Tag Archives: Ocala National Forest

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!

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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.

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Silver Glen Springs

SaltSprings

Salt Springs

Famous and Infamous

 

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In the spring of 1989, fallen televangelist Jim Bakker and his overly made-up  wife Tammy Faye found a brief haven from the press at “the Preacher’s compound” just up Yellow Bluff Road from Zibya Khaya.  We found out about it when we came home one day. As we turned off the highway and slowly bumped down the hill of the graded, dusty and canopied road, we turned the corner and had to brake hard to avoid hitting the corner of a TV station van. The vehicle was joined by at least three others like it, each sporting a logo of a different TV station from the metro Orlando area.

The vans were crammed tightly together, nose-to-tail, between the road and the high hurricane fence that surrounded the expansive and well-manicured lakeside property that the locals called “the Preacher’s compound”, a retreat run by the pastor of a local church.

A large satellite dish perched dangerously near the roadside ditch, with fat black cables snaking along the ground to the nearest van. A guard stood with arms folded on the inside of the gated entry to the compound, and a crowd of people scurried around on the other side, pulling cables and brandishing hand-held microphones. Some people had video cameras perched on their shoulders, some were gripping 35mm cameras. All turned to stare at us as we slowly edged past. We could clearly read the eagerness and a kind of pent-up excitement in their faces and in the tension of their bodies.

“What the hell is going on?” we both asked in the same breath. It certainly looked like a media circus but why here, in the middle of nowhere, at a place where we hardly ever saw anything or anyone moving except the grounds-keeper who spent a lot of time on the tractor mower?

We were about to find out. No sooner had we closed our own gates, parked the car under the shed and gone inside the cabin, than Hansel started honking furiously up at the gate. A young fellow in a suit was trying to enter the property but Hansel was holding him off.

“Oh great,” Anni muttered, and headed down the drive toward the gate, calling to Hansel as she went. I stood at the screen door and watched as she shooed Hansel away with one of the old broomsticks we kept leaning against a nearby massive pine tree.

After a brief conversation with the young man, Anni let him onto the property and escorted him down the drive, keeping a hissing Hansel at bay with her broomstick.

Turns out the fellow was a reporter for an Orlando newspaper and wanted to use our phone to call in his breaking story. We unabashedly listened as he dictated his brief but intriguing tale.

In a nutshell, the somewhat famous  televangelist Jim Bakker was awaiting trial on 24 Federal counts of fraud and conspiracy for stealing millions of dollars from PTL, the television ministry he founded. The Bakkers had been forced out of a rented house in North Carolina, where they had been taping “The Jim and Tammy Show”, and had somehow  chosen this out-of-the-way place as somewhere to literally retreat to, but the media was hot on their heels.

After a few days, the Bakkers came out to the gate, where they gave short interviews through the fence to this or that TV station reporter. The text was always the same: Jim was innocent and a sobbing Tammy Faye would blubber her undying faith in his virtue.

It didn’t take long before our phone was ringing off the hinges as our family and friends called us, asking what it was like, had we met “those people”, had we been invited to sit in the audience as the televangelists renewed their weekly broadcasts from the communal rooms of the compound’s large cabin.

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The Preacher’s Compound – Google Images

Like our neighbors up and down Yellow Bluff Road, we weren’t happy about this invasion into our quiet corner of the forest. As the days went by, dealing with people entering our property from the road and the lake, uninvited, became as annoying and cloying as the pall of dust thrown up by all the traffic up and down Yellow Bluff Road.

After letting in the young reporter, we refused all further requests. We tired of constantly walking down the drive to turn away yet another reporter or photographer or someone else who simply HAD to use our phone (remember this was before cellular phones) or, worse, one of our bathrooms! The topper was a couple of guys in a pickup truck pulling a bass boat, who had the gall to ask if they could drive down our lawn and launch their boat from the ramp in the back yard so that they could make some money from reporters who would pay for the opportunity to approach the Preacher’s compound from the water, on the off-chance of getting a few photos of the Bakkers.

We compared notes with the neighbors and they, too were aggravated at the invasion of their privacy and the need to constantly stand vigil over unwanted incursions onto their property. Of course, with all the media play, a couple of the neighbors admitted to being curious. Our pal Captain Jack knew the Preacher pretty well and so Jack strolled down to the compound one day and after chatting with one of the many faithful who had followed the Bakkers from N.C., Jack was invited to join in the next Saturday’s videotaping session, as a member of the “audience”.

