Sea Oats

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Florida Eco Safaris - Through the Tree Tops

Ever wanted to sail through the treetops like the kids in the movie ET? Long to take your mountain bike to new heights? Do you want to really commune with nature on its own terms? If you have never been in the deep woods of Florida, you have a few surprises coming.

Not too far from the Mouse House is a refreshing step back into the real Florida. Florida Eco Safaris and Forever Florida offer a unique look at a Florida many of us have forgotten. Instead of the concrete envelope looming overhead as in Miami, Jacksonville or Ft. Lauderdale, here the canopy is made of what it should be. Trees. What better way to see nature in its natural state than from a bicycle that roams the tree tops.

Nowhere else in the United States can you experience nature by being on top of it all, on a bicycle, and the perspective is eye opening.

From left to right; Kristen, Leslie & Emily
Your adventure starts at the reception desk. Greeted warmly by the staff, you will have some  paperwork to fill out and instructions and cautions will be given. I was walked through the process by Emily, Kristen and Leslie, who later turned out to be our swamp coach driver. I had made a reservation the day before for the early morning Cycle in the Canopy, as I wanted to avoid the day's heat as much as possible. Didn't work. More on that later. The check-in process was smooth and the women really know their jobs. They know their stuff and you can tell it's not a memorized script. During check in you will be asked several questions to determine if  your chosen activity is suitable for you. This is not a ride. You participate fully in your outdoor adventure. There are easy adventures, such as the swamp coach tour or slightly more strenuous ones, such as the Cypress Canopy Cycling tour. The ranch is so large and diverse there is something for everyone. All physical skill levels can be accommodated.

I asked about the history of the 4,700 acre ranch, and the staff told me how it was the dream of the deceased son of the Broussard family. Allan Broussard grew up here and his life ended far too soon at the age of 28 after battling Hodgkin's disease. His dying wish was the continued preservation of the area in as much of a natural state as possible. His family makes sure his wish is fulfilled every day.

Leslie rounded up our diverse group, some Zip Liners and I, the intrepid cyclist. We boarded the coach, a swamp buggy, and rumbled, rocking and rolling, into the hinterlands of the ranch. Leslie filled us in on some of the history of the ranch and pointed out wildlife such as alligators, horses, several breeds of cows and even deer as we made our way to the interior of the ranch. Ask her where the hamburgers for the café and grill come from. We passed workers who were building even more adventure trails and lines and soon arrived at our destination. We split off into our respective groups. Zip liners one way and I, sole cyclist in another.

Jessica demonstrates the proper technique for riding the Canopy Cycle.
A very professional staff greeted me. They asked again if I had any issues that might keep me from participating and I replied I did not. I am an older, out of shape boat captain who still thinks he is thirty-five, but I was determined to do this. Despite their misgivings, we pressed on. I was advised to take everything out of my pockets, as the motion of pedaling could cause items like wallets and keys to fall out and into the waiting jaws of a thirteen-foot alligator named George. They locked everything up and on we went. Jessica and the people on the staff cinched me into a safety harness and then adjusted the cycle's seat to meet my leg length. While doing so, they told me to watch for wildlife along my path, although it would be below me. 

Trussed up and in place, they gave me water for my trip. Do not turn this down. You'll need it, especially if the weather is warm. A few more reminders about what to do and what to look for and I was off. As they had informed me, the first third of the track was slightly uphill. After bit of trial and error, I struck peddling rhythm that worked quite well. Looking down from the lofty cycle was unique.  I have spent a lot of time humping through the underbrush, but never gliding over it. By the time I reached the top of the first incline, I was proud of my accomplishment and thoroughly soaked in perspiration. I took a quick breather, as per Jessica's instructions and admired the view. Up ahead, the forest closed in and I was looking to get out of the sun.

It can be a little disconcerting to be hanging underneath the cable on your cycle twenty-five feet in the air and realize that you are the engine. No motors or gears on tracks to pull you along. You peddle or you do not go anywhere. I pushed on. I heard screams in the distance and smiled smugly to myself as I pictured my fellow adventurers slamming in to trees at twenty miles an hour while I serenely peddled in the shade of slash pines and cypress trees. Turns out their yells were of pure joy. They were having so much fun they could not contain themselves.

I was about half way along the course when some movement below me caught my eye. Two deer walked casually below through the swampy water, while hardly taking notice of me. Their tan backs dappled by sunlight they made their way silently through the area. This is wild Florida and I could have seen a Florida panther or even bears.

Jessica had offered me two bottles of water, which I declined, taking only one. It was gone, and now I was wishing I had the other. I am sure they had told me the first part was on an incline and yet ahead of me sloped up into the sky what seemed to be one of the cables from the Golden Gate Bridge. I pushed on.

I made it. Just barely. I peddled with everything I had and when I reached the top, a very welcome downward slope greeted me. I took another break and then glided down the next section. I made my way around to the pond where the gator, George, lives. Jessica had assured me he was not the jumping kind, but I went past his pond at top speed, looking at a cable I could swear was a lot thinner than the section than the one that was in the relatively safe woods. George, like the deer, ignored me and I sailed on. I assume he is related to the gator who took Captain Hook's arm in Peter Pan. I could swear I heard the ticking of an alarm clock off in the distance.

Photo courtesy of Florida Eco Safaris
Back out in the open and away from the trees, a small plain stretched out around me. It was so quiet I could hear frogs chirping the distance. I rested again, not wanting to show off for the staff by completing the course before dark. The perspective from my perch was amazing. Vistas seldom seen by those on the ground stretched out before me. 

I was the only one on the early morning ride, but I knew the staff wanted to be home in time for supper, so I peddled on. The humidity was high and I had lost a lot of water so I was anxious to get back. Up ahead, the bright yellow shirts of the staff were visible on the platform. I peddled as if I knew what I was doing and reached home safely. I climbed out of the bike with their help and made a dash for the water.

After I shed my harness and was settled, my traveling companions returned from their zip line adventure. Four of them in a row with what looked like one big smile. They had had great time crossing rope bridges and flying down cables over the prairie. I can tell you, I am pretty sure they didn't have as much fun as I did. Or maybe they did. Either way, it was a great adventure. I tipped my crew. Watch for separate tip jars for the Zip Liners and the Cycle crew. Make sure you tip the right team. They deserve it.

We rode back with Leslie who told us even more about life on the ranch. There are horseback rides, cattle roundups, bird watching, swamp coach rides and camping. Something for every level of excitement and age group.

Reservations are recommended and there is a strict policy about canceling, so make sure you understand what is required. The ranch is open 365 days a year, rain or shine, and unless there is dangerous weather like lightning or such, events go on.

This is wild Florida and you never know what will be around the next bend. Watch out for fire ants. Their little sandy mounds can be seen from time to time and a fire ant's bite can be very painful. Watch where the kids step.

If you are looking for an alternative to the hustle and bustle of Orlando/Kissimmee area, this is your spot. Fun, exciting, remote and even educational in way you and your kids will enjoy, Florida Eco Safaris cannot be beat.

Check the web site for a complete listing of activities available. You're going to love this place!