Friday, March 2, 2012

All Locked Up on the Okeechobee

Our trip through the Okeechobee Waterway was a feast for the eyes and the imagination. On day one, while the Captain steered Mike kept his binoculars trained on the shoreline for alligators and other wildlife. Soon it was time to enter our first lock and begin to rise up to the lake level. As the Captain called the lock tender to request passage out of the corner of my eye I noticed a canoeist just to the left of the gates. "He must be watching the boat traffic," I assumed, and went about setting the fenders on the port side. About the same time I heard the lock master saying something about the manatees, but again, did not give it much thought.

I ran to get my camera as the lock gates began to close and as I pointed the camera aft I discovered that the canoeist was sharing the lock with us. I gave him a wave and asked where he was headed. The response awed me: "Well, I'm doing the Great Loop*. I left Iowa on October 15th, took me a little bit to get to the Mississippi, but I've been traveling ever since. If I get to Chicago by October 1st I'll be in good shape to make it around in just about a year."

*"The Great Loop is the continuous waterway that encompasses the eastern portion of North America including the Atlantic and Gulf Intracoastal Waterways, the Great Lakes, the Canadian Heritage Canals, and the inland rivers of America's heartland."

Okay, we have met A LOT of "Loopers", but all of them in boats of at least 30 feet, gas or diesel powered boats, not paddle-powered. This was an interesting guy.

We continued to converse over the sound of the water: He was traveling alone, on a good day he paddles 20 miles, and sleeps most night in a tent on the dredge spoil that lines the waterway. He looked to be in his late 50's/early 60's and we so hope to cross his path again as we head north. Oh, the places he will go, the sights he will see and the stories he will have to tell.

Once the lock was full, and the gate off our bow was open I expected the Cap'n to put the boat in gear and head out, but he hesitated remembering the warning given to him by the lock tender: "Don't go anywhere until the Manatees have left the lock"
Sure enough, 2 manatees swam by and continued on their journey across the Okeechobee.

We "locked" a second time that day, without companionship and by mid-afternoon we had arrived at the edge of the lake. We had two options for overnight accomodations: a local marina with questionable water depths and a reputation for less than friendly owners or tying alongside "the dolphins". I pictured decorative dolphins, complete with cleats, lining the waterway. But here is what they really look like:

The line you see on the right is extended from our stern to the dolphin, and there is another on the bow. Attaching the first line was easy (sort of) - the Cap'n motored the boat as cose as he could, and Mike reached out and looped the cleat. Aft was another story. With the bow line stretching as far as it could, we had to hold the line with the boat hook and r-e-a-c-h out over the railings on the upper deck. The weight was just to heavy for me and in the nick of time Mike, with Lan cheering him on, came to my rescue and we were secured for the night. Then the fruitless alligator hunt began.....

Here is all I have to say about sunrise the next day:


The Cap'n showed off his rodeo skills by unhooking us from the dolphins with a quick flick of the wrist and soon we were on Lake Okeechobee:

Looks mysterious, doesn't it? The dark clouds in the second photo are caused by a fire in the sugar cane fields. The fields are burned before harvest to eliminate weeds. And if the wind is blowing in your direction, you are covered by small bits of ash - even if you are miles away.

Uncharacteristically, the lake was calm, and our trip uneventful. For me it was a bittersweet experience to "lock" for the last time and drop 13 feet on the far side, symbolizing the end of our adventure to Florida's West Coast.

We've been on shore leave for the past few weeks -- and after a string of raw northeast days, we can't wait to get back to the Sunshine State!

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