Saturday, January 15, 2011

Pahokee Pokey

Thursday we left Fort Myers, headed east along the Okeechobee Waterway. We planned to end the day at the town dock in LaBelle (town claim to fame: Swamp Cabbage Festival!)

Cruising the Okeechobee . . . It's FLAT out here!
But before we reached the crowded town dock, our radio crackled to life:  "Dragonfly! Hailing Dragonfly!  Look behind you!"

A man in a yellow sailor's slicker was hailing us from a dock in front of a neat, waterfront home. Addison Austin is a canal boat enthusiast and member of the American Canal Society, and ACS has been publishing excerpts from our blog in its newsletter.  So he knew we were headed his way, and he'd been watching for us.

End result: instead of crowding in with the boats squeezed stern-on to the town dock, we had a luxurious night on Mr. Austin's private dock. Over drinks 'n snacks with Addison and Mary Jane, we paged through the album documenting their own Great Loop adventure:  Two adults,  three dogs, four months, six major repairs . . .  in a 23-foot Sea Ray.

Look! A canal boat!
Fortified for the road . . . er, canal . . . ahead, we left early while a light fog still swirled on the water's surface. The newly re-secured diesel engine purred happily.  The newly reinstalled electric motor waited for its turn.  Scrubby little Florida beef cattle watched solemnly as we passed, turning their heads slowly to track our progress. We passed a field of beehives (LaBelle is famous for its honey); then miles and miles of orange groves, ripe fruit glowing in the sunshine.

Look! A canal boat!
The river was mostly quiet, but once in a while we'd pass a fishing boat, with two or three guys, lines overboard.  The anglers reacted much like the cattle.   As we approach, one guy looks up.  He sees us. He does a visible double take. His head slowly turns to follow our progress.  He nudges the next guy, who also looks up.  Stare, head turn.  Repeat.

There are four functioning locks along the 150 miles of the Okeechobee Waterway, and Friday we went through two of them.  Now, we're used to locks.  We've been through hundreds of locks.  But these locks are different.

Let's say you enter a lock, the gates close, and the locktender lets water into the lock, to lift your boat UP. In most locks, the water comes in from UNDERWATER--either from the bottom or the sides of the lock.

   That's the roof of our boat on the right. Those are lock gates in the background. And  in the middle?
That's a whole ton of water, rushing in at high speed.
But along the Okeechobee, locks are old-school.  Once you are inside, the locktender closes the downstream gate behind you, then cracks open the upstream gate--just a bit--so that water floods in. It makes for a turbulent ride!  You take the line from the lock wall and put it on the cleat, then struggle to shorten the line as the boat goes up, with the bow plunging into the wall, then away, back and forth, like a tennis shoe in a washing machine.

At the second lock, in Moore Haven, the crew (up on the bow) was flustered by a gongoozler  in an NYPD sweatshirt who was hanging over the railing at the top of the lock.  The anglers and the cattle hadn't seemed malicious, just disinterested.  This fellow, without so much as a "hello," or even making eye contact, was snapping away with a camera,  just a few feet away, recording (for some album) the crew's screwed-up facial expression as she hauled desperately on the bow line.

Look! A canal boat!
We docked Friday night in Clewiston, headquarters for U.S. Sugar.  Many businesses along the main drag are 1930s Spanish revival, stucco and bright colors. The sullen marina clerk warned us not to dock next to the marina Tiki Bar, since the live band would be playing country-western standards well past midnight.  She also directed us to a grocery store a mile away, overlooking the perfectly fine Hispanic grocery virtually next door.

After the big engine remount, Cap had reinstalled the electric motor and on Saturday (sunny and blessedly warmer than any other day so far this week) we purred along on solar power, trolling at a stately 3.2 miles per hour past swathes of sawgrass cloaking the rim of Lake Okeechobee.  It was the perfect pace to see wildlife, and we were so busy spotting birds we could barely steer:  Purple gallinule!  Common moorhen! Reddish egret!  Osprey with a snake!  Limpkins! . . . a bird which our Sibley Guide describes as "rare." They were so common that finally, we got blase. Geez! It's just another limpkin!

The only interruption to our birding came when we were boarded by pirates . . .  I mean, by officer A.J. Maynard of the Florida Wildlife Commission, a young guy with a honkin' big pistol on his hip. "Any firearms on board? Methamphetamines?" he inquired politely, before making his safety check.

Our life jackets were in order and no sewage was being dumped overboard, so we passed with flying colors. We suspect we were the most entertaining and least dangerous vessel Officer Maynard detained all day.

Our destination was the former farming town of Pahokee, and all day long, as we poked along at our stately pace, we couldn't help humming (to the tune of "Hokey Pokey"):

We put the engine in
We take the engine out
We put the engine in
And we test the engine mounts
Do the Pahokee Pokey, and it makes us want to shout
"That's what it's all about!"

More photos HERE!

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