Beaches to Barns

Travelogue - February 4, 2009
How could drops of water know themselves to be a river?
Yet the river flows on.

- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The sorrow and the joy that we have experienced within the spheres of our lives during this past week have left us breathless. We've been staggered with grief and then giddy with hope and relief. And beneath it all - unperturbed, silent - the river flows.

The Caloosahatchee River

Key West Express As you know, Friday morning January 23rd dawned clear, cold and calm. We donned a lot of warm clothing, prepped Sea Gator, and cast off from our mooring near Estero Island.

No worries. We motored into the northern corner of San Carlos Bay - we glanced toward the south and waved at the Gulf and at the departing Key West Express, right - then we turned Sea Gator's prow to the north and departed San Carlos Bay. We slipped beneath the Sanibel Island Causeway and headed northeasterly into the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River.


Here's the big picture and a brief review: the Caloosahatchee River flows westerly to the Gulf from its origins in the enormous Lake Okeechobee, which lies defenseless in about the middle of the state. From the opposite side of the Lake the St. Lucie River flows eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean. The Lake itself has been diked and drained, and both rivers have been dredged and straightened during some or most of their length, and numerous locks have been built to stair-step up to the Lake and back down again to compensate for these antics by the Army Corps of Engineers. Taken together this passage is known as the Okeechobee Waterway.

Map, south Florida The rivers and Lake are part of the navigable inland route called the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). The inland waterway was established to protect shipping from German submarines along the coast during WWII. It takes advantage of channels, barrier islands and rivers where possible. Following the ICW, one can sail from the Rio Grande across the Gulf to Tarpon Springs FL, across Florida via the Okeechobee Waterway, and up the East Coast as far as New York - all in waters protected from torpedos fired by ocean-going submarines.

Therefore in addition to being charted as a regular waterbody the Caloosahatchee River is also mapped per statute mile. The clock for this section starts ticking where the St. Lucie Canal meets the Atlantic Ocean at Mile 0.

On the western side, the Caloosahatchee empties into San Carlos Bay at the tip of the Gulf of Mexico at mile 150! We'll only get a taste of it on this trip.

To Ft. Myers

What a beautiful day! We were shivering cold up on the flybridge but it was exilerating to be outside, after hiding aboard from the cold and wind for so long. We compensated: I made more coffee and we piled on more jackets. We enjoyed the many wonders of the lower river passage.

Topiary trees We observed - and mercilessly critiqued - the river-side homes along the way. I couldn't get enough of this landscape design choice: giant topiary trees, left. What kind of thinking would inspire a homeowner to do such a thing? That question is this month's No-Prize-Awarded Contest. Discuss amongst yourselves.

An hour later the high rises of downtown Ft. Myers hove into view. We are told that many of the towers are dark at night as they are sparsely occupied. Sometimes I wonder what it's like, being the only occupant in the top ten floors of a high-rise condo building... the imagination runs into dangerous territory. It is a rich topic for Stephen King to explore.

Ft. Myers skyline We chugged on past the desolate condos and their skulking ax-murderers, the marinas, the speeding powerboats, the bridges, the embarrassed topiary trees.

And just beyond the last bridge... like flipping a switch...

We entered a new, fabulous, quiet and beautiful world.

Power Plant Slough Anchorage

Less than a mile upriver of downtown Ft. Myers, seriously, we felt like pioneers. Gone were the discourteous fast-boats, the noisy bridges, the pale fishermen with their new pastel shirts and improper radio protocols. We saw a flats skiff or two and the most densely populated center was this rookery on a mangrove island, below.

River rookery The River is a deep mahogany color due to tanins released from mangroves. It was like cruising through a huge running vat of coffee. But, really cold coffee. And salty. Brackish. Which brings up another amazing fact: twenty-five miles up-river we were still experiencing tides - which was less than 2' at the mouth! That is one flat river.

This was also manatee territory, and the slow-speed rules were enthusiastically enforced by a Sheriff's deputy circling in his official patrol boat. We puttered along at idle speed, stunned by the silence and unexpected beauty of the area, no threat to no manatees no how.

Power plant We passed through an old railroad bridge, locked in its open position until the rare train comes through (we had come this far upriver during our training days with Captain Gary Graham - that feels like a long long time ago). A few miles further we puttered beneath the I-75 bridge so far above our heads it barely registered.

