It was a very French, déjà vu sort of experience. Stands to reason, since we weren't far from the Riviera. Well, the Redneck Riviera, as this part of Florida's often...
WAKULLA SPRINGS STATE PARK, Fla. It was a very French, déjà vu sort of experience. Stands to reason, since we weren’t far from the Riviera. Well, the Redneck Riviera, as this part of Florida’s often called.
A few days earlier we’d taken the Jungle Cruise at Walt Disney World, downstate in Orlando. Saw the scary hippos at the side of our boat. Flinched at the giant python. Offered apt groans to our guide’s millionth telling this year, probably of the joke about crocodiles “always looking for a hand out.”
It was, of course, all animatronic danger. And being one of Disney’s vintage rides, it wasn’t even particularly great animatronics.
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Now here we were a half-day’s drive away, on the panhandle 15 miles south of Tallahassee, on another jungle cruise. Once again, we rode in a little boat with a canopy, its rows of seats filled with eager tourists with cameras ready. One big difference: As we putt-putted out onto the placid waters of the Wakulla River, fed by more than a quarter-million gallons per minute of crystal-clear water flowing from a nearby spring, real creatures watched us with bulging and baleful eyes.
That was a change from Disney. Something else wasn’t:
“Keep your hands inside the boat, because the alligators are always looking for a hand out!” quipped Jason Vickery, our guide and pilot.
A Florida State Parks ranger, you might think he’d be more serious about natural history. Naw. He knew all the Disney jokes. (And more: “The gators like to eat the turtles; they’re like M&Ms: crunchy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside.”)
We were soon to witness a real difference in this jungle cruise, though the kind of thing that sets Donald Duck apart from anything in the Audubon guide.
As the boat meandered near a gator basking by the waterlogged roots of a cypress with Spanish moss hanging all over it like yesterday’s wash, Vickery pointed out some small, red-beaked waterfowl called common moorhens. Their heads wobbled like a bobblehead doll’s as they picked their way among the tree roots.
“Around here people call ’em pond chickens,” Vickery drawled. “Not only do they look, act and sound like chickens they kind of taste like ’em, too!”
As if on cue, to prove the point, the alligator suddenly lunged at one of the birds. And snapped right on target.
Our boatload of tourists watched wide-eyed as the gator’s long jaws chomped up and down on his own Pond Chicken McNugget. Yikes, it was natural selection at work natural selection of what’s for lunch!
Like a car alarm triggered by a rumbling truck, a moorhen a few feet away set up a heartbreaking squawk. Around our little boat, moms and dads from Ohio, somebody’s aunt from Duluth, and a couple of school kids from Alabama winced and looked at each other as reality sank in.
“He got Pa!” someone deadpanned, as if quoting the bereft bird.
Another companion piped up with a mimicking, “Missed me! Missed me!”
“It was probably the bird’s mate,” someone else said soberly, putting a bullet to the jokes.
Getting munched never happens at Disney. It was a reminder that, as the Florida State Parks motto says, this is “the real Florida.”
This was a trip designed to contrast the two Floridas the real and not-so-real within a few hours of easily reached Orlando.
First stop: the world of Mickey Mouse and Michael Eisner, where the only time anything really gets in your face is when you put on 3-D glasses. Fun, fun, fun. Fake, fake, fake.
Next, the ya’ll-drawling, Spanish-mossy world of Forrest Gump from just over yonder in Alabama and Stephen Foster. Foster’s Suwannee River of song flows into the Gulf of Mexico not too far from Wakulla Spring’s real-things-that-eat-each-other.
Northern Florida knows how to do swamp. In fact, the horror classic “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” and a couple of Tarzan movies were filmed at Wakulla Springs. (“There’s the bent palm tree Johnny Weissmuller stood on,” Vickery pointed out.)
Nearby is a vast expanse called Tate’s Hell Swamp, named for a farmer who chased a panther in and never came out. A guidebook calls it “a breeding ground for the deadly water moccasin snake, and gung-ho locals sometimes venture into the swamp hoping to catch a few snakes to sell to less reputable zoos; you’re well advised to stay clear.”
The spring is also a few minutes from the Gulf Coast, along a stretch known among promoters as the Forgotten Coast of Florida. In Franklin County (pop. 11,200), where we rented a beach cottage on Alligator Point, that meant no traffic signals probably the only Florida county without one. No McDonald’s. No high-rise hotels.
Through the Internet, we rented a beach cottage named Twisted Pine. It perched lazily on stilts on a white sand beach surrounded by undeveloped state park land. The front deck was within a tobacco spit of the water.
