Author Archives: Destinations- a Travel Prism

About Destinations- a Travel Prism

I blend a love of storytelling, independent eco-travel, history and the natural world with over 30 years of experience as an award-winning writer, photographer, creative designer, and producer. When not traveling, I'm a consultant digital marketer for U.S. Fortune 500 companies and tech startups.

Neighbors

Neighbors were few and far between at Ziba Khaya and that was perfectly OK by us. We relished the peace and quiet of living the rural life and, with often hectic days and weeks spent running Slideworks and the time spent commuting back and forth to Ocala, well, it was just nice to sit sometimes and read or hang out in the back yard, or perform the myriad of chores and projects it took to keep the homestead running.

We did enjoy getting to know our closest neighbors, which numbered exactly three households. Diane and Andy and their girls lived next door to Andy’s parents, both homesteads situated just to the north and across Yellow Bluff Road from the lake house. South of us, about a 10 minute walk down the road, was Captain Jack’s compact place, where Lucky the dog and Tu and Lu, his Tulouse Geese, made their home.JackGeese

There was also Carl, the ex-Vietnam chopper pilot-turned-lobbyist-cum-bass-guide, who kept a weekend retreat down the road a bit from Jack.

When we first moved into the lake house, K introduced us to the neighbors, kind and generous folks that we would, time and again, call upon for guidance and help. Our first few months were simply full of learning the ins and outs of living in the cabin: Jack knew a lot about the well, the pump, the quirks of the house, where in the barn one could find coal for the wood stove, and where the hole was in the fence that the dogs and deer used to access the property– the list went on and on!

Andy and Diane and their pre-teen girls were a lot of fun to hang out with- we spent more than a few freezing nights under a full moon, hanging out under the oak trees in front of their house until the wee hours,  warming ourselves in front of a blazing fire in the outdoor bar-b-que area Andy built.

Over the years what started as Andy’s outdoor patio grew into “the Cracker Shack”, a rambling outdoor entertainment complex that could rival many an “old style” Florida restaurant cobbled together with native pecky cypress and pine under a tin roof.

Central to the affair was Andy’s massive brick cooking fireplace, augmented by a commercial kitchen area for food prep. The place appeared to have organically grown from this hub; the tin roof supported by massive posts festooned with all manner of Florida bric-a-brac like deer antlers draped with old caps and straw hats, rusted car tags, and wooden duck decoys. Under the roof hung fishing poles, crab pots, nets and floats, mounted bass and salt water fish trophies, deer and ‘coon heads, boar tusks and a range of old wooden farming and fishing implements.  Wooden picnic tables, a few couches and an assortment of plastic and lawn chairs and I think even the bench seat torn out of a min-van provided ample sitting areas. The whole thing was electrified, with lights and ceiling fans, audio system speakers, TV sets and neon beer signs sprinkled throughout.

Then there was the retired and grumpy Georgia farmer Mr. Rush and his wife, who lived down the road a bit from Jack’s place, but on the lake side of the road. I never did spend much time with Mr. Rush, but Anni made friends with him after some event that I don’t recall. Pretty soon he somehow had inveigled her into stashing a bottle of whisky in the woods across from his house so that he could slip out and grab a nip or two under the nose of his apparently severely disapproving wife. This went on for maybe a couple of months, much to Jack’s high amusement, until Mrs. Rush got wind of the goings-on or maybe Mr. Rush passed on, whichever came first.

Of interest to our urban friends was the accepted way to quickly call on your neighbors in an emergency: three quick rounds from a firearm, was sure to get the attention of anyone within earshot, without having to scramble for a phone or look for a telephone number. Not that we ever had to pull that trigger, but it was good to know a reliable way to get somebody’s attention in an area where there was a significant distance between homesteads.

Jack was retired, Andy was a traveling construction manager gone for weeks at a time, Diane raised the girls and ran the homestead, Andy’s parents both worked at a hospital some 50 minutes drive down highway 19 through the forest and Carl infrequently visited his cabin during the year. Even with divergent interests and different schedules, it was amazing how often we’d get together with Jack, or Jack and Carl, or Diane and Andy and Jack, or some mix of all the above, with our friends or family sometimes mixed in. It wasn’t long before we were made to feel very much a part of this little back-woods community, and some of the more poignant and frightening events that happened in our lives at Ziba Khaya invariably involved our friends and neighbors.

Many of the tales in this blog were told and retold over a blazing fire pit in our back yard, or under a full moon while sitting on a bench at the end of the dock, or around a fire in Jack’s back yard while his hunting pals camped out, or around Andy and Diane’s precursor to their Cracker Shack. Writing about them is my way of sharing, and the memories evoked send me back to that time, those places, and among those people once again. It is true, you can never “go home”, but you can relive and revisit and in some small way, pay homage to the people and places that have woven sections of the tapestry of your life.

AnniCartoon

Feathered Friends

Any birder would find this spot on the western shore of Lake George to be a birder’s paradise. The variety was simply endless, and at first we counted on a large “Birds of Florida” poster to help guide us in identifying the bewildering varieties on the wing, floating on the lake, flitting about and flapping and squawking overhead. It didn’t take us long to get a really BIG bird book and pull out the binocs so that we could really get down to business understanding all of the fowl that surrounded us.

At some point in the year, depending on the season, we could spot and study many water fowl, including herons, egrets, coots, Red-winged Blackbirds, ibis, cormorants, ducks, kingfishers, and kites. Besides the waterfowl, there were the woods and uplands birds, ranging from Southern Bald Eagles, Ospreys,  hawks, vultures, turkeys, Wood Storks and Sandhill Cranes, to Cardinals, Grackles and all manner of woodpeckers, including the Red-bellied, Downy and amazing Pileated varieties. Of course there were the owls, and the wrens and other song birds. And then there were the juvenile and gender coloration and behaviors to learn to identify, as well as a plethora of calls and vocalizations.

