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July 1, 2008

Author's Note: This article in a slightly altered version appeared in Gulf Shore Life.



There was something troubling me about the Caloosahatchee River. It
started long before the day I almost died.

Two hours before sunrise I was heading east, rolling on radials through
thick early morning fog on SR-74. My destination was Clewiston, where a
sailboat awaited to take me on my first exploration of the
Caloosahatchee. Ahead, the flickering headlights of a school bus warned
me, and I suddenly had a bad feeling. I pulled off road, almost
cascading into a substantial ditch. A rock hauler swung around the
school bus, the truck mirror clearing the roof of my Honda by inches.
The Caloosahatchee River exploration has almost caused me to be road
kill. No wonder I was troubled.

For years I shot across the Caloosahatchee River on I-75 where the
river is a wide estuary. Below I had seen sculling craft, and in strong
seas, storm waters rising over seawall. I ambled slower over the
drawbridge at SR-31, where the river is several hundred yards wide.

Small beckoning islands called to me from the 31-Bridge. Signs announced
speed zones for manatees, whose congregations at Manatee Park on SR-80,
I witnessed in the hundreds. From other bridges in the small communities
of Alva and LaBelle (east of Fort Myers) other river glimpses showed a
straight and wide path. All tantalizing, but it was like a picture
puzzle with a lot of odd shaped and similar pieces still to fit.

Now I have traveled the river surface in its entirety, yet the
Caloosahatchee has become more perplexing rather than less. The river is
not a simple thing. It is a complex of many parts. While to some the
river is a playground, to others it is a nightmare. It's a river with
many contrasts and contradictions. And that's just the beginning.
The river's primary origin is not from springs, other rivers, or a
wetland in natural condition, but from Florida's largest lake,
Okeechobee. The mother to the Everglades is a modified lake, now encased
in a giant granite dike system as part of flood control.

The river's headwaters begin at a locking mechanism at Moore Haven on
Okeechobee's western rim. The waters do not flow but are controlled.
When released, river waters travel 76.6 miles to the Gulf Intracoastal,
considered the end of the river. From Moore Haven, the county seat of
Glades County located on US-27, the boating traveler is dropped gently
onto the river's first foot.

Scientists do not refer to the Caloosahatchee as a river at all. For
those who study rivers, it is classified as a canal, like the Suez or
the Panama canals. Florida's canal is longer than the Panama Canal, but
shorter than the Suez. Our canal is not designed to carry the giant
ocean vessels of her sister canals.

To the Corps of Engineers, the river is a leg of the Okeechobee
Waterway, a cross-state boat path running from St. Lucie's Inlet through
Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River. Through this waterway
come magnificent yachts and sailboats from around the world carrying the
wealthy, while on bass boats unshaven fishermen swigging beer are
fishing with cane poles, and from the banks, the boat deprived watch and
try their hands at angling.

The South Florida Water Management District refers to the river as C-43
or Canal 43. For them, the river is something to be managed to control

Florida's Department of Environmental Protection has designated the
Caloosahatchee a recreational waterway, rather than designate it a
source of drinking water, even though parts of Fort Myers still drink
from it. This recreational nature is evident in the fast moving bass
boats and zipping jet skies.

For some environmentalists, the river is a nightmare. It is the source
of thousands of annual tons of enriching nitrogen blamed for a variety
of ecological ailments, including so-called "black water"  damaging Key
reefs to the south. The construction of the canal altered the estuary,
and ill-timed freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee have dealth it
many blows.

The river is named for the Calusa Indians, who never witnessed the
modern river. The Calusas were a fierce tribe, now totally extirpated,
who infuriated Spanish missionaries not only by killing their
converters, but with convenient conversions and by frequent
brother-sister marriages. This naming of the modern river for the Calusa
is just one of the diverting disconnects in my mind from the river's

    Onto the River

In order to travel through the lock at Moore Haven it is necessary to
start from Lake Okeechobee. I left Clewiston on a brisk winter morning
in the company of Scott Perry on a sailboat. Scott, who grew-up in the
small rural community of LaBelle on the Caloosahatchee River, is a
sailing enthusiast who also guides river tours in his spare time. As
lead teacher at Clewiston Youth Development Academy, he takes troubled
youths on sailing trips as rewards, often with fossil hunts in the
dredged spoil banks along the canal. His students have ripped out
invasive plants and replanted natural species on school restoration
projects along both Lake Okeechobee and the river.

