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GOING CRACKERS ON A FLORIDA RANCH

The brochure on J.B. Starkey's Flatwoods Adventures describes Anclote River Ranch as "a working Florida 'cracker' cattle ranch." Meaning what? Breeds noted for volatile tempers? A derogatory term for disadvantaged animals who moo with a Southern drawl? Or just amiably ditzy bovines? Given that we have ample opportunity to earn saddle-sores, goggle at beefy steers, and even take a whack at cattle branding at guest ranches in the Cariboo, what was is distinctive about a Florida ranch?

J.D. Starkey Jr., the owner of Anclote River Ranch (near Tampa Bay), clues me in on the first question. Back in the 16th century when the Spanish decided to settle in the brave new world of the Americas, they brought with them an assortment of cattle and horses-tough critters that could survive just about anything: droughts, flooding, flash fires and sparse feeding habitats. The animals ranged freely through the Florida country-side back then, and the "whap", "zing" and "crack" of the cowboys' bullwhips drove the cattle out of dense thickets at rounding-up time. By extension, these herds became known as "cracker" cattle.

Starkey, Jr., a tall man who moves with lithe grace, looks as though he belongs on the set of a Western movie. But this isn't California. It's no 'show-biz' stage set either. And other than "cattle" in the most generic sense of the word, Anclote River Ranch has little in common with its counterparts in our B.C. interior. For one thing, its sprawling 3,400 acres encompasses flatwood pines, cypress and oak forests, saw-palmetto and swamp vegetation. And even though the core function of the ranch is the breeding of cattle and commercial beef production, it is also home to a cross section of Florida's wildlife in their natural environment.

"My dad bought this property for $2.40 per acre, back in the mid-1930's," J.B. says as he revs our "Range Buggy" to life. "16,000 acres of unspoiled wilderness stretching across the Anclote and Pithlachascotee rivers. He pauses for a moment, and then adds somewhat wistfully, "Much of that doesn't belong to us any more. My father either donated, or sold, roughly 12,000 acres over the years to the State of Florida to be managed by them as a public wilderness park."

I fire up my video camera. But great as the images are, a camera doesn't capture the scent of earth, the warmth of the sun filtering through forest glades, and the poignancy of family memories as recounted by J.B. Tales swapped around the cowboys' campfire when he was a kid, the thrill of watching wild hogs rooting around a water-hole and the rough feel of the bark of 300-year-old slash-pines, scored with "cat-face" scars which once yielded turpentine in a thick syrupy flow. Turpentine was essential to the ship-building industry in the 18th and 19th centuries and, as Starkey adds, "Without it, we probably wouldn't even be here in America today."

The dirt road threads its way between tussocks of saw palmetto which spreads out mat-like under forests of slash pine, long-leaf pine, oak and cypress trees, many of them thickly bearded with Spanish moss. A paddock opens up ahead of us, and we catch sight of a flock of osceola wild turkeys on the edge of a thicket. A moment later a couple of deer, stop to peer timorously in our direction, before taking off, white tails bobbing into the trees. A large armadillo scratching in the dirt plays coy and scrabbles away before I can capture him on film. The cows, however, aren't camera-shy. J.B. points out a couple of cracker cows, descendants of his Dad's original herd, and one of them, a pretty black and white dappled heifer, tosses her head flirtatiously.

Then we come upon one resident who definitely wouldn't be found on a guest ranch in Williams Lake. She is Agnes, a beady-eyed alligator, and I stand well behind the fenced enclosure, while she languidly flips her tail and slides under the muddy surface of her pool. Later, from the safety of an elevated boardwalk, J.B. shows us a natural alligator hole at the base of a cypress tree. It is empty, but near its entrance, a rattlesnake suns itself, unperturbed by the clicking of our cameras. The sound of bird-calls and the lazy hum of bees, lends the forest a dream-like languor.

By the time we get back to the main building, the sun is low on the horizon and a buffet table groans with delicacies such as wild hog stew, venison and wild turkey. In response to my appreciative comments on the native-plant salad, J.B.'s wife Marsha, whose smile is as warm as the Florida sunshine, tells me it is made up of catbrier, greenbrier and Spanish moss shoot tips, heart of swamp cabbage, flower petals and an assortment of native Florida grasses. I say farewell with reluctance. The Flatwoods Adventure tour has been a journey through history, to a time when men like J.B. Starkey Sr. homesteaded on a grand scale, bequeathing to future generations of his family a slice of pristine wilderness, located a scant 35-minute drive away from the noise and hustle of Tampa's city streets.

©Margaret Deefholts - Visit Margaret's website www.margaretdeefholts.com

IF YOU GO:

J.B. Starkey's Flatwood Adventures
12959 State Road 54,
Odessa Florida 33556
Toll Free Ph: (Reservations only)1-887-734-WILD
Ph: 1-813-926-1133
Fax: 1-813-920-7686
e-mail: flatwoods@earthlink.net
Website: www.flatwoodsadventures.com

Located 9 miles west of US 41 on State Road 54, all tours (open year round) are by reservation only. The Ranch caters to special events, picnics and banquets, in addition to organising customised tours for those interested in horseback riding, photography, bird watching or native plant life.

The Palmetto Patch:
This unique little craft shop located within the Flatwoods Adventures site, is delightful to browse through. They carry palmetto honey, gallberry and orange blossom honey, ornaments of stained glass, fabric, sterling silver and clay, designed and crafted by local artists, books about Florida's people, plants and animals-including cookbooks with a regional flavour-and much more.

 
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