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Going Deep

We launch the 22-foot pathfinder from punta Rassa, adjacent to the Sanibel Causeway. The heat is already climbing to July heights at 10:30 a.m. When my brother Steve Katz launches his boat, usually it is at dawn, and his boat is pointed toward Gulf waters. But today Steve and I are headed upriver, to journey the length of the Caloosahatchee from southern Lee County to its northeast boundary.

 I’ve lived in Lee County for 15 years, currently less than a block from the river. Yet I admit to casual indifference to the river’s presence. Worse yet, I’ve a true northerner’s ambivalence to calling Florida home, and frankly I’ve dismissed this area as being too new, too transient and too shallow a place to ever cast my roots.

As dedicated a boater and fisherman as my brother is, he has not traveled as far upriver as we plan to travel today. Steve realizes that his GPS isn’t working. He wiggles switches and fiddles fuses, curses, calls one of his marina buddies and decides that we can head out without the aid of GPS or the company of music. The other boat controls are working fine, and it’s only the river.

But after today, there will be no more indifference toward the river that exerts such economic, social and ecological significance on the land it runs through. Today, I will meet the river and learn some of her stories.

Channel marker 99 in pine island sound marks the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River. The immaculate white boat motors capably past mangrove islands and abandoned fish houses on stilts, gray skeletal structures that break up the repetition of distant shoreline, wide water and skies. My brother points out Shell Point Village on our right as we begin upriver. Like most avid fisherman in Southwest Florida, he knows the inlets and deep recesses of the mangroves. The confluence of the river and the Gulf create some of the best flats fishing in the world. Drop a line into a swift current or a deep pocket harbored in the shade of the mangroves, and you’re liable to catch a snook, a trout or a redfish.

Brackish water churned up by our boat propeller is the color of sweet tea, rich with tannins and stirred by recent summer rains. The Caloosahatchee throughout Fort Myers is actually an estuary, the mingling and meeting place for fresh and saltwater. In addition to the mangroves that continue for miles upriver, oyster beds and sea grasses are nurseries and feeding grounds for game fish, blue crabs and manatees. For the entire 25-mile distance to the W.P. Franklin Lock & Dam, the Caloosahatchee is subject to tidal fluctuations. This time of the year, the river is about 85 percent freshwater. According to David Fugate, a professor of marine and ecological science at Florida Gulf Coast University, “A big ecological issue for this estuary is the stress caused by salinity changes due to seasonal rainfall and planned releases of freshwater from Lake Okeechobee. Clams and worms and vegetation are particularly vulnerable to these fluctuations. They’re stuck where they are. Fish and other marine life can better adapt to salinity shifts because they can move.”

Near channel marker 73, the Cape Coral Parkway bridge comes into view. Round buoys scatter like pushpins across a map. They are tethered to crab traps. Several crabbers are out this morning pulling their traps, most working north and south of the Midpoint Memorial Bridge. About 70 percent of the local blue crab caught and sold in Southwest Florida comes from the river, and July is the busiest of crab season.

Bryan Pieper, the owner of Covenant Crab, knows the blue crab industry perhaps better than anyone else in Southwest Florida. We met at his Panda Seafood office in Fort Myers. Behind his desk, two large, aerated tanks bubbled, ready for the arrival of the day’s catch. A refrigerated glass case advertised the availability of mullet, sand bream, pork blood and fresh bamboo shoots. A walk-in cooler took up one corner of the large, cement-floored room. It contained jumbo male blue crabs selling for $45 a dozen as well as smaller blue crabs, a dozen of which can be had for $15.

In the early 1990s, Pieper began selling Gulf shrimp and blue crabs from a van parked roadside either downtown or in North Fort Myers. Eventually he moved the business to a large facility near Page Field Airport, and at its peak, Covenant Crab shipped between 3,000 and 5,000 pounds of blue crab a day. Much of the jewel-blue streaked crab ended up in Maryland crab cakes. Gross sales exceeded $2 million annually. Then four years ago, the blue crab business suffered a dramatic decline when seasonal migration patterns in the Gulf were disrupted. No one has explained the cause. But blue crab sales last year dropped to $250,000. Covenant Crab was forced to close the processing facility near Page Field.

Fewer crabs to catch and fewer people eating crab because of the faltering economy add up to a large economic wallop. I asked Pieper how the crabbers have survived the downturn. They haven’t. When the crabbing industry slowed, more than 60 percent of the crabbers were forced to find jobs in other fields.

The story gets better though. Our talk was interrupted when Pieper’s phone rang. He told the caller that he can’t take any more crab at the moment, but maybe next week. The blue crab migration is back to its full cycle again. This year, he says, “We’re getting as many crabs as we can take.”