A whole new world opened to us– of bird behavior, migration patterns, of learning to recognize the difference between the hammering cadence of a Pileated Woodpecker versus, say, a Red-Bellied woodpecker. (Hint: they both call out during tree-drilling sessions, so once you have their call down, it’s pretty easy to make a good guess as to who’s doing what over on that tree, even without spotting the bird.)

We also became rather adept at recognizing birds by their silhouette and how they flew (rapid wing beats, soaring, slower wing beats and so forth). As the seasons progressed, we came to recognize where the nearest mated pair of eagles had their fishing grounds. We often watched lengthy aerial displays and fights when an interloper Osprey or an eagle that wasn’t a member of the family came into the fishing ground. Mostly the dust-up would end quickly but sometimes the battle would last for hours.

Our growing knowledge of our feathered friends and their habits came into amusing play one winter’s evening, when we were sitting around the campfire that Jack’s two buds had blazing out in Jack’s back yard. Every deer hunting season his chums, who, like Jack, were retired DEA agents, would come up to the forest from Miami. They’d unload their truck, set up a tent in Jack’s back yard, and hang out for a week or so, sometimes actually hunting, but mostly just sitting around, drinking beer into the wee hours, and swapping remembrances with Jack.

One evening we were hanging out with Jack and his pals, exchanging tales of drug interdiction in the Caribbean with stories of living on the lake. I think Jack was riffing on one of his tales of the momma black bear that often moved through the area in the early winter, and his friends were rethinking sleeping in the tent versus squeezing into Jack’s compact home. About that time there came an awful, ungodly growling-kind of screeching cacophony, very loud, and it sounded like it was all around us.

For older guys kinda relaxed on a few beers, it was amazing how quickly Jack’s pals jumped up, snatched at their rifles and, bug-eyed, went on the defensive.  Jack, Anni and I remained seated in our camp chairs, laughing our butts off as we explained that the din (which was still going on) was from the colony of nesting Great Blue Herons that surrounded Jack’s cabin.

The guys weren’t convinced that birds could cause such a racket, so Jack went into his cabin and came out with a powerful hand-held spotlight. Motioning to his friends he said “OK you two pussies, come with me and I’ll show you the Boogie Man!”

We all went out to the road and from that vantage point, Jack’s big light illuminated the canopy formed by massive loblolly pines, long leaf pines and old oaks trees just abutting the southern edge of his property. The light clearly outlined the big clumps of twigs that formed the birds’ nests among the leaves and pine needles overhead. We could readily distinguish the bird shapes as they stirred in their nests, some flapping wings, some balancing precariously on the edge of their nests.

“Well, I’ll be damned!”, one of the guys snorted. “Man, I haven’t been that scared in I-don’t-know-when!”

The howls of laughter and the teasing went on for some time, even after we all settled down near the fire again. Jack wasn’t going to let his pals get away easy for being so spooked by “a bunch of birds!”

Later, as Anni and I walked down the graded road back to the cabin, we remarked that it was ironic that two tough DEA agents could have been so frightened by the event. I mean, earlier they had told us tales of some pretty hairy stalks and arrests they had made to catch some serious drug cartel types. I was certainly convinced that these two were pretty macho fellas. Still– we concluded that the fear of the night and wild animals was just too compelling for these urban dwellers who only visited “the outdoors” once a year.

In subsequent years, that tale would be re-told and embellished, and Jack would never fail to bring it up when his friends came to hunt and camp in the wilds of the Ocala National Forest.

Great Blue Heron nesting colony.

The Adventure Begins

Living on a large lake in north central Florida in the Ocala National Forest, in an early 20th century log cabin, no heat, no AC, lotsa wildlife for neighbors. What could be more bucolic?

My friend Anni and I were working for the same audio-visual and video production company in Miami, Florida when the recession of the early 1980s resulted in both of us being laid off from our respective gigs as graphic designers. Try as we may, a full-time graphic design job simply wasn’t to be had, so after several months of fruitlessly shopping our talent around, we started to seriously plan to open a boutique design and corporate events firm, Slideworks, up-state in the north central Florida town of Ocala.

After a couple of months of planning and preparation, we were ready to parlay our “big city” expertise in my home town, where my family connections might provide an intro to business leaders. It also helped that at the time central Florida was experiencing exponential growth; the tourist trade was brisk and banks, planned unit communities, medical centers, schools, malls and manufacturing and distribution businesses were popping up like mushrooms. It seemed the recession had hardly touched this area of the state.

Ocala was a small city of about 35,000 souls, floating in one of the larger counties in the state, with less than 150,000 humans and half as many horses. The city was bordered to the west by expansive, expensive thoroughbred horse farms (“Horse Country!” touted the Chamber of Commerce billboards) and to the east by the Ocala National Forest, some 338,000 acres of scrub, dense woods, deer, turkeys, wild pigs, snakes, gators, bears, millions of board feet of pine lumber and dotted with fresh water springs, rivers and spring-fed lakes. (“Nature’s Playground!” trumpeted the visitor center brochures.)

Soon after hanging out our shingle in the up-and-coming downtown historic district, we managed to lure several corporate clients into our clutches. As newly-minted business owners, we were easy prey for being tapped for membership to all manner of business organizations, and before long were serving on boards and committees from the Chamber of Commerce to the local AdFed and public relations councils. This raised our profile, and before long folks knew about “the Slideworks girls”, even as they tended to mix up our names.

The call

Ocala’s small community of creative professionals welcomed us with open arms. One day a photographer friend of ours, “K”, phoned, explaining that a career opportunity prompted moving his family to a South American country for a couple of years. His property on the shore of Lake George in the Ocala National Forest needed caretakers. Previous caretaker arrangements had fallen through, and knowing we were nature lovers, K had thought of us as potential candidates.

All it took was one visit to this magical spot in the forest and we were hooked! Next thing you know, we were moving from our little rental house in town to our new digs, which we dubbed “Ziba Khaya”, which Anni said was Zulu for “lake house.”

