Our Adventure Through Big Cypress National Preserve and the Everglades
By Patti Powers
(as first published by Airboating Magazine May/June 2018 issue)
Yaya, why did you bring me here?” My grandson, John Roy, JR for short, was clearly annoyed with me as we walked across the boardwalk at Jiggs Landing, a fishing camp and park near our home in Manatee County, on the west coast of Florida. “I brought you here so that I could share the things that I love with you; the earth, the outdoors and nature.” Satisfied with my response, he perked up, regained my hand and we walked quietly back to the truck.
My love of the outdoors started at an early age and was nurtured in high school by one of my science teachers. Motivated now by this sweet little boy, I decided it was time to do what grandparents do best; plant seeds for the future.
Instead of another toy truck for Christmas, our gift to JR was going to be a learning adventure. What better place to have an adventure than Big Cypress National Preserve and the Everglades!
The trip from home to the campground was arduous, due in part to the high winds pushing the Jeep from side to side, the hasty drivers, and the conversation with my four-year old passenger which was a string of the repetitive question, “Why?” As we passed the tiny post office in Ochopee, I relaxed knowing that relief was only a few miles ahead.
We arrived around noon at Trail Lakes Campground, headquarters of the Skunk Ape Research Center, in Big Cypress. Welcomed as usual by the Shealy family, we settled into our site, fed and watered our dog, Buddy, and unhooked the airboat.
Marked by a giant statute of the mythical Skunk Ape, Trail Lakes Campground is hard to miss. Along with RV sites, tent sites and small cabins, if you want to experience the outside on the inside, screened chickees are available. Trail Lakes has been our favorite place to stay when in the area.
After a short rest, we got back into the Jeep and headed east on U.S. 41 (Tamiami Trail) to the Oasis Visitor’s Center in Big Cypress Preserve. The narrow two-lane road had not changed much over the years. Anhingas, wings spread out to dry perched on the top of tall cypress keep watch over the travelers. The rocky canal bank seemed comfy to the numerous alligators taking in the sun.
We arrived at the Center to find it crowded with visitors. JR was eager to see everything. His appetite for knowledge surprised me when he asked me to read each of the informational signs posted along the boardwalk. With water levels returning to normal after Florida’s hurricane season and encounter with Hurricane Irma, alligators lined the banks of the canal below the walk, displaying themselves to the awe-struck tourists. The clear canal waters below the walk were teeming with fish. We watched as a slow-moving gator swam across the canal to snatch up a bite.
As dusk was not too far off we decided to head back to camp. On the way back, we stopped at Kirby S. Starter Park. We had passed the Park many times but had no idea that a one-mile round trip boardwalk through a magnificent cypress strand was just beyond its parking lot. We encouraged JR to walk quietly so that we could enjoy the surroundings and possibly see some wildlife. But that was just too much to ask. Ready to investigate, he was unable to control his enthusiasm and he set out ahead of us. Cypress trees in all sizes and in various stages of color surrounded the boardwalk. We became part of the strand as we walked further into the forest-like setting. Mosquitoes kept us from completing the walk and we decided to come back another day.
Back at camp we applied generous amounts of repellent so that we could stay outside and watch the gorgeous glades sunset. We were not disappointed. Kicking rocks down the gravel road to where the campground’s boundary meshes with wet prairie, JR and I shared a rare and quiet moment as the sky came alive with color behind the tall pines.
The following day the winds kicked up again. With our airboat Instigator in tow, we were back on the Trail traveling east toward the Miami-Dade County line.
We met up with the Noble families at Tippy’s Outpost, launched the boats and headed out into Francis S. Taylor Conservation Area 3A. The ramp here had been closed for several weeks prior to and following Hurricane Irma. Not long after Irma inundated the area with rain, we passed Tippy’s and found the water covering the parking area.
Surrounded by the largeness of the sky and marsh, one complementing the other, the birds seemed to disappear into their surroundings. Sweeping views of the river of grass were intermittently interrupted by communities of large cypress domes.
Stopping every so often to address a fuel problem on one of the boats, the ride to the camp was uneventful. The wind beat the orange flag back and forth until the airboat came to a rest at the old dock at the Sarasota Camp. The camp has existed since at least the 1970s when it was called the Tin Camp. According to my husband Bob, who was a member of the Tin Camp in the 1970s, the camp consisted of a small shelter and was used primarily as a hunting camp. Today, the camp has a comfortable cabin with bunk beds, a functional kitchen and a bathroom. The heart of the camp is the screened front porch which runs the length of the cabin. Here, friends share meals and tales of their airboating adventures in the glades. The camp’s most notable feature is the signature on the wall of Troy Landry of the History Channel’s program, “Swamp People.” While filming for a show in Florida, Troy joined our friend, Rick Noble, for an airboat ride in the glades.
