Ortona Lock: 12 Days of Christmas Highlights

December 16 – December 27

Our return to Ortona Lock Campground would be the first of a repeat camp since we started our journey in May. We stayed here on our southbound journey for two nights and thoroughly enjoyed the feel of the place and the facilities. During that time and with a bit of stress over finding a campsite for the Christmas week, we noticed a spot suddenly open up for a 2-week stretch. The rules here only allow a 14-day stay over any 30-day period so that gave us 12 remaining days, the perfect 12 days of Christmas, so we grabbed it.

This blog won’t be a daily journal but more a highlight reel of what we enjoyed while there since much of it was explained in the Southbound and Down blog entry. The following highlights are sectioned out for ease of reading and we hope you enjoy them as much as we did experiencing them.

As a refresher, the place sits between the town of LaBelle and Moore Haven, Florida. It is about 40 miles east of Fort Meyers and 15 miles west of the large spot of water on the southern end of the state called Lake Okeechobee. Its importance to the universe is the lock (one of a series of three) along the Caloosahatchee River that allows boaters to pass from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. It also provides a waste stream of sorts for all the agriculture operations in the area that reportedly influence the red tide issues along the Fort Meyers coastline. What we found here was a quiet place, full of migratory birds and humans, each interesting in their own right. A place that inspired in our photography, thoughts on writing, and a to relax for a while over the holidays. It is good that they have this time limitation on staying or we’d likely have gotten stuck there a bit longer. Well, maybe not, but we do understand it.

Travel Highlights

Okaloacoochee Slough (slew) State Forest

We first saw this place on our drive north to the Ortona Lock, siting a few signs along the highway. Upon further investigation we learned that it is a large expansive area with hiking and mountain biking trails, some camping, and gravel roads to drive. This seemed like a good thing for us to explore on a chilly but sunny afternoon. Our route in was different as we went through then tuned left out of LaBelle. After a few minutes we found the road to the state forest and hucked a left, then after a short drive we passed the signs stating we were entering Okaloacoochee Slough (slew) State Forest.

As we drove in we noticed the roads were gated and closed to vehicle traffic. We continued on and came upon the ranger station with a large information board and a white official state forest pickup truck outside. While we were looking at the board a few men walked out who turned out to be firefighters but were glad to try to answer our questions. Apparently the wet season has been wetter than normal so many of the roads and trails are closed as they are under water. One ranger commented that you’d have to withstand shin deep water to enjoy them. They did say you can still access the roads which are mostly dry by walking around the gates used to prevent cars and suggested Oil Pad Road as their favorite. So we headed for Oil Pad Road.

We got there and saw no way to walk around the gate based on the water so we hopped the fence and started the walk. The area was pine swamp and water was up to the edge of either side of the road making it a little creepy with the thoughts of water moccasins and alligators. I kept Toohey close as he is gator bait around these parts and completely unaware of snakes. At one point about a quarter mile in the water breached road. We looked at each other, down at Toohey and decided to just get wet and continue the walk. Soon after we saw two otters, one swimming to our left and the other crossing the road in front of us then swimming off to the right.

The forest appeared healthy, there were lots of other coastal birds to include egrets, herons, all active fishing, squawking and on the move as we approached. At one point where the road did a sharp 90 degree turn to the left, we saw nothing but water in front of us, so we decided to turn back. It was a short payoff to visit this place but glad we did it. A dry season return to the area would be good as it gets really low use so nature would likely happen if we spent more time exploring here. 

The Shortest Day of the Year Journey to the Fort Meyers Area: Manatee Park, Bowman Beach, and Matlacha

We had a few suggestions from other travelers on the Fort Myers area so we quickly got our run in, a shower, then headed west to check it out. The day was full of sunshine with temperatures in the low 70’s. Our first destination was Manatee Park. It sits on the east side of town across the main highway from a power plant that releases warm cooling water into the canal. The warm water is the perfect condition for manatees as the deeper water is cooler. Their number and frequent visits was the foundation for them building a park. We got there, paid our $2/hour parking fee and walked over to the fence to have a gander. The animals were as thick as thieves, waddling about, occasional coming up for a snort of air. There were large ones and baby ones, many to see. There was a human fence along the water line separating this area from a canal. Off to the left was another area where you could rent or launch your floating device of choice to paddle with the manatees. This was full of loud talking families and kids paddling in circles to see the few manatees more closely. Not really an interesting proposition for us. After about 27 minutes, we decided to move on. 

