When I was a kid, my folks bought me a jig saw puzzle that was all the states in the US. I played with it a lot, which came in handy when it was time to fill in that empty map in grade school. The state of Florida always fascinated me. It had a distinctive shape which made it easy to place in the puzzle and it was the only state that had an eye. When I later learned that the eye was called Okeechobee, the name made it even more interesting.
We have always intended to give this lake a visit, but it is not on the way to anywhere and we never made it until today. When we first entered the state we picked up a brochure that described the bike trails here. There is a 110 mile one around Lake Okeechobee. We like to ride bike loops rather than retracing our steps, but 110 miles greatly exceeds our daily allotment. Maybe three days would do it...
The bike trail sits atop the Hoover dike and is paved, easy riding. But when we started today's ride, we could hardly see any water. What water we saw was in a moat on the far side of the earthworks. We know the lake levels are down, but wondered if that was the reason that the foliage growing along the path looked like it had been there for years. After the bike ride we toured a bit more of the loop by car and came to an area where we could indeed see the lake. There were many tributaries going in?/out? of the lake and the more we drove, the more questions we had.
A lucky turn into the locks at the St. Lucie Canal answered many of them. A volunteer at the visitor's center there showed us a film about the construction of the dike around the lake and the canals flowing out of it. In the 1920's during a dry spell of weather, early Florida pioneers concluded that by building a few canals, they could drain the swamps and free up much valuable land for farms. Shortly after they finished two strong hurricanes brought a great deal of water back into the area. During one of them 2,400 people drowned. The Army Corps of Engineers built the earthworks around the lake and a system of flood gates and locks along the canals to stabilize the water flow and regulate its use. The film described the lake as "the liquid heart of Florida." Today it is possible to sail a boat across Florida here. You can enter from the east on the St. Lucie canal, go through a lock, sail through Lake Okeechobee and come out in Fort Myers on the Calusahatchee River. Although the man at the visitor's center bragged about the lake being the second largest fresh water lake within the US, it is only ten feet deep at the most, down about five feet from normal. Birds can be seen wading a mile away from shore.
In this area we finally found some affordable, uncrowded campgrounds on the shore of Lake Okeechobee. Many of the folks camped there were fishermen, but otherwise the area was run down with little else to offer. As long as the $$$ holds out,we'll stay near the beach.