Wild and Dirty

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

Life on the New River has always been a conflict between nature and progress. Those competing interests wax and wane in a never-ending struggle, like the ocean tides fighting their way upstream against the river current. Swing Rope Bend is simply a tiny skirmish in this larger war. Like the long-ago settlers, the young seek out the Bend for the freedom of wilderness.

Most visitors arrive at the Bend via watercraft, but it is accessible by land -- by walking past a no-trespassing sign and around a meager fence blocking a well-worn path leading to the water's edge.

Once capricious and wild, the New River  is now mostly channeled and sliced by bridges and downtown development.
Colby Katz
Once capricious and wild, the New River is now mostly channeled and sliced by bridges and downtown development.
Colby Katz

On this day, the place is a loud concentration of youthful monkeyshines. Brian's glorious lunge from the tree inspires a handful of people to wade out of the water and begin swinging over the water.

Brian's sister, Megan, wears a camouflage two-piece bathing suit with her dirty-blond hair pulled back in a tail. She's not bashful. "I've been here five days in a row," she declares to no one in particular. "Yesterday, Danny Hernandez got hit in the face by the rope. His lip was like this..." She grabs her upper lip like a hooked mackerel. "It was so funny." Hernandez apparently had all the laughs he could take the day before, as he doesn't show up today.

Megan and Brian are graceful as they take their turns. They swing over the river, then drop just before the rope readies its arc back to shore. Their friend Leo, however, possesses more the build of shot-putter than gymnast. Try as he might, he can't hold his body up enough to keep from dragging his legs through the water when the rope reaches nadir. On one attempt, as his legs break water, he loses his grip and plunges facedown into the water. The rope continues without him as he floats facedown, corpse-like, perhaps keeping his ears underwater to avoid all the raucous laughter.

Another friend, Kirk, bemoans a recent visit by the Fort Lauderdale police to the Bend because of noise complaints. "The cops have nothin' better to do than arrest kids for trying to swim and have fun in the water," he says. "The neighbors call. They don't want us parking out there. We could be out selling drugs or something, ya know, instead of swinging from a rope into the water."

For this generation of swingers, the rope has always been there, a right as basic as sunbathing. No one here is sure when it was first hung, but certain self-appointed rope-keepers maintain it. "It used to be called Pirate's Island when I was a kid," says a goateed gent who's been out of high school for almost a decade. "This particular rope's been hanging here a while, but there were so many knots in it that it got short, and then they tied ropes on the end. Last week, I came and took the other rope off and untied most of the knots. Same rope; I just made it longer."

The mellow mood at the Bend changes with the arrival of another boat whose radio blasts Axl Rose singing "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." Although the passengers are of mixed sex, the testosterone level seems to jump tenfold as they swarm the beachhead. You can almost feel the afternoon coming to an ugly conclusion. Terry, an 18-year-old who resembles a young Sean Penn in looks and demeanor, struts up to the swing tree. He tosses his plastic cup into the water. "Get outta the way, niggaz," he bellows and clambers up.

A short while later, Officer Crystal Brignoni appears. Before saying a word, the Fort Lauderdale cop is peeved. "We get called out here every day," Brignoni scolds. A woman who lives nearby, frequent complainer, had called police to report all the cars parked along the street and to complain about noise.

Terry, the alpha dog of this pack, stands on the bow of his boat, his pecs thrust out defiantly. "That's because that lady is a b--" he begins, as his friends shush him. "Well, I won't say it." But he has to push it just a bit further: "You know," Terry blurts, "we'll just be back tomorrow."

Brignoni sees red. "All right, I'm making you an example," she says as she pulls out her handcuffs. A hush falls over the crowd as she pulls Terry off the boat and leans him against the bow.

Walking into the thicket with Terry in tow, she announces, "You can pick him up at Broward County Jail."

They mutter briefly, then start the motors. As the boats pull out, a breeze sways the rope, as much a lure as the river below it.

New River history is filled with the best and worst of humanity: hubris, greed, ingenuity, cooperation, and perseverance. The river's early reputation as an untameable waterway enticed those who would challenge it. Today, the river is more likely to inspire fiction than a conquering spirit.

William Cooley, a Maryland native, was one of the first white settlers on the New River, co-existing -- for a brief time, anyway -- with Indians who had been driven south by the quickly expanding United States of America. After arriving in 1824, Cooley established a starch mill, but tension between local Indians and the military simmered. On January 6, 1836, while Cooley was away salvaging a wrecked boat, a group of Indians paddled downstream and killed Cooley's wife, his three kids, and their tutor.

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