Tag Archives: alligators

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.

Gulf of Mexico Wildlife

Wildlife in and Around the Gulf of Mexico

Sometimes, wildlife in and around the Gulf of Mexico visits you when you least expect it. Not all the dangers are in the Gulf waters, though. Alligators in mating season tend to roam, oftentimes ending up in a backyard swimming pool or taking a siesta under the family sedan.

Alligator mating season 2

Snakes are about. A friend was sleeping in his bed, felt something cold on his leg and found a black snake curled up next to him. Bears are a problem  from time to time, as well. One family’s car was torn apart when a black bear from the Ocala National Park entered it, probably searching for food, and became entrapped when the door closed behind it.

Sometimes it is man himself who harms the environment, as in the case of Beggar, the bottlenose dolphin who used to reside in this part of the Gulf of Mexico. Also known as “Mooch”, Beggar hung out in the Intracoastal, near the Albee Point Bridge and was popular with boaters who delighted in feeding him.

Beggar was a poster dolphin for man’s encroachment on animal habitat. Most dolphin cruise over large areas of the Gulf of Mexico, but Beggar hung out in the Intracoastal and became used to begging.

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Feeding dolphin is against the law, but few boaters can resist that cute face and friendly attitude (of course, Beggar probably felt no affection. He was just hoping for a handout) and unless the Marine Patrol was out and about, Beggar got fed everything from bait fish to Dorito corn chips. Drunk people would try to pour beer down his throat and worst of all, those who find themselves with no food or drink will sometimes throw a non-food item…a piece of plastic, perhaps, or a pop-top…and Beggar, who knew no better, consumed it all.

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When people buy a boa constrictor or a monitor lizard and release them into the wild, it upsets Florida’s fragile ecosystem. When they swim with the dolphins and smear their human germs on them, it harms wildlife. They toss marshmallows to alligators and then wonder why the alligator ate their dog.

Fortunately, not all encounters with Florida wildlife are so intimidating. I was awakened the other morning by a ruckus at my window. It sounded like a cat climbing the screen, probably chasing a lizard, I thought, and rolled over to go back to sleep. The scratching on the screen continued.

I got out of bed, raised the shade and came face to face with a great horned owl! It was a baby, still full of downy gray feathers, and was as surprised to see me as was to see him. I grabbed my digital camera, but it turned its head each time until I stopped and we just stared at each other. I tried one more time…

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…and succeeded. My visiting owl finally had enough and flew away.

 

 

 

Whether in or out of the Gulf of Mexico, Florida’s wildlife never ceases to amaze.

 

 

Snook Haven, a Retreat to “Old Florida”

Snook Haven: Retreat to an Earlier Era in Venice, Florida

Snook Haven is accessed from the intersection at Old Venice Avenue and River Road in Venice, Florida (exit 191 off Interstate 75). A sign at the entrance of a dirt road points the way in. The drive takes you deep into the jungle that leads to the banks of the Myakka River, just upstream from the Gulf of Mexico, and the small clearing known as Snook Haven.

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History still rests here, despite the modernization of running water and electricity and yes, even an unpaved parking lot. First used by indigenous Native Americans, it became an excellent smuggling site and hideaway for rumrunners in the 1920s and 30s and a perfect watering hole for the locals who knew how to keep their mouths shut.

As prohibition waned, other interest moved in on Snook Haven. A New England businessman was the first to develop the area, building a house by the river for himself, and several cabins for his fishing pals. He also generously kept the place supplied with willing young ladies whose job it was to keep the guests happy. Today, the property is not nearly as nefarious and is under the ownership of Sarasota County. The on-site restaurant is still rustic and serves up local cuisine and the cabins house the boat rental and other businesses, none of them selling moonshine or favors of a different sort.

The site caught the eye of Hollywood scouts as the perfect location for jungle wilderness movies, such as “Prestige” in1931, a movie about, of all things, the French Foreign Legion. One of the Tarzan movies was filmed in the area around Snook Haven, as well as the 1947 “Revenge of the Killer Turtles”, and, of course, as with an artistic endeavor, many of the movies did not reach such heights of glory.

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I must admit that I’ve never encountered a killer turtle on any of my canoe trips up and down the Myakka. Most of them seem pretty laid back.

