Canalboating Along Florida's Okeechobee Waterway - My Family Travels

A canalboat journey is an ideal multi-generational vacation for the family who likes to earn their keep by navigating and fishing for supper.

Only the sound of fish jumping nearby broke the silence of the early evening. We chose this anchorage for it isolation, having bypassed several possible overnight spots because of inquisitive cattle standing on the river bank solemnly looking at our elegant and beautifully painted 42-foot barge.

We are in the western branch of the Okeechobee Waterway, completed in 1937 by the US Army Corps of Engineers as a link in the Intracoastal Waterway system. This navigable channel joins Stuart on the Atlantic seaboard with Fort Myers on Florida’s Gulf Coast to make possible a 152-mile-long journey across the state through Lake Okeechobee.

Our story begins and ends with the Mid-Lakes Navigation Company, a family business now under third generation management. These enterprising people decided many years ago that the famous “narrow boats,” the canal barges of England’s waterways, could be the blueprint for a more comfortable version for use on the Erie Canal and connected rivers and lakes. The resulting fleet of Lockmaster canalboats, each painted in the traditional colors of forest green, red and gold, are fitted out meticulously to accommodate from two to eight people. Mid-Lakes pays particular attention to the nautical side of things, as they must to conform to the U.S. Coast Guard regulations for safe operation.

Mid-Lakes decided several years ago to base barges at the Pahokee Marina on the eastern shore of Lake Okeechobee (Seminole Indian for Big Water), which is where we caught up with them. Canalboating was fast becoming a permanent feature of “things to do” in Florida’s winter season and has moved north to New York’s Erie Canal, where summers are filled with a variety of voyages. Canalboating offers a wonderful opportunity for families with children of, say, 5 years and older with a calm temperament, and to multi-generational vacationers looking for boating, fishing, bird-watching and other outdoors pursuits as the principal focus of a unique vacation.

Rendevous with a Canalboat

We were greeted by a cheery soul named Libby who quickly checked our boating credentials (previously submitted with the charter request forms) and gave us a thorough orientation of the barge and a review of the safety equipment on board. In turn we verified the paperwork, insurance and towing coverages; the process is not unlike renting a car.

Then she efficiently guided us through basic boat-handling and elementary maneuvers with tips on using the bow-thruster to good effect in a practice run, which included taking the boat back alongside the dock, “just to make sure you can do it!” We apparently passed the test with flying colors and moments later we entered the Moore Haven Lock which opened its gates to take our barge, aptly named Okeechobee, from the lake to the first stretch of waterway, heading west. The big diesel engine purred away down below, moving us along at a respectable 5 knots (a shade over 5½ mph.) Now we enjoyed the first real opportunity to explore our floating home away from home.

Up with the lark, or at least with the sun, we set off after a leisurely breakfast to see what was round the next bend in the river, and the one after that. Soon, our nautical chart told us, we would come up on the Denaud swing-bridge, a road bridge with very low vertical clearance. When it hove in sight we radioed the Bridge-tender, requesting passage westbound at his convenience. “Well, Cap’n,” his voice came back after a brief pause, “we seem to be having some problems this morning. Sometimes she opens, sometimes she don’t.” As we watched him walk out to the control station, we realized that this was part of a leisurely life on the waterway and if we were held up, well, it didn’t really matter. The bridge worked like a charm. The patient bridge tender waved as we went through. We called out to him that we’d be back, he nodded, and waved again. He’d seen it all before.

Quiet, Close Encounters

Sighting an alligator, one of the many kinds of water birds, a big blue heron, or anhingas (a cormorant-like bird from South America now resident in Florida) always called for the binoculars to be passed around. We saw ospreys and egrets, and vultures riding high on the wind, black silhouettes against the blue sky. We didn’t see a manatee, but the abundant wildlife is a sure sign that the eco-system of the Florida wetlands is flourishing.