The screen door opened and then shut. As we finished our lunch, JR and Rick’s grandson, Brody, ran outside to scour around in the dirt for beads. We cleaned up, loaded the boats, and headed out to ride.
A few minutes from the Sarasota Camp, and across from another well-known camp, the Hilton, is a small cypress island. On a prior trip to the area, I photographed airboaters resting on one end while on the other end memorials erected in remembrance of past airboaters stood. It seemed fitting to call the photograph “Resting Place.”
There are many camps throughout this area. Some are rather elaborate and appear to be secure, keeping unwanted visitors away. Other camps are open providing shelter to those in need and in return, they ask only that their property be respected.
Over the next few days, we explored side roads off the Trail. Armed with a pair of binoculars, JR became adept at spotting birds and alligators. Our conversations, though mostly inconsequential, touched on the intra-dependence of the plant and animal life in the swamp and the importance of protecting the environment for future generations.
JR picked up a feather and held it up to the light. I watched as he ran his fingers up and down, sensing its softness. Then, much to my surprise, he carefully placed the feather back on the ground and walked away. The seeds had been planted.
The old twisted wood of the mature cypress spreads across the ground. From its water-stained trunk, roots protrude downward in the limestone bedrock. Nearby, new growth springs to life from seeds carelessly dropped on the swamp floor. Small feeders meander around in the wet earth seeking nourishment and support. The cypress communities will continue to flourish, one seed at a time.
Photographs from our Everglades Adventure can be seen in the "Scenes from the Everglades" gallery.
Up the Creek in the Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area
By Patti Powers
(as first published by Airboating Magazine Sept/Oct 2017 issue)
In the 1970s, it was a place to escape, a haven in the middle of nowhere. Sugar sand paths traversing an untouched landscape and cut by a 40 plus mile winding creek as rich with history as it is with wildlife.
Fisheating Creek is the only body of water that flows freely into Lake Okeechobee, unobstructed by locks or any other man-made obstacles. Most of the area around the creek is uninhabited, except for the two tiny rural communities of Palmdale and Lakeport.
Up until the late 1980s, camping was permitted on both the east and west side of U.S. 27 in Glades County. Escaping to the "creek" with friends from my hometown of Miami, was a welcome treat. And for many years, we explored the creek by foot, canoe and horseback. In the late 1980s, access to the creek became the subject of a legal battle between Lykes Brothers, who owned the property around the creek, and the State of Florida. As part of the legal settlement, the State of Florida purchased a little more than 18,000 acres.
Today, camping is permitted only on the west side of U.S. 27 (in Palmdale), in a campground owned by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as part of the Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area. From State Road 78, turn west off Banana Grove Road to reach the Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lakeport.
This is one of my favorite spots in Glades County as it boasts tons of wildlife and great opportunities for photographs. From the Lakeport entrance, a four mile hiking trail leads to Fort Center, an archaeological site, thought to have been inhabited by people as far back as 1000 BC.
Airboat access to the creek is by permit only and is limited to about a five mile run from the mouth of the creek in Lakeport to just before Cowbone Marsh.
With the low water level in Lake Okeechobee the beginning of August, we had no problem passing under the concrete bridge from Lake Okeechobee to the mouth of the creek. A stunning view awaited as we rode through an area where the water was wide, narrowing around tight turns and once again opening up. Sandbars extruded in places from the banks and shallow water made for some tricky navigation.
It had been years since my husband, Bob, the captain of our boat, had fished the creek. Somehow, he managed to follow the main creek and keep from going off-route into its many tributaries.
It was such a pleasant ride, no people, no trash, no houses, just the sky, the water, the land and the wildlife whose terrain we were clearly intruding upon.
Cabbage palms scattered the banks and further back into the bright green marshy fields. And that sky, it seemed to disappear into the land separated only by the distant hammock of trees. Low hanging and fallen trees could be seen along the creek but did not hamper our ride. The dirty colored sand banks along the creek revealed the varying levels of the orange stained water over the years, marked by contrasting layers of sand.
Alligators were plentiful in the creek, sunning along the banks and bothered little by the growl of the airboat motor; though the wading birds took flight to escape the intrusive noise.
The creek's banks were welcoming and we could have stopped and explored a little by foot. But it somehow felt wrong to invade this pristine landscape by leaving footprints where people did not really belong. So we sat in silence on the boat, taking it all in, appreciating the efforts of the State to conserve this beautiful creek and the land surrounding it. And as we sat quietly, a doe and her two fawns sprinted through the woods.
