Nov 4, 2019 – The Bridge to Nowhere

Chokoloskee Island, our home is the only inhabited Ten Thousand Islands in Florida’s Gulf of Mexico coastline.
The Ten Thousand Islands comprise a large portion of Florida’s southern gulf coast region. Chokoloskee Island is the only one connected to the mainland by bridge.
We decided three years ago to live fulltime in the RV and park it through the winter months on Chokoloskee Island.

On July 7, 1983, 20 federal and local officers descended upon the tiny remote gulf coast fishing village of Everglades City and nearby Chokoloskee Island bringing “Operation Everglades” to a head. Leading up to that event a year earlier, the Drug Enforcement Association planted undercover agents within the tight knit community of families whose ancestors fished those gulf waters long before they became a national park. Beginning on that hot summer day in 1983 and ending sometime in 1990, the largest pot smuggling operation in the United States was dismantled. Between 1983 and 1984, 87% of adult males living in Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island were arrested.

Every street but one is a dead end on Chokoloskee Island.
Survivors of hurricanes proudly stand on Chokoloskee Island.

Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island are the gateway to the gulf coast section of Everglades National Park – or more specifically, the Ten Thousand Islands. The mangrove islands spread about 40 miles along Florida’s southwest gulf coast (from Cape Romano to the mouth of Lostmans River). Nowhere along the coast of the United States is there another convoluted and extensive array of mangrove islands such as this – in short, the unique saltwater ecosystem is a navigational nightmare. Years ago, the “saltwater cowboys” fled and hid from the law among the labyrinth of islands until the law finally learned its way around. One can easily paddle or motor a boat into the Ten Thousand Islands and never be seen again. If you want to self-isolate, there is no better place.

The Gulf Coast entrance of Everglades National Park is along the road that leads to the bridge to nowhere.
At the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, you can purchase a book to help you plan a paddling trip through Everglades National Park. See the book titled “A Paddler’s Guide to Everglades National Park”? One of the two paddlers on the front is Vivian, the other is our friend Fred. Yes, I took that photo from my canoe!

Chokoloskee Island, the only inhabited island in the Ten Thousand Islands watery wilderness is our home. Some refer to the bridge that joins the shell mound of an island with the mainland as the “bridge to nowhere” because not much is waiting for you there. Being surrounded by federally regulated wilderness, Chokoloskee island is about as remote as you can get. And that is one of the many reasons we made it our home base, an outpost where we can isolate between travels.

We call Chokoloskee’s Outdoor Resorts our home, except when we’re traveling.
The first time I came to Chokoloskee, Vivian brought me to JTs for dinner back when it was a restaurant. Now, this historic building belongs to Everglades Area Tours, a local outfitter.
Chokoloskee Island’s famous Havana Cafe. People drive from Miami for Carlo’s omelet or a fresh grouper sandwich.

After completing our second round of RV traveling, Vivian and I felt a joyful anticipation driving our home on wheels across the bridge to nowhere on November 3, 2019. Surrounding us was Chokoloskee Bay and we were back in the ‘Glades! Beginning in 2018, it has been our routine to leave Chokoloskee before peak hurricane season and not return until the tropical weather brouhaha settled down.

Chokoloskee Bay surrounds the island. At low tide, numerous oyster shells are revealed. Imagine attempting to get your boat across the bay with those sharp shells everywhere you look. Many a boat have been left high and dry at low tide and this is what leaves Chokoloskee only to those not faint of heart.

By the time we arrived, we were ready to immerse ourselves in all that is the Everglades – self-isolation wilderness style. Following the first couple weeks or so of cleaning the rig and truck, catching up with neighbors and gradually getting back to a routine, most days include Vivian fishing on the bay from her kayak, me wandering around the Big Cypress swamp looking to photograph something, and both of us paddling out to the remote islands to camp for several days. We come down from our travel high and get high on the Everglades.

From the marina, Vivian and I can paddle our canoes to Chokoloskee Bay. The island is surrounded by national park wilderness.
Self isolation on one of the remote and wild Ten Thousand Islands. From our marina, we can paddle easily out to the islands where we spend several days at a time.
And I can self isolate in the swamps of Big Cypress National Preserve. The Preserve is adjacent to Everglades National Park.

But as the winter months wear on, the mood begins to change with the eagerness for the Everglades being replaced with the preoccupation of travel plans and preparations. Spring enters in with higher daily temperatures, businesses closing for the season and our snowbird neighbors leaving the island to head back north. These are signals that soon Chokoloskee would become an inhospitable place to live and it was almost time for us to hit the road. This year, a little twist was added to our spring preparations.

Our friends Pete and Marie enjoying a sunset from Chokoloskee’s “beach”.

