Bicycle Ride around Lake Okechobee in South Florida

 

 

Lake Okeechobee is a large lake in South Florida essentially forming the top of the Everglades waterway. I had ridden around Lake Okeechobee twice before – once during an organized ride in November 1997, a second time as a solo ride several years later. It’s about 120 miles (200 km) of flat road in a rural setting. On the main roads it is actually quite a boring ride, as you only get to see the lake twice while crossing a high bridge. The rest of the time the lake is hidden behind a levee, a man-made dam which was built many decades ago to regulate water and prevent floods in South Florida. Recently, however, I had heard about a trail around the lake on top of the levee - they call it “LOST” for Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail. Many sections of that trail supposedly are paved and as such serve well for road-bikes. That would make the ride much more scenic and the loop around the lake worth doing again.

 

Monday, October 24, 2005 was a bad day for South Florida: Wilma, a category 3 hurricane, swept across the state and unleashed the fury of sustained winds around 100 mph (160 km/h). Most screen patio enclosures crumbled (like ours), some roof sections were ripped off, mobile homes were devastated, powerline poles snapped or bent, traffic lights and cables fell, street signs came down, trees either fell or were stripped clear of branches, and many large structures like airport hangars, billboards or gas station roofs faltered.

 

It was the eighth major hurricane to hit Florida in 15 months! This time the eye of the hurricane past right over our home in Wellington. The backside of the storm was particularly fierce, as the rotational and forward speed of the system combined – certainly the strongest wind gusts I have ever seen. In the aftermath of hurricane Wilma we were left without electricity for 5 days. No lights (only candles and flash-light), no hot food (non-perishable snacks), no warm water (cold showers), no phone (spotty cell-phone after day 3), no TV (battery operated radio), no Internet access …

 

Our Citrix offices in Fort Lauderdale were closed for the entire week due to lack of electric power. At least the weather was nice: Clear, dry air from the North, much cooler than before, with refreshing coolness over night in the fifties and sixties (15C) and lots of sunshine during the day. After cleaning up around the house as much as possible there was little else left to do. Hence I decided to go for a long bike ride.

 

Thursday, October 27, 2005

I leave home early around 6:30am while it’s still dark outside. Long lines form in front of gas stations as people desperately need gas. Due to refilling just prior to getting hit I still have fuel for more than 300 miles. I drive West to Belle Glade near the South-East corner of the lake and decide to park the car in a spacious parking lot of a little shopping mall where the organized ride had started 8 years ago.

It’s 7:50am when I take off. I ride through some poor neighborhoods, which look even more gloomy due to the garbage and storm debris laying around everywhere. People line up for water and ice next to official buildings like fire-stations. With my high-tech bike and yellow bike jersey I stand out in stark contrast to the gloom and doom picture surrounding me.

I ride towards the lake to get to the nearest trail head. When I first reach the levee, a scene of devastation greets me: Piles of debris, smashed boats, twisted metal signs, broken floats, and masses of sawgrass are piled up half-way on the levee marking the high point of the storm surge.

This sets a strange tone for the day, as I will face many more examples of the awesome, destructive power of hurricane Wilma throughout this ride. As the sun comes out the picture brightens a bit.

The trail is indeed well paved, closed for motorized traffic and provides really nice views in both directions: Towards the lake there is usually some march with sawgrass and plenty of birds and the occasional aligator. On the other side of the levee there is often a boat canal and some homes, or otherwise farmland with mostly sugarcane (also wind-damaged).

Endless straight sections of road. I am excited about the view, as you ride about 25-30 ft (10m) above the lake and the surrounding land. At the same time my enthusiasm is dampened because I face a noticable head-wind blowing out of the North. Not able to check the weather at home I was hoping for a similar calm day like yesterday, but unfortunately the wind is blowing at about 10 mph (15 km/h). At the top of the levee you are fully exposed to the wind and riding into this wind for many hours is not fun! So I start relatively slowly and remind myself to be patient…

At nearly every stop there are signs of destruction, like in the above picture of a public playground / rest stop. The large trees at the right were no match to the powers of winds in excess of 100mph.