We are already making plans to visit the area again and perhaps explore the trails by foot. If you want to get "up the creek" by airboat, you'll need a permit. Stop by the FWC office in the WMA in Lakeport and fill out a form, providing information about your boat. That's it. But keep in mind, unless you unload on the west side of SR 78 directly into the creek, you'll have to go under the bridge from Lake Okeechobee to get into the creek in the WMA.
Fisheating Creek, just as spectacular now as I remember it from the 1970s. A journey worth taking either by land or water. And bring your camera!
Making Memories on the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes
By Patti Powers
(as first published in Airboating Magazine March/April 2018 issue)
I was a little anxious as we prepared to unload at Coleman Landing, in Central Florida, for the maiden voyage of our first little airboat, Gator Done (#1).
Skirting the bank, we rode past several cattle grazing in verdant pastures, unaffected by egrets perched upon their spines and cautiously picking bugs off their hides. In the distance, a mature eagle watches while keeping company with what we guessed was its younger offspring.
Old oaks bent by wind and age shelter the cattle from the intense summer heat along with the cool shallow waters in which some graze. These images kept me relaxed as we traveled away from the ramp keeping the shoreline in close proximity.
Suddenly, the boat turned toward the land and came to a rest on a small incline in a pasture alongside the grazing cattle. "Nothing to worry about," Bob said, as he lifted the hatch on the deck. "We've taken on some water and the bilge pump didn't kick on." My body tensed and my heart started racing. Not having much experience on an airboat, and this being our first run on this boat, my imagination foolishly played through a variety of "what if" scenarios. Bob walked around the boat. A hearty laugh escaped, and he said, "I put a plug in the wrong hole." Relief swept over me and we both laughed as we waited for the water to drain from the hull. And so began our adventures on the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes.
Coleman Landing sits on the southwest edge of Lake Kissimmee in Lake Wales. Since our first launch from this well-kept park, Polk County's Board of County Commissioners established a sweet little campground on the property, Shady Oaks Campground. A bumpy gravel road leads from the entrance of the park to grassy plots along the camp's outer and interior roads and finally to a couple of boat launching areas on Lake Kissimmee.
Most campsites are equipped with water and electric and are nicely tucked under the ancient oaks that guard the area. The campground has become one of our favorite places to overnight with the airboat. It is quiet and well maintained by a family who live on the property and has quick and easy access to the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes (KCOL).
The airboat trails heading north on Kissimmee from Coleman Landing keep us close to the shoreline and out of the sometimes rough waters of the lake. Along these shores, I had my first solo airboat lesson on Gator Done (#1). The forgiving shallow waters make the perfect place to understand how the boat moves with each pull or push of the stick. Not to mention, the pastures give one the opportunity to practice and master the approach and retreat from land.
Recognizable names of landmarks around the KCOL include Miles Point, the Ridge, the Milk Bus, and B.S Hill, just to name a few. At these stopovers, one can usually find rudders scattered around and boat owners visiting with each other, examining motors, props and gear boxes and exchanging stories about the unique features of their boats.
During one of our rides, we met a couple of families who were nice enough to let us tag along with them on a ride through the gem of the KCOL, Gardner Cobb Marsh. Led by our new friends, Speedy and Parker, the ride to the marsh started out kind of rough as we bumped across dry terrain on the back side of the Milk Bus.
In the marsh, we were met by shallow water and immediately transitioned to a smooth ride. Towering cypress trees lining the edge of the trails create the impression of a magical forest from a childhood storybook. The vivid colors of the trees, grasses and flowers are intense, yet calming. The scenery in the marsh is truly beautiful.
We followed the airboats around winding trails, stopping every once in a while to talk. It wasn't long before the guys had us back on dry ground, weaving around cabbage palms and other well-rooted vegetation.
We traveled across Lake Kissimmee, Cypress Lake and Lake Hatchineha. We finally said our goodbyes at B.S. Hill and headed back to Coleman Landing.
Bob and I laughed once back at camp, wondering if our new friends were curious to see whether the big block that powered our 13-foot deckover (Instigator) could keep up with their lightweight boats driven by aircraft engines.
In contrast to our experience with these veteran airboaters, once while unloading at Camp Mack, another airboat-friendly launching site on the north end of Lake Kissimmee, we came across what we guessed were new airboaters. Trying to strike up a conversation with the family was pointless as the woman was only focused on loading the boat with the family's belongings, then perching herself in the captain's seat as her husband backed the boat down the ramp.
