Monday, August 27, 2007

Jungle Pete and the Canoes of Antiquity

The cypress log jutted from the water's surface, stuck in the mucky bottom of Lake Trafford. In June, the lake had receded to the lowest levels in recorded history. Partly due to lack of rain, partly caused by the dredging project. But here was the anachronistic log. Out of time and out of place. There are no cypress trees for miles and no streams or rivers flow into the lake; only out.

The airboat captain slowed enough for me to get a good look and sped off without a word. Later he would tell me that the log was most likely a Seminole Indian canoe from their time living in this area over the last 2 centuries. Lake Trafford is in Immokalee, a town whose name is Seminole for "My Home" and was just that in the not so distant past and here was a potential remnant of their lives, exposed by the lack of water.

Cypress wood is relatively rot resistant and Seminoles had learned from their Calusa predecessors how to hollow out the logs and make 12+ foot pole boats for pushing about in the swamps and marshes of the Everglades. Here was history, but the presence of it was being kept quiet. If anyone were to find out, they may stop the restoration project here and the lake could lapse into a state of anoxia (no oxygen) which would kill most life in the lake.

It's not unusual for me to repeat lines in my head from my favorite movie Raiders of the Lost Ark - and here I found myself saying "It belongs in a museum". I understand the consequences but certainly reasonable people could compromise here and we could save the canoe and protect the lake.

My next trip out on the airboat we noticed two more canoes sticking out of the mud. One only a few feet long with obvious tell-tale burn marks and another nearly 5 feet with parts obscured by muddy water.

I called a rep for the Collier County's Historical & Archeological Preservation Board later that week, knowing I could jeopardize the restoration project and potentially my job. The state investigated and my next trip out, there were at least 7 sites marked off. Instead of zipping by, the airboat driver carefully navigated closer to one and explained that he had been asked to mark the sites! So everyone was on board with protecting the canoes. But these were not just Seminole canoes; these canoes are estimated to be over 2000 years old and belonging to the Calusa themselves! The state is currently in the process of doing carbon dating to get a more precise date, but this find is now forcing historians to rethink many of the theories of the Calusas. (For more info CLICK HERE) Apparently they navigated from the ocean, through the Corkscrew Swamp and inland to Lake Trafford where the inhabited the area for quite some time. Long enough to generate a shell mound near the lake that will be investigated soon.


Before the state could get out to the canoes, one of them had disappeared. Thinking it was one of theirs, the Seminoles, with their proud cultural heritage grabbed it in the dark of night! The state asked for it back and soon enough it will be in a museum. Indiana Jones would be proud.


  1. wow, impressed by the story, really nice that you were able to help keeping the historical canoes, miss being part of those adventures, can't wait for November to come

  2. That's very cool. I hope to see pictures of the full canoes once they are out of the water. Will you personally have to pay to get into the museum to see them again haha. You know, "Indie was the dogs name."

  3. Pete, this is AMAZING!!! We are studying about American Indians right now and we happen to be studying the American natives of the east coast!
    The children's job today in history is to read your blog and your links and then do further research. Thanks!


  4. Yes but Jungle (pronounced Young-Lee in Ecuador) is my name.

  5. or at least my middle name.....maybe