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Ripples Of Laughter; A Park Ranger Mixes Humor With Natural Lore To Enliven His Guided Canoe Trips At Oscar Scherer State Park.
By JANEL STEPHENS
November 6, 2003
Park ranger Israel "Izzy" Gonzalez knows how to make people smile, which can be a feat at 9 o'clock in the morning, in a canoe.
One of seven park rangers who conduct guided canoe tours at Oscar Scherer State Park, Gonzalez weaves humor with his knowledge of nature to make the mile-and- a-half tour along South Creek enjoyable.
"It's nice and peaceful out here on the creek," Gonzalez said, dipping a paddle in the murky water. "And to think they pay me for this."
He's used humor to deal with a divorce from "a long marriage I don't like talking about," he said. He crafted his jokes at McCurdy's Comedy Club in Sarasota and took them on the road, with some naturally spilling over into his workplace.
"I only do this because my ex-wife needs the money," Gonzalez said with a smile.
"You get people who ask how fast the canoes go," said the 55- year-old man with bluish-green eyes and a pepper-gray mustache. "I tell them it's a rowboat, how fast can you row?"
This was the first canoe ride at the park for Richard Nuzzo, 57, and his wife, Mary, recently retired to Venice from Connecticut. Mary, a striking 63-year-old woman with blond hair, was concerned about falling in the water because she didn't know how to swim.
The creek is 8 feet at its deepest, and mere inches in other sections, Gonzalez assured the three couples participating in the tour.
"Nine times out of 10, you don't have to freak out, just stand up," said Gonzalez.
A native of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, Gonzalez moved to Miami with his family when he was 2 and lived there during his childhood years, before enlisting in the Army in the 1960s. He worked for a marketing company that uses interactive robots, and he has taught children in an anti-drug program.
He has worked as an Oscar Scherer park ranger for more than eight years and has lived at the park in a mobile home for three.
"Not very many people have 14 acres for a back yard," Gonzalez said. "I've got the woods here, I canoe anytime I want, fish anytime I want."
He knows the South Creek and the park like he knows his family.
"See these vines over there," he said. "It takes a whole mess of them to make jelly and wine.
"I knew this ranger that made two kinds of wine -- one for guests and a special one for himself. I asked what makes his wine so special and he said he just lets it sit a little longer. I had a taste of his wine and, let me tell you, it sure gets the tongue wagging."
Gonzalez has also tasted many of the edible plants along the creek, such as cabbage palms and cattails.
"You can cook the cattails up like corn dogs and eat them," he said. "If disgusting was a flavor, that's it."
His boss, park manager Scott Spaulding, says Gonzalez is a favorite among visitors.
"He often gets favorable comments on his canoe program," Spaulding said. "He gets people laughing. When he works in the ranger station, he always tries to entertain folks and keep them happy."
Guided canoe tours are held every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. in Oscar Scherer State Park. The tour costs $5.35 per hour; admission to the park is $3.25.
Call (941) 483-5956 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. for more information.