In March of 2020, we discovered that living on Chokoloskee had yet another perk. When the pandemic swept over the land, our daily routine never changed – we were already self-isolating. Vivian and I hunkered down and were OK with that. But it was not exactly a fun time. Most of our neighbors had homes to return to and they were scared. We worried about our families living in the city, especially Miami. The fear of the pandemic was real as the winter season prematurely screeched to a halt. Our Canadian friends left the island in a panic and others who live in northern states made the long trek home without stopping for the night. We worried about all of them. And we were a little anxious about our upcoming travel plans that were to include visiting several popular national parks.

True, summers are sometimes intolerable due to the heat and bugs, but I love those amazing storm cloud views that come through most days.

COVID knocked the wind out of our travel sails. The itinerary morphed into a strange balancing act between our desire to experience as much as possible on a road trip and sickness avoidance. It was a confusing outlook, but we were clear about one thing – the self-containment of an RV was our ace in the hole. We would have the coveted ability to travel and isolate at the same time. We decided to stay within the least populated areas, namely the Great Plains states. Reserved campsites remained on our itinerary – no one turned us away. While avoiding crowds and public facilities, there were plenty of wilderness areas for us to explore and stay out of the way of the virus. Our island self-isolation would somehow continue into our travels.

A clear spring evening as viewed from our window. Spring marks the time when we prepare for traveling.

On May 21, 2020 we pulled out of our park and crossed the bridge, officially beginning our travels. For the third time we left our island home to hit the road and fill the next five months with everything new. Chokoloskee comes with a rich and colorful history that we proudly share to anyone willing to listen. But driving our home on wheels across that bridge, the preoccupation of experiencing new places that have their own compelling stories finally emerged after hours of planning and researching into a gleeful anticipation. The excitement of what laid ahead of us was palpable – the history and stories of the Great Plains, the wilderness areas wide open to explore, and of course all that comes with traveling in an RV to unfamiliar territories. Stocked up with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, we were ready. But before we get to the Great Plains, we had some business to attend to.

These storm clouds that mark the beginning of south Florida’s summer reminded us that our self-isolation on Chokoloskee Island was done and it was time put our self-contained home on the road.
On the bridge to nowhere, but in the direction of somewhere. Bye bye Chokoloskee, see you in November.

Aug 1 A Place Where People Visit and Never Leave

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving. “ Lao Tzu

For the past 15 years, Vivian and I spent almost every weekend and vacation day paddling our canoes through the Everglades. On occasion, we take trips lasting 8 to 10 days and paddle upwards of 20 miles from one campsite to another. Everglades National Park is a large and remote watery wilderness area and many campsites take several days to reach by kayak or canoe.

Two Canoes
One of the many campsites we paddle to during our Everglades trips.

We probably spend more time planning each trip than on the trip itself. Every planning decision is dictated by the king and queen of the Everglades, weather and tides. We study the tide charts, calculate mileage, consult the wind predictions and create contingency plans. Specific routes are carefully designed to minimize exposure to the typical winter wind patterns or the occasional storm that can make paddling difficult and sometimes dangerous.

Check out this short video of our Everglades trips.

And that is exactly how we approached our maiden voyage with the RV. Before we began our trip, I lost many nights of sleep thinking about how to back our rig into a tiny cramped campsite or how it could be pulled up and down very steep grades on narrow winding roads. When planning, I tried to avoid both these situations as much as possible. We poured over road atlases, consulted RV apps, read campground reviews, posted questions about road conditions on RV travel forums, studied the details of satellite images, and relentlessly hounded our experienced RV park neighbors with more questions. Consequently, I created a route from Chokoloskee, Florida to Indian River, Michigan (approximately 1800 miles) and made all our reservations to get us from point A to B. We were neatly booked for the next two months, just like paddling through the Everglades.

But here’s the thing – mother nature has a way of changing plans. This is not news, we all have been there. Our paddling trips have been altered or cut short occasionally. But we are now in an RV and covering much wider territory and exposing ourselves to weather patterns that are entirely new to us. According to our plan, we were to leave Lake Rousseau after three nights. As it were, we stayed two additional nights. Our second destination in the panhandle of Florida was flooded from relentless rains. We have found ourselves in the same kind of predicament in the Everglades. Faced with 25+ knot head winds across very large bodies of water, we make the executive decision to stay at a campsite instead of paddling onward. That’s the beauty of planning, it gives you the knowledge and confidence to make changes when necessary. True to form, we postponed our travels to the panhandle to wait the storm out. This gave us two additional nights at Lake Rousseau, where people come to visit and never leave.

Marina
The boat launch at Lake Rousseau RV resort at sunset

I was beginning to get a creepy feeling from our camp host’s insistence on that fact, and I felt a hint of sadness not being where we originally planned to be. We could have left and arrived at our next reserved campsite on schedule, but why should we? Why should we drive in white-out conditions to get to a place where we would set up camp in torrential rain fall (assuming we could get into our campsite)? Why not wait until the storms clear out and then go? After all, we were thoroughly enjoying the purveyors of summer shade.