After launching the boat, he left to park their truck. The woman attempted to start the boat's motor. Nothing happened. She was now panicking as the boat drifted into the canal away from the ramp. She was up and out of the seat nervously trying to figure out what to do. There were no lines on the boat to pull her back ashore. I yelled out, "Is the battery on?" "The battery, where is that?" she questioned. "Behind the seat," I yelled back. After she managed to crank the motor and power the boat to the shore, her son thanked me for saving them from what could have turned out to be a horrible family day.
The KCOL is a popular place for club events and we have attended a few and met many families who share the love of airboating with the younger generation. The most memorable picture I have taken was at the Freedom Ride a couple of years ago. An older gentleman was seated at the front of the boat and behind him was a boy, his grandson, whose face was covered by a smile, ear to ear. It still makes me smile when I think about this picture and how fortunate that boy is to have that moment with his grandfather.
Back in the early days of our KCOL adventures, we happened upon an event hosted by one of the local airboat clubs. A man approached, welcomed us and invited us to join the group. I can't recall, but I don't think I ever thanked this man for his kindness. Aside from his kind and gentle nature, he is also known for sharing home-baked goodies at these events. Thank you, Bob H!
One of my favorite areas for viewing nature on the KCOL is Brahma Island on Lake Kissimmee. The Island is just a short run to the north from Coleman Landing and although it is posted as a private hunting preserve, from the boat, deer and turkey are often seen resting under the trees near the edge of the Island. American Bison also inhabit the Island but we have yet to see one.
If you pass through Cypress Lake from the marsh, you may come across Wild Florida, a unique animal park. You'll know you've arrived when you see the long dock and the large commercial airboats. We have not stopped here with the boat, but we did visit one day while exploring the area by car. In addition to the usual animals, this park is home to two rare white alligators.
As we settle in for the night at our camp at Shady Oaks Campground, we watch birds make the journey across the lake back to their roosts. Orange color from the setting sun burns through the trees illuminating the moss, making it appear as if long strands of lights have been carelessly tossed across the branches. Perusing the treetops, we spot a couple of owls waiting for the cover of night before they begin their adventures.
The fire flickers as we recall the events of the day, the people we met and the new friendships we made. Over the years, I've photographed many of them enjoying the KCOL with their families and friends, their awesome and unique boats, and some incredibly creative rudders. All been part of the memories we've made on the KCOL and for this we thank you.
Preserving the Kissimmee Prairie
Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area
By Patti Powers
(as first published by Airboating Magazine Nov/Dec 2017 issue)
If you've ever enjoyed boating on the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, you may have seen cattle grazing near the shore or knee deep in the water munching on the sweet lake grasses. The first time I ever encountered a cow in the marsh, I was so discouraged, thinking this is how sick cattle meet their end, banishing themselves from the herd to become part of the food chain cycle of the lake. Perhaps this notion was due in part to Patrick D. Smith's tales in his historical novel, A Land Remembered. This novel paints a picture of the struggles that 19th century cow drovers faced while moving herds across Florida's open prairies and mosquito and gator infested swamps to the coast where the small herds were sold and profits pocketed. These pioneers surely traveled across the Kissimmee prairie and wetlands now comprising the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area (TLWMA).
Having left our airboat behind, our journey began on a narrow road just east of the Kissimmee River bridge off State Road 60. We stopped at the game check point, though it was not open, and laughed about the vultures perched on the pole of the sign marked "Gut Pit."
The area boasts a large population of turkey as well as quail, deer, hog, and the other usual critters. The game board at the check point displayed evidence of the kills for each of the last hunting seasons.
An astounding vista awaited as we traveled through the Prairie Lakes Unit of the TLWMA. The dirt road divides an enormous prairie covered with scrub. Wetlands share the land with wild white and yellow flowers reaching up between thick clumps of palmetto. A covey of quail wandered on the side of the road, but I was not quick enough to capture these little birds with my camera. As they flew off, my husband, Bob, recalled his quail hunting days and how the population has dwindled over the last decades. We were pleased to see that this section of the TLWMA was marked on the map as a quail enhancement area.
Once a thriving cattle ranch, the land was originally purchased through Florida's Environmentally Endangered Land Program, and today it is managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. This 63,000 acre parcel encompasses about 16,000 acres of dry prairie, along with wetlands and pine and hardwood uplands.
Beyond the Prairie Lakes Unit, a creek, I believe fed by the Jackson-Kissimmee canal, was passable over a concrete bridge. I couldn't resist walking across the long flat bridge which was barely above the water. The vegetation in the creek appeared somewhat lifeless, as if it was no longer able to stand the scorching heat. The vibrant and life-sustaining sound of the water, coupled with the squawking of the wading birds was a stark contrast to the brown vegetation. Putting some distance between myself and the truck, I felt as if I were a tiny piece in an intricate puzzle.