My brother’s boat passes the mouth of Whiskey Creek. This landmark earned its name from a Tennessee moonshiner, William S. Clay, who settled in downtown Fort Myers after the Civil War. Using sugar cane, he set up a still on this creek several miles west of Monroe and Hendry streets, and his liquor was enjoyed by cattlemen and Seminoles.

Early inhabitants of Fort Myers flocked to the Caloosahatchee’s banks to build riverfront sanctuaries. The river offered drinkable water, cool breezes, ample room for docks and shallow areas for swimming. Many of Lee County’s founding residents, along with Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, made their homes along the river.

I met with the couple who moved into a home near Fort Myers Country Club at the end of a street darkened green by the thick canopy of ancient oak, jacaranda and mango trees. Paul and Michele are raising their two children in a home that balances comfort with spacious grandeur. Perched on the river’s edge, their house feels solid with its prominent stone fireplace in the living room, generous portions of gleaming wood and wide doorways that circulate the river breeze throughout the house. The living and dining room windows invite the river into the house.

Living on the river becomes a kind of living with the river. Paul says, “Not a day goes by that someone in the family doesn’t call someone else’s attention to what’s going on with the river.” Sometimes it’s to note an osprey, an eagle or a crane enjoying dinner on the sea wall. Other times it might be to identify a dolphin or manatee breaching near their 50-foot boat lift. Most often, it’s to point out the sky’s colorful dramas. Paul claims access to the best sunsets in the world. “Before we moved into this house,” he says, “my favorite color was blue and Michele’s were black and red. Now our favorite colors are sunset.”

Fewer houses line the cape coral side of the river; the Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve has claimed a large portion: 340 acres of wetlands, kayaking routes and some prime birding habitat. Past the Ecological Preserve and the main bridges, downtown Fort Myers’ sherbet-colored high-rises blip by. We approach the Seminole Gulf Railway’s bridge. While the river has narrowed, we still pass clusters of mangroves, which prefer saltwater over fresh. One larger mangrove island near channel marker 17 is nearly snow-covered, but they’re feathers, not flakes, that whiten its crown. Before Hurricane Charley in 2004, at least 27 different species of birds nested there, including the rare wood stork. But the hurricane cleaved the mangrove island in two, and the bird population has yet to return to its pre-Charley abundance.

We’ve motored under the Interstate 75 overpass and the Wilson Pigott drawbridge. A squatty grove of double-wide trailers on the southern bank appears as we round a bend. Chimneys from the Florida Power & Light Company plant look like a fistful of matchsticks in the distance. Clouds gather and darken north and east of us, but my brother is confident that we can skirt the edge of the storm.

As we near Alva and Fort Myers Shores, Old Florida approaches, heralded by the shift from mangroves and a river 130 meters wide in some places to scrub pines, live oaks, palmettos and a narrower channel. We idle between the FPL plant and the Franklin Lock. Steve throws a line in the water near the tree-lined shore. It’s a near-perfect moment on still water, with the sun at its noon zenith and the deep quiet.

The lock and dam ahead look innocent enough. The lock system is 400 feet long and 56 feet wide. Franklin Lock is the farthest west and south of the three locks this side of Okeechobee, the first “gate” encountered when traveling east. All water beyond this lock is freshwater. If we continued through all three locks, we would hit Lake Okeechobee. If we kept traveling east, we’d pass through another series of locks east of Okeechobee, and then we’d be in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Army Corps has been releasing freshwater through the dams and locks for the last several days and will continue to do so for several more. Recent heavy rains have raised Lake Okeechobee’s water levels. When the black-and-yellow-striped lock gates open, freshwater from the lake flows at a massive rate of up to 28,900 cubic feet per second downstream, and it further dilutes the salinity of the estuary. It’s been a point of contention for many years, and complicated initiatives are in the works to address it.

It’s 1:30 p.m., and early for a thunderstorm. After some debate and cloud study, my brother turns the open boat around. We hope to outrun the darkening clouds. Steve has us at the maximum 25 mph through the channels as the clouds chase us back down river.

About a half-mile from the southbound U.S. 41 bridge, the water chops and takes on a pearl-gray light, a shade darker than the clouds. A minute later, a curtain of water hits us. Steve has some cover from the rain pelleting his face behind the windshield of his boat’s center console. But not much. My clothes are soaked to the skin within seconds. Three-foot waves roll around the small craft. Steve accelerates the boat to near-red-line RPMs to keep us moving into the wind toward cover.

The docile river bares her teeth, and they are gray and sharp. Behind us is a solid wall of water. Beyond the hard-working boat motor, zero visibility. Steve shouts to crouch down next to the center console of the boat for shelter from the wind and needling rain. I do. I’m on my knees, with my head nearly on the boat’s deck. Some people pray in this position.

I’m calculating the distance between me and the life-vest compartment. Then the boat stops. And so does the rain. We’ve made it to shelter beneath the overpass. I congratulate my brother on his cool head during the crisis. I’m chilled from the complete soaking, but giddy after our release from danger. We’ll wait out the squall here. 