We laughed when Jack asked us if we wanted to go with him to the session. We were certainly no fans of the Bakkers, or any other televangelist for that matter. We just wanted them and all those people who had followed them from N.C., and the reporters and TV vans to go away so that we could get a break from keeping a watchful eye out, and get back to our schedule of commuting daily from the forest and into our office in town.

After a couple of weeks, the TV vans and the satellite dish went away, the cars from NC. thinned out, and the dust finally settled onto the trees and brush lining Yellow Bluff Road.

One Saturday morning we were enjoying our coffees out on the porch when the peace and quiet was broken by Hansel’s frantic honking up at the gate. We both got up to look down the drive, where a scene of mayhem was unfolding.

Anni said “I got it”, and headed quickly down the drive. It was hard to see through the hurricane fenced gate but it looked to me like a group of 4 or 5 people were circling around, talking loudly, and doing their best to side-step and avoid Hansel’s relentless attack. Somehow he had gotten out of the gate and out on the road, where he was honking and hissing and flapping his wide wings as furiously as I’d ever seen him. That was one pissed-off gander!

In a couple of minutes, Anni had Hansel rounded up and back inside the fence. She had a short conversation with the group, and as they moved off down the road, she strolled down the drive, passing by a still-flustered Hansel, who was being cooed to by Gretel, a wise goose who had safely avoided the whole scene.

Anni laughed and shook her head while explaining that “That was the Bakkers, with their teenage kids”. No kidding! What the heck were they doing tangling with Hansel out in the road and how had Hansel slipped outside the fence in the first place?

It seems one of the Bakker’s kids had spotted the geese and wanted to pet them, so with the encouragement of their parents (!), they opened the gate and here came Hansel, head down and on the attack. After the dust had settled, the Bakkers sincerely apologized to Anni for causing the fracas. Anni made sure nobody had been bitten by Hansel, and in the course of the discussion she learned that the Bakkers apparently had a lot of waterfowl on some property somewhere, and the teens were used to handling the tame fowl. Unfortunately, Hansel was not as tame as anticipated!

Later, Jack came by and as he stepped into the cabin, he laughingly showed us his new t-shirt that sported a giant blob of dozens of different-colored splats and the text “I ran into Tammy Faye at the mall!” We all had a good laugh, then when we told him about the Hansel incident, he said it was a good thing Hansel hadn’t gone after Tammy Faye, or he would have ended up looking like the t-shirt!

The Bakkers’ eventual downfall and demise is a sad tale, but this wasn’t the only news story to come out of the Forest. The next year this little corner of the world once again made headlines as the scene where more than one victim of serial killer Eileen Wuornos had been found.

The Forest has a dark past and continues to attract what seems to be more than its fair share of weirdos, freak happenings, scary goings-on, and criminal activity. Here’s just a sample of its shady history:

http://kidnappingmurderandmayhem.blogspot.com/2021/

Geese and Chickens

Chix n geeseWe had agreed to look after K’s flock of free-range Bantam chickens. On the face of it, this seemed to be a fairly simple task. All we had to do was feed the 20-or so hens and roosters cracked corn ever so often, and keep a wary eye out during the day for the many hawks that lived around the property. K’s wife had used a slingshot to pop away at hawks that dared to land on trees around the yard, and the presence of K’s old red-tick hound also helped to discourage these efficient predators from swooping down to snatch up the unwary chick.

Well, we didn’t have a sling-shot and K’s hound had gone off to live at the farm in Ocala. We had Echo, Anni’s black lab, to defend the flock. Turned out Echo was basically an indoor dog, more given to relaxing on the cool cement floor of the porch or hanging out in front of the fireplace than in chasing hawks or, luckily for us, chickens. Also, we went off to town each work day, which pretty much left the flock to their own devices.

