray Ciemniecki said. "Most are less than an hour away. Spend some time, walk, hike, don't just drive through. Visit the attractions there. You'll get hooked."