Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Story: "Florida Day" (Part 2)

I first want to take a moment to wish everyone a belated Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah, and to send you all best wishes for the coming New Year! I sincerely wish good health, prosperity, and peace for you and your loved ones. Let's hope 2018 offers us some of each - and hopefully some great experiences on the water. 

When I left off on part 1 of "Florida Day", we had just completed our paddle trip down a section of the Ocklahawa River, which borders the Ocala National Forest in central Florida - north of Orlando and west of Daytona Beach. We had a largely pleasant and uneventful paddle through the forest, with the exception of Steve's capsize (a momentary crisis) and the spotting of a very large 'gator close by on a log - which came as a bit of a surprise to Steve's son. We had survived our journey unscathed in any case, and the day was warming well past the chilly temperatures of a February Florida morning. Steve had suggested earlier that he had a place he wanted to take us for lunch - in a village that had some unusual history. We got ourselves into some dry clothes and set off.

We drove southwest (generally - there is no direct route in that direction) to the village of Ocklahawa on the shore of Lake Weir , which took about 45 minutes, maybe an hour. Steve was taking us to Gator Joe's, a restaurant on the lake with a deck and pier over the water, and an adjacent beach. I was surprised by the white sand beach leading to the water. Here in the northeast, lake shores are often rocky - and if they have sand, it is usually a darker, caramel color. It was one of these little revelations that surprises me about the Florida landscape, and that is so different from what we're used to in New England. Apparently, Gator Joe's is so named for the enormous alligator that was caught in the lake in 1952, and was known to have resided there from at least 1930. A replica of "Joe" is stationed near the entrance, and once inside the front door, you can view one of Joe's front feet under glass - it's about the size of a dinner plate.
Lake Weir, Florida 
Ocklahawa village and Lake Weir are also known for another interesting piece of history. It was the hideout for the infamous "Ma Barker Gang" at one time - ending with a shoot out in 1935 between Ma and her son Fred, and FBI agents. Ma and Fred were both killed. The house where they stayed still remains, and is privately owned. There is a local bar just east of the village on County Rd 25, called "Ma Barker's Hideaway Bar" (more on that in a bit). 

The menu at Gator Joe's features items like chicken sandwiches and, inexplicably, Alaskan pollock fish sandwiches (why would anyone want fish from Alaska, when the ocean is an hour away? - it's a mystery to me). I like to eat what's local, so I had the fried 'gator tail. I've eaten alligator several times, and I find it a perfectly acceptable (and sometimes truly delicious) thing to eat. During lunch, Steve enthusiastically recounted what he knew of the Ma Barker history in the village, and suggested we drive by the hideout house, and then get a shot of liquor at the bar named in her honor. I replied "if they have bourbon. I'm in!".

We paid our bill, piled into the car, and headed over to the address of Ma Barker's old hideout. The architecture in the village is that great, 1930's and 40's, wooden beach houses with screen porches and often colorful trim work. Maybe they're a little ramshackle these days, but I still liked the feel of the place. Ma Barker's old house wasn't much to see - a partly rundown wooden house with a for sale sign in front. We didn't spend much time looking at it. We headed east on County Rd 25, and made our way to the bar named in her honor. There were several Harley's lined up out front, so Steve and I decided we'd go in for a quick shot of whiskey and leave the ladies in the car. I know that sounds a bit stereotypically prejudiced, but after all, this was unfamiliar territory. When we walked out of the sunlight into the dark bar, it was clear we were recognized as strangers. The bartender actually came out from behind the bar to ask us what we'd like. We asked for a couple shots of bourbon. She responded that they didn't serve liquor, only beer and wine. Steve and I looked at each other, then both nodded we should just move along. I had to chuckle to myself wondering what the wine list looks like at a roadside bar in Florida named after a criminal gang leader😉. 

We all decided it was time to head back east to the coast, and to Steve and Kristina's place. Kristina was driving east on the 2 lane County Rd 25 about 10 minutes later, when a light colored sedan pulled up fast behind us, and ultimately passed in a no-passing section of the road. Soon after, Kristina noticed a pursuing police car coming up fast from behind. At this point, the sedan had passed a couple more cars in a similar fashion. We pulled to the right to let the police pass, then watched as the sedan veered off the road in a cloud of dust about 50 yards ahead of us. They were apparently trying to make a run for it. By the time we passed where they had exited the roadway, the dust had settled just enough that I could view the sedan, driver's side front wheel perched on top of a pile of wooden pallets, resting in a sparsely wooded field. The doors were open, and the occupants were racing off on foot in several directions. The police had just arrived and were continuing their pursuit - it didn't look good for a getaway. We laughed at how much it looked like a "reality" TV show police chase. Just then, Kristina turned to us in the back seat, laughing, and said, "welcome to Florida!".

As we reminisced over our day for the rest of the drive back, we checked off all of the Florida themed experiences we had throughout our trip: alligators? check. colorful locals? check. a police pursuit? check. This day had it all. And, that's when we decided to give it the name "Florida Day".

Sometimes, the exciting and memorable parts of a trip - even a paddle trip, are the ones least expected. Keep a sense of humor and your mind open, and your paddle adventures can be part of a bigger story...maybe one you can chuckle about when you remember it.

TB on the Water                      


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