You Can Get There From Here

Pulling my cap down to shield my head from the cocoons, and lying as far down in the canoe as I could, I glided into the tunnel. By pushing off the echoing sides of the culvert with the paddle, I inched slowly toward the light. The tunnel grew darker and darker as I moved away from the entrance. Soon it was pitch black. As I approached what I thought was the midpoint of the long culvert, I realized that the roof was gradually getting lower. This made me slow down and reconsider. But as I was thinking about being directly beneath Okeechobee Road in a 200-yard-long culvert no doubt infested with snakes, the canoe came to an abrupt and terrifying halt.

Something large was jammed between the side of the boat and the wall of the culvert. By the way the canoe had run up against it, I could tell it was a heavy object, yet not brittle; there had been no clang or bang when we collided. I scrunched even lower, trying to frame the object between my eyes and the light at the end of the tunnel. No use. Prodding it with my paddle, I pushed the thing ahead of the canoe, and kept doing so for what seemed like a long time. At last, drawing nearer and nearer the light, I saw that it had sticks of some sort protruding from it. And then, with a little more light, the sticks became legs. It was the largest raccoon I had ever seen, bloated and stiff with rigor mortis, and when we finally reached sunlight at the end of the tunnel, I was pleased to part company.

With Hialeah Gardens on the left and industrial Medley's canalside trailer town on the right, I headed down the Miami Canal, stopping off for a beer at a waterside cafe, then musing on the faded glory of the old motels along busy Okeechobee Road, once a main thoroughfare for Miami-bound tourists. I passed the Utopia Banquet Hall and the Miami Depot Superstore ("Prices So Low They're Illegal!"), and what appeared to be the very last houseboat on the canal, parked near Bluebird Avenue in Miami Springs. I could have turned around the canoe and headed north on this very straight and broad waterway until I came to gigantic Lake Okeechobee in Palm Beach County. Instead, a couple of hours later, I pulled up between the twin drawbridges at Hook Square in Miami Springs and called it a day. The drawbridges haven't been used in decades, but the city has made them the endpoints of a lovely park that incorporates the beauty of the canal into the downtown streets. It's a good place to end a day of urban canoeing, because there's a great spaghetti restaurant across from the park.

Day Three

A long time ago you could have had your boat hoisted over the salinity dam near the intersection of Le Jeune Road and NW 36th Street, but today you must drag your craft through a weedy vacant lot directly across the street from the Club Pink Pussycat, a garish strip bar. When I arrived there, sweaty and cursing, a line of bums sat on their haunches in front of the club, watching me and pointing. However, I soon left land behind again, and slipped into the northernmost and most commercial end of the Miami River. The Miami Canal had gotten a little boring, but I knew that the river itself never would. Fifteen shipping companies operate upward of 50 freighters on this narrow piece of greasy water, hauling 800,000 tons of cargo each year and pulling in revenues of about two billion dollars. Visually the upper Miami River is one of the most dramatic places in town. Caribbean ships large and small line both banks, loading and unloading. The view of the Miami Jai-Alai Fronton is stunning. And there are plenty of seamen and yacht hippies hanging around arguing and hee-hawing about things maritime.

After a brief exploratory sortie into Palmer Lake - a rock pit begun in the 1930s to feed a nearby concrete plant, and today a favorite boat refuge during hurricanes - I turned west into the Tamiami Canal. The Tamiami, unlike the Miami Canal, was almost an accident. In 1915 a scheme to build a road from Miami to Tampa was first formally proposed to the Florida legislature, and the next year a giant dredge began digging near downtown Miami. The idea was for road crews to use the muck scooped up by the dredge as building material; the canal itself was much less important than the highway, a by-product really. Like Alligator Alley 30 miles to the north, the presence of Tamiami Trail and its adjacent canal soon began interfering with the overland movement of water that naturally flows south in a vast, slow sheet from Lake Okeechobee. As much as anything else, the Tamiami Canal helped reduce water levels in the Everglades and began a pattern of Everglades drought that so obviously persists today.

Part 3

There are other legacies as well. One of them is recounted in the opening pages of A Childhood, in which author Harry Crews describes the circumstances of his birth. His father, like many poor white Southerners in the early 1920s, traveled to Miami to work on the dredges digging the Tamiami Trail, when the project was going full bore. After three years in what must have been hellish heat, hardship, and isolation, Crews's father came out of the swamps with one of the silver pocket watches given to workers who'd survived to see the completion of the project. He also had a fine dose of venereal disease, due to a night in a chickee with an Indian prostitute. The doctor who removed one of his testicles in an effort to stop the sickness told him he would never be able to have children. But the accidental canal resulted in an accidental son.

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