|Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer; Photos by Silvia Ros|
Oleta River State Park is the biggest urban park in Florida. Big enough to include cozy cabins for rent. Cheap.
Turn east off Biscayne Boulevard and drive along NE 163rd Street toward Sunny Isles Beach. Look to your right. See all those mangrove trees? That’s Oleta River State Park, a 1000-acre behemoth of recreation.
Here on this former garbage dump, you’ll find bike trails and lagoons, kayaks and canoes, campgrounds and a sandy beach. Not to mention biting insects and rapacious raccoons, chirping birds and screeching squirrels. You may spot gray foxes or marsh rabbits in the brush, perhaps a gopher tortoise, osprey, bald eagle, and warblers -- even large iguanas. And within a network of mangrove waterways, you’re likely to encounter manatees, dolphins, boaters, and other aquatic creatures.
“It’s the largest urban park in Florida,” says Jacob Bennett, a park services specialist for Oleta River State Park. “And it’s a great location for a lot of people to come here and use our resources.”
The park encompasses about 1.6 square miles, has 17 miles of bike trails, an armada of canoes and kayaks, a 1200-foot-long sandy beach, nine open-air pavilions, and scores of tables and barbecue grills. There’s a tent area reserved for youth groups like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
And there are cabins, 14 of them, each with its own covered porch and swing. You don’t have to be a Boy Scout or Girl Scout to snag one. You just need the financial wherewithal to pay a modest $55 per night.
Because the park is so large, it’s impossible to experience it all in a day trip. So my girlfriend and I are about to head over for a couple of nights and live among the organisms (human and otherwise) that dwell there. During the trip, we’ll kayak choppy north Biscayne Bay, chat with boaters living off the grid, be devoured by no-see-ums, contemplate lizards, consider riding bikes over tree roots; and watch teens and tweens hurl themselves off a fishing pier.
Every journey comes with a first step, and ours begins online. You book cabins via the Oleta River State Park/Florida State Park web link to ReserveAmerica.com, an online service for reserving camping spots at state and national parks in this country and Canada.
“Cabins fill up pretty quickly on weekends,” Bennett tells me. (There’s also a two-night minimum on weekends and holidays, with few exceptions.) “On weekdays, there are usually a couple available,” he adds.
Robin and I find a cabin available for a Sunday afternoon in mid-April. Checkout will be Tuesday morning. The total bill, including tax, comes to $131. For good measure, I buy a fishing license from license.gooutdoorsflorida.com, a state-affiliated website, in case we decide to fish.
An hour later we’re driving east in the far-right lane of SR 826 (a.k.a. 163rd Street) and closing in on the park’s only vehicle entrance, at 3400 NE 163rd. We pass the Blue Marlin Fish House at 2500 NE 163rd St. Although Blue Marlin is a mile from the park entrance, and separated from the main park by the Oleta River and mangroves, the restaurant is a park concession.
I barely pass the Blue Marlin when I must hit the brakes. The cars up ahead have stopped. The immediate thought: There’s been an accident. Then it becomes clear: those vehicles are loaded with kayaks and bicycles.
I maneuver out of the right lane and drive forward. Sure enough, it’s a very long line of cars trying to get into the park. Turning in to the Intracoastal Mall, I park the car and tell Robin to wait here for my next call. (“I told you to leave early,” she replies.)
Best to investigate the situation by setting out on foot for the park’s main entrance, where hundreds of cars are being funneled into a single lane by police officers and state park rangers.
A young man with a black beard is sitting in one of the cars; he turns toward me and asks, “Is this the way it is all the time?”
Apparently it is -- at least on Sundays. Oleta accommodates a lot of people -- 655,484 last year, says park services specialist Bennett. On any given Sunday, more than 1500 people can show up.
A uniformed park ranger, stuck with the task of directing traffic, tells me it’s always gridlocked on Sundays, especially in good weather. And vehicles will keep on coming until sundown, when the park closes. My day is blown, I think, but then I hear a man driving a Kia yelling at a car that has cut him off.
“Why don’t the police arrest him?” he bellows.
But wait…the car that cut him off didn’t come from the west. It came from the east. I make a quick call to Robin, run back to the car at the Intracoastal Mall, and drive to our new secret path.
Well, it’s not a secret anymore. Late-risers take note: Shave off an hour of wait by heading from the east and making a left at NE 34th Avenue. Beware: It’s a short left-turn lane, and 163rd Street is a busy highway patrolled by cops.
