The ranger talk in the Carillon tower on Stephen Foster turned out to be a jam session with bluegrass, country and folk musicians with music interspersed with Stephen Foster-related commentary by the mandolin playing Park ranger. There were also a couple of banjos, guitars, another mandolin, and a squeeze box (concertina) played by a woman who also played the spoons. Such fun, a unique and rare experience!
Saturday, April 21st. We got back on I-75 south for a couple of hours, and then connected to the turnpike at Wildwood for a few miles until getting off at the infamous US-27S. The bad reputation of this road was well merited as we stopped and started, sat at traffic lights in lines of idling traffic, and generally inched our way for another 2 hours through the welter of suburbs that sprang up in the Disney-fication of central Florida, from the Villages in the north to Lake Wales in the south. After that, the road opened up a bit as the countryside became more rural again and we passed the city limits of Sebring on the shores of Lake Jackson, lined with all the usual big box stores: Walmart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, even an Aldi’s. Highlands Hammock is several miles off US27 on a County Road and when we arrived on a Saturday afternoon, the campground was packed with campers, tents, kids on bikes, families grilling… I think ours was the last vacant spot and it was a very tight fit mostly because of all our neighbors’ trucks and other equipment hemming us in. Some of our neighbors (2 brothers, Byron and Brent) helped Scott back into the campsite, and the neighbor in the opposite site moved his truck so we would have enough room to do so. Even so, our trailer sustained a scrape and a dent on the side below the slide-out. But the site was fairly level after all, and the water and electric hookups worked fine, so we set up with no further problems and then unhitched and went to the nearby Aldi’s for supplies. We had the fan on all night so if there was any nighttime noise in the campground, we never heard it.
Sunday, April 22nd. The campground started emptying out this morning, and by the afternoon, we were among the few still here. Without the crush of other campers, we can appreciate that it’s actually a lovely setting in an oak shaded hammock. We took a short walk on the Alan Altvater Trail that makes a loop on the east end of the campground through a classic scrub environment of slash pine and saw palmetto, with lots of other interesting familiar scrub plants like paw paw, fetterbush, rusty lyonia, etc. They do prescribed burns here every 2-5 years. We had signed up for an 11a.m. tram tour so we walked over to the CCC Museum to wait for the tram which turned out to be about 1/2 hour late and then we and an entire Girl Scout troop piled into the tram and we drove through an area normally closed to the public on the south and east park boundaries. The tour consisted of the volunteer driver stopping every few minutes to point out clutches of baby alligators on the banks of the moat that forms the park boundary. This got old pretty quickly, plus her knowledge about anything other than Gators was pretty vague. “There’s a hawk.” “There’s a butterfly.” “There’s a turtle….” We did see a juvenile barn owl, which was pretty cool. We rested for a while back at the trailer, waiting for it to cool off a bit in the late afternoon. Then we took off again and drove the park loop, stopping to hike on several of the trails through some beautiful old growth oak and cypress hammock. Very few people were around, the breeze picked up, some rain clouds threatened but did not let loose, and it was another of those moments of quiet magic, communing with nature.
Monday, April 23th. A day of exploration and discovery! We set off to find natural areas in this region of the Lake Wales Ridge. We knew that the Lake Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge is not open to the public because of the extremely endangered habitat it encompasses, but we saw on the map other contiguous areas administered by state and local agencies which did seem to be open to the public: the Carter Creek Tract, Royce Unit, Hickory Hammock… etc. We were able to drive on the road next to the LWRNWR, but never really found an entrance to any trails in any of the other areas. We drove around Lake Istokpoga, stopped at a public boat launch, drove around some of the residential areas nearby. Then we drove towards Lake Placid and stopped at a little local park called Windy Ridge on the west shore of Istokpoga, took a short trail and noted evidence of enduring damage from Hurricane Irma, blue tarps still on roofs, many trees down, piles of debris. In Lake Placid, a nice little town, we stopped for some lunch at Good News Cafe, a smoothie and sandwich place with many vegetarian/vegan options, and it’s across the street from a yoga studio.
Scenes from Lake Placid:
Then we drove around Lake Placid environs trying to find Lake June in Winter State Park, realized we were reading the map wrong, retraced our steps and finally did find the small, pretty, deserted park on the shore of Its namesake lake. We took the very short 1/4 mile Tomoka Trail, then wandered down to the lakeshore and admired the clear, tannin stained water.
Drove back north on US27 to Sebring. Parked in the historic district where the streets radiate out from a circular park plaza. Circa the same era and style of architecture as San Marco Square in Jacksonville, albeit smaller scale, and with a similar mix of thriving, surviving, and barely hanging on businesses, along with some empty storefronts.
We stopped at a vintage/retro ice cream parlor and shared a cup of vanilla ice cream. Do we know how to party or what?
Drove around trying to find the original residential neighborhood surrounding the plaza, but didn’t find much of it. We did find some of the original older homes on the east shore of Lake Jackson. Back to Highlands Hammock for our last night there.
