Lake Okeechobee

Lake Okeechobee, also known as “Florida’s Inland Sea”, is the largest of some 30,000 inland lakes in the state. It is also the 2nd-largest freshwater lake to be contained entirely within the contiguous 48 states, as well as the 8th-largest in the United States as a whole. Okeechobee covers some 730 square miles and is exceptionally shallow for its size, with an average depth of only 9 feet! The Kissimmee River, located directly north of the lake, is its primary source. The lake is also divided between five Florida counties, namely, Glades, Okeechobee, Martin, Palm Beach, and Hendry, which all come together at a single point near the center of the lake.

The name “Okeechobee” comes from the Hitchiti words oki (“water”) and chubi (“big”). During the early 19th century, the lake was also known as Lake Mayaca, after the Mayaca people who moved near the region during the early 18th century from the upper reaches of the St. Johns River. The modern port of Mayaca, located on the east side of the lake, still preserves this name.

On the southern rim of the lake, the islands of Kreamer, Ritta, and Torey were once settled by early pioneers who built a general store, a post office, and a school here, and even held their own town elections. Since the land was fertile, farming was their main vocation, although it was challenging due to the abundance of mud. During the first half of the 20th century, the use of agricultural tools, including tractors, made it somewhat easier, however, by the 1960s, the settlements were finally abandoned.

After both the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 and the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928, the State Legislature created the “Okeechobee Flood Control District”, which was authorized to cooperate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prevent similar disasters in the future. At the time, President Herbert Hoover personally visited the area, after which the Corps designed and constructed a series of channels, gates, and levees to protect the areas surrounding the lake. The resulting 156-mile Okeechobee Waterway was officially opened in March of 1937, marked by a procession of boats originating from Fort Myers. Because the lake averages only about 15 feet above sea level, the waterway was developed by digging two man-made canals, one from the headwaters of the Caloosahatchee River on the Gulf Coast and the other from the St. Lucie River on the East Coast, since a direct connection to the sea would have completely drained the lake. To maintain the lake’s depth, a series of three locks were built to raise vessels from sea level on the Gulf Coast to the level of Lake Okeechobee, and two more to lower them back down to sea level on the Atlantic Ocean.

Two established routes are used to cross the lake:

  • Route 1, the “Cross Lake Route,” which proceeds from Port Mayaca directly across the southern part of the lake
  • Route 2, the “Rim Route”, which follows the southern shoreline along the “Herbert Hoover Dike”, named in honor of the president. During its construction, earth was excavated along the inside perimeter of the lake, resulting in a deep channel. In most places, this is part of the lake, but in others it is separated from the open lake by low grassy islands. Even when the water levels are high, navigating the open lake can be tricky, whereas following the rim canal is simple. Therefore, in order to reach a specific location within the lake, it is often easiest to follow the rim canal to get close to your destination, then to take one of the many channels to enter into the lake.
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