Once across the bridge, forest framed the road. One would think this was a perfect place for primitive camping and being one with nature. The mosquito population however, had already laid claim to the shady haven. I was grateful for our little camper parked at Shady Oaks and the soft bed, free from those gallon nippers.
Just before we reached Lake Jackson, a thousand acre lake and the smallest of the three lakes bordering the TLWMA, we passed through an area of pine flatwoods. Small birds flitted about and gathered on the tall grasses and scrub. With binoculars, we spotted a bald eagle perched in one of the distant deadwoods. Another, probably its mate, was guarding a huge nest in a pine tree not too far from the side of the road. These majestic birds tolerated our presence for just a short time before joining each other and soaring above the tree line.
In addition to the tremendous opportunity for wildlife viewing throughout the TLWMA, the Florida Trail offers loops for hiking. You can also enjoy fishing, frogging and boating (of course airboating!) on all three lakes (Kissimmee, Lake Jackson and Lake Marian).
Today, you won't spot any cow drovers against the backdrop of this remarkable area, but you can bet your silver belt buckle that the footprints of those who tread across this extraordinary prairie, are as etched in the land as the memory that you will take with you after visiting this incredible place. For more information about Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, visit http://myfwc.com/viewing/recreation/wmas/lead/three-lakes.
The Lure of Lake Okeechobee
By Patti Powers
(as first published by Airboating Magazine Jan/Feb 2018 issue)
We walked across an old rickety wooden bridge above a small cut at Harney Pond Canal and made our way to the observation deck on the opposite side. A backdrop of blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds gracefully descended upon the still waters of the Lake. My first impression of the grand Lake was one of awe and respect. But, as I stared in wonder at my surroundings, a feeling of regret washed over me.
As a lifelong resident of Florida, I had not, until then, seen this impressive body of water. It wasn't until a year or so later my exploration of Lake Okeechobee began.
As a novice on the Lake, every smell, sight and sound was a new and remarkable experience, from a drop of water on a lily pad to the cry of an osprey flying overhead. The marsh quickly became a place of sanctuary from the stressful workweek left behind in Bradenton.
Having fished the Lake for nearly 50 years, my husband's considerable knowledge of the Lake's geography was an asset. Over the years, Bob schooled me on locations with names like the Monkey Box, Cochran's Pass, the Spoil Islands, Moonshine Bay and the Bathtub, where each place was located in relation to the deeper water, and which fish were most likely to be found there.
When we started coming to the Lake together, the days were spent on the water and the nights in our RV, which was parked at one of the local RV parks in the small fishing community of Lakeport. Our love of the area and the Lake soon motivated us to find a more permanent residence. A couple of years ago we purchased a home in Lakeport near the rim canal.
Most of the marsh is on the west side of the Lake. There are a couple of boat ramps in Lakeport from which one can directly access the Lake. Our go-to ramp is at Harney Pond Canal. The other option is to put in at the rim canal and enter the Lake through a set of locks.
Going through the locks in an airboat can be tricky and we often refer to this process as a controlled crash. Right before entering the lock's gate, we kill the motor and wait for the boat to drift to one side or the other. Grabbing ahold of the long ropes hanging from a row of flexible piping along the tall concrete wall, we pull ourselves clear of the gate behind us and motion for the lock tender to close the gate. Depending on the water levels in the canal and Lake, when the opposite gate is opened, the boat either rises or drops. For me, it took some time to get used to the locks, but now, it is a convenience that I appreciate.
Early morning departures from the ramp at Harney Pond Canal usually are rewarded with inspiring sunrises. On clear days, cloud formations are duplicated in reflections on the smooth, glass-like water.
Not too far south of the Harney Pond navigational markers and a little west is what we refer to as "The Island." Constructed and meticulously maintained by one of Lakeport's locals, the Island has a rustic, but well-built cabin and an inviting picnic area. This is a popular spot for airboaters to shoot the breeze and, on most weekends, boats can be found resting on the embankment surrounding the Island.
Behind the Island is a sprawling marsh where skinny water trails, sometimes muddy, weave through an open area and taper through more dense growth before reaching the old Moore Haven Canal (also called the "9-mile cut").
Traveling east from here, the canal intersects with another trail at the Monkey Box. I don't know why it's called the Monkey Box, but if one sits quietly long enough, perhaps beached on the narrow stretch of land marked by the memorials of past adventurers, the calls of the little black coots do sound like monkeys.