Tuesday, April 24th. Walked to the CCC museum to leave a couple of books in their book exchange box, and then to Hammock Inn to ask if there are laundry facilities here. Learned that yes, they are in one of the restrooms in our campground, so went back and gathered our laundry. We were able to finish by our 1 p.m. checkout time, even though one of the dryers was on the fritz and we had to combine dryer loads. While I waited for the laundry, Scott took off to get air in the truck tires and had his own adventure in the process.
Finally got packed up and on the road south on US27 for the 1+ hour drive to Fisheating Creek WMA concession campground. Our originally assigned campsite was nicely shaded under oak trees, but small, uneven, right next to the RR tracks and the road, so we got permission to switch, and did so. After setting up we had some lunch, rested, and then explored the campground, which has some of the prettiest tent campsites right on Fisheating Creek. There is also a canoe-kayak rental with a shuttle service that takes you 8 miles upstream so you can paddle back down.
Wednesday, April 25th. Before taking off this morning, we stopped at the office to ask about a kayak rental for tomorrow, but we were told that the water level is too low now, with many sandbars, portages and lots of gators, and they recommend waiting another 3 months until the rainy season. So we took off for the 18 mile drive back north to Archbold Biological Research Station.
We have heard and read and talked about ABRS for many years and given its special history and impact and relative proximity to home, we should have been shunned by the local community for avoiding it. But, we had. Until now. Weather cool. Sun bright. Surrounded by orange groves and cattle farms, they have managed to save or restore close to 100,000 acres of exemplary Florida scrub. Compared to the full extent of this truly unique ecosystem that existed when the Belle Glade culture thrived here, only 17% remains.
ABRS is a rare combination of tourist attraction, world class research facility, educational institution and of course, refuge for countless, endemic, rare and endangered flora and fauna. Many notable ecologists have visited, studied, researched and written here.
The newest buildings have the highest LEEDS scores and every energy and water and recycling method they use is described in enthusiastic detail.
Picnic tables are covered in laminated pictures of plants and animals… each table describes a different micro ecology within its perimeters. We see volunteers leading groups, including an ESOL class from South Florida State College, and we take alternate paths to walk in relative solitude.
A perfect time of the year to be here, aside from the low water levels in Fisheating Creek at our campground, putting on hold our aim of kayaking 50 miles downstream.
A small price to pay, for it is Spring, and we see many flowering plants, and in the mornings at least, it is still cool.
We take in 2 miles or so of trails along narrow, sandy paths.
Florida ecosystems are a study in remarkable changes as a result of seemingly minor changes in altitude and water. This area is in the South end of the famous Florida Lake Wales Ridge… that relatively high set of dunes that remained above sea level as water levels rose. At times the Dunes were Islands, fostering an isolation that created ecologies like no where else on earth. Hundreds of highly specialized fungi, pollinating beetles and their associated plants and, higher up the food chain, the gopher tortoise, the remarkable Florida scrub jay, and many others. We like it. Standard oil. Roeblings. Talked with the education coordinator, a young man from NY named Dustin Angell. Asked him if there were any copies available of the large maps of the Lake Wales Ridge natural areas that are mounted on the wall in the Learning Center, and he agreed to email them to me, which he did! He lives in Sebring, on the same road we drove alongside the LWRNWR, Riverdale Road.
After lunch and rest back at the trailer, and in the relative cool of the early evening, we walked along the 1.6 mile loop of the Knobby Knees Trail, the name referring to the prominent cypress knees all along the path following the course of Fisheating Creek. We could see how low the water is now, forming shallow pools of stranded fish, attractive to wading birds. We flushed a large limpkin, a couple of Osceola turkey, 3 white tailed deer, and heard but did not see some woodpeckers, doves, owls and a fish crow. Beautiful walk in an old oak and cypress hammock next to the creek.
Tomorrow: Fort Center archaeological site in Moore Haven. From the brochure on Recreation Guide to Fisheating Creek WMA: In 1926, a hunter observed a wooden carving of an eagle in the muck of a small pond near Fisheating Creek.
The carving was sent to the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, and eventually led to an extraordinary excavation of a pond at Fort Center. Bundles of human remains were found, along with the remnants of a wooden platform, decorated with wooden carvings of wildlife including life-size cats, a bear, foxes, eagles and wading birds. … The earthworks at Fort Center include mounds, ponds, circular ditches and, linear embankments, typical of others found in the Okeechobee basin. These structures were built over a period of at least 2000 years. Occupying the site prior to A.D. 200 were close to 100 people who lived on small mounds to keep their homes above flood waters. … Despite thousands of years of prehistoric human occupation, this site was named for Lieutenant J.P. Center, who occupied a cabbage palm fortification here during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842).