A cabin in the forest

Although a “mere” 45-55 mins drive from Ocala, Ziba Khaya was worlds away from the hustle and bustle of modern suburbia, freeways, and Walmarts. The cabin was reached by driving through the national forest on old 2-lane macadam roads, past scattered farmsteads and hunting camps, skirting the berg of Salt Springs, and eventually coming to a canopied, graded dirt road lazing along the little-developed portion of the western shore of Lake George.

Six miles wide and 11 miles long, Lake George is Florida’s second largest lake, full of huge gators, trophy bass, bream, bluegills and crappie, mullet, blue crabs, stingrays, cottonmouth and water snakes of every hue. In addition, the lake is a birder’s paradise, with one of the largest concentrations of southern bald eagles in the state, ospreys, herons, egrets, owls and, in the case of K’s property, a flock of free-range Bantam chickens.

The cabin was situated on several acres of heavily wooded property that were surrounded by a tall hurricane fence topped with barbed wire. Originally built after WWII, the primary log cabin structure was built from old-growth pecky cypress trees logged from the property and milled nearby.

ZK CabinFrontK’s family initially used the property as a hunting and fishing retreat and later as a place to keep pregnant thoroughbred mares during the winter, where temps at the family’s thoroughbred farm west of Ocala routinely reached well below freezing. The micro-climate of the lake moderated Winter’s chill and Summer’s sweltering temps, which did help one become acclimatized but still, living sans air-conditioning in an old log cabin on a lake is very much like living in a permanent camp, as we were to discover.

“Wow,” we agreed, “living in this cabin on a lake, rent free, is a dream!” All we had to do was pay the property tax, keep the place from being overgrown by the surrounding forest, and protect a dozen or so Bantam chickens left behind from predators like hawks, owls, coons, possums, snakes and, well, just about everything.

To stand under the massive magnolia tree right outside the screen porch and look down that wide expanse of lawn sloping to the lake shore half a football field away–well, it just felt like a magical space. Smelling that sweet, loamy-wet-ground forest smell, hearing the waves lapping along the shore, feeling the breeze in your face and watching and hearing all the bird life: it really was like something out of a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings novel.

The character of the cabin certainly reflected its age and unique status. Items like deer racks, bullwhips, bits and bridles, horse halters, old plows and hand tools were displayed on the walls of the cabin, inside and out.

The cabin’s character was also reflected in challenges such as the electrical “panel”, an old fuse box with screw-in glass fuses. Which explained why the small electric heaters mounted on the wall of each bedroom didn’t work. The electrical system probably would not take much more load than the 1950s era rounded, 5 ft high, single-door refrigerator with the iffy seal, the giant old rusted chest freezer and a coffee pot would demand. Some upgrading of the electrical was in store before we could install ceiling fans with light fixtures and a modest track lighting rack in front of the fireplace. And maybe connect up the heaters to the waterbeds we each owned– thank goodness, those heated beds turned out to be lifesavers in the winter!

But these inconveniences were small potatoes compared to the visceral sense of wonder that enveloped you each and every time you lifted the heavy latch to open up that massive, solid dutch front door and stepped into the soaring, open interior of the main cabin.

The inside story

CabinInterior2A huge log (a tree trunk really) spanned the width of the great-room, the vault of the roof soaring beyond and into the gloom, where a full-sized wagon wheel hung suspended, sporting decorative “candle” lights.CabinInterior2

InteriorCabin

To the left of the front door, a long, curved wooden bar, ringed by eight simple wooden bar stools, framed the open kitchen space, which looked out directly onto the great-room, providing a vista of the lake through double sliding glass doors, which led directly onto the screen porch that ran the length of the cabin.
CabinInterior1Across from the kitchen, the opposite wall of the great-room featured an impressive fireplace. The brickwork frame, the huge solid pecky cypress mantle, and the stone base spoke of careful craftsmanship. It took up almost the entire south wall of the great-room and served as the centerpiece of the cabin. A wood burning stove with a heatilator was built into the fireplace, which K explained to us would really make a difference once winter arrived. Luckily there was at least 3 cords of seasoned wood out in the barn, which was a good thing for us because we ended up burning nearly all of it in the few months of that first winter at Ziba Khaya.

Behind the kitchen, a short hallway led to a full bath and a bedroom. Across the hall, on the lakeside of the cabin, a roomy bedroom looked out to the lawn and the lake beyond.  To the right of the fireplace was the entrance to a third bedroom, behind which was another full bath. Connecting the full bath was another large bedroom, the fourth, again looking down the lawn to the lake. The doorway of that bedroom led back into the great-room, making for a layout of 4 bedrooms around a central space.

Finally, a screened porch joined the great-room, accessed either through the glass sliders or the other heavy dutch door.

The interior walls of the great-room were only eight feet in height, so there was no ceiling above either bedroom behind the kitchen. Between the top of the walls and the vault of the roof were more cross-beams connecting the outside walls.

The bathroom did feature a ceiling, useful for holding in the heat after taking a shower on cold winter nights!

The old refrigerator guarded the entry to the utility room, just off the kitchen, where cabinets served as pantry space and the large chest freezer, a washer and dryer and an industrial sink lined the walls.

Built-in shelves, cedar closets, a large hand-carved wooden hutch, a  hand-crafted trundle bed, and little touches like two lamps crafted from turkey legs added a rustic functionalism.

All in all, it was a comfortable living space, one that only wanted a bit of elbow grease and creative decorating to burnish a fundamental elegance. But. It was gonna take some work.

Labors of love

I readily recall the labor involved in getting the cabin ready for moving in what little furniture and items we owned. Months later we would still be working on the property, weed-wacking (with a hand sickle, no gas-powered string trimmer!), beating back the line of brush that kept creeping over the fences, raking off years of accumulated detritus piled up on the shingle and tin roof, repairing a screen here , a door hinge or recalcitrant window there.