The next stop was Six Mile Cypress Slough (slew) Preserve requiring defensive driving skills through a heavily congested Christmas week travel in the area around a mall. We finally made it to the Six Mile Cypress Slough (slew) Preserve but with the parking lot about half full and a narrow boardwalk of a mile or so with no dogs permitted we made the decision to move on.

We dialed up the Research Department to find us a dog friendly beach on Sanibel as this day was getting away. A dog friendly beach on Sanibel would provide us two things. First something to do with the dog member of the team. Second, to see Sanibel, the seashells that make it famous, and to enjoy some beach time. The department found the perfect beach, named Bowman. With the google maps set with direction, and we were off for some fun! 

Sanibel was a pleasant surprise for me. No highrises or towering beach front condo complexes in sight or busy trafficked large roads, but small and quaint. The roads were two lane roads tucked into a nicely wooded drive and bike paths everywhere. They obviously manage the junk aka obnoxious signs and building height and mass. Most structures, if seen, were nicely constructed blending well with the natural setting of the island. We wound our way through intersections with traffic control officers versus stop lights and finally found our way to Bowman’s Beach Park. 

We paid for 2 hours of parking to spend on this beach on the shortest day of the year. It was a short walk out to the beach from the parking lot, passing the bathroom, a changing area, over a bridge and canal, through some mangroves, and then another short boardwalk to the beach. The beach was wide with white sand and as we got close, lots of Sanibel White Sea shells. We moved right along the beach towards the spot with the fewest people. We passed a couple of girls who I barely noticed other than they were taking selfies of themselves posing with the sea grasses, long hair blowing in the wind, and a slim piece of material nicely placed between their butt cheeks. The one being photographed was on all fours, like a dog howling at the moon, constantly readjusting her hair in the wind to try to grab the most seductive photo of all.

We found a spot where the beach erosion had made a shelf about 20 feet from the break. We set up camp, setting down our towels for seats on the sand. Toohey, being used to running free on dog beaches, wasn’t yet allowed as no other dogs were off leash and us being rule followers, sometimes. But he immediately became playful, crashing into some waves, ate a stick, and best, just rolled in the sand. We hung out there for our full allotted parking time, greatly enjoying the afternoon on the beach.

Our last stop along our Fort Meyers journey was to Matlacha, a small funky fishing village complete with shrimping and fishing boats, a town painted in tropical funkiness. As it turned out, it was about a 90-minute drive from Bowman Beach, but we pushed on. It took all of that to get there, passing through heavy congested city traffic. What we found was magical, a town with one main road that passed along a narrow spit of land with all the funkiness as advertised. We saw the fishing and shrimping boats sitting behind the seafood business and quickly located the best rated seafood market where we stopped to purchase a pound of local shrimp and locally caught red snapper. 

Now, tired of city driving with the sun moving closer to the western horizon, we quickly moved east, hurriedly in an effort to finish the day. We stopped once more along the way for gas and ice, ice and gas, then the last push home. We’d get there after dark so the gate was locked, which was no issue for Lysette. Once home, we cooked and ate the fish along with some sautéed peppers and onion over a salad mix. It was delicious. I spent a few minutes just sitting outside, looking at the stars, relaxing and breathing before coming in for a good night rest. 

Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp and the One Armed Maiden

We had a nice breakfast after our morning run. We then loaded up the bikes and headed for Clewiston. We had two primary goals for this trip. One was to bike a stretch of the 100 mile bike path around Lake Okeechobee atop the Corp of Engineers earthen flood control dams. The second goal was to see the town of Clewiston. We set off turning left, east from the main camp road. The direction took us by sugarcane fields reminding me of the endless cornfields in Kansas, prairies in Wyoming, and sunflower fields in North Dakota.

We drove into town of Clewiston and were immediately unimpressed. It was big enough for a Dollar General, Walmart, and Sav-A-Lot. We did see the headquarters for US Sugar who owns and operates most of the sugar being grown in the area which is then processed in their refinery located just outside of town. The HQ office was a large red brick colonial looking structure assuming two city blocks. Other than that and the Walmart, most buildings were conservative in size and really just not interesting. Even the Dixie Crystal Theatre which I was interested in based on the Dixie Crystal brand being an old Savannah Foods label was completely uninteresting. 