On this trip were six troubled youths, mostly Hispanic. A boy who had
done weed. Another in danger of going to jail for allegedly firing a gun
at an alligator. A youngster who had been through a number of foster
homes. The kids were distracting me from the river until I realized that
they had as much right to be associated with the modern canal as the
ancient Calusa - maybe more right since their fathers had labored along
its banks, perhaps in the orange groves and sugar cane fields, whereas
the Calusas were generally Indians of the shoreline.

I was pointing-out birds while we approached Moore Haven, mostly
osprey, when I saw what appeared to be white cliffs looming in the
distance. Upon closer inspection, this vision turned-out to be  tall
forests of dead melalucca, each tree drilled and poisoned in an attempt
to rid the lake of it. Such a vast and tall forest of the tree I had
never seen before, whether dead or alive.

Scott parked the sailboat at the entrance into the Moore Haven Lock,
waiting for more boats before we could pass through. When summoned into
the lock, Scott said to the kids, "Be careful not to fall off when the
lock's operating. It usually means death." I thought Scott was joking,
but he was not. The powerful locks suck water out the bottom, and a few
unfortunate people have accidentally died in Caloosahatchee locks.
In the lock, ropes are handed down to the skipper and to a mate, in
this case a young boy who liked to ride bulls. Here was death for a
second time in one day. Let his feet slip on the wet and slippery deck
and into the maelstrom he might go.

The lock mechanism, if it is audible, is not easily heard. Looking at
the changing water mark on the concrete, however, the rapid descent was
evident. In what seemed less than a minute, we dropped four feet. Lock
gates opened wide and we poured forth like a cork onto the
Caloosahatchee River.

Its nature as a canal was evident immediately. From Moore Haven and for
quite some distance, it was straight as a ruler from the east to the
west. It was as straight as SR-74 had been in the morning when the rock
hauler nearly crushed me. Tall spoil banks lined each side of the river;
the only diversion was horses that had escaped and were running free
along the river bank.

Rarely do things have a straight edge in nature. The river was so
undeviatingly straight that power boats in the distance seemed to take
forever to reach us despite running at high speeds. In fact, there don't
appear to be speed zones on the main river.

One section of the river is referred to as The Big Bend, but this is so
gradual, it is not noticeable on a boat. On most rivers, it is a joy to
wonder what lies around the next bend, but surprises were lacking on the

Between Moore Haven and Ortona Lock we sailed by Lake Hicpochee. Scott
joked that this was the name of a redneck's dog, Hick Pochee. The canal
cuts smack down the middle of the lake, dividing it in two, spoil banks
to the left and right.

Each time Scott tried to turn the sailboat into an opening to the lake,
our rudder drug the bottom. We shifted to one side of the sailboat to
raise the other with our combined weight so the rudder would clear, and
the boat turned three-hundred-sixty to avoid becoming mired.

It is in places like Hicpochee, off the main canal, where life carries
on. Further west, there are oxbows (portions of the original river
bends) and natural creeks flowing in. Those are the precious living
parts of the river, not the canal which is biologically dead.
Off the lake and on the river, we saw no birds. Everywhere in Florida
there are birds, but they are apparently rare on the canal. I asked
Scott who said the birds were behind the spoil banks where there were
still things to feed on.

    Another River

From Moore Haven to Ortona Lock is a distance of 15.5 miles, the
single town being Moore Haven. The next stretch to Franklin Lock was a
trip of 27.9 miles, passing through Alva and LaBelle.

The origin of the names Alva, LaBelle, and Ortona add history to the
lore of the Caloosahatchee, another indication that the river will not
fit into a four-sided box with a ribbon tied around it to seal it safely
and neatly in a compartment. Alva was named by Peter Nelson, who claimed
to be the illegitimate son of the King of Denmark, for the white flowers
in his native country. The pioneer Hendry for whom Hendry County is
named designated LaBelle for his two daughters, Laura and Belle, while
Ortona was named by an Italian developer for his native Italy and
apparently means garden spot, something it clearly does not resemble in
present times.

