Lake Wales Ridge is a sandy ribbon of land running north-south in the interior of central Florida. Thousands of years ago, when Florida was mostly underwater, this ridge – about 150 miles long – remained above water, leaving some plant and animal species to evolve in isolation.
Unlike coastal Florida, much of the ridge today is comparatively rural. I spent several hours a couple of days ago paddling Arbuckle Creek, a 23-mile-long stream near Sebring.
In an area of open ranch land, Arbuckle Creek is an oasis. In its upper reaches it is forested on both banks, thick with large bald cypress trees. (There is no mistaking the cypress; the base of the trunk is fan-shaped. They love to be at water’s edge.)
On this day at least, you’d never know – but for occasional signs on riverbank trees – that the east bank for some 10 miles is an installation called the Avon Park Air Force Range. You sometimes see it referred to as the Avon Park bombing range. I didn’t hear a peep from the range, parts of which are open to the public when the Air Force is not conducting missions.
Not only did I not hear anything from the Air Force installation, I didn’t hear much at all. Now and then a great blue heron saw me and took off, croaking as it went, as if annoyed I showed up. Kingfishers chattered by, as they do. The stream was otherwise quiet, peaceful, seeming more remote than it really is. Just what I had hoped for; a respite from the otherwise excessive noise we are forced to live with. Leaf blowers? Really?
A few hours of woods and water. Cathartic.
I put in at the Burnt Out Bridge Boat Launch, nicely designed for canoes, kayaks and small craft with plenty of parking, in the shade of trees no less. Just downriver I could see several fishermen in a small boat. As I launched my kayak, two men and a woman arrived with kayaks. They were the only people I would see on the river in more than two hours of paddling.
Birds were abundant; kingfishers, great egrets, tricolored herons, great blue herons, anhinga, little blue heron, limpkin, among others. I couldn’t come around a bend in the river – there are many – without flushing something. An alligator in the 5- to 7-foot class slipped from a muddy bank into the water and disappeared as I approached. I saw two other much smaller alligators.
I paddled upriver against a steady but manageable current, headed for Arbuckle Lake, about 2.5 miles away. The water is tea-colored, the surface flat, most of the creek shaded by the dense forest.
Wildflowers brightened the banks and shallows. Pickerelweed, with its purple spires rising amid big, almost-heart-shaped leaves, bloomed in a few colonies along the way. Several stands of string lily, with huge, showy white petals stood out in the dense, green shoreline vegetation.
I worked my way almost to Arbuckle Lake before turning around. With the current helping to carry me along, paddling almost effortlessly, as if a leaf on the water, I flushed egrets and herons one after another all the way back. No bombs. No leaf blowers. Cathartic.