With goal one of seeing the town accomplished but an uninteresting flop, we still had goal two, the bike ride along a section of the large lake. We quickly found the left turn towards the boat ramps and access to the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST). We wound our way through the boat trailer parking lot with a few shady trees and people, up onto the berm, then down the other side where there was a park with picnic tables and shelter. Looking in either direction we noticed large construction projects off in the distance, say a mile, with Keep Out signs on the metal gates closer to us and across the bike path. I then saw a dude on a road bike in somewhat of a cycling kit. As he approached I decided to wave him down for some intelligence. He gladly stopped, then got off his bike to talk. He informed me that our ride options are limited because of all the construction. He asked me to pull out my iPhone, go to Google Earth and follow along as he went through the directions on his iPhone. He went on to provide very detailed instructions on where we should go to ride, park at a place called Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp. He spent about 10 minutes scrolling me through his Google maps telling me to head out of town, turn right at the truck stop, that isn’t a truck stop anymore, go straight back, deep into the sugar cane fields, but remember that isn’t actually a truck stop anymore, but it was one once. When you get to the end of the road you’ll reach a bend, it isn’t a turn but a bend, so follow it. I followed closely along with his instructions that in his mind were highly technical and likely confusing to me, an outsider, but all I was thinking was we get to go to Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp. Whatever this place is, it has to be better than the town of Clewiston, riding my bike on an earthen dam, or liver for dinner. His best advice though was when you park, go inside and tell them what you’re up to, just in case. I had fun replaying the conversation as we drove back over the earthen dam, through the parking lot with boat trailers, shady trees, and people, west through the uninteresting town in search of a place called Uncles Joe’s Fish Camp. The day was still promising some adventure!

Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp is not a place I’d ever go and likely can’t be found with a Google search as a place that actually exist. There are, in fact three reasons you might drive here on a perfectly good day.

1. You needed a Budweiser while geocaching sugarcane fields on a hot summer day,

2. You find yourself shirtless and on a date with a one armed tattooed woman who finds shirtless men who drink Budweiser products hot or,

3. You were so unimpressed with your day and needed to find something, anything, dramatic to blog about.

We made the right turn at the truck stop that is no longer a truck stop but was once. From here, and based on an aerial view, the roads were straight, creating large rectangular patterns as they outlined the large sugarcane fields. But from the drivers seat, it was anything but straight. Sure it was paved but in terrible shape, worse than any forest service road I’ve ever ventured down. The lumps and bumps tossed us like a wild horse, working every component of my Old Man Emu, Aussie (short for Australian) outback designed suspension, never allowing us to safely achieve the recommended 45 MPH speed limit. After a few miles we took the left hand bend, not a turn in the road, but a bend, as we approached a large sign sitting off to the right side, Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp, with an arrow down the small road to the right. We turned right and drove down the small road, crossing a small bridge onto the property. Strewn about were other buildings, rooms for rents, several RV’s, a few modest campsites on the grass lawn and a one story cinder block building with a screen porch on the front and a hand lettered signs across the front over the porch saying Uncle Joe’s. Perfect. There were signs along the property, all seemingly painted by the hand of someone likely named Joe or his employee. We passed the buildings and proceeded up the steep side of the berm to the top of the earthen dam where we stopped to observe.

On the other side was a large field of marsh grass as far and flat as the eye could see. Closer and up to the berm was a clear body of water, wide enough for 2 boats to pass safely but not much wider than that. There were a few docks and a boat ramp. The only boat I recall being moored at the dock was an airboat and the operator of said boat appeared to be napping in his truck. There were a couple of fishermen in a small boat on the other side of the waterway just inside a patch of grass quietly fishing.

We looked both ways and saw the same type of construction project in both directions, maybe a little farther off. We made the decision to go ahead with a ride. So we parked in the small parking area in front of Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp and prepared for the ride, getting the bikes down, final cycling kit adjustments and yes, Toohey in the back seat to protect the assets. The final step was to go inside, me in my bike gear to ask them if it was okay to park there. I nervously entered the front screen porch door, walked through the porch and stopped just inside the main door way entering the place, being careful not to fully commit but to show a little confidence without arrogance, as I am standing there in my bike kit looking a bit like a rodeo clown. I saw a man sitting at the bar wearing a flannel button down shirt, jeans, a trucker hat, and of course, a Budweiser beer in hand. I asked him if it was okay to park there for the bike ride and he looked down from the TV mounted to the wall to my left and said, yeah. Then moved his eyes quickly back as if not wanting to see what he’s just seen. I asked him if there was a good place, one better than another to park and he said, where you are is as good an any, this time without taking his eyes off the TV. Yes, I got the answers I wanted but still heard banjo music playing in my head. As a greeting of good will, I responded, great, we’ll come have a beer when we return. He simply nodded, but without showing the inner excitement that I’m certain he was feeling.