In the warm season, you can swim with dolphins here. In the cooler season when we visited, Twisted Pine was a front-row seat for storm watching. One day, we started to wonder if a relentless, window-pummeling storm had a name.
But it blew over and the sun came out next morning. It was part of a fun weekend with a family of longtime friends who drove down from their Alabama home.
We didn’t realize just how remote Alligator Point was until we picked up the cottage key from the rental agent. Along with the key she handed over a sheet of information on how to avoid disturbing the endangered sea turtles that nest in the sand.
“There are three nests on the beach and right now is when they’re hatching, so just turn off the outside lights after dark so the baby turtles aren’t confused and come toward the light,” Joelea Pinson told us in a gentle voice with vowels soft as August butter.
“You’re going to see a real piece of old Florida,” the cottage’s wildly mustachioed owner, Tim Jordan, had promised when we booked.
A provisioning stop at the little market in nearby Panacea, Fla., was a tip-off that he wasn’t talking through his grits. In the breakfast-food aisle, no Mrs. Butterworth’s for our pancakes. Instead we picked up a bottle of Daddy Buck’s Butter-Maple Syrup, proudly made by the J.C. Lyle Co. of Ochlocknee, Ga. A little girl with curly hair and a frilly blouse smiled from the label next to the words, “Since 1956.”
We plopped that in our rickety cart next to a packet of Leroy Hill Gourmet Coffee from Mobile, Ala., emblazoned with the slogan, “It’ll get cha goin’.”
“They’re like products that would sponsor ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ ” my wife hissed as our cart wobbled up a narrow aisle. “They’re probably the same people who make Powder Milk Biscuits!”
Signs of nature’s wrath
Miles beyond town, the road dead-ended at water’s edge, beyond which a long-ago hurricane had reclaimed the asphalt in the name of the Gulf of Mexico. Tire ruts continued through snowy sand to our cottage. Out front stood a large, misshapen pine, kept company by two stunted palms, a little grove of live oaks and a shaggy carpet of emerald palmetto.
Adirondack chairs dotted a wraparound deck. Under the house a screened-off shower offered steaming hot water for fresh-air bathing. From the living room, we watched fishermen stand for hours in the low surf, some tossing nets to catch bait fish.
Rain-soaked walks punctuated the lazy weekend, along with discoveries on the beach of leathery, hatched turtle eggs the size of ping-pong balls. The kids poked sticks at platoons of ghost crabs that bivouacked in half-dollar-sized holes in the sand. We built a sand castle. (Florida’s powdery sand packed well into buckets and held its shape nicely.)
Back in the cottage were board games and a CD player. Dinner included mounds of sweet Appalachicola Bay shrimp from a roadside stand. Nobody went thirsty: Our friends brought a powdered mix for sweet rum drinks called Hurricanes, which could blow anybody away.
At night, Lilliputian frogs clung to the outside of our windows and peeped in as we played long games of charades.
In the next day’s sunshine, a short drive to Bald Point State Park rewarded us with a stroll through purple and yellow wildflowers that attracted hordes of tangerine-colored butterflies, frequent fall visitors on this migratory flyway to South Florida and Latin America.
Precious coastal memories
Journal entries by Twisted Pine’s previous guests spoke of dolphins coming in to feed near the beach. Of shark sightings. Of kids catching catfish and a 4-foot ray. Angelo’s on nearby Ochlockonee Bay was the preferred restaurant for grouper chowder, hushpuppies and Key lime pie.
Martha and Walter of Knoxville, Tenn., wrote, “This year’s highlight was sitting under the stars watching the loggerhead turtle nest hatch, which it did on the morning of the Feast Day of St. Francis.”
Another guest, recalling a kayak trip on a nearby river, quoted naturalist John Muir’s journal from a trip across Florida: “I thank the Lord with all my heart for his goodness in granting me admission to this magnificent realm.”
The next day, our friends headed home to Montgomery. We drove back to Orlando for the flight home.
Back in Disney country, we checked into a Ramada in the “new city” of Celebration, Fla., a planned community founded by Disney just a decade ago with hopes of putting the stamp of zip-a-dee-doo-dah on a real town. On its busy main drag, the garish neon of hotel and restaurant signs and a skyscraping crane used for bungee jumping overshadowed Uncle Walt’s purple lampposts and quirky street signs. It didn’t take long for the pizazz of new Florida to blot out the serenity of the old.
But back on Alligator Point, the turtles were still hatching. The butterflies were still flocking, as they have for as long as Florida’s been Florida.
No doubt we’ll do Disney again. But for a few days, at least, we’d found another Florida worth remembering.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or email@example.com