Wild and Dirty

Colby Katz

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.

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.

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.

The Cooley Massacre essentially marked the end of the so-called New River Settlement and the start of the Second Seminole War. The war brought Maj. William Lauderdale and his soldiers in 1838 to establish his namesake fort near the fork that divides the New River into north and south branches, near the present-day Snow Reed Swing Bridge. Within months, however, the military abandoned the fort, and the Indians burned it to the ground. A new fort was built near the mouth of the New River within a year, and calm slowly returned to the river.

The number of white settlers remained few, however. Among the most notable newcomers was Frank Stranahan, today considered the father of the City of Fort Lauderdale. He moved down from Melbourne in 1893 to operate the post office, ferry, and trading post.

Like any good waterway, the New River attracted its share of buccaneers and rogues. At the end of the 19th Century, the river was a lair for illegal gunrunners sympathetic to Cubans fighting to overthrow Spanish colonial rule. In May 1897, U.S. authorities seized a cargo of arms and ammunition from a ship captained by Johnny "Dynamite" O'Brien, a legendary seaman who made a name for himself by smuggling explosives.

Even in the early 20th Century, piloting the river remained an adventure. The river still possessed three whirlpools, two smaller ones east of downtown and the largest near the present-day I-95 bridge. So great was the pull of one vortex that in 1912, it swallowed the Lola, a 36-foot launch boat. Its captain, Scott Holloway, who had worked at digging canals in the Everglades, was following a dredge boat when the Lola's stern was suddenly sucked down. Holloway ran to the bow, from which he was pulled aboard the dredger.

The Lola disappeared and was reportedly never recovered.

The whirlpools eventually died, done in, many believe, by the silt churned up by the massive canal digging projects in the Everglades.

Development along the river took its toll in different ways. Stranahan, who'd always felt a great affinity for the New River, grew more disheartened as the city grew up around him. Life had become too fast for him. He relished his annual swim in the river on Christmas Day -- regardless of temperature -- after which he'd send postcards to relatives up north boasting of the wintertime dip. The New River boom died in 1926 when a hurricane killed two dozen people and destroyed property worth millions. Already dispirited and now almost broke, Stranahan tied a cast-iron grate around his foot on May 22, 1929, and killed himself by leaping into the river that had become alien to him.

The narrative arc of Stranahan's life -- drawing life from the river only to end it with those very currents -- is the stuff of fiction. Indeed, the New River and its people do inspire storytellers.

The lush and untamed banks of the New River attracted one of the great, early American filmmakers, D.W. Griffith. In 1919, he used the shores as a proxy for a South Seas island in shooting The Idol Dancer. "There may be more beautiful rivers in the world than New River, which flows through the heart of your city," Griffith gushed at a dinner thrown in his honor by townsfolk, "but if so, I have never seen it." When he returned four years later to film The White Rose, however, Griffith was disappointed to find that rapid development had brought concrete and wood seawalls.  

If development was a disappointment for Griffith, the gritty, overbuilt New River is just fine for mystery novelist Kling, who lives on the river.

Her fictional detective, Sechelle Sullivan, carries out her sleuthing from a 46-foot salvage boat on the New River. In Surface Tension, Sechelle hangs out at the Downtowner Saloon, a landmark joint the protagonist prefers because it's survived the "twin demons of taxes and gentrification."

Not that Kling's salvage boater-cum-detective is the first fictional sleuth to work the waters of Fort Lauderdale. That honor goes to Travis McGee, a crime-solver created by Kling's favorite mystery writer, John D. McDonald. McGee cracked the whodunits from his houseboat docked at Bahia Mar on the Intracoastal Waterway. "But the fact is," Kling points out, "he doesn't have Travis McGee traveling up the river. I can't even think of one time where he describes the New River."

Kling, on the other hand, depends on the river. "I wanted to get the idea across of someone who lives on the water and sees this town from the water as opposed to seeing it from the street," she says. "To me, the stories I write are so deeply tied to the setting. My setting comes first, and it determines my plot, my characters, everything. I need a milieu of a crime. I need to have a crime that's related to the world of the river and the water."

If riverfarers once proved their mettle by navigating around the New River's whirlpools, wild currents, and sharks, the modern adventurer does so by taking a dip in its tainted waters.

