Somehow I breezed by in high school without giving my full academic effort. Yes, I admit good grades just came naturally (except for math). Many Florida high school students remember being assigned to read A Land Remembered - a historical novel by Patrick D. Smith set in the pioneer days of Florida. Of course, I never read it.
Fast forward 10 years, add a newfound pursuit for knowledge and an emphasis on creative writing, I suddenly became interested. The story was about the hardships faced by a family in the Florida wilderness during the 1800's - encounters with Seminole Indians, gators in the swamp, treacherous cattle drives to Punta Rassa, hurricanes, and the Civil War.
When I planned to visit Crescent B Ranch to experience the Babcock Ranch Eco-Tours, I had no idea how closely the true stories of the area and the scenic backdrop would parallel what I was reading in A Land Remembered.
In 1914, the 91,000-acre ranch was purchased by Edward B. Babcock, a Pittsburgh lumber mogul and politician, and had many uses over the years from tree farming to experimental ostrich breeding.
In 2006, a group called Kitson & Partners purchased Babcock Ranch from the Babcock family and simultaneously closed a $350 million deal with the State of Florida and Lee County for the largest single land preservation agreement in the state’s history. The agreement preserved 74,000 acres of the property, allowed ranching operations to continue, and provided Kitson with 17,000 acres for development of the innovative Babcock Ranch community.
Centrally-located to Fort Myers, Punta Gorda and Arcadia, the Babcock Ranch Eco-Tours are tucked off of Florida State Road 31 at a 74,000-acre cattle operation called Crescent B Ranch. The tour is designed to be a relaxing way to experience the natural beauty of this area, get up close with native wildlife and learn about the local heritage.
We turned off the highway in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, traveling along a stretch of single-lane blacktop, past sod fields and signs reading “Almost There."
When we arrived, we were greeted by a yellow corn snake wrapped around a woman’s neck and peering at us over her shoulder. Debra turned and smiled at us, introducing the snake as “Cornelius” and welcoming us to hold him. Although it's pretty "known" that corn snakes are not venomous, it can still cause the heebie jeebies when one starts constricting your hand.
We passed the time exploring the "base camp" while waiting for the tour to begin. A village of small wooden shacks nestled under the oak trees included a general store, a museum, a restaurant, a picnic area and exhibits. Many of them appeared as if they had been there since the ranch was established.
The general store is stocked with locally-sourced goods (like saw palmetto honey), souvenirs, snacks, beverages and DVDs of the Sean Connery and Laurence Fishburne movie, "Just Cause," that was filmed on the ranch in 1995.
The museum consists of a one-room shack in which the walls are covered with old newspaper clippings, photos and artifacts. The Gator Shack Restaurant was closed for the summer, but is open to the public during season and serves what else but fresh gator tail.
As our tour guide, Terry, announced it was time to load up, we climbed aboard the “swamp buggy,” an old, camouflage school bus repurposed into a stealthy, swamp-crawling machine. The windows are fully removed which makes for a nice, open landscape for photo-taking.
From the moment we rambled through the first gate, I realized this tour would be much more than riding around and looking at the pretty scenery. Within the first 5 minutes, Terry dove into the origin of the ranch as an Osceola turkey fled across our path and tiny baby alligators crawled over each other on the shoreline of a small pond.
During the 90-minute tour, we ventured through four Florida ecosystems - pasturelands, cypress swamps, pine flatwoods and freshwater marshes - where we were entertained by the native wildlife that inhabit each of them.
There was so much to see, I scrambled back and forth from one side of the buggy to the other, trying to capture it all. As a native Floridian, I've grown up in a similar setting and been around these animals all my life. That did not detract from my excitement in getting up close and personal with them. And let's be real, alligators will always be fascinating.
In the pastures, the “cracker cattle” and whitetail deer flock to the buggy as the tour guide tosses them handfuls of feed. They are accustomed to being rewarded just for showing up which means you are guaranteed to get some impressive photo opportunities of the wildlife.
We had been experiencing a drought in Florida at the time and the watering holes on the property had all but dried up. A hundred or more alligators had migrated to one small marsh, making for an eerie scene. Lazing on the bank and lurking on the surface, not a single reptile flinched a muscle as ten excited humans snapped photos and "omg'ed."
Some of the facilities on the land date back to the early 1900's and still stand today. The ranch commissary was once the center of Rouxville, the logging town that supported Babcock's lumber operation.
The “tick camp” was the setting of my favorite story of local heritage. The "Florida Crackers" (known for the cracking sound made by their whips) would pick the ticks off the cattle before herding them west along a dirt road called Tuckers Grade, south through downtown Fort Myers, along McGregor Boulevard to Punta Rassa where they would load them on barges and sell them to Cuba.
The highlight of the tour was meeting the resident Florida panther, Osceola, and Baby Girl, the alligator. While Florida panthers are an endangered species, the population was updated in 2017 from 120 to 230 due to conservation and protection efforts by the state.
Terry’s extensive knowledge of the local history, the wildlife and plant species, made for an informative and imaginative trip. The experience far exceeded my expectations and I was left wondering why I hadn't been there sooner.
I would be interested to go back during rainy season (June-October) when the swamps are full and the buggy gets a little mud on the tires. And to also try out the Gator Shack restaurant and purchase the saw palmetto honey that I'm kicking myself for passing up.
Families, couples and especially children would enjoy this unique adventure through the Florida wilderness. They'll have so much fun, they won't even realize they're actually learning.
The tours last about 90 minutes and have multiple time slots to choose from. Adult, senior and children's tickets range from $12-$24 and children 2 and under are free. Book your Babcock Ranch Eco Tour here.
Thank you Heidi, Terry, Debra and the team at Babcock Ranch Eco-Tours for having us! Until next time.
I was a guest of Babcock Ranch Eco Tours in order to write this review. As always, you receive my honest opinions and thorough recommendations regardless of who is footing the bill.