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.
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.
K’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
A 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.
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.
Across 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