by Craig Woodward
(excerpts from the Coastal Breeze News www.coastalbreezenews.com)
For several years, I have joined members of the Naples Mid-Day Optimist Club on rides through the Picayune. We started at Sabal Palm Drive off of SR 951 (just north of Verona Walk), biked east about 4 miles, turning to the left on a meandering road that was in very poor shape and 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 sections 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. 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 remain mostly 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 60s. 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 6.5 miles, we spotted the spray painted sign on the road and headed due east.
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 60s 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 continued east on Stewart, we hit the point where the government has now removed the asphalt surface and the road turned to gravel again, as it 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.
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 through this State Preserve and it was clearly the 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 SR29 and white tailed deer could be spotted.
While biking through Lee Cypress, the old logging camp constructed by the Lee Tidewater Cypress Company in the late 30s and early 40s, 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.
*Note: Two of the four canals are now filled (photo of Merritt Canal by Maureen Bonness).