La Belle, a small town dating from the 1800’s, is about half-way between the lake and Fort Myers. A short walk into town brought us to a supermarket where we stocked up on fresh milk and other niceties. We wandered the residential streets and admired La Belle as an energetic community, typical of rural Florida.

Active Itineraries

At the Franklin Lock, only 33 miles from the Gulf Coast Intracoastal, Fort Myers Municipal Yacht Basin makes a convenient base for day outings with local sightseeing cruises, rental cars and taxis available. Visitors can take guided tours to Riviera Beach or the Lee County Park, to visit the historic home, gardens and laboratory of inventor Thomas Edison, or the adjacent winter estate of Edison’s close friend Henry Ford. Preschoolers and their parents may enjoy a guided tram tour into town. Depending on the amount of dawdling you did en route to Fort Myers, there may even be time to spend a day on Sanibel Island collecting the famous local seashells.

Other Mid-Lakes itineraries suggest heading east from Pahokee to the St. Lucie River, noted for its swamps, bird life, alligators and citrus groves. This is where much of Florida’s oranges and grapefruit crop is grown. Indiantownhas a nice marina where the kids can let off steam ashore and, at the St. Lucie Lock, look out for manatees which tend to gather there. It’s just a short run to Stuart which offers a variety of restaurants and markets, access to the main Intracoastal Waterway, and good cycling opportunities. Families with one week can plan stops at Hobe Sound where waterside mansions begin the spectacle which continues all the way to Miami. The Dickinson State Park in Jupiter offers guided land and boat tours of the “wild” Loxahatchee River, and at Palm Beach and in Lake Worth the world is yours. Play golf, go to the beach, overnight at marinas to go to the movies and otherwise enjoy this area’s renowned resort life.

We had promised to return Okeechobee on schedule and our time had come to head back east. Not far from the Alva Road Bridge is Rialto Docks and Harbor, mostly hidden from sight of the main channel by trees. We carefully steered into the narrow inlet to be warmly welcomed by marina owner Captain “Bus” Hamilton who accepts transient vessels up to 115-feet in length with a maximum 8-foot draft. Just staying overnight? Ask them to fire up one of their unique wood-burning grills, or call either of two local restaurants, one Italian, one Chinese, who deliver to your boat! If you want to get your land-legs back, Rialto has a fully furnished rental cottage, a big swimming pool set in a formal garden, and will even arrange courtesy transfers to and from the local airport.

Homeward Bound

Before we knew it, we were nearing the boatyard where we had to return Okeechobee. But we found time to drop anchor in a quiet stretch of the river to savor the natural surroundings, watch fish jumping close inshore, and read peacefully. What luxury! We also brought up to date the ship’s logbook, adding to entries made by previous charters. It was fun to read of the experiences, discoveries and delights of those families in their own time aboard. Several pages were illustrated by children and told a delightful tale.

The occasionally temperamental Denaud swing-bridge behaved beautifully once again and at the Ortona Lock, a bunch of sightseers leaned against the rail watching us lock through, to much flashing of cameras and cheery waves. Surely the brightly painted barge is a sight visitors to Florida don’t expect to see, we think, as proud of our temporary home as any boat owner could possibly be.

The arrival of Okeechobee at the Glades Boatyard occasioned an other warm welcome from Libby who told us that within hours “our barge” would be lifted out of the water to be spring-cleaned, then repainted, before being loaded on a flatbed truck for its overland journey north. Up there in Skaneateles and on the Erie Canal this summer, she would be ready to give pleasure to other adventuring families.

Bon Voyage Okeechobee.

Details, Details

Since our tranquil journey on the Okeechobee, Mid-Lakes has stopped offering these trips because of unpredictable water levels in central Florida. However, a similar experience is available on their boats moored along the Erie Canal and, in addition to birds and wildlife, families are guaranteed a gentle dose of history en route. Contact Mid-Lakes Navigation Co., Ltd. (800/545-4318; 315/685-8500) at 11 Jordan Street, PO Box 61, Skaneateles, NY 13152 for more information, current itineraries and rates.

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