The bike ride was as expected, uninteresting and short, maybe 10 miles total by doing an out and back in both directions. The thought of riding some of the lumpy sugarcane roads came and went with no discussion as the image of decaying bodies in cycling kits with buzzards standing over them, sort of laughing.

We did learn that the waterway was the intercoastal that eventually met up the Ortona Lock behind our camp, and in fact, we saw a boat pass us there that we’d later see at the lock. But let’s get back to the Uncle Joe’s Fish Camp story.

We loaded the bikes up and decided since we are existing in Guns, God, and Trump land as the signs say, then we need to stick to our word and go inside as I had suggested that earlier to my new friend and we certainly wanted to get off on the right foot with this crowd. We walked in and cautiously sat at the bar. There was lots of clutter, nicknacks along the back wall behind the bar but no liquor. The only menu on the bar was a price list for renting a room, camping, and using the boat ramp. Another old timer walked from the shadows of the back adjusting his belt buckle holding up his trousers to ask us what we’d like. When asked what type of beer they had he said, Budweiser products. So, I, not being able to drink Budweiser based on principles of only drinking actual beer, sort of like Lysette not shopping at Walmart on principles, ordered a Bush and Lysette ordered a Michelob Ultra.

On the TV was a college football game, Ohio State vs. Northwestern championship game with most patrons besides us rooting for the Buckeyes. Conversation was light to nil other than occasional comment on the game. Lysette and I uncomfortably looked around the place trying not to stare or seem like it was some freak show oddity. There was a short wall with some shelves holding a light inventory of grocery products to include tins of beans and sweet corn, ketchup, Vienna Sausages, toilet paper, just the basics. There was a pool table in the back under dim lights, not really appealing or recently over used. Along the wall were about a dozen or so plaques with stuffed largemouth bass that had been caught, now with the added Christmas ornament hanging out of their mouths. At some point I asked the bar tender if he was in fact Uncle Joe. He laughed and said God No, he’s way underground, has been for years. There is a new owner.

With our beers now gone, we settled our tab which included the two beers and a bundle of firewood. About this time a small gray truck pulled up beside the building, not a parking lot, so they must be locals as that spot never crossed my mind. As we were leaving the nice couple who got out of the truck approached the screen porch door, he shirtless, long pants, dirty baseball cap with bill curved tightly around his head, a man appearing weathered from the sun. She, with only one arm remaining that was tattooed and in her lone remaining hand, a cigarette about half smoked. She had a pretty smile making you ponder what her life was like with all parts attached and in a different setting. They kindly stopped and held the door for us as we left, we thanked them wishing them a nice afternoon.

We left there with really nothing all that interesting but the blank page of a blog idea and what you just read. Hopefully the photos will be much better and show more of the true color of the place. If you look beyond the signs and personalities, and the lack of all extremities, it was quiet, a place to sit among people who you likely have few common hobbies other than Saturday afternoon during college football season, and just be present. A place we’d camp given another journey to the area.

Our drive home was as uninteresting as the rest of the day. We got there, burned the firewood in the fire pit and enjoyed the best part of the day, just being together in a quiet place with each other.

The First Annual Ortana Lock Christmas Day 5K Run

One thing we try to do on our journey is to stay fit, keep moving, and remain healthy. This can be tough as some of these places beg you to sit and watch life. With this struggle, and coming to terms with a 12 day campsite, we agreed that we needed to run every day for at least 30 minutes or 3 miles, sort of a running streak. On the first daily run, I started thinking of the concept of a campground race on Christmas Day. I could solicit all those other campers who are here to run, walk, bike, electric scooter, the 5k course as a comaradarie where there isn’t much.

