Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Airboating Across Okeechobee

I not only added a new mode of transport to the Un-Road Trip list today (that brings the total to 38), but I also added one to my life transport list. This afternoon I rode an airboat for the first time.

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The morning started with a bike ride down to Lake Okeechobee where I met up with Captain Jason Williams of Florida Airboat Charters. He backed his boat onto the edge of a canal that leads to the lake, we climbed aboard, put on our headphones (with built in walkie talkie system), and we were ready to go.

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The first thing that surprised me was how little water an airboat actually needs to operate. For a good portion of the trip, we were in water about 6 inches deep, and for some short periods we were literally flying over mud and grass. It's really the only way to access the amazing marsh land that surrounds much of Lake Okeechobee, and today we were the only ones exploring the area. Most people come to the lake to fish, so the natural area on the edges has remained relatively untouched. Another great thing about the airboat is that even though it may be hot and muggy outside, the giant fan acts as an air conditioning unit when you're on the move.

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Jason pointed out tons of birds- herons, egrets, vultures, ducks, and some others I can't remember. The airboat can be quite loud when the blades are spinning, but the bird didn't even seem to mind most of the time. They were thousands of birds hiding in the tall grasses or paddling on the water, and every once in a while a hundred of them would seem to suddenly take flight simultaneously. Maybe they saw a gator?

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I was looking forward to seeing my first Okeechobee alligator, and I didn't have to wait more than a few minutes before Jason pointed one out. It looked like a bumpy log just barely poking out of the water, and once he showed me I started seeing them everywhere. As we got close they would disappear below the surface in a swirl of bubbles. I grabbed for my camcorder whenever we had a good gator sighting, so I don't have many good still photos of them, but you can sort of see a gator head in the uppper-right quarter of this photo:

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And as soon as I post video, you'll get a better look at the Okeechobee alligators. After riding with Jason for two hours, we pulled over at Cochran's Pass to meet up with Karson Turner, my guide for the next leg of the trip. I climbed aboard Karson's airboat and we waved goodbye to Jason before we zipped off into the marsh to look for some big alligators.

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We entered a larger pool in the middle of the marsh, and suddenly we heard some loud thrashing behind us. Karson turned the boat around in time for us to see a ten foot alligator noisily racing to shore. He threw his tail from side to side as he booked it across the pool. We followed him as he dove into a deeper area near the bank. He buried his head under the reeds, but his giant tail was still sticking out.

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We left the gator alone and continued on as Karson pointed out tilapia, gar, and other fish. Thirty minutes later, we pulled up to shore and I got on a bicycle and headed over the Herbert Hoover Dike to Karson's house.

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It was a short bike ride, but it was incredible windy- in the wrong direction. I felt like a kite as I struggled to pedal against the gusts. After a day relaxing on an airboat I guess I have to fit the intense physical activity in somewhere. Twenty minutes later, I pulled up to Karson's house and was thrilled to discover some WiFi. I was planning on taking the bike out again, but the clouds started coming in and it's looking a little menacing out there. I think I'll stay inside with a Clif Bar for now. Tomorrow should be another action-packed day filled with horseback riding and some more boating too. The last time I rode a horse for a few hours I was sore for three days. I'm curious to see what happens tomorrow.

2 comments:

JennyD said...

sounds like things are going great and you're having fun! I can't believe how many things you've done so far - awesome!

Chris J said...

Wow, so glad you got to visit lake okeechobee, that is my favorite lake name ever!