Everyone who enters Oleta pays admission. Vehicles pay six dollars (maximum, eight people); if you’re on a motorcycle or moped, the rate is four dollars. Pedestrians and bicyclists pay two dollars. These entry fees are the heart of the park’s $1.5 million annual revenue stream. We don’t have to pay since we’ve booked a cabin; we also receive special codes enabling us to leave and return to the park after dark.
To get to our cabin we drive uphill along a gravel road, though “rock road” is a more accurate description. My car struggles until I remember there’s such a thing as second gear. Atop the hill sit the 14 cabins, along with a large restroom and four showers -- two for men, two for women. Adjacent to the restroom sit a couple of mobile home trailers. East of our cabin a trail runs past a brush of trees and down a steep grassy slope. A rocky shore lies west of the restrooms.
We take in the blue water, mangroves, and anchored vessels as fish leap. This isn’t the Oleta River, which is north of us, and connects Biscayne Bay to Maule Lake and Snake Creek Canal in North Miami Beach. What we’re gazing upon is a lagoon created by engineers in the 1960s, part of an ill-fated project called Interama. (More on that later.)
“Hey! We made it!”
Turning toward the voice, we see that it’s Blackbeard from the traffic jam, paddling by in a kayak. He’d been stuck on the entrance road for close to two hours, he says. “But it was worth it, man!” he beams. “This place is awesome!”
Robin, meanwhile, has fallen in love with our temporary home, Cabin 008. “It has a porch swing!” she cries. Besides the swing, the cabin has two electrical sockets, a couple of lights, and a surprisingly quiet air conditioner.
The biggest objects in the room are the beds, a double and a bunk bed. The beds have mattresses, but no linens. We’re using a sleeping bag.
We also brought a change clothes, swimsuits, goggles, sunscreen, a fishing rod we end up not using, battery-powered lanterns, sandals, towels, graham crackers, cheese, rice cakes, chicken sausages, portobello mushrooms, marshmallows, a chocolate bar, skewers, a bag of wood chips, paper plates and cups, lighter fluid, water, wine, beer, a four-pack of Red Bull, nuts, and a cooler filled with ice.
Eager to experience Oleta, we head to the main part of the park, where our first stop is the large wooden building on stilts that houses the park’s rental kayaks, canoes, and bikes at ground level, and a general store upstairs. For nearly ten years, Oleta’s concessions were run by Blue Moon Outdoor. That changed in November 2015, when a subsidiary of Canadian entrepreneur Bobby Genovese’s BG Capital Group (BG Florida Parks) took over the concessions for Oleta and Blue Marlin. On this afternoon, dozens of people wait to rent equipment, and we’re told it’ll be 45 minutes for either a bike or a kayak.
So we skip that for now and head for Oleta’s sandy beach, where hundreds of people of all ages are cooking on portable grills, tanning, playing catch, flying kites, and swimming. Laughter is in the air. So is the smell of hot dogs, ribs, and marijuana. Music blasts from dozens of radios, mainly salsa and reggaeton. Beyond a tether line that marks the swim zone, boats lie at anchor. Aside from the occasional crying child, everyone seems to be very happy.
A fishing pier lies at one end of the crescent beach. Actually, today it’s more of a diving pier. Kids leap off it into the water below. Despite all the splashing, Guillermo Vega and Alex Vivas are casting lines into the water at spots not occupied by swimmers.
“We usually come to swim,” Vega says. “This weekend we’re trying to fish.”
Vega installs tiles for a living, while Vivas does waterproofing. Both men hail from Nicaragua but now live in Hialeah, and bring their families to Oleta nearly every weekend. There’s just more to do here, they say, than across Collins Avenue at Haulover Beach -- or elsewhere.
“You can sit here, have a beer while watching the kids -- bike, canoe, rent kayaks,” says Vega. “You can do a lot of things.”
With the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, developers did more than just rename a river; they altered an entire ecosystem. In the late 19th Century, today’s northeast Miami-Dade County was marshland, cultivated by a handful of pioneers. By the early 20th Century, much of the region’s Biscayne Corridor had been drained for future development.
Even undeveloped tracts, like the future site of Oleta River State Park, were being transformed into something else. Prior to 1925, less than one acre of the future state park remained above water during high tide.
