Skip to main content

Times of the Islands Magazine

Travel ‘Back in Time’ on SCCF Cruise Up the Caloosahatchee

Photo courtesy of SCCF.

Our trip “up the river and back in time,” as guide Rae Ann Wessel declares, is aboard the River Queen, a 41-passenger pontoon boat. While not exactly the small steam launch in the 1951 Bogart and Hepburn classic film The African Queen, it would still prove to be a leisurely drift up Southwest Florida’s most significant river, the Caloosahatchee.

And with the proper hat, imagining oneself in the movie isn’t too much of a stretch. Our quest on this brilliantly sunny Florida afternoon, however, is to take in the sights and learn more about the Caloosahatchee that was—and in many ways still is—the lifeblood of the region.

The adventure begins at Franklin Lock in Olga. We go through the lock and head east toward Alva Bridge and Lake Okeechobee. Further upriver, west of Lake O to just east of LaBelle, was originally the western Everglades; wet prairieland and a series of small lakes—not the wide river we know today. At the western edge of a place called Fort Thompson, a waterfall fed the narrow, crooked river flowing to the Gulf of Mexico. Our journey starts revealing the long and storied history of the crooked little river that is now a coast-to-coast seaway.

Officially titled “Caloosahatchee Oxbow & Riverlore Cruise,” it’s not completely apparent what riverlore means or what an oxbow is until Wessel begins narrating. Natural resource policy director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, or SCCF, she created the trip 21 years ago. Wessel is an extremely knowledgeable limnologist—meaning she studies bodies of fresh water. And her knowledge extends well beyond the body of water we’re navigating.

Captivating History

Along the way, Wessel artfully pieces together a puzzle of history, weather, nature, geography, ecology and mankind. The two-and-a-half-hour cruise is a Caloosahatchee cram course, filled with fascinating info. Throughout Southwest Florida’s growth, the river has been the main artery.

The winding story, like the twists and turns of the old river itself, goes from the prehistoric geographical evolution of the region, to the Calusa’s industrious use of it, to early settlement days of Fort Myers. And now boaters in Fort Myers can, in one day, travel east upriver, cut across Lake O or around the rim canal, and take the St. Lucie Canal to the Atlantic Ocean.  

Colorful characters who lived and worked on the river, pioneering the area, make up the riverlore part of the excursion. Calusa exploration and settlement is part of the narrative, as well as escapades of locals such as Capt. Peter Nelson, who claimed he was the Danish king’s illegitimate son. Nelson, the first Lee County commissioner, was removed from office in 1890 because he was caught drinking when the county was “dry.” Another story tells of a family that moved to the area to plant an orange grove along the river after suffering years of winter freezes in Bartow, Florida.

Wessel wistfully recalls her storytelling partner Charles Edgar Foster, with whom she crafted “Legacy of the Caloosahatchee,” which led to the current trips. Born in Fort Myers in 1913, Foster told many tales from firsthand experience. Admittedly, Wessel says no two cruise narratives are the same. Different details emerge depending on the sights and participants’ questions.

Although adventuresome, life for the pioneering souls wasn’t always easy. They depended on the river, which was their main “street.” However, the areas now comprising Lee, Hendry and Collier counties were in Monroe County, so a trip to the county seat was a weeklong sea voyage to Key West. Hardworking settlers eventually got tired of their concerns being ignored by faraway authorities in Key West and set about establishing a county government closer to home.

Change was inevitable. The first major alteration to the river was an 1880s dredging project, led by Hamilton Disston. He dynamited the Fort Thompson waterfall and rapids to create a navigable channel to connect the river to Lake O. The project was intended to drain the vast wetlands but instead caused flooding of communities downstream.

Fast forward to the 1920s, after a decade of storms and hurricanes that caused flooding from Lake O. It became clear something had to be done to protect the settlements around the lake. The solution to the flooding was to build a dike to contain the lake, and the project met multiple purposes. First and foremost, it controlled the flooding. It also created a cross-state shipping channel. At the same time, though, it cut off the water flow south of Lake O into the Everglades, creating the need to discharge even more water from the lake.

In 1930, engineers expanded the channel dredged by Disston, deepening it to carry more water. In the 1950s and 1960s, more dredging took place to create an even larger discharge channel from the lake. That project expanded the channel to roughly a quarter-mile wide and 25 feet deep in as straight a line as possible through the Caloosahatchee basin.

Creating the Oxbows

Imagine a downhill skier racing straight through a slalom course ignoring the loops of the course. Those ignored loops in this case are the oxbows. So named because they resemble an oxen’s yoke, they are the remnants of the more than 300 twists and turns the Caloosahatchee once took on its meander to the gulf.

Seemingly inconsequential at the time of the dredging, the oxbows today are the highlight of the river cruise experience. Small boats can still navigate most of the oxbows, giving voyagers a real-life picture of the river before it was dredged—much narrower, shallower and not straight at all.

Snaking through the oxbows is what Wessel means by traveling “back in time.” Only 36 oxbows remain, and in the oxbows, life has almost stood still, like forgotten little towns bypassed by a super highway.

Slipping quietly through the black waters of the oxbows, it’s not hard to imagine how the riverfront’s natural beauty attracted civilization. The shoreline is thick with bald cypress trees, cabbage palms, slash pines, wax myrtle, and live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Water hemlock, used by Calusa for poison darts, is still abundant, as well as elderberry and enormous leather ferns.

A working orange grove is nestled along the north shore. Reaching above the top of the water on both sides of the narrow oxbows are acres of spatterdock and pennywort—basically large and small lily pads. Great blue herons swoop in for a landing. Voyagers spot limpkins on the shore. Although we don’t see any, it’s assumed that manatees and alligators are out there somewhere. We see turtle-laden logs, and horses and cattle.

The river region in many ways is still as naturally lovely as it once was. Old and new river estates grace the landscape of the oxbows and along the main river channel. Boat docks are as common as garages, but there are few concrete seawalls here. Expansive lawns and shaded backyards gently slope right down to the water’s edge. Owners of small boats use the river mostly for fishing and recreation. Everyone waves. Occasionally, a much larger vessel speeds through on its way to or from the gulf.

There’s been a great deal of growth during the past 136 years as the Caloosahatchee was dredged, dammed, straightened and three locks were installed. Of course, this has had its consequences—taking us to the present-day fight to conserve and protect the waters of South Florida and the Everglades. Part of the cruise narration includes the reasoning behind Senate Bill 10 and the push to buy more land south of Lake O. Unsure what the discussion is about? Take the SCCF cruise and you’ll be well informed.

SCCF operates the tour once a month, from late November to early May. It starts at Franklin Recreation Area in Olga, roughly 33 miles upriver from the coast. If you’re interested in local history, geography, topography, conservation, birds, plants, animals—or just fancy the role of Bogart or Hepburn in The African Queen—this trip’s for you!

If You Go

SCCF Caloosahatchee Oxbow & Riverlore Cruise

The cruise requires advance reservations. Register online at Click on Programs in the upper right to find cruise information.

For More Information

Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation

“Dedicated to the conservation of coastal habitats and aquatic resources on Sanibel and Captiva and in the surrounding watershed.”
3333 Sanibel-Captiva Road, Sanibel

Written by Holly Morris, a frequent contributor to TOTI Media. She specializes in travel copywriting (AWAI certified) and is a travel writer.