The lead up to this competitive event required Lysette and me to “train”. We ran each day with alternating days of speed work followed by a recovery day. The recovery day was mostly a run around the earthen berm to the east of the camp and the speed work was along the road entering the camp to improve time in preparation for the big event. We won’t bore you with the speed work as that involves time, effort, watching a stop watch, but several fun things happened along the recovery runs on the earthen berm. The first of which was seeing a Florida Panther scurry, hop, and run off into a fruit orchard. Pretty cool and it happened so fast Lysette didn’t even see it as I was mumbling “hey look” in another language. We greatly enjoyed this wetland as it was the roosting area for many of the birds who feed in this area for the summer. They leave each morning only to return each night, creating a nice little wildlife display. It was also the place where a good ole boy on a John Deere caught us running to explain that we weren’t allowed there and it was extremely hazardous with all the chemical applications and whatnots, and that we needed to leave. All the while he is earning a paycheck stirring up dust in this hazardous place with no protection other than the acid in his large bottle of sugary soda.

Race Day

The First Annual Ortona Lock Christmas Day 5K was held Christmas morning 2020. With the weeks worth of training in the tank we woke to race day and time to execute our race plan was now upon us. The original start time was delayed as the night storm made the morning slow for all competitors. Now dressed, Lysette layered in festive green puffy jacket over two thermal shirts, hat, gloves and running pants, me in light race shirt and shorts, toeing the line. Toohey is in the Tacoma without a clue, but protecting the assets. The gun fired and the athletes took off. The course is fast and flat, out and back from the campground, along the small road that cuts through the ranch, almost reaching Highway 80 where there is a turnaround at the single palm tree sitting along an old ranch fence to the right and just before a larger bunch of palms, maybe 3 or 4.  

The outbound started with a flurry, a quick pace set by the leader. The athletes passed by the guard shack then quickly turned left for a long straightaway with a great tailwind. A tailwind is only good for one direction so maybe push it a little now as this won’t be as easy on the inbound effort. At this point Lysette was well off my pace but lurking back there somewhere, knowing she would never stop for me if I break, bonk, of get injured or worse, die.

Back in our triathlon days, we were racing an event in north Florida where we were talking before the race and she offered the advice, “just go for it on the bike, give it all you’ve got”. I took that advice and even passed her on the bike which was huge as she had an earlier swim start, giving some momentary credit to the advice as working. However, about a mile into the run with temperatures above hot along with a soaking humidity, I came to a death march of sorts, a painful walk. Within a few miles, she would prance by me, smiling, holding her sweat rag or water bottle, not even caring but more gloating in the great advice she had given me. In the end, my valiant effort would bring me in some 14 seconds off her time and a valuable lesson learned 

Having this history, I keep my systems in check on the outbound run, making sure to ride the thin line between just enough without over exerting knowing more than half the race is left. I was briefly distracted by the Brahma bulls along the road to the left who gave the event little interest. I refocus with a quick turn left, then right, with the final straight away to the turnaround point in sight. It seems to never get there but by this time I have a great breathing rhythm with quick pulls and quick exhales, almost relaxing me into a trance. 

I hit the single palm and swing around, remembering to hit the lap on my stop watch so I can push for a negative split. The time, 12.08. Not bad but not my PR in a 5k which was just under 19 minutes in a race in downtown Savannah about 12 years ago. So not too concerned, more concerning was the  headwind and Lysette, resembling the Michelin man in her full winter garb, approaching the turnaround mark, not even stopping to kiss me but with the focus of a true competitor, enough to strike fear in me pumping adrenaline through my already full pulsing veins. 

The inbound provided the headwind that I had anticipated but I was able to hold a good effort, focusing on form, head high, good posture, and proper lean. Still holding back a little cardio as not completely redlined yet. The breathing still holding a good rhythm as I make my, now left then right around the bull pen, not giving them a glance this time as they certainly don’t care, but maintaining focus on the next few minutes of my life. The straightaway now in front of me, not the home stretch but a needed reach for the campground. I push on rounding a slight bend in the road before passing the entrance gate to the campground. Now, another swooping right, passing the guard shack with the camp host who made the most amazing gumbo last night sitting in attendance behind the sliding window, but with the race on, there was no time to stop and thank her as I had more pressing short term, immediate goals, to negative split this run. The wind, now at my side, I see the bridge and the finish, I glance down at my watch and see I should make it but I forgot how long 500 feet takes to run, 400, 300, 200, 100, 50, 10, line and button. I cross the line remembering to stop the watch, finishing with a negative split by 3 seconds, and a time of 24.13. Not a bad time for an old guy and a first place finish to boot. 

