Destination: Kissimmee, Fla.

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A 100-mile trip through locks, lakes and snaking waters, in the

company of nature in the raw

A 100-mile trip through locks, lakes and snaking waters, in the

company of nature in the raw

The din was indescribable. Raucous, uproarious. My wife, Meg, and I awoke at the same instant near midnight, giggling in disbelief at the ridiculous cacophony of these voices of the night. The frogs’ continual rasping honks kept us awake longer than convenient, until I finally retired to the cockpit settee to absorb the fullest extent of the nocturnal symphony. The discourse went on without lull like a lengthy congressional filibuster, like a lady’s monthly sewing circle or a kindergarten lunch recess. It was truly nature in the raw — God’s own fabulous music under the stars.

We were on a secluded branch of the old river, the old part of the Kissimmee. This is the portion that the Army Corps of Engineers was now tinkering with to help the ecology of the poor, abused aquifer, and in its latest effort to undo the disaster it had created by canalizing in 1971.

This was our third trip to the River of the Long Water, as American Indians call it. The first was in 1990 in an old houseboat we called Dubbin’ Around. We were charmed by the remoteness of the route. Although there were seven locks and a chain of unpopulated lakes over the 100-plus miles of waterway to the city of Kissimmee, the anchorages were spectacular, blessed with only the company of birds and alligators.

 

Last year, on our second trip, we took our character riverboat, Funky Old Thing, in an attempt to reconnoiter and see what the Corps of Engineers was up to. Rumor had it that it had blown up a dam and was rerouting the river away from the canal that millions of our tax dollars created 40 years ago, sending it down the old circuitous path nature had provided. We found that this indeed was true, but due to drought the river was low on water. Although we draw less than 2 feet, the channel was impossible to navigate. Disappointed, we turned back home.

In March, Meg and I again fitted out the 1969 Kenner-built, trawler-type riverboat, and even though some narrow-minded, pseudo-eyed experts do look at her askance, we love every foot of her most unusual 48. She’s a cherished, funky old thing to us. With a moderate draft of 18 inches and built with clipper-bow and counter-stern of a Chesapeake-style skipjack, she is just right for the skinny waters of Florida. The single Volvo outdrive even retracts to enable efficient cleaning of the swale grass-weed from the prop. True, Funky Old Thing isn’t what you would want for big, wide water, but since I’ve been there and done that, and since I am not in boating for the terror anymore, I am more than content to be enraptured by the thousands of miles of inland exploration we have enjoyed with this old boat.

In the last half-dozen years we’ve done the East Coast and Gulf Coast to Texas, the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, Kentucky Lakes and Tennessee River to the Smokies, the Thousand Islands, Saint Lawrence and Rideau to Ottawa, Lake Champlain and Hudson River to New York, and on and on. The shallow draft and low profile enable us to plunk her on an 18-wheeler and send her rolling down Interstate 95 at 70 knots to some exotic destination on the other side of the country. She is snug-as-a-bug in her Victorian-looking cabin with stained glass, antique furnishings, rich varnished woodwork, tall columns, sweeping arches and decorative filigree. One cannot help but to stand back and just love the damned old thing.

Poor Okeechobee

Departing our dock in Palm City in the afternoon, we struck out down the south fork of the Saint Lucie River to lock up about 10 feet of lift in the Cross Florida Canal. After the lock we encountered our first lazy alligator sleeping in the sun on a grassy spot along the beach. He stared us down with one beady eye as we passed, and when we tied to a remote piling along a deserted section of the ditch, we wondered where he would spend the night. Admiral Meg did her magic in the galley, and we reveled in the first phenomenal meal of the cruise: cassoulet, the finest Bordeaux, and a warm French baguette smothered with brie.

The Port Mayaca lock released us into Lake Okeechobee, second-largest inland lake in the United States (after Lake Michigan). The weather was calm and kind, and we had an easy run to the northwest on a body of water that has a reputation for being quite nasty at times.

Lake Okeechobee, to my eyes, is not the most pleasing sight. Its color is black and gray with a granite cast, and it looks surreal against the blue of the Florida sky. I hate to put a mop in it and wring it out by hand.