Depending on water levels and vegetation, parts of the trail from the Monkey Box to Moonshine Bay are wide enough for boats to pass. But be prepared to detour into the thick bulrush if you encounter another boat. Bob loves telling the story of the time when, unexpectedly, we came face-to-face with a bass boat moving quickly through the shallow water. Never even realizing the treacherous situation we were in, I safely powered us to the right, close to the tall weeds and continued on. Bob cursed and motioned for me to stop and then commended me for my quick reaction. He let me continue to drive the boat the rest of the day. A reward, I suppose.
Moonshine Bay, a sizeable body of open water, is yet another peaceful place on the Lake. Tucked away from the main part of the Lake, but accessible from many different trails, Moonshine Bay is a fantastic place for spying birds like the snail kite and the purple moorhen. Venture off onto the less traveled side trails, you're sure to scare up a flock of birds, including ibis, egrets and spoonbills. And fields of yellow flowers, the American Lotus, can be found around here. It is an amazing sight to see when the flowers are in bloom.
During one of our runs through Moonshine Bay, we came across a float plane that was anchored. Doors open and no one around, we carefully approached the craft. We didn't know what to think. Sure, we had seen similar planes practicing their landing techniques on the water and retreating back into the sky, but this vision was, to say the least, perplexing. After tracking down the owner through the plane's tail numbers, we learned the pilot was picked up by another airboater for his own adventure on the Lake.
Protected by the marsh on either side, the trail from Moonshine Bay to Cochran's Pass is typically calm, even in windy weather. When the sun is shining, fish can be seen bedding in the sandy bottom. A gator might be seen abruptly leaving the trail.
Near Cochran's Pass, a gateway to the Lake's deeper water, Pelicans floating by the edge of the trail are not at all bothered by the noise of the airboat. Glades, Okeechobee, Martin, Palm Beach and Hendry counties all converge somewhere in the center of Lake Okeechobee. Spanning over 730 square miles, the Lake's average depth is only 9 feet. In the deep water, large boats cross the Lake entering and exiting from the St. Lucie Canal to the east and the Caloosahatchee River to the west. Once, while fishing near the Caloosahatchee access channel, we had the pleasure of riding one of the larger boat's wake.
This past summer we experienced extremely low water levels in the Lake. Some of the trails were covered with thick mud that made for some slick sliding. Turtles and gators struggled to escape the muck in fear of bearing the weight of the boat on their backs. As soon as the late summer rains arrived, water levels in the Lake rose, reaching nearly 17 feet and rendering some of the trails unrecognizable.
Passing through the locks with these high water levels became an adventure in and of itself. Entering the gates on the rim canal side was not unusual. But when the lock tender raised the gate on the Lake side, the rush of the water lifted us nearly four feet. As we left the locks, I held my breath while watching the top of the cage just barely clear the bottom of the gate.
South of Cochran's pass is Observation Island. Here there is a small elevated cabin and plenty of land for airboats to gather around an American Flag flying proudly above this camp. And farther to the south, is Roland Martin's Marina, in the town of Clewiston.
Following the marsh northwest from Cochran's Pass around Bird Island, one may wind up back in the Old Moore Haven Canal and the entrance to the Bathtub. Or, cross the open water to the Spoil Islands. Both the Bathtub and the Spoil Islands are well known summer fishing holes. On a good day, one can catch the limit of bluegill and shellcracker, one right after the other.
There is so much to see on the Lake. I never tire of scanning the water for the ancient creatures that have survived the constant environmental turmoil and the state's annual hunts, the alligator. Did you know manatees share the Lake with the other creatures? It's true! If you pay close attention, you may see the large round ripple made by the Manatee's flat tail as it swims by you. One year we observed an entire pod of manatees near Harney Pond Canal.
A stunning sunset welcomes us as we idle back up the canal to the ramp. While taking the time to recall our favorite moments of the long day, color fills the evening sky. The old wooden bridge is now gone. And, while change is constant and expected, like the water levels in the Lake, it is the lure of Lake Okeechobee that will change those who experience it.
One Hot Mess
By Patti Powers
(as first published by Airboating Magazine Nov/Dec 2018 issue)
I turned south from S.R. 70 onto U.S. 27 just as the Florida sun was beginning to awaken. I was thankful I had timed my trip to greet the beauty of the morning and grateful that the rising ball of orange fire would be to my left for the rest of the ride to the house in Lakeport, Florida.
A gentle fog lay across the tall straw-colored grass where content cattle grazed on either side of the road, their backs barely visible against the horizon. It was a quiet morning. My traveling companion, Buddy, sat happily in the back seat of the truck. Every so often his cold wet nose would press up against my arm to remind me of his presence.