I quickly look back for Lysette and don’t see her anywhere, but know she is there, giving it her all, the grit she has, the determination of a wild cheetah as it moves through the savanna giving chase to small prey. I think, go get Toohey and we can both give her energy as she finishes. 

After a slow walk to the truck to get Toohey out and on leash, I coerce him to not start a sniff and pee but to get out there to help bring her in. We make it to the road and now see her briskly moving in. My first thought is not about her athletic skills but how much I adore her. I can spot her in a crowd of seeing her move. Somewhere along the course she has removed several layers of clothes which she is now carrying as this is a self-supported race, no drop off bags, no volunteers handing out water, no one to pick up after us, no event photographer, no awards.

She approaches us as Toohey and I turn to run her in. A good effort by the TWT running team as she takes second place, with a time of 26.09, first female. A great 5k.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/purple-gallinule

In short, this place was amazing. An hour drive south through the large farm operations, fields of sugarcane, migrant workers coming and going, being moved about in white vans and white school buses, passing the businesses that were created around these workers from c-stores to medical clinics, there is an industry based on these humans that come to do the work to provide food for all of us to eat, that otherwise, wouldn’t get done by us fat and happy Americans. The drive continued a bit west on Sanctuary Drive to the entrance. 

The sanctuary had been mentioned to us by a few folks we met along the way and it did not disappoint. It is run by the Audubon Society and is an ancient growth bald cypress forest that is akin to walking through a swamp museum. The place was thankfully saved from the sawyers tools and today is awesome to view, trees that were seedlings well before Columbus discovered this land now stand as giants, surviving so much man and nature.

We chose the 8AM admission as you have to schedule two hour slots to enter and walk the boardwalk. We were first to enter and last to leave of our group. We strolled the boardwalk walk, taking time to absorb what we were witnessing in these old trees, sitting in still backwater, mostly untouched by man, some trees being choked by the strangling fig vines, just majestic sights. We saw wildlife mostly in the form of birds, the best was the Purple Gallinule. It was pointed out to us while on a viewing platform over a prairie area and what we saw was a beautifully colored bird wading and forging through he water for food, a show stopper. 

We also saw Palliated Woodpeckers, Red Breasted Woodpeckers, Limpkin and a number of other smaller birds. But the real show at this natural museum was the large cypress forest. The trees are not only grand in stature but provide host to a variety of other plants such as ferns and bromeliads or air plants. Bromeliads are plants that grow on other trees but actually get their nutrient from the air. They have tops that resembles the tops of pineapples and are actually related to the pineapple. These, and all the plants growing on these old trees, provide natural decorations, sort of a tree accessory.

This swamp is also home to the rare ghost orchids which bloom in June and July. The park did a good job of locating the ghost orchid vine from a distant platform with an illustration of where to look, making it observable through my binos (binoculars in Australian). Pretty cool.

We left there feeling like we had really seen something special. Ever since we left Savannah for the Okefenokee, the Everglades and Big Cypress, we have enjoyed learning about the swamps and the habitat where these cypress trees live. Experiencing these mammoths was special.

Along the way home we saw a bird that had been mentioned in some reading that isn’t that frequently seen. It is a member of the Falcon family, the Northern Crested Caracara, which to me looks more like the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn, a rooster, than a bird of prey. We watched as the funny looking but brilliantly colored birds scratched around a horse coral for something to eat. As we pulled away from there, we looked right to see more sandhill cranes hanging out in the pasture forging for winter food. This place just keeps delivering and we keep enjoying the opportunity to see them.

Creeper

As you may recall from our previous stop here that we met a man who we called Creeper which was his AT trail name based on the Virginia Creeper, relating to his home state of Virginia and the Virginia mountains. He is a 12 year veteran of fulltime travel and is currently living comfortably in his white Ford Transit van he calls Drifter. We stayed in touch with him when we moved south. He eventually moved from the Ortona Lock to a county campsite where he set up a tent camp for a couple of weeks. He encouraged us on several occasions to come see his camp and the nature walk there and we encouraged him to meet us at the LaBelle Brewery. Both encouragements were quickly accepted.

