South Central Florida Part I: Ortona Lock
We originally planned to meander down through Florida and head for the Keys again this year after leaving Myrtle Beach. We had reservations at Curry Hammock State Park near Marathon Key for four days over the weekend before Thanksgiving, but we got a call about 5 or 6 weeks ago saying they had decided to completely close down Curry Hammock State Park for about a week to replace a bridge to the campground. Unfortunately, that shutdown overlapped two of the four days we had reserved. We had a choice of keeping the two remaining days or cancelling completely at no charge. We didn't think it was worthwhile to drive all the way to the Keys for just two nights (it would have been over 350 miles one way from New Smyrna Beach), so we decided to cancel. We briefly considered staying at a private campground, but the private campgrounds in the Keys charge $70 to $100+ a night so we quickly ruled that out.
To fill the hole in our travel plans, Margery found a reservation opening at Ortona South Corps of Engineers campground near Lake Okeechobee. Since we have never been to the south-central part of Florida, and since the campground got good reviews on rvparkreviews.com, we reserved for five nights.
Ortona South has 51 sites with electric (30/50-amp) and water only. The roads and pads are paved, the patios are gravel, and the sites are widely spaced with attractive landscaping of palm trees, small live oak trees, ornamental grasses, and shrubs between the sites. The photo below shows our site at Ortona South. And the next photo shows more of the loop where our site was located. Ortona South is located near the town of Labelle, FL, at the Ortona Lock on the Caloosahatchee River. The river is connected to Lake Okeechobee by a canal to the east, and it runs to the Gulf of Mexico at Ft. Meyers, FL, to the west. Ortona Lock is one of several locks that are required because Lake Okeechobee is 15 to 20 feet above sea level.
campground is very quiet. There are no trains, no interstate, and it is
over a mile from State Route 80 that passes by the entrance road. There weren't that many boats, and the boats must slow to produce no wake in the vicinity of the lock, so
there wasn't any noise from the river either. Ahhh, there are few places any more where you can find complete quiet! We were in heaven.
The photo below shows the dam at Ortona. The lock is on the other side of the bank to the left, and you can walk across the dam to watch boats go through. The next photo is a view from the dam. The pilings in the background line the entrance to the lock. Several anhingas were sitting on the ropes that held the warning buoys upstream of the dam. The plants at the sides of the waterway in the photo above are water hyacinths. The plant gets its name from its hyacinth-like blooms. While the plants are beautiful with their lavender blooms and shiny leaves, the water hyacinth is a non-native, invasive species. The plants are killed by cold weather and are not a problem in the north. In fact, water hyacinths were an attractive addition to the water gardens we had at our stick houses back in Pittsburgh over the years. Unfortunately, water hyacinth is probably one of the worst water plants in tropical climates because there is no cold weather to kill it off, and a colony can double in size in as little as two weeks. Water hyacinth propagates by sending off runners that form new, daughter plants. The plants float on the surface of the water, and the daughter plants can break off and float away to start new colonies. The plants can also reproduce by seeds.
Water hyacinths are native to South America and were introduced into Florida in the 1880s. Water hyacinths form dense mats that hinder boat traffic, slow water flow, reduce the oxygen content of the water, and shade the water to reduce native plant and fish populations. Millions of dollars a year are spent to control this invasive plant.
When we got to the lock, we happened to hit a time when there were several batches of boats going through each way. Unlike most other locks we have seen that pump water in and out of the lock chamber, this one was a little smaller and they just cracked the upstream gate open and let the natural flow of the water fill the lock chamber.When the water in the lock reached the upstream level, the gate was opened and boats entered. The change in level is about 6 1/2 feet. While we were at Orona South, we needed to restock some groceries, so one day we drove to the Walmart in Lehigh Acres about half an hour to the west. By the time we were done with our errands we were hungry. We remembered passing an interesting-looking barbecue joint in Labelle, FL, with a lot of cars in the parking lot (always a good sign) so we stopped on our way back to the motor home for a late lunch. The photo below shows Skeet and Sara's Log cabin Bar B Q.
On the day we went over to the lock to watch the boats, one of the upstream gates was not working. Most of the boats going through were pleasure boats and didn't have a problem - except the catamaran in the next photo. They had to check and double check the width before they allowed him to attempt to enter. As you can see, there was only about a foot or so on each side, but the captain was able to guide the boat through without touching either side.The crews held lines along the walls of the lock while the upstream gate was closed and the downstream gates were cracked to allow water to drain out of the lock. When the water was at the downstream level, the gates were opened fully, and the boats exited the lock.
While we were at Orona South, we needed to restock some groceries, so one day we drove to the Walmart in Lehigh Acres about half an hour to the west. By the time we were done with our errands we were hungry. We remembered passing an interesting-looking barbecue joint in Labelle, FL, with a lot of cars in the parking lot (always a good sign) so we stopped on our way back to the motor home for a late lunch. The photo below shows Skeet and Sara's Log cabin Bar B Q.
Even though it was past lunchtime, there were still a lot of vehicles in the parking lot. Not only that, a good many of the vehicles were pickup trucks, so another good sign. We were greeted by sweet-smelling barbecue smoke as soon as we got out of the car. We both ordered pulled pork barbecue platters which were served with a choice of fries, baked potato or sweet potato. The platters also included slaw and a piece of Texas toast. Because they were in the middle of a shift change in the kitchen, our food took longer than usual, so they gave us each a complimentary cup of turkey noodle soup while we were waiting. Paul isn't usually a fan of turkey noodle soup, but this was delish! It was thick with lots of turkey and lots of flavor.
When our lunches finally arrived, it was worth the wait. The barbecue was smoky and moist and served without sauce. There were containers of sweet or vinegar-based sauce on the table so you could add as much or as little sauce as you want. We both liked the sweet sauce.
After lunch, we headed back to the campground. We still have more exploring to do, so look for our next post.