Caloosahatchee River Cruise
Caloosahatchee River Cruise
It was a bright and sunny spring day in Ft. Myers, Florida. We were heading across town from Bonita Springs to downtown Ft. Myers. From the density of the automobile traffic, you would never know that the high season had ended here and there were millions fewer people in Florida.
We arrived at the Pincher’s Crab Shack some fifteen minutes before our cruise was to depart. Our tickets ($29 ea.) were waiting for us. We then walked behind the restaurant to the dock area of the former royal yacht club. We sat at wooden tables with an eclectic collection of other aging seniors waiting to board the small boat. “View of Fort Myers” The boat was indeed small. It was an outsized version of what we call a party boat on smaller lakes in WNY. Hard plastic benches lined the sides and rear of the craft. Twin outboard engines powered the craft. After twenty of us boarded the small vessel, the two-man crew slipped her lines and nudged gingerly from the slip and glided into the Caloosahatchee.
Just next to the marina and restaurant lies the attractive expanse of the Edison/Ford Winter Estates. Thomas Edison had come to spend winters in the area in the mid 1880’s. Henry Ford a friend and colleague had joined him in 1912. The well-ordered estate is managed now by a cadre of volunteers. The two homes and out buildings attract thousands yearly.
From the Edison estate, the skipper piloted the small craft through a “Slow speed manatee zone” in the river. The huge sea cows drift through here, like aquatic cows, as they munch on sea grass. Speedboats have injured many in the past.
At this point, some twelve miles from the Gulf of Mexico, the river is about a half -mile across. You can see the high rises and dock areas of nearby Cape Coral along the far shoreline. Heading eastward, we passed under one of the several spans crossing the Caloosahatchee.
Though accessible now by interstates and railroads, the area had been reachable only by boat until the early 1900’s, when a first rail line had been laid from Punta Gorda to the north. Then later, in the 1930’s, a wooden Cyprus bridge had been constructed across the Caloosahatchee to connect it to the roads leading south from Tampa.
The harbor area of Ft. Myers is attractive now, with deeply recessed canals and an attractive Centennial Park along the river. The port had been dredged and constructed in the 1930’s by a federal WPA project. The fill from the dredging had been used to create a small island called appropriately “Spoil Island.” Electricity had been run out to the island as one entrepreneur had attempted to build a home and late a restaurant on the small patch of land in the river.
The guide pointed out the approximate location of the actual Fort Myers. Constructed during the Seminole wars of the 1840’s, it had served as a bastion for federal forces during the American Civil War. Only one battle of note, the “battle of Ft. Myers” occurred in April of 1865. The area had seen much skirmishing up and down the coast as Union forces attempted to stop the shipment of beef and other needed supplies northward to the Confederacy.
From downtown Ft. Myers, we powered eastward toward the upper part of the Caloosahatchee River Estuary. The large homes along the shore soon faded away as we drifted into the second largest red mangrove preserve in the world. The distinctive red mangroves line the banks of the Caloosahatchee here giving shelter to the many species of fish. They hatch here and then hide among the mangrove roots until they are large enough to survive in the brackish waters of the river or the saltier expanses near the Gulf of Mexico. Once, the river had ended here. During the twentieth century, the river had been linked up with Lake Okeechobee some seventy miles to the east.
The very large lake, with a shallow depth of only 14 feet, often needed to discharge water during heavy rainy seasons to protect the dike surrounding it from collapsing. The discharge of large volumes of lake water down the Caloosahatchee often had varying effects. The nutrients from crop run off had produced algae blooms in the mouth of the river and nearby off shore, killing sea grass and driving away the fish stocks. The Army Corps of Engineers still struggles with regulating the amounts of discharge during the rainy season.
Just off the southern bank of the river, you see the large smoke stacks of the area’s Florida Light and Power plant. The Orange River enters the Caloosahatchee here. The discharge of warm water from the plant raises the temperature of some sections of the Orange River. Curiously, this provided a haven for the warm-blooded manatees when infrequent cold spells hit the area. We had visited Manatee Park there and watched the curious looking four hundred pound seas cow bob up and down, while munching sea grass and keeping warm.
A wooden railway bridge with, a large spoon basket drawbridge, forms a barrier of sorts at the top of the estuary. We glided through the opening and watched a large school of fish churn up the water around us. The guide said a predator, perhaps a shark or dolphin was probably stirring up the fish while feeding. The sun was glaring overhead and the temperature had risen to the mid eighties. Out on the river it was delightful.
The skipper turned the boat around and we set off for the docks. Along the way we stopped at a small island called the rookery. Hundreds of wood storks, great herons and egrets were perched in the trees. Brown pelicans were scattered in the shadier sections of the trees. Here, many of the varied avian species come to nest and reproduce, unmolested by predators. We saw a rare roseate spoonbill take flight. A diet of shrimp had turned the feathers of the bird a pinkish hue. Many folks see them and assume they are seeing a flamingo. There are no pink flamingos in Florida except in the various animal preserves, zoos and parks.
Our brief tour was near ending as the skipper powered up the very loud engines for the run back to the Pinchers docks. We sat idly and watched the shore drift by. The occasional power or sail craft sailed by us with a wave from the occupants. It was a glorious day to be out on the water.
We passed under the various bridges across the river, through the manatee slow zone and finally arrived back at the marina. It had been a brief but interesting tour, of a small portion of the Caloosahatchee River around Ft. Myers, on a glorious day in spring.
Joseph Xavier Martin