We rounded a bend and came within sight of a power plant on the southern banks. Believe it or not, this plant attracts wildlife: its outflow emits warmer waters which the manatees love during the cold winter months. We saw one pontoon boat approaching. It had manatees painted on its sides and tourists hanging out every which way.

Before we reached the plant we turned off the river into a channel pinpointed on the chart by our friends Don and Gillian of JAZZ. We still refer to their list of favorite anchorages they had shared with us before we even started cruising.

Power Plant Slough anchorage The entrance was challenging. Because the water is so dark you cannot hope to see the bottom rising until it is far too late, and the entrance had shoaled and the channel is not marked. So we had turned on my laptop with the charts uploaded, and the GPS with computerized charts directed us immediately into the shallows. We turned off the electronics, and Rick used a forward-neutral-forward-neutral play on the engine while I stared unblinking at the depth sounder. In that manner we felt our way in to a deeper, wider cove and we anchored for the evening.

Actually, we anchored twice, since at the first attempt we swung into the shallows and bogged down in the mud. Sheesh. If at first you don't succeed... we moved further into the cove and tried again, this time successfully.

It was so lovely and sheltered. Goldie emerged from her PFD locker and looked around, ears perked and eyes bright. We all had lunch out on the deck. Now and then a fisherman or two would emerged from an adjacent creek and cruise past us. We settled in, took some deep breaths, and got some Work done.

Franklin Lock Dock

We took a leisurely breakfast the next morning then retraced our cautious steps back to the main River.

Cattle We passed the power plant on our right and kept going. The left bank featured dense woods of palms and slash pines and the remaining 99% of subtropical vegetation which I can't name.

The wooded banks gave way now and then to river-side residential areas. Most homes were modest with docks bearing fishing boats. Many yards had little patios or firepits surrounded by chairs near the bank. It was a serene picture that told of folks spending their evenings in conversation and watching the river go by.

Then here came the surprise: grassy pastures! We were thrilled. We searched for cattle and there they were! Not even goofy looking scrawny cattle either, these were some fine looking specimens.

At mile 122 we approached the W.F. Franklin Lock, the west-most lock on the Waterway. Check this link for a fun aerial photograph of the lock and its environs. You can discern the approach, spillways, gates and even a boat inside the lock.

I radioed the lock (VHF channel 13) and the attendant called back saying he was "locking" a boat through westbound and we were to hold back from the gates and wait for the green light to proceed. Which we did. It gave us time to observe the process.

Franklin Lock When the gate opened we motored inside, preceeded by a small fishing boat. Note: We entered the lock eastbound. Those who've been through this lock will notice that these photos depict the process westbound. My camera ran out of batteries the first time through so I'm describing the process we followed several days later. It's the same but in reverse. Bear with me.

Above, see the lock on the inside - Rick says it's 400' long x 56' wide. The opposite gate is closed because the gate we are entering is, obviously, open. If they were both open it would be a rapids, not a lock.

Lock tender See, in the photo right, there is the friendly lock tender standing against the fence halfway down on the left - he tossed me that line. I dropped it because I was so busy talking with him I forgot to cleat it. He tossed me another, never mind, no harm done except my shipmates claimed to be embarassed.

We nestled up to the wall as directed and the lock keeper tossed a line to the stern and, manfully, Rick caught it. Our job was to secure the lines loosely around a cleat to stabilize the boat, then adjust them gradually as the water level inside the lock changed. We were only rising a foot or so to meet the elevation of the river above, so we just snugged up our lines periodically.

People came from the park on the south shore to line the lock walls and watch boaters drop their lines... I mean, lock through. You can see both parks in the aerial photo link above.

Gates cracked While we're waiting for the water to rise, here's an urban legend that will make you remember to attend to your lock lines, and it came to mind as we rose a foot eastbound and then dropped 3' (!) westbound several days later at the same site: We are told that the lock nearest the Atlantic has an elevation drop of up to 8'. A hapless boater tied the lines to their cleats then wandered off while the water level dropped. Soon the boat was suspended from the concrete wall by a couple of little 1/2" lines and it tipped on its side. The lock tender responded to the screeching and ran over with an ax and chopped through the lines, dropping the boat kersplash into the water. So - I'd rather drop my lines than sink my boat.