We removed a nest of mice from a hutch drawer to an new home outside, organized and cleaned out the old barn (paint, broken tools, 80-odd garden gloves stiff with dirt and age, broken ax handles, plastic and metal containers)- hauling all to the green boxes miles away. We burned leaves and started a compost pile.

We learned quickly how to care for baby chicks, and built a couple of snake-proof cages for the biddies to live in at night, safe from predators. We figured out where the cheapest cracked corn could be bought and which feed store was closest. We also learned to buy a LOT of stuff every grocery store visit and put it all in the chest freezer (it was a 1.5 hour round trip to the nearest tiny grocery in Salt Springs, counting shopping.) And, most important, we learned to stock up on (cheap, canned) beer, buying by the case rather than the 6-pack.

While all this settling-in was going on, we were still very much new business owners, with an office 45 minutes by car, minimum, from Ziba Khaya. This was B.I. (Before the Internet), so much of our work had to be done in the office rather than at home. Not to mention client meetings, meetings of those business associations and boards and general schmoozing that is so much a part of running a successful, rather high-profile small business. Even so, we knew that the trade-offs of the lengthy commute were more than compensated by coming home to our idyllic lakeside retreat.

Before long, it was time to meet our neighbors; the human and the wildlife.

Our adventure had begun.

View cabin interior and porch video snippet

CabinRear

Viewed from lakeside

Why Critters

So many of our experiences living at Lake George that are worth retelling revolve around critters. I guess that’s because it didn’t take us long to realize that we were living in their spaces, and we’d better pay attention! Too, it seems that as the world gets ever more crowded with humans, there’s simply less room and resources for the animals that remain in the places we are so bent upon owning, managing, changing, and perhaps ultimately destroying.

I’m no Rachael Carson or John Muir, but I hope that after reading some of these stories, the reader will come away with a sense of the awe and wonder of the place and time when we lived on the shores of Lake George, in the Ocala National Forest, in an old log cabin- with lots of critters around.

Doorstop Alligator & the Lawman

Our neighbor Jack was a retired DEA agent and Secret Service man. His stories, and the stories his buddies told, were legendary, from being detailed to watch over President JFK as he boated offshore in Florida, to interdicting drugs and bad guys on various Caribbean islands.

Jack was an Irishman from New York and a former policeman. Built like a fireplug, his appearance and character were straight out of Central Casting. He was our Go To guy when we needed a bit of extra firepower (he had an awesome shotgun), an extra pair of hands, or someone to spend an evening with, drinking beer out on the end of our dock under a full moon.

Anyway, perhaps you get the picture of this stocky, kinda gruff, buzz-cut, red-faced Irish guy as he laughed and told us his tale when he showed up at our cabin one weekend morning.

Seems the day before, he’d had a call from his neighbor Mrs. Rush, who lived in a little cinder block house down by the lake, across Yellow Bluff road from Jack’s  place.

Her call had come early in the morning, before Jack had brewed his tea. Without preamble, Mrs. Rush insisted that he come right over to her place and bring his shotgun. He asked why he needed the shotgun, and she explained, huffily, that a ‘gator was parked right outside her front door, sunning itself on the concrete pad, and blocking her access to the clothes line outside.

“I need to get my wash hung up before it rains later, so bring your shotgun over here and shoot this ‘gator, Jack!” she insisted.

Well, the thing is, ol’ Mr. and Mrs. Rush were retired farmers form south Georgia, known to be intolerant of anyone fooling around their property, and determined to get on with their daily lives, in spite of the locals or the local wildlife. Mr. Rush had passed on a couple of years earlier, and while Mrs. Rush was quite independent, thank you, she wouldn’t hesitate to call Jack if she felt that a firearm was needed to quell a situation. This, apparently, was such a situation.

Jack said he’d come along but wouldn’t bring his shotgun, there was no need to go shooting a ‘gator and besides, they were protected unless you had a hunting permit during ‘gator season. Which he didn’t, and it wasn’t.

Jack told us that he cautiously came around to the front of Mrs. Rush’s place, which faced the lake to the east, and of course the nice warm sun. Sure enough, there was an 8-foot  ‘gator lying peacefully in the sun on the concrete pad in front of Mrs. Rush’s front door. Jack backtracked to the rear door of the place and was met by Mrs. Rush, who asked him where was his shotgun?

Jack repeated his reasoning about not shooting the ‘gator, even as Mrs. Rush led him to her front screen door and pointed at the ‘gator snoozing just outside.

“Why can’t you just use the back door to take your laundry out?” Jack asked, patiently. Mrs. Rush explained that her clothesline was just too close to that ‘gator and she wanted it gone, and right now, so she could get her laundry hung out to dry.

Retelling the story, Jack shook his head while we both grinned. Yeah, Mrs. Rush sure was a stubborn old thing, and cranky to boot. We knew what he meant when he said she just wouldn’t listen to reason, insisting he go back home and fetch his shotgun.

Turned out Jack went back home, Mrs. Rush called him a few more times, the ‘gator moved right up against that screen door and stayed there until the sun came off the concrete pad, then it moved on down the lawn and into the lake. By that time, the afternoon showers were threatening and Mrs. Rush never did get her laundry out on the line that day.

Magical Places

LynnCanoeLake George and the surrounding forest offer such a wide variety of things to do and places to explore, and when we weren’t mowing or weed whacking or working on the property, we were out and about.

Within a few miles of Lake George are four major fresh water springs and public access recreation areas, and more than a handful of springs on private land. The springs feed into fresh water river systems which, in many cases, feed into the system of interconnected lakes throughout central Florida. And of course Lake George itself is an oxbow lake of the St. John’s river, which flows northward to the Atlantic Ocean at the port of Jacksonville.

All this to set the scene for my personal idea of heaven– being on the water, in the water, under the water, or beside the water. Having spent my teenage years growing up in Ocala, I considered myself fairly acquainted with the many springs and rivers in north central Florida, where I’d canoed, camped, hiked, SCUBA dived, and snorkeled. So I typically jumped at the chance to share this water wonderland with anyone vaguely interested.