Steve drops anchor, and about five yards from our boat something roils in the water. A late-season tarpon, he hopes. He casts a line.

We’re not far from Joe’s Crab Shack, the former Sheraton, Fort Myers Yacht Basin and the Oasis high-rise, all hallmarks of the downtown shoreline. The Captain JP, a passenger paddlewheel boat, docks next to Centennial Park on Edwards Drive. Three decks high, she stands out in bright red and white. Two shiny black smokestacks with high gold crowns offer the vessel some whimsy. The boat is a happy one.

I met with the boat’s owner and captain, Joe Pledger. He is tall, blond, sun-weathered, broad-shouldered, and his very large hands look restless without a tool or the spokes of a boat wheel in them. The toes of his black work boots are scuffed raw. I told Joe that I never knew the boat existed until the day I passed it. He winced a bit at that, and we launched into a conversation about the tepid social and economic well-being of downtown Fort Myers. Despite efforts by merchants and politicians, the downtown area—renamed the River District—is not thriving. Free docking for the day is available at the City of Fort Myers Yacht Basin, but many boaters don’t know that. Even if they do, what is here for people to come to?

One answer is the Captain JP. She cruises from downtown out to Sanibel, or up through the Franklin Lock, and in season, all the way to Okeechobee. Aboard, a lunch or dinner buffet is served. The charming boat provides seating on two air-conditioned lower decks and an open third deck. Crew members dressed in white polo shirts and khaki shorts serve drinks at a bar on each level. A wooden dance floor runs the length of the second deck. Six hundred people can board the boat in fair weather. Joe’s wife, Janeen, prepares the buffet during off-season cruises. Their college-age sons, Matt and Blake, accept tickets from boarding passengers, bus tables, mix drinks, crew as first mate and DJ when live music isn’t available.

Pledger has worked a commercial passenger boat in this area for 37 years, and he is distressed by the untapped economic potential in this area. Coming from Baltimore, the captain understands that “the success of any downtown starts with its waterfront.” He does not understand “why they don’t block off First Street and let people set up cafés, outdoor seating and such, right along the water. People like to sit by the water.”

As it turns out, city planners agree. Leif Hans Lustig, the dockmaster at the City of Fort Myers Yacht Basin, showed me drawings of the downtown riverfront as envisioned by the Fort Myers Riverfront Redevelopment Plan. This vision includes two basins reaching from the river to Bay Street, fountains, more boat docks, new restaurants on the water and a hotel attached to the Harborside Convention Center.

The City of Fort Myers Yacht Basin currently offers a live-aboard marina, which generates $2.2 million a year for the city through Ship Store sales, docking fees and fuel sales. A corner of the Ship Store offers marina residents a small Internet café, and an industrial-sized bucket of dog biscuits behind the counter is dipped into whenever a houseboat-savvy canine enters the door.

Lustig explained how much conflict the river generates among parties that claim a stake in it. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission wants to keep the water levels stable for environmental reasons. FGCU’s Professor Fugate agreed that the competing interests of agriculture, tourism and the golf industry threaten the river. Sanibel doesn’t want freshwater releases harming the mangrove and estuarine areas that attract international visitors. The Army Corps of Engineers wants to keep the lake levels low to preserve dike integrity. Commercial and private boaters want the river maintained at optimally navigable levels. I asked Lustig what the City of Fort Myers wants. “We want everyone to be happy.”

Steve and i are about to encounter an employee of the Yacht Basin and an officer of Fort Myers Police Department’s Marine Unit. We figured it would take a half-hour to wait out the storm. An hour later, a pontoon boat with the side rails removed approaches us from the north. The officer flashes his badge and tells us that a passerby reported a boat in distress. We need dry clothing much more than we need rescue, and we thank them for coming to check on us.

Two hours after the downpour began, the sky clears. Steve and I head back to Punta Rassa. I’m chilled through, but grateful for the rare hours my brother and I spent together in the element he loves most, adding another layer to our shared stories.

Stories preserve time and place, and they affirm connections. Every good story is full of conflict, contradictions and reversals. Before the Army Corps of Engineers went to work straightening her curves, the river bowed back and forth so much that old maps look like a healthy athlete’s EKG reading. Modern maps of the river read almost flat-line. Experts will keep arguing about how to tend her health. It’s these contentions about the river that highlight her importance. And the Caloosahatchee bonds the past to the present here as surely as she provides a link between Florida’s coastlines.

In the aging light of the day, the mangroves deepen. I study their roots while Steve ties his boat up. A pod dislodged from a red mangrove floats under the dock, on its way to wherever the river takes it. And wherever it lodges, the pod will cast a finger down into the muck. It will grow roots where it lands.

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