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Lake Okeechobee

Lake Okeechobee as seen from atop its 30-foot high dike near the Port Mayaca Dam and Locks on the St. Lucie River (Canal), late November, 2015
Where is the Best Spot to See Lake Okeechobee
?
So you want to see Lake Okeechobee, Florida's largest lake and the 7th largest lake in the United States?  But you can't find the lake?  Don't feel bad, neither can anyone else.  The lake is hidden behind a massive dike, that's why you can't find it.

The best place we've found to view Lake Okeechobee is from atop the Port Mayaca Dam and Locks on the east side of the lake, above the St. Lucie River Canal.

Lake Okeechobee has been extensively engineered, damned, ditched and diked.  The current dike around Lake Okeechobee is an average of 30 feet (10 m) high and encompasses the entire lake, making it impossible to see the lake from the road that circles the lake.  Getting atop the dike to see the lake is another challenge.
Phillip at bottom of Lake Okeechobee dike
Phillip, checking out how the dike is constructed, my back facing northwest.
At the Port Mayaca Dam and Lock.

There is no port. There are no fishing boats. There is just a massive
public works-type project built to protect Florida east coast cities from the
waters of Lake Okeechobee.
Looking toward the top of the Lake Okeechobee dike at Port Mayaca from lake level
The view from the bottom of the dike looking up to the top of the dam.
From this perspective the dam is much more imposing.
Close up of chain holding together the 30-foot tall dike around Lake Okeechobee with Phillip's foot for scale
The coral, coquina and other rocks and shells that make up the Lake Okeechobee dike are held together with an intricately woven metal net of what appears to be something like chain link fence.  Imagine the effort to put this mesh over this entire 100s of miles long, 30-foot high dike.  This project was undertaken after devastating hurricanes in the 1920s and again in the 1940s flooded and killed thousands of people living on the east side of the lake.  While the dike may have been well-intentioned, at the time, the architects of the Lake Okeechobee dike likely had no idea that it would kill the Florida Everglades by cutting off their supply of fresh water.  The dike also spurred massive, unsustainable growth on the southeast coast of Florida by implying a safety that really does not exist.  While the lake may not be what eventually floods the megalopolis of southeast Florida (because of the massive dike) some future storm coupled with climate change will.
Lake Okeechobee dike metal mesh holding dike in place with foot for scale
It is hard to imagine a public works project of this size in today's America where nothing gets done. It is also ironic that two of the leading Republicans running for President of the USA this year are Cubans (Rubio and Cruz) who both support public flood control projects like the Lake Okeechobee dike andcorporate welfare for the sugar farm barons who have set up their modern day plantations all around the now-presumably safe Lake Okeechobee.
Lake Okeechobee navigation markers near the Port Mayaca dam
There are a lot of navigation markers, but no boats.
Navigation markers Lake Okeechobee by the Port Mayaca Dam and Locks
 The lake's beach is composed of a coquina like mix of shells and sand.
Lake Okeechobee Beach composed of coquina like mix of shells and sand
So how do you get atop the dike?  It should be easy, the Florida National Secnic Trail (1,300 mile, 2,090 km) runs the length of the dike on a 100 ft (30 m) wide paved trail.  At most of the trail entrances along the lake there are scary homeless encampments which make parking or scaling the dike sketchy, at best and parking one's car for any length of time risky.
Lake Okeechobee NENA Trailhead
 At this NENA trailhead north of Belle Glade and south of Port Mayaca I encountered a homeless encampment and plenty of human waste and trash.  It was not a desirable place to try and see the lake.
Northeast Everglades Natural Area, Lake Okeechobee
NENA
NENA is the Northeast Everglades Natural Area. Located mostly in Palm Beach County on the east side of the lake.  Visitors should be careful traversing the area, especially alone. Port Mayaca is more desirable as it is open, near the main road, and there might be some help around if one were accosted. We never saw anyone while at Port Mayaca but there was plenty of traffic on nearby Hwy 98.Port Mayaca Lock and Dam from atop the massive Lake Okeechobee dike
Port Mayaca
Using Google Maps I found this nice, relatively safe spot at Port Mayaca. Port Mayaca is a sparsely populated area north of Belle Glade located on the east side of Lake Okeechobee at roughly 26°50' N 80°30' W on Hwy 98. From the east coast take Hwy 76 west out of the Stuart-Jupiter area and you'll run directly into Lake Okeechobee and the Port Mayaca Dam and Locks. The area was named for the Mayaca Indian Tribe. Don't expect to see any Mayacans, however. There are none.

Hwy 76 meets Hwy 98 and several other signed roads at this point (SR 15, US 441) but there really are only the two roads (Hwy 76 and 98).  There are few houses, no stores, no boats, no port, no post office.  Nothing.  Nearby (to the east) on Hwy 76 is the Port Mayaca Cemetery which is the location of the mass burial ground for 1,600 unidentified people who died in Palm Beach County during the September 1928 unnamed hurricane when Lake Okeechobee's then-earthen dike collapsed.  The cemetery is operated by the City of Pahokee.


The light was just about perfect on a recent afternoon when we visited.
I like how the lake's water shimmered purple in the shot below.
Purple-glistening waters of Lake Okeechobee
There is a large bridge over the St. Lucie Canal at the Port Mayaca Dam and Locks.   Exit the highway just north of the bridge and drive onto the top of the dike along the Florida Trail.  It is at that point that these images were made.
Navigation markers along the Rim Canal, Lake Okeechobee, Port Mayaca area
Rim Canal
There is a conspicuous absence of boats in this massive lake, in part because the waters are currently so shallow (as in many Florida lakes) due to many years of below normal rainfall and human intervention (ditching, diking, and pumping) which has accelerated as Republicans have controlled the Florida legislature and decimated Florida's Water Management Districts in recent decades.  Navigation is easier in the Rim Canal.

