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It only takes 78 steps to get to the top of the Historic Port Isabel Lighthouse. But, for the moment, it’s off limits, as renovation at the site continues.

“We’re looking at a very, very late July till late August completion,” said Valerie Bates, the City of Port Isabel marketing director.

The renovation was scheduled to be complete in February, but Bates said, “There’s still a few things to fulfill on their punch list.”

Restoring history isn’t fast or easy, especially on a structure built more than 160 years ago. Since October, scaffolding has surrounded the lighthouse as Texas Parks and Wildlife works to restore some of its old glory.

The lighthouse square is a state park and different from others along the Texas Coast. “What makes ours more unusual is the idea that you can visit this lighthouse and walk up the stairs to the inside and see the very same view that lighthouse keepers saw for decades,” explained Bates.

Thousands visit every year to enjoy the view. “The view from the top gives you a 60-mile radius, so you can see the Laguna Madre Bay, South Padre Island, the Brazos-Santiago Pass, beyond that the Gulf of Mexico and over to the Brownsville ship channel. It’s a beautiful view,” said Bates. “There’s nothing else like it in the Rio Grande Valley or Texas.”

While the lighthouse is closed for renovation, the rest of the square is open for business. “We have a variety of shops around the lighthouse and attractions and activities and restaurants and night spots. And next to the lighthouse on the lighthouse grounds is the lighthouse Keepers Cottage, which is home to the Port Isabel Chamber of Commerce. And it’s also our Visitors Center.”

 

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — “See you on the other side!”

As Virginia native Ryan Caruso began the first strokes of his journey into the Gulf of Mexico, he could not help but let out an exclamation for everyone around to hear.

He was nervous about his two-month trip at sea, but nerves are a given. More than anything else, he was excited.

“You’ve got to stay strong and do what you can (every day),” he said before his departure.

Caruso traveled down to South Padre Island this week to attempt a trip to Florida. He is not accompanied by anyone else. It is just him, his books, his supplies and a trusty GPS.

Caruso is doing this adventure to raise money for a charity, Operation Smile, in his hometown of Virginia Beach.

The organization offers free life-changing surgeries to children all around the world. Caruso took the pledge to advocate about safe surgery for all children as part of Operation Smile’s “Until We Heal” campaign.

This would not be the first adventure Caruso has had. He has kayaked hundreds of miles from Virginia to Tennessee and has climbed Chimborazo, a mountain taller than Mt. Everest.

Caruso is inspired by people like Braam Malherbe, who ran the entire length of the Great Wall of China despite professionals saying it was physically impossible. Malherbe also raised money for Operation Smile.

“I think there’s an intrinsic value in adventure. Everyone knows the story of climbing Everest, so I think by capitalizing on something like that, you can motivate people to be a part of your journey without being there and being part of something bigger than themselves,” Caruso said.

Galveston is Caruso’s first major stop. It is 650 miles away from South Padre Island, and if Caruso is able to travel 30 miles per day like he planned, it would take about 21 days to reach.

“It’s ambitious, but we’ll figure out how that works. To Galveston, it’s 650 miles. To New Orleans, it’s 750. And to Panama City, it’s about 1,100,” Caruso said. “As I get closer, I’ll decide whether to go further down into the keys.”

Mainly, he will kayak through the Gulf of Mexico, but his route will take him through all bodies of water.

Weather is always a concern, but on Saturday afternoon the 25 mph winds were hitting his back, a good sign.

Caruso has planned the trip for nearly one year. He has his essentials: a sponge and pump in case his kayak flips over, a tent and hammock for when he camps out, 90 pounds of water, food, GPS and a cell phone.

Every 10 minutes, his GPS will send out a signal, allowing people to follow his adventure online. Supporters can donate at http://support.operationsmile.org/goto/kayakvoyage.

“Adventure is out there. That’s what we read about and see in the movies. Anything you want to do is possible. People will always tell you that you can’t, but go get it. As long as you enjoy doing it, that’s all that matters,” Caruso said.

By FRANK GARZA Staff Writer

 

Skydive South Padre Island owner Frank Shisler has skydived more than 10,000 times. He takes Island thrill seekers with the courage to step into the thin air more than 10,000 feet to jump out of a perfectly good airplane everyday.

We spoke to him to talk about the 60 second skydive freefall that hits speeds of up to 150 miles, and the amazing five to seven minute parachute decent back down to Island that his team offers only on South Padre Island.

When was your first time skydiving, and what was it like?

Frank: I jumped for the very first time when I was 23 after a friend of mine invited me to try it. And the moment I jumped out of the airplane changed my life forever. When somebody goes jumping for the first time it’s like it literally changes your life. The second I let go of that airplane I knew I was going to do that again. Before my feet touched the ground I was already thinking about how am I going to get the money to do this again.

What does it feel like when you jump out of an airplane?

Frank: There is no way to describe it. It’s just a euphoric feeling. Some people describe it as the longest minute of their lives. Other people describe it as the shortest minute of their life. For me I feel it’s just a calm and a sense of no other thing in the world is in my brain at that moment. I feel like when I let go of the airplane that nothing in my life ever exists until I’m back on the ground. There is no perfect way to really describe the way it feels to skydive.

Does it feel like flying like it shows in the movies like Point Break or Superman?

Frank: It truly is. I can fly my body the same way an airplane flies through the sky. I can’t go up because an airplane has an engine but I can go up in relative motion to a person in free-fall. We are flying at the same speed, or I can fly a little faster or slower then that person. I can jump out of an airplane and fly right to a person who jumped ten seconds before me and catch them. Now my Skydive went from 60 seconds to seven or eight minutes flying and 6 to 9 minutes with the parachute.

How safe is skydiving and what’s the range of ages you work with?

Frank: You have to be 18 to be able to skydive in the USA. The oldest we’ve taken skydiving on this Island is 94-years-old. Less than one percent of the total population will ever jump out of an airplane. Less than 10 percent of that one percent will ever do it more than one time. People always ask me if skydiving is safe and all that. People die skydiving. Everybody knows that it’s not a secret people have died skydiving. We tried to take out the risk as much as we can and we have done it safely for seven years on this island out of 7,000 people I have taken up three people have rode the airplane down. Their lives are just as important as ours.

What’s it like falling for 60 seconds and seeing the strip of Island?

Frank: This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever jumped it’s beautiful when you’re up there and you look down and it looks like a landing strip to see that and to see how beautiful the water is and that bridge from that height is breathtaking. You can skydive anywhere, but people say why would I want to jump into a field when I can jump out over this beautiful Island

Book readers across the state selected Paragraphs Books on the Boulevard as the number one bookstore in Texas.

“We offer all types of books, new releases hardbacks and paperback, used, children’s, poetry, plays and sidelines such as cards, bookmarks, games, art and toys,” said Joni Montover, Paragraphs Books store owner.

Nearly 2,500 of Lone Star Literary Life’s readers cast ballots in the statewide contest during May to recognize Texas’s favorite bookstores.

Lone Star Literary Life helps readers, publishers, booksellers and authors by connecting them with resources to find and build their audience.

Paragraphs climbed to the top rank of the club’s list of top bookstores in Texas after being named the number three store in Texas last year.

Paragraphs was chosen over 300 bookstores in Texas.

The competiton included big indies, small indies, chain stores, used bookstores and new book stores from every corner of the state.

Paragraphs is an independent, community orientated bookstore located on South Padre Island.

Currently, Paragraphs is the only full-services bookstore in Cameron County.

The store first opened its doors for business in 2009.

The Island bookstore offers a vast collection of titles in poetry, nature history, classic literature, fiction and nonfiction.

Book readers on the Island can find interesting books like “Gone With the Wind,” “The Fountainhead,” “The Wind in the Willows” and more.

It’s a 40-minute driver from Harlingen and Brownsville and a 90 minute-drive from McAllen.

Paragraphs hosts book signings throughout the year to allow many self-published authors to share their work in person.

“It’s part of the store mission to help promote literacy in the Lower Rio Grande Valley by hosting numerous book signings and we are happy to allow many self-published authors the opportunity to interact with potential readers in person,” Montover said.

Based on participation and interest, Paragraphs Books offers children’s story time, a book club, writers group and play reading group meetings monthly.

“We welcome groups to use our store for small gatherings or a place to meet and discuss issues important to the community,” Montover said.

By RAUL GARCIA Staff Writer

 

Native plants in the Rio Grande Valley are nothing if not tenacious.

Each one seems to have some type of thorn or sticker or tough skin designed to make it as difficult as possible to eat, or enabling it to fend off insects or to keep from being colonized by parasites.

But even our resilient and drought-resistant flora can use a helping hand.

A program at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is attempting to do just that. The goal? Accelerating the complete restoration of native Tamaulipan thornscrub from 25 to 30 years to maybe half that time.

“Those tree protectors we call them – tree tubes or tree protectors — they do two major things to help the plant survive,” said Kim Wahl, a plant biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who is leading the restoration effort.

“Without them on, rodents and rabbits will chew them down until just little nubs,” Wahl said last week.

“They also protect against natural elements like sunlight, and the dew will condense inside the tube and run down the tube,” she added. “The humidity inside those tubes is higher, and the temperature is a little bit lower.”

The tubes also cut off some of the eternal Valley winds, and the plants end up with a better growth environment.

Re-establishing native habitat from what is now Rio GrandeValley farmland is both time and labor intensive. It was only 100 years ago, prior to the agricultural revolution that arrived with electricity, pumps and irrigation, when practically the entire Valley was covered in dense thornscrub.

Wahl said about 275 acres were replanted between October and March this year to restore Tamaulipan thornscrub in Cameron and Hidalgo counties. Most of that acreage was planted without the protection of the 3-foot tree tubes.

Among the species planted at Laguna Atascosa were snake eyes or devil queen, Texas torchwood, crucita or Christmas bush, trixis or American threefold, lantana, Berlandier croton and Manzanita, or Barbados cherry, Wahl said.

For her part, Wahl is less interested in overall restoration recovery time than she is in how animal and plant species adapt to the new habitat. She says wildlife can use the plots almost immediately after planting.

“I don’t know if we have a good idea of just how much time it will take” to completely restore the thornscrub habitat, Wahl said.

“But from the time we plant, it becomes useful right away for small mammals, rodents, pollinators like bees and butterflies that first year, and then to be useful for birds, it needs to start seed production or the trees get large enough for nesting,” she said.

“From there, you are beginning to be more beneficial for larger mammals and ultimately we’re looking at making these areas suitable habitat for ocelots,” Wahl said.

At any one time, there are about 15 of the endangered Texas subspecies of ocelot on the Laguna Atascosa refuge, and about 80 in South Texas. Restoration of habitat is considered a key component to saving the wildcats, which, unlike their bobcat cousins, can be quite particular when it comes to preferred habitat.

By RICK KELLEY | Staff Writer

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND – Isla Blanca Park will soon undergo major renovations totaling about $20 million. That means some people who rent RV spaces won’t get to reserve their usual spot as they have been doing for decades.

Some people told CHANNEL 5 NEWS they stay at Isla Blanca for part of the year. Others said they stay almost year-round.

Telesforo Atkinson has been at the same spot for 37 years. He built his own garden with palm trees, flowers, and even a sprinkler system. He’s upset he can’t reserve the spot he calls his second home for the upcoming season.

“It’s a community here,” Atkinson said. “We’re all family. We are seven or eight families that are kinfolk here. People from up north come that we associate with, that we fish together with – it’s our community.”

Atkinson said this could be the last year he gets to enjoy his stay. Many residents received a notice at check-in the first of the month.

It notified them of renovations that will be happening at the park, including electrical upgrades and a new campground design.

The notice reads in part:

“Because of this, and the yet to be determined construction schedule, effective immediately, we will not be taking reservations for next season.”

Cameron County Parks Director Joe Vega signed the notice. He told CHANNEL 5 NEWS Friday that he understands long-time residents’ sentiments, but adds it’s something that must be done for the betterment of the entire park.

“We’re going to look into doing a boardwalk that connects from one pavilion to the other pavilion,” Vega said. “The other proposed improvements (are) to build new restrooms (and) a new amphitheater with a multi-purpose building. We are also looking into building a new lifeguard station.”

Vega said $20 million worth of improvements means a lot of construction will be taking place. That’s why he can’t promise RV residents a place to stay.

“This will allow us to build – to have all the sites nice and uniform, and not only that, we’re going to be doing some nice landscaping in the park,” Vega said. “We want to make this park look very nice, not only for our current RV guests to enjoy but for future generations to enjoy as well.”

For now, Atkinson said he’ll enjoy every moment he has left in his paradise by the sea. He said park officials told him no one is guaranteed a spot at the park past this summer.