My friend Ann from Maine was visiting, and a canoeing trip was planned for the nearby Juniper River. Early one morning we shoved a canoe into the upper reaches of Juniper Creek, very near where it flows from the main spring. The creek flowed fast, clear and shallow over a sandy bottom, and before long it became deep enough to allow us to sit in the boat and paddle, carefully guiding the canoe around hairpin turns and under fallen trees that straddled the ever-widening stream. JuniperRun

Both of us were avid photographers, birders and wildlife spotters, and our aim this morning was to move as quietly downstream as possible and keep our eyes peeled and our cameras ready for the first otter we might spot.

We were quietly floating with the current and sweeping our eyes along the banks of the stream when I saw Ann motion to me from her seat in the bow to look. Ahead of us, on the right bank of the river I spotted an otter’s back as it rolled and broke the surface of the water.

While we back-paddled quietly and got our cameras up and ready to go, we watched the spot and soon an otter’s head popped up out of the water. Next thing I know I heard a low growl and a hiss, even as I spotted two otter kits crawling out of the water behind Momma.

OtterThe current was pushing us too quickly into the area near the otter family, and I had to back-paddle quickly to hold us off long enough to get a shot. “I’ll paddle while you shoot!” I whispered to Ann, who put her paddle in the boat quietly and snatched up her camera.

Ann clicked away and momma otter hissed and growled as we slowly drifted closer. I did my best to hold us in place, but the current was too strong to manage with quiet sculling. At least Ann snapped off a few shots and I kept an eye on momma as we drifted on past her and her kits. She was clearly angry and for just a moment I wondered if we were so close that she would come after us. It’s the first time I’d ever felt such anger and fear from an otter. But this one wasn’t the same momma otter that lived at the lake house, who had become somewhat used to us coming close to watch her and her kits play on the old log next to the dock. She had never hissed or growled at us, but then again she wasn’t up against the bank of a river!

It’s neither typical nor easy  to spot otters on the waterways in Florida, so we reckoned that was the highlight of our day, and we were very pleased with even a slightly blurry shot of angry momma otter!

JuniperRiver

The fact that critters such as bob cats, black bear, and river otters can be seen along these ancient waterways are a testament to the importance of protecting such areas from development and human encroachment.  “Juniper run”, as we called it, was and is still as wild as it can be, for most of its length. Across 30 years I’ve paddled, swam, snorkeled, fished and SCUBA dived sections of that river, the Alexander River which flows from Alexander Springs, the Silver Glen River which flows from Silver Glen Springs, Salt Springs run, which flows from Salt Springs, and the Silver River and the Oklawaha River, which the mighty Silver Springs feed.

Alexander Springs

Alexander Springs

These and other rivers throughout central Florida are birthed from the Floridan Aquifer, which underlies all of the state. The springs and surrounds are some of the most scenic, amazing and critical environments you will find in the state. Florida has more first-magnitude springs than any other state or any other nation in the world. A first magnitude spring is one that discharges about 64.6 million gallons per day, and 33 first-magnitude springs have been identified and recognized in Florida. Three of those in the forest are Silver Springs, Alexander Springs and Silver Glen Springs.

Looking at the photos, I’m sure you can understand why, as a child, I was entranced upon my first introduction to this part of the state. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture yourself in these environments 200 or 500 or 1100 years ago. They are truly unique and, to me, some of the most restful and soothing places I’ve ever spent time. I try to return, to share these magical places with friends and family, as often as I possibly can.

SilvGlenSpr

Silver Glen Springs

SaltSprings

Salt Springs

Mouse in da House

Not that we were surprised or anything– yeah, we had mice. Our first day of moving in, Anni was eagerly inspecting the lovely antique hand carved tallboy bureau in the master bedroom. When she opened a top drawer, lo and behold! – a nest. With tiny baby mice in it, no less.

Oh swell. Now we were right up against our stated intention to live out here in the Forest with the critters, close to the land; use no poisons, kill no critters, plant no non-indigenous Florida plants, recycle everything– the whole Back to the Earth thing. But. We couldn’t leave that smelly nest where it was or Ann’s underwear would be chewed to bits!

It was warm enough that November that we didn’t worry too much about the little ones being outdoors, their momma would probably find them, right? So out they went, someplace Anni found that was “relatively” safe from predators. We hoped.

Fast-forward a few weeks to a cold winter’s night, quite late, when we were rudely awakened by a loud thumping and banging. I grabbed a flashlight and headed toward Anni’s side of the cabin, which seemed to be the center of the action.

Anni had the bathroom light on and was apparently talking to Cami the Siamese cat. As I turned the corner of the bathroom hallway I heard “Now you just–ugh!- no, come with me…agh!” then a loud squeal-scream sound that I had never heard Cami make. Freaked out, I bolted the last couple of steps into the bathroom and before me was a scene from a comic book, or a children’s tale, or maybe just a bad dream.

Anni was bent over the foot of the tub, her back to me, struggling with a slippery Cami, who was wriggling like an insane thing, clawing at Anni and spinning in mid-air as Anni groped for a better hand-hold. The squeal-screaming went on and as I processed that the sound was coming from someone or something besides Cami, Anni yelled “Damnit! Quite scratching me, Cami!”

One step closer to the action and I could now see that at the other end of the tub, under the faucet, was a grey field mouse standing on its hind legs, squealing at the top of its little lungs while it frantically clawed the air in front of it.

“Oh my god!” I stood rooted to the spot until Anni barked “I could use a hand here!  — Damnit, Cami!”

Somehow we managed to fling Cami out of the bathroom and close the door. Panting, Anni stood at the end of the tub glaring at the mouse as it was doing its best to try to jump up the slick sides of the tub to escape, but the sides were way too tall.

Before I could ask, Anni explained that she had heard the racket in the bathroom, came in, turned on the light, and there were Cami and the mouse down in the tub, duking it out! The cat was trying to snag the mouse, but the mouse was making a credible effort to defend itself, with squeals, screams and snarls, running in circles and finally standing on its hind feet to claw out at the cat!