Our friend now at Lee County Caloosahatchee Regional Park, about 30 miles west of us towards Fort Meyers, has invited us out for a tour of the park. This park has tent only walk-in sites and a no dog policy so not someplace we can camp, but he assured us the hike would be well worth seeing. After a quick morning run, breakfast and prep, we set off to meet up with Creeper. We pulled up and parked in front of Drifter in a nice shaded spot, rolled the windows down, and set off to meet him at his site. His site was set up with a small two-person tent, a large screened in Clam shelter and a reclining chair with attached side table, where we found him relaxing as we approached. We said pleasantries then quickly noticed his small collection of artifacts on the picnic table seat. He told us of the fossilized clam and mussel shells, the pieces of fossilized mastodon bones and shark teeth. All of this found in an area along the hike where the river had been dredged and dumped on the shore. Pretty cool set up to our tour. 

We set off from his camp with Creeper as our guide, wandering along trails lined by large old oaks draped with Spanish moss. He told us how the Spanish moss was the close cousin of the pineapple which seem a stretch just looking at the two. Moss in my mind is only good for chiggers and smoky fire displays. The trail took us out to the Caloosahatchee River.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caloosahatchee_River

We stood on the banks of the Caloosahatchee and watched it flow, once a mighty natural force that turned and weaved its way though this part of the state to the Gulf of Mexico. It is not a completely dredged canal but modified for depth and flow of large vessels. It also provides a dumping station for the agricultural fields that have negatively impacted the nature along the river and gulf. Creeper pointed out some older elbows in the river that still exist off the main channel, now appearing as small island hammocks. 

Along this hike he stopped to show us the latex viscosity of the strangling fig tree sap incase you have a crafty project while in the woods or need to glue something together. He pointed out the native wild coffee (Seminole Balsamo) plant, the American Beautyberry, a bunch of delicious looking purple berries on a low green leaf shrub. https://www.south-florida-plant-guide.com/american-beautyberry.html. According to this link they are edible but not real tasty and that even the wildlife choose these last to eat based on their tartness. 

The hike continued along the river dipping into the swamp section through more palm trees before eventually opening back up to the shore line where we crossed paths with a couple on horseback. Here is where Creeper pointed out the dredge spill where he find lots of his fossilized stuff. He quickly found another fossilized scallop shell and a bone fragment. We’d look around here a bit seeing more fossilized coral with impressions of other shells but no sharks teeth. As we left he spotted a wild grapefruit tree full of fruit.

The last eco system he hiked us through is a pine forest that was missing many trees that were decimated in the last hurricane now loaded with low sitting sawtooth palms. The hike eventually dumped us back out to the picnic area then a quick jaunt through another hardwoods of oaks, even a stray papaya fruit tree which Creepy pointed out that back in the day he’d have shimmied his way up to get one. The hardwood area, was full of ferns, lush and healthy like the entire hike. Beautiful South Florida wild. 

We ended back at his camp with hopes of meeting up later for a beer. We left and said we’d see if the brewery was open on our way home which to our disappointment, wasn’t. We texted him the bad news but suggested a meet up there Saturday after Christmas when they reopen.

The next Saturday was Boxing Day and the second meet up with Creeper at LaBelle Brewery. We had scheduled our time with him for 3PM with us arriving a few minutes early. But true to our short time of knowing this human, he was already there standing in the beer line waiting to order his dark porter style beer of something. The tender, a young woman, approached him by name, remembering not only his name but his favorite beer. We just smile and order ours. We first tried to sit outside but the patio being the shady side of the building was very cold so we moved inside to a square top four seater. 

The conversation was first of his coming to terms with his need to not travel all winter, his tank was empty with little energy to keep going right now, something was not working for him anymore. But as he stated, 12 years is pretty good run, maybe it is time for a change. His plans are to make a few more stops to see a few friends in Florida before heading back to the ranch in Texas where he’ll stay for a while and figure it all out. 

The conversation moved along from there as we learned more about him, his love for bushwacking and route finding through the Appalachian Mountains where as a boy, he’d see a hill and just walk straight up, no switchbacks for him. At one point in his life he found a spot along a mountain ridge over a river gorge. When his health went bad, he went there for several months to just live simply. His health improved over that time and he came to love the spot in the woods he calls Kenny’s Ridge. 

