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The River Mild

For years I shot across the Caloosahatchee River on I-75, where the river is a wide estuary. Below the bridge, I'd seen sculling craft, and in strong winds, storm waters rising over its seawalls. I'd also crossed the drawbridge at S.R. 31, where the river is several hundred yards wide and small islands beckoned to me from below. Signs announced speed zones for manatees, which I'd seen congregate in the hundreds at Manatee Park east of Fort Myers. From other bridges farther east in Alva and LaBelle, I'd caught glimpses of the river's straight, wide path. All tantalizing, but it was like a picture puzzle with a lot of odd-shaped pieces still to fit.

Now I have traveled the river 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. 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.

he primary origin of the caloosahatchee is not from springs, other rivers or a natural wetland, but from Florida's largest lake, Okeechobee. The mother to the Everglades is a modified lake, now encased in a giant granite dike system for flood control.

The river's headwaters begin at a locking mechanism at Moore Haven on Okeechobee's western rim. The water's flow is controlled. When released, it travels 76.6 miles to the Gulf's Intracoastal Waterway, considered the end of the river. From Moore Haven, the seat of Glades County, boaters drop gently onto the river's source.

Actually, 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. 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 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the river is a leg of the Okeechobee Waterway, a cross-state boat path running from St. Lucie Inlet through Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee. Through this waterway come magnificent yachts and sailboats from around the world carrying the wealthy. On bass boats, unshaven fishermen swig beer and fish. From the banks, the boat-deprived watch and try their hands at angling, some with cane poles.

The South Florida Water Manage-ment District refers to the river as C-43 or Canal 43. For district officials, the river is something to be managed, to control floods.

Florida's Department of Environ-mental Protection has designated the Caloosahatchee a recreational waterway rather than a source of drinking water, even though parts of Fort Myers still drink from it. This recreational nature is evident in the fast-moving powerboats and zipping jet-skis that crowd it on weekends.

For some environmentalists, the river is a nightmare. It is the source of thousands of tons of enriching nitrogen blamed for a variety of ecological ailments, including so-called black water thought to damage reefs in the Florida Keys to the south. The construction of the canal altered the river's estuary in size and condition, and ill-timed freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee have dealt it many blows.

The river is named for the Calusa Indians, a fierce tribe who infuriated Spanish missionaries with their freedom and independence. This naming of the mild modern river for the wild Calusa is just one of the diverting disconnects from the river's character.

In order to travel through the lock at Moore Haven, it's necessary to start from Lake Okeechobee. I left Clewiston on a brisk winter morning in the company of Scott Perry on a small sailboat. Perry, who grew up in the small river town of LaBelle, 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, often including 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 Lake Okeechobee and the river. Six young people were on this trip, including a boy who had been caught smoking pot, another in danger of going to jail for allegedly firing a gun at an alligator, and a youngster who had been through a number of foster homes.

As we approached Moore Haven, I was pointing out birds-mostly osprey-when I saw what appeared to be white cliffs looming in the distance. This vision turned out to be tall forests of dead melaleuca, each tree drilled and poisoned in an attempt to rid the lake of these exotic invaders. Such a vast and tall melaleuca forest I'd never seen before.

Perry tied up the sailboat at the entrance to the Moore Haven Lock, waiting for more boats before passing through. He warned the boys, "Be careful not to fall off when the lock's operating. It usually means death." He wasn't joking. A few unfortunates have accidentally died when they've been sucked through powerful Caloosahatchee locks.

Ropes were handed down to the skipper and the mate, in this case a young boy who liked to ride bulls, and who nonchalantly faced death. Let his feet slip on the wet deck, and into the maelstrom he might go.

The lock mechanism is not easily heard. The rapid descent was evident only by the changing watermark on the concrete. In what seemed less than a minute, we dropped four feet. Lock gates opened wide and we bobbed like a cork onto the Caloosahatchee.