If I hadn’t witnessed the mouse’s defensive stance, I wouldn’t have believed it.

We started chuckling and watched the little rodent as it pitched itself again and again at the slick tub walls, to no avail.

We decided that was one brave little critter that surely deserved to live to fight another day, so Anni put something over it (a hat, I think), caught it up, and headed outside to let it go. She was trailed all the way by Cami, who stared at Anni’s hand and meowed most pitifully.

Round Two

The winter pressed on and we soon grew tired of waking to the sound of pots and pans rattling at night in the kitchen, with little mouse turds left behind to inform on the culprits. Trying to forestall the raiding of the pantry,  we abandoned Zip-Lok bags for sturdy plastic containers to store any and all dry foods. We kept what we could in the fridge, which was not only a deterrent to mice but also larder beetles and the tiny sugar ants that would go on safari throughout the open kitchen area. Keeping up with the critter incursions was almost a full time job– one that wore thin as the seasons spun around.

By the time winter #2 was in full swing, I opened up a bedside drawer to don a favorite sweater, only to discover a mouse had made a nest using a vast amount of my sweater material, and then had the gall to piss all over the nest as well! What a stinky mess to clean up. That was it. War was declared. Forget the Back to the Earth movement, it was Them or Us.

Checking shoes and boots for spiders and scorpions was one thing. Keeping a wary eye out for the venomous snakes was OK, it was their yard and lake after all. Scraping the mold off anything leather before you donned it was understandable, as was storing anything and everything you wanted to preserve in some sort of hard plastic. I got all that. But I was NOT going to give up my kitchen to the damn mice. And their pee. And their pellets.

So, out came the Have-A-Hart live traps. Which didn’t work worth a damn. Next thing, we graduated to the glue traps. Well, OK those worked fine. Except the first night we caught a mouse, we came into the kitchen and turned on the light (middle of the night, of course) to see what was causing all that thumping. It was a field mouse, with all four feet knee-deep in the glue trap, flipping itself and the trap across the counter as it tried to gain freedom. The string we’d threaded through a hole in the edge of the trap and tied off to I-forgot kept the thing from dancing off onto the floor and under the stove or a wall, thank goodness.

We looked at each other. Well, someone had to put the mouse away in a somewhat humane manner, there was simply no pulling its little feet out of that glue. So, we disposed of it by suffocating it in a plastic bag and– no, I really can’t go on. It seemed so barbaric and awful.

Once again I cried. Jeez. This living close to the land really sucked. But damnit, this was also a question of health and safety. The kitchen was off limits. I could tolerate critters anywhere but there. We’d just keep tightening our defense tactics and keep a couple of glue traps out, just in case.

And yeah we did catch a couple more mice but then the weather warmed and the issue went away. For the moment.

MouseGlue

Google Image

Web of Life

lakeyard

Lakefront Views- sunshine and thunderstorm.

I have said many times that I felt destined to spend the rest of my life trying to re-create the experience we had living at the lake house. Living close to the wildlife, following the patterns of light and dark, the cycles of the moon, the seasons and the weather and getting to know our wild neighbors, their patterns, territories, and watching them raise their young — it was as if the only reality was life at the lake. But of course we had a business to run, bills to pay, clients to satisfy and a really large property and cabin to care for and keep up.

Somehow it all blended together, we made it work, we fit in as best we could, and consciously determined to observe and appreciate rather than encroach and threaten. The lake mellowed us, and it was easy at times to take it all for granted– that it would all be there, forever, and we would be there as well.

And sometimes things just happened that demanded attention, reminding us that there may be a price to pay for the serenity of this place, and what we viewed as a bucolic existence.

On the plus side, we got to know the locals pretty well. We could tell the section of the lake where our closest Southern Bald Eagle pair claimed their fishing rights, and we would watch for hours as they battled Ospreys in mid-air out over the fishing grounds. We knew where the invisible dividing line was between the territory of the big ‘gator that lived south of our dock, and the much smaller ‘gator that hung out on the north side of our dock. We kept track of momma otter after she had three kits, and tried to sneak up close enough for a really good photo, but she’d always shoo them off before we could get close enough.

Sometimes a big, ugly leathery Alligator snapping turtle would haul herself up on the lawn on a warm Spring morning, dig a nest in the sandy soil and deposit her eggs. We’d sip our coffee and watch, and even take a photo or capture some video. Including the morning that the raccoon came out of the woods, glanced at the turtle who was making her way back down to the lake, then promptly raided the nest. The eggs hadn’t been in the ground five minutes before they were being gobbled up.

“So much for the theory that ‘coons are nocturnal,” Anni wryly observed.

Short video- turtle and ‘coon

Then there was one summer afternoon, late in the day with rain threatening, the wind picking up and starting to blow palm fronds and Spanish moss from the trees. From down at the lake came a penetrating scream that had Anni and I flying out the back porch, the screen door slamming behind us as we snatched up broom sticks and ran down the lawn toward the sound.

We had no idea what was being attacked. Hansel and Gretel were up front near the barn, so they were OK. Maybe it was Sneaker the cat, or perhaps a wild critter. We were reacting to a soul-wrenching cry — you’d run too, if you heard it.

The screams got louder as we came to the concrete goose pond that Anni had built, and the little creek that flowed behind it through swampland at the edge of the lake. Peering through the wire fence of the property line, we tried to locate the source of the sounds. Past the fence the swamp took over, and as we stared at the greenery thrashing about, we both spotted the attack at the same time.

A large male raccoon had a small, young raccoon pinned down on a log and was viciously biting and tearing at the baby, who was screaming and writhing about, trying to get away. But the adult raccoon was easily two to three times the size of the baby, and it was no contest.

