Land of the Lakes A Florida Road Trip

Why not Lakeland? I asked myself last month while trying to decide where to spend a few days of photographic getaway. Low Covid-19 infection numbers, few people, and lots of lakes and nature preserves – enough positives for me to chose it and embark on a new one-woman summer adventure.

Heading north from Naples, my first stop was the small town of Arcadia. Arcadia is known for its rich history of cattle raising, its large contingent of cowboys, or “Florida Crackers” as they are called here, and its annual rodeo. Arcadia is where the Old West meets the Old South. I have been to Arcadia a few times before and find it a very pleasant small town. Now I even have a favorite place there, “Martin’s Country Market”. In business for about two years, it is a deli/market/bakery/coffee shop in the old-fashioned style, run by Mennonites. I was so taken by it that I made a detour on the way home to have another coffee there.

Members of the Arcadia Mennonite Community

Driving north on Highway 17, you come through a string of small towns - Fort Meade, Zolfo Springs, Wauchula, Bowling Green, Bartow. Divers among you might recognize the first two names as they are well known among cave divers. Fort Meade in particular struck me as a place to visit sometime. Established during the Seminole wars in 1849, it is the oldest city in Polk County with about 6,000 inhabitants. Passing through, Fort Meade looked very inviting and charming and I hope I get a chance to revisit and spend some time there.

Much to my delight, I spotted Sandhill cranes along the side of the road. As a self-proclaimed "craniac", I had to stop and observe them. Florida Sandhill cranes prefer open prairie and farmlands, they don't migrate and live in Florida all year round. A saw several pairs foraging among herds of cattle. Sandhill cranes are very majestic and graceful birds. They are most known for their elaborate, synchronized mating dance. Once they decide on a partner, they mate for life.

Pairs of Florida Sandhill Cranes

Circle B Bar Reserve was high on my list of things to see in the Lakeland area. 1,200 acres of protected land, all filled with wildlife, sounded very promising to me. Situated on the northwest shore of Lake Hancock, the preserve is a former cattle ranch that today boasts several distinct ecosystems. You are guaranteed to see alligators, lots of them. The alligators have plenty to feed on as the area is considered one of the largest colonial wading bird rookeries in central Florida.

Scenes from Circle B Bar Reserve

Since 2008 the Circle B Bar Reserve is also part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, a network of 510 premier wildlife viewing sites across the state.

"Looking for a Date?" It is gator mating season and they are everywhere!

To me, the term “Old South” always brings up images of large oaks with branches full of Spanish moss and resurrection ferns. Resurrection ferns, in case you are not familiar with them, get their name from their ability to survive long droughts by curling up and appearing to be dead. But a tiny bit of moisture revives them, they uncurl and look vibrant.

The entrance to the Circle B is a long stretch of just these fabulous old oak trees. The size of the oaks, their twisted branches, and the green of the resurrection fern, is something so mystical and magical that I run out of words to describe it.

Live Oaks covered with Spanish Moss

As everything in nature serves multiple purposes, these oak hammocks are also habitat to wildlife, from insects to cavity nesters such as the great horned owl, as they provide shade and shelter during the heat of the day.

Hunting down Breakfast

I visited several lakes in the area, small and large, and all showed large colonies of birds. In fact, I saw significantly more birds there than I have ever seen in the Everglades. Maybe because the pythons haven't spread this far north? At any rate, plenty of lakes and stream seem to make for ample feeding and breeding opportunities.

At Lake Parker

One of my favorites among the birds is the anachronistic looking wood stork, one of Florida’s signature wading birds. Walking around Lake Morton, I had an opportunity for a stork close-up.

White Wood Stork

Mythologically revered, the white wood stork has been in Florida for millennia. As with all wildlife, its habitat is dwindling rapidly, and it is considered a threatened species. Thus, I was truly delighted when, driving on a highway in Polk County, I noticed that all lights on that particular stretch had been topped with discarded satellite dishes. A stork’s nest was in each one of them and the birds looked like proud penthouse owners. A brilliant idea and quite a sight, but there was no way to pull over safely to take a picture.

My road trips always turn out to be educational. This one made me more aware of the role the Peace River plays in Florida's ecosystem. At approx. 100 miles length, the Peace River flows from the south of Lake Hancock (the lake by Circle B Bar Reserve) to Punta Gorda and Charlotte Harbor at the West Coast of Florida.

Peace River Watershed (image on the right courtesy of Google)

Originally called Rio de la Paz by the Spanish, the Peace river is a giant drainage basin for West/Central Florida. It supplies over six million gallons per day of drinking water to the people in the region. It also ensures the abundant fishery and wildlife of Charlotte Harbor, thereby making Charlotte Harbor a popular settlement, from the time of the Calusa Indians until today.

"Eye to Eye" - Osprey and his catch. Leftovers from a previous meal are on the left side of the image.
The Corporate Ladder

Fresh water from the Peace River is vital to maintain the delicate salinity of the Charlotte Harbor estuary that hosts several endangered species, as well as commercial and recreational harvests of shrimp, crabs, and fish.

Standing in Lake Parker

The northern part of the Peace River basin – aptly named “Bone Valley” - is popular with fossil hunters who dig for shark’s teeth and prehistoric mammal bones. The fossils found in the Bone Valley are extremely well preserved due to the high phosphate content of the soil. Eventually, the fossil discoveries led to the creation of the phosphate mining industry in the 1960s in Florida - a boon for agriculture in Florida.

Today the mining industry in Florida has consolidated, and only Mosaic and PCS Phosphate are operating mines. As a side effect of all the mining and earth moving, the well-known golf resort “Streamsong” was created to cover a large retired potash mine.

Before you think that central Florida is all about water, nature, and agriculture, read on. Lakeland proudly hosts an architectural icon, a building by a world-famous architect. Sitting just outside Lakeland is the Florida Polytechnic University. A white UFO that landed and decided to stay – so it seems to me. Certainly, an extravagant looking building in the middle of Florida farmland.

The Spaceship

Spanish star architect Santiago Calatrava (yes, the one that also designed the famous Oculus in NYC, among many other landmarks), was entrusted with the design and the building was completed in 2015. It is the main campus building and houses, among many other things, the completely digital library for the university.

The building has a pergola of lightweight aluminum trellis wrapping its exterior. The pergola not only adds character but reduces the solar load on the building by 30%. In addition, the roof includes 94 robotic louvers that move according to the sunlight.

Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, no access to the inside of the building and construction work on the outside made for only one viewing angle.

Florida Polytechnic University

Another architectural landmark in Lakeland is Florida Southern College with 13 structures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is on my agenda for the next trip.

Elegance in Motion

The strong black and almost architectural symmetry of the above image segways the story back to nature. To include more landscape and animals on my way home, I took another scenic route, Route 37 via Mulberry (home of the Phosphate Museum), and passing Streamsong Resort (a former Mosaic mine). Beautiful sights! Cattle ranches, farmland, orange groves, tomato fields – quiet country living. I could move there.

Peace River near Brownsville

All images by Hilda Champion unless indicated otherwise. Thank you to my talented writer friend Carlene Thissen for error checking.

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