Up The Creek…But With a Paddle

The Gables Waterway Canoe Tour Takes you to a Secret World

By Mike Clary

February 2019

When city founder George Merrick dreamed up Coral Gables, he imagined miles of tranquil inland waterways on which visitors could step into Italian-made gondolas and be ferried from the Biltmore Hotel to a private beach on Biscayne Bay. There, on the white sands of a South Sea-style oasis, guests could sip cocktails under coconut palms and dance to live music. And for a few months – until the mighty hurricane of September 1926 – that vision came true.

There are no Venetian gondolas plying the Coral Gables Waterway these days, but it is possible to follow their historic trail by paddling your own canoe. At least once a month, the Coral Gables Museum, in partnership with Miami-Dade’s Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department, sponsors guided canoe trips on the Waterway that provide a fascinating view of the city impossible to get from the street.

On a recent Sunday morning, 12 canoeists glided northwest from the put-in spot under the Metrorail at Ponce de Leon Boulevard and Riviera Drive in a leisurely journey towards the Biltmore. Guides Ed Pritchard and Diwaldo Rabre made sure that paddlers took note of the oolitic limestone walls lining the waterway, the old house numbers on or near their docks for mail once delivered by boat, and noted the ospreys, cormorants and kingfishers perched in overhanging trees. At times, manatees, alligators and even crocodiles can be found in the waterway, though none of those creatures were sighted on this trip.

“I think many people are surprised about how much life there is on the waterway, even though we are in the midst of an urban center,” said Pritchard. While warning of shifting currents and pointing out wildlife, Pritchard emphasized the ecological importance of a waterway linking the city to the bay and the Atlantic Ocean. When the paddlers neared the Biltmore Golf Course, the guides cautioned adventurers to be alert for low-flying golf balls – though no one’s been hit yet, Pritchard said.

“This is a great chance to see beautiful houses from a different perspective,” said Karoline Carvajal, a physical therapist from Kendall who took the two-hour tour with her husband, Milton. Indeed, from the canal, paddlers can peer into the landscaped backyards of sumptuous historic homes and their boat houses.

Among insights Carvajal picked up during the outing: large, sturdy sea grape leaves have been used as postcards, and those ubiquitous Egyptian geese are not native, but rather exotics from sub-Saharan Africa. By journey’s end, the Carvajals were considering investing in kayaks for further exploration.

This is a great chance to see beautiful houses from a different perspective…

Karoline Carvajal, a physical therapist from Kendall

Along with providing waterfront sites for hundreds of Gables residences, the waterway canal system serves as a barometer of sea level rise and aquatic health that is monitored closely by the city’s Public Works Department.

In general, the canals are in good shape, says Gables’ Utilities Director Jorge Acevedo. Yet pollution is a constant threat. “The canals do come close to a large area of septic tanks and cross golf courses where there is nutrient runoff from landscaping,” said Acevedo.  “So we, along with university scientists and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, pay attention.”