South Central Florida Part II: Lake Okechobee
Ortona South campground was so nice and peaceful we were reluctant to leave, but we did want to check out Lake Okeechobee while we were in the area, so we drove about 20 miles east to Clewiston, FL.
On our way out of the campground, we pulled over (as we frequently do) to drop off our trash at the dumpster. A little raccoon was just climbing out of the dumpster as Paul got out of the car. Paul and the raccoon watched each other for a while, then the raccoon climbed down from the fence and trotted off into the bushes. Whatever the raccoon got, it must have been good. He couldn't stop licking his chops. Paul opened the lid very carefully every time he went to the dumpster after that.
Clewiston is known as "America's Sweetest Town" because it is the home of the U. S. Sugar Corp., which is the largest producer of sugarcane in the United States. Approximately 400,000 acres in the area around Lake Okeechobee are devoted to sugarcane, and we saw many fields of sugarcane like the one shown below.
is a member of the grass family and it does well in the warm
temperatures in South Florida and in the organically-rich soils around
Lake Okeechobee. Sugarcane is propagated from sprouts that come from cuttings taken from the stalks of mother plants. After a field is harvested, the stubble is allowed to regrow to produce a new crop. Sugarcane is harvested about once a year for three or four years before the field has to be replanted.
Last year when we visited South Florida, we learned Lake Okeechobee is the origin of the Everglades. The Everglades is not a stagnant swamp, but is a sheet of slow-moving water that flows from the lake to the Gulf of Mexico. Click here to read about last year's visit to the Everglades.
In the 1800s, the Everglades were considered to be a worthless swamp, and there were plans to drain it. By the early 1900s, drainage canals had converted large areas of the Everglades to farmland. The building of railroads by Henry Flagler and others made South Florida attractive to new residents and tourists, and new towns sprang up.
Development has disrupted much of the water flow from Lake Okeechobee and has put major pressure on the ecology of South Florida.
About 50% of the original area of the Everglades is gone. Fertilizer runoff reduces water quality, and non-native,
invasive plants and animals pose further threats. There are ongoing programs in South Florida to restore parts of the Everglades, including regions around Lake Okeechobee.
With an area of about 730 square miles, Lake
Okeechobee is the second largest freshwater lake wholly contained
within the United States. Lake Michigan is the largest. Although large,
the Lake Okeechobee is very shallow. The depth varies from year to year and from season to season, but the average depth is only about 9 feet.
The western and southern sides of the lake are very shallow and grassy - more like wetlands than a lake - much like the Everglades. The shallow waters attract many wading birds like the snowy egret in the next photo.
photo below shows the grassy shallows at the southwest corner of Lake
Okeechobee near Clewiston. Notice the air boat at the dock. Air boats are used to
navigate the shallow waters.
The grassy shallows were so wide we couldn't even see the main body of the lake, nor could we see it from any one of the several other locations we tried. We learned the main body of water is best seen from the eastern side, but we decided it was too late in the day to travel that far. Maybe we'll find a campground where we can stay and explore the eastern side of the lake some other time.
is a 20-foot high dike around the Lake Okeechobee. The existing dike
was built after a 1928 hurricane caused a breech in the previous dike
killing hundreds of people. The Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail runs along the top of the dike around the 110-mile perimeter of the lake. The trail is used for hiking and biking.
material for the dike was dug from adjacent areas forming a rim canal
that runs almost all the way around Lake Okeechobee. You can see the canal
running along the inside of the dike in the two photos above as well as
in the foreground of the photo below. In some areas (especially at the
northern and eastern sides of the lake), the canal runs along the
outside of the dike. Propeller-driven boats can navigate the canals
along the dike, and they can follow channels out into the lake itself.
Lake Okeechobee is known for bountiful fishing, especially bass, and is
the home of numerous sport fishing tournaments. The people in the boat in the photo below are trying their luck in the perimeter canal.
We were disappointed we didn't get to see the main body of water at Lake Okeechobee, but the dike, canals, and grassy shallows were interesting in their own right.
We really liked relaxing at Ortona South COE campground. It was fun watching boats going through the lock, and the campground was peaceful and quiet. We have another place to add to our "must return to" list. For now, however, it was time to move on. We'll have more info about where we ended up in our next post.