Known as the “spine” of Florida and stretching 100 miles from Orlando down to Lake Okeechobee, the Lake Wales Ridge is home to endangered animals and exceptional plants that exist in few other places in the world. It also happens to run right through Creek Ranch, and so allows us and our guests an interesting peek – from our own backyard – of one of the country’s most unique ecosystems.
Once a collection of high elevation sand dunes within the Atlantic Ocean, the Lake Wales Ridge was slowly revealed as 2 million years of receding water uncovered what is today the state of Florida. The resulting lakes constitute the Florida Chain of Lakes – of which our own Lake Hatch is a part – and have helped make Florida as celebrated for freshwater bass fishing and boating as it is. As is evident even on Creek Ranch, where land near the lake is lush but a significant part of the landscape too is arid, the Ridge features an singular ecological habitat defined by dry Florida scrub.
Only between four and ten miles wide at any given point, the Ridge is the highest part of the state. Isolated as it was for so long, plant and animal species evolved here that exist nowhere else. The Florida Scrub Jay, for example, which has been in Florida for two million years as a distinct species and which cannot be found anywhere else in the world, makes its home in the scrub lupine and scrub mint of Lake Wales Ridge. The gopher tortoise, sand skink, burrowing owl, Osceola turkey and eastern indigo snake also make their homes in the low brush of the scrub.
In the face of land development, the growth of the citrus industry and the expansion of Florida tourism, the preservation of this unique area has become of utmost importance. A number of state, federal and private projects have been undertaken to preserve and restore the ecosystem. The Lake Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge, for example, maintains protected lands that are not open to the public.
As important as the Ridge’s protection is a lot of emphasis is also placed on its enjoyment. A series of state and federal land tracts have been apportioned as hiking trails so that environmentally conscious visitors may experience the distinctive habitat. Although it is prohibited during hunting season, a wonderful way to enjoy the Ridge is by horseback. Our favorite way to explore, take photos, and spot Florida Scrub Jay’s, though, is, of course, by starting from our own porch with some hiking boots and a private guide. Board the swamp buggy for an unforgettable trip to a land that, in many ways, time has forgotten.
Spring in Florida means many things: warm waters, baseball season, spring break trips and… foraging! Yep, Central Florida is home to hundreds of edible herbs, shrubs and berries that can be eaten raw, turned into salads, cooked for jams (or pies!) or added to spring recipes. Here at Creek Ranch we use local and seasonal ingredients whenever possible, and this is about as local as it gets, so we’re putting on our adventure boots and getting ready to go search in our own backyard.
Below is a list of ten edible plants that grow wild throughout the area, and some interesting ways you can enjoy them. Do be careful when out foraging on your own, though, as there are just as many inedible plants out there to keep an eye on. Many plants can have toxic effects, so we highly recommend that you rely on an experienced botanist or naturalist to help you identify plants before pursuing this on your own. We’ve also included some popular and easy ways to prepare these Florida plants, but take caution when utilizing them in other ways; when prepared incorrectly, some of these edible plants can actually become poisonous.
1. Dandelion: With deep saw-toothed leaves and yellow flowers on a single stem, these are not just weeds!
How to use it: In salads, cooked as a vegetable or made into a tea, wine, or soda. The flowers can also be dipped in batter and fried for a snack.
2. Sea Grapes: Dark red or purple grapes that grow on small trees or large shrubs. The leaves are thick and heart-shaped and flowers grow in clusters.
How to use it: Make grape jelly! Wash the fruit and remove the stems and leaves. Pour 4 cups through a cloth jelly bag; put the juice in a saucepan, add 4 cups sugar and stir continually. Bring to a boil to 228°F. Pour into sterilized jelly jars and seal.
3. Red Mulberry: Dark purple oblong clusters of fruit 1-2” long that grow on trees up to 40’ tall.
How to use it: Eat them fresh! But for the more ambitious amongst you, here’s a recipe for mulberry pie from “Living off the Land and Wild Edibles” but Marian Van Atta: One baked 9” pie crust, 4 c. stemmed mulberries, ¼ c. cornstarch, ¾ c. sugar, ½ c. water, 2 T. lemon or lime juice. Add sugar to mulberries in a saucepan. Mix cornstarch with water. Add to berries. Add juice. Cook over medium heat until mixture thickens and juice becomes clear. Pour into pie shell and bake.
4. Yucca: Cylinder shaped fruit about 5” long with purple skin that grow on tall shrubs about 25” feet tall with dark green dagger-like leaves. Yucca plant flowers are white and waxy, a bit like tulips.