“The area consisted of a wide band of mangroves bordering Biscayne Bay, backed by a freshwater marl prairie,” according to a 2008 report on Oleta River State Park by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “These uplands consisted of small hammock islands scattered within the wetlands.” North Biscayne Bay and the Oleta River were also predominately freshwater bodies.
That started to change as engineers dug canals to reclaim land and prevent flooding. During the course of reclamation, alien plant species like Australian pines, Brazilian peppers, and melaleucas infiltrated the wetlands, vegetation that environmentalists now say is harmful to Florida’s natural ecosystem.
Also in 1925, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged Baker’s Haulover Cut, connecting Biscayne Bay to the Atlantic Ocean. Saltwater rushed into the bay and up the Oleta River. And that wasn’t the end of change.
“In 1935 and 1936, extensive mosquito ditches were cut through the wetlands of what is now park property, allowing saltwater intrusion further inland,” according to the state report. “The combination of these hydrological alterations converted Oleta River and the associated wetland communities from a freshwater to brackish water system.”
In spite of the changes, panthers and alligators were still observed around the Oleta River. Meanwhile, in 1938, Daniel Diefenbach set up the Blue Marlin Smoke House with his family at the edge of the river. (Diefenbach, who died in 1992 at age 84, served as North Miami Beach mayor from 1953 to 1963.)
In 1945 the City of Miami bought 1700 acres of land adjacent to the Oleta River (including the future state park) for $495,000 from the estate of Sunny Isles founder Harvey Graves. The plan at the time was to build an airport.
In 1958 Miami officials handed over the land to a state-run corporation dedicated to creating a permanent fair celebrating the cultures of the Western Hemisphere, to be called the Inter-American Cultural and Trade Center, or Interama. The exposition would include underwater tunnels, floating hotels, a rotating restaurant, plazas, exhibition halls, and a 1000-foot tall Freedom Tower designed by famed architect Minoru Yamasaki.
Toward that end, half of the wetland that would become the park was raised to an average elevation of five feet above sea level. One part of the Interama site is as high as 20 feet. This was accomplished by dredging, excavating a lagoon facing north Biscayne Bay, and using the site as a landfill.
“There is evidence that entire motels in Miami were demolished and dumped out there,” a state landscaper named Jim Ross told the Miami Herald back in 1986. “There were old toilets scattered around.”
The state built dirt roads upon the raised land and built a million-dollar bridge -- the same bridge thousands of visitors now use to get into the park. In all, $23 million was poured into the Interama project before its financial collapse in 1975.
Interama’s land was then divided between Florida International University, the City of North Miami, and the State of Florida.
In an attempt to build up hills for a golf course, North Miami operated much of its 290-acre portion of Interama -- located at NE 151st Street and Biscayne Boulevard -- as an unregulated landfill called Munisport until the dump was shut down by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 1983.
Environmental remediation is still taking place at the Munisport site, but that hasn’t stopped developers. Two 24-story condo towers, called One Fifty One at Biscayne, went up in 2008. And Aventura developer Jeffrey Soffer and New York developer Richard LeFrak plan to build a 180-acre retail/hotel/residential project called SoLeMia on the rest of the old Munisport site.
The failure of Interama was a boon in other ways. Under the leadership of Gov. Bob Graham, the state moved to claim its share of Interama and turn it into a park. In 1980 the state paid $8 million to the City of Miami to obtain full title of 92.6 acres of land, including the Blue Marlin Fish House. From there state officials and volunteers proceeded to buy more land, cart away tons of garbage, work to clear out the Australian pines, and lay down beach sand.
In August 1986, the 854-acre Oleta River State Park opened, with 1.5-miles of bike paths, a canoe launch, seven picnic shelters, and three barbecue pits. Today it has grown to 1041 acres, more than half of which are protected mangrove habitats accessible only by kayak or canoe.
In its early years, Oleta didn’t attract many people. Throughout the 1980s, the Miami Herald routinely called the park South Florida’s best-kept secret. Even in the 1990s, Oleta’s 145,000 annual visitors weren’t enough for private concessionaires to remain in business.
Georgeana Mijares of Sunny Isles Beach is a volunteer with Friends of Oleta Park and leader of Girl Scout Troop 460. She’s seen the crowds increase in the past ten years as park activities have blossomed.