During construction of the current dike, earth was excavated along the inside perimeter, resulting in a deep channel which runs along the perimeter of the lake.  In most places the canal is part of the lake, but in others it is separated from the open lake by low grassy islands. 

Even when waters are higher than today navigating Lake Okeechobee can be tricky, whereas the rim canal is easily navigated.
Lake Okeechobee Port Mayaca Lock at St. Lucie Canal
From atop the dike you can see for miles across the lake.
Port Mayaca Dam on the St. Lucie River (Canal), Lake Okeechobee
In these shots, looking west, a large thunderstorm develops.
Thunderstorm over Lake Okeechobee, November 2015
 Below:  Looking southwest, toward The Everglades.
View from atop the Lake Okeechobee dike at Port Mayaca looking southwest toward the Everglades
Below:  Looking northwest, toward Up the Grove Beach.
View from atop the Lake Okeechobee dike looking northwest, toward Up the Grove Beach
St. Lucie "River" (Canal)
Below are two different view of the St. Lucie River (really nothing more than a big ditch).
The first view is from the Port Mayaca dam looking east toward Stuart.  The second is from atop the bridge looking back at the Port Mayaca Dam and Locks.
St. Lucie River (Canal) looking east from Port Mayaca, Lake Okeechobee
Below:  A distant view of the Port Mayaca Dam and Locks from atop the Hwy 98 Bridge over the St. Lucie Canal (or "river").   Interesting how small the structure appears depending on
which perspective.  Presumably there is a tender who works at the dam and locks but we did not see them.
Lake Okeechobee Dam, Locks and dike from atop the bridge over the St. Lucie River (Canal) at Port Mayca
Belle Glade
We drove through Belle Glade, to get a look at this town that Big Sugar built.  It is a miserable shanty town displaying some of the worst abject poverty to be found in Florida.  It is disgraceful that Big Sugar and Florida Republicans have let Belle Glade become what it is today.  The City of about 17,000 is often referred to as "Muck City" for the muck (former lake bottom) in which it's sugarcane is grown.  The City also has at times had the infamy of hosting the highest violent crime rates in the USA and the highest AIDS infection rate per capita.
Belle Glade, Florida.  Home of Big Sugar and abject poverty.  The town that Big Sugar built and where Republican politicians go for big campaign donations.
Big Sugar = Corporate Welfare
Sugarane (Saccharum officinarum) fields spread for 700 square miles around the south and east side of Lake Okeechobee mostly from south of Belle Glade to Clewiston, 16 miles to the north.  These modern day plantations represent one of the most blatant examples of corporate welfare that currently exists in the United States.

About 450,000 acres of what should be Everglades is now dedicated to sugarcane monoculture heavily subsidized by the US Federal Government through farm subsidies and tax breaks.  Irony-of-ironies that federal money then then flows into the pockets of rich Republican politicians who have a stranglehold on Florida governance.  Imagine what this area would be like if sugarcane subsidies were eliminated and we bought sugarcane from Cuba or wherever else it is grown (much cheaper).

Of course Big Sugar paints a different picture. One of their propaganda websites flows endlessly with slick talk about their rich, environmentally friendly crop.

If Big Sugar's 700 square miles of heavily subsidized monoculture of sugarcane were allowed to die off, The Everglades, and Lake Okeechobee would be a much healthier place.

Forbes' analysis of Rubio and Sander's Big Sugar lust: The federal program that resembles a Soviet Union relic, strongly supported by Bernie Sanders and Marco Rubio, works as follows: the U.S. Department of Agriculture guarantees a price floor for American sugar, below which it spends hundreds of millions of dollars to buy up excess sugar and bump the price back up to the minimum. Uncle Sam then sells the sugar at a steep discount to ethanol producers. Limits on imports also artificially prop up the prices that domestic sugar producers can charge.
The Wall Street Journal details how the Senator and Presidential candidate
defends what may be the worst farm subsidy ever.
Phillip standing in a Sugarcane field near Belle Glade, Florida
Sugarcane stands about 9 feet tall (3 m).  
I stand in a field of cane above for scale.

Every few thousand feet there is a canal slicing through the sugarcane fields,
destroying the natural environment.
Canals slice through the northern Everglades draining life-giving water so that sugarcane monoculture can be planted on hundreds of square miles of former swamp
Muck
The muck that once was the bottom of Lake Okeechobee is technically soil made up primarily of humus from drained swampland. Muck farming on drained swamps was once an important part of Florida agriculture that has been scientifically discredited and blamed for destroying the Florida Everglades. Muck farming destroys wildlife habitats and results in a variety of environmental problems. It is unlikely that any more muck farm lands will be created in the United States because of modern environmental regulations.
Black muck exposed once natural species of grass are removed from drained swamps in the Everglades
Miles and miles of muck farms are found to the south and east of Lake Okeechobee
Bloomberg's analysis of payouts by the US Government to Florida Sugar Barons.
Hundreds of square miles of Everglades have been drained and stripped of their natural vegetation revealing black muck, where sugarcane will be planted.  Sugarcane becomes the most heavily government subsidized farm crop in the USA, championed by Republican lawmakers.
Typical farmland in the area looks like this. . .
Typical Lake Okeechobee area farmland looks like this. . . very tropical.
When we were finished exploring the big thunderstorm was starting to fade, like so many others this summer, it was all noise and promise but delivered little in the way of cooling rain.
Lake Okeechobee, brilliant late November sunshine.

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