The Battle of Fisheating Creek

May 8, 2012

“The Battle of Fisheating Creek” sounds like it may have taken place at an obscure Civil War battlefield, but this is a battle that is being waged today, between one of Florida’s cattle baron families, and the public.  The creek has been traveled by the public since the early days of Florida’s settlers, when the waterways were the highways that were used for trading and travel.  These days, it is used for recreation, by paddlers, campers, hunters , fishers, birdwatchers, and photographers.  It has been immortalized in stunning black and white photos by the world-famous photographer, Clyde Butcher.

Fisheating Creek is well-known amongst the kayakers and canoers of south Florida, as a great place to see the kind of scenery and wildlife that you might only expect to see in old-time photographs.  You can still see the real natural beauty of this place, just a little over 100 miles south of the city that “The Mouse” built, Orlando.  Fisheating Creek is a nature photographer’s paradise, with majestic cypress trees, spanish moss-covered live oaks, and the tea-stained red-brown, yet clear water, twisting and turning throughout its length.

Here, you can get up-close to nature in its beauty, with great blue herons that squawk at you angrily, as they give up their fishing spot, and hot-pink roseate spoonbills, swishing their heads side-to-side as they search for shrimps and small fishes in the shallow waters.  Sometimes, as you glide silently amongst the cypress trees in the narrow channels, you get a hint of what is to come.  Downy feathers cling to the bushes, and an earthy odor of guano tests your senses, just before a flock of a hundred white ibis fly up, with their “grumpy old man call”… awk, awk, awk, awk… like an old geezer complaining about kids invading “his” sidewalk with skateboards.   The limpkin looks at first, like the older brother to the ibis, because of its general shape, and the long, somewhat curved bill.  But they are larger, they are colored brown with white specks, and they are louder as well.  Their cry will wake you out of your reverie, and if you’re fast enough, maybe you can snap a shot before he takes off with his apple snail meal.

Of course, being wild Florida, there are gators, big and small.  You might not see any for a few miles, but then again, you may see enough that you will lose track if you try to count them all.  These gators are wild, and wary, and are unlikely to approach humans.  They are much more likely to watch as you approach, then silently slip into the water, still watching, with just their eyes and nostrils protruding above the surface.  If you get closer… poof!  They submerge and wait for you to go past, before quietly surfacing again.

In the 1980’s, Fisheating Creek’s natural beauty began to be known by more than just the local residents.  People came from miles away, to paddle its pristine waters, and camp & fish on its shores.  They recognized the creek for the treasure that it still is, mostly, to this day.  That was perceived as a problem by Lykes Brothers, the big cattle company that owned hundreds of thousands of acres on both sides of the creek.  They claimed ownership of the creek, and erected fences and felled trees across the waterway, to restrict access.

The Battle of Fisheating Creek had begun, and Lykes Brothers had fired the first shots.  These were answered by people such as Becky Hendry, and then Ellen Peterson, through the organization that came to be known as “Save Our Creeks”.  David Guest, now a lawyer for Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit against Lykes.  Working with Guest, Monika Reimer searched through nearly a century’s-worth of records, until she found a hand-drawn map from the 1920’s that proved conclusively, that Fisheating Creek had historically been a navigable waterway along its 50 mile length.  It was the evidence that was desperately needed, to stop Lykes in its tracks.  In 1997, it was decided in court, that Fisheating Creek belongs to us, the public.

In the 1997 agreement, it was decided that exotic vegetation that had clogged Cowbone Marsh, about halfway between Rte. 27 and Lake Okeechobee, would be removed, to restore the natural flow of the creek.  That task was turned over to the Florida Game Commission.  According to Earthjustice, the money that was appropriated for this purpose, was misspent, and instead, was used to buy swamp buggies for hunters and fishermen.  The Army Corps of Engineers got involved, and brought their own “solution” to the Cowbone Marsh “problem”.  Their plan is to dump 50 million pounds of sand in the marsh, and build several roads through it, effectively splitting the creek, creating a lake, and cutting the flow of water to the lower part of the creek, and Lake Okeechobee.

David Guest and Monika Reimer are in the process of filing several legal actions to prevent this, but in the meantime, a series of dams have already been built across Cowbone Marsh.  As recently as July 2008, I paddled from Lake Okeechobee up to Cowbone Marsh.  At that time, the flow of water was still getting through the marsh, and I was able to paddle my kayak the 9 or 10 miles to get to where it was blocked by water hyacinths.   In September 2009, I kayaked from the Fisheating Creek Outpost by Rte. 27, nearly 12 miles downstream, to where thick grasses had blocked navigation from the other side of Cowbone Marsh.  At that point, I had paddled all but 1 or 2 miles of Fisheating Creek, from the mouth, to approximately 36 miles upstream.  I was eagerly anticipating being able to “connect the dots” after the exotics were removed.

