THE CALOOSAHATCHEE ENIGMA

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

THE CALOOSAHATCHEE ENIGMA 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 floods.

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 character. 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 canal.

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 Calusas.

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, Rawessel@att.net 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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