Vega said they still don’t know what part of the park will be worked on first.

On a wooden dock near a flock of brown pelicans, members of the Texas Game Wardens’ Marine Tactical Operations Group went over the plans and details of a joint-mission to bring the decommissioned USS Independence safely to rest at the Port of Brownsville.

The mission took several hours as several federal, state and local law enforcement agencies worked together to keep curious boaters, tour vessels and potential threats away from the tugboat group as it worked to bring the massive Forrestal-class aircraft carrier through the ship channel.

With positions around the Independence assigned, the outboard engines on the Game Wardens’ SAFE boat clicked into gear outside the Coast Guard station.

“Coming up!” Captain Luis Sosa shouted as the bow of the boat raised and sped off toward the Gulf of Mexico for the four-mile trip to meet the Independence at sea, where the escort mission was to begin.

The purpose of the security and safety perimeter was to ensure the safety of spectators and, ultimately, the integrity of the ship channel. Sosa explained the “trickle down” effect a closed ship channel would have if it were closed.

Theoretically, had an attack on the Independence occurred, she could occlude the channel used by shrimpers, local fisherman and ultimately the Port of Brownsville. Such a closure could become an economic disaster for one of the busiest international trade ports in the United States. With large LNG vessels written into the port’s future, Sosa explained that escort missions could become more commonplace in the ship channel.

With swelling seas and a mere 2- to 3-knot travel speed, boaters and tour vessels were encroaching on the Independence as she made her final voyage into port. The large-twin outboard engines on the Game Wardens’ vessel quickly brought the boat over the swells as Sosa maneuvered his crew between the civilian boat the Independence.

Shortly after, a tour vessel came near the security perimeter. Again, Sosa performed an intercept maneuver to defend the decommissioned and powerless Independence.

With the security group making its way into the jetties, the number of targets of interest grew as numerous personal fishing boats, jet skis, pontoons and tour boats cluttered together to get as close as possible to the majestic ship. Each one was considered a safety and security concern during the multi-hour operation.

Game Warden Carmen Rickel took over at the helm, intercepting multiple civilian craft as crews from the U.S. Coast Guard pushed forward to block and redirect other vessels attempting to share the ship channel. Some shallow-draft bait-shrimp boats were forced to maneuver in as little as 8 feet of water to yield use of the entire channel.

A group of tug vessels, all with the name “Signet,” worked as one to move the Independence through the channel. At the lead was the Signet Thunder. A single line attached her to the anchor chain of the Independence, providing forward propulsion for the group.

On the sides of the bow were the Signet Challenger and the Signet Magic, applying their thrust in sync to steer the Independence between the narrowing channel markers. Attached to the stern was the Signet Arcturis, controlling the stern and fighting a cross-wind as the Independence acted as a massive sail for even the slightest breeze.

More than 1,600 people are expected to run and walk across the Queen Isabella Cause-way tomorrow morning, June 3.

It’s the third annual Summer Longest Causeway Run and Fitness Walk starting at Schlitterbahn and ending at the Port Isabel Event and Cultural Center. It gives participants a summer opportunity to cross the 2.6 mile causeway on foot.

This event is patterned after the 33-year-old January run/walk, but this with a different course.

The 6.2 mile (10K) course weaves through the waterfront loop in Isla Blanca Park before heading to the Causeway.

Port Isabel Chamber of Commerce President Betty Wells is excited about another event.

“We’ve been preparing for this for more than four months,” Wells said. “We just hope for wonderful weather.”

If it’s a little too hot, Wells is quick to point out there will be a number of residents along the route “hosing” participants off with water as well as the Port Isabel Fire Truck, too. There also are two additional water spots than previous years.

The chamber started the event on the heels of the successful January Causeway Run. The weekend after Memorial Day and before the real start of summer was chosen to bring people to the island area who may not come at that time of the year.

Last year, there were 1,671 participants and Wells said she is hoping for more this year. As of earlier this week, registration was at 1,300, ahead of the pace for the 2016 event.

“We always hope for an increase,” she said. “We are just pleased people support and enjoy this event each year.”

In order to impact the bridge as minimally as possible, only the outside lane of the eastbound lanes will be closed for the race. Wells suggested visitors to the Island early that morning should prepare for some delays due to the event.

There will be prizes and medals awarded for overall winners and those in age groups.