Every now and then there is a gate to negotiate, which keeps vehicles out but lets bicycles pass.

After passing Pahokee with its airport (known for skydiving operations) right next to the levee I reach Canal Point. Here the scenes of destruction are perhaps the most impressive: Vacation homes built along the lake shores are ripped off their foundations, rolled up the levee and smashed to pieces. At one spot I actually have to carry my bike over the remains of such a home strewn across the path.

You would not want to ride out a major hurricane in any of those structures! It is just unbelievable which force the power of nature can unleash. The homes lay scattered around like toys carelessly tossed aside.

The paved section ends here in Canal Point which forces me back down to the main road. More scenes of destruction: Downed cables, snapped poles, torn roofs, broken glass and trees. It will take a while before life comes back to normal in these communities.

One ugly memory of my solo ride many years past are the lose dogs in this area. Unfortunately I don’t have a dog spray which I would heavily recommend for any bike rider here. The properties are mostly unfenced and many dogs are roaming free. There is something about bicycles which irritates dogs more than cars or motorcycles. Many dogs just fall back to their hunting instincts and come charging at you, barking loudly and aggressively. It is hard to outrun a charging dog - unless you have a tailwind or ride downhill J none of which I have today. From prior encounters I learned that the best reaction is often to stop, get off the bike and use the bicycle as protective shield between yourself and the dog(s). After some brief barking and confused sniffing at the bike out on the road the dogs usually return back to their lot which they protect as their own territory. This happens to me three times - annoying but not really a big deal.

The next stop is on top of the big bridge at Port Mayaca. Here the St. Lucie Canal from the Atlantic Ocean connects with Lake Okechobee, thus allowing boats to cross over to the Lake and further to the Golf of Mexico through a similar canal on the South-West side of the Lake. The bridge is about 75 ft (25 m) high and affords great views of the surrounding landscape.

Many years ago I rode a 120 miles (200 km/h) loop starting at home in Wellington in the pre-dawn hours, getting to this very point around sunrise, continuing to the East all the way to the Atlantic Ocean at Jupiter Island, then returning back South along the beaches of Juno Beach and North Palm Beach. Looking North provides a good view of the Lake and the trail on the levee to the far left.

More riding into the wind, too bad I did’t start from the North going the opposite direction! Well, at least I should have some tailwind somewhere on this loop… Despite the nice views it is getting quite monotonous to battle the headwinds for hours! My average speed is really low, less than 15 mph (24 km/h) – a far cry from the downwind hammering up in Fargo the last two summers.

At one point the oversized tires of a parked tractor with blown out windows next to the trail makes for a tripod replacement to hold the camera for one of my traditional self-timed pictures. I also meet an old lady at one of the flood gates which serve as a lock to allow boats to pass between the canal behind the levee and the Lake. We talk about the abundant wildlife out here as well as the topic on everyones mind these days, the aftermath of hurricane Wilma.

By now I have been riding for almost 3 hours into this headwind, more than 40 miles (70 km) and I’m really getting tired of it, both figuratively as well as physically. I can’t wait to get to the Northern most point of the Lake near the village of Okechobee. Just prior to reaching it I pass another spectacular sign of destruction with a roof strewn across the trail blown off a flattened structure some 250 ft away.

Imagine this part of the roof taking off, getting hurled through the air across the canal and crashing into the levee, leaving only twisted metal and debris in its path! One of the obvious reasons you don’t want to be out in the open while a hurricance passes! Turning around from this spot the downwind side is littered with other pieces of metal - there is a lot of cleanup work all over the place.

Shortly thereafter I turn off the trail to get some gatorade and trail mix (no pun intended) and cookies as snacks for lunch. I stuff two additional bottles with water and gatorade in my backpack as I don’t know what gas stations will be open on the sparsely populated west side of the Lake. While it is not very hot, the sun is still intense and I don’t want to run out of fluids in the next couple of hours.

