Experience the real central Florida with ‘bucket list’ challenges

OKEECHOBEE — There’s more to Florida than beaches and theme parks. For an authentic South Florida experience, check out the following list.

1. Take a hike — or ride a bike — on the dike. The Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST), a segment of the nationally recognized Florida National Scenic Trail, the boasts 110 miles of hiking trail atop the 35 foot tall Herbert Hoover Dike which encircles Lake Okeechobee.  More than half of the trail is paved, and the remainder consists of a two-track gravel roadway on top of the 35-foot high Herbert Hoover Dike. The height above the surrounding area provides hikers, bikers, and wildlife watchers with scenic vistas of the lake. The trail is open year round and can be utilized for short day hikes or loop hikes. There are 14 camping areas available on or adjacent to the trail. NOTE: Some areas of the LOST are periodically closed due to work on the dike. Before you plan a hike, check for updates at http://www.saj.usace.army.mil.
Xtreme challenge: Complete the entire trail encircling the dike during the annual Thanksgiving week Hike Around the Dike or the LOST Endurance Run. The Loxahatchee Chapter of the Florida Trail Association hosts a 9-day hike around the lake every November. It is Florida’s longest-running annual hike. The 2016 hike will celebrate the event’s 25th anniversary. For information online, go to floridahikes.com/big-o-hike. The LOST Endurance run is usually held in February. For information, see www.runningintheUSA.com.

2. Catch a fish in the Big O. Lake Okeechobee is famous for trophy bass, drawing professional bass tournaments and recreational fishermen who love a challenge. The Lake is also famous for Speckled Perch, a favorite with winter residents who spend many days on the Big Lake catching their limit of the tasty pan fish.
Xtreme challenge: Try for a trophy catch. The TrophyCatch angler recognition program is the hallmark of the long-term Florida Black Bass Management Plan (BBMP).  To sign up online go to www.myfwc.com.

3. Put the bite on an alligator. Alligator meat has long been a delicacy in Florida. The Seminole Indians hunted alligators as food; the Seminole tradition of alligator wrestling developed from skills they perfected to catch the big reptiles alive so they could be taken back to camp alive for slaughter, to reduce spoilage. Alligator tail is often served fried in bite-sized nuggets. Alligator ribs may be barbecued. Xtreme challenge: Try cooking it yourself. You can hunt alligators in season (for information go to www.myfwc.com) or purchase meat from an alligator farm.

4. Take a swim in both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. When they head to the beach, those in South Central Florida have their choice of beaches on the east coast or the Gulf of Mexico.
Xtreme challenge: Visit both the east and west coach beaches on the same day.

5. Photograph a Florida sunrise or a sunset. South Florida provides plenty of opportunities for photography, with spectacular sunrises and sunsets framed by scenic beauty. Xtreme challenge: Combine this with #4 and photograph the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean and the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico on the same day.

6. Go through the drive-thru for that staple Southern beverage — iced tea. Those new to South Florida are often unfamiliar with the concept of the beverage drive-thru. Floridians know how important it is to stay hydrated, and make a habit of stopping by the drive-thru on the way to work or home.
Xtreme challenge: Go through the drive-thru on horseback. Central South Florida is cow country, and some cowboys still make their living on the back of horse. Horses are also a staple in the many parades held in the rural towns. Riding can be thirsty work, so it’s not unusual to see those on horseback stopping by the drive-thru for a cool drink.

7. Eat the state tree. Swamp Cabbage, a staple of Florida pioneers, is made from hearts of palm. Swamp cabbage was a favorite of the Florida pioneers. It is obtained from the heart of the Cabbage Palm, also known as the Sabal Palm, which is the official state tree of Florida. Xtreme challenge: Learn to cook it yourself. The swamp cabbage may be prepared in various ways. The most popular way is that favorite by the Florida “Crackers” to cut into thin slices like cole slaw and cook with onions, salt pork and seasonings.

8. Fly across the marsh on an airboat. There are marshy areas all along the Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee that not only are best seen by airboat but in some cases can only be reached that way. Into this secret kingdom the airboats fly, skimming along on just a few inches of water.
Xtreme challenge: Learn to pilot an airboat yourself.

9. Get a bird’s eye view of the Big O. You’ve seen Lake Okeechobee on a map, but the only way to really appreciate the scale of the Big O is to see it from the air. Xtreme challenge: Jump out of the plane. Take up sky-diving or just take one tandem jump.