Oleta, however, is still a work in progress. Jacob Bennett, the park services specialist, says the state plans to add an RV park for limited stays near the cabin area. And Mijares, Troop 460, and Friends of Oleta are working to improve the park’s butterfly garden. A recent partnership among FIU, Friends of Oleta, and the City of North Miami Beach is making an area of the park near NE 163rd Street and Biscayne Boulevard more accessible by clearing non-native brush and garbage.
There’s also a longstanding war against invasive plant species waged by state park employees and volunteers. The uprooted plants are replaced by native species. Ironically, during the park’s early years, real estate developers financed the removal of pests like Australian pines and the planting of mangroves. They did this as mitigation for the removal of mangroves at their development sites elsewhere in the region.
Pam Reeder, who headed a Delray-based company specializing in mangrove planting, told the Miami Herald in 1993 that she’d planted around 100,000 mangroves at Oleta. “It’s a very popular off-site mitigation area because the park is huge and impacted by Australian pines,” she said.
Today FIU, the state, the Miami-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management, and volunteers are leading efforts to turn back the environmental clock at Oleta, according to Kimberly Lewis, president of Friends of Oleta River State Park.
“It is a highly disturbed area,” says Lewis, “so we’re working to restore habitats into more natural states through native plantings.”
Opinions among visitors are divided over the fate of the Australian pines, which still fill more than 150 acres of park territory. Some mountain bikers love them, Bennett admits, for the shade they provide on trails. And their shallow roots make the trails more challenging.
Plants aren’t the only invaders. Exotic iguanas scurry around, but they’re not considered an ecological threat. “They don’t really cause any problems,” says Bennett. Native animal species are another story. Park rangers occasionally capture alligators and relocate them. Raccoons, too, are routinely collected by contractors and moved elsewhere. “We’ll never get rid of them all,” Bennett says.
While we struggle to keep our pyramid of wood chips burning, our neighbors in Cabin 009, a couple from Ontario, are grilling a four-course meal. We observe them with admiration. The occupants of Cabin 007 aren’t home, but they did leave their sodas and plates on their picnic table, attracting raccoons. Robin hisses and they take off, but the raccoons by our cars are more persistent, and manage to open nearby sealed garbage cans. Thus the night sounds consist of crackling wood chips, clanging tin, and soft human voices.
Eventually Cabin 007’s occupants return: three young women and their dreadlocked male companion. They remove the soda and plates from the table, then proceed to swat each other, hard, with long pool noodles while laughing. The male gets the worse of it.
Our other cabin neighbors include 33-year-old former U.S. Army soldier Joshua Powell and 29-year-old ex-Marine Ramon Martinez. Both men did tours in Afghanistan. They’re having a blast hiking, kayaking, and mountain-biking at Oleta. Despite taunts from their female companions, they only briefly slip into the water by our cabins. “It was pretty deep and cold,” Martinez laughs. “There’s mysterious plunder in there, in the abyss and darkness.”
Four of our neighbors occupy a trailer and an RV. As camp hosts, they can stay here for months, rent-free, utilities included. In exchange, they clean the restroom-shower facilities and the cabins, maintain the campgrounds, take out the garbage, and enforce the rules. The camp hosts are important for operations, and Bennett is in charge of recruiting and screening applicants.
“You work four days a week for 24 hours a week [total],” says Albert Shevis, a 70-year-old retiree who shares the RV with his friend, 47-year-old former business owner Jerome Doddridge. Both men are from Fort Lauderdale, and this is their first time as camp hosts. Three months in, they’re enjoying their stay and the work arrangement at Oleta. “The only monthly expense I have is a $40 cell phone bill,” Shevis says.
Dave Final, a 60-year-old retired Vietnam vet, and his 50-year-old cousin, Tracy Smith, a nurse, share the trailer. Final and Smith are from Michigan and work a different 24-hour shift than Shevis and Doddridge.
Smith came here a month ago for vacation, while Final has been at Oleta since December. Actually, Final says, he’s spent winter and spring months as a camp host at various Florida parks, mainly in the Keys, for the last six years. He found out about the program by accident while camping and snorkeling at Bahia Honda State Park in Big Pine Key. Final wanted to stay longer at the park, and an assistant park ranger mentioned the host program.
“The ranger said, ‘Well, you’ll have to stay another two and a half months,’ and I almost fell over,” Final recounts. “I said, ‘Sure!’”
