I’ve always been a sucker for mystique. I was never one to be enthralled by works of fiction. I like real stories.
As a place that has seen so much change over the last century, Florida is a treasure chest of these types of stories. From early settlement to modern day development, some of Florida has changed immensely. But at the same time, a lot of it remains the same.
The wild, raw and unadulterated Florida is still there, and it’s been preserved for us to enjoy. It bounds with wildlife, substance and those very stories I’ve followed much of my life.
A New Jersey native, Vincent Natulkiewicz was believed to have been born in and around 1908. Unlike most from the northeast, Vincent’s travels didn’t lead him directly south to Florida. His original path was winding, leading him through Colorado and eventually into Mexico, where he spent some time in jail under suspicion of gunrunning.
It wasn’t until his release that he decided to head back east, gambling with vagrants to make a living until landing here in South Florida.
Originally settling on the beach by the Jupiter Inlet, he quickly embodied the moniker he became known for. Now going by Trapper Nelson, he lived by trapping, hunting and fishing and began to acquire land holdings in the area throughout the Great Depression, including the estimated 800 acres where his camp still resides today.
He became known as “Tarzan of the Loxahatchee”, eventually opening Trapper Nelson’s Zoo and Jungle Gardens to help offset the seasonal inconsistencies of relying on income from trapping alone. It wasn’t long before tour boats from nearby West Palm Beach would stop for lunch breaks, as Trapper would introduce his animals, wrestle alligators and eventually court heiresses and countesses from Palm Beach.
In July of 1968, Vincent “Trapper” Nelson was found dead by old friend and Jupiter pioneer John DuBois. The death was ruled a suicide despite many still believing foul play to be a factor. His grand-niece was quoted saying “It was my father's opinion that he avoided aiming at his head to spare his considerably handsome face," about the incident.
The Trapper Nelson Challenge
Serendipitously, I learned about the Trapper Nelson Challenge shortly after learning about Trapper himself. Put on by the good folks out at the Jupiter Outdoor Center, the challenge instantly inspired. I set out to find a partner adventurous enough to take the 9-mile paddle with me. After a number of instant rejections, it was our photographer Chase Baker that agreed to take the journey with me. As we planned the impending excursion for the following week, I daydreamed daily about the experience and the colorful life this man lived.
While I didn’t expect to find Trapper on this trip, I wanted to learn about what brought him here.
Past the Second Dam
“Where ya headin’?” Asked the tall, long-haired guide.
“Trappers,” we replied.
His eyes instantly were alight. Having done the trip before, he knew what we were in for and, like a parent sending his kids on the school bus for the first time, was thrilled to deliver us to the wild.
We didn’t know exactly where we were going, and he could tell. Producing a laminated map, he guided us down the river, noting a few key landmarks to look out for along the way.
“Once you pass the second dam, you won’t see many people. The water’s low today, so you’ll really get a feel for the river. They’ll be lots of gators hanging around,” he stated, glancing at us with a grin.
“If you get enough speed up, you could totally jump the dam. Just take your stuff out of the kayak, you’ll definitely get wet.”
After being hooked up with an extra paddle, we were inbound. Two dams later and it looked just as the guide back at JOC described it. Wild and devoid of any human life.
While we encountered our first gator between the first and second dam, the further we descended on the river, the wearier of our presence they seemed to be.
It’s easy to paddle past a 6-footer laid up on the bank like an out-of-state tourist on Juno Beach in March. With nothing on their mind other than soaking up the sun, threatening isn’t the word I’d use to describe them.
However, the further we went down river, they not only seemed to take notice of our passage, in some cases they seemed intrigued to investigate.
As we ducked under fallen trees, avoided spider webs and portaged through the murky water, you couldn’t help thinking about the large reptiles that were inevitably just out of sight. The more we encountered, the more likely they were to be in the water with us.
As we silently begged them to stay where we could see them, very few obliged.
Quickly and blindly, just as in life, we simply just kept paddling.
Welcome to the Zoo
It took about three hours to pull up the boathouse where Tarzan himself would store his various floating vessels.
The sprawling site carved out of the wilderness was ahead of us. Traipsing through the property barefoot seemed like the preferred method of transportation given the history. Walking past cages still labelled for the animals they once enclosed offers a deeper glimpse into the man he was. In addition to making this paddle sometimes twice daily, Trapper was not one to simply paddle past. He lived with and was deeply involved with these wild creatures.
While he relied on these critters for sustenance in many cases, you can’t help but be enthralled with the reverence he undoubtedly had for them as well.
Moving further inland, his four-wheeled land vessel remains preserved on blocks, his now famous moniker posted beneath the windshield. Despite being somewhat of a tourist destination today, visiting the site alone can still give you that deep-rooted feeling of seclusion that the man chased for most of his life.
The Way Back
The four and a half miles into Trapper’s was relatively a breeze outside of navigating the logs, trees and reptiles. Moving down river with the current, it’s not a trip that is overly taxing on the human body.
The challenge, as we know understand it, was the way back.
Moving against the current with a slight breeze in your face makes the two legs of the trips incomparable. Add in low water levels, and you find yourself paddling twice as hard, oftentimes straight into the sandy bottom of the river.
Finding a couple of shady spots for water breaks was key along the way and by 4:30 PM, we painfully arrived back at JOC more tired than when we left and much better for it.
That first beer was almost as magical as the trip itself. Mental struggles aside, it was an awe-inspiring trip down the Lox. As the crow flies, this untamed wilderness is right in our backyard and I would implore all of you to grab a paddle, some water and a good friend and make the trip to see it for yourself.