By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
I passed the Bertram Yacht Co. near Douglas Road and crossed a salinity dam. As I continued on, a bird whizzed past my head so quickly I couldn't make out its color. Moments later something struck the side of the canoe with a thunderous clang. I looked up and realized I was passing along the northern edge of the Melreese Golf Course. The bird was in fact a golf ball caught in a rising wind. I started paddling frantically, but the wind shifted and came head on, blocking my escape. Several more golf balls shot past me. The image of fat men in plaid pants teeing off from the driving range formed in my mind, although I couldn't actually see my assailants. I lay down in the canoe, cursing, and let the wind blow the boat to the far side of the canal. Grabbing a clump of cattails, I pulled hand over hand until I was out of the firing line.
It was just the beginning of a nightmarish afternoon. Between the edge of Miami International Airport and the Tamiami Trail west of the Palmetto Expressway, the canal dissolves into a large and confusing system of filled rock pits collectively known as Blue Lagoon Lake. On a map, the course through Blue Lagoon looks quite simple, but at water level it is tricky picking the correct turns, a problem further complicated by the fact that I had chosen the windiest day in three years to cross the lake. But the ferocious wind wasn't the only trouble.
Blue Lagoon is Miami's primary inland water playground, and on this Sunday afternoon the place was packed with jet bikers and water skiers who alternately swilled beer, polished their pickups and Jeeps, and hopped into and onto their respective watercraft for another go at creating the World's Largest Wake. And every five minutes another airliner bound for Cartagena or Kingston roared overhead, washing everyone on Blue Lagoon in deafening shock waves of sound. The traffic backed up on State Road 836. Someone began honking, and then everyone began honking. I tried swimming with the bow line of the canoe gripped between my toes. I tried the hand-over-hand cattail approach. I tried paddling straight across the middle of the lake as fast as I could. Again and again the wind blew me sideways and backward. At last I found that if I moved to the front of the canoe and hunkered down, paddling quickly from side to side as if in a kayak, I could make some progress.
Finally the lake narrowed again into a canal, and the canal turned lovely in late afternoon - a broad, canopied waterway where ducklings bathed and people in their back yards were lighting charcoal for cookouts. After passing under the Flagler Street bridge at 72nd Avenue, I paddled on and came to where the Tamiami Canal joins with its namesake roadway for the long haul west into the Everglades.
I waved to a bum under a bridge who was busy scratching at a lottery ticket, then tied off the canoe a few hundred feet further on, just west of the Palmetto. I went across the street to a Texaco station to use the phone and the drinking fountain, and when I came back my knapsack was gone, along with my camera, two notebooks, maps, and a pair of tennis shoes. I recited a little Buddhist prayer and walked over to the Canal Bait Shop & Hector's Cafe, where I knew from personal experience there would be several large vats filled with beer bottles and covered with ice.
In 1925, when the great South Florida land boom was hitting its most frenzied heights, real estate magnate George Merrick found he had a serious problem on his hands. Most of Coral Gables, the city he was busy building, wasn't on the water, and buyers had demonstrated that they wanted waterside homes. Why else move to Florida? Merrick solved his problem by hiring an army of men with shovels and transforming a winding 40-mile drainage ditch into a quaint Venetian waterway.
I was headed for Merrick's fabled burg, hopeful that the city fathers would let me in without a jacket and tie. With the wind now to my back, I cast off from the scene of yesterday's theft and fairly whizzed alongside the busy Palmetto, underneath Coral Way, and east toward the Gables. It was easy to tell when I had reached the city's western boundary: a large and functionless stone archway loomed above the trees, and another salinity dam presented itself, this time with lots of no-trespassing signs and warnings to boaters to stay back. By this time I was an old hand at circumventing the salt dams, and within a few minutes I was on the other side of Red Road, pushing off again.
Instantly I was in a world of mansions and gardeners. The gardeners stopped their weed pulling and stood up to stare. They looked at me, and they gazed toward where I was going, and they shook their heads. I was taking a few notes when I glanced up and noticed I was drifting into the middle of the Biltmore Golf Course. A cartload of women golfers drove along the bank and positioned themselves for some serious putting. They looked at me and scowled.