Babcock Ranch Excursion

Friday, January 15, 2010- Ft. Myers, Florida

	We set out at 10:30 A.M. and followed Rte. # 75 north. We exited onto Bayshore Rd., following it east to Rte. #31 North. Nine miles further north, we came upon signs for the Babcock Ranch Eco tours. A right turn onto the rough road led us along a three-mile entrance way through the slash pines and rough fields of the Babcock Ranch entrance.
         The Babcock family had founded the ranch in 1887 as a timber preserve. They had plans for a lumbering operation on the vast expanse of slash pines and Bald Cypress trees. The original purchase of 156,000 acres had been narrowed to 91,000 acres in 1948 when family members deeded 68,000 acres to the state of Florida as a wildlife preserve. Of the remaining land, 20,000 acres is now held by business interests for the future development of a new city complex. The remaining 70,000 acres is a functioning cattle ranch and timber preserve owned by the state of Florida.
         The parking area holds 50 to 60 cars. We left the chariot and walked through a small stand of Cypress trees to the main reception center. A covered ticket kiosk, a gift shop and a small restaurant, the Gator Exchange, sit in a trimmed glade. Restroom facilities, an exhibit of live swamp snakes and a replica of a Florida home form the 1800’s complete the area. It has the piney wooded flavor of the wild Florida Frontier. All around us are slash pines, bald Cypresses and a very wild expanse of “old Florida.”
         We purchased our tickets for the Noon, 90-minute eco tour at $21.00 each. Then we wandered amidst the buildings, discovering the stuffed visage of “Lulu” a three-horned cow who had called the ranch home for twenty years. Her multi horned head now peers from the half door of the old farm house. Strewn along the split rail fences are an old saddle, two very old farm plows and other implements from long ago. It has a western feel to it.
        Just after noon, a large old brown school bus with open-air windows pulled up to the reception area. It was the “swamp buggy” that was to ferry about 35 of us on the tour. We boarded the bus and were introduced to Marilyn our guide for the day. She is pleasant of voice and demeanor and would prove both an informative and pleasant tour director.
          The bus set off along the rough interior roads of the ranch, none of which are paved. It was 73 degrees out, sunny and warm, a fine example of Florida’s beautiful weather in January.
	First, we stopped by a small pond. A large wood stork sat majestically on the far bank and a great blue heron on the near bank. The real attraction was a dozen baby alligators climbing around the near bank. Striped with yellow bands, that they lose as they grow, the 18” alligators swam and climbed around the bank. Unseen, but always present for the first two years of their life, the momma alligator lay submerged nearby watching out for her brood. The little rascals are born with a full set of 80 teeth and are expected to feed for themselves immediately. They are also a good food source for birds, larger fish and other alligators. One in ten will make it to maturity.
      Next, the bus rumbled down the road. Almost as if on cue, a large sow and her small band of piglets ran up to the bus. They associate it with the handfuls of corn that the drivers throw out for them to feed. Marilyn said that the pigs and then later the small turkeys, that feed daily on the sweet corn, know her route and tour time better than she does,
      We then passed through the dried grass and broken land of some of the ranch’s 25,000 acres of grazing land. A mixed herd of “cracker cattle’, Brahma bulls and a few Holsteins fed at a small trough, lazed or ran into each other as their mood saw fit in the noon day sun. The “cracker cattle” an original Florida breed, resemble the Texas longhorns with their wide and prominent horns. They are bony and angular looking. The Spanish had left them here in the 1600’s during their many attempts to settle Florida. Several wars with the Calusa and Seminoles, who much wished that they return to their native Spain, had left the cattle to fend for themselves.
       In later years, the Florida cowmen had driven the rangy beasts in great herds to Punta Gorda, along the King’s Highway, for shipment to Cuba and Miami. The cowmen had used large leather whips that made a distinctive cracking sound above the cattle to keep them in line. The name of the breed derived form these whips. It also later lent itself to rural Floridians.
       Sprinkled amidst the cattle were two large and very beautiful sand hill cranes who stalked about elegantly in their pearl gray feathers. Smaller “cattle egrets” fed upon grain and the fleas that infest the cattle hides. Some days you can see egrets perched on the heads of cattle, pecking away at their hides like a remora cleaning a shark’s teeth. Nature can sure provide an entertaining show.
        As we crossed a small rickety bridge, three Osceola Turkeys trotted down the road after us looking for grain handouts. It looks like all the animals on the ranch have the bus associated with corn, following it whenever it drives through.
         Off to our right, Marilyn pointed out the remains of what had once been a small settlement called Rouxville. The cattlemen bunked in rail cars that had been removed from their wheels. Conditions were rough. Families fed off the land. The nearest town was 25 miles away over rough roads. A wag suggested that the collection of train car bodies was the first Florida trailer park.
	A modern looking, two-story, white framed building had once been the home of the community doctor/barber, commissary and mercantile exchange. Now it serves as the administrative offices for the ranch. The barn complex nearby is filled with quarter horses. The “cowmen” now drive in from the surrounding area for cattle drives and ranch chores. Some 13 families still reside on the ranch, helping with all maintenance and animal chores.