William Zenga, a 49-year-old Sunrise dentist, talks about braving bacteria and big boats last year to compete in the newly reestablished New River Swim, a race feared not for its length or difficulty but for downright filth.

"I figured, what the hell, I'll go down and do it," says Zenga, sitting under the shade of a palm tree, water dripping from his hair, after completing a triathlon on the Fort Lauderdale beach. Zenga's eyes possess Al Pacino intensity, and he speaks rapidly. His back is broad and heavily muscled.

Zenga works out in the pool at the International Swimming Hall of Fame almost every morning, and it was there that he was coaxed into the New River Race by friends who assured him they'd take the plunge too. "So everybody who said they were going to do it and talked me into doing it didn't show up," he said. "They all chickened out. My wife dropped me off with my bathing suit and cap, and that was it." Only three swimmers actually entered the contest, which began at Colee Hammock Park and ended at the Hall of Fame. "More people signed up and dropped out than showed up," he said.

"I had a kayaker go with me to use as a pace," recalls Zenga, who's also raced in the bone-chilling, hazardous waters flowing by Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. "I didn't want to be alone in the water. There's 200-foot boats going by, and you're swimming right next to them."

The water near the retaining wall where the three swimmers jumped in was filthy, he said. In general, the current was warm, murky, and smelly, but it became considerably cleaner toward the end.

"I told the guide, 'Listen, stay away from the walls; don't let me get into the slime; stay away from the columns; keep me in the middle between the columns.' I wanted to go where the water's really moving. Stationary water is where the bacteria level will be the highest."

As best he could, he kept his head out of the water. When he was down to the final quarter mile, the kayak guide picked up the pace, and Zenga completed the 1.5-mile race in first place. He rinsed his ears with alcohol.

Despite the New River's often murky look, it's not as dirty as it used to be. Still, it's a mere shadow of the waterway it once was.

Back in 1838, Jacob Motte, an Army surgeon, described the river as "alive with fish of every description, immense in numbers." The river and its scenery "appeared to wear a different aspect from the rest of the world." Charles Pierce, whom the 1880 Census tallied as the sole inhabitant on the New River, described a fisherman's bonanza: "Rushing in and out with the tide at New River, fishes can be seen by the thousands, which snatch at anything, even a bit of rag tied to the hook and thrown to them by a strong landline. We took crevalle from ten to thirty pounds, always large ones here, never less than ten pounds. By anchoring a boat in mid-stream they can be speared or grained as they swim by, often pursued by sharks and porpoises."  

The river was feared by swimmers then, not for pollution but for its wild and capricious currents -- which diminished with the onslaught of development and Everglades destruction. By the 1960s, the New River had not just been tamed -- it had been beaten and defiled by boat sewage, city wastewater, industrial chemicals, insecticides, and filthy runoff from city streets. In 1968, a headline from the Miami Herald delivered the prognosis, "River Is Dying, Biologist Warns." Plants and animals were vanishing from the river, which had pollution levels rivaling rivers in the New York City area.

During the next two decades, the city phased out dumping water into the river from wastewater treatment plants, but levels of fecal coliform, a type of bacteria that indicates raw sewage pollution, remained high. Then the city passed an ordinance in 1997 that requires landowners who allow boats to moor at their docks to install sanitation pumps at the pier. Habitable boats must be hooked up to these pumps while docked. Coliform levels have dropped, but they are significantly elevated after rainstorms, says Kevin Carter, who oversees river monitoring by the Broward County Department of Planning and Environmental Protection.

In April, several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, filed a suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for approving Florida's plan to remove 161 "impaired" bodies of water from its cleanup program. Among them is the New River, which is considered impaired because of high coliform levels.

"The state is trying to avoid setting limits on pollution," asserts Linda Young, director of Clean Water Network, based in Tallahassee. "The [federal] Clean Water Act says that the state has the responsibility for assessing and listing all of the waters that are not meeting the state water quality standards. But EPA has the responsibility of making sure that happens. If the states don't do it properly, then the EPA is supposed to step in and make an accurate list."

