There's a way to see the "real" Florida–and no, it doesn't involve going to Wal-Mart to watch snowbirds buy bananas and pick up their prescriptions.
To see the real Florida, just hop an airboat. They may be noisy, but they give a bird's eye–and an alligator's eye–view of Florida's abundant waterways.Jon Scott of Airboat Wildlife Adventures in Sebring offers airboat tours in Central Florida year-round, although he's usually busiest in the winter catering all day to tourists. Summer business can go down to as little as two tours a month, but Scott says that locals and those afraid of the heat are missing out. Airboating actually provides a summer breeze that other outdoor activities can't offer.
On an airboat tour this Memorial Day weekend with Scott ($35/person, $105 for three people for about 90 minutes), we checked in at Neiberts Fishing Resort–a bar/fishing place off of 98 in Sebring next to Arbuckle Creek and a campground/trailer park. A large black lab greeted us, along with a few children looking for frogs and a skinny older man with a beard and baseball cap drinking a Bud Light on the patio at 10 a.m. "You don't have to pay till you get back, make sure you all come back first," the man working at Neiberts jokingly (?) told us.
Down by the Creek–and Lake and Marsh
When you're on an airboat, you feel as if you're floating–or sometimes, flying. With little effort, the boat coasts along the water and then over lilypads, marsh, mud, and even mild roller-coaster-like hills, where you hold on to your belongings. Just when you think you're going to hit something in the water and tumble over, the airboat deftly avoids dangers in its path. Your feet vibrate from the feel of the motor and you feel the wind and sun on your face. When going through rougher spots, some water and perhaps bugs spit on your face.You also realize the airboat is loud–that's why many wear ear protection on the boat. In fact, an airboat's noise causes many others on the water to view it as a nuisance. However, as Scott points out, you can see a lot more nature in an airboat than in other kinds of boats, as the boat can go on land and through very shallow water. Additionally, Scott says an airboat can cause less nature damage than other kinds of boats.
The quest to ban airboats from various Florida waterways prompted the Florida Airboat Association to hire a lobbyist. There have been numerous town meetings throughout Florida where wealthy owners of homes on the water have complained about the noise, aruging against a group of tough airboat owners, Scott says. To help the airboat's reputation, Scott is careful to keep his motor low or turn it off completely when near other boats. He's also quick to wave hello to help prevent dirty looks.Scott, who grew up in Southwest Florida and has ridden airboats all of his life, has operated his business for about six years. He's had tourists from far-flung areas like Japan come on the tour who want their once-in-a-lifetime chance to see alligators. Others are more interested in general sightseeing and nature spotting. And nature spotting is not a problem on this tour, as owls, wild turkey, ducks, buzzards, egrets, herons, turtles, squirrels, fish, and yes, alligators, are seen. However, on this particular tour, Scott's efforts to help us see alligators were thrwarted by the large number of boaters out fishing, which scared many alligators off. Still, we did see two small alligators that Scott averaged to be a year old.
In addition to wildlife, the nature views on Scott's airboat ride are spectactular–all shades of green–so much so that the water looks green from the reflection of the trees. Then once you go through windy creek areas, you make it out into Lake Istokpoka, seeing sky blue water all around you and some land a few miles away. Lake Istokpoka, which is 11 miles wide, is the fifth largest lake in Florida, although it's only a tenth of the size of Lake Okeechobee. There are a couple of islands on Lake Istokpoka for cattle grazing. You can also see, as we did, an old airplane that crashed in 1979. Although you'll hear different stories, Scott says that the operator was a drug runner who survived the crash. Cocaine was found on the plane.You never know what gator lore will come out of an airboat ride. On one occasion, Scott and his clients watched an alligator kill and try to eat a 125-lb. wild hog, which took a lot longer than you might think. Many times, he'll see the same gators in the same spots, usually mama gators watching their nests or their babies. He likens gator spotting to hustling.
Scott's area in Arbuckle Creek and Lake Istokpoka is, of course, not the only place in Florida to experience an airboat ride. Airboat rides are famous in the Everglades. Additionally, there's a spot off of Route 60 between Lake Wales and Vero Beach on Lake Kissimmee where hundreds of airboats gather. Scott describes that particularly verdant area as "Florida's Amazon."Scott of Airboat Wildlife Adventures can be reached at 863-655-4737. “][/caption]
I had trouble adding links to this post, so for more information about airboats and places mentioned in this article, just follow these links:
Neiberts Fishing Resort
Florida Airboat Association