An oxbow of the Caloosahatchee River is seen from Jim English’s property in Alva. Some 35 still remain, curving around little islands in the river. / Andrew West/news-press.com
TIMELINE: RIVER lore
• 2.8 million years ago: Ocean recedes, Florida peninsula emerges. Shallow ponds and lakes and a winding river form in what’s now the Caloosahatchee basin.
• Early and mid-1800s: U.S. builds forts along the Caloosahatchee, which runs from Lake Flirt in Hendry County to the Gulf of Mexico. Fort Myers settlers later take them over once they’re abandoned.
• 1881: Hamilton Disston begins draining wetlands and connects Lake Flirt and others to Lake Okeechobee.
• 1926 and 1928: Hurricanes devastate the Lake Okeechobee and Caloosahatchee basin region, calls for drainage projects increase.
• 1935: Moore Haven and Ortona Locks completed.
• 1937: Herbert Hoover Dike at Lake Okeechobee finished.
• 1960s: Continued dredging and widening of the river.
• 1966: W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam opens at Olga, separating the river’s tidal water from its freshwater.
• 1970: Lake Okeechobee’s recreational fishing boom.
• 1980s: Drought; lake water level falls; fishing commercial and recreational traffic decline on the river.
• 1995: Caloosahatchee River Citizens Association forms; oxbow research project begins.
• 2001: 300-plus acres of tape grass killed in a drought.
• 2004-2006: High freshwater flows from Lake Okeechobee and massive algal blooms.
• 2006: American Rivers declares the Caloosahatchee the 7th Most Endangered River in the U.S.
• 2007: Three-year drought begins; Olga water plant repeatedly shut down. Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation deploys seven real-time water quality sensors in the river.
• 2009: Mote Marine Laboratory study finds antidepressants and birth control in the blood of sharks in the Caloosahatchee.
• February 2010: South Florida Water Management District begins discussing a proposed water reservation for the Caloosahatchee, including a 170,000-acre, foot-above-ground reservoir to be built in Hendry County. It would store water the river could use in the dry season.
• Sept. 9, 2010: The water management district’s governing board recommends adoption of plan that restricts freshwater river releases at certain times.
See for yourself
Since 1996, Rae Ann Wessel has guided Oxbow and Riverlore cruises exploring the historic, upriver meanders of the Caloosahatchee. Trips run monthly from November to May and by special arrangement for private groups on the 47-passenger Manatee Rover pontoon boat.
Cruises depart at 1 p.m. from the W.P. Franklin Lock, off State Road 80 in Olga, and return by 3:30 p.m.
Cruise dates are: Friday, Nov. 26, Sunday Dec. 12, Sunday, Jan. 23, Sunday, Feb. 13, Sunday, March 13, Sunday, April 10, and Sunday, May 8.
Tickets are $40 per person, with advance reservations required by calling Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation at 472-2329.
River Spotter Program
Volunteers who use, recreate, live along or near the river, can participate in the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation’s River Spotter program.
Started in 2008, these volunteers serve as human eyes, ears and noses along the river to report conditions and changes along the Caloosahatchee River. They provide up-to-date water conditions in the river that are correlated with real-time water sampling readings to develop a database to better track what and where changes are occurring in the river.
To become a River Spotter, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, e-mail address and location.
The News-Press is planning to host a town hall meeting on the health of the Caloosahatchee this fall. We’ll invite key river experts and welcome interested residents. If you are interested, contact Community Conversation Editor David Plazas at 335-0224 or email@example.com.
There are mammoth bones in its bed, giant shark teeth, tiger ribs — souvenirs of its wild youth.
Dolphin and manatees frolic and feed in its warm water; monster bass lurk in its quiet oxbows and alligators sun on its banks.
Flowing 75 westerly miles from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico, the Caloosahatchee River is full of quirk and paradox, yet critical to the region it traverses.
The fate of Lee’s $2.6 billion tourism industry as well as commercial and recreational fishing are dependent on it.
Yet the Caloosahatchee’s health is uncertain. The troubles that plague it range from fish kills to fecal bacteria, trash to toxic algae.
Without its waters, what people today know as Southwest Florida would not exist.
Without people, though, the river known as the Caloosahatchee wouldn’t exist either.
The river’s major human impacts started in 1881, when Philadelphia industrialist Hamilton Disston began draining the wetlands around Lake Okeechobee, eventually connecting several smaller lakes to the big one.
