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.
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.
Mrs. Yellow Dress was not about to give her name to a stranger in a canoe, but she didn't mind talking, and she said it had been a very long time since she had seen anybody pass her house in a boat. Having run out of crab holes to fill, she was polishing a pair of brass mermaid figurines set atop the Venetian-style barber-pole moorings at the edge of her back yard. She explained that the mooring posts and imported Italian mermaid figurines were installed by her father when he built the house for $20,000 in 1947, naming it "Villa Cost-a-Lotta." Her father, returning from the war, had dreamed of living on the canal, then a busy and sociable thoroughfare that ran unobstructed for eight miles from Hialeah to the bay. The father achieved his dream, but before long it began to shift subtly out from under him.
In the second week of September 1947, as the house was being completed, a hurricane hit the area south of Lake Okeechobee. A month later another hurricane hit Miami. More than 10,000 people were evacuated from the communities of Miami Springs and Opa-locka, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that $59 million worth of damage was done. When Mrs. Yellow Dress first arrived at her father's new house, it was half underwater, and she was surveying the scene nervously, from a skiff.
Most of the death and damage caused by the hurricanes resulted from flooding. Dikes that had been built to contain Lake Okeechobee were washed away by torrential rains. In Miami the several canals that had been dug to convert swampland into real estate proved totally inadequate to manage the deluge. Almost overnight the swamp rose up and took back the earth. And the experience was like a long, bad flashback; the same thing had happened a generation before in 1926 and 1928, when storms took 2000 lives near Belle Glade on the southern edge of the giant lake, and landholders throughout South Florida abandoned their farms or refused to pay taxes that supported the Everglades land reclamation program.
So Mrs. Yellow Dress and her father moved into the house when the waters receded, but soon their neighborhood changed. As part of the massive effort to drain the swamps and create dry land, more than 1000 miles of canals and levees had been constructed in South Florida, beginning soon after the turn of the century (see sidebar). One of the consequences of all the digging was that saltwater from Biscayne Bay began to flow up the canals during dry months, threatening to contaminate underground sources of drinking water. So numerous salinity dams were constructed to hold back the bay. After the Little River was dammed, it was no longer easy to bring larger craft down the waterway to the bay, or from the bay west to Hialeah. Drinking water and flood protection took precedence over weekend boating parties and recreational transportation. The Venetian barber poles faded and became more exotic for lack of use; the canal turned quieter, less fun, became hidden from the city around it. In its immediate vicinity, the dam evolved into a social and economic barrier between the placid wealth of an aging residential neighborhood on one side, and the hubbub and mixed ethnicity of the urban core on the other.
The Little River had once been wild - so much so that the United States government paid farmers to settle its banks after the Seminole Wars as a guard against Indian raids. In the 1920s and 1930s - Miami's golden age of ditch digging - the river had been dredged and straightened and extended to provide transportation for people and materials bound for newly habitable Hialeah. And now Mrs. Yellow Dress was left alone at the end of a forgotten waterway, kicking dirt into land-crab holes and pondering the slow eclipse of her own life. We talked for a while longer, cordially, and then I paddled on. When I looked back, she waved the light-fingered wave of a young girl.
An hour later I was still thinking about Mrs. Yellow Dress when a piercing moo erupted from the left bank of the canal. The bovine yammer was so loud and startling that for a moment I thought a cow had crept over the gunwale and into the back of the canoe. But in another instant I saw a jumbled mess of old trucks, a broken-down mobile home, several wooden fish-cleaning podiums, a bonfire pit, and a tiny shed. The front section of the shed, a small corral, was home to a mare and her foal. In the dingy back section, two cows were lying down and mooing. I halooed the mobile home hidden under a stand of Australian pines, and when no one answered, I tied off the canoe and went ashore.
Since leaving the city limits of Miami for the wilds of unincorporated Dade, the houses along the Little River Canal had become more and more bizarre. Some appeared to be crack dens, barred, boarded up, but still inhabited. Some looked like do-it-yourself mansions, half-finished, ill-planned estates into which people had poured more money than care. Garbage was strewn through the exposed roots of trees, and hundreds of birds roamed about: herons, egrets, Muscovy ducks with dozens of tiny yellow ducklings in tow. The lots were of irregular sizes and shapes, and the foliage along the canal had run riot over many of the yards. At this bend in the waterway between NW 103rd Street and 22nd Avenue, I knew I had discovered The Land That Zoning Forgot.
It was clear that this place was supposed to be a ranch, at least in someone's mind. Perhaps it was an attempt to re-create the owner's bucolic past in the midst of the city. The cows and horses looked clean and fairly well fed, but far too cramped in their tiny barn. I hadn't been shot yet, so I figured I wouldn't be. I walked to the front of the lot and found that it faced a residential street. A sandy entrance road had been camouflaged and posted with no-trespassing signs. After poking around near the mobile home a while longer, I returned to the canoe and pushed off.
Further up the canal, near where it passes Miami-Dade Community College's north campus, I met Richard. He told me that the tumble-down ranch was owned by a farmer from Cuba who used it on the weekends as a cookout and cockfighting rendezvous. As he spoke, Richard was showing me around his canalside home. He pointed out the giant timbers of the multilevel teak-and-mahogany sun deck built over the water, explaining that he had salvaged thousands of dollars in unclaimed wood during his work hours at the seaport. He and his teen-age son had built a rope swing over the canal, and his wife had created an amazing rock garden with ballast stones from South American freighters. Richard's younger son had a huge tree house on one side of the deck, outfitted with a stereo system and a rope swing for summer plunges in the canal.