10. Watch a parade. The small towns of the Big O area and Florida’s heartlands offer plenty of parades. Most towns have festivals which celebrate local ‘claims to fame’ such as the Speckled Perch Festival, or the spring harvest. Holiday parades are also popular, especially around Christmas and the Fourth of July.
Xtreme challenge: Ride in a parade on a horse, a unicycle or a political float.

11. Enjoy community theatre. Local residents show their acting, singing and dance talents in community theatre productions throughout the year. These productions are surprisingly professional, and even more surprising to see a familiar teacher, bank teller or church elder taking on a different role on stage. Xtreme challenge: Take the stage by trying out for the cast or volunteering to be part of a stage crew.

12. Cowboy up. Florida’s early settlers were ranchers and the cattle industry is still an important part of the Florida economy. Enjoy Florida’s cowboy heritage by attending a rodeo, Day of the Cowboy celebration or watching the annual Florida Cracker Trail Drive. Xtreme challenge: Ride the Cracker Trail. Xtreme challenge for those under the age of 10 — Compete in the rodeo calf scramble or mutton’ bustin events.

13. Enjoy the harvest. Spring is harvest time in Florida. Fresh Florida fruits and vegetables can be found at produce stands and U-Pick farms. While those up north are still dealing with snow, or just getting fields ready to plant, Floridians are enjoying fresh tomatoes, water melons, citrus, strawberries and more. Xtreme challenge: Grow your own fresh produce. Your county extension office can help with information.

14. Get as close — but not too close — to a Florida dinosaur. Florida is home to more than one million alligators, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates. Thousands can be found in Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River. Gators can be viewed from a safe distance at most area water ways. Nubbin Slough near Lake Okeechobee is a popular spot for alligator watching, as is the Taylor Creek Stormwater Treatment Area on U.S. 441 N. in Okeechobee County. Alligator wrestling shows can be found at special events at Seminole Indian reservations.
Xtreme challenge: Get close enough to touch a (safely restrained) alligator at a festival, or even have one hatch in your hand at Gatorama’s Gator Hatching Festival.

15. Compete in a county fair. You may have visited a county fair, but have you ever been part of the fair? You don’t have a raise a pig or cow to compete in a county fair. Fair competitions include growing fruits and vegetables, artwork, photography, quilting, baking, cake decorating and even duct tape creations. Xtreme challenge: Win a prize.

16. Learn to follow directions using landmarks that no longer exist. Folks in Florida’s small towns have long memories, and often give directions using landmarks that only exist in memory. In Okeechobee, if you are looking for the Christmas lighting festival, you may be directed to the place where the city swimming pool used to be. That pool was filled in years ago, and there are no signs to indicate where it once was. You just have to know. Now that GPS is available on phones, it’s easy enough for visitors to find their way around. But the old versions of direction include bits of local history that are interesting to learn. Xtreme challenge: Learn to give directions using landmarks that no longer exist.

17. Meet a Florida panther. The rural areas in Florida’s interior are home to facilities which rehabilitated injured wild animals and provide sanctuaries for exotic animals. Arnold’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, Inc., (AWRC) is a non-profit 501(c) educational-based wildlife care facility in Okeechobee County. Animal Adventures, 5001 S.W. Rucks Dairy Road in rural Glades County is off State Road 70 just west of the Kissimmee River Bridge.

18. Take the original coast-to-coast transportation route — the Lake Okeechobee waterway — from Fort Myers to Stuart by boat. Mother Nature did not connect the east and west coasts with the Big O. That job was the work of Hamilton Disston, who created a liquid highway by dredging a canal to connect the Caloosahatchee River to Lake Okeechobee. The first canal between Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River was dug in 1883. The St. Lucie River was not connected to Lake Okeechobee until the St. Lucie Canal was constructed in the 1920s. Florida pioneers used the manmade waterway connections from the east to west coasts as a means of transportation to bring supplies in and to transport their harvests to market. Today, boaters can use a system of locks to travel across the state.

19. Count the butterflies and the birds. Florida is a birdwatcher’s paradise. The Hendry-Glades Audubon Society sponsors regular birding tours and also takes part in the national annual bird count. Escorted bird tours are planned for April 16, and May 14. For information online go to http://www.hendrygladesaudubon.org. Arnold’s Wildlife Rehabiliation Center in Okeechobee County has a butterfly garden that attracts more than 40 species of butterflies, and is a popular spot with those who study butterflies. Xtreme challenge: Plant your own butterfly garden. For help and information, contact your county extension office.