How to use it: As chips. The fruit itself is edible, but can be bitter. Remove the bitter center and the flowers can be used in salads, or wrap the fruit in foil and bake for 30 minutes, then serve with butter, salt and pepper.
5. Dewberry: Just like blackberries, these brambly berries are black and grow in clusters. The stems have thorns and they grow along the ground. Harvest time is mid to late summer.
How to use it: Fresh; in jam; in pies. Or, use the leaves in tea. Steep a handful of fresh dewberry leaves in 2 cups of water for 10 minutes, strain into cups and add honey.
6. Sunchoke (A.K.A. Jerusalem Artichokes): These tubers have daisy-like yellow flowers and tall shrubs (up to 8 feet tall!)
How to use it: Originally a food of trade for Native Americans, sunchokes can used as a potato substitute, eaten raw, pickled, or incorporated into salads.
7. Cranberry Hibiscus: A colorful plant with deep purple colored, maple-like leaves, the hibiscus produces beautiful red flowers.
How to use it: Steep the flowers to make a hot tea, or let it cool, blend it with ice, sugar, lemon and lime, to make a hibiscus lemonade.
8. Elderberry: These small black berries grow on large shrubs with white flowers. Elderberries provide high levels of potassium and beta carotene, as well as vitamin C.
How to use it: Elderberries and Elderflowers are both edible, but best when cooked or dried. The flowers can be battered and fried, made into wine or tea, while the berries are perfect for jam or added to baked goods.
9. India Lettuce: Tall lettuce that grows upward on a stalk in part shade, India Lettuce is high in anti-oxidants and vitamin C.
How to use it: Raw, steamed, or added to soups or salads.
10. Arrowroot: Another tuber that grows in the shade, they grow to be about the size of a narrow sweet potato.
How to use it: While the powder is a natural thickening agent for cooking, you can also just cook this root vegetable like a sweet potato, or in a soup. It can also be candied!
Home to Major League Baseball spring training for 125 years now, Florida welcomes teams each February and March to practice for regular season play in sunny Florida weather.
Each of the fifteen teams in Florida’s Grapefruit League has its own spring training facilities somewhere in the state and spends the six-week pre-season traveling to others to compete. The games are open to the public, of course, and each year more than 1.5 million baseball fans come out to support their favorite teams and scout out their rivals.
Lucky for us at Creek Ranch, three of those teams practice and play 30-60 minutes away. The Atlanta Braves and the Houston Astros both call Kissimmee home for the spring, while the Detroit Tigers play in nearby Lakeland. With games generally beginning in the early afternoon, we think America’s Pastime is the perfect way to spend the day before returning to the Ranch for an evening horseback ride or sunset fishing outing.
See the following links for game schedules:
Photo Credit: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/baseball/2003/spring_training/camp_sites/
Widely considered to be the largemouth fishing capital of the world, Central Florida stands out for the balance it offers anglers of both challenge and reward. For trophy fisherman, mild temperatures and short winters make waters fishable even in November, December and January, when fishing in other parts of the United States can be somewhat futile.
The area, while an original environment for the species, owes the quality and abundance of the fish in part to a late 19th century initiative by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stock fresh waters. Fishing for sport grew in popularity throughout the 20th century as the Department taught farmers to stock ponds and access to the fish increased. Now a multi-billion dollar industry, largemouth bass fishing enjoys an entire culture surrounding it, its own celebrity anglers, televised tournaments and a fantasy league.
If the area of Central Florida is lauded as the largemouth bass fishing capital of the world, then the waters surrounding Creek Ranch, namely the Kissimmee Lake Chain, is its epicenter. Ranked 21 on the list of 100 best bass lakes in the U.S. by Bassmaster Magazine last year, the 80,000 acres of fishable waters form the labyrinthine headwaters of the Everglades and provide some of the best adventure fishing that there is.
Famed Lake Toho (short for Tohopekalgia), for example, in Kissimmee, offers more 10+ pound bass than any lake elsewhere in the country. It is responsible for award winning angler Dean Rojas’s 2001 Bassmaster Top 150 record of catching five largemouth bass weighing a total of 108 pounds. Lake Toho hosted the 2006 Bassmaster Classic while Celebration, Florida, hosted the Bassmaster Elite in 2012 and nearby Lake Okeechobee (number two on Bassmaster Magazine’s top 100 list) regularly hosts some of the world’s biggest bass tournaments throughout the whole year.
Creek Ranch’s own Lake Hatchineha is, however, our favorite fishing destination. Halfway between Lake Kissimmee and Lake Toho, Lake Hatch accounts for 6,665 of those fishable waters and is itself a site of the Bassmaster Citrus Slam tournament. The perfect blend of stunning natural beauty and big fish potential, it is hailed for its approachability. As professional angler Frank Scalish once said, “Lake Hatch is my confidence lake.”
