Cold Comfort

A small, hurricane-damaged nudist club faces a tough winter.

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click to enlarge DOWN IN THE DEPTHS: Wilma Karner and the - Island Group's beleaguered pool. - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
DOWN IN THE DEPTHS: Wilma Karner and the Island Group's beleaguered pool.

'Oh, my poor pool," says Wilma Karner, staring at her reflection in the murky green liquid below her.Nothing is as it should be. Without any care for the last five months, the normally crystal blue, perfectly chlorinated water has morphed into the kind of sludge you'd expect to see Bill Murray battling in Ghostbusters. And Karner, a 73-year-old nudist with short blond hair and an almost disturbingly well-tanned face, is battling the cold in a yellow cardigan and a pair of sweatpants. Her pool has turned to sludge, her tan-line-free body is under wraps and her nudist club hasn't seen a guest in five months.

Nothing is as it should be.

The aptly named Island Group, a small member-owned nudist club set on an island in Land O' Lakes, has been closed since Charley hit in August. Once a thriving playground full of naked folks swimming and dancing and even doing yoga, the Island has been reduced to a tangle of broken trees and mangled fences. And the pool, the poor pool, is bordering on toxic.

Karner, who lives in a house just across a narrow channel from the island, is the club's caretaker. While most of her neighbors evacuated during the hurricanes, she stuck by the island, watching the rain flood the grounds and the wind uproot the punk trees (the colloquial name for melaleucas). She laughs when asked what witnessing a hurricane was like. "It wasn't as bad as WWII," says the German-born Karner. "But, it was very scary."

Things have gotten worse for Karner since August. For one, it's been cold lately, which has forced her to cover up. "I don't envy you 'textiles'," Karner said recently, referring to her clothed counterparts. "Always having to wear clothes? That would drive me up a tree."

Yet for Karner there is a worse fate than masquerading as a textile — the retired mortician's beautician has nothing to fill her days anymore. "I feel lost," she says. The club was her life. She opened the doors in the morning, collected the $10 entrance fee, then watched over the day's activities and made sure new guests didn't get out of hand. (Apparently, some people don't come to nudist camps just to feel the wind on those hard-to-reach places.) But with no money to bank and no frisky first-time nudists to reprimand, Karner's bored. And the club is broke.

Central Pasco county could easily be the unofficial nudist capital of the world — there are six clubs recognized by the American Association for Nude Recreation in Land O' Lakes and Lutz alone. Each has its own niche. There are the two big clubs, Paradise Lakes and Caliente; the latter, a Vegas-style resort that opened this year, attracted a degree of notoriety in March when Paris Hilton stopped by and defrocked for a segment of The Simple Life 2. Then there are the old rustic spots, like the Lake Como Family Nudist Resort in Lutz, which made headlines last year for hosting the first nude youth summer camp in Florida. It's home to almost 400 people, most of whom live in RVs.

And there's The Island Group, the only club in Central Pasco without on-site living quarters. The other staples of nudist culture are here — the spa, the tennis court and, of course, the pool — but the Island has never been extravagant. "We're the laid-back club," says Island Group secretary Lucy Parker, a member for the last 10 years and a nudist since her husband first brought her to a club more than 40 years ago. "We're not very exotic at the Island," she says. "We represent the old nudism."

But even before the hurricanes arrived, the old nudism was taking a hit. "We've been in survival mode for a while now," Parker says. Islanders have always been members of the bigger clubs — Karner herself lived at Paradise Lakes for 10 years and is still a member. But with the opening of Caliente, Parker says, many Island members stopped showing up, taking their membership fees with them. "They just trickled off," Karner says.

Nudism has become a tourist industry, and as with any industry, competition has propped some clubs up and beaten others down. But nudism is also a way of life — a way of life that many "textiles" don't understand or don't approve of. And even if they're in competition, nudist clubs in central Pasco look out for one another.

Paradise Lakes and Caliente gave Island members a free month's pass after the hurricanes. And The Farmhouse Restaurant at Lake Como hosted a fundraising dinner. "I've always loved that club," says Farmhouse owner Nancy Rehling. "It's such a tasty little tucked-away secret."

Rehling says the nudist community always sticks together. "We were so lucky here at Lake Como," she says. "And I just thought, 'Heck, we should do something for them.'" Rehling says the dinner raised $500, or about 10 percent of what Parker expects will be needed to get the club up and running again.

Karner says she hopes the Island will be open by the end of February, when hurricane season will be long gone and the mercury back to more nude-friendly heights. But there's a lot to be done for the club to get back to normal. Walking around its decimated grounds, stepping over felled trees and through busted fences, she still notices the little things. She can't pick up a tree trunk, but she can pluck unwanted weeds.

So that's what she does. Wilma Karner takes care of the place. Just as it should be.[email protected]

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