Last night at our well-attended prep meeting for today’s hike, I finally got the answer I’d been waiting for: where the heck are we hiking?
Not the dike, after all. In 2004, we saw the horrific effects of that summer’s foursome of hurricanes on this tiny western outpost of Palm Beach County. In 2006, the Army Corps of Engineers started remediation efforts to shore up the 1930s era flood control dike. And this year, for the first time, they denied us passage through their construction areas.
So began the 20th annual Big O Hike. Off the dike, on the road. A kickoff in front of the Pahokee Fire Station followed by two streams of hikers, the larger walking north along busy US 441, the smaller south to royal-palm-lined Bacom Point Road.
Having walked from Pahokee to Port Mayaca atop the dike ever year for the past eight years, I decided against walking the 13 miles of highway north. Instead, for the first time, I joined the “Wimp Walk,” this year a four mile stroll past historic homes, groves of tropical fruit, sugar cane fields and thickets of young royal palms on the sidewalks of Pahokee.
It was a journey of interesting discoveries through a place I usually breeze through in the car. Ancient cypress in front yards on a slight ridge, the former shoreline of the big lake, pre-dike. A pioneer cemetery invisible to motorists hidden under thick tropical foliage. Grand, and not so grand, homes from the 1930s in all styles of architecture. Evidence of a horse’s ramble. A dense orchard of tropical fruit.
For both our group and the larger contingent working their way north, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office set out the welcome mat. Officers patrolled to ensure motorists slowed down, to check on how hikers were doing pounding pavement as the heat crept to the mid-80s, and to shuttle hikers back to the trailhead in Pahokee.
We discovered an unexpected change at the trailhead. Tough to tell with all the fencing and construction detours, but parking at the rebuilt marina gave us easy access to a newly opened restaurant, Big Bertha’s, perched right above the grassy waters and a million dollar view of the lake.
It’s a part of a camping complex now called Lake Okeechobee Outpost, a KOA affiliate with campsites and cabins right on the lakeshore. Ironically, in my car I have a Florida State Parks brochure from the 1960s that lists Pahokee State Park, a unique campground right on the shore of Lake Okeechobee at the Pahokee marina. Which makes me wonder – when did it cease being a state park and become a private venture?
Tomorrow’s hike is back atop the dike at Port Mayaca. Sunrise awaits.