Sunrise again
Another view of sunrise over Lake Rousseau

That is the beauty of having our home everywhere we go. We plan our trips with fastidious attention to detail; but we know mother nature will always have the final say in the matter. And we are OK with that, because we will always be home.

FYI, here are the three resources we used the most to help us plan our trip:

Allstays Pro

Harvest Hosts

Passport America

Camera 2
Staying five nights allowed me to capture some beautiful scenes of Lake Rousseau.

July 30 Purveyors of Summer Shade

Sometimes I think I’ve figured out some order in the universe, but then I find myself in Florida.” Susan Orlean

Lake Rousseau
Our first campsite. We requested a pull through and they put us right next to the entrance.

Five nights at Lake Rousseau RV Resort, the self-described Purveyors of winter warmth & summer shade, gave us quality time in the area; so, let me tell you a little about Florida and Lake Rousseau. In the RV park, there is a quaint marina on a small canal nestled between large trees dripping with Spanish moss. It provides access to the 3657-acre Lake Rousseau. Given the abundance of summer storms, the old wooden docks were covered in a slippery mix of freshly fallen rain water and algal slime. Various types of small fishing boats, a few with questionable sea worthiness and plenty of spider webs, barely disrupted the view of the sunrise over the lake. In the evening, the warm light of the setting sun bathed the large wall of tree canopies that lined the eastern side of the canal. The camp host made a point to remind us on a few occasions that this is where you come to visit and never leave. I can see why, it’s very inviting, especially while enjoying a chilled glass of white wine and watching the sun’s reflection disappear into the evening.

Marina view
A view from the RV resort’s marina, over looking a tree-lined canal.

Lake Rousseau is not a natural lake, it is a reservoir created from the damming of the Withlacoochee River over 100 years ago. It is living proof of the constant struggle between man’s desire to make Florida inhabitable and the very thing that makes us come here in the first place, the water. The Inglis Dam was initially built for the thriving phosphate mining industry; appropriately, the nearby town Dunnellon once had the distinction of being the “Phosphate Center of the World.”

Inglis Dam
The Inglis Dam controls water from the Withlacoochee River.

Eventually, a lock was built on the dam for the proposed Cross Florida Barge Canal, a water route to connect the Gulf with the Atlantic and basically cutting Florida in half. Several times over the decades, construction was halted as quickly as it started as government funding came and went. At one point, construction moved along under the guise of national security. In the 1960s construction began again while environmentalism gained influence. Consequently, efforts to stop the canal led President Nixon to sign an executive order in 1971 that officially cancelled the canal project forever. Over time, land and water were turned over to the state and became the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, named after the woman who led the opposition to the canal.

Short Video: View a Sunset Over Lake Rousseau

Sunset View
Another view of sunrise over Lake Rousseau

Florida’s history is saturated with these kinds of tug-o-war politics. Florida is a land of convoluted power struggles between developers, big agriculture, the government, environmentalists and sportsmen, but there’s nothing more influential than mother nature herself. Lake Rousseau is a very popular fishing destination. Unfortunately, 11 months earlier Hurricane Irma caused the Withlacoochee River to flood. The waters became depleted of oxygen, killing 35,000 fish as estimated by Florida’s Wildlife Commission. During our visit, the local fishermen were beginning to see a comeback after seeing so many dead fish appear on the shoreline. A come back is inevitable, after all bass are prolific breeders and it only takes a few pair to repopulate the large lake, according to an FWC expert.

Old Florida
Old Florida on Lake Rousseau.

Comebacks from storms are common occurrences here in Florida, I witnessed that firsthand several times, most recently on Chokoloskee Island following Irma’s destruction. Storms come and go, wildlife take a hit but somehow survive and people continue to flock to Florida. Shortly after leaving Lake Rousseau, I learned that it had become a blue-green algae site, one of many recently. Those prolific breeders making a comeback in the waters of lake Rousseau have yet another battle, this one largely due to the hand of man.

As the sun set over the lake, I steadied the tripod near the edge of the water to photograph a piece of old Florida where many come to visit and never leave. No matter who ends up winning; Big Sugar or Captains for Clean Water, Florida and Lake Rousseau will continue to exist, there will be many more photographs of beautiful sunsets and many more fishing boats on the water at sunrise. Florida is evidence that we want it all, we want our water, we want our fish, we want our natural beauty and we want our comfortable homes; preferably all in the same location.

Camera 1
Capturing the sunrise on Lake Rousseau

Sky Colors
Nothing better than a colorful sky and its reflections on Florida waters.

 

You can see more of my Florida photographs at my website.