20. Visit a vineyard. Surprised to learn that South Florida has vineyards? The Sunshine State has its own native grapes, as well as those developed to grow here. For 75 years, University of Florida researchers have developed varieties that flourish in Florida’s subtropical climate, well-suited to the state’s soils and perfect for winemaking. For a list of wineries see http://www.freshfromflorida.com.
Xtreme challenge: Stomp grapes to make your own wine. Henscratch Farms in Lake Placid hosts an annual Grape Stomp Festival in August. Visitors can pick grapes, stomp grapes and even compete in an “I Love Lucy” look-alike contest.

21. Take aim for a good time at local shooting venues. Whether you enjoy hunting game or target shooting, the Big Lake area offers opportunities for shooting sports and hunting. OK Corral Gun Club, 9449 N.E. 48th St., offers a variety of shooting venues including two championship sporting clay courses and 5-stand stations; wobble/trap sports deck; 10-bay competition park; cover pistol and rifle ranges and a world class cowboy action shooting town. Xtreme challenge: Live your old west fantasy with old fashioned cowboy action shooting.

22. Hunker down: Prepare for a hurricane. June brings hurricane season and Floridians’ annual storm preparations. A genuine Florida experience includes making sure windows are shuttered or covered with plywood, stocking up on bottled water and nonperishable foods, and laying in supplies of batteries and duct tape. Xtreme challenge: Stay in South Florida during hurricane season.

23. Attend an old-fashioned benefit BBQ. Benefit barbecues are often held to raise money for a good cause, be it the annual 4-H BBQ in Okeechobee, or the smaller BBQ events to raise money for someone’s medical expenses. The Big Lake area has no shortage of good cooks, and no shortage of folks who will turn out to help a good cause, eat some delicious food and enjoy the fellowship of a community gathering. Xtreme challenge: Host or at least volunteer to help with a benefit BBQ.

24. Ride in a hot air balloon. There’s nothing like peace and tranquility of a hot air balloon ride. Hot air balloon rides are often featured at fairs and festival.

25. Count the stars. Away from the city lights of urban areas, Florida skies are an amazing sight. Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, located 33 miles northwest of Okeechobee via U.S. 441 and County Road 724, is considered the “darkest stop in Central Florida.” The Dupuis Management Area, 23500 S.W. Kanner Highway in Canal Point, managed by the South Florida Water Management District, is also know for excellent stargazing.

Florida pioneers enjoyed swamp cabbage

By James Stephens

Swamp cabbage is an old-time Florida cracker favorite vegetable obtained from the heart of the cabbage palm (S. palmetto), which is the official state tree of Florida. The plant is known by such other names as palmetto palm, sabal palm, and swamp cabbage tree.

The cabbage palm grows wild all over the state in such abundance that it is not cultivated for harvest as a vegetable. Cabbage palms grow as individual plants scattered across the horizon or thickly clustered together in hammocks. They are greatly valued as ornamental trees both for home and industrial landscaping. Most nurseries sell them in various sizes and shapes, deliver them, and set them in place.

Although the swamp cabbage tree grows wild, it is protected from indiscriminate cutting by its designation as Florida’s state tree. Yet, large numbers of swamp cabbage are cut and sold each year, mostly as a prelude to land-clearing operations.

The cabbage palm reaches a height of 80–90 feet at maturity, although most are 10–20 feet tall. It is at the 8–10 foot height (including fronds) that the swamp cabbage is cut from it. To remove the central core (heart), the outer leaf stems are cut away and the trunk is severed about 3 feet below the bud.

Fronds have a woody base, called a boot, which wraps around the trunk.

At this stage, the untrimmed swamp cabbage weighs 10–15 pounds. At preparation time, boots are stripped from the 3-foot long section until the tender, closely wrapped central core is reached.

The central core is the part called swamp cabbage. It is cylindrical in shape, creamy white in color, and composed of layers of undeveloped boots (leaves) with the consistency, tenderness, and texture of regular cabbage. The trimmed edible product may weigh 5–10 pounds.

Following trimming, the swamp cabbage may be prepared in various ways.

The most popular old cracker way is to cut into thin slices like cole slaw and cook with meat seasoning until done. After the swamp cabbage is cooked, the white color changes to a grayish brown. The unique flavor is best described as smoky and wild. Traditional cooking often takes place outdoors over a camp stove or an open fire. Another popular method of preparation is to slice the cabbage and place the thin raw pieces into a tossed salad. A pinch of dates or spoonful of guava paste adds the final touch. This delightful dish is hearts of palm salad.

Remember, the cabbage palm is the state tree of Florida. Since the utilization of the palm for food necessitates the total destruction of the tree, authorization must be obtained before cutting.

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