By 1918, naturalist W.S. Blatchley, who’d rhapsodized about the river’s natural beauty on his first visit a decade earlier, was lamenting humans’ impact.
“The scenery along the river has changed much, and for the worst since I last saw it ... Many of the fine cabbage palmettoes have been cleared away for the truck gardens of northern settlers. The villages have grown in size, but their shoreline is now filled with dilapidated or half-sunken boats and other debris of civilization.’’
Engineers eventually seamed together the ancient valley’s ponds, lakes, creeks and river into one channeled waterway from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico — what Caloosahatchee native son and scholar, the late Charles Foster called “The world’s most sophisticated plumbing system.”
Their work fundamentally altered seasonal water patterns and made suburbs and cities possible in what was once swampland.
Woody Hanson, who grew up on the river, remembers exploring the winding coves of what became Cape Coral, catching snook and gathering scallops.
Hanson’s family has a generations-old claim on river history, too. His great-great-grandfather, Manuel Gonzalez moved to Fort Myers, from Key West, in 1866 and settled in the officers’ quarters of the abandoned riverfront Fort Myers.
He received the city’s first land grant (riverfront property, of course) and opened one of the first trading posts in the area, right on the river.
A skilled sea captain, Gonzalez delivered mail from Tampa to Key West, with stops up and down the Caloosahatchee, a watery highway into the state’s interior.
The river served as the region’s main transportation corridor for almost a century, carrying barges piled high with oranges, peppers and sweet potatoes. Cattle destined for Cuba were loaded at Punta Rassa, at the mouth of the river, near where the Sanibel Causeway now stands.
Now, that area defines where the river meets the Gulf, says Larry Hendricks, a charter captain who shows clients the quiet crannies where goliath grouper like to hang out.
“Right here under the bridge,” he says. “Great spot.”
The river’s straightening cut off its sinuous windings, leaving them literally off to the side as horseshoe oxbows, some 35 of which still remain curving around little islands in the river.
They offer a glimpse of the river as it was: flowing quietly under oak shade and silvery festoons of moss. Animals seek their slow-moving water to breed and feed; wading birds stalk their weedy shallows and alligators glide along their banks.
Alva boasts several oxbows. It’s Lee County’s oldest surviving town, but there’s not much town left. What there is centers around the county’s oldest school and a Methodist church with a white neon cross on its steeple that shines almost every night high above the dark river. What remains is decidedly rural.
Miles of its banks are still lined with citrus groves and pastures, though some are filled with a more diverse mixture of livestock than the classic cattle; several Alva farms raise alpacas, llamas and camels.
On warms days, they stroll down the sloping banks where they stand in the cool water, watching the boats go by.
The oxbow nearest the Alva bridge once belonged to a late local legend named Em Renz, the Hermit of Hidden Island. Local kids love exploring his slumping collections of hand-built buildings: an arched cottage with walls made of inset, colored-glass bottles, a derelict barge and a too-rickety-to-walk-on dock.
“He liked to build things, but he never worried too much about things like codes,” his grandson, Mark Renz, told The News-Press in 2001. “He didn’t worry too much about social customs, either. If people came up and he wasn’t in the mood, he’d put on this old fake beard and hillbilly clothes and chase them off.”
On the north side of the same oxbow Jim English was born 75 years ago in an oak-shaded wooden house, the grandson of a man who arrived by oxcart in 1876.
Speaking about his grandfather, a 20-year-old caring for a widowed mother, his little brother and sisters and a couple of orphans they’d taken in, English looks riverward, tears in his eyes.
After grubbing the land clear, the family raised row crops, then citrus and cattle, a tradition English continues, in spite of the government, which has woefully mismanaged the river’s water, he says.
Even so, he loves his riverfront, and hopes future generations of Englishes can too.
A few miles downriver, Wash Grice is also hoping, though his immediate aspirations have to do with the fat mullet he knows are in there, in the weedy shallows at the Franklin Lock.
A retired contractor, Grice has been heading to the river for more than 50 years, armed with a plastic bucket full of oatmeal/cornmeal mash and a fishing pole.
Settling back in a metal folding chair, Grice grins a little as his rod’s tip dips toward the dark water, then he begins to reel. In moments, a sleek mullet is flopping at his feet.
Grice unhooks the fish, then tosses it into another bucket, where it rattles against a few others. Later that night, Grice will clean it, dredge it in cornmeal and fry it.
“Doesn’t take that much fish to feed me,” he says. “I just like catching ’em. Just like sitting here, watching the river.”