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Kissimmee River rediscovers its origins


First the river was a river, long and meandering, with alligators and ducks and bass and bream. Then, in the name of efficiency and flood control, the river was turned into a canal, wide and deep and polluted, lacking much animal life except the vultures that floated above on the afternoon thermals, watching, always watching. • My old friend Richard Coleman loved the Kissimmee River and hated Canal 38. As a boy, he caught bass and hunted ducks on the river. As a man, he did everything he could to persuade the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to change sterile C 38 back into the river nature had intended. • "What the canal needs is an enema,'' Richard told me in disgust in 1992. He thought a couple of sticks of dynamite, strategically placed, might do the trick. • A minute later he stopped the airboat and pointed at one of the rare nice spots, a place where a sandbar or a floating log had blocked the current and created a little alcove that looked natural. • "A river is a cauldron of birth, death and diversity,'' he declared. "It's life itself.'' • That was Richard Coleman: roaring about enemas one moment and in the next breath sounding like Walt Whitman. • He was the Lion of the Kissimmee River, and I am sad he isn't around to see the good things happening to his river now.

Paul Gray, an old friend of Richard's, wanted to show me the new good things. Gray is the biologist who studies the Everglades on behalf of the National Audubon Society. On a cold morning, he cranked the engine of the airboat and went looking for Richard's river.

"You can't fix the Everglades,'' he told me, "without fixing the Kissimmee River first.''

That's what Richard always said. And that's what is more or less happening as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan creaks along. Parts of the river are starting to look like a river again.

Somewhere in the netherworld, Richard has to be smiling.

He spent most of his life lobbying on behalf of the Kissimmee. Even when the corps first began turning the river into a canal in 1962, his was the dissenting voice. When it was finished in 1971 he was apoplectic. In 1983, Gov. Bob Graham called the C 38 canal "an insult to nature'' but it took another decade for the words to become action.

Of course, nobody set out to deliberately despoil the river or the Everglades.

The intention was to control flooding, to move water quickly from Central Florida to Lake Okeechobee, where the excess could be pumped through canals into the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, with the agriculture area south of the lake receiving just a taste. The intention was to make Florida a safer and drier place for progress.

The result was catastrophic to nature — and ominous for people who like to drink clean water.

The meandering, 103-mile long river had filtered pollutants out of its slow-moving stream since pioneer days.

After the corps straightened the river into a 56-mile, 300-foot-wide, 30-foot-deep canal, polluted water rushed into Lake Okeechobee as if flushed by a toilet.

That filthy water?

Well, Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades recharge the Biscayne Aquifer, South Florida's drinking supply. Water is also the lifeblood of Everglades National Park at the state's tip. The park began dying of thirst and smart Floridians began worrying about water to drink.

Over thousands of years, the meandering Kissimmee had created 50,000 acres of marsh, home to millions of living things. When the marsh vanished, the wildlife went with it.

Richard Coleman called C 38 "the Ditch.''

He was one of those larger-than-life folks of myth — only he was real. The Paul Bunyan of the environment loved adventure, food, cowboy hats, smelly cigars. When I traveled with him in his speeding boat, I tried to stay upwind so the cigar ash wouldn't set my hat on fire.

He was born in New Jersey but evolved into a Floridian as a boy. He lived for a stretch in Clearwater; he and his teenage buddies rowed to Caladesi Island to live like Huck Finn during summer, mosquitoes be damned. As an adult, he invited friends on camping trips; only when they were trapped on board did they learn of Richard's plans to "live off the land.''

He studied chemistry at Florida Atlantic University in South Florida and discovered the Kissimmee and the Everglades. One time he wrapped an unhappy 4-foot mudsnake around his waist, strolled into the college library and asked the most attractive women to critique his belt. They answered with shrieks.

As a U.S. Department of Agriculture chemist, he had to behave. But deep down he was incorrigible. He patched together a career than included property management, plant growing, commercial photography and leading Caribbean tours by sailboat. He established the state's first Sierra Club chapter, but he was an environmentalist who also liked to eat wild ducks and bass.

