Cowboys in Florida?
When it comes to Florida, my first thoughts are always of South Beach in Miami where I lived for a year back in the 1990’s. Beaches, Art Deco buildings, photographing pretty girls, and the non stop party atmosphere were all great things to experience and I really loved my time in South Florida. Those things, well, that was the definition of Florida to me… Until my visit this summer to beautiful Creek Ranch, situated on Lake Hatchineha in central Florida. After spending a few wonderful days at Creek Ranch, a few new words were added to my vocabulary when it comes to describing Florida. Rustic, bucolic, pristine are all new ways of looking at Florida for me now. I literally had no idea that cattle ranches existed in Florida and even though I knew of the lakes in central Florida, I never imagined how beautiful this area could be, or what a sense of peace I’d feel in this unique part of the United States.
This ain’t no typical dude ranch
Now you may be thinking, okay Florida has cattle ranches, so what? After all, there are cattle ranches everywhere, right? True enough, but I doubt that you’ll find another ranch quite like Creek Ranch. Why? That’s easy, the location and the people that own and run the place. The photos that I’m sharing with you today will convey how beautiful and peaceful the area around Lake Hatchineha is, but I need to tell you myself about Jane, Dameron, and Jim Black and how they made me feel at home from the moment I parked my car, to the minutes before departing for the airport.
I’m lucky to travel to a lot of nice places, but it isn’t often that I get the chance to spend time in such luxurious yet cozy surroundings. The feeling of contentment and sense of tranquility I felt, were not what I expected on a fully functioning cattle ranch. This is a testament to the attention to detail and high standards that the Black family insists upon when it comes to the comfort of their guests. I say this because it is true. I am not being paid for writing this post or for taking the photos and I truly did love my experience at the ranch.
Cows and Conquistadors
Hernando de Soto (c.1496/1497–1542) was a Spanish explorer and conquistador who, while leading the first European expedition deep into the territory of the modern-day United States, was the first European documented to have crossed the Mississippi River. He was also the first person to introduce cattle to North America and the first place he did that was Florida.
Looks like Florida has a long history with cattle and cattle ranches. In fact, I’m told that the largest cattle ranch in the United States is not in Texas or Montana as I would have imagined, but in Florida.
In an email I received from Jim Black, he went on to tell me:
“The next big thing to hit central Florida (after the arrival of cattle) was citrus which is what eventually led my grandfather to purchasing 1,400 acres now known as Creek Ranch. My grandfather, Emory Cocke, started a plant in Haines City which converted citrus pulp to cattle feed. He would ship this feed to other parts of the U.S. and overseas where the cattle could not get this source of nutrition.”
Sounds like Jim’s grandfather was quite the visionary.
Cowboys and Oranges
Unlike many modern day ranches who have switched to ATVs, Creek Ranch still uses quarter horses to round up their cattle. This is one of the many activities that guests can participate in during their stay.
Some other activities include:
- Riding lessons
- Learn saddling, lassoing, and roping
- Cruises on a pontoon boat
- Nature hikes
- Wildlife spotting
- Photography (of course!)
- Airboat rides (more fun than you can shake a stick at, trust me!!)
- Swimming (pool and lake)
- Swamp buggy & ATV rides
- Fruit picking
And this is just the list of outdoor activities.
Eagles and Alligators
What can you see on a typical day at creek ranch? The easiest answer is to tell you to look at the photos here, but there is so much more. I’m not a wildlife shooter and while I’d love to take the time to get some incredible images of all the beautiful birds, reptiles, and mammals that can be found at the ranch, I know how long it can take to get that one good wildlife shot. My time was limited and I was quite content just observing all the animals.
I saw hawks, eagles, alligators, opossums, deer, raccoons, pheasants, wild turkeys, cranes, egrets and a host of other birds that I don’t have the name for.
Take a look at the over 90 species of birds that you stand a chance of seeing during your time at Creek Ranch.
Once you are done with your outdoor activities, there is a whole lot of relaxing to do upon returning to the friendly confines of what the Black’s charmingly refer to as “the Bunkhouse.”
Each of the seven bedrooms is uniquely decorated in it’s own rustic fashion that will immediately put you in the mood to take yer boots off, put yer feet up, and take a load off. Ahhh, southern hospitality, the stuff of legends comes true here.
There are several cozy living rooms, including a large one with a stellar library packed with art books as well as all the reading material you could want on the history and natural beauty of the region. Want to curl up with a first edition? This is the place to do it, as you’ll find several of those amongst all the other fine reading material.
“Cultivation to the mind is as necessary as food to the body.”
Marcus Tullius Cicero
I had no idea that Cicero had visited Creek Ranch ;)
Speaking of food…
Holy cow (pun intended) the food that I enjoyed with the other guests was out of this world delicious. It’s not often that I get a private chef who has cooked for “A” list celebrities and ex US presidents, but that is what you get here. Brunches were decadent beyond belief and all the ingredients were fresh and locally grown. For our dinners, the chef started us out with the perfect amuse-guelle, followed by several courses of what can only be described as art on a plate. Of course the perfect wine was selected to go along with our dinners and the company was as good as the food.
