In 1906 Ted Smallwood figured he could help folks settling in the 10,000 islands area south of the Everglades, maybe make a little money, and damn sure have a nice view every morning. So he built a post office and trading post. It’s still there and, reportedly, contains everything that was inside when the doors shut for good in 1986. It reopened as a museum in 1990 operated by Ted’s granddaughter. I say “reportedly” above because it didn’t open until 11 am and I was there at 7 am.
What really matters is that the 10,000 islands area is spectacular, and living in this spot, on the southernmost part of Chokoloskee Island, in Ted’s excellent raised red barn of a building, is about the best way I can think of to enjoy them. While the area was fairly thick with native people 2,000 years ago, today, Chokoloskee is the only one of the islands with permanent residents — all 300 of them. The rest of the islands are limestone outcrops, shrouded in mangroves that spot and speckle the horizon in no discernible pattern at all. I do not believe there are 10,000 islands. There may be fewer, there may be more. I think someone making maps and naming places said what do we call this island? And they named it. Then again. Then again. Then again. Then, oh heck how many of these are there? Hang on. Joe says there must be 10,000 of ’em.
Regardless, the effect is that the river of grass meets the sea and sort of doesn’t quite give up willingly. The result is a wandering, braided series of creeks, channels, bays and passes that feel as wild as anyplace I’ve seen. And from Everglades City to Chokoloskee little shacks on the little creeks hold little surprises — like the stone crabs I found at a cafe for dinner. If I go missing, check Ted’s old place.
From that southernmost point on the western edge of Florida (that is accessible), I headed north. Marco Island, Naples, Bonita Springs, Estero Island/Fort Meyers Beach, Cape Coral, Punta Gorda, Englewood, Venice, Sarasota/Bradenton/St. Petersburg/Clearwater, Dunedin, Port Richey, and Tarpon Springs. I’m near Wikki Wachee tonight, though I can’t explain why.
Actually I can, but it will take a minute.
First off, there isn’t any noticeable absence of development in that entire list moving from south to north once you start at Marco Island. Sometimes there are more high rises, sometimes more golf communities, sometimes more beach homes — always, always, tightly linked from one town to the next by endless strings of strip malls, big box retailers and other necessities. Second off, from Venice to almost Clearwater, the red tide is back at high levels. Those two things together sort of sucked the life out of me. So I stopped. There is some cool stuff in this, finally, less developed middle west coast and I need to poke around tomorrow with a clear head.
As for the day — let’s start with the red tide. I checked in with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission for some data. It’s not a “tide” in the traditional sense, it is algae. Since the 1700’s there have been red tides in the Florida Gulf Coast that we know about with certainty. The Spanish Conquistadors documented fish kills in the Tampa area in the 1500s (which were more than likely red tides). Sometimes they last a week or two, sometimes they last more than a year. They start 10-40 miles offshore, the result of excess dissolved nitrogen in the water which feeds the algae. The excess dissolved nitrogen generally comes from regular old blue-green algae called Trichodesium, which bloom almost every year all over the world. Trichodesium can turn nitrogen gas in the atmosphere into usable nitrogen in the form of, basically, ammonia (this is fairly unique in the plant world and is a form of nitrogen fixation.) Now all this would be nothing unusual except that in certain times, under certain conditions, higher iron levels are present in the Gulf of Mexico and this allows for even higher levels of nitrogen fixation by Trichodesium, which in turn provides an excess of nitrogen for other algae — most notably Karenia Brevis, the red tide — to bloom. Where does that excess iron in the Gulf come from, you are no doubt now asking (if you’re still awake). Well, it comes from the Sahara Desert. Seriously. Iron rich sand catches on the wind and rides it until it can’t anymore, which turns out to be the Gulf of Mexico. Doesn’t always happen, but it does happen. And it has been happening. For a long time.
A bad red tide (called a Harmful Algal Bloom or HAB by the folks in charge) kills fish, makes shellfish poisonous to eat, kills birds, burns humans eyes and throats, gives us a skin rash, and makes it hard to breathe. We humans can’t really be affected by it unless the algae dies and pops open — this happens with wave action and, importantly, when we poison the algae. Beset by these conditions over which we have so little control, whether businesses losing tourist dollars, or residents itching and burning, or sportsmen gagging on dead fish and starving without an edible catch; we would like to blame someone or something for the menacing red tide. You are welcome to do that, and I don’t blame you, but the cause is a cycle of nature and climate over which we have no control. Never have, never will. Shake you fist at the Sahara and the harmless Trichodesium. Scream your scratchy, burning voices into the whims of the wind that started it all. You are on the edge, and the edge can be a cruel place — even on the sugar sand beaches of a well developed community with lots of grocery stores and wine merchants.
I went looking for the red tide around Sarasota (basically between Venice and Sarasota). I found it. As I walked down the beach to the water after reading the scary warning, I couldn’t figure out what the fuss was about. Things looked pretty normal. A couple hundred people maybe, all lubed up and laying out, normal looking ocean lapping softly at the shore. It wasn’t until I got to the actual surfline, which was crystal clear, that I could see — maybe 30 feet offshore — a line of red/brown water about 50 yards wide. The algae wasn’t coming onto the beach, it was just a lined up out there, ominously. I think the wind has a big impact on how close or far ashore the algae gets — I don’t think the algae care at all. It was also about then that I started coughing. And my throat started burning. The rest of the folks on the beach who were older than I am and, dare I say, less fit, seemed to be okay. I can only assume they had gotten used to it. I didn’t. I’m still coughing 4 hours later and a couple hundred miles away.
So that was one issue. The other was the drain of concentrating amidst the constancy of the development. The traffic wasn’t horrendous, though it was thick and steady. It was something else. Everywhere else I’ve been on the edge, there has been space. Even in the crazy northeast corridor from Boston to D.C., there was space between the onslaughts. At least it felt that way. The onslaughts were bigger and lasted longer, but then you got a minute. Not so along the eastern and western edges of Florida. At least so far — it looks like I might get some space tomorrow. Somehow that space makes each encounter more meaningful, gives context to the village or town or city, and keeps me interested. It was hard to stay focused today on what I was doing.
Now I can, and do, lack an appreciation for this kind of density in development, but, I can also deeply appreciate the kind of system that makes all this success possible. And, make no mistake, Florida is a raging success. From multi-millionaires, to retirees, to every tradesman in between, and all their families and all the businesses they do business with and the families of those businesses — this is a success. It may not be my kind of success, but go anywhere in the world and tell anyone of any station, that if what you want is sunshine and green grass and access to two beautiful, beach lined bodies of water, you can have it — and they will thank you. From seven (or eight) figure estates, to pay as you go leases on a 20 by 50 foot pad to park your house and everything in between, you can have it here in Florida. Because a free people and an unfettered market provides it. This type of development is not without it’s flaws — deep ones in my opinion — but it is success.
Tomorrow I will explore this central area of the western coast, the Crystal and Suwannee Rivers, and then bend around to the forgotten coast of the southern central panhandle. I’m afraid of what I will find there. It was not, I’m afraid, forgotten by Hurricane Michael. And I pray it is not being forgotten now.