Along the River: The Caloosahatchee in Southwest Florida
By Chelle Koster Walton
“Hills and two Caloosahatchee rivers! I swear I saw it, and I also swear I wasn’t drinking. I was merely visiting Caloosahatchee Regional Park in rural Alva,” said Amy Bennett Williams, author of Along the Caloosahatchee River.
“Odd as it sounds, yes, I saw ‘both Caloosahatchees.’ Before humans intervened, the river was shallow and meandering, overhung with live oaks and wild grapes. Then it was dredged and deepened, engineered into a straight, high-banked channel through which big boats travel with ease.
“A sunny observation deck at the park overlooks this part of the river, where you can take in a vast sweep of water and Florida sky. But another path through the park’s subtropical woods -- where you may spot a great horned owl on the wing or a whitetail doe and fawn -- leads you to a fishing pier overlooking a shady oxbow – what remains of the old, sinuous river.
“What? Hills in Southwest Florida? Across the highway, the park’s north side does have hills, created of spoil dredged decades ago from the river bottom when it was reshaped – the river’s gift to hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders.”
The town of Alva is a good place to meet the mighty 67-mile Caloosahatchee River, which connects the dots between Lake Okeechobee and San Carlos Bay at Sanibel Island. The first municipality in these parts, the eye-blink town of Alva has river water deep in its veins. On river banks, the 1886 Alva Methodist Church and 1909 library-turned-museum remember its heyday.
One of the kayak tours out of Caloosahatchee Regional Park follows the river to Hickey Creek Mitigation Park, also popular with hikers and birders. Nearby, the Franklin Locks provide opportunity for recreation – a swimming area, boat launch, and picnicking on the south side; a campground at the north park.
Upriver, en route to the Big O, the Caloosahatchee flows through the towns of Fort Denaud and LaBelle, historic burgs that time has left behind. At LaBelle’s pretty, oak-shaded riverfront park, the cracker-style Swamp Cabbage Festival has taken place for 50 years. Residents have plied these waters on cross-state travels since the time of the Calusa tribe, for which the river is named.
The river takes an entirely different direction – both literally and figuratively – once you head west of Alva. The building of Fort Myers saw Alva slip into oblivion, and the city remains the biggest on the Caloosahatchee today.
Once an important cog in the cattle shipping industry, Fort Myers got its big boost from another gift the river delivered – a man by the name of Thomas Edison. During the Caloosahatchee’s steamboat era, Edison came shopping by boat, looking for land to build a winter home and plant experimental gardens for his inventions.
When he spied one plot lined with bamboo, a plant he had in mind for light bulb filament, he scooped it up. Later, Henry Ford joined him next door. Today’s Edison & Ford Winter Estates reigns as Fort Myers’ most-visited attraction. Follow a tour with lunch or dinner at nearby Pinchers for some super fresh seafood. You can also catch a river cruise from here with Pure Fort Myers.
Downtown Fort Myers lines the southern banks of the Caloosahatchee. Scenic McGregor Boulevard, flanked with the royal palms Edison planted, carries motorists along the city’s most prestigious riverfront neighborhoods.
North Fort Myers and Cape Coral claim northern shores and some of the best opportunity for dining and lodging within eyeshot of the Caloosahatchee. Cape Coral’s Yacht Club Community Park holds a sand beach and open-air restaurant called the Boathouse Tiki Bar & Grill on the river. The restaurant serves up live music, cocktails, and righteous river fare such as fried seafood baskets, hot dogs, burgers, and chocolate key lime pie on a stick.
The bustle of industry, shipping, and boating recreation at the Caloosahatchee River's end -- in contrast with its quiet backwater feel to the east -- makes one wonder if, indeed, there may be more than just two Caloosahatchees.