By Steve Leveen
Palm Beach County has a coast no one has seen. Well, almost no one, compared with the millions who have seen our Atlantic coast.
The coast I’m talking about is on Lake Okeechobee and, in truth, it’s not that easy to see.
Twenty years ago, when we were new to Florida and had to drive over to the west coast, I decided to skip Alligator Alley and take the smaller roads to see something of the state. We headed west on Southern Boulevard and eventually saw signs for the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail with its fitting acronym, LOST.
Mile after mile went by with no view of the lake, only a high levee, which stretched on and on. Finally, my curiosity overcame me. I pulled our Volvo station wagon over onto the grass, got out and scrambled up that grass-covered levee to see for myself — my wife and two young sons wondering what was up. On top, the view was underwhelming. I saw a ditch, and beyond marshy grass — lots and lots of marshy grass.
I gave up trying to see the big lake then, and it was some years later when I finally saw it from an airplane. In time I was to cross it by boat a few times going across our lovely state on the Okeechobee Waterway — a trip I would recommend.
Two years ago, looking for more adventurous bike rides than along A1A, my buddy Rob Kennedy, his brother Brian, and my now-grown-up sons packed our bikes into our cars and headed out to see if we could ride around Lake Okeechobee in a day. We had heard that about half of the Herbert Hoover Dike was paved and figured we would sort out the rest as we rode.
We spent the night at Roland Martin’s fishing lodge in Clewiston, which is at the southern part of the lake. At seven the next morning, with four of us riding, and one driving the support van, we headed out, clockwise, on our attempt to loop the vast lake’s 120-mile circumference.
We had to stop three times due to thunderstorms and a long lunch at a restaurant, where the manager didn’t mind us dripping water on her concrete floor as we devoured fried fish and gator bites.
The ride took us 12 hours in all. At the end we were sweaty, exhausted — and exhilarated. We had seen the lake. Plenty of it, and it was beautiful, as big, seemingly as an ocean, with highflying flocks of birds and plenty of other wildlife all around.
We kept saying that we had to bring other riders out to experience it, including the pleasure of the long miles of paved dike, about the width of a car lane, where no cars are allowed.
Around the same time we had our cycling adventure at the lake, my occasional tutoring for the Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County took me to Belle Glade, where I saw firsthand the good work being done there and the waiting list of interested adults and children.
A short time after that visit, Rob Kennedy and I hatched the idea to stage a cycling event at the lake to support literacy. We laughed when we tried out the name — Loop the Lake for Literacy.
Over lunch with Darlene Kostrub, CEO of the coalition, I explained our “loopy” idea, and she liked it, as did her board. So we took a deep breath and decided on a date of April 2. I was concerned whether we could get it done in time, but enough talented, hardworking people made it happen.
When April 2 arrived, the weather was perfect — clear, sunny and not too hot. Up on the dike there was time to be quiet and relax by looking far across the vistas of the glistening lake as we rode along. The monotony of the wilderness worked its massaging ways into the soul.
It was gratifying to have the other cyclists see the physical beauty of the region, to experience the joy of riding free from cars, and to meet the welcoming people who cheered us on and the law enforcement who provided assistance on the trafficked sections of the ride.
Our inaugural Loop the Lake for Literacy was a great success, raising more than $24,000 for the coalition with 214 cyclists participating in the ride.
If you can’t wait for next year’s event, here are my tips for experiencing the lake:
For the quickest and best view of the lake, drive to Pahokee’s Okeechobee Wilderness Outpost. Eat lunch at Big Bertha’s Fish Joint, which is the only restaurant with a view of the lake. Come in the afternoon and watch the sun set over water. If you have the time, spend the night in one of the cute cabins on the lake.
If you want to cycle or walk the dike (given the present reinforcing construction being done at Pahokee), drive north to Port Mayaca, where the St. Lucie River enters the lake. You can watch boats sailing east or west through the Port Mayaca lock (one of five necessary to transit Florida, coast to coast.)
From Port Mayaca, you can unload your bikes and ride counterclockwise more than 25 miles to the town of Okeechobee on the northern part of the lake. This route delivers some of the best vistas of the lake. It can be quite windy, but it’s a view of Florida not to be missed.
When you come home, you may well marvel, as we always do, that such a vivid contrast exists between scenery, people and development — if you’ll only spend an hour in your car, driving west.
Steve Leveen lives in coastal Delray Beach and volunteers with the Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County. For more information on the coalition, please call: 800-273-1030.