Thursday, May 14, 2009

Down the Caloosahatchee


I woke up just after 6AM on Wednesday in Clewiston, Florida. It was still pretty dark, but it was getting lighter by the time I was packed and dressed. I set out on the bike I borrowed from Karson and met him by Lake Okeechobee. The Seminole Tribe had generously provided us with a few horses to ride on the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail. Benny takes care of the horses for them and served as our guide for the 9 mile trip.


I rode Dakota along with Karson, Lisa, and Benny as we followed the lake edge as we passed miles of melaleuca (an invasive Australian tree they're working on eradicating) and sugar cane. We also spotted a lot of shorebirds and alligators hanging out in the lake.


About two hours later we rode into Unce Joe's Fish Shack- a collection of fishing shacks centered around a small general store. Karson, Lisa, and I swapped the horses for a flats boat- used for fishing for big fish in the shallow water close to shore.


We passed through two locks- one of which had a holding area between two big gates where we waited while the water came down nearly ten feet to get level with the Caloosahatchee. We stopped for lunch in Labelle, a quaint town on the river, which also had a great little coffee shop with WiFi. They said they're the only place with it in the area. Then we were off again moving towards Alva, (the destination for the night), when we started spotting some threatening clouds ahead.


Karson sped up the boat and we raced into the rainstorm. The temperature dropped dramatically as we rode towards the clouds and pretty soon we were being pelted by giant raindrops. I covered my gear with a poncho, and ten minutes later we were in sunshine again. A few minutes later we went through a smaller storm and around 5PM we arrived at the Franklin Locks where I got off the boat and waved goodbye to Karson and Lisa. The clouds were looking menacing again, so I walked as fast as I could to make the 2 mile walk to Frank and Mary Lee Mann's house where I'd be spending the night. I got out my emergency poncho just in case as a golf cart zipped out. The kids on the cart yelled out something like, "Watch out... lightening... thunder." They sped up before I could ask them to clarify. I picked up the pace and finally made it to the Manns' house.


Frank is a longtime Florida politician and he's been living in Alva with Mary Lee for about twelve years. During a run for Governor in 1986, Frank was referred to as the "dark horse" candidate so he decided to take them literally. He got a black horse and started riding it at events. Then he rode it 400 miles to the capitol in Tallahassee. My horse riding experience doesn't really compare much to Frank's, though I'm not sure if he's ever ridden a camel.

And now I'm drinking the best orange juice I've ever had in my life, (squeezed from fruit grown in the Mann's orange grove), and getting ready for a 13 mile paddle to downtown Fort Myers. I thought it was going to be downstream but the Manns say that the area is tidal, so it all depends which way the tide is going. I hope it's going the right way.

And check out some video from my time in Florida at Fort Myers' NBC-2 website.

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