Gates opening This is the super-sized version of the do-it-yourself lock we traverse going into and out of All American Boat Storage each spring and fall, and it operates on the same principle. Once everyone is secure inside and the gate behind is closed, the gate ahead is cracked slightly, above left. Whether you'll be rising or lowering, the idea is to equalize the water levels gradually. It takes time. When the water inside is level with that on the outside, the gates open fully, right, and you proceed on your way. It's pretty slick.

While we were rising I visited with the man in the little boat traversing the lock with us. He was ferrying his young son and daughter to Scout camp up the river! He said they could drive faster but this was so much more fun. They would observe manatees along the way and be at camp all weekend. This is exactly what I was envisioning while looking at the nice little houses with their barbecues and folding chairs and river access.

Franklin Lock campground Well, everything went just fine. After Sea Gator cleared the lock we turned left to explore the adjacent Lock facilities.

The Army Corps has established parks near many of the locks, and this one at W.P. Franklin Lock featured numerous RV sites, two anchorages, and docking for eight boats. Gary and Mickey of Little Mick have given us glowing reviews of the Franklin Lock campground so we wanted to check it out.

We set our sights on the adjacent anchorage. It is interesting to note that the anchorage on the downstream side is subject to tides from the Gulf. Whereas the upstream anchorage is not, protected as it is by the gates of the lock.

Painting topsides Anyway, the upstream anchorage was occupied. So we idled back to dock and - lo and behold - slid easily into the slip next to our old acquaintance from Pelican Bay, Suzanne.

Here you see John painting Suzanne's topsides. His technique - balanced on the narrow rail - is not OSHA approved but he did a great job, the surface flowed and glowed like water when he was finished.

Meanwhile we stepped off Sea Gator to go pay our slip fees, and a few steps from the dock we paused... we sniffed. We inhaled mightily.

Lower anchorage The salt-air and seaweed smell was gone. Instead we breathed the unmistakable smell of - hay and cattle! It was wonderful, the scent rose through the nose and straight to the ol' memory banks. Sure enough, the first property outside the Park gates was home to cows on the left side of the road and horses on the right.

Here the sun sets upon the lower anchorage, with trailers in their slips in the background.

It was a perfect day: a smooth cruise on placid water, a friendly greeting dock-side, then the fragrance of clean grass, horses and cattle to make us feel right at home.

Lions and Tigers and ...

Cape Coral Sailing Club cocktail hour Later we went for a walk and followed our noses to the cows, and the horses. Then we found llamas in a field. They walked alongside us when dusk came, and when we ran beside the fence they ran too. As if that wasn't bizarre enough, the woman at the Park office told us that what we had thought were zebras in one of the down-river pastures were, in fact... Zebras.

AND just a quarter mile up-river we would see... I almost don't want to tell you... a camel. In somebody's yard. A camel. With a hump. Eating a palm tree. Why?

Well, we had a nice time at the Franklin Lock. We took hot showers and filled our water tank, and we were there when the Cape Coral Sailing Club came along. Those fine folks had cruised upriver for a long weekend and they were very friendly. Here, they invited us to join them for happy hour at the picnic shelter. We enjoyed their company and swapped some phone numbers and email addresses.

Swimming Against the Current

Onward. None too early, we cast off from the dock and resumed our journey up-river. Yes, we passed the camel. I know you won't believe it without a photo so here it is. It was just so strange I hardly know what to say.

Camel I wondered: Does a camel dream of the desert when he's dozing in 100 degrees and 98 percent humidity in central Florida? Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who wrote the exquisite Wind Sand and Stars while marooned near his downed plane in the North African desert, might suggest that the splayed hoofs of the camel know they are not pacing sand dunes; that a fully hydrated hump does not outweigh the poetry of a desert night.

I'm anthropomorphizing, attributing to animals a desire for their unadulterated native scenery. I learned that was just a romantic notion when I saw ibis and herons frolicing in a ditch beside the highway. I realized that they didn't know it was an old ditch, they just knew it was water. So who am I to judge?

River view - the Big Picture Later we passed a trio of lovely pure white horses, their coats shining in the morning sun, and Rick called out, "Look, unicorns!" I lifted the camera and said, "Oh, unicorns. Where?" I was ready to believe anything.

But it didn't seem like magic anymore. I had become exhausted, jaded by a friend's grief shared over the phone in long wrenching conversations, by waiting on other friends' medical results, by the disturbing vision of wild animals browsing hibiscus shrubs, and by sleep deprivation brought on by yipping dogs in neighboring RVs for three nights in a row.