Its nature as a canal was evident immediately. From Moore Haven and for quite some distance, the river was straight as a ruler from east to west. Rarely do things have a straight edge in nature, but the river was so undeviatingly straight that speeding powerboats in the distance seemed to take forever to reach us. One section of the river is referred to as the Big Bend, but the bend is so gradual that it's not noticeable from a boat. On most rivers, it's a joy to wonder what lies around the next bend. But the canal lacked surprises.

Between Moore Haven and Ortona Lock, we sailed by Lake Hicpochee. Perry 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 Perry tried to turn the sailboat into an opening to the lake, our rudder dragged bottom. We shifted to one side of the sailboat to raise the other with our combined weight, so the rudder would clear.

It is there in places like Hicpochee, off the main canal, where life carries on.

Farther 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 itself, which many scientists consider biologically barren.

Everywhere you go in Florida, you see birds, but off the lake and on the river, we saw no birds. Perry said they were behind the spoil banks, where there were still things to feed on.

From Moore Haven to Ortona Lock is a distance of 15.5 miles. Moore Haven is the only town. The next stretch, to Franklin Lock, is a trip of 27.9 miles and passes through Alva and LaBelle. Alva was named by Capt. Peter Nelson (who claimed to be the illegitimate son of the king of Denmark) for the white flowers he saw there (the Latin word for white is alba).

The pioneer Francis Asbury Hendry, for whom Hendry County is named, designated LaBelle for his two daughters, Laura and Belle. Ortona was named by an Italian developer for a town in central Italy.

Near Port LaBelle, Perry pointed at limestone blocks in the river-thought to be the remnants of a dynamited waterfall. "This is where we think the waterfall was located," Perry said. "This is the origin of the original Caloosahatchee River-not Lake Okeechobee, but Lake Flirt, which was drained."

On that straight, flat section of the river, it was hard to the original 61-mile Caloosahatchee had begun at Lake Flirt as a substantial waterfall. Florida has a handful of small waterfalls (although none remain in South Florida). The older river was serpentine and turned to all four points of the compass. There were turns like Rope Bend, so sharp it was necessary to leave the boat to tie a rope around a tree and pull the craft around. There was Devil's Elbow, so tight it was "the devil to get around."

In the late 1800s, the entrepreneur Hamilton Disston dynamited the waterfall and drained Lake Flirt. He used a dredge to drive a 48-foot-wide canal straight down the center of the snake-like river.

Disston had bought four-million acres of South Florida for a quarter an acre in 1881. Many historians believe that his purchase saved the state from bankruptcy and paved the way for railroad expansion. Disston intended to drain and sell the Everglades, and to connect the East and West coasts of Florida with his canal.

It's coming true. Not the least of these was his premature demise at the age of 51. Most sources attribute his death to a heart attack, although one newspaper and a distant nephew said he had shot himself in the head. Before the dreamer died, however, his dream destroyed the old Caloosahatchee River and a number of lakes. Later, the Corps of Engineers widened the canal to its present (and almost uniform) width of about 250 feet. Near the end of our journey together, Perry pulled a trumpet from a case and played Florida State University's Seminole fight song in celebration. He did this in the riverbank back yard of a graduate of the rival University of Florida.

Some time later, i joined Rae Ann Wessel for the second leg of my journey on the river: an exploration of the Caloosahatchee's oxbows, the living parts of the dead river. These are the severed river bends of the original Caloosahatchee. In front of each oxbow stands an island, part of the old riverbank remaining from the time when the river kept its curves.

An authority on oxbows, Wessel leads tours with her ecotour company, Fort Myers-based Ecosystem Specialists. She has helped obtain funds totaling $6.5 million for oxbow restoration, as these remnants tend to silt in.

"They harbor life," Wessel said of the oxbows. "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," she said. "Also, restoration may mean changing the vegetation, removing exotics and replacing them with native plants."

Oxbows are so important that Wessel suggested it might benefit the river's health to create new ones. Perhaps this could be done on that stretch from Moore Haven to Ortona, a river segment as straight as the path of a bullet.

