Dashing Across Lake ToHo in Search of the Illusive ‘Gator
There we were, skimming across the glassy smooth lake, a warm wind in our face, under a cloud-dappled blue sky—lost in this amazing, time-shifting experience. The throaty roar of a Chevy V-8-driven propeller pushed us across the lake and through tall grass at heart-thumping speeds.
In Central Florida, an airboat can be a time machine. How often have you seen the phrase “step back in history” associated with any historical location? They don’t say that at Boggy Creek Air Boat rides, but it is more accurate here than any place I know. Just miles from the glitter and frenetic pace of Orlando and its theme parks, you can see Florida as it was when Ponce de Leon first stepped ashore in Florida in the early 1500s. This is not a theme park, this is the experience of exploring the pristine wilderness of Central Florida as it has existed for hundreds of thousands of years.
Long before Disney, there were Florida Everglades. The headwaters of the Everglades actually reach north to the Orlando area, and the best way to share the experience of these early explorers is to get out of town and on the lakes of Central Florida—on an airboat.
So why were we speeding across the still waters of a pristine Florida lake? This was the first day of an Orlando vacation following a five-day business conference—with no real plans. Flipping through the pages of a local tourism guide, I ran across several ads for Florida airboat rides and that sparked an on-the-spot-decision.
We selected Boggy Creek Airboat Rides because they offered a longer, “private tour” for two in a smaller airboat as an option to the less costly 17-passenger group tours.
Check-In and Departure
Boggy Creek’s airboat operations are located 20 miles south of the greater Orlando area, at Southpark RV Park, a spacious 25-acre wooded park in a natural setting of pin oaks and Spanish moss. It took only a few minutes to check in and schedule our private 45-minute tour. Wayne would be our captain. We had about an hour wait for our scheduled launch.
Billed as “world famous,” Boggy Creek Airboats explore the 18,800-acre Lake Tohopekaliga, or “Lake Toho” as it is known to the locals. The Southpark RV park includes spacious, water-front, heavily shaded campsites that offer a camping experience very different from typical, tightly packed commercial camp grounds. They offer camp sites with full hookups as well as tent sites.
Boggy Creek Air Boats registration desk is located in the park office and well stocked souvenir shop that includes snacks and drinks, and a 10-12-ft alligator waiting to have his picture taken in front of the fireplace.
It was a perfect day when we met Wayne, the captain of our airboat. Wayne explained that during the tour, we would see a wide variety of birds and we would get a good view of the central Florida Everglades ecology. After a short safety briefing, he eased the powerful airboat out of the boat basin and into the reeds and marsh grass along the shore of Lake Toho.
Within minutes we spotted a beautiful Little Blue Heron. Each time we spotted something to photograph, Wayne slowed the boat to a quiet idle. During one these quiet periods, Wayne answered the question that everyone asks—before we asked. “Alligators can spend up to 24 hours under water, and often remain entirely submerged all day, only coming out to hunt during the night.” The best times to see alligators are in the spring and early summer during the breeding and nesting seasons. We would be fortunate to see an alligator at mid-day in October.
Still, Wayne seemed to have some favorite spots to search for the elusive gator. In the process, we spotted a Bald Eagle high in the top of the tallest, Spanish moss-laden cypress in a long stretch of shoreline. Maneuvering to get a better view of the eagle, we disturbed a flock of glossy ibis that took flight in a ragged formation overhead.
A few hundred yards farther along, a great blue heron moved forward with deliberate, graceful steps as it hunted for insects and small fish along the marshy shoreline.
Spanish moss is perhaps the most distinctive feature of the shoreline and on the trees that venture offshore. In some cases the moss is so dense that it had appeared to kill the tree that provided its support. The moss-draped trees formed a ghostly vision as if dressed for some ghoulish Halloween swamp party.
Wayne applied the power and we were soon skimming across the lake and in and out of patches of tall grass and open lake toward another marshy area. Unexpectedly, Wayne slowed pointing out a Limpkin sitting on the edge of the marsh that posed patiently, but cautiously, as I snapped off a series of shots.
Wayne explained that were lucky; the Limpkin is not commonly seen on the lake. Whether he was just trying to make us feel better about not yet having seen a ‘gator, did not matter. It was a new experience for me.
We continued to drift along quietly, immersed in a setting that could be as old as time.
Within a several hundred yards we came upon a snail kite; another un common bird. The snail kite is a locally endangered species with a population of fewer than 400 breeding pairs in the Florida Everglades. Wayne shut the engine off so we could drift quietly by the kite’s perch while I snapped off another series of photos.
Surprisingly, for early afternoon, there was no wind, and the lake was glassy smooth, reflecting the shoreline with mirror-like clarity.
Time passed quickly and we soon turned back toward Boggy Creek. Along the way we passed a lone cypress that served as a roost for a small group of Anhingas, also called Snakebird or Water Turkey. It is a cormorant-like fish-eating bird with a very long neck. It often swims with only its neck and head above water looking more like a snake ready to strike. We circled the tree as the Anhingas postured, presumably objecting to our disturbing their mid-day rest.
Leaving the Anhinga tree, Wayne pointed the airboat toward Boggy Creek. We made the five-minute dash at speeds approaching 45 mph. It was a beautiful day with wisps and curls of white clouds in the bright blue sky. With the wind in our faces, the warm sun, the glassy water, the dash across the placid lake was nothing less than exhilarating.
As we pulled into the basin, we waved to others just leaving on their adventure. A larger air boat had just returned ahead of us. As these passengers stepped onto the dock, they were invited to attend a brief demonstration with a live two-foot alligator. Each person was given an opportunity to hold the alligator (his mouth was taped shut) and have a photo taken.
Our Takeaway–Just Plain Fun
The airboat provides an ideal platform for viewing this primitive and totally natural Florida environment. It combines the stability and ability to prowl shallow areas and get closer to wildlife. It enhances the experience of actually being out in wild, swampy areas for every member of the family—at any age.
And we finally did see an alligator–back at the Boggy Creek launch area.
A Word About Photography
Any good digital camera with a built-in zoom feature would provide adequate photographic capability to capture the experiences of an airboat ride. I suggest you set your camera to maximum file size or quality. And make sure you have a large capacity memory card—you will want to take many photos. I use a Nikon digital SLR. Choosing a lens for our airboat adventure was a compromise based on magnification and my ability to hold a telephoto lens steady. A tripod would be of little use on a commercial airboat ride. The vibrations of the boat on the water would be transmitted through the tripod and actually add to camera vibration. I chose my Nikkor 18-135mm zoom. It provides enough magnification to get reasonably good shots at fair distances and the zoom allows me to compose photos at intermediate distances. Also, if your camera accepts lens filters, a polarizing filter will help control reflections off of the water and add dramatic blues and textures to the sky. Keep in mind that you are on the water. Keep camera straps around your neck or wrist to avoid accidentally dropping the camera overboard. Because it was such a perfect day, there was little spray as we darted and dashed around the lake, but I did bring a plastic bag to protect my camera from a rain shower or spray caused by rough water.
For more information:
BOGGY CREEK AIRBOAT RIDES