Ironically the chef was also from Montreal but now living in Miami. He was fun to talk with and I had the pleasure of spending some time chatting with him in French, as he was busy creating his nightly masterpieces.
Fortune favours the hungry
While I was busy taking photos from the wee hours of the morning to sunset, I could always count on a perfect meal with kind hosts and interesting dinner companions. Lucky for me that the Blacks were having some of their friends from Atlanta over during my visit to the ranch. The discussion changed from evening to evening but it was always interesting and I made sure to sit next to new people each night.
The conversation would flow from environmentalism, to politics, sports, travel, love, family, food and everything in between. I truly was in good company and I’m particularly grateful to Jane for our open and kindhearted talks. Since I’m used to travelling alone, it was a special treat for me to join such an interesting group of people for some engrossing discussions.
“Lost, yesterday, somewhere between sunrise and sunset, two golden hours, each set with sixty diamond minutes. No reward is offered for they are gone forever.”
Each morning I would get up well before sunrise, to be able to capture the magical light that only lasts for a brief moment in the early moments of dawn. I do love a sunset, but there is something mystical about the solitude of a sunrise. As I would make my way down to the shores of Lake Hatchineha in the darkness, I knew that I would be in for a treat when the sun would finally edge it’s way over the horizon. While everyone else was asleep, I felt like a kid on Christmas eve waiting to be able to open my first present.
As the mist rolled over the waterway that led from the boathouse to the lake, I smiled in anticipation of seeing the photographic results upon my return home. Sitting for long hours at my desk, editing and retouching images is nowhere near as enjoyable as the moment I capture my photos, but it does allow me to revisit those wonderful moments where the world seems to stand still for that perfect brief instant.
“Fun is good.”
If you get the opportunity to visit Creek Ranch, do yourself a favour and make sure that you request an airboat ride, or two, or ten! I’m still trying to wipe that silly grin off my face, after having so much fun on the airboat. Justin was my airboat pilot extraordinaire and I just wish that I could learn how to drive that crazy boat like he does so well. With a skillful touch Justin piloted the boat from the lake to narrow waterways lined with spectacular Cypress trees, then onto dry ground for several kilometres until we reached the place in the photo above.
I had taken an airboat ride in the Everglades back in the 1990’s and even had a rather scary encounter with alligators. This time it was all pure fun and you’ll be in good hands with Justin as your captain and guide. Wear lots of sunscreen and a hat as it can get quite brutal under the Florida sun, and don’t forget your camera! You’re bound to see some sights that will leave you breathless.
Disney Wilderness Preserve
Just a few minutes drive from the ranch you’ll find the 12,000 acre Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve. I was able to visit only briefly since Jim had arranged special permission for us to get onto the grounds after closing.
Our guide Kaiden was kind enough to take time after his regular work hours to show us around. Not only was he a great sport, but you could just hear the passion in his voice about his job and how much he cared about preserving the natural beauty of the environment. We decided that our main goal was to get to where there were a few of these beautiful Cypress trees in the water on Lake Russel. Usually you’d see these trees on the shores of the lakes and not this far into the water. So it was a special treat for me to be able to get to this remote area to capture the one shot you see above.
Why didn’t I take more photos? Two words come to mind. Epic Thunderstorm.
Literally 30 seconds after capturing this photo, the heavens opened up to what could have mistakenly been thought of as the commencement to the Rapture. ;) I don’t kid! Lucky for me that I was even able to get the one photo. This Cypress tree photo has become one of my favourites from my Florida trip and makes me want to get back into black & white photography.
Kaiden, Jim and I got soaked to the bone on the trip back to shore. We were just praying that the electric motor wouldn’t die on us as it was sputtering erratically on the wet ride back to shore. We made it back safe yet soaked and were able to get back to the ranch in time for a rather spectacular sunset.
The last sunset on the last day
On the very last day I took the morning off to sleep in. After a few days of country air, gourmet food and fine wine, all I was missing was one deliciously decadent morning where I could actually get up after sunrise. I felt recharged and looked forward to a more tranquil day and I got it. I have not been to many places that rival the calm stillness that I felt at the ranch and I rarely return home from a trip rested and relaxed. I’m happy to say that this trip was the exception to the rule of coming home and needing a few days to recover.
On that last day Jim took me to nearby Lake Pierce for what turned out to be quite a spectacular sunset. I had my share of sunrises, sunsets, boat rides, wildlife encounters, fabulous meals, interesting discussions and wonderful photo ops.
This was a very unique experience for me and I enjoyed every last minute of it. I came away from my time at Creek Ranch with a better understanding of the diversity of the ecosystem in Florida as well as the history of the state. I returned home with photos that will be lifelong reminders of this great place and the people that I met. I also came home 5 pounds heavier, but that was well worth it! :D
Jim and I made one last stop on the drive home. I wanted to get a shot of the old “Cracker Barn” that is on the property. It looks all eerie at night with that solitary bulb illuminating the weather beaten wood of the exterior of the building. Almost as a reminder that my trip was over, it once again began to rain moments after I took this final shot.
It was time to go home.
Special thanks to the Black family for their warm welcome and for showing me the true meaning of “Southern Hospitality.” I hope our paths cross again one day.
For more info on Creek Ranch, please visit their new website: