Lake Okeechobee

Lake Okeechobee, locally referred to as The Lake or The Big O, is the largest freshwater lake in the state of Florida. It is the seventh largest freshwater lake in the United States and the second largest freshwater lake contained entirely within the lower 48 states. Okeechobee covers 1,900 square kilometres (730 sq mi), approximately half the size of the state of Rhode Island, and is exceptionally shallow for a lake of its size, with an average depth of only 3 metres (9 feet). The lake is divided between Glades, Okeechobee, Martin, Palm Beach, and Hendry counties. All five counties meet at one point near the center of the lake.

History

Lake Okeechobee sits in a shallow geological trough that also underlies the Kissimmee River Valley and the Everglades. The trough is underlain by clay deposits that compacted more than the limestone and sand deposits did along both coasts of peninsular Florida. Until about 6,000 years ago, the trough was dry land. As the sea level rose, the water table in Florida also rose and rainfall increased. From 6,000 to 4,000 years ago, wetlands formed building up peat deposits. Eventually the water flow into the area created a lake, drowning the wetlands. Along what is now the southern edge of the lake, the wetlands built up the layers of peat rapidly enough (reaching 4-to-4.3-metre (13 to 14.1 ft) thick) to form a dam, until the lake overflowed into the Everglades. At its capacity, the lake holds 1 trillion gallons of water and is the headwaters of the Everglades.

The name Okeechobee comes from the Hitchiti words oki (water) and chubi (big). The oldest known name for the lake was Mayaimi (also meaning “big water”), reported by Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda in the 16th century. Slightly later in the 16th century René Goulaine de Laudonnière reported hearing about a large freshwater lake in southern Florida called Serrope. By the 18th century the largely mythical lake was known to British mapmakers and chroniclers by the Spanish name Laguna de Espiritu Santo. In the early 19th century it was known as Mayacco Lake or Lake Mayaca after the Mayaca people, originally from the upper reaches of the St. Johns River, who moved near the lake in the early 18th century. The modern Port Mayaca on the east side of the lake preserves that name. The lake was also called Lake Macaco in the early 19th century.

The floor of the lake is a limestone basin, with a maximum depth of 4 metres (13 ft). Its water is somewhat murky from runoff from surrounding farmlands. The Army Corps of Engineers targets keeping the surface of the lake between 3.8 and 4.7 metres (12 and 15 ft) above sea level. The lake is enclosed by the up to 9 metre (30 foot) high Herbert Hoover Dike built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after a hurricane in 1928 breached the old dike, flooding surrounding communities and claiming at least 2,500 lives. Water flows into Lake Okeechobee from several sources, including the Kissimmee River, Fisheating Creek, Lake Istokpoga, Taylor Creek, and smaller sources such as Nubbin Slough and Nicodemus Slough. The Kissimmee River is the largest source, providing more than 60% of the water flowing into Lake Okeechobee. Fisheating Creek is the second largest source for the lake, with about 9% of the total inflow. Prior to the 20th century, Lake Istokpoga was connected to the Kissimee River by Istokpoga Creek, but during the rainy season Lake Istokpoga overflowed, with the water flowing in a 40 km wide sheet across the Indian Prairie into Lake Okeechobee. Today Lake Istokpoga drains into Lake Okeechobee through several canals that drain the Indian Prairie, and into the Kissimmee River through a canal that has replaced Istokpoga Creek. Historically, outflow from the lake was by sheet flow over the Everglades, but most of the outflow has been diverted to dredged canals connecting to coastal rivers, such as the Miami Canal to the Miami River, the New River on the east, and the Caloosahatchee River (via the Caloosahatchee Canal and Lake Hicpochee) on the southwest.

National Scenic Trail

The 30 m wide (100 foot) dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee is a part of the Florida Trail, a 2,250 km (1,400-mile) long trail that is a National Scenic Trail. There is a well-maintained paved pathway along the majority of the perimeter. It is used by hikers and bicyclists, and is wide enough to accommodate authorized vehicles.

Fishing

The most common fish in this lake are largemouth bass, crappie, and bluegill. Pickerel have been less commonly caught.

Rim Canal

During construction of the 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 such as Kreamer Island. During the drought of 2007-2008 this canal remained navigable while much of surrounding areas were too shallow or even above the water line. Even when the waters are higher, navigating the open lake can be tricky, whereas the rim canal is simple, so to reach a specific location in the lake it is often easiest to go around the rim canal to get close then take one of the many channels into the lake.

The Lake In Popular Culture

Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades are feature as a backdrop for the 1951 Gary Cooper film, Distant Drums.

Lake Okeechobee is the setting of a climactic scene in Carl Hiaasen’s 2002 novel Basket Case (Ch. 28).

Lake Okeechobee is the setting of a significant part of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, and the movie of the same name. Janie and Tea Cake go there to work “on the muck.”

Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades are settings in Patrick D. Smith’s novel A Land Remembered, chronicling the effects of modernization upon the lake and the Seminole tribe.

Lake Okeechobee is famously mentioned in Hank Williams Jr.’s number one Billboard country hit song Dixie on My Mind, when comparing country life to big city life: “I’ve always heard lots about the big apple / So I thought I’d come up here and see. / But all I’ve seen so far is one big hassle / wish I was camped out on the Okeechobee'”.