But at the very moment I snapped this momentous photo, right (at 11:18 a.m. January 26, 2009) my cell phone rang and everything changed.

It was Nancy W. on the phone, calling to tell me that June and Gary had begun the drive to Salt Lake City that would save June's life. That news lifted us soaring into hope and gratitude and the rest of the cruise and all the little stresses and challenges and new scenes would, in our minds, be graced with that spirit of hope.

Unicorns Well. One does not turn one's back on a miracle, nor look a gift equine in the mouth. So in that spirit here are the shimmering unicorns. You can't see their horns just now, they've molted.


Soon cattle and wildebeast gave way to citrus groves, below.

We followed a strange looking fishing boat, and two companion boats - a catamaran and a trawler - through the Fort Denaud swing bridge. This bridge is just upstream of the Alva bridge, which was at one time the only bridge crossing the river. The banks began to straighten out somewhat as evidence of prior dredging.

Soon we approached the town of Labelle. There are presumably "free" town docks here on the north banks, but some had been refurbished so we weren't sure what was what.

Citrus grove We spotted the free dock in town on the south bank near the bridge, where one drops anchor in mid-river and backs into the dock. With wind and current on the beam and a narrow little berth between existing boats, we decided we didn't want to experience it. I'm glad we didn't stop, because we discerned via radio communication that the two companion boats were interested in that location, so they were able to take the two remaining slips.

We continued beneath the bridge, past the town of Labelle and up river.

We passed this example of unfortunate landscape construction: a swimming pool breaching the surface like a big blue whale, below right. Or, maybe the moles around here are as big as the camels and cockroaches.

Failed swimming pool installation Two miles later we motored into the basin which should have contained a half-dozen slips and an anchorage. Instead we found a basin filled with new pilings and docks, and nobody answering the radio. A friendly traveler hollered from his boat, that the Port Labelle Marina dockmaster leaves at 1:00 and that we should take a slip and pay later.

Well, we didn't find room to anchor so, ok, we idled Sea Gator gently into a slip at the far end of the cove and tied in. No water and no power andrickety bathrooms that inspired the use of protective Hazmat gear. But there were nice new fixed docks and tidy sliver-free pilings, no glaring lights at night and no noise apart from the other single occupied sailboat under repair at the back of the cove. We barricaded ourselves in for a mosquito-ridden but beautiful sunset, and a safe, dark, restful, quiet night.

Port Labelle Marina This place is known for its alligators and manatees. We kept Goldie under close surveillance at all times.

In the morning we hopped on our bikes and rode into Labelle. We ended up on some busy roads and it was not a ride for the timid. But we did find town, and we found an excellent breakfast at Flora & Ella's, an ACE hardware store, a post office, and grocery store.

We have enjoyed our visits to sea-side towns in Florida, where we have found authentic little communities in their original configuration near the waterfront such as Punta Gorda, Tarpon Springs, etc. But it was not the case at Labelle, and we realized that Labelle is a town built around cattle and citrus, not the waterway. It's a land-based town and lacks a discernible city center, alas. But it was nice anyway, and without exception the people we met were friendly.

Labelle city dock Speaking of which, we rode over to the city docks - here they are viewed from the river, right. There we met the man who lives on the houseboat shown on the right side of the dock photo, and we met the companion boats: the trawler Nautilus piloted by Al and Rosie, and Gene and Charleen on the catamaran TwoCan. We learned that they had been at Franklin Lock and we realized that in fact they were the very two boats anchored in Rick's sunset photo, above. Imagine. They all reported that it is orange harvest season and that semi-truck traffic had boomed and rattled over the adjacent bridge all night long.

We intended to hustle back to Sea Gator for work, but in our attempt to avoid the main highways we took a sidestreet that made a huge "U" instead of a nice straight lower-case "L". In other words, we rode until we knew we should have been back at the marina and by then we were almost back in town! A friendly volunteer fireman and his creepily deadpan companion gave us directions, and eventually we returned home to Goldie and a productive day.

Fun About Town

Rick Pat Sally Ron We did meet some fine people in Labelle. I spent an hour with the most diverse group of folks you can imagine - there were bib overalls and tattoos and muscle shirts and golf shirts and heeled sandals and spikey hair all represented - and it was wonderful.

Ron and Sally, our friends from Key West, have chosen to stay ashore this year and get some cross-country skiing in, but they came down to visit Adventure at Glades. We had studied in advance and learned that Glades is just a few miles upriver from Labelle, so we were on hand when Ron and Sally came to town.