The river was about to become more difficult to explain when  near Port
LaBelle, Scott Perry indicated limestone blocks in the river. "This is
where we think the waterfall was located," Scott said. "This is the
origin of the original Caloosahatchee River, not Lake Okeechobee, but
Lake Flirt, which was drained."

It was mind boggling to imagine the original 61-mile Caloosahatchee
River which began at Lake Flirt with a substantial waterfall. Florida
has a handful of small waterfalls, none remaining in South Florida. This
had not been a little waterfall at all. The older river was serpentine,
twisting, and turned to all four points of the compass. There were turns
like Rope Bend which were so sharp it was necessary to leave the boat to
tie a rope around a tree and pull the boat about it. There was the
Devil's Elbow, so tight it was "the devil to get around."

An entrepreneur named Hamilton Disston dynamited the waterfall and
drained Lake Flirt. He drove a 48-foot wide canal straight down the
center of the snake-like river with a barge in the late 1800s.
Disston had bought 4,000,000 acres of South Florida for a quarter an
acre in 1881, with the right to do whatever he wanted with it. It is
widely believed by historians that his purchase saved the State of
Florida from bankruptcy and paved railroad expansion. Disston intended
to drain the Everglades for land to be sold and to connect the state by
steamboat for water traffic.

A combination of factors wrecked Disston's dream and kept his vision
from coming true, not the least of which may have been a fatal
self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Before the dreamer died,
however, his dream destroyed the old Caloosahatchee River and a number
of lakes, while the river was connected to Lake Okeechobee. Later, the
Corps of Engineers widened the canal to its present (and almost uniform
width) of about 250 feet. The report of the suicide belongs to a Disston
cousin. A corner called it a heart attack. Now it scarcely matters.

    The Living River

My thumb had been up, and Scott Perry had been generous enough to offer
me a ride on his sailboat. Near the end of our leg of the journey, Scott
pulled a trumpet from a case and played the Florida State Seminole fight
song in celebration. He did this in the riverbank backyard of a rival
University of Florida graduate.

Scott turned me over to Rae Ann Wessel for an exploration of the
Caloosahatchee oxbows, living parts of the dead river. These are the
southern or northern severed river bends of the original Caloosahatchee.
In front of each oxbow stands an island, part of the old river bank when
the river did have curves.

Rae Ann is an authority on oxbows, leading tours from her company
Ecosystems Specialists. She has helped obtain two grants totaling
$6,500,000 for oxbow restoration. These remnants tend to silt-in,
sometimes at one opening, other times at both openings. When this
happens, the river is denied the benefits of the oxbows.

I asked Rae Ann why the oxbows were so important. "They harbor life,"
she said. "The water in the canal is dark and deep. Nothing prospers
there. The oxbows shelter everything from micro-invertebrates to fishes
to birds."

How do you restore an oxbow? "When you open one up, you need to
consider how the flow needs to be to keep it open. Also, restoration may
mean changing the vegetation, removing exotics and replacing them with
native plants."

Oxbows are so important to the river that Rae Ann suggested it might be
good for the health of the river to create new oxbows. Perhaps this
could be done on that stretch from Moore Haven to Ortona, a river
segment as straight as the path of a bullet.

Some of the oxbows are inhabited with palatial homes. A few are lined
with orange groves. Deteriorating derelict boats decorate others. A few
oxbows are in a natural state. In each oxbow it is possible to
experience the original river.

We entered almost all the 35 named oxbows between LaBelle and Alva.
There are more, some in the estuary below Franklin Lock, some in the
same stretch but not so easily found or navigable.

Between each oxbow we ripped down the river in a 13-foot boat which
felt like it had a 100-horsepower engine behind it. We were racing
pretty full-out in the main river when I spied a log. "Say, Rae Ann," I
tried to ask without fear, "do you see that?" Her quick sharp starboard
turn avoided a collision. I was reminded again that exploring this river
had held more dangers than I expected.