Ask anyone and blame will fall immediately on the runoff from the hurricanes of 2004. They’ll dismiss the subject simply and thusly until you enter the Kissimmee River. There they blame it on the “sewer pipe,” as most locals call the Army Corps’ Kissimmee Canal, spewing millions of gallons of contaminated water into the northern reaches of poor Okeechobee.

There is, in my opinion, a larger story here of ecological mismanagement, but that will have to wait for another day.

The first lock

Hundreds of bass-fishing boats crowded around the entrance to the Kissimmee River. Crowded indeed, with wall-to-wall fishing boats muscled in together day and night with generators running, crews cussing profusely at the tangled lines of their 15 or so rods bristling around their boats like quills on an angry porcupine’s back, all hopelessly ensnarled and tangled with the neighbor who anchored too close alongside. Yes, this is surely where the fish were pooling.

Picking up our skirts and delicately finding our way through the fleet with as little fuss as possible, we thread our way to anchor in a quiet tributary choked with hydrilla, off the main river and just inside its mouth. Knowing we were now immersed in the Kissimmee by the screech of the moorhens hiding in the vegetation and squawks of the osprey and heron winging overhead, we settled down to cocktails, a fantastic dinner and the dazzling Florida sunset.

With the break of day, I started the fire under the coffee pot and contemplated the plop-plop of the percolator and rich aroma wafting from the pot. Meg stirred from her bunk, and the new day started. We both have that outrageous feeling of total abandon when being truly on vacation, and our only hurry is to retire with coffee to the cockpit and watch the bird-life at its morning frenetic fishing activity.

With breakfast behind us, we heave up and, leaving the scores of hopeful fishermen seated in their nests of rods and reels, head upriver to pass the first lock of the system. The big steel gate quietly closes behind us, and water floods the chamber, raising us about 7 feet to the level of the canal ahead. A smiling, pleasant lock-keeper waves hello and advises us that the way ahead is without hazards, at least as far as the next lock.

A glance at the sounder shows almost 30 feet. The Corps of Engineers doesn’t fool around when it builds a canal, seeming to spend taxpayer money with religious abandon. They made this one deep, wide and straight.

Hypnotic seclusion

As we approached the second lock, we could see the building of a huge floodgate just west of our channel. As part of the restoration, they will soon blow up the third lock upstream and they will need more floodgates to control the river, the lock-keeper explained as we rose in the lock chamber. The Engineers is still anticipating “control” of the river.

Meg and I gave the Funky Old Thing a haircut. We lowered the mast, Bimini and antennas, and the small boat davit astern to pass under the Seaboard Coastline Railroad Bridge with 11.5 feet of clearance, after which we fetched off to explore a little oxbow and desolate small river where we could anchor for lunch. It was so quiet in the cypress forest — teeming with the unimaginable natural beauty of the foreign-looking plants, trees and foliage — and each bend of the river beckoned as a siren for us to follow a little farther into its wilderness.

The river water was much cleaner and more inviting as we moved upstream. We snuggled into the bank and passed a line around a tree, enjoying the cushion of the hydrilla serving as our fender keeping us off the shore. It was the first of many such tranquil, serene, placid, remote places on the shores of the Kissimmee. We felt so completely engulfed in isolation it was almost hypnotic. What a glorious lunch.

Passing the third lock, its days now numbered, we entered the old serpentine river recently restored by the destruction of lock four and the retention dam. The lock-keeper assured us the water was high, and after the first few switchbacks, we found one of the numerous small rivers branching off into the wilderness.

With the wind now blowing half a gale, I rolled the wheel hard over, and we dove into the tiny rivulet, a mere feather of a waterway winding and twisting away from the main river where, to our pleasure, we found not a living soul, fisherman or boat. Well-immersed in the gently meandering waterway, I boldly drove her bow through the cattails and hydrilla on the windward shore, right up to a substantial cypress. We were soon nailed down for the night. The wind blew in through the ports and skylights, and we hardly even swung. There were no mosquitoes, “no-see-ems” or anything that bit … at least on the dry side of the old boat.

Meg tells me I competed with the alligators in a snoring contest that night. There is nothing like tying to a tree to give you a good feeling when the old wind howls. Let ‘er blow; we are cradled in snug harbor.

All day, the next, and several more were spent on the old part of the river. With a tired shoulder I wound the wheel hard over to port, then hard over to starboard and back again. Before the 52-mile canal was built, the river rambled for 103 snake-like miles. The switchbacks, one after another, had us almost dizzy as the serpentine course of the old river ambled back and forth. Each magnificent bend laced with hydrilla and swamp vegetation cast its spell over us, luring us ahead as a magnet.

Some bends were so tight we almost had to back and fill. In some places I wondered if we would meet our own stern coming along behind. I loved every turn, every jumping fish, every diving duck and each prehistoric-looking alligator. I loved it mostly because there was no human encroachment. Not a PWC or cell tower, no television, cars, trucks or houses. It was so quiet we used every excuse we could find to shut down the engine. First, it was for coffee and then again for lunch and again for tea and an afternoon nap. Each time, as the solitude closed around us, we tended to talk quietly so as not to disturb the magic of our tranquility.

The town of Kissimmee

The river has no aids to navigation, no charts, no soundings, and in places I had to watch for the main current to be sure of the route. Soundings went from 20 feet to 2 in a heartbeat, but you soon learn to read the water to be aware of the shoals. Swift water runs deep, and the outside of the turns were almost always the deepest. Running the dog-legs, I had to keep the bow over the shoals inside of the turn and swing the stern, sometimes wildly, keeping the prop out in the deep.

I’d stay constantly alert for snags, blow-downs and half-sunken trees. In some places we would duck under a canopy of huge trees almost closing the sky overhead, then after another bend or two we would break out into a huge, flat, grassy plain, the sky filled with egrets, ibis, hawks, herons, cranes, ducks, coots and wading birds, even water turkeys.

The Kissimmee comprises 50,000 acres of wetland. No wonder it is a mosaic of flying habitat. We had no problem stopping off the main river since there are myriad small, deep streams and channels creating a maze of alternatives. There was no need to anchor, just pick out a convenient tree, put a line on it and settle in for a quiet snooze.

It was uphill all the way. The current came sweeping down, taking three days to filter through the thick vegetation of the flood plain — round the twists and turns — and did a fair job of cleaning itself at the bottom of this old part of the river. In the meantime, we breasted the stream on our way toward the chain of lakes to the north and locks number four, five and six. Alligators kept us company at night, and the inexhaustible bird life was a constant source of amusement. We saw only one living soul, a solitary fisherman, that entire first day. It seems uncanny to find such raw wilderness anywhere in the Sunshine State, where there is so much desperate land-grabbing, and development going like wildfire.

Continuing north, after lock four, we stopped into River Ranch, an equestrian resort and the only place on the Kissimmee system to obtain fuel and a few supplies. Surprisingly enough, I was able to obtain a chart of the lakes to come, with soundings and channel markers. We had just missed their big rodeo the night before, as we were busy in the seclusion of the old river listening to the frogs.

Locking up for the fifth time, we passed into Lake Kissimmee, a 14-mile body of water besprinkled with a number of small islands. The wind had come up, and Funky Old Thing rolled and cavorted as we steamed toward the protection of the connecting channel leading to Lake Hatchineha. Here we again entered a splinter creek, found a tree, and enjoyed the beautiful wilds for the night while the old wind blew itself out. We were snug, again entertained by the crazy moorhens and their squawks and by the ruckus set up by the zillions of unseen frogs.

Another wooded connecting channel brought us to Cypress Lake, then to its connecting channel and lock six, our last, where we entered Lake Toho, short for Tohopekaliga. Now, there’s a real tongue challenger. Toho is about 8 miles long, sparsely developed along the southern shores, and very appealing with its water both clean and deep. Nestled behind the islands at the northern end is our destination, the attractive town of Kissimmee with a protective breakwater and all facilities.

We entered the basin, tied to the float at the “Big Toho” restaurant, bait and tackle, worms and bugs, ham and eggs, shoes and socks, hats and shades, information and conversation, and just-about-anything-else-you-need kind of shop. The owner, Mark, came running down to take our lines and welcome us like long-lost cousins.

“You’re the first boat of size to make it all the way up here,” he said. “Stay as long as you wish, overnight or for a week. No charge for you. We serve breakfast from 5 o’clock on in the morning.”