We both started screaming at the raccoon, and as Anni cast about for something to throw at the ‘coon, it just looked at us as it held the baby pinned beneath a heavy paw. The baby’s upper half was just out of the water and as it struggled I could see that it was losing what little purchase it had on the log.

We kept yelling and finally threw our broomsticks at the ‘coon, but it was too far away. We stood helpless as we watched the adult raccoon tear at the baby and finally the baby slipped off the side of the log and we lost sight of it.

The big ‘coon looked back over its shoulder at us briefly and then loped off into the woods. We stood, helpless– dumbstruck and saddened.

We agreed there was nothing we could do– the water was too deep, there was no way we’d get over that fence without getting seriously injured or cut by the rusty razor wire. We’d have to enter the lake, wade through heaven-knows-what dangers in wind-whipped shallows, and there was no guarantee we’d find the baby, even if we could figure out how to get back into that swampy area from the lake.

About that time the thunder and a slashing rain signaled we needed to get indoors.

Every time we experienced one of these events, we’d talk about it, try to learn from it, try to figure out if there was any way we had caused a situation or what we could do in the future to avoid it– but the fact was, these things happened. The tree fell in the forest and we were there to hear it so yes, it really did happen.

—-

Another time we were unpacking groceries from the car after a long day at work. It was just about dusk, and as we came into the cabin and started putting groceries away, we heard what sounded like a pack of dogs fighting in the back yard, down near the lake.

Once again we were on the run, dropping groceries, snatching up broom sticks, flying out the rear screen door with a “Bang!” and racing down the lawn.

We could see two or three dogs fighting furiously at the base of an old tree. The violence of their movements made it difficult to tell what was going on, but right away I could see that one of the dogs was our neighbor Jack’s “Lucky”, a most placid pet. What the hell would get her so riled up? My brain went right to…

“Rabies!” Anni yelled, as she came to an abrupt halt some 40 feet from the fracas. “They may be fighting a rabid animal! Run back and get the shotgun–and get a flashlight! NOW!”

I didn’t hesitate, I hauled ass back to the cabin, figuring Anni had enough sense to keep her distance. Somehow I grabbed the shotgun, a handful of buckshot shells, a flashlight, and raced back outside and down the lawn.

By now it was dark enough that I couldn’t make out who was who. Anni grabbed the flashlight from me, yelled “Is it loaded?” and as I chambered a round, she edged closer to the tumbling, snarling mix of bodies.

“I’m pretty sure the dogs have cornered a ‘coon at the base of that old tree!” Anni explained.

I couldn’t see any raccoon. “Where is the ‘coon?” I yelled above the din.

Then things got real slow, or real fast, I was never sure. Somehow Jack was there, yelling at his dog and telling me “Don’t shoot until I have Lucky out of the way!” while Anni was yelling “Get closer and get ready to shoot the ‘coon, its back is broken.”

“Don’t hit any of the dogs!” Jack yelled as he struggled to use Lucky’s collar to pull her back from the fray.

One of the remaining two dogs screamed, jumped back and ran off into the woods. The other one ran when Anni whacked it with her broomstick. Then, in the flashlight beam I could clearly see the open, bloody jaws and mangled face of a large raccoon. The thing was breathing hard and fast, snarling and growling and crying, and I stood there, unsure what to do next.

Anni said, in a surprisingly calm tone, “It’s done for, Lynn. They broke its back. You need to shoot it.”

“Where? How?”

“What do you mean?” I remember Anni sounding impatient, which somehow kicked me out of my confusion.

I explained that I couldn’t see where it had a broken back, and both Anni and Jack assured me the ‘coon was a torn up mess. They’d seen it as it had dragged itself into the hole among the roots of the tree, using its front paws and dragging its rear legs.

Jack offered to shoot the ‘coon if one of us would hold Lucky, and I took him up on the offer. No sooner than I had Lucky in a firm grip, I heard “Bang!” followed a few seconds later with another “Bang!”

“Well, that sure did it,” Jack said, sadly. He handed me back the weapon and I turned Lucky over to him.

The next day or maybe that night, I really don’t recall, Jack and Anni buried the ‘coon right where it ended up. They covered it with a lot of lime and soil and then stacked big limestone rocks to keep animals (“Those damn dogs!” as Jack said) from digging up the remains.

It was a sad, traumatic event. Dogs will be dogs and ‘coons will be ‘coons and when they mix, neither walk away unharmed.

I guess Jack and Anni and I talked about that event quite a bit, and the conclusion was that folks with dogs need to keep them fenced in and on their property: which was an absurd notion, considering we were living out in the Forest, where everyone kept dogs, and where bears and coyotes and ‘gators and ‘coons and all manner of critters lived, and unless people were just going to go away and never live on the shores of a big lake in the Forest, we weren’t going to solve the issue between the three of us.

We did agree that it was a good thing to keep firearms, ammo, flashlights and broom sticks handy and to learn to act quickly and decisively.

CabinSunCrop

The Bob Cat

After one of our Rhode Island Red hens had been mauled by something in the woods, we were keeping a cautious eye out for Martha and the Vandals, as we called these large and handsome chickens. Of course, we worked during the week in Ocala, and couldn’t watch them during the day, but the chances of anything successfully taking one of the Girls during the day was pretty slim, and we were careful to pen them up at night.

Anni had also picked up a used .410 shotgun that, in light of recent events, we decided would be useful as a “just in case” weapon, especially if we needed to dispatch another mortally injured critter.

One breezy Saturday afternoon Anni had gone into Ocala for something, and I was puttering around the house when a commotion out by the barn alerted me to a situation unfolding. It seemed the yard around the barn was emptying quickly of scattering,  squawking chickens, and even the geese were running from the scene, flapping their wings and trying to get air-borne.

Looking out through the front screen door, I snatched a glimpse of a what I thought might be a Bob Cat just as it darted around the back side of the barn.

I snatched up the .410 leaning against the fireplace and a handful of snake-shot shells we kept around for discouraging varmints, chambered one of the rounds, clicked on the safety, and headed toward the barn, trying to be as quiet as possible so that I could surprise whatever was out there.

