Chain Life Winter Haven by Eric Mohrman

Chain Life Winter Haven
By Eric Mohrman

For some Floridians, the state’s many lakes seem mere inconveniences, doing little more than preventing roads from running straight from one place to another. But others recognize these bodies of water as one of the state’s greatest natural resources, offering beauty, serenity, sports, recreation, economic stimulus and even floating concert venues.

Polk County has more than 550 lakes, while Winter Haven, “The Chain of Lakes City,” has 50 within its borders. Half of them make up the two chains of canal-connected lakes that give the city its nickname. The nine-lake north chain includes lakes Henry, Haines, Rochelle, Conine, Smart, Fannie, Hamilton, Middle Hamilton and Little Hamilton. The 16-lake south chain includes lakes Jessie, Hartridge, Idylwild, Canon, Mirror, Spring, Howard, May, Shipp, Lulu, Roy, Summit, Eloise, Little Eloise, Winterset and Little Winterset.

These interconnected lakes provide the foundation—physically and thematically—for the efforts of a local organization called Chain Life Winter Haven.

“Our lakes are what make us locally unique. We are ‘The Chain of Lakes City,’ but I felt we lost sight of that,” says Karen Thompson of founding this approximately 2-year-old organization. It aims to enhance community life, boost the local economy, drive tourism, improve the city’s lakes and canals, and benefit area charities.

Though born in Janesville, Wisconsin, Thompson considers it fair to call herself a Floridian, having moved here at only 1. She’s had a long relationship with lake-based recreation—as a career as well as a hobby—and recognizes what a powerful impetus it can be for bringing people together.

“I started waterskiing at the age of 14 here in Winter Haven at Cypress Gardens, then moved on to skiing at SeaWorld Ohio and finally SeaWorld Orlando. I enjoyed every aspect of water skiing. I love the water, the performing, the exercise… but by far the biggest reward is the lifelong friends I have acquired in the process.”

Thompson worked for Main Street Winter Haven for eight years, serving as the director for one year, spearheading successful efforts to revitalize downtown and promote historic preservation. That civic and organizational experience has served her well in her new endeavors with Chain Life, which so poignantly combine her passions for the lakes and community development.

Among Chain Life’s many lake-centric activities, the recurring “Flotilla” has become the signature event. It’s a massive gathering and concert on a lake, free to all who have something on which to float.

“I knew in order to create buzz and community interest in our chain of lakes again,” Thompson explains, “I needed a big event. An event that appealed to the masses and lake lovers. Enter the Flotilla, a good old-fashioned boat tie-up. It’s a free concert under the Florida sun, in your boat, in the middle of the lake. People bring a raft and float safely in our float zone located directly in front of the band barge.”

The 2015 Flotillas take place on Lake Eloise. Live music is generally provided by Thompson’s husband, Winter Haven native and singer Jay Thompson, and one of his multi-genre bands. His groups Band Haven and 99 in the Shade have performed. He talks of how much fun it is, though he’s quick to point out the element of danger they brave to bring the music to the people.

“Playing the Flotilla is a blast, but it does have its risks. After all, we are a five-piece band on a barge in the middle of the lake, plugged in to a generator with thousands of dollars worth of equipment.”

He also owns Thompson’s Printing in downtown Winter Haven. “Besides helping my wife with whatever she needs, I do the printing for the newsletter, koozies, t-shirts, posters and more.”

Other businesses in town are certainly finding the Flotillas and other Chain Life events to be great boons. This goes straight to one of the organization’s core missions: to increase revenue for local businesses and encourage entrepreneurs to build new ones on and around the waterfronts.

As Karen Thompson explains, “The impact to our local economy is huge with the Flotilla … If you think about it, boating for the day requires a cooler full of food and beverages, recreational and other equipment, gas and, most of the time, a stop at one of our local restaurant or bars on the chain. The Lake Roy hotel [was] booked for the weekend of the [June] Flotilla because of its boating access. It is my hope that entrepreneurs will see the value of opening up businesses on the chain of lakes.”

She also recognizes that further publicizing what Winter Haven lakes have to offer (including world-class waterskiing and bass fishing) helps bring more tourism dollars into the city. And it’s working.

“The Coast Guard Auxiliary conducts free boat inspections at boat ramps during the Flotilla. They ask people where they’re from. The answers: New Port Richie, Gainesville, Orlando, Tampa, Sebring and more.”

While there’s plenty of emphasis on bringing people together for a good time and profiting area businesses, Chain Life seeks to add deeper value through beautification and charitable giving. In particular, the organization is eager to make improvements to the lakes and canals it celebrates. Landscaping and bridge murals are planned for the future.

Thompson points to the Painted Paddle auction on July 31 as an example. “Artists from all over have been given canoe paddles to paint as they wish. The paddles will be auctioned off at our ticketed Painted Paddle event, where everyone will enjoy food from local restaurants, craft beer and whiskey, and live music. Because it is held at Marine Supply, people may come by lake or by land. It’s a full moon that night, which will make the boating experience beautiful. Proceeds will go towards painting over the graffiti in the canals with historic Winter Haven murals.”

Rebecca Heintz, a windsurfing, kayaking volunteer with Chain Life, stresses that environmental improvements and increasing ecological awareness are key drivers for the organization. And she believes just getting folks out of their homes and onto the water is an important first step.

We’re all about “making sure every resident can enjoy life on the lakes,” says Heintz. “Many of them don’t use the lakes and aren’t aware of how diverse the waters are and how many opportunities they have. By doing what we do, it gets them out there, it gets them aware of the environment.”

Chain Life also passes along much of the money it raises to other organizations in support of good causes, Thompson proudly explains.

“An aspiration of Chain Life is to support local nonprofits when possible. Chain Life has donated to UCanSki2, a local nonprofit based in Winter Haven that provides adaptive waterski events for children and adults with various disabilities, including our Wounded Warriors. We have also been able to help the George Harris Youth Shelter and local National Guard Families”

And, as Heintz notes, events have broader effects than just raising money. They shine a spotlight on the beneficiary groups and causes, boosting awareness and inspiring community members to get involved.

“It’s all about community!” Thompson exclaims, getting right to the heart of why Chain Life exists.

And the community has proven enthusiastic, both in the immediate vicinity and across Polk County and Central Florida. Chain Life has already garnered more than 6,000 likes on its Facebook page, and events listings on the website pull in over 60,000 views; as Thompson notes, that’s impressive in a town of about 35,000. She also expresses much gratitude to the businesses and people who support the organization with advertising, sponsorship, membership, volunteer hours and by participating.

There’s also the hope that other communities will follow the example being set by Chain Life.

“I’d like to think people outside Winter Haven will emulate what we’re doing,” says Heintz. She believes these efforts will prompt others to realize their local resources are worth enjoying and preserving, which in turn may encourage cities and counties to work harder toward these ends.

Thompson also wants to spread the word that Chain Life, which has become so strongly associated with the Flotillas, has a lot more going on as well. She encourages everyone to check out the free newsletter, which offers helpful information related to lake life. It has published articles written by experts on fishing, boating safety, amoebas, businesses and real estate on the chain of lakes, and other topics.

But mostly, Thompson wants everyone to benefit from all that this amazing Winter Haven natural resource offers.

“We are a group of dedicated individuals who have a passion for the lakes and our community. I once heard the saying ‘lack of passion is fatal.’ Well, our passion for the lakes and what the future holds for them runs deep,” Thompson says. “Here at Chain Life, we all agree that Winter Haven’s chain of lakes is our greatest asset. The chain is where it’s at! So buy a boat, kayak, canoe, paddleboard or a home on the lake and enjoy the Chain Life!”