Last Saturday morning, Matt Walthour, from Island Bike Shop joined me and we biked along with 21 members of the Naples Mid-Day Optimist Club from Naples to Everglades City. The club had done the same ride last year, and the enthusiasm to see the incredible scenery so close to Naples had spread, resulting in ten more riders this year. We left from Sabal Palm Drive off of SR 951 (just north of Verona Walk) and biked east about 4. miles, turning to the left on a meandering road that was in very poor shape. We continued through open prairie, which was quite desolate, with few trees and miles of open brush and some scrub pine. The dirt road continued to get worse with many potholes and washout areas, including large areas of sugar sand that was impossible to bike through, and places with voids that had been filled with small boulders the size of cauliflower heads. Everyone was riding mountain bikes or hybrids as the route would have been virtually impassable for a road or touring bike or frankly even a car. The road started to loop to the south and then east, ending up connecting with one of the old platted, but unpaved, streets– 78th Avenue SE– which would lead us into Miller Blvd, a north-south major artery in the old Southern Golden Gates Estates which, in its day, was planned to be the “largest subdivision in the United States” – an area covering over 57,000 acres!
We headed south down Miller Blvd which, considering it was paved in the early 1960’s, is still in pretty good shape. Fortunately someone had wisely painted on the road surface the names of the avenues we were crossing as almost all of the street signs are gone. Which makes sense as almost all of the lateral streets now have the asphalt removed, but even with small, new growth vegetation the old corridors remainmostly clear. I was particularly interested in seeing this, as for well over ten years, a title company I co-own – First Title and Abstract – represented the State of Florida in their repurchase of the literally thousands of 2 . acre lots sold to 17,000 unsuspecting buyers in the early 60’s. It was interesting to speculate – how many of these buyers ever really saw the land they purchased? We had heard stories over the years of people given plane rides and the pilots dropping small bags of sand to show them the location of their lot. Fortunately, I had no time to go exploring for old worthless bags of sand! We made good time heading south as we counted down streets looking for our left turn at 100th Ave South – also known as Stewart Blvd. After about 6 1/2 miles, we spotted the spray painted sign on the road and headed due east on Steward Blvd.
As we crossed each of the three old concrete bridges, we looked north and south at the long dredged canals which had been constructed in the early 60’s to drain the land and create thousands of residential lots; it made one feel rather sad. Fresh water, by the millions of gallons, the lifeblood of this unique ecosystem, is continuing to flow slowly south through these artificial waterways, as it has been moving day and night for 50 years into the confluence of the canals, located just north of the old Remuda Ranch, then pouring over the weir adjacent to U.S. 41, under the bridges at Port of the Islands, down the long straight Faka-Union canal, and finally completing its journey thru the Ten Thousand Islands into the Gulf of Mexico. The environmental damage to the Picayune can only be truly understood by comparing it to the Fakahatchee.
As we biked due east on Stewart, we hit the point where the government has now removed the asphalt surface and the road turned to gravel again, asStewart Blvd. is being converted from a road to an access corridor. Bulldozers were seen working to the south where De Soto Blvd had once been. The most eastern Golden Gate canal is now totally removed, replaced with fill sections and small ponds or lakes, with the bridge also gone – giving one a glimpse into the future restoration of the Picayune. This massive construction project is designed to restore the sheet flow of water over 85 square miles of land, so that it will flow again south into the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge and southwest into Collier Seminole State Park. They are removing 227 miles of roads and plugging 83 miles of canals as part of this extensive project. The most important feature is that it should reduce the freshwater flowing into the Faka-Union Canal and thus improve the salinity levels in the estuaries.
At the end of Stewart we stopped and had lunch at the informational sign describing the Picayune and Fakahatchee Strands. After lunch we entered the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve through the western entrance of Janes Scenic Drive. What a relief it was to immediately bike under the shade canopy of large cypress trees, looking to each side of the road and see dark standing water and view a short distance into what can only be described as a primeval jungle. The evaporation of all of this standing water dropped the temperature even more in sharp contrast to the dry, hotter Picayune Strand. The roadbed improved to hard packed sand with a small gravel surface – ideal for biking –while the heavy vegetation gave us a relief from the wind.
While both the Picayune and the Fakahatchee had been logged for cypress in the 1940s and 50s, only the Picayune was drained for development – the huge environmental impact is obvious and one wonders how many decades it will take for it to be truly restored? We biked east and south winding thru this State Preserve and it was clearlythe highlight of the trip. As we got closer to Copeland, we crossed the beautiful open prairie running north and south that lies just west of SR 29 and white tailed deer could be spotted.
While biking thru Lee Cypress, the old logging camp constructed by the Lee Tidewater Cypress Company in the late 30’s and early 40’s, it reminded me of the first time I had been in this town in 1968. In those days, there was a small sign at the entrance to the town that was painted with two arrows- one pointing left and one right – and above the arrows it said “Blacks, Whites” – so things have changed!! The houses were all cypress wood, mostly unpainted: the residences of the loggers who worked the area; today most of the residences are mobile homes and the old railroad tracks in the back of the town along with the locomotive used for logging is gone, certainly changing the old charm of the town. That railroad engine can now be seen at the Collier County Museum in Naples.
We biked south on SR 29 crossing U.S. 41 at Carnestown and the rest of the ride was like going home for me, as my wife and I have a weekend house in Everglades City. We arrived around 2 pm after a just over 4 hour bike trip, covering about 38 miles. Most of the group took off early Sunday morning to ride back to Naples, but it was a one way trip for me. This bicycle trip is well worthwhile and highly recommended for those who plan properly, travel in a group, and want to spend a day experiencing the “real Florida.” There is no better way to see how the restoration of the Picayune Strand is progressing than to see it first hand and at a slow pace.
Craig Woodward moved to Marco Island in 1968 and has practiced law in Collier County since 1980. Craig is the President of the Collier County Historical and Archeological Preservation Board.