Wild and Dirty

Hemmed in, polluted, under police guard, the New River is still as untamed as it gets in Fort Lauderdale

On a sweltering afternoon in late June, about a dozen young men and women have pulled the bows of two small motorboats onto a wild ribbon of shore on the New River called Swing Rope Bend. The sterns bob in the river, stirred by the wake of passing yachts. A golden retriever paddles repeatedly to the river's center to snatch a tennis ball. Some of the gang stand neck deep in the water behind the outboards, oblivious to the water's filthy reputation.

"Everything's dirty," shrugs one girl.

Swing Rope Bend is surrounded by about ten acres of uncoifed, privately owned woods in the Shady Banks neighborhood. One of a few spots on the main river without a concrete retaining wall, the 50 feet of sandy shoreline is a magnet for the young, the daring, and the curious. A hemp rope is tied near the top of an Australian pine, which has grown at a slant over the river. Keepers of the Bend built a crude ladder by nailing 2-by-4 wood slabs to its trunk.

Brian, a tall, broad-shouldered teen with 0 percent body fat, strides out of the water and zips up the steps. They end a quarter of the way up the tree, at the point where rope swingers usually launch out over the river. But Brian clambers past that. He shimmies up the tree trunk toward the point where the rope is tied, about four stories above the river. His back muscles ripple as he stretches toward the finish line like a greyhound.

The tree trunk tapers into branches, and still he climbs. They tremble under his weight. A quiet settles on the river bathers below. The onlookers gape. He's not gonna... Brian passes the rope knot and inches on to branches as flimsy as broom handles.

Then he steps off the tree and begins to fall. Time seems to stop as he plummets 100 feet through the air. He lets out a warbling howl, like a demented Tarzan, twirling his arms as his legs point toward the quickly approaching water. The bathers hold their breath.

At last, Brian cuts through the water like a lead pencil, a spout of water rising high into the air behind him. Long moments pass with Brian submerged, lost under the murky water. Then his smiling face breaks the surface.


Seminole legend holds that the New River is so named because it emerged the morning after the mother of all electrical storms. So great was the tempest that it triggered a giant earthquake, and from that flowed new water toward the sea. Well into the 20th Century, the river was still revered and reviled as a wild waterway. Boaters kept a vigilant eye out for giant whirlpools, sharks, and rumrunners.

The river claimed the lives of three of Fort Lauderdale's most prominent early citizens, including the city's father, Frank Stranahan.

Today, though it's hemmed in by concrete retaining walls and streets, it still remains the wild heart of Fort Lauderdale. Multimillion-dollar houses line its eastern banks, homes of Hollywood stars like Nick Nolte and moguls like H. Wayne Huizenga. The river flows over the Federal Highway tunnel, then cuts through the core of a downtown lined with towering condos, a courthouse complex, and a bleak jailhouse. Past downtown and three drawbridges, the river milieu becomes residential. Then the river divides.

But about five miles upstream, the south fork offers a few hints of what settlers in the early 1800s would have seen: a rainbow of coral, massive tarpon, and Indian mounds. The river passes Pond Apple Slough and Secret Woods Nature Center, a pristine preserve. Long ago, the Everglades would have begun at this point, draining into the river channel. The Everglades, now many miles to the west, still sends some water into the New River but only through a series of man-made canals. If you set out with a small enough boat, enough time, and plenty of gumption, you could paddle the canals all the way up to Lake Okeechobee.

"What makes this particular river interesting is that it's kind of miniature [just seven miles along the length of the main channel and the south fork]," says Christine Kling, a mystery novelist whose protagonist snoops around the New River. "It's not all that long, and there's a whole lot of stuff crammed on it. You can go to Pond Apple Slough, where you have no clue that you're only hundreds of feet away from the interstate. It feels very primordial. And just a few miles later, you're in the skyscrapers."

The New River, however, is at a peculiar turning point. For decades, the city and county ignored it, choosing instead to exploit the beach and expand developments farther and farther into the Everglades, and the neglected river decayed from sewage, lawn chemicals, and industrial waste.

Recently, though, developers, speculators, and city planners have grown enamored of the New River. There's good news and bad news. The interest of developers has aided efforts to clean up the river. But it has also sparked a building frenzy of condos and McMansions along the river, changes that chip away at the city's last taste of its wild past.

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