I stood quietly and listened, but the wind coming off the lake was making enough noise in the tree canopy that I couldn’t pick out anything unusual. As I came to the corner of the building, I slowly peeked around the wall and through the hurricane fence that formed a small enclosure behind the barn and there, standing some 30 feet away, was a full-grown Bob Cat! She (for it was a she, I saw her full teats) was very still, staring away from me into the edge of the woods.

Bob Cat-Google Images

Bob Cat-Google Images

I held my breath, slipped the safety off, and slowly raised the barrel to aim just behind the cat’s hind-quarters, where I figured a well-placed scattering of pellets would give her a good scare and dissuade her from coming after our chickens again. The problem was, I had to lean back a bit to swing the barrel up to position while avoiding hitting the fence, and of course the minute I moved, she spotted me.

Memory is a funny thing, but the best I can recall is that I leaned back, swung the barrel up, took aim well to the rear of her rear-end and squeezed the trigger, even as she sprang up and out from her standing position. “Bang!” went the rifle, and the cat reacted by jumping straight up. As soon as her paws hit the ground, she was gone, like that. She simply disappeared into the wall of vegetation.

I stood there, listening and looking at the woods, and it dawned on me that she was likely the culprit who had been picking off the little Bantam chickens–and she also likely attacked one of our Rhode Island Red hens during a party a couple of weeks earlier. It also dawned on me that she was a momma, and likely had at least one kitten somewhere. Finally, it dawned on me that maybe I should trail her into the woods and make sure I hadn’t actually hit her with a smattering of the scattered shot.

I think I was still in an adrenaline fog, or I would have realized as soon as I thought it that following a pissed-off, full-grown Bob Cat into dimly-lit thick woods on a cloudy afternoon was probably a foolish notion. I wasn’t going to see much at all, and as I penetrated the wall of vegetation and walked a few paces, I realized that I wasn’t going to hear a damn thing either. There was so much wind that the trees were thrashing about and I couldn’t even hear my own footsteps as my feet crushed dry twigs underfoot.

Well at least I had the presence of mind to chamber another round as I retraced my steps. I was glad to get back into the yard and get some distance between myself and the woods line.

As it turned out, neither of us ever spotted that Bob Cat again, but we did continue to lose chickens at an alarming rate, and before a year had passed, the flock of 20-some Bantams would be whittled down to two, and then none. Sadly, before the Bantams would disappear, Martha and The Vandals, all four of them, would be long gone, with nary a feather to mark their passing.

One Determined Snake

Just one of many!

Just one of many!

Early one Spring morning I was in the kitchen getting a cup of coffee when I heard a thump and a grunt from Anni’s bedroom. Pretty soon she stepped up into the great room, and came stomping past me, muttering to herself as she unlatched the front Dutch door, threw open the screen door and headed outside.

I stood at the door, puzzled, and watched her tromp up the driveway, past the barn and out to the front gate. She unlatched the gate, threw it open and walked across the road. I think I saw her toss something into the woods, then she came back through the gate, trailed by Hansel and Gretel, who were apparently as puzzled as I was.

“Want some coffee?” I asked as she came back inside the cabin.

“Yeah, I could use some, after that!” she exclaimed.

“What was that all about?” I asked. Turns out Anni was sitting on the toilet and when she reached behind her to grab the toilet paper from the roll, she spotted a rat snake on the windowsill just above the paper roller.

“Man, what was that snake doing there?” I asked.

“Working on its tan,” she replied dryly, with a shrug.

“Oh my god, what did you do?”

“Well, I pulled up my pants!”

Very funny. Actually, she did pull up her pants then calmly grabbed the snake, which quickly wrapped all 14 inches or so of itself around her arm.

“Then I took it out there and tossed it across the road!” she ended, with a note of finality.

Too weird. We laughed about such a rude awakening before one has had their first coffee, and moved on out to the porch to enjoy some peace and early morning quiet.

A few minutes later we heard a “Hullo” from the front and the gate being closed. Here came neighbor Carl, strolling down the drive and up to the Dutch door. He peered through the top part of the open door and said “Hey, can a guy get a cup of coffee?”

As Carl settled on a barstool with his coffee, Anni told him the tale of the snake.

“Hmmm,” he said, with a gleam in his eye. “Was it a rat snake, about this long?”

Anni blinked. “Yeahhhhh,” she said, waiting for the rest. There was always more, with Carl.

“Well I just saw that snake moving toward the house as I was coming down the drive. Looks like it’s headed back to that sunny spot!” Carl laughed, clearly delighted at Anni’s pained expression.

“Yeah well, we’ll see about that!” Anni said as she got up. We stood at the Dutch door and watched her walk up the driveway, scanning the ground. Soon, she stooped down, snatched at something and, muttering, she started walking around the side of the house, heading toward the back yard and the lake.

Carl and I laughed as we walked onto the porch and watched Anni trudging steadily down the lawn, onto the landing, out on the dock and down its full length to the T at the end.

Pretty soon Anni came back up the lawn and onto the screen porch, banging the screen door with finality.

“Well, that’s the end of that snake,” she stated.

Carl asked “Did you toss it off the end of the dock?”

“Yep. And it swam right back to the ladder, so I went down the ladder, grabbed it, and tossed it out there again!”

“No kidding!” We were amazed the snake was that determined.

“Yeah but the best part is,” Anni went on, and this time the gleam was in her eye, “No sooner had that snake hit the water than “wham”, an eagle swooped down out of nowhere and snatched that thing right up!”

“You’re kidding!” “No way!” We sat, stunned.

“Yep, I figure that eagle saw that snake the first time I tossed it and was watching and waiting,” Anni nodded. “It was sure ready when that snake hit the water the second time.”

The dock.

The dock.

Of course the story grew through its many retellings, but it always ended with Anni’s quip “The only thing is, I don’t think you can count on disposing of a snake quite the same way again!”