Our enthusiastic proprietor made us a hot meal, introduced us to a rogues’ gallery of local personages, and we sat over coffee kibitzing and getting all the juicy gossip from along the waterfront. What a warm, down-home kind of a place. There was only one table with four chairs and a counter of six seats.

“That’s enough,” explained Mark. “There are enough lies told around that table for the whole county. Two tables may bring on God’s wrath.”

What a Kissimmee welcome we had.

Discovery

The town was duly explored on bikes, the antique stores well-perused by Admiral Meg. It was scary, but she came off with no great expensive purchases. We rode the charming waterfront footpaths, sucked up a cappuccino, and in a few hours we had pretty well covered the town.

With a few vittles to add to the larder, we shoved off for the easy downstream run while I looked longingly at the other interconnecting channels leading to the dozens of small lakes in this Venice-like land-o-lakes. For a small outboard boat the possibilities are endless but, unfortunately, we were just too big and high to take advantage of the countless connecting waterways. We started the trek from lake to lake back to the wild, old river.

Negotiating downstream with a 2-knot fair current created a whole new set of circumstances and a new strategy. The river bends seemed to come up a lot faster now, and there would be no quick stopping for shoals and sandbars. I had to keep my speed up for quick steerage and trust my memory to recall the dangerous places we had passed coming up. It was exciting.

With the current pushing, we must have been making 6 or 7 knots. That doesn’t allow much time for thought when spinning the wheel, stop-to-stop, around one hairpin turn after another. We ran aground only once and soon got ourselves off by twisting the boat with a long boathook.

Slithering snake-like around another bunch of turns, we came on a little branch waterway with hardly enough room in the channel to squeeze the hull of the Funky Old Thing, but it was so enticing I couldn’t resist. I poked her right on in. In the nest of trees ahead we met one of the biggest old gators I had seen in all our travels. “Big Daddy” wasn’t at all shy. He acted as if we, the lily-white tourists measuring up to no more than a simple hors d’oeuvre, were the intruders into his domain and damned if he was going to move.

We put the boat right into the weeds alongside his ugly bulk while he hissed and growled at us. I growled loudly and viciously back at him, and Meg hushed me up. Then when Big Daddy finally decided to splash in and swim away, I said, “I guess I told him, huh?” Meg was unimpressed.

Infatuated by the alluring tributary we had discovered, we continued to its terminus and found a picture-perfect, protected harbor. It felt like a place where no man had trod; so tranquil and natural, it seemed to cast a spell. Meg took a line and made fast to a tree. I launched the canoe from the top deck trying hard not to make unnecessary noise. The quiet beauty of the little pond, the enticing magnetism of the foliage, and the euphoria we felt in the silent paddle of our canoe inspired us to spend the rest of that day and all that night listening to our unseen friends in the frogs’ symphonic chorus. Rare, indeed, in this world is it when you can listen to nature alone and not hear a chainsaw, outboard engine, lawn mower, telephone, airplane or helicopter — or sometimes all of them at once.

The warm morning sun filtered through the noble cypress, wisps of mist rose from the still water playing peek-a-boo with the reflections mirroring the profile of trees against sky. It was wrenching to start our engine the next day to take our leave of this Garden of Eden. Such incredible wilderness. We must return.

After dragging our feet and dawdling as long as possible, we finally arrived at the entrance of the Kissimmee River. Naturally however, a fresh northwest front had caught up with us. On the homeward-bound run, Funky Old Thing rolled and pitched, growled and thrashed until we finally entered the Mayaca Lock and the quiet water of the Saint Lucie Canal. Memories of the quiet Kissimmee, indelibly etched in the gray matter, will haunt us for all time — those unforgettable nocturnal symphonies, the squawk of the birds, bellow of the gators — but mostly we will forever treasure the cacophonous croak of the frogs of the Kissimmee.

Jim Sharp, 72, has logged thousands of miles cruising the East Coast, Canadian Maritimes, Midwest, and Gulf Coast, as well as Europe. Now retired, he was captain and owner of the 122-foot Grand Banks schooner Adventure, now designated a National Historic Landmark.