Photo Credit: http://www.visitcentralflorida.org/
While renovating Creek Ranch in 2010 we unearthed some wonderful old black and white photographs from the ‘60s. With the perfect pang of nostalgia, we flipped through images of the old bunkhouse, the pool, Lake Hatch, and the pastures. Before the bullpen, the kids built tree forts, and before airboats the more adventurous adults swam right in Lake Hatch, but a few things seem hardly to have changed at all. The orange groves continue to thrive, our horses still run the show, and the majestic cypress trees still reign over it all.
Below, find some of our favorite peeks into life on the Ranch fifty years ago.
The pool deck, looking just as refreshing on a hot summer day as it does now, shown here with a curious pup and a rather uncertain diver.
Lovers Lane, Florida style, with cypress trees sheltering the path.
Creek Ranch’s original rough riders, circa 1966.
Still a working cattle ranch today, our cowboys have managed the herd and the property for generations.
At first a pragmatic way to cope with the difficult waters and terrain of the Florida Everglades, airboats are now used for fishing, hunting, transportation, general wildlife management, and, increasingly, recreation.
Famed inventor Alexander Graham Bell created the very first airboat at his Nova Scotia lab in 1905. The “Ugly Duckling” was built by Bell and his engineering team as a tool for testing the engine configuration of small vehicles. Fifteen years later, the boat made its way south when a colleague of Bell’s registered the “Curtis Scooter” in Florida to navigate the marshy shallow areas of the Florida Everglades.
The modern airboat is made from aluminum and fiberglass, but the original design is still very much intact with the boat’s elevated seats and mounted engine on the back. In the Everglades, where a standard outboard engine with a submerged propeller would never withstand the mud and marsh, the airboat, with its caged propeller and flat bottom, is the perfect answer. It skims cleanly along the surface of the water at speeds up to 50 mph.
Now just as much a vehicle for play as for work, the airboat is so embedded into the culture of Central Florida that there are even several magazines dedicated to it. Airboating races are held each year as well as a boat show exclusively for airboats and airboat parts. Even in pop culture have airboats gained notoriety with TV shows like “Miami Vice” and “CSI Miami” featuring the dramatic use of the boats in Everglades investigations.
Our very own airboat, with its 6-cylinder Continental aircraft engine, is an ever-enjoyable means to traverse Lake Hatch. While you may not help catch criminals, sitting high above the water you’ll certainly catch glimpses of bass, cypress trees, water birds like white egrets, and maybe, if you’re lucky, even an American alligator.
One of the most undeniably entertaining parts of a visit to Creek Ranch is the adventure of riding in a swamp buggy. A long-standing local tradition, swamp buggy excursions allow a much more intimate glimpse at the flora and fauna that define the Ranch.
The all-purpose vehicle, used in the area to navigate through the boggy terrain of the Everglades, was originally invented to make hunting in the muddy swamps easier. Created around 1920 by Naples, Florida local Ed Frank, the first swamp buggy was largely recycled Ford Model T parts and featured an upturned orange box for a seat.
It became more refined throughout the 20s and 30s, though, ultimately featuring dual rear wheels, upside-down axles for more room to clear cypress stumps, and double-lined tires to protect the wheels and provide better traction.
At first strictly utilitarian, the swamp buggy was essential during the development of the Everglades throughout the 1930s and 1940s. As an editorial in the Collier County News, a Naples based newspaper, said, “[swamp buggies] are as important to Florida as the cow pony is to the West, in that they are the only practical means of transportation once off the main road.” Used later for hunting, Florida legend goes that all of the area cracker cowboys would spend the week leading up to hunting season outfitting their swamp buggies. With room for food, fuel and extra ammo, swamp buggies allowed for rugged hunting expeditions that lasted several weeks.
Soon thereafter, the potential for competition was realized and the swamp buggy was reappropriated as a tool for sport with the first races being held on a particularly muddy potato farm in 1943. The 40s and 50s saw the growth of swamp buggy racing, with rewards growing and events ultimately being shown on national television. Winners generally receive a cash prize now, as the motorsport has gained enormous notoriety in Florida in recent years. There is even a swamp buggy queen crowned each year!
Here at the Ranch, it’s less competitive and more an alternate way to enjoy nature. Sitting up high and without limitation of where we can go on the Ranch to see white tailed deer, groves of cypress trees and nests of bald eagles, it allows us to spend as much time as possible “off the main road.”