Thursday, April 26th. Unbeknownst to us, the cooler was plugged in all night and thus drained the truck battery. So when we jumped in the truck to drive to Fort Center… nada. But Scott, ever resourceful, read the truck manual, and then jump started the truck from one of the trailer batteries, and we were on our way! Perhaps coincidentally, the Malfunction Indicator Light came on then, and in the manual it said this might be caused by poor quality fuel… in Sebring, we had gotten biodiesel, and we were concerned that this might be an issue, and perhaps it was. In any event, 18 miles later, down US27S, up 78E, and finally west on a shell rock road called Banana Grove Rd., (although no bananas were in sight) we arrived at a small parking area with 2 privies and an information kiosk, next to the FWC administrative office in Moore Haven. It took us a while to figure out that there is in fact a trail to the Fort Center site, and to find the trail head, which passes by the FWC maintenance facilities surrounded by chainlink fence topped with loops of razor wire. The trail starts out behind a chained gate, a continuation of the shell rock road with info kiosks spaced every 1/3 mile or so. It was sunny and clear with a cool breeze. We walked along the straight, sandy road between cow pastures for about 1.5 miles. But THEN!
We are now accustomed to the subtle and often profound changes that can take place over short walks, and we could see that there was gradually an increase in the sizes of plants, with the occasional live oaks. From subtle to dramatic, we were abruptly inside a dark, beautiful oak hammock… snaking, twisted oak branches festooned with Spanish moss (a lichen) and hairy with ferns ; the temperature dropped and a cool breeze wafted through these oaks, amid a mixture of very tall sabal palms and slash pine, and many remnant citrus trees heavy with fruit.
We were struck simultaneously with a sense of quiet reverence, and we shared reflections on how respectful and grateful we felt, and how it might have been to call such a place home, those thousands of years ago. We took a side trail to the site of the Belle Glade People’s burial ground, originally a wooden platform designed to hold human remains, built over a small pond dug for this purpose. But at some point the platform burned and the remains were moved to a sandy mound constructed nearby. All this is still here, marked on the main trail with only a directional arrow and binoculars symbol without any text. The remains have been removed, and the pond is now just a damp depression in the ground, lined with sunken rows of rusting chainlink we assume to discourage artifact hunters. The sandy mound is just to the north of the pond, near an info kiosk explaining what you are seeing. Once again, we are filled with the fervent awareness: how fleeting are the works of humankind!
This feeling is reinforced a bit further as we reach the end of the 2+ mile trail and find the solitary sign for Fort Center standing in the middle of an empty field on the shore of Fisheating Creek. There is a picnic table under an oak tree, and the fenced pastures of the Lykes cattle operation across the creek. This was once a fortification made of sabal Palm logs, and served as a military base in the Seminole Wars. Nothing remains.
We rested a while at the picnic table, and then walked back, still blessed by that amazing cool breeze, and thinking how lucky we are compared with the unfortunate soldier who in April of 1855 recorded the unrelenting heat and billions of mosquitoes there at Fort Center. We stopped to rest at each of the 3 kiosks along the shell rock road (there are 8 altogether: 2 at the parking lot and 3 more in the oak hammock before the site of Fort Center), and looking out over the distant pastures to the wide sky with spectacular cloudscapes, we thought how amazing it would be to come back here in summer, and watch a thunderstorm from this spot.
When we got back to the FWC office, I stopped to thank them for making this special place available to us, and to let them know that Kiosk #7 had been knocked over and was upside down. We like the fact that there is no vehicle traffic allowed on the shellrock road to the oak hammock, so that people can’t just drive up to the site and jump out of their cars, stay 10 minutes, read the signs and drive back out again. You have to work a bit to get there, and this adds to the feeling that during those 2+ miles you are walking back in time…
We got gas in Moore Haven, and then returned to our campground, passing a sign on US27-N pointing to “Ortona Indian Mounds;” this will be for another day. When we got back to the trailer and checked our email, we found a message from Dodge saying that our truck had detected an issue that required our attention: “Your vehicle’s Malfunction Indicator Light recently indicated your vehicle needs service.
“WARNING: Prolonged driving with the Malfunction Indicator Light on could cause damage to the engine control system. If the Malfunction Indicator Light is flashing, severe catalytic converter damage and power loss will soon occur. Have your vehicle serviced at your dealership immediately.” (Ours was not flashing.) What a smart truck! It also reported our current tire pressure and helpfully provided us with a link to “Find a Dealer!” Happily, after we got gas (low-sulfur diesel) today in Moore Haven, the Malfunction Indicator Light turned off, so perhaps it was caused by the biodiesel. A learning experience!
Friday, April 27th. We took a farewell walk around the Fisheating Creek campground this morning, and found the “Swimming Hole” which has been closed because of an algae bloom for a few weeks, although there was no sign of algae there this morning. Also some more pretty tent sites. We found out that you can boondock on a tent site if your RV fits, and as long as it doesn’t block the view of the water. After lunch, we cleaned up, packed up and left at 12:40 for the 1+ hour drive west across the state past LaBelle on 80 to Fort Myers and then south on I-75 to Estero. LaBelle is a surprisingly pretty farm town with mature oaks shading the side streets. In Estero, Koreshan Historic Site State Park is 2 miles west of the interstate, a quiet leafy holdout surrounded by the encroaching congestion of suburbia. After setting up quite handily, we drove 3/4 mile to the local Publix for supplies, had some snacks and a rest.