I expected Richard to disapprove of the ranch hidden near his house, but then he took me over to one corner of the immaculately clean and beautifully designed sun deck and introduced me to Cinderella, the family pig. Cinderella had her own spacious pen, and looked quite contented. "Here on the canal things are sort of looser," Richard said later, describing how he left New Jersey nearly twenty years ago and started fixing up the house on the water. "As far as the law's concerned, it's probably illegal for Cinderella to be here. For that matter, some of the changes to the house probably are, too. But things are sort of looser on the canal."
I was back at the Westland Mall next to the Palmetto Expressway in Hialeah, feeling like imps with hammers had beaten me all night while I slept. It was just after dawn. From the edge of the parking lot, I pushed the canoe into the water.
Yesterday around sunset, after crossing the eastern city limits near the Seaboard Coast Line train yards and paddling through what seemed to be an endless series of junkyards, I had finally arrived in the heart of Hialeah, at the intersection of Red Road and West 53rd Street. There I had planned to turn south into a drainage ditch that connects the Little River Canal with the Miami Canal, but the smaller canal was so choked with weeds I could hardly move. Friday-night motorists cackled and honked and hooted at me as they drove up and down Red Road frantically looking for kicks. Pretty soon I turned back and continued further west on the Little River Canal, ghosting along as the moon rose, gazing into bank after bank of high-rise apartments.
I could see girls in party dresses talking on the phone, mothers cooking, lovers having violent arguments on balconies, then stopping suddenly when they saw me gliding past. At one point, when the canal narrowed in a brushy residential section, a hail of coconuts thrown from behind a wooden fence rained down upon the canoe, and I had to paddle hard for safety. In the fading light and traffic noise, the treeless city was hideous and beautiful all at once, and I had no clear idea where I was going. The street map I carried didn't show where or even if the Miami Canal and the Little River Canal eventually intersected; Rand McNally clearly did not consider it a top priority. I had an engineer's map from the late 1940s that showed the Little River Canal stopping at Red Road, and this obviously was not the case, for I had already passed that juncture. With no clear idea where I was headed and with darkness fast approaching, I decided to end the day at the Westland Mall parking lot.
The mystery was resolved the next morning when the canal ended at NW 87th Avenue in Hialeah Gardens. Across the street it appeared to begin again, but then ran through a low culvert that disappeared beneath Okeechobee Road. There was no way I was going to carry the canoe across nine lanes of traffic and two broad medians, yet the culvert seemed far too narrow and low to be navigable. Most of it was filled with water. About two and a half feet of it wasn't.
Huffing and puffing, I struggled across West 28th Avenue and pushed the canoe down a rocky bank, into the short waterway leading to the Tunnel of Doom. I was remembering an afternoon twenty years ago when a playmate dared me to crawl through a clay water pipe beneath a driveway. The dare ended with firemen dragging me out of the pipe with the aid of a rope. Paddling toward the mouth of the culvert, I could see what appeared to be several cocoons or egg sacks hanging from the ridged metal, just inside the rim. I hunched down and peered into the tunnel. Far away at the other end I could see sunlight reflecting off the surface of the Miami Canal.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The salmon-colored Biltmore Hotel rose fabulously from the fairways on the left bank. Out of the corner of my eye, as I looked up at the stately old hotel, I could see a round little man on a three-wheeled motorcycle driving pell-mell toward a foot bridge I would be forced to pass under. He drove to the middle of the bridge, stopped, and officiously folded his arms across his chest. A triangular flag flying from the back of the motorcycle read, "Ranger."
The flag made me nervous. Was this a park ranger? Or perhaps an Airborne Ranger? Could this be a Texas Ranger on vacation? Whoever the man was, he represented the law here on the golf course, and the thought of someone paddling a canoe through his territory plainly upset him.
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"Not supposed to bring that thing in here," he growled.
"Sorry," I said.
We looked at each other. I was passing under the foot bridge. There was nothing he could do, unless he was prepared to dive into the canal and wrestle me out of the canoe. For him it was a painful moment of frustrated control mania, and a large smile began to spread across my face. He was a landsman, a slave to one place, one landlocked attitude. I was a water rat, free and mobile. After four days on the water I was drawing close to the end of my journey. I guessed correctly that this buffoon would be my last obstacle.
Soon I passed under Bird Road, and further on I got out and stretched my legs where the canal passes under South Dixie Highway. I had driven over this bridge countless times on my way to and from work but had never paid much attention to the canal, the waterway that, along with a few others, had made the suburbs and surrounding cities possible in the first place. In another hour I would pass the last yacht and the last row of million-dollar houses built on artificial "finger islands" dredged out of the muck.
On this late Monday afternoon in Coral Gables's monied Cocoplum section, the rich were silent inside their tiled homes, or out hustling to make the mortgage payments. I hauled my latter-day dugout up onto a vacant lot at the end of Sunrise Terrace, grateful to see Biscayne Bay again. This lot, I thought, would make an excellent staging ground for another expedition. The plan began to take shape even before I'd sat down to rest. Same canoe. Different canals. But next time, just for fun, I'll take along a friend.