Zenga, though, speaking from the face-in-the-water perspective, says the New River won't make a full comeback unless people begin to understand they live in a river town. "They're not really aware of it, to be quite honest with you," he says. "Unless they live on it, I don't think they have any knowledge of what the river is."

Zenga won't go so far as to say his New River swim last year was a political statement, but it wasn't just gonzo swimming either. "I did it because I thought it would be something for the river. When I swam, it wasn't that bad. I'll probably go back this year and do it and try to get more people to do it, hopefully to make a statement on the river so people's awareness of the river increases."

If the New River has lost most of its primitive form over the past 100 years, tales about its untamed and fickle history have become a cottage industry for boat tours, although some are almost Disneyesque in their tackiness.

Three times a day, the venerable Jungle Queen chugs upstream from Bahia Mar to Jungle Island, which is actually tree-thatched shore land between Riverland Road and I-95. There, guests eat barbecued ribs and chicken, watch a ventriloquist or singing troupe, and titter at monkeys in cages.

On a recent excursion, the Queen floated up the river past the homes and yachts of the fabulously wealthy. "The guy who owns this yacht is a NASCAR racer," the tour commentator said as he directed everyone's gaze to a crowded marina located just east of I-95. "He always races number 24." The passengers screamed with recognition. "That's why Jeff Gordon named his boat 24 Karat. "

A teenaged girl sitting with her friends whipped out her cell phone and called her father, who was shopping at Wal-Mart. "Who's your favorite race car driver?" she screamed. "I just seen his boat!"

If you're looking for a more primal excursion, you might want to wander into Shirttail Charlie's, a restaurant/bar that lies almost directly across the river from the teeming and gaudy Riverwalk, a collection of bars and restaurants that were the city's attempt in the 1980s to gentrify the downtown riverbanks. The restaurant's name derives from river lore about a Seminole Indian trader who plied his wares on the river about 100 years ago.

With its rough, rustic look, Charlie's seems a little lost in time, like a place where even Frank Stranahan could chill. The bar is gazebo-like, and its swinging, wooden shutters are hooked above the windows, which hold neither screens nor glass. It offers a perfect view of river traffic.  

On a recent night, the captain of Shirttail Charlie's boat sat at the end of the bar, eating deep-fried fish fingers, sipping on a voluminous iced tea, and smoking. Dressed in sailor whites, Scott Hale looked the quintessential captain. His skin is deeply tanned with reddish overtones, and his blond locks brush back in a wave. He's boyishly handsome, and he knows how to turn on the charm when it's called for. He's one of several captains who split their time piloting Charlie's small boat. The restaurant uses the boat to convey customers over from the busy, northern side of the river and also to provide sated diners a little river tour. Charlie's and the nearby Downtowner Saloon and Steak House are the only restaurants on the south bank of the river.

"We're kind of like kindred spirits with the Downtowner, because we're on the wrong side of the river," Hale asserted. "They're looking for a younger crowd. We're more family-oriented."

The bartender spied some of the kids climbing up on a boat on a trailer in the neighboring boatyard. He yelled to them to stay off it. "If you want a boat ride, talk to the captain here!" he shouted.

Hale choked histrionically on his fish. "Not on my boat!" he sputtered.

In fact, Capt. Hale wasn't in the mood to work this night. He was willing enough to pilot the river. It's his role as floating party host he wasn't up for. And if you're not in the mood for that, well, you're not really doing your job.

"You've gotta have the right personality to stand in front of people," he said, wagging a fish finger to punctuate his point. His voice had the slightly nasally timbre that's ideal for cutting through background noise -- in this case, a bunch of screaming kids.

He insists on a party atmosphere on his boat, the kind of alcohol-soaked partying the rumrunners of old would appreciate. He regales his passengers with steamy river tales, punched up with Don Rickles-like insults and bad puns. And if he gets a dud or two on board, the kind of people who can't laugh even in the grip of a happy current, he threatens to change the name of the boat to Water Hearse.

The Jungle Queen pulled alongside Swing Rope Bend. A dozen small children scurried around the shoreline.

"Hey, we've got some kids playing Tarzan over here on a rope," the tour guide cooed. "Let's see if they give us a good swing."

With the timing of vaudeville pros, three of the boys turned their backs to the river, dropped their trunks, and mooned the Queen with wiggling butts.

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