Florida family vacation ruins the rest of winter

Absolutely perfect weather for a week in Florida during February has made this already miserable winter nearly unbearable. It was around 80 degrees every day with blue skies and a slight breeze. At night, sitting outside in shorts and a sweatshirt, listening to waves roll up on the beach and gazing at a star-filled sky, I made a commitment to become a snowbird if I ever retire for real.

After fishing for a few days with friends around home, I took my family to Florida to spend a week in the sunshine and attend my cousin Mallory’s wedding. The trip was to be split between time at Lake Okeechobee and Siesta Key. The idea being the best of both worlds — a little crappie fishing and beach sitting.

Way back in the day, my Great-Great Uncle Chet bought a small place in the town of Okeechobee, Florida. The house sits on a canal that leads to the locks which you must go through to access Lake Okeechobee. Chet passed away last year, but his daughter Kim and her husband Don have moved to Okeechobee. They built a beautiful retirement home just a few canals over from Chet’s. When you talk to them about the winter weather going on back home, they just laugh and head out fishing with sunscreen on.

An aunt of mine had put it in my daughters’ minds that they didn’t want to go to Okeechobee, because it’s nothing more than a swamp with nothing to do but swat mosquitos and avoid alligators. So you can imagine the joy I had dealing with 13- and 12-year-old girls whining about not wanting to “waste their vacation” for weeks leading up to the trip. They fussed about going to Okeechobee and how they already knew they weren’t going to like it.

You know those rare moments you have as a parent when teenagers admit being wrong? Yep, this was a big one for me. The girls couldn’t even pretend to not like it there. They rode bikes, picked fruit, fed shore birds, went for boat rides and fished. The highlight though, was an airboat ride we took in the marsh surrounding the lake. It was just one of those times when the stars aligned, and the weather was perfect for alligator viewing. The prehistoric beasts were everywhere.

I’ve seen plenty of alligators in my life, but on this boat ride, we encountered a slew of babies I’d never seen anything like. This big momma had a couple dozen little ones, and they were active. At about 12-to-14 inches long, the babies were swimming around our boat and climbing all over the reeds in front of us. Momma kept a watchful eye on us, but never showed any aggression. My girls thought it was really neat, and I hope it’s a moment they’ll remember.

Lake Okeechobee is known for its fishing. That’s the draw. The town itself is rather small, but big enough for a Wal-Mart and flea market. It’s an entirely different world than the Florida most people experience. It’s the part of Florida I’m attracted to. It’s country. Plus, you can be to the beach on the Atlantic side in less than one hour and to the Gulf of Mexico in an hour and a half. The cost of living is affordable for an average person, and so is vacationing there. The bass and crappie are the draw, but there are a lot of hunting opportunities too, and I hope to be back real soon chasing an Osceola turkey.

We left Okeechobee and headed to Siesta Key for the wedding. As it always is, it was real nice to spend time with family, and the wedding itself was beautiful. But traffic was bumper-to-bumper, everything was incredibly expensive, my one-bedroom condo rental for four days cost more than my monthly mortgage. The beach at Siesta Key is amazing, though. This place would be a perfect day trip, but as far as Florida is concerned, it’s Okeechobee for a guy like me.

Well, my mid-life retirement has come to an end. It was an amazing 11 days. I certainly recognize how good I’m going to be at it when I actually do retire. Now 40 years old, I’m on the downhill slide. If things go as planned, I’m 20-to-25 years away from waking up each day and walking down to my boat for another day of doing whatever I want. So here’s to all you real retirees. Enjoy it.

See you down the trail …