       The ranch had harvested the sap from slash pine as well as the wood. The Bald Cypress lumber had been much sought after as a hard wood that resisted the rot of the Florida sun. The principal commerce of the ranch is still cattle, but few actual “cattle drives” occur. The herd of 5,000 -8,000 cattle still needs attention. Most of the stock are raised to “calf size” and then shipped out west for repopulating large stock herds on the great beef farms of the plains. A few modern day rustlings still occur on the farm by local rascals. The Charlotte and Lee county Sheriffs departments come by periodically to try and catch the rustlers. It has the flavor of the Wild West here.
	Next, we drove through a pond area that had been invaded and taken over by Water Hyacinths. The bloom stems choked the lake. We saw a few gator snouts peeking our from their submerged positions near the cypress trees. Two beautiful wood storks flew above us, their wide white wings trimmed with ebony feathers. An anhinga and a cormorant fished in the quiet pond. They are graceful in flight. Several night herons perched on the hyacinths. It was a serene forest setting.
	We rumbled through the slash pines of a controlled burn area. When the underbrush accumulates to a degree that poses a fire hazard, sections of the forest are set afire to consume the underbrush. The regrowth starts in a matter of months. An entire area can be greened anew in a matter on three or four months. Ominously two large and ugly-mugged great vultures sat in a burned out tree watching us pass by. I wonder that they thought of us? Off in the brush we could see two timid white tailed deer eyeing us, readying to bolt at the first sign of a threat.
	The Bus came to a halt at the edge of a cypress swamp. Marilyn fetched a small baby gator that she had stored on the bus. Each of us felt the leathery skin of the cute little creature, properly mindful of the rows of its very sharp teeth. She pointed out the “nictating” eye membrane that covers a gator’s eyes when he submerges, sometimes for an hour at a time.  When this cute little monster grew bigger he will be released back into the swamps to fend for himself. We then got off the bus and walked along a raised wooden duck walk into the cypress swamp. The flared roots of the bald cypress trees stand out above the dark, tannin tinted water. The Spanish moss hanging from their limbs give the swamp an eerie feeling. Along the extended limbs of some of the dead trees grow the “Resurrection ferns.” The ferns grow after a rain and blossom, only to revert to a shriveled up status after a prolonged dry spell. As a curiosity, the hanging Spanish moss had been used as bed and pillow fillers, for babies diapers and a whole variety of uses by the early settlers.
         At the end of the duck walk, we walked into a viewing area of a fairly large and fenced enclosure. The guide pointed out to us two very large southern cougars who lay nearby on a hillside .She said they slept up to 18 hours a day. They are tawny of fur and looked like very large mountain bobcats. I would not want to meet any of them in the wild. It is an endangered species in Florida. And only a few hundred are left in the wild.
	On the walk back to the bus the subject of snakes came up. Marilyn reiterated the types of poisonous snaked found in the swamp. In a small display in the reception area you can view live rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, coral snakes and harmless rat snakes. A walk in the swamp sounded less and less attractive.
          From the cougar enclosure we drove through the arid grasslands enjoying the very rough scenery. Strewn about the field are old farm implements from a time when lumbermen and cattle ranchers had eked out a living in this rough, arid and very hot environment. I think they made people tougher in those days.
	The tour was coming to and end. The old brown bus chugged along through rough roads and finally returned us to the collection of wood huts in the reception area. We thanked Marilyn for her interesting tour. We were glad that we had come to view some of the last of old Florida in the wild. It had been well worth the trip.
	From the Babcock, ranch, we drove six miles North on Rte. #31 to rte. # 78 and followed it and rte #17 west to Rte. # 75 Northbound. We were headed north to exit #170, Lake Suzie.
        We followed the exit road east for about 6 miles until we saw the large sign for  the “Nav-A-Gator” restaurant at Peace River Rd. About a mile down Peace River Rd., on the banks of a small tributary of Lake Suzie, sits an old time fishing camp and restaurant named Nav-a-Gator." We had met proprietor Dennis Kirk on Cabbage Key one night and took up his invitation to have lunch at his place one day.
	The rough assemblage of small buildings surrounds an outdoor patio and stage area where rock music bands play almost daily, drawing crowds of listeners from many miles away. Inside the restaurant you come upon a comfortable bar area whose walls are lined with all manner on interesting bric a brac and curios. A signed portrait of President George Bush competes with small alligator skins, musical instruments, old nautical implements and any thing you can imagine along the walls and ceilings. Several score of signed dollar bills decorate the walls, like they do at the Cabbage Key Restaurant.
       We sat outside in the late afternoon sun and ordered up humongous fish fries and cold beer. It was decadent calorically but very tasty. We were much enjoying the caloric splurge.
	After our late lunch, we saddled up the chariot found Route #75 South and set the autopilot for Daniels Road in Fort Myers. It had been a long and interesting excursion into the passing wilds of what remains of “Old Florida.” We were glad that we had made the trip.

			   (2.130 words)’

                               Joseph Xavier Martin

			January, 2010

			Ft. Myers, Florida