You Can Get There From Here

From the moment I stepped into the canoe, I felt good about the trip. The boat, a seventeen-foot aluminum Grumman, capsized instantly and left me standing up to my shoulders in Biscayne Bay, flapping against the chop. My knapsack bobbed among the swells, along with a life vest and two high-top Reeboks. The sky was a piercing winter blue. I was right where I needed to be, and it was a beautiful day.

When the canoe had filled with water and begun to sink in earnest, I righted it, scrambled in, and used one of the two paddles to pull my gear alongside. Then, feeling like an old and wise (and wet) Seminole snakeskin trader, I made for nearby Belle Meade Island, an expensive piece of residential real estate that sits like a moated stronghold at the mouth of the Little River. A fat man with a fishing pole smiled sweetly from a breakwater near the end of NE 72nd Terrace. I took his photo with a pocket camera, gave him my darkest noble-savage frown, and kept paddling.

It's just as well at the beginning of a canoe trip to capsize the boat. If it's done properly right at the start, you can usually avoid doing it again, no matter how long the trip or how rough the water you may encounter. In this case the journey was meant to last three days, but wound up taking four. And I had my share of rough water. By the time I saw Biscayne Bay again, I had circumnavigated Greater Miami via 30 miles of its oldest and least-used transportation routes, the Everglades drainage canals that crisscross Dade County and link it - through a vast network of pump stations, levees, and dams - with Lake Okeechobee 75 miles to the north. Four days after embarking near the 79th Street Causeway, I had paddled through or past seven of Dade's 26 municipalities, portaged the 70-pound canoe across several busy city streets (and the parking lot of the Club Pink Pussycat), been pelted by coconuts and golf balls, survived the horrid Tunnel of Doom, and been set upon by bandits. But the narrow aluminum husk did not tip over again.

Incidentally, you probably shouldn't bother reading any more of this story unless the following true facts intrigue you:

1. Well into this century, native American traders paddled in dugouts from Biscayne Bay across the South Florida peninsula to various locations on the west coast. This was no problem, because nearly everything in between was under water much of the year.

2. Today, using drainage canals built in the three decades before World War II, it's entirely possible to commute by boat from downtown Miami to Kendall. The shortest route would take you past the airport, through Coral Gables, and along the Dadeland Mall parking lot.

3. Tourists once paid a nickel to climb a 40-foot tower near present-day NW 27th Avenue and look out over the "mysterious Everglade," an uncharted vastitude of water, swamp grass, bugs, and snakes. Within the span of a single lifetime, the cities of Sweetwater, West Miami, Hialeah, Miami Springs, Virginia Gardens, and Opa-locka, as well as Miami International Airport, would be built on dry ground "reclaimed" from the watery desolation.

Day One

Mrs. Yellow Dress was watching as I came around the salinity dam near the NE 82nd Street bridge, near where Miami's north end meets the edge of El Portal. What she saw, as she wandered about her yard kicking dirt into land-crab holes, was a skinny white man carrying and dragging a large canoe through a parking lot while two grade school girls howled with glee from the balcony of their apartment house.

The girls were playing hooky from school, as they had been every day for about two months. Somehow, they explained, the alarm clock kept malfunctioning and they kept missing the bus. Their mother had recently left their father and moved the family from Carol City. She worked from 7:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., came home exhausted, and slept all day. The girls played in the parking lot beside the river, which they called "the lake." They described how the gates of the salinity dam would open suddenly from time to time after a heavy rain, flushing Styrofoam cheeseburger cartons, plastic six-pack rings, newspapers, and other garbage down toward the bay, and making the water muddy for days.

Where the girls live, the canal really is like a lake. Fish swim up the salty waterway from Biscayne Bay until the river broadens and stagnates near the dam, then they get stalled and confused. Fishermen long ago discovered this and began congregating by the train lines that flank the western shore. Below the salinity dam, the river twists and turns through a hot concrete cityscape of billboards and busy bridges, the view dominated by the towering yellow Immigration and Naturalization Services building, and by the old municipal water tower emblazoned with a friendly "Welcome to Miami."

Above the salinity dam, the river straightens into a manmade canal overhung with thick vegetation. The world on the other side of the dam is quieter, cooler, even mysterious after the clamor of commerce just passed. The houses beside the canal, mostly built in the 1930s and 1940s, feature quaint stone steps leading down from their yards to the waterline, a reminder of days when the canal seemed clean enough for swimming and was more heavily traveled by boats.

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