On my last attempt to reach Cowbone Marsh via the mouth of the creek, the flow of water had trickled to almost nothing, as a result of the dams that had been built at the marsh.  Only a mile into the trip, the water was so shallow that I had to get out and walk my kayak for a hundred yards at a time.  This is a kayak that can easily float in 8″ to 10″ of water.  After slogging through the shallows like this, for 2 1/2 miles, I gave up the effort and turned around.
Cowbone Marsh dam pic 1Pic #1 of the dams at Cowbone Marsh.
Cowbone Marsh Dam pic 2Pic #2 of the dams at Cowbone Marsh.

Cowbone Marsh dam pic 3Pic #3 of the dams at Cowbone Marsh.

Now I hear about this misguided plan to change Cowbone Marsh, and Fisheating Creek, forever.  These closed-door decisions have been made, with zero input from the REAL owners of the creek, you and me… the public.  I am just one paddler, but this doesn’t just affect me.  It affects every member of the public that might want the future generations of, not only Florida residents, but of the USA and the world, that want to have the natural beauty of Florida’s still-natural waterways to remain pristine, for the people, and the animals, to enjoy.

What can you do to help?  Visit the following links, and donate your money, or your time.  They will both be needed, and you can help.

Save Our Creeks:


8 Responses to “The Battle of Fisheating Creek”

  1. Lykes and some of there good old boys buddies from sfwmd and army corp. decided that they were more powerful . So they flew over the creek at cowbone marsh when the fwc had finally started clearing the creek . They conclued that there was turbidity and that the FWC was dredging and needed a permit to do so .( I guess its a good that they did not fly over the kissimmee river during work on its restoration ; there was probably quite alot of turbidity going on . I guess they would have stopped them also if Lykes did not want it to happen .) I think so much time has passed since the victory in 1997 . That Lykes decided that the smoke had cleared and that they can use there power to do whatever they want …………..

    • Woodkayaker Says:

      Thanks for the comment! Yes, the “good ole boy” network is doing what they can. The smoke may have cleared somewhat, but they’re putting fuel on the fire, and they’re going to get burned… AGAIN.

  2. Alan Zerwere Says:

    I bet the Kissimmee River restoration project was permitted…..and that the local agencies had not advised AGAINST dredging a marsh. This entire ‘incident’ has less to do with ag people and more to do with environmental groups that think they are the almighty and know best. FWC had already provided a high water canoe trail – the only time Cowbone is navigatable is during high water. I’m pretty sure your inability to make it to Cowbone recently had more to do with a MAJOR lack of rain, than structures. Had you see the ‘cut’ and the massive amounts of water that were draining you just might have a different attitude. I think you’re anger is quite misguided….

    • Woodkayaker Says:

      Thanks for the comment, Alan. No doubt, this project has been totally screwed up. It appears that when they started to clear the exotic vegetation, the equipment that they used went way too far. Instead of just clearing the vegetation, they also cleared the sediment, down to the harder substrate. They over-did it, and created a much stronger flow than ever existed naturally. Now, to compensate for screwing it up, they put in these dams, and they want to put in ROADS??? Please, tell me if that makes sense to you, because it makes no sense to me.

      • Woodkayaker Says:

        By the way, Alan – The ‘recent’ effort to try to reach Cowbone Marsh by kayak, from the mouth of the creek, wasn’t really all that recent. It was on July 11, 2011. There was plenty of water ABOVE the marsh, and almost none BELOW the marsh. The dams had slowed the flow to almost nothing.

  3. Paul Gray Says:

    this project has a lot of mis-information about it. It wasn’t all exotic vegetation, they weren’t supposed to dredge, they were supposed to get a permit but didn’t, the ditch was draining the marsh, it is an enforcement action, and the road would be removed and the footprint restored….

    Paul Gray, Audubon

    • Woodkayaker Says:

      Paul –
      Thank you for the information – I appreciate it! You are absolutely right – there has been a real vacuum, when it comes to readily-available information. It didn’t help at all, that there have been no public meetings about this. When Mike Braun did his story for the Ft. Myers News-Press, he included links to many of the related documents and photos. In the last couple of days, I have done some reviewing of that information. Before seeing this info, I was extremely concerned that the roosting area for the swallowtail kites (in the Cowbone Marsh area) would be disturbed. I checked the proposed schedule for the work, and see that the nesting season has been taken into account – I am very glad of that. I will be sending you an e-mail, and would like to be kept “in the loop” on anything related to Fisheating Creek, Cowbone Marsh, and the swallowtail kite rookery. Thank you for commenting!
      Don McCumber

  4. Woodkayaker Says:

    (from an e-mail):
    Hi Don,
    I think part of the vacuum is this is a legal enforcement action, so they can’t do it in public. David’s lawsuit will test that, so we’ll see.
    The other problem is Kites need water under their roost trees and FWC dug the canal right before they came back, essentially draining the water away before they got there. For the first time in memory, no Kites used the cypress dome on the upstream side of Cowbone (they roosted further downstream). The next year when the weirs were in, they did go back to that area.
    A mess

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: