Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Perhaps you need to look back before you can move ahead. (Alan Brennert)

We put our bikes in the car's bike rack, threw our gear in the backseat, and drove north two hours to Okeechobee. Lake Okeechobee was part of our life before Miami. It was just an hour's drive by car east of our old home, a place to go and spend time on rainy days, a fine place to ride our bikes in nice weather.

We hadn't been to the area since we moved to Miami. We've ridden around Lake Okeechobee several times. We'd do the lake loop as part of a multi-day bike tour from our last home. Sometimes we hauled the bikes the hour's drive to Okeechobee for day trips. But Al and I were urbanites now, used to the conveniences and attitudes of a big city. A return to Lake Okeechobee seemed like a good plan. How resilient were we these days?

Our first day we checked out the area. The lake is circled by an earthen dike topped by the L.O.S.T. (the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail). At the bottom of the dike is a wide navigable canal that can be crossed at 5-10 mile intervals where bridges to water control structures and such are found. The shore of the canal opposite the dike is lined with RV parks, old and dilapidated double wides (alone and in mobile home parks), and a wide variety of cabins, homes, and small businesses. Typical of rural areas, more expensive homes and ramshackle trailer parks mingled with casual ease.

We purposely stayed in a budget motel near the lake. It was clean and had a kitchenette. But its furnishings and color scheme were circa 1980, and it looked vintage Florida despite a very recent remodel of the bathroom, kitchenette, and sitting area. The motel's parking lot was filled with cars pulling boat trailers topped with bass boats, a variety of large motorcycles (mainly Harleys), and a few trucks of construction workers. We strolled through the local Bealls Outlet and the Walmart. Consignment and thrift stores were abundant. And gun and outdoor gear stores. We chatted with some locals as well as some snowbird geezers and geezerettes.

The next day we rode our bikes down the highway a few miles to a trail access at the junction of highways 441 and 78. We spent the morning riding the trail and exploring. The LOST is still one of the prettiest rides in Florida. We spotted 23 alligators, most motoring along in the waters of the canal and near the shore of the lake. There was a group of white pelicans begging at a fish cleaning table on the canal. We had to slow once because several buzzards were sunning themselves, wings spread wide, in the middle of the trail. Bugs were minimal. (Though insect repellent helps make stopping to enjoy the view more enjoyable.)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues its dike maintenance and rehabilitation work. The segment of the trail between Okeechobee and Port Mayaca is open and good riding. Spoiler: At Taylor Creek trail riders are detoured to the highway. Unfortunately the return access point just after the bridge over Taylor Creek has been closed with a high gate by new owners, forcing riders to continue on the highway  to the next access point. Worse, the distance from the return to the trail to the end of this construction-free trail segment is only 17 miles. The Corps work has closed large areas of the trail beyond that point and on the southern side of the lake. Since the loop of the lake is about 110 miles, a large portion of the LOST is tied up in construction. Bottom line: Until the Corps finishes a good deal more of it's work, most of the ride around Lake Okeechobee will need to be on the highways. (At least for road bikes.)  The highways have a paved shoulder, but many people, particularly people uncomfortable with riding close to trucks and other wide vehicles, will not be happy doing some of the highway segments.

We learned a lot on this trip. We discovered we still didn't mind "roughing it" in an older rural budget motel. We learned we still enjoyed the quirkiness of rural Florida. (The locals are pure country, but that's not a bad thing when they're friendly about it.)

Now we can move on and plan some bike travel.