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Paddling through cattle country on Lake Arbuckle

Aaron Freedman, left, and George Stovall try to lug their sea kayaks through a hyacinth jam on Arbuckle Creek, which runs through Central Florida’s cattle country.
Published Dec. 21, 2013

LAKE ARBUCKLE

The water looked deceptively peaceful on the calm November morning. Wading birds fed among the hyacinth. A pair of horses drank in the shallows. Then I noticed a bright red scar on one of the animals' bellies.

"Looks like something ripped a chunk of flesh out of that one," my friend George Stovall said, pointing to the injured animal. "Bet a gator got it."

My eyes instantly scanned the surface for the telltale wake of a big bull alligator moving in for the kill. If a reptile is big enough to take on a horse, it wouldn't think twice about dining on an outdoors writer in a flimsy fiberglass sea kayak.

Arbuckle Creek, the wild waterway that links this lake with another called Istokpoga, flows for more than 25 miles through the heart of Florida's cattle country. It's like nothing you see living on the coast. It's Cracker country, where cowboys still roam.

You won't find much written about the creek, and it's not on many paddlers' must-do lists. But for me and my buddies, any opportunity to get away from cellphones and computers is worth it, even if it means you have to sleep in a swamp.

The first 10 miles or so of the creek flow along the western edge of the Avon Park Air Force Bombing Range. We pulled up at the base gate and asked if we could use an empty, state-of-the art boat ramp next door, but we were turned away.

So we launched at an old trailer park a hundred yards up the road, where we found the lucky horse and nice old lady who wondered why a group of grown men would head down a gator-filled creek in such tiny boats.

"Adventure," I told her.

And that's probably what drove the old cow men who first explored this area nearly 200 years ago. Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon is said to have introduced horses and cows in 1521 on his second trip to La Florida. Nobody knows what happened to the seven Andalusian cattle that made that trip, but judging from the size of the reptiles living along what the Indians called Weokufka, or "muddy water," I'd bet a few ended up as gator chow.

One would think that with such an abundant food supply, the alligators would have little use for kayakers.

Then I remembered that Far Side cartoon where two alligators are chilling out on a river bank next to an overturned kayak. One alligator says to the other: "That was incredible. No fur, claws, horns, antlers, or nothin' … just soft and pink."

It must have been a constant source of concern for those old cowpokes who ran their doggies along the creek's banks, I thought, as we left the cypress swamp and emerged onto the grass prairies that drew the first cattlemen to this area.

The ranchers in this section of the state still work the land the way their fathers and grandfathers did. The creek, which is no wider than 30 feet in most places, has few access points. Once you start paddling, there are few signs of civilization, other than the omnipresent "no trespassing" signs that seem to be posted on trees every few hundred yards.

Many of the old paddling books mention Arbuckle Creek and the great camping that can be found among the hardwood hammocks that line both banks. Obviously, there has been a change in landowner temperament, probably because one too many visitors failed to clean up their mess.

But Arbuckle Creek's remoteness — it's located near Sebring but gets little boat traffic — has helped keep it pristine.

We passed a couple of houses, remnants of an old railroad bridge and some feeding troughs for the cows. There's an old manmade levee that runs along the west side of the creek, which could not have been good for the natural water flow.

"Looks like we hit a dead end," I said after we rounded a bend and came upon a hyacinth jam that looked like it stretched for a mile.

At first, we tried to plow through it, but after 100 feet or so, we backed out and looked for another route.

So we paddled upstream and followed the other shoreline until we came to another wall of weeds.

"Heck with it," I said, climbing out of my kayak into the waist-deep water. "I think we are going to have to walk."

It's hard not to feel vulnerable wading through water where you can't see the bottom. With each step, I dreaded stepping on a snake, but honestly, my biggest fear was leeches crawling up my shorts.

After 15 minutes or so, we found clear water, hopped back in the kayaks and headed down the creek. Eventually the creek opened up and we made good headway, so we passed our takeout point at the fish camp south of U.S. 98 and kept going to Istokpoga, which is Seminole for "dangerous waters."

The wind had picked up and the waves were building, making this normally sheltered body of water look more like Tampa Bay than a lake in Central Florida. So I paddled to the shore and nestled my kayak into some tall grass.

Then I heard something big and heavy moving through the vegetation.

"Uh-oh," I thought.

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