I combined two of my sweet spots on Saturday: A paddle in a nice place and a visit to an offbeat festival. And because this was all in rural south-central Florida I was even on some roads I’d never traveled before, a bonus sweet spot.
I carpooled up there with Leslie, the paddling friend who accompanied my on my moose search in New Hampshire last summer.
The paddle was at Arbuckle Creek, a picturesque, 25-mile-long water trail connecting Lake
Arbuckle to the much larger Lake Istokpoga near the town of Avon Park.
Much of it borders the vast Avon Park Air Force Bombing Range (don’t go ashore on the east side of the creek and you’ll be fine). There’s also a state prison complex at the bombing range, so don’t pick up any human hitchhikers along the creek.
We drifted leisurely downstream about 3.5 miles to a boat ramp/picnic stop at East Arbuckle Road and then paddled north back to our start, where Lake Arbuckle feeds into the creek. My only do-over would be to start at the downstream end next time so the leisurely drifting part is on the home stretch.
Part of the Kissimmee River watershed, the lake and the creek probably get their names from Fort Arbuckle, one of several forts built across central Florida by the U.S. Army in the middle 1800s. The fort was named after General Matthew Arbuckle. Oddly enough, there is no town called Arbuckle in Florida. There is one in California though.
We encountered no bombs or hitchhikers on the paddle, but saw lots of wildlife and a guy doing pistol target practice behind the one house we saw along the way. It was a pleasant, shady and lazy way to spend a few Saturday hours.
After that it was off to the 51st Annual Swamp Cabbage Festival in LaBelle, FL. It was a bit of a detour from a more direct ride home, but what’s a route without a meander?
If this event were to be held on ultra-ritzy island of Palm Beach it would likely be called the Hearts of Palm Parade and Gala. But it’s in very rural LaBelle, a town of 4,500 folks in the southwestern part of the state. The settlement was named for Laura June Hendry and Carrie Belle Hendry, daughters of pioneer cattleman Francis Asbury Hendry, for whom the county it is the seat of is named.
So it’s called Swamp Cabbage, a cracker name for the Florida state tree, the sabal palm. It is also known as the palmetto, sabal palmetto and the cabbage palm.
The edible part being celebrated is the couple of feet in the core of the trunk just below where the leaves sprout out. It was most visible at the festival in the form of fritters and stews or simply fried up with a bit of bacon. The photo below on the left shows the piece of the trunk cut off below where the leaves start and the photo on the right shows the core of the trunk, which is the heart.
For me swamp cabbage falls into a category of food ingredients I call filler, some almost tasteless stuff included to provide some tactile substance or bulk to whatever there is in the way of ingredients that actually taste like something, like bacon or fried dough or even seasoning. Sorry to insult all the foodies out there, but I have to let my inner chef speak up.
But I didn’t go to the Swamp Festival for the culinary delights. I went because I’d never been there, about the same reason for my attendance at the Fellsmere Frog Leg Festival in 2016.
Situated in a nice park right along the Caloosahatchee River and well shaded by huge live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, the festival grounds included lots of food vendors, a big bandstand, and a ‘craft’ section. Disappointingly, my appetite for local crafts wasn’t sated a bit. I didn’t look at all the labels of course, but most of it probably originated in China.
The Festival is more than one day, of course. We missed the parade, the car show, the fishing tournament and a bunch of other stuff that marked the long weekend.
We also missed the armadillo racing. We got there late in the afternoon and they were done for the day. That would have been a first for me. We did see the empty racetrack though. It was identical to the one in this video of an actual race. For the youngsters, armadillo racing means something entirely different in the video gaming world apparently.
And while we’re on alternatives, please note that Swamp Cabbage is also the name of a blues band founded in 2003 by Jacksonville, Florida, native Walter Parks, who recorded and toured for 10 years as lead guitarist for Richie Havens. He was also half of the folk-pop duo The Nudes.
Here’s some of the wildlife we saw on Arbuckle Creek (All photos by Ron Haines).