MIAMI - It had been about eight years since I paddled and camped on central Florida’s scenic Arbuckle Creek, but on a return trip a few weeks ago, I was pleased to find it pretty much unchanged.
Even though my two friends and I didn’t paddle the entire 23 miles from Lake Arbuckle in Polk County south to Lake Istokpoga in Highlands County, we got a good taste of the creek’s scenic beauty and abundant wildlife - not to mention the livestock and some unexpected creatures that roam its banks.
We embarked in two gear-laden canoes at a boat ramp beside the bridge at Arbuckle Creek Road, and paddled downriver a couple of miles to a familiar campsite next to a cattle pasture. It was the same spot where several of us had camped during a rain-drenched 2004 adventure that featured a cacophonous chorus of crows pulling an all-nighter.
On this recent trip, however, we were lucky. No rain and - inexplicably - no crows. Nostalgically, we kind of missed them.
While setting up camp and building a fire, an airboat with three people passed by, one of the riders teasing us about making breakfast for them the following morning. Just before dark, three young guys in a canoe floated by and said they were planning to camp next to a railroad bridge several miles downstream. The appearance of other watercraft wasn’t surprising; this lower section of the creek is more heavily travelled than the upper region, which is adjacent to Avon Park Air Force Range. Still, there are no regular paddling outfitters on the creek, and I’ve never seen the waterway even close to congested in at least a half-dozen outings here.
A brief owl argument broke out in the trees above our campsite just as I retired, but the birds quickly settled their differences and remained silent throughout the night - much more civilized than their buddies, the missing crows.
We were awakened the next morning around dawn by lowing cattle grazing only about 50 feet from our outer two tents. When I climbed out and stared them down, the animals fled. (Hmm, that didn’t sound too good, but it worked.)
During breakfast, the airboaters and canoeists passed by once again. We didn’t offer to share our pancakes and bacon, and they knew better than to ask. After packing up our camping gear, we resumed the 10-mile paddle south to our take-out spot at Neibert’s Fishing Resort on U.S. 98 near Sebring, Fla.
Arbuckle Creek - like many of Florida’s freshwater streams and rivers - was experiencing low water levels from the region’s long-standing drought during our trip. In several spots, we had to get out of our canoes and drag them over sandbars to deeper water. Water levels are probably a bit higher today, but no matter - there’s always plenty of scenic greenery, wildflowers and wildlife to keep a paddler’s head swiveling.
Besides the typical fly-bys of hawks, ibis, cormorant and heron, we spotted a bald eagle cruising low over a pasture. It didn’t pause long enough for a photo.
Further downriver, we encountered a couple of small boats with fishermen and several more anglers casting lines from the banks.
In midafternoon, we came to Lakeview Stables - Sandy Tyrrell’s 40-acre ranch that offers everything from pony rides to pontoon boat rentals. In every float by Tyrrell’s property over the years, I have come upon some sort of exotic animal lounging on the creek bank, and this one was no exception. Tyrrell’s pet spider monkey, Sam, was keeping two youngsters company on a docked pontoon boat, but consented to pause for photos. Then, around the next bend stood three similarly photogenic llamas. After standing still for a photo or two, one of them lay down and began kicking up a huge dust cloud. We left.
Arriving at Neibert’s a short time later, we found the boat ramp busy, the bar full and the beer flowing freely. Nice to see that some things have not changed.