Robert Earl Keen’s voice spilled from the truck’s more than adequate sound system. The tale about his efforts to catch a 5-pound bass kept me entertained. The phone rang and interrupted the folk singer. It was Bob. “Where are you?” he asked. “I’m about 40 minutes out. How was your night?” Bob had left for the lake house yesterday with a truckful of parts. He was anxious to get to work on rebuilding what the fire had destroyed.
As I crossed the bridge over Fisheating Creek on S.R. 78, I recalled our airboat trip last year along the peaceful winding trails of the creek. But my focus quickly changed, not because of the sweet little labradoodle in the back seat or the quirky songs from my favorite IHeart radio station. It was the events of last weekend that kept playing back in my mind. Not only the reality of what had occurred bothered me, but I was also burdened by a case of the “what ifs.”
We had readied the boat as we had done many times before, sticking to our usual routine. Bob checks the oil and puts the plugs in the hull while I load the life jackets, headphones, cooler and camera. He warms the engine, before the hull hits the water.
Last Saturday was no different from any other time we had launched the little airboat, Instigator. Our friends, Rick, Betty and Brittany and Michael joined us, each couple on their own boat. It was a windy day and white caps were forming on the open water. Before leaving the ramp at Harney Pond Canal, we had decided to head toward Indian Prairie Canal as the trails were somewhat defined, the waters shallow and somewhat protected from the wind.
Strong winds from the night before had cleared the hyacinth from the ramp but had blocked the normal passageway into the trails. The boats had to cross over the sticky greenery to reach the open water of Lake Okeechobee.
It was a beautiful day. As we wound through the trails, the wind caught the bill of my hat and loosened my headphones. My hat slipped out from under them and before I could catch it, it was gone. I hadn’t bothered to motion to Bob to stop. It wasn’t the first time a hat had blown off. I looked back to make sure the other boats were following and gave Bob a thumbs up to indicate they were behind us.
Suddenly, the trail ended. We had slowed now as Bob looked for a way back onto a trail. He guided the little boat through the tall brush into a small cove. I could see Michael and Brittany not far from us. I tried to motion to them there was no trail, but they kept coming. Then I heard a pop and the motor shut off.
I could feel the heat behind me now. Bob leapt out of his seat and started opening hatches. He found the fire extinguisher just as Michael had tossed me the extinguisher from his boat. White powder spewed from the hoses of the red canisters, covering the motor, deck and propeller. After engaging a third extinguisher from Rick’s boat, the flames subsided.
Shaking, I picked up my camera that I had carelessly dropped on the grass rake and stepped onto Michael’s boat. Rick boarded to assess the damage with Bob. It wasn’t long before Bob discovered the issue. A fitting on the fuel line had come loose causing the high-octane gasoline to spray back toward the distributor catching a spark and igniting the fire. The top of the motor appeared badly scorched and the plug wires from the distributor had melted into a charred lifeless mess.
Realizing the boat was not getting back to the ramp under its own power, Bob tied a rope to the eye on the front of the boat and Rick tied the other end to the front of his Air Gator. The journey back to the ramp was long and slow as the little boat had to be pulled out of the cove and marsh and into the deeper water for a more direct path back to the ramp. Dragging the little boat through the narrow and winding trails was not an option.
Rick was cautious as the Air Gator, powered by a Lycoming 0540, led the little boat back. Betty, Michael, Brittany and I followed, keeping a safe distance between us and the two boats.
Back at home, Bob disassembled the useless parts from the boat, the carburetor, the distributor, plug wires, wiring harness and of course the fuel lines. In quick order, phone calls were made, and replacement parts were ordered from the boat’s manufacturer, GTO Performance Airboats.
With the passage of time, the annoying case of the “what-ifs” has vanished. The little boat is still out-of-service, but Bob is progressing with the repairs. The lesson I’ve taken away from this event, which could have ended very differently, is to check ALL systems on the boat before leaving the ramp. And make sure you have an approved and working fire extinguisher. We now carry three extinguishers on each of our boats. One last thing … I’m seriously thinking about taking along some type of inflatable raft in case of a need to abandon ship!
Bob and I want to express our sincere appreciation and thanks to our friends at GTO Performance Airboats for building a great boat and standing behind it. Norm, Brian and Dwayne responded to our phone calls and texts, put together the necessary parts and made sure they were delivered in an expeditious manner.
And we cannot forget to thank our adventure-seeking friends, Rick, Betty, Michael and Brittany. Our airboat exploits together have covered the state from the Glades to the south and Lake George to the north. We look forward to many more “cool” adventures with our good friends. But no more hot messes!
Another Day, Another Trail
By Patti Powers
(as first published by Airboating Magazine Sept/Oct 2018 issue)
Except for the air pushed around by the 5-blade prop, the breeze was nonexistent. We had hoped to escape the warm temperatures and thick air by getting an early start, but a faulty radiator cap required a trip into the small lakeside town of Okeechobee, Florida.