For the first couple of months, all appeared well. We’d be sitting out on the screened porch, enjoying an early morning coffee, quietly watching as the flock of hens, roosters and chicks would move through the tall lawn grass, muttering chicken nonsense to each other as they rapidly snapped up insects perched on the tall grass-blades. The flock would form a kind of skirmish line, beaks darting left and right as they made their way steadily down the lawn toward the lake. Only when they reached the old concrete boat ramp and the headland beyond it that anchored the dock would they turn around and go their separate ways, dispersing toward the tree line, the large bamboo stand and the wall of greenery at the outer edges of the lawn. Here they spent the day, safe from the marauding hawks, protected by  the dense canopy of greenery offered by the massive magnolia tree, the water oaks, hickory trees, pine trees and the odd palm tree, all festooned with old-growth Spanish moss that waved like giant flags from limbs and boughs as the morning easterly breeze came on, building force as it crossed the width of the lake, dispersing the mosquitoes, flies, gnats and who-knows-what that had settled in the lawn overnight.

As the winter dusk drew in, the chickens would find a nest out in the barn to stay warm. Hens would cluck encouragement to their tiny chicks as they’d usher them up the trees whose branches grew near the chimney.

At some point we noticed a couple of the hens were missing. We counted beaks and, sure enough, we were shy two adult hens. When we shared this disturbing news with friends who lived on a farm near Ocala, they recommended that we get a pair of geese.

“Wonderful property guards, geese,” we were told. “They’ll go after anything, they’re fearless and they hang close together and mate for life, so you wanna get at least one male and one female. Raise them by hand when they’re goslings, they’ll imprint on you and make you part of their set. But- they live a long time, like 30 years, so it’s a commitment. And, if you ever need to find a second home for them we’ll take them in, they’ll do fine with our geese.”

Sounded good to us, so we went off to yet another farm to get two baby geese. That began our education in goose-keeping, the first lesson being, geese aren’t easy to “sex”, or determine what gender they are, until they’re pretty much grown. Hmmm. We took the advice of our goose-provider, who found us two lovely tiny, snow-white Embden geese. The goose-woman was “90 percent sure” that one was a male and the other a female, but truly only time would tell.

Of course we named them Hansel and Gretel, and bundled them off to the cabin in a cardboard box.

BabyGeese1

Off we hied to the library, checking out any book we could find about raising domestic geese. Thankfully, there were tomes available, and we dug into the research, reading out loud to each other interesting bits as we sat on the couch before the fireplace, sharing foot space with Cami-the-Siamese and Echo-the-black-Lab, who insisted on taking up the best spot where the heatilator blew warm air.

Between the books and observation, we became more knowledgeable, and more enamored of our two lovely geese. It didn’t take long for the differences between the two youngsters to become apparent. One was growing up to be a bit larger than the other, with a dark orange beak. The smaller bird had a pink beak and seemed to be far more mellow, perfectly content to sit on a lap.YoungGeeseSwim2In about 3 months, the geese grew from tiny goslings held in the palm of our hand to the size of large cats, albeit with large wings. We were entranced by their soft mutterings, the way they enjoyed cracked corn with gusto, and their signature flat-footed stomping gait as they would race toward us when we stepped from the house to greet them or bring them a tasty bit of lettuce, a favorite treat.

Before long, we determined that the larger bird was indeed a gander, and the smaller bird a goose. Now we knew which was Hansel, and which was Gretel. A small triumph, and likely more important to us than them.

YoungGeesePool1Concerned that the geese might make their way into the lake, where large gators roamed at will, we set up a kiddie swimming pool, much to the birds’ delight. We’d spy out the windows and laugh at their antics as they frolicked in the pool, splashing in with abandon, frantically swimming about squawking and flapping their wings vigorously, causing small molted feathers to fly every which-way. With such wild activity, they soon learned to take turns, sliding in over the pool edge on their breasts, flapping and splashing about, then clambering out awkwardly, sometimes landing beak-first.

After a few such rounds, they’d stand off a few feet away, spread their ever-growing wing-spans, and flap vigorously three or four times, their heads stretching straight up as first one then the other would let out a loud “Arrrrk!”, which ended on a high note. It looked to us like they were having the time of their lives playing in that pool.

In the depth of that first winter, the pool froze over. We hadn’t really thought about the consequences, assuming the geese would stay out of the pool until things warmed up. However, after an overnight hard freeze, I happened to look out the window and there was Hansel, stomping toward the pool with his usual brisk, flat-footed gait. As I watched, he approached the pool, turned his head so that he could eyeball the surface, then carefully placing one broad webbed foot on the edge of the plastic and spreading his wings to get a bit of lift, he launched himself off the pool edge, landed breast-first on that slippery ice, scooted across the surface, and slid ass-over-teakettle right out and over the other side, landing in an ungainly heap on the frosty dirt.