Palatial homes line some of the oxbows. A few are bordered by orange groves. Deteriorating, derelict boats decorate others. Some oxbows are in a relatively natural state. We entered almost all of 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 Wessel's smallest boat, a 14-foot Orlando Clipper, which felt as if it had a 100-horsepower engine on its transom. We were close to 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 sharp starboard turn avoided a collision. Exploring this river, even by powerboat, held more dangers than I'd expected.

Some time after my ride with wessel, photographer Jim Phillips and I took small canoes out of Franklin Lock for the final part of the journey. We explored some other healthy and living parts of the river that remain in small tributaries. Perry and Wessel had recom-mended two easily accessed streams, Hickey's and Telegraph creeks, for their beauty. These are not trips for sail or powerboats but for canoes and kayaks. The beautiful streams are alive with cypress draped with bromeliads, climbing aster in season, vines, alligators and snakes.

Hickey's Creek enters on the south bank, west of Caloosahatchee Regional Park and east of Franklin Lock. On windy days, tandem paddlers will want a strong companion, for on the wide river the wind is a powerful factor.

Several years earlier, I'd paddled Hickey's Creek to help with research for a book I was writing. The creek is one of 38 state-designated canoe trails. There were very few houses then, but times have changed. Fortunately, Hickey's Creek Mitigation Park has preserved a bit of nature. There is prolific life in this beautiful, narrow, winding stream.

A few miles west of Hickey's Creek, and on the opposite bank of the river, Telegraph Creek connects to Telegraph Swamp on the Babcock Ranch, which straddles Lee and Charlotte counties. Unlike Hickey's Creek, this stream lacks extensive housing development. Paddlers glide by natural conditions and some cattle ranches. Although locals paddle Telegraph Creek, it's little known to the state's metropolitan canoe and kayak clubs. It was there that I saw a most horrific sight: A large gator was missing the top of its snout, ripped away, perhaps, by another gator in a struggle, or by a motorboat prop. Unable to eat, the animal would starve.

A different kind of life exists nearby on the Orange River, another tributary to the Caloosahatchee. On cold days, up to 500 manatees have been seen congregating in the warm run of a canal to the FPL power plant off S.R. 80. In winter, visitors watch them at Manatee Park east of I-75.

I ended my multi-day sailboat/ powerboat/canoe trip at Centennial Park in downtown Fort Myers. Although I knew the river better, I still 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 beside golf courses.

The enigmatic river typifies South Florida in many ways. Human engineering and the visions of pioneers have altered the landscape irretrievably, but left us natural spots to protect, preserve and nurture. I thought of Perry's kids working on restoration projects and digging for fossils. I thought of Rae Ann Wessel, whose love for the living parts of the river have helped restore some of its oxbows; of things seen, like the oxbows and the suffering alligator, and unseen, like the birds that once thrived here.

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 blend of history, engineering, natural areas, flawed human visions, precious living parts and present-day hopes. It is as much South Florida as anything can be.

River Resources

Caloosahatchee Alternative Programs, Clewiston. Sailboat ecotours,

contact Scott Perry: (239) 823-3484 or cyda_33440@yahoo.com.

Caloosahatchee Regional Park, Alva. (239) 693-2690. www.leeparks.org.

Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program, North Fort Myers.

(239) 995-1777. www.charlotteharbornep.org.

Ecosystem Specialists, Fort Myers. Boat ecotours, contact Rae Ann Wessel: (239) 731-7559 or rawessel@att.net.

Hickey's Creek Mitigation Park, Alva. (239) 728-6240. www.leeparks.org.

Manatee Park, Fort Myers. (239) 694-3537. www.leeparks.org.

Manatee World, Fort Myers. Regularly scheduled tours of the Orange River, (239) 693-1434, www.manateeworld.com.

Okeechobee Waterway, Clewiston-to-Fort Myers section.

(239) 694-2582, www.saj.usace.army.mil/recreation.

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