We learned about his time as a sound engineer, how he got started, stories that bring smiles and laughter to his face. Stories where his good southern dialect, or as he calls is it, his hillbilly comes out. He says he has written unedited books of his life which I’d buy for the fun adventurous ride that he’s taken along his life journey. He’s a great guy, well read, educated with advanced degrees at FSU, funny, a great southern boy, charming to listen to as he tells stories after stories of his untraditional life, and just easy to be around. We bought his beers but only as we feel we consumed way more value in being able to sit and listen to him ramble on about his life. 

As we talked about our travel plans he’d warn us about leaving Florida too soon as this is the place to stay for the winter but also understands the need to move and continue our journey and learn for ourselves. He doesn’t seem to like the desert southwest much as it is too sunny, dusty, and just doesn’t seem like his place. He isn’t sure about his spring plans but maybe his route back to the eastern shore, Appalachia and then across the north to his favorite mountain town of Missoula MT where he seems to have a string of broken hearted yoga instructors. But who knows, as his talk is of a life change.

As we leave Creeper, watching him get in Drifter, looking up to give us his final thoughts, I’m sure our paths with cross again someday. We watch as he backs out of his space and exits the parking lot of the brewery. We feel we have made a friend, someone maybe exiting a world of wandering where we are just getting started. But until then.

Our 12 days flew by, catching us off guard as we left a few things undone that we wanted to do with the down time. It seems a constant theme of this journey is there really isn’t a lot of time. The following is a short list of some other stuff we enjoyed during our time at Ortana Locks Campground.

  1. The greatest Christmas gift was the unexpected Shrimp Gumbo made by one of the camp host. We were hanging around camp on Christmas Eve and she and her husband drove up on their golf cart to offer us 2 bowls of the gumbo that we had lightly talked about the previous day. We gladly accepted it and had it for dinner Christmas Eve night. It was amazing and one of the nicest things anyone could have done.
  2. A-Liner owners seem to be a great group of folks. There are Facebook pages where you can get all kinds of useful information, questions answered and so forth. During our travels we had only really talked to one other owner who was staying a a camp but here, for 3 nights were two campers who shared one. It was fun to learn of their modifications, issues, travels, and equipment. We also enjoyed a few conversations with them as they worked the area.
  3. Preparing for preparing to winterize the water system. One of the things that has to be done is to shut down the water heater. Since we’ve only used it a few times over 7 months, its value was really the extra 7 gallons of water it held when dry camping. So, we drained it, shut off the by pass and pulled the anode rod out. Now when the freeze approaches, and it will, we can simply drain the water tank down, add antifreeze and run it through the system. After that we will live out of the 7 gallon water tote for the remainder of the winter.
  4. Portable waste totes. This was a funny scene new to us in the travel RV world. But this park didn’t have sewer connections at the sites so every day a few of the residents had to hook these totes up to their cars or trucks to move their waste to dump station. Seeing these being pulled behind the car was quite amusing to us except when we were cooking dinner and our neighbor decided it was time to empty his. P.U.

Christmas Day was nice. We didn’t do presents for each other and besides a few toys sent to grandchildren, we did little. We made phone calls to those closest to us, but mostly, we just enjoyed a quiet day in our small slice of the world.

We left Ortona Lock Campground on the 27th after using up our allotted days there. We were both ready for what is next, a continued move north, a meet up with her sister and husband for the New Years celebration and then a turn west along the big bend into the panhandle of Florida.

Photos around camp:

For about an hour around sunset, hundreds of water birds returned to roost in the area just east of the campground:

6 thoughts on “Ortona Lock: 12 Days of Christmas Highlights

  1. Some interesting I mean boring places! 😄

    Ar least the pictures were good. You always seem to make something out of nothing. Have fun.

    Pat

  2. What a catch-up this has been. Wonderful stories and I am a Gatherer of Stories. Love Ol Kemp’s beard and how fit the two of you are. What a great journey you are on. I know the dog is thrilled.
    Mac-O-Lac

  3. Not your typical 12 days of Chrissie, eh? Great stories! Great pictures!! Looking forward to hearing what comes next.

  4. As always, an artfully written blog that makes me feel as if I’m experiencing your travels myself.
    Sorry we missed connections when we were so close. We haven’t made it to the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary yet, but still hope to do so before we head bock to the frigid tundra of northern Ohio.

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