We had a lovely reunion, and Sally and I had some profound discussions while Rick and Ron went off to Glades. Adventure was happy to see her people. We enjoyed lunch and then dinner together, so now we know some of the finer dining establishments in Labelle.

Adventure will be missed in Key West this April, that's for sure.

Gator seeks breakfast All in all, Rick and I both think Labelle is a fine little town. And Rick thinks Glades is a good place to get some boat work done, but he forgot to take any photos so we'll see it when we see it.

In the morning there were two alligators cruising the basin for breakfast! Here is one, churning along behind Sea Gator's stern. Goldie was in enforced lockdown all morning.

But soon it was time to leave. We packed up our folding bikes and cast off, returning back downriver.

Pam at Ft. Myers Yacht Basin We retraced our steps downriver - there really are no sidetrips available - so there's nothing "new" to report. We stopped again at Franklin Locks and I did laundry until late at night and it was very cold and I was the only one awake in the world and felt quite alone and put-upon. I returned to the boat just as Rick came to look for me so he was saved. The next day we motored on downriver with clean linens and no problems.

Not a single torpedo was sighted. Thank you, United States Army Corps of Engineers!

Nearing Ft. Myers I phone Pam and Don. Their Gallivant is berthed at the Ft. Myers Yacht Basin. Pam came down to the end pier and we waved at eachother and talked via phone as Sea Gator continued on by. Hi, Pam! We had wanted to stay and visit with them, but weather threatened and we wanted that anchor in the mud before the front arrived.

Bimini Basin

At this writing we are anchored in Bimini Basin to wait out this cold front. This is a protected anchorage, surrounded by homes and condos and with many useful destinations within walking distance, but the holding is muck. We set out 75' of line with 25' chain in 8' and keep the anchor alarm nearby. So far, so good.

We're kind of out in the edge of this anchorage, because this dredge (see it in the right corner of the photo) plopped right in the middle. Jeez, buddy.

Bimini Basin anchorage We heard a rumor at Franklin Lock dock, straight from the lips of a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend-of-a-Cape Coral resident, that the west entrance to this anchorage bearing north from ICW markers 85 and 86 is the right choice. But with all due respect Sea Gator is our responsibility. We radio'd Tow Boat U.S. to request "local knowledge". Their captain was adamant, "There's no water in that channel!" He advises boaters to stay to the center of the marked channel departing 83 and 84, then hug the shoreline keeping reds to port. We saw some shallow water beneath us but didn't run aground.

This morning we dinghied in to shore and hiked east on busy Cape Coral Parkway to our favorite breakfast shop, Origins Coffee Roastery. Then we walked south a block to reconnect with the fine folks at Consolidated Blueprint, where I will email a set of AutoCAD drawings for test prints as I do not have a plotter on board.

We stopped at Publix for groceries on the way home, and returned to Sea Gator and Goldie in time for lunch: PBJs, an orange and M&Ms, and cat snacks (Feline Greenies). The M&MS are the most intricate meal item because, Monk-like, I have to divide them equally by color into two separate and explicitly equal servings, then consume my portion sequentially by color. Rick doesn't get it, but that's OK, he can eat his M&Ms like a savage if he wants to.

Goldie on a frolic Goldie is keeping busy decimating all the tissue papers on board. It's fun to play matador with her: you rattle the paper until she comes running, then release the paper just as she soars through the air and grabs it with both paws to land in a rolling heap of fur and paper on the settee. Our current shopping list includes a new batch of tissue paper.

Soon it will include new upholstry.

Meanwhile, you'd think all the fur flying around would keep us warm.

Rick just read aloud the weather forecast: 32 degrees predicted for Wednesday night. We'll be keeping a lookout for icebergs. Sheesh, someone should tell them that this is the "subtropics".

I have six pairs of flip-flops and zero pacs so I've become one of those folks who wears socks with sandals. Not even cool sandals either, we're talking dorky. I never thought it would happen to me. Dear god, what's next?

Here's what: I'll become a person who climbs tall ladders with pruners and violates innocent trees. I'll become an aspen topiary artist. I'll work covertly under cover of darkness because I will know, deep in my heart, that it is wrong.

On that frightening note, please oh please, keep all four tires and four paws and two feet firmly on the ground. Thanks for listening.

Pat, Rick and Goldie

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