Other healthy and living parts of the river are found in small
tributaries. Two easily accessed streams, Hickey and Telegraph creeks,
were recommended for their beauty by Scott and Rae Ann. These are not
trips for sail or powerboats but for canoes and kayaks. These are
beautiful streams with cypress draped with bromeliads, climbing aster in
season, vines, alligators and snakes.

Locally it is called Hickey's Creek, but to the State of Florida it is
called Hickey Creek, communications between Tice and Tallahassee
somewhat skewed. Hickey Creek lies on the south bank, accessed by a west
paddle from Caloosahatchee Regional Park or an east paddle from Franklin
Lock. On windy days, paddlers will want a strong companion for on the
wide river the wind is a powerful factor.

Several years before, I had traveled Hickey Creek, one of 38
state-designated canoe trails. There were very few houses then, but
times have changed. Fortunately Hickey Creek Mitigation Park has been
built by it and can be accessed from SR-80. Narrow and winding, there is
prolific life in Hickey Creek, a beautiful stream needing human care.
Telegraph Creek is connected to Telegraph Swamp on the Babcock Ranch.
Unlike Hickey Creek, this paddle lacks so many houses and is mostly in
natural conditions or used by cattle ranching. While locals paddle
Telegraph Creek, it is little-known to the state's metropolitan canoe
and kayak clubs.

On Telegraph Creek, there was an horrific sight, one more random
connection of death and the Caloosahatchee. A large gator was missing
the top snout, the jaw ripped away, perhaps by another gator in a
struggle, or by a motor boat prop collision. The alligator could not eat
and would starve.

A different kind of life can be found on the Orange River, a tributary
to the Caloosahatchee in the estuary. On cold days fleeing from death at
sea, up to 500 manatees have been seen. They congregate in the warm run
of a canal to the power plant on SR-80. They can be witnessed at Manatee
Park on the south side of the road to the east of I-75.

At Centennial Park in downtown Fort Myers, I ended the trip. The river
was now known to me, and I felt filled with observations and
contradictions. Perhaps that's as it should be for a contradictory land
like South Florida, where high-rises overlook the mangroves and cypress
domes exist besides golf courses. It is a land in which live perhaps
millions of alligators, yet where I once did a book signing to raise
funds for an operation on an alligator's jaw who could not eat, like the
one we could not save on Telegraph Creek.

The enigmatic river both typifies and is symbolic of South Florida in
many ways. Human engineering and the visions of pioneers have altered
the landscape irretrievably, while leaving us us natural spots to
protect, preserve, and nurture. I thought of Scott's kids working in
restoration projects and digging for fossils, the next generation. I
thought of Rae Ann Wessel whose love and concern for the living parts of
the river have brought forth grants and improvements. There were the
experiences from avoiding a narrow collision with a rock hauler and a
log, to the sensation of sailing along its surface and dropping in its
locks. There were the things seen, like the oxbows and the suffering
alligator, and the unseen, like the birds. There were images of fishing
rednecks, elitist boaters, Hispanic kids in trouble, and incestuous

The Caloosahatchee is not one single thing. It contains not one great
theme, but many tunes and variations. It is not one vision, but a
kaleidoscope. It is a gestalt of history, engineering, natural living
areas, a biologically dead canal, flawed human visions, precious living
parts, and present day hopes. It is as much South Florida as anything
can be.

Tours, Organizations, Parks

Caloosahatchee Alternative Programs. Sailboat eco-tours. 239-823-3484.
Scott Perry, cyda_33440@yahoo.com
Caloosahatchee Regional Park. www.leeparks.org
Charlotte Harbor Estuary Program. www.charlotteharbornep.org
Ecosystems Specialists. Boat eco-tours, 239-731-7559. Rae Ann Wessel,
Hickey Creek Mitigation Park. www.leeparks.org
Manatee Park. www.leeparks.org
Manatee World. Regularly scheduled tours of the Orange River from Coastl
Marine Mart, 239-693-1434
Okeechobee Waterway, www.saj.usace.army.mil/recreation

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