Category Archives: Swamps

Tate’s Hell State Forest is Heavenly for Some Visitors

Many Visitors Think Tate’s Hell State Forest is Heavenly

Despite it’s name, many visitors think Tate’s Hell State Forest is heavenly. Not everyone thinks Cebe Tate was correct when he emerged from the woods and declared he’d been through hell.

Today, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Division of Forestry manages the land (some areas are managed by the State of Florida) that encompasses Tate’s Hell State Forest and surrounding areas, with a goal to restore natural habitat while still allowing recreational use and limited commercial use. Slash pine stands have been thinned to a more natural setting or cleared altogether and replanted with longleaf pines better suited to the habitat. 15% of all revenue earned from the timber industry, recreational use, hunting, and other sources of income benefits Franklin and Liberty counties.

Birders watch for barred owls, the red shouldered hawk, wild turkey, bald eagles and red cockaded woodpeckers. Hunters stalk wild boar, bobcat, nutria, gray squirrel, beaver, and other wildlife, while photographers hunt wild deer and small game.

Other habitats within Tate’s Hell State Forest include the Dwarf Cypress stands found there: although well over 150 years old, the trees are only 15 feet tall. An elevated boardwalk takes visitors through the stands and the observation tower offers panoramic views of the trees. A six-mile hike along the High Bluff Coastal Hiking Trail takes hikers up ancient sand dunes that offer stunning views of the forest and St. George Sound or you may choose the educational eastern trailhead that offers information on the various ecosystems as well as the history of the turpentine industry that once thrived here.

Tate's Hell Forest #4As is usually the case with the unusual places featured in Finding Florida, odd names are attached to the place. Waterways within Tate’s Hell State Forest include Gully Branch, Sunday Rollaway, Alligator, Deep, and Cash Creek, as well as Whiskey George Creek. Road names are just as amusing: Jet Engine Road, Nero Road, Billy’s Road, Car Body Road, and Lake Morality Road are just a few that bring a smile to your face.

Hunting and fishing are strictly regulated here, and valid licenses, permits and stamps are required! Hunting is only allowed in designated areas at designated times. The Division of Forestry and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission establish the areas appropriate for Still Hunt and hunting with dogs. Off highway vehicles must have a registered decal and are restricted to designated areas.

While some find the supervision oppressive, most people who respect the habitat appreciate the balanced approach the federal and state government employ when managing access and resources and preserving the beauty within Tate’s Hell State Forest.

 

Is Tate’s Hell State Forest Really Hell?

Is Tate’s Hell State Forest a Bad Place to Visit?

So how bad is Tate’s Hell State Forest? That depends on perspective. Archeological research reveals that Native Americans didn’t use the area very much, probably because it was mostly swampland that drained into estuaries of East Bay and the Apalachicola River, and more fertile ground was found nearby. Logging/lumber/and wood product companies took ownership and attempted to drain the land in the 1950s, inadvertently endangering the environmental health of the bay.

Tate's Hell State ForestCebe Tate fought insects and suffered a snake bite while searching for the Florida panther who was preying on his livestock. He probably also shared the swamp with alligator snapping turtles and eastern box turtles, snakes, including the Apalachicola king snake and the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, and alligators and bears.

Old Cebe Tate slogged through acres of wetlands rife with biting insects before he finally found his way out. Tate’s Hell Swamp makes up 70% of Tate’s Hell State Forest, but prairies offer dry footing and host a wide variety of pitcher plants (designed to trap and digest insects) and other wildflowers, as well as a variety of grasslands.

The Florida black bear, once almost hunted to extinction, is making a comeback these days, and human-bear confrontations can be just as dangerous today as it was for Cebe Tate then. When in Tate’s Hell State Forest or Swamp, use caution when encountering a Florida black bear. Do not crouch or lie on the ground. Instead, speak calmly and assertively and back up slowly. Noise will often scare the bear away, as well.

Tate’s Hell State Forest is 187,710 acres of rugged country and a four-wheel drive is recommended. Amenities such as trash containers are non-existent, so be sure to take all garbage with you when you go. Caution is strongly advised when swimming or boating, and diving into streams and rivers is prohibited. Primitive camping is available in selected areas for a nominal fee and there are 12 tent camping sites at the Womack Creek recreation area, which also offers a bathhouse with hot showers.

Tate’s Hell State Forest is definitely rugged country, but that’s part of its attraction. We’ll explore those in the next post.