My hoots of laughter brought Anni to the window lickety-split. While I was choking with laughter as I described to Anni what I’d witnessed, Hansel was prancing around the pool, his wings fully extended, head on high, and squawking like a banshee. Gretel had witnessed the whole thing and kept approaching him with her head level and extended toward him, cooing reassuringly, but he would have none of it! “Skuaaaaawk! Ark! Agggggh!” and other crazed vocalizations accompanied him as he stomped off a few feet, flapped his wings vigorously, and finally tucked them in, wiggling his goose-butt in a most emphatic manner.

“They’ve outgrown that baby pool,” Anni observed dryly. “We’ll make them a better goose pond in the Spring. And the new one sure won’t freeze over!”

Puzzled, I asked what she meant and Anni went on to describe a design she’d obviously been toying with, one that would combine a bit of digging, some cement, and the clever use of the constant flow of 72-degree water from the aquifer that provided an unlimited supply of fresh water to the house.

Fast-forward to the Spring and the unveiling of the new goose pond. A couple of neighbors and friends gathered round, beer cans in hand, as Anni carefully swiveled the PVC pipe that routed the flow of the spring and water cascaded down into the cement pond. The geese were standing by, and soon approached the scene of wildly splashing water as the pond slowly filled.

GoosePond

The crowd-pleasing moment arrived, as the geese unhesitatingly jumped right into the pond and began excitedly swimming around in circles, flapping their wings, dipping their heads, and shaking their goose-butts with abandon. It was a moment to remember, marked by triumphant geese honking and the hoots of the delighted humans.

Video snippet: Anni with our geese in the pond

Video snippet: Geese greet Anni

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Martha and the Vandals

The loss of a few Bantam chickens made us think of getting some bigger chickens. Our reasoning was two-fold: they’d be trained to come into the chicken pen at night for protection and, being much larger than the Bantams, would less likely fall prey to hawks or owls. We bought four Rhode Island Red hens and named them Martha and the Vandals. Not really sure why, it just stuck.AnniChixGretelThe four big hens fit right into the flock, and were soon grazing the lawn and hanging out under the trees during the day. At night, we’d shoo them into their enclosure and let them out the next morning. Often they’d lay large eggs with bright orange yolks. The eggs were rich and we found them to be very strong tasting but golly they made huge omelets and with enough onions and tomatoes and the like, they weren’t bad.

For months all was well with the flock until we came up short one hen. We kept our eyes peeled but she went missing for several days. We’d just about given up hope for her when, one fateful day, we were out in the back yard grilling burgers with a handful of visiting friends. All of a sudden we heard loud squawking and thrashing noises beyond the trees at the edge of the lawn. As we headed over to the tree line, a big red hen came racing out onto the lawn, flapping her wings and screaming crazily, scattering tiny feathers as she ran around in circles and darted about the lawn.

We quickly grabbed a long-handled fish net that was leaning against a tree down near the lake and with the help of a few people, we chased the panicked hen until we netted her. Feathers had been obviously ripped painfully out of her head, her tail, a wing and a section of her body. The poor thing was bleeding where the feathers had been snatched out and was clearly in shock and pain.

We were all in shock too, and as we hovered over the mangled hen, we discussed what could have done this to her. A dog? Nope-  we would have known if there were strange dogs in the neighborhood, and all the known neighbor dogs left the chickens and geese alone. Maybe a gator? Nope- she came out of the woods, not the lake, and gators didn’t hang out in the woods. Then, maybe, a raccoon? Yeah, maybe but boy, that would need to be one big, mean ‘coon to do this kind of damage.

The hen eventually calmed down a bit and we determined that there wasn’t too much we could do to help her. She’d lost a lot of feathers but otherwise seemed able to walk and dart about, her eyes and legs were undamaged, so we put her up in the pen to keep an eye on her progress.

After a couple of days, she seemed normal and it appeared some feathers were growing back, so we let her out of her jail so that she could eat bugs and scratch for pebbles and hang with the flock.