When we reached the Harney Pond Canal in Lakeport, Florida, it was still early enough to observe water fowl flying above and coots along the water’s edge, hurrying their young across the lily pads and dried up reeds to the safety of their nests. As the sun rose above the horizon, life on the lake began to come alive and the day’s adventure began to take shape.
While waiting for Bob to park the truck, I couldn’t help but recall how different Lake Okeechobee looked a little less than a year ago. Before Hurricane Irma, navigating through familiar trails was easy. Now, with the fluidity of the greenery, the perspective of the lake had changed. In places, the marsh had taken on a new and unfamiliar appearance. Some trails had become wide open water, which made fishing in more remote locations accessible to all types of boats. In contrast, debris left from the upheaval of last summer’s storm reformed some trails routing boats in different directions.
Just as I had finished applying sunscreen, Bob hopped onto the boat. I pulled my cap down in place and situated my headset just behind the small button on the top of the cap. Bob warmed the engine and the little boat found the top of the water.
Twice in the last month we started out to explore the shallow canal along the northwest side of the Herbert Hoover Dike. Once thwarted by the weather and once we were forced to return to the ramp due to a mechanical issue. This morning we would start our exploration of the little canal once again.
It was an easy ride from the ramp to Dyess Ditch canal. From there, we turned right just before reaching the Dyess Ditch boat ramp, one of the plentiful ramps around Lake Okeechobee. A few weeks ago, the edge of the little canal was pink with color of the lake hibiscus. The heat though seemed to take its toll on the delicate flowers and today there were fewer blooms than before.
Most of the trails on the lake are peaceful. The canal was especially quiet as if we were the first boat to pass in a long while. Tricolored herons flew out of the reeds and moved gracefully just above the water, escorting us a short way before moving aside to let us pass. Signs of a once scorched landscape on the opposite bank had been replaced with bright green growth brought about by the daily summer rains.
Whether caused by wind or fire, logs and branches littered the water making for some interesting piloting. In several spots mud stretched across the small waterway creating a primitive bridge for the birds. We carefully assessed each obstacle before proceeding. In some places we found we could pass by hugging the bank. In other places the only way to proceed was to cross over the unknown debris. Every so often we would stop and quiet the boat. The only sounds that could be heard were chirping of the birds and a lone plane somewhere above.
I had guessed the canal would end somewhere around Indian Prairie, close to the small community of Buckhead Ridge. It wasn’t long before we came upon an opening. To the left was a spillway marked by “danger” signs and a barricade to keep boats away. To the right was another, wider canal. We chose to stay on course and proceed straight ahead.
The canal narrowed. Menacing branches from the shore shrubs reached across the water poking at us as we passed. Not until we reached the end did we know it was the end. The path ahead was overgrown and was impassable. Restricted in this small area there was little room to power the boat around. So, the turn was done manually. Bob pushed the boat at the back while I pulled on the nuisance branches in front until the nose of the boat came around.
It was a short ride back to the “fork in the canal.” The only option left was to turn down the wider canal and head toward the lake and open water.
This canal eventually tapered into a trail walled by tall reeds on both sides. The Garmin identified the area around us as “Big Sawgrass Marsh.” Confirming by the tracks laid on prior trips, we had not yet explored this part of the lake. We continued along the trail cautiously until it opened into a small cove, a spot of open shallow water surrounded by thick reeds.
Bob shut off the motor. The boat was literally sitting on the bottom. I jumped off the seat to see if the shifting of weight would loosen the boat, but it remained stationary. I was not at all troubled we were grounded. This little boat had plenty of power in the aluminum big block 540-cubic-inch motor. After sipping some water, it was time to move on. The big block hummed, and the boat moved effortlessly from the mud bottom back onto the wet trail.
Before reaching deeper water, we caught wind of the unmistakable and overwhelming stench of rotting flesh. Soon we were upon the bloated and decomposing corpse of an alligator. As we passed it, we noticed pockets of the infamous toxic blue-green algae penetrating from the lake into the marsh. It was an uncanny coincidence to see both the alligator and the algae, not far from one another. Though we do not believe the algae was the cause of the gator’s demise, it was a reminder of the reality of the declining health of the lake. This was a sad note to end our adventure on this day.
In the distance, we spotted the covered pavilions at the ramp and headed home. On the quiet ride back, I was already planning another lake exploration through the Sawgrass Marsh.
To learn more about the blue-green algae, visit: https://floridadep.gov/sites/default/files/doh-cyano-faqs-7-8-16.pdf.