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There's nary a bump in the road as you pass over the bridge that spans the New River at Broward Boulevard, nothing to call attention to the fact that you've just crossed a dividing line between two worlds.
On the south side of Broward, the New River is lined with huge yachts, sailboats and other trappings of wealth and privilege. Stately homes back up to the river yard-to-yard, interspersed with boat yards, the Riverwalk and other commercial developments. It's an impressive tableau at first but quickly grows monotonous -- another mansion, another yacht, another manicured lawn.
To the north of Broward Boulevard, the North Fork is something else entirely. A few hundred yards beyond the bridge the river widens, islands appear, and alternate routes beckon off the main channel. There are pond apple and cypress trees and native leather ferns, along with wading birds, turtles, and manatees if you're lucky. If you could see through the turbid water, you'd be able to count about 30 species of fish including tarpon, mullet, and bass.
"Come up here at night in a canoe or kayak and listen to the frogs," advises Steve Boone as he's piloting his motorized skiff between pilings below Broward Boulevard. "They've got these big frogs that bark almost like dogs. If you didn't hear the traffic noise, it would be hard to know you are in Fort Lauderdale."
It's a beautiful stretch, made all the more so by the realization that you're only a mile or so from downtown, as the crow flies. Other places exist along the New River where Mother Nature hasn't been wrestled into submission -- Pond Apple Slough comes to mind -- but the North Fork is the only place where you can paddle without the fear of being swamped by some Biff in a motorboat. (One thing you do have to watch out for, say people who've paddled the area, is kids throwing stones.)
Thank the four-foot clearance under Broward Boulevard for the area's solitude -- there just isn't enough headroom for Biffs to get big boats under the bridge. No route to the sea, no motorboats, no development, the theory goes. Some think that's a good thing, arguing that the last wild stretch of the New River should be preserved just the way it is. Others look upon this meandering waterway and see dollar signs in the form of increased property values and waterfront development. The North Fork bisects some of Fort Lauderdale's roughest, most blighted neighborhoods, after all. Anything that could help improve the area economically would be a welcome change.
Look for the issue to heat up before long. The city is now working on redevelopment initiatives for what's known as the Sweeting Estate area, the 30-acre plot bounded by Sistrunk Boulevard, the North Fork, and I-95. Plans include new housing, a hotel nearby just off Broward Boulevard, office space, and ecotourism. The idea is to "re-link" the area with downtown via the North Fork, and a lot of it is predicated on a fixed bridge about five feet higher than present, high enough to get a water taxi through. "We would like to see something good happen economically with that part of the city," says Phil Bacon, Fort Lauderdale's economic development manager. Bacon says a higher bridge could become a reality in as little as three years. No one has yet put a price tag on such a project.
In the meantime get out and enjoy the last pristine stretch of river in Broward County.
Boone's day job is playing bass with the Lovin' Spoonful, the '60s folk band that brought you such hits as "Do You Believe in Magic," and "Summer in the City," which Boone penned himself. He's on the road with the band 70 days per year. When not touring he likes to troll around on the New River. A ride with him is like a history lesson, except it's fun. He used to give guided tours of the river, so he knows its secrets; the section that's more than 100 feet deep, the sinkholes that supposedly sucked in feral pigs and shot them out into the Atlantic, the coves where rumrunners used to hide. That and a cooler full of beer make him an ideal guide.
He's partial to the North Fork. "It's fun to see nice houses and fancy yachts," he says, "but this is a different kind of environment. It's fresh. You get a better sense of what it's like being on the river system that you don't get from being elsewhere."
Boone's skiff is small and has a shallow draft. Even so, the North Fork is too shallow and rocky for him to follow to its terminus near the Swap Shop, where it turns into a canal.
Other people are just as passionate as Boone about the North Fork. So much so that they believe the bridge should remain just as it is, choking off boat traffic so the North Fork doesn't become another watery highway for the rich.
"It's unspoiled, and it has the opportunity to be protected," says Rod Tirrell of the Broward Sierra Club. "It's historic Broward, and I think the only way to protect it is to keep the yachts out of the area."