Wauchula, FL - Events of Friday, August 3, 2018
We spent most of the first week back at the Co-op after our 2½-week trip to Pittsburgh and to Ohio's Amish Country catching up with things like grocery shopping, grass mowing, and other chores. We took time out on Friday, however, because it was a special day. It was our 50th wedding anniversary.
We decided to celebrate our anniversary by taking a day trip to visit Babcock Ranch Preserve in Punta Gorda, Florida, which is a little over an hour from the Co-op. Babcock Ranch, also known as the Crescent B Ranch, was a tract of over 91,000 acres that was purchased in 1914 by Edward V. Babcock.
Edward Babcock, who was a lumber baron, used the land in Florida for cutting timber and for agriculture. He also has a Pittsburgh connection because he founded Babcock Lumber Company in our old hometown of Pittsburgh in the late 1880s. He was also Mayor of Pittsburgh from 1918 to 1922.
Edward Babcock spent little time in Florida. By the 1930s, his son Fred, who loved Florida, was managing the property on site. When Fred died in 1997, the Babcock family attempted to sell the land to the state. Florida wanted the land in order to help establish a conservation corridor from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf Coast. This area is important environmentally because it supplies water to the western part of the Everglades.
In order to lessen tax liabilities, the family wanted to sell the land to the state by means of a stock transfer, but the state's constitution prohibited it from purchasing stock from a private company. When negotiations between the family and the state ended in 2005, the family began to seek private buyers. Fortunately, they found a real estate developer who purchased the land (presumably by means of the stock transfer) then turned around and sold 74,000 of the 91,000-acre tract (80%) to the state creating Babcock Ranch Preserve. The development company is using the land they retained to build a planned community called Babcock Ranch.
From what we can tell, the community of Babcock Ranch will be much like The Villages except it will apparently have less emphasis on golf and more emphasis on high tech and energy efficiency. They will supply some of their own electricity with their own solar power plant. Like The Villages, Babcock Ranch will be made up of a number of smaller neighborhoods each with housing at different price levels. Also like The Villages, there will be shopping, office space, light industry, a hospital, public areas, schools, and entertainment venues.
Anyway, enough about the community of Babcock Ranch and about the history of the ranch itself. We were interested in taking an eco tour of Babcock Ranch Preserve. The preserve is administered by the Florida Forest Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, but the tours are conducted by a private company in cooperation with the state. The address for the tours is 8000 State Route 31, Punta Gorda, which is located about 15 miles east of the city as the crow flies. Tours depart every half hour from 9:30 am until 2:00 pm at a cost of $23 for adults and $22 for seniors.
Putting the above address into your GPS will get you to the approximate location of the turnoff from SR 31, but the actual starting point of the tours is down a narrow road a little over 2 miles to the east of that turnoff. Paul was just beginning to question if we missed the place or if we were even on the right road when we saw a sign that said "almost there." After about another quarter mile, we finally arrived. We parked and headed to the visitor center to check in.
The eco tours are given aboard so-called "swamp buggies," which are actually converted school buses.
We noticed when we first arrived there weren't many cars in the parking lot, and most of them were at the end where there was a sign for the start of a hiking trail. It turned out we were the only ones there for the 10:30 tour. It was great having a private tour because we could ask all the questions we wanted, and we could move from one side of the bus to the other to get a better view.
Shortly after the tour started, we came to our first of many alligators. The 'gator wasn't very big (maybe about 3'). The 'gator is a little hard to make out, but its scaly back is in the center of the picture and its head extends off to the left and is partially obscured by plants.
The preserve is operated as a unique public-private partnership that uses income from eco-tourism and its ongoing logging, farming, and ranching operations to sustain itself. The preserve is made up of diverse habitats including scrub flats, pine forests, marshes, cypress swamps, prairies, and hardwood hammocks (a hammock is a tract of land that rises above the surrounding wetlands).
With all the marshes and ponds, we saw surprisingly few wading birds, namely a few snowy egrets. We also saw one anhinga perched atop a dead tree.
Although the preserve is home to a wide variety of wildlife, we didn't see that much of it. They did tell us there is usually much more wildlife in winter when water levels are lower. The tour guides are able to attract some wildlife because they carry buckets of corn to use as handouts. The first of the beggars were white tail deer.
They saw us coming and meandered in our direction as the tour guide dumped some corn out onto the ground, but they kept their distance until the bus had started to move on.
Less wary were the feral pigs. They charged right up to the bus and waited for the corn.
The cattle were even more demanding. Several of them put their noses all the way into the bus through the open door and one even started climbing up the steps.
The cattle are "cracker" cattle whose lineage goes back to the time of the arrival of Ponce de Leon in the early 1500s. These cattle were brought in by the Spanish and adapted well to the heat of Florida. "Cracker" is the name given to Florida cowboys, who were more properly called cow hunters, because of the cracks of their whips as they drove the cattle.
Back in the day, the small town of Rouxville (population 200) was a logging town that supported Babcock Ranch. The commissary, which still stands, had a company store and a doctor who also served as a barber... or was it the other way around?
Next to the commissary was a pond with a resident 3-foot alligator.
After passing the commissary, the road crosses a fast-moving creek. They always say don't drive through water where you can't see the bottom, but the driver was obviously familiar with the route and charged right in.
When the bus was mid-stream, we could see the remnants of an old railroad trestle out the right side. The railroad ran right through the ranch and was important for getting logs to market.
Most of the second half of the tour was through a cypress swamp... and we do mean through the swamp. The bus was in the water up to its axles most of the way.
Cypress trees are conifers that grow in or near water. They have buttress roots at the base to help support the trees in the wet soil, and the roots have projections called knees that stick up out of the water so the roots can get air.
The red-brown color of the water is due to tannin. The tannin comes from leaves and organic matter that fall into the water and break down.
Near the end of the tour, the driver stopped the bus on Alligator Bridge where we watched about half a dozen alligators in the water below.
The driver got out and came back with a baby 'gator. At first we thought she picked it out of the water, but she admitted it came from a holding tank mounted on the back of the bus. When it gets a little bigger, they will release it.
From Alligator Bridge it was a short drive back to the visitor center where there is a small museum with early artifacts from the ranch. Adjacent to the visitor center is the Gator Shack Restaurant that serves ribs, east Carolina-style pulled pork, various kinds of seafood, and alligator (tastes like chicken).
Back at the visitor center there was also there was a taxidermy display of Lulu the three-horned cow. She was born on Babcock Ranch in 1967. She had 18 calves, all of which were two-horned.
The tours are led by the driver and a spotter who helps look for and points out wildlife. Both were excellent and very knowledgeable. We thoroughly enjoyed our eco tour of Babcock Ranch.
We do have one caution regarding the tour, however. The roads are very rough so you may not want to take the tour if you have severe back or neck problems.
After looking around the visitor center a while, we hopped in the car and headed to our next stop. We'll tell you about it in our next post.