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Drawing a crowd: Many flock to weekend WOW Festival at ‘marsh’

March 5, 2014
By MEL TOADVINE ( , Lehigh Acres Citizen

You couldn't ask for a better weekend than this past Friday and Saturday when the East County Water Control District (ECWCD) held its third annual Wings Over Water Festival at Harns Marsh.

WOW is the acronym for the name of the festival that drew large crowds, especially on Saturday when most people were off from the jobs.

The whole purpose for this festival, according to David Lindsay, executive director of the East County Water Control District, is to show residents from here and all around Lee County that there is beauty at Harns Marsh with its water, land and wildlife.

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Mike Cook, with the East County Water Control District, explains how the water flows through Lehigh in the many canals and using the marsh as a retainer of water in the winter.

It's one of the most favorite places in Southwest Florida for birdwatchers and fishermen also love to come to the marsh and relax and catch a few fish.

The so-called marsh is actually is a giant lake, created by the East County Water Control Lake some years ago. When it rains heavy, the waters are released and in the winter time when there is little rain, gates prevent the water from leaving the large lake. The water eventually ends up in the Caloosahatchee River.

On Friday morning, when the temperatures were in the low 60s, a crowd turned out to hear a presentation about the marsh, regarded as one of the gems of Lehigh Acres, and then to take a walking or riding tour of the marsh area. It is four miles around the marsh and those who started walking often decided to get into a "tram" to sit back and relax and enjoy the beauties in the mash.

Lindsay and ECWCD official Mike Cook offered the tours through the marsh and talked to the group and answered their questions.

Bob and Debbie Hoeltzel of Lehigh are no strangers to the marsh.

"We often come here and take the nature trails," Bob Hoeltzel said. His wife, Debbie said they enjoy the marsh and its beauty and enjoyed coming out on Friday morning with the sun shining and the nice cool temperatures.

"It's just beautiful," Mrs. Hoeltzel said.

That seemed to be the phrase of everyone who was asked. "It's beautiful," over and over again.

ECWCD official Mike Cook gave a second group of guests Friday morning a talk about the marsh, how it came to be and the reasons it is being used to control and contain water. Then the folks would board the tram and off they would go through the trails.

A trip around the marsh is about four miles and not everyone wanted to walk it so that is why rides were also being provided.

Two visitors to Lehigh, Dan and Marilee Abbott, who said they live in Vermont, said it was their first time visiting the marsh and enjoyed the view. They planned to leave and return this week to Vermont after visiting a sister in Lehigh.

It was a first time visit, too for Barbara Salmons and her husband, Joe.

"It's just beautiful. We enjoy seeing the birds and we hear the fishing is great.

"Joe retired from a park service after 25 years in the St. Louis area where he was a superintendent for the park service."

"It's just beautiful here. We have previously gone to the Corkscrew Sanctuary but Harns Marsh is much closer and nicer," Marilee Abbot said.

Harns Marsh is located in Lehigh off of Sunshine Blvd. In the early 1980s, ECWCD transformed a 578-acre parcel into an active stormwater facility helping to filter water and reduce flooding in the Orange River.

At the time of the design, the property consisted of undisturbed features such as a 59-acre cypress head, but was mostly former farmland. Over the years, ECWCD's water control structures have helped created a lush habitat for snail kites, limpkin and more than 160 species at Harns Marsh.

The festival continued on Saturday with a large crowd that turned out. Last year, more than 200 people attended the second annual WOW Festival.

On Saturday, several speakers gave presentations to the crowds and were able to visit the marsh on foot if they wished to do so.

Harns Marsh is open for passive recreation and public exploration; however, it is not a park.

ECWCD officials ask the public to be responsible stewards for the natural environment while visiting the area. Vehicles must always be left outside the gate but you can walk around the marsh and you can bring binoculars and view the many birds that are seen in and around the marsh.

The structure walk gates were locked immediately following the conclusion of the festival and they will reopen on March 3.

For the early risers over the weekend, the tours began early in the morning.

The Early Bird Walk on Saturday began at 8 and continued for about an hour. A bird walk was offered through the marsh before the festival began. Dr. Jerry Jackson was the guide. There were plenty of things for the children to do, too. A variety of free activities for kids to enjoy included face painting and the first 50 kids were able to decorate their own flower pot and take it home with seeds for native plants.

One of the biggies during the festival on Saturday was the Greater Lehigh Acres Chamber of Commerce Duck Race, held to help support the chamber. For $5, visitors could purchase a rubber duck to enter in the race. Sales of the rubber ducks began early Saturday morning.

And new this year, according to Inke Baker, executive director of the chamber, visitors could decorate their own duck in a contest. The rubber duck race began at around 11:15 and people were cheering their ducks on, hoping to move their rubber ducks through a pre-arranged course through a part of the marsh to the finish line.

The Lehigh Community Initiative sold refreshments during the festival on Saturday with all proceeds going to help with cleanup efforts in Lehigh.

Guests were asked both days about their experiences at Harns Marsh's WOW Festival and once completed on a survey form, were given a free rain gauge.

The festival has become such a popular event that the ECWCD plans to continue it each year.



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