Tate’s Hell State Forest Name Origin

How Tate’s Hell State Forest Got its Name

Tate’s Hell State Forest is named after Cebe Tate, a 45 year old local farmer plagued by a panther that kept attacking his livestock. The year was 1875, a time when Florida was experiencing a population boom as homesteaders moved in on land formerly controlled by Native Americans. Although most Seminoles escaped the Trail of Tears by disappearing deep into the swamp that makes up most of Tate’s Hell State Forest, many Native Americans were rounded up for relocation in Oklahoma.

Tate's Hell State Forest #3

The homesteaders didn’t have an easy time of it and rogue panthers were unwelcome pests. Cebe Tate decided to do something about his problem and headed into the forest with his shotgun and hunting dogs.

It didn’t go well. After just a few hours, he became separated from his dogs. Lost in the swamp, he lost his shotgun. When he sat down at a tree stump to rest, he was bitten by a snake.

Lost and disoriented for seven days and seven nights, he suffered greatly. Water was scarce, the mosquitoes were relentless, and the heat was stifling. Cebe was forced to drink the muddy swamp water. Finally breaking through the underbrush to a clearing near the town of Carrabelle, nearly 25 miles from his home, and barely able to speak, he walked up to two men. “My name is Cebe Tate,” he said, “And I’ve been through hell.” With that, he collapsed at their feet and died.

What to Expect During a Visit to Tate’s Hell State Forest

Tate’s Hell State Forest is typical Florida terrain, made up of woodland and swamp. Today’s visitors to Tate’s Hell State Forest have well marked paths, including a boardwalk that winds through a dwarf cypress forest of ancient trees.

Tate's Hell State Forest #1

 

There is a dirt (mostly sand) road through the forest, but a four wheel drive is strongly suggested, and, since many areas flood during rainy periods, hiking may be your only option. It is well worth your effort. Once commercially forested, Tate’s Hell is now a wildlife management area and abuts the Apalachicola National Forest.

 

Tate’s Hell State Forest is a popular place for hunters and campers alike.

The Gator That Almost Got Me

This is the story of the gator that almost got me. As we drove through the swamp, I spotted a blue heron stalking fish in a ditch by the side of the road:

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But every time I got close, the bird would slowly walk away from me:

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You can’t blame them. Hunted to near extinction around the turn of the last century, their blue feathers were highly prized for ladies’ fashionable hats.

But I’m not much of a hunter. I broke the sacred rule of the swamp: know where you’re walking. In other words, be aware of your surroundings. But I wasn’t. I saw that heron and yelled for my husband to stop the car.

Maybe I lose track of my surroundings because I was looking through a lens and it distanced my brain from its immediate surroundings. Maybe I was just lazy. Regardless, I was so engrossed in stalking the heron that I was completely unprepared for what happened next. As I concentrated on zeroing in on the heron, I heard a huge splash a few feet from my left shoulder.

Turning to see what was causing such a commotion, I first heard a thunderous crack of jaws slamming shut a split second before I saw the alligator as it rose up out of the water, easily swallowing the fish in its maw. Suddenly I was looking UP at the underside of an airborne alligator. For a few suspended seconds, gator and I were within a foot of each other. It could have easily lunged for me and you would never have known this story.

An Alligator's Maw

Instead, it retreated backward, never taking its eyes off me.

Every hair on my body standing at attention, I scrambled to get back in the car, closing the door as a shiver ran up my back. My husband started to drive away, but I ordered him to back up because I wasn’t about to leave without getting a picture of the gator that almost got me. He started laughing. Laughing!

He said I am the only person he knows who would insist on taking a picture of an animal that came close to eating me. I still don’t see what’s so funny and you’d think he’d be a tad more concerned, but once he knew I was in the car, he just thought it was funny that I was so scared.

Well, YOU try being calm, cool, and collected after seeing inside the jaws of death and see if you don’t jump.

Of COURSE I wanted a picture! My hands were shaking, so I had to rest the camera on the open window of the car door, but the camera still shook a little. I don’t know that I would have been able to get a good shot even if I had been able to coax him out of the shadows, but if you look closely, you will see his head poking out from the edge of the grass.

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As he returned to his hiding spot, with just his big old nose sticking out, he kept his eye on me.

I stayed in my car. One close encounter a day is enough! The moral of the story?

When you’re walking in the swamp, watch your step.