I ride back up to the levee and stop at a scenic spot for lunch.

It is a quiet and serene place, with only the occasional bird chirp breaking the silence. I apply more sunscreen prior to continuing for the next leg of the trip. Even though I have been riding for almost 4 hrs I only covered about 55 miles (90 km) and feel quite tired already. It really depends on the external conditions. Riding 100 km into the wind seems about as tiring as riding 200 km downwind. At least I have turned the corner and start riding South-West now instead of North into the wind.

The next 30 miles are hard, lonely, and monotonous. I feel tired. The wind is mostly from the side, hardly a good tailwind. No villages, just long roads with occasional cattle farms along the sides. The trail on the levee is not paved here, so it is not an option for me with the road-bike. I stop at the first gas station in a while, but it is closed. So I just sit in the shade and drink one of my water bottles to lighten my backpack.

Another 45 minutes later I arrive at a gas station which just got electric power back that same day, so they start selling non-perishable food and throwing away the contents of their refridgerators.

Memories from the organized ride 8 years ago come back. That time I was riding in a pack of initially about 40 riders, and we were all going at great speeds. In fact, we finished the entire loop in only 5 ½ hrs at racing speed without any stops, one of the toughest rides I had ever done. Today it will take me 9 ½ hrs to close the loop, with more than 7 ½ hrs of actual ride time at average speeds of 16 mph (26 km/h).

Eventually I reach the South-West corner of the Lake and connect with Highway 27 near Moore Haven. I rest at a Citgo gas station with its torn-down roof arranged neatly in a big pile.

After this refreshing break I have to cross the second large bridge, this time over the Caloosahatchee Canal which connects Lake Okechobee with the Caloosahatchee River leading all the way West to the Golf Coast.

Rolling down this bridge with tailwind is the only time today that I am going faster than 24 mph (38 km/h), which was my average speed for nearly 20 hrs during the 700km ride last fall from Iowa to Canada. Due to the short speed-induced high I miss the turn-off at the bottom of the bridge to get back to the now paved again trail on the levee. I try connecting a bit later, but need to ride in parallel for another 8 miles (14 km) before being able to access it at an idyllic place called Uncle Joe’s fish camp.

The afternoon sun is getting lower and creates a wonderful yellow light. Again, looong stretches of trail out ahead.

I have completed more than ¾ of the loop; even though I am tired now I enjoy these last stretches as I still have plenty of daylight and can rest whenever I please. At one of those rest stops I finish my last snack (a Powerbar) and watch a bald eagle sitting across on a high branch above the water.

There are plenty of bird species to be observed on a day like this, perhaps two dozen or more. I guess this stretch of the trail would make for a nice short trip as well, as the full loop certainly requires the commitment of an entire day. The long straight stretches remind me a bit of the rides in the upper midwest.

I’m also reminded of some flights with the hangglider which I had done in this area in the first years after relocating the Florida. Back then we had used the truck towing technique in the hot and dusty sugarcane fields between West Palm Beach and Belle Glade to get airborne. On one of the better days I had caught good thermals and managed to fly cross country heading West and landed not far short of Clewiston next to the Lake. From the levee I can see my landing field…

I get off the trail to connect with Highway 27 near South Bay, just a few miles from Belle Glade where I had parked my car. It is 5:15pm when I get back to the parking lot. I ride two laps on the parking lot to get my odometer to show exactly 200 km (120 miles).

I am tired but happy with the ride. It was more strenuous than I thought due to the headwind up on the levee, but also much more scenic than the last two times I had done it. After 9 ½ hrs on the road I can feel the intense sun on the skin of my face, arms and legs, despite the repeated application of sunscreen. It feels good to just sit and drive home. After about an hour of driving through the sugarcane fields between Lake Okechobee and West Palm Beach I arrive back home in Wellington.