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Friday, March 27, 2015

Circling "The Big O"

Watercolor of sugarcane field, canals edge, and smoking sugar factory along old route 27
Lake Okeechobee is the second largest freshwater lake in the US. At 35 miles by 29 miles wide, it measures only 9 feet deep at the average, so it seems like a wide grassy dish. It is the birthplace of the Everglades and has a controversial history muddied in agriculture and folklore.
Pahokee marina campground

Being on SPRING BREAK (scream that!) I set off with Michael, our binoculars, history books and snacks to travel the circumference, estimated at110 miles. It is about 90 miles up highway 27 from our apartment. Crossing under Alligator Alley, 27 is the road less traveled. I have passed it countless times on my way to the west coast. In my curiosity of wondering what lies ahead in the road, I've wanted to follow 27 and the large power lines that seemed to march stiffly into a faded fuzzy grey in the distance. After much debate and research, we left our bikes at home because of the many closings reported for the Florida Trail along the rim. Construction is estimated to close sections of the trail through 2019.
Driving my Hyundai along the highway we noticed the ground of the landscape changing intermittently from white and sandy (this central Florida used to be seashore a gazillion years ago) to dark and loamy (the product of Everglades rich natural compost). Sod seemed to be planted and harvested to the east, and Domino Sugar cane to the west of the highway. We passed three prisons run by GEO, multiple trailer parks, cattle ranches, and two huge sugar factories pumping out smoke.
We spoke to a fellow at the railroad tracks (where we waited for one of the 5 daily trains full of cane sugar to pass) who told us that the factories worked round the clock on three shifts. Most of the traffic on the highway was large trucks or smaller ones pulling motorboats.
Northern most point of the lake
On the eastern edge of the lake, in the hamlet of Pahokee, we mounted the dike and saw the water for the first time. Michael and I had a picnic of baguette, tomato, cheese and olives with some red wine. We marveled at the white and the brown pelicans, the ring billed and laughing gulls, black skimmers, great blue and common herons. We decided to keep a bird list.
By early afternoon we passed where the Kissimee river meets the lake at the northernmost tip, and we witnessed a dramatic osprey fish kill. We passed fields of cattle resting under palm trees and mossy oaks and were on the lookout for the rare Audobon Crested Caracara. Turning down an access way called Indian Prarie we came upon a flock of endangered wood storks, great egrets, a kingfisher and grebes. Pecking daintily along the shore was a flock of black necked stilts. Out on the lake surface we scanned fishermen and coots, brown common ducks, common moorhens, and Anhingas in our binoculars.  The shore was riddled with wild papaya, and it was there that we got our first sighting of a Limpkin and a red wing blackbird. Spring is really here!!! I thought of my dad and wished the bird would flee up north to give my family up there some respite from winter. I thought of my grandmother and her love of birding. Songbirds I could not identify filled the shrubs and trees.
By 5pm we arrived on the south west side of the lake, at the "sweetest city in Florida", Clewiston, built by the sugar industry. We checked into the Clewiston Inn, which was originally a guest house for the US Sugar company. Asking the check in gal what there was to do, she shook her head sadly and said, "It's Saturday night, not much going on".  She recommended the Elks lodge for their steak dinner, but after we found them closed for the evening we ended up at the  local TikiBar down by the marina. The place was filled with bass fishermen. Apparently everyday is a tournament.

The next morning, heading out and back to Miami, we took OLD route 27 and came upon eagles nests, alligators in canals, lots of turtle sightings, snakes (yellow and red and black), and on our way home we counted 13 osprey and three large nests.
It was a safari along the big O. No Crested Caracara this time.

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