Other Towns in Central Florida Offer Out-of-the-Ordinary Entertainment

Central Florida, From Fisheating Creek to the Brighton Seminole Reservation

We drove around Lake Okeechobee, enjoying the expansive views of the leading edge of the Florida Everglades. The sky is big in Florida, and the swamp stretches for mile after desolate mile, broken only by a cluster of live oaks or staked out individually by independent palm trees, whose round heads and lack of branches look very much like landscaped lollypops from a distance. The weather was clearing, but clouds still hung over the land like a dark umbrella bent on betrayal and we drove in and out of rain.

The larger towns in this part of central Florida have the usual chain motels, but most lodging offerings consist of RVs or trailers, some quite weary looking. Campers who don’t mind roughing it will have no trouble finding suitable lodging, but those looking for a little more comfort will have to dig a little deeper. We did find a few cabins. The most inviting were cozy log cabins with peaked roofs in a small enclave. One of the owners rents two of his units, #9 and #17, for around $500 per week. If you’re interested, call Abe at 561-234-0277. A future visit will most assuredly include a week at the Lake Okeechobee Resort in Pahokee. It is the only place with accommodations directly on the lake.

We made a stop at Fisheating Creek where I told my husband the story of my great-great grandmother who was taken (along with her kids) to Fort Myers by Union soldiers trying to flush out my great-great-grandfather who was aiding Confederate soldiers by bringing them cattle. She became disgusted with camp conditions and threatened to whip the soldier who tried to stop her from leaving. She went to her brother’s place on Fisheating Creek and stayed there until the War of Northern Aggression was over. I think I would have liked my great-great-grandmother. :)

The Seminole Indian Reservation in Brighton was a disappointment. No museum, no shopping, just gambling. The room was dark, filled with slot machines that flashed neon colors, and full of cigarette smoke. Once off the reservation, we stopped at a roadside stand and bought swamp cabbage. I look forward to breaking the trunk open and cooking up a pot of swamp cabbage, which tastes a lot like asparagus.

Brighton Seminole Reservation

Most of the central Florida towns around the perimeter of Lake Okeechobee offer airboat rides. Since the weather was bad the weekend of our visit, we decided against it, but if you’ve never been, I strongly encourage you to try it out. Most tours last about an hour, the cost is in the $30 to $40 range (per person) and includes picture stops. Airboat rides are exciting and fun, but not scary.

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Corkscrew Swamp

Let us slip away, then, to Corkscrew Swamp, to see what’s stirring in the 13,000 acres of pristine Florida at the Western edge of the Florida Everglades. We’d chosen this visit in May, on the first anniversary of my Mother’s death to spread the last of Mom’s ashes in the swamp she loved and had served as a volunteer guide.

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Corkscrew Swamp #4

As we walked along the boardwalk, built by volunteers, I looked for the boards that friends and family had purchased in remembrance of my brother’s death. My mother had immersed herself here, healing her broken heart, as much as any mother can after the death of a child, working through her grief by giving back to that which she treasured most: her beloved Florida. She knew her facts and was entertaining and quite popular as a guide.

Corkscrew Swamp #1

My husband would ask, as we stopped here and there to admire the view or take a picture or smell a flower, if I wanted to spread my mother’s ashes at that spot, but each time I shook my head “no”. “I’ll know,” I told him. He did not ask me how I would know. He just nodded his head, allowing me my lead, which is just one of the reasons why I love him. This was a difficult task for me. He’d try again, a little later: “This is a pretty spot.” “Yes,” I agreed, “But it’s not the right spot.” I was getting discouraged.

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Then my husband started talking to two tour guides who came strolling up. I was irritated. I hadn’t asked permission to spread the ashes and I didn’t want them tagging along if I found the right spot.

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Well, wouldn’t you know, it came out that my mother had been a guide here, about ten years earlier. The woman guide asked her name and when I told her, she laughed and said my mother had trained her.

Then she pointed me in the right direction, by asking me a question:

“You know that Phoebe’s ashes are here, right?”

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My eyes widened. I’d forgotten about Phoebe, Mom’s fellow Audubon fan and drinking buddy. Phoebe and Mom had spent many hours together bird watching and boating and playing gin rummy, in addition to volunteering at the swamp.

Mom and Phoebe

It was at that moment that I knew where Mom should rest. I came clean and told the guide that I had the last of Mom’s ashes and asked if I could spread them where Phoebe’s ashes had been placed. She told me exactly where the spot was and then left us alone to complete our mission. I like to think that Mom and Phoebe are together again, playing cards under a setting sun, the ice tinkling in their glasses as they raise their binoculars to their eyes when they hear the hawk cry out in territorial authority. My faith teaches me that their worldly bodies are no longer needed so it doesn’t matter where they rest. Either way, it was symbolic and it felt right.

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