For the most part, Final says, problems at the camp are minor. He sometimes has to remind people that “quiet time” begins at 11:00 p.m. Once reminded, people usually cooperate. A week ago Final had to stop a group of 12-year-olds from chopping branches off a tree behind our cabin. That same week, a group of young adults, intent on using one of the cabin’s picnic tables, laughed at him when he told them they weren’t supposed to be there. He called the park rangers. And that, Final says, is the extent of a camp host’s challenges at Oleta.
he 007 folks will leave later today. Actually, there are far fewer people at Oleta now that the weekend is over. Among our activities are swimming at the beach, cooking our portobello mushrooms and chicken sausages, and wandering the hiking and mountain-bike trails.
It’s while wandering the trails that I decide not to rent a mountain bike. Thanks to the Australian pine roots, even the easier trails appear treacherous, though Bennett swears that serious bike injuries are rare.
So we decide to rent a tandem kayak for 90 minutes. Cost: $33. We coast along the quiet mangroves, enjoying the birds, before we opt to go for the largest nearby spoil island, Sandspur Island, which was created during Haulover Cut’s dredge, in north Biscayne Bay.
An inexperienced kayaker, I’m at the front of the long narrow boat while Robin steers behind me. She complains that I keep splashing her with water. I wonder out loud what will happen if we suddenly capsize. It feels like the open ocean. Heck, I can see Haulover Park.
Robin remains unconcerned (we’re wearing life jackets) until something leaps out of the water and lands again with a loud slap! Now I’m intrigued, but she worries that a shark may be trying to capsize us. After struggling against the current, dodging other kayakers, and avoiding shipwrecks among the mangroves, we make it.
Sandspur resembles a desert island, with brush and coconut trees in the interior. On the beach, dangling over what appear to be the remnants of a bonfire, is an angel kite. There’s a hut made of palm branches, and a few folding chairs and tables. Right next to signs urging people not to litter, the garbage cans are heaped to overflowing and trash lies strewn about.
“Just so you know, that trash was thrown around by the raccoons!”
We are not alone.
Also on the island are Jeff T., a former local commercial fisherman, and William Jackson of Maryland. Jeff has come to Sandspur Island in his motor boat. Jackson’s vessel, a sailboat called the Never Land, is tied to shore.
Jackson, a former refrigerator repairman, actually lives aboard the Never Land with his wife, two daughters, and cat. For the past three years, they’ve been sailing between Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, and the Florida Keys. They’re existing on savings and rental income from their house back in Maryland. By living simply, Jackson says, they’re doing pretty well financially.
Modern-day slaves are not in chains, brother, they’re in debt,” he intones. “You have debt, you have to work. You have to work to pay stuff off.”
The spoil islands are popular with boaters, Jackson says -- so much so that he and his family fear the state may someday prevent them from anchoring at Sandspur. The island is popular with kayakers and jet-skiers, too. And while the raccoons (they do swim, Bennett confirms) may be guilty of strewing some of the trash, they aren’t responsible for all the litter.
“I’ve picked up dirty diapers left from campsites,” Jackson says. “And we pick up plastic everywhere.”
Indeed, litter is a significant problem at Oleta River State Park, confirms Lewis of Friends of Oleta. Hence, volunteers participate in regular cleanups all around the park, including the trails, the mangroves, and even areas outside the main portion of the park. While clearing the brush near Biscayne Boulevard, just outside the park, Lewis says, she’s found bottles, cans, trays, crates, concrete rebar, and an old air-conditioner dumped behind a strip mall.
We tell Jeff T. and Jackson about the creature that leaped out of the bay and went down so quickly we couldn’t even get a glimpse of it.
“It could be a ray or a shark,” Jeff T. offers.
“Was it a really loud slap?” Jackson asks.
“Yeah!” I answer. “It was like a boom!”
“That was a ray,” Jackson declares. “They leap out of the water and they just -- slap.”
Our kayaking trip from Sandspur Island back to mainland Oleta is uneventful, except for the incident in which I manage to run us into a mangrove tree.
At the cabin area in the evening, the no-see-ums bite hard. Our Ontario neighbors cover their table area with a full-fledged tent. And tonight we can’t ward off the raccoons with a simple hiss. They keep right on coming. So we decide to finish off our food and drink inside the cabin.
The next day Robin heads off for work. I return our key at the main entrance booth and head back to the main park. It’s a perfect day to wander around for a few more hours.
Volume 15, Issue 2, April 2017
Sales, special events, and more from the people who make Biscayne Times possible