He loved fast boats. Even atheists who climbed aboard were likely to utter prayers before too long.

• • •

Gray stepped on the gas. His airboat leaped to life. The cold wind made our eyes water. Orlando was about an hour north. Lake Okeechobee about 30 miles south. We were on C 38, in the middle of nowhere, in the Ditch.

It looked as bad as I remembered from my tour with Richard in 1992. Straight, wide, deep. No alligators on the bank. No deer sipping from the river shallows. Nothing but vultures in the sky.

A mile later, we saw the flags. It was the beginning of the construction site.

The corps has been filling in the canal to make it as shallow and narrow as the river used to be. The corps has blown up one dam and has plans to blow up another.

The canal remembers how to be a river. The river is happening.

Eventually the corps hopes to restore about 40 percent of the current waterway.

"The wildlife is coming back much faster than we ever expected,'' Gray said.

He stopped the airboat. We looked at ducks, a lot of them, flying over the river into the marsh beyond. Gray, 52, is a waterfowl guy. At the University of Florida, he studied mottled ducks and earned a doctorate. He can tell you everything about them, including how they taste. He likes to get out on the river with his shotgun and his retriever in the fall.

The river started meandering. Gray had to slow the airboat to get around the corners. In places, sandbars had climbed out of the water. On one bank, a huge oak tree was about to topple into the drink.

"And that's a good thing,'' Gray told me. "There shouldn't be oak trees growing on the flood plain. They should be MILES away. But when the canal was here, and the marsh dried up, we got oak trees.''

In August, Tropical Storm Fay crept into Florida and stayed a week. Some areas in Central Florida received 2 feet of water. Towns flooded. Oak trees toppled. The new parts of the Kissimmee River rejoiced.

"It was the most exciting thing I've seen,'' said Gray, who has worked in South Florida for more than a dozen years. "The river overflowed and covered the old flood plain for four miles. FOUR MILES.''

Richard Coleman would have lit a cigar and sipped a tumbler of cognac.

"The ducks are coming back now,'' Gray said. "Look. I see some teal over there and that looks like a merganser. For years there was no duck hunting because there were no ducks. Now there is a population of ducks large enough to support hunting again.''

A great blue heron abandoned a branch, pumped its wings and croaked at us in utter disgust. A flock of glossy ibis whipped overhead. In the distance sandhill cranes flapped majestically.

"It's easy to be worried about Florida,'' Gray said, "and I do worry about Florida all the time. That said, if you give nature half a chance it will try to heal.''

We heard no cars, no sirens, no loud stereos on the marsh. My cell phone didn't ring or beep. Civilization was out of range. Sorry, Facebook friends.

A marsh wren hollered. A Northern harrier, a beautiful hawk, soared inches above the millet. We saw a pair of wood storks. We heard a limpkin squawking. A raccoon and her young swam across the creek in front of us. An otter poked its head up, glanced our way and vanished as quickly. Alligators tried to get warm on the bank.

I thought about Richard and his "cauldron of birth, death, diversity'' accidental poetry.

• • •

It was time to go home. Paul Gray cranked the engine and drove the airboat across the shallow marsh. I was lost. Paul carries a GPS, but he knew where we were. The marsh led to a creek and the creek led to the river, and we followed the river slowly around one curve and then another, being careful all the way, because on a wild river anything can happen.

On July 18, 2003, when he was 59, Richard Coleman launched his airboat on C 38 not far from his home in Winter Haven. He wanted to show friends a good part. His boat and another boat collided on a curve.

Serious injuries all around.

Everybody recovered but Richard. He died in a tributary of the Kissimmee River called "Dead River.''

But I'll tell you something. He lives. His spirit inhabits the river that once was a canal that once was a river. When you hear the frogs croaking and the herons crying, you are hearing Richard Coleman, the Lion of the Kissimmee.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at or (727) 893-8727.

Kissimmee River rediscovers its origins 01/24/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 23, 2014 12:38pm]
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