 

Swamp Walk #5

 

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I do keep a close eye on the alligators, though, and keep a respectful distance.

 

 

Alligator hunting season started a few weeks ago and it opened with a bang when two Venice fishermen caught a 12 ½ foot alligator in the Myakka not far from the Snook Haven landing (photo courtesy of wwsbtv).

It took an hour to overpower the massive alligator and the men feared the giant gator would sink their 14 foot fishing boat. In true “Old Florida” style, once the taxidermist is done, the men plan to donate it to the Snook Haven Restaurant, which seems fitting.

It hasn’t arrived yet, but the new managers of the restaurant are displaying other impressive examples of local habitat. If you’re lucky enough to go today, you’ll enjoy live country music entertainment from 11 AM until mid to late afternoon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Lake Okeechobee: a Hidden Treasure

You Can’t See Lake Okeechobee From the Road

Lake Okeechobee would have probably been a lot more fun had we not visited during the last slap of Tropical Storm Andrea’s outermost feeder bands. Our stay at the Hampton Inn Okeechobee was reasonably priced, but I found the hard bed uncomfortable. The air conditioning unit kicked on and off, rather than the usual racket all night long and the bathroom had a great shower.

We enjoyed our fried catfish lunch at the Lodge at the River, which offers “Sharpies” (the entire fish, heads, bones, and all) or just the catfish filets. We chose the latter and enjoyed it very much.

Lake Okeechobee is the second largest freshwater lake (730 square miles) that is entirely within the United States. Mostly what you see from the road is the Hoover Dike, a twenty-foot high berm, or levee, on one side and sugar cane on the other side of the road (sometimes corn…how can they grow corn in FL when I can’t?). This is the legacy of the Army Corps of Engineers, who, back when ideas like land stewardship and environmental responsibility were unheard of, “improved” the land for farmers and ranchers by draining the wetlands and straightening the surrounding rivers from their usual meandering course into straight line canals, forever affecting the natural ebb and flow of the Everglades.

We finally figured out the “Scenic Trail” signs indicated lake access to the other side of the levee. The top of the 140 mile long levee that protects the surrounding communities allows bikers and hikers a great view of the lake. Driving up the berm and making blind turns (and I DO mean your car is tilted skyward and you cannot see over your hood) reminded me, once again, of why I am not a mountain girl.

However, once you get over the levee, you aren’t quite there, yet, since the only way to access the lake is by canal…in other words, you take a waterway to get to the water! If you look at these pictures, you can see how the two are separated:

Lake Okeechobee #1

The water hyacinth, an invasive species, chokes the shallow lake of nutrients and oxygen and is an on-going problem for the area. The alligators, however, love them because they provide cover for the hunting reptiles.

Lake Okeechobee #2

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Boating, fishing, and hunting in season are popular here.

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Alligators, bears, and otters are a common sight, as are osprey and eagles’ nests, high atop light poles and trees. Some sights were amusing. At one point, a baby alligator escaped the lake and a big, burly man stopped his car in the middle of the road, got out and grabbed the reptile by the middle, right behind its head, and carried it to a ditch, while it wiggled and fought him the whole way. He was laughing his head off, looking as if he was having the time of his life. The man, not the gator. The gator was furious. His wife walked back to the car, shaking her head. We were going in the other direction and didn’t get stopped in time to take a picture. Apparently, this is not a terribly unusual occurrence down by the levee, as they seemed to take it in stride.

Lake Okeechobee #10

 

 

Lake Manatee State Recreational Area, Pristine and Beautiful

Escape for a Day or Camp Overnight at Lake Manatee State Recreational Area

Located on state Road 64, fifteen miles east of Bradenton, Lake Manatee State Recreational Area encompasses three miles of Lake Manatee shoreline and 556 acres that once provided the common activities of pioneer days: cattlemen worked the land as hard as the farmers. The land also supported a busy timber and turpentine industry. Periodic controlled burns are used these days to clear the land and keep habitat from choking the area off.

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Today, it is an area for recreational activities such as camping, swimming, fishing (from the dock or boat) and boating and is open seven days a week, from 8 AM until sundown.

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Bicycles can be rented at the Ranger Station. They have fat wheels, making them suitable for biking on or off paved trails. A two and a half mile paved road provides bicyclists and hikers with a pleasant step back into nature and eventually loops around the two campground areas. For the more adventurous, there is another trail, unpaved, that is nearly as long, but offers a bit more challenge.

Lake Manatee, encompassing a 2,400 acre area, is now a reservoir for Manatee and Sarasota County drinking water. Fishing is popular here and the lake teems with catfish, largemouth and sunshine bass, bluegill, and speckled perch. Bobcats, alligators, deer, and gopher turtles, as well as numerous species of birds inhabit the area.

A boat ramp provides easy access to the lake. Boat motors are restricted to 20 horsepower, so it is a pleasant place for those who prefer to canoe or kayak. Water skiing is prohibited.

Swimming is restricted to a designated area. There are no lifeguards on duty so you swim at your own risk. Be warned: lake plants are sometimes blown into the swimming area. Their long roots can act like tendrils that can entrap an unwary swimmer.

There is a good-sized picnic area tucked under the scrub pine trees and the main pavilion (accommodates 12 tables and has electric and grill) can be reserved for a fee. The children’s playground is a popular spot for young families.

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The full-facility campground includes 60 campsites and a bathhouse and shower facility. RVs are limited to 65 feet. Each campsite is provided with water and electricity. A dump station is located near the campground entrance.

Pets are welcome, but must be well-behaved and on a six foot hand held leash at all times. Pets, excluding service animals which are allowed in all areas, are not allowed in the swimming area and should never be left unattended. Pet owners are expected to clean up after their pets so that everyone can enjoy the park freely.

Popular with people from all walks of life, the Lake Manatee State Recreational Area offers an escape from the busy-ness of daily life and reminds us to take time to slow down a little and appreciate our surroundings.

For more information call the Lake Manatee State Recreational Area at (941) 741-3028

 

Alligators in the Everglades

I managed a few pictures that capture the vast area, but nothing really does it justice. I felt (and was) very small in the middle of acre upon acre of saw grass and mud flats and a few inches of water. We were 8 miles from where the ValueJet plane went down. The boat captain told us that some parts just got sucked right into the mud, never to be seen again. If I’d gotten out of the boat, the water would have been less than knee deep, but I would have sunk in up to my thighs.

Everglades Airboat Ride

Our boat captain teased the little alligator at the dock.

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Then he took us to meet Tiny. He knows Tiny is a female (sexing an alligator requires an internal exam) because there is a bigger gator in the same pond and if Tiny were male, the bigger alligator would have driven it off.

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This is the bigger gator:

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His name is Rambo.

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He’s been in a recent fight. His back leg is injured, but is healing. Scientists are quite interested in this ability to heal in fetid waters.

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The boat captain would hold out his hand and as the alligator rose its head up, the captain would rap his fingers on the top of its snout and the alligator would open it’s mouth.

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“Rambo’s” head was inches away from my knee when I snapped this picture. They seemed almost tame. I still don’t trust them, but I wasn’t afraid. See that black line that runs back from his eye? That’s his ear. Oh, and they hiss.

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It was kind of creepy the way they’d circle the boat.

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And then slip underneath.

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Only to appear again. This time in the front of the boat. I may have lost sight of them, but they never took their eyes off me. Not once.

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Florida is the only state where the American crocodile still exists. You can tell the difference between alligators and crocodiles by the shape of their snouts. The alligator’s snout is rounded while the crocodile’s snout is elongated. Neither one have tongues.

Most of the eggs in this alligator nest will be eaten by surrounding wildlife, some before hatching.

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Of those that make it, the eggs at the top of the mound will be male and at the bottom of the mound, the emerging baby gators will be female. Temperature decides the sex, the hotter the egg, male, the colder the egg, female. Sounds wrong, doesn’t it? Anyway, the baby gators still aren’t out of the woods, er, swamp, yet. Predatory birds, raccoons, other alligators, yes, even the one that fathered them (talk about life cycle!), pick off unwary babies. Mother gator does what she can for about a year. After that, it’s every gator for him/herself.

That attitude of independence seems to have bubbled over into all of South Florida’s denizens, as we were about to discover during our trip to Key West, but that’s another post for another day. Later, Gators!