Fort Myers reveals another world to a new paddler
NORTH FORT MYERS, Fla. - The seabirds perched stock-still, as though painted on an artist's canvas. Brooding black vultures staked out the treetops, regal white ibises and egrets huddled among the mangroves, reedy great blue herons stood sentinel at the water's edge.
So silent were our kayaks, the birds allowed us to paddle to within a few yards, where we drifted and admired their beauty. Suddenly, as if someone had blown a whistle, they all rose and flew away.
On a cool January afternoon, we were kayaking the Caloosahatchee River's creeks and inlets, the newest portion of the Great Calusa Blueway. We had departed from North Shore Park for a sunset cruise with Stefan Kuenzel of Kayak Excursions. How quickly we left the city behind: One moment we were fighting the wind in open water edged by parks and condos built on the shoreline, and the next we were rounding a bend into a narrow, protected channel lined with massive mangroves, heading for a spot Kuenzel knew birds favored.
As we moved back into the river, the sun began to sink, casting red beams across the glassy surface. We turned around, paddling backward, to watch it drop over the horizon. Back at the launch site, Kuenzel stacked the kayaks on his pickup and promised to meet us for dinner at a local crab shack.
The sunset cruise was our second time in a kayak. The first had occurred that morning, when Betsy Clayton, waterways director for Lee County Parks and Recreation, guided my husband and me on a paddle from Lovers Key State Park in Fort Myers Beach. I was more than a little apprehensive. My image of a kayak was an unstable and cramped vessel from which you would have little chance of escape when it inevitably overturned.
Happily, modern kayaks are remarkably stable and even comfortable. Ours were molded polyethylene sit-on style, with plenty of legroom. We had detachable fabric seats with backs, similar to portable stadium cushions, and rested our feet against adjustable stops. Clayton had advised us to dress in layers for the unseasonably cool weather, keeping in mind the "three W's: wick, warmth, and wind."
It took a while to get the rhythm of paddling. Clayton told us to pretend we were passing through a gate and pulling ourselves by the gatepost. Despite the cups on each paddle designed to catch any water running back toward the kayak, we got soaked.
In this portion of the Blueway we were often in mere inches of water, which made us feel that we were not in a vessel at all, but somehow part of the terrain. And the quiet. For the most part the only sound was the soft plop-plop of our paddles.
Along with vultures and herons, we saw anhingas, easy to spot because the female looks as if she's wearing a shawl. Mullets jumped, and kingfishers swooped in front of our kayaks, hovering inches above the water looking for food, their strident chatter breaking the silence. We passed through mangrove tunnels, where branches on both sides of a narrow channel intertwined overhead to form an arch and oysters clung to the exposed roots.
Clayton had brought us to a spot where she often finds manatees, easy to see in the shallow water. But on this day they were having none of the cold weather.
A joint project of Lee County Parks and Recreation and the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, the Blueway has expanded to 190 miles of canoe and kayak trails since the first phase opened five years ago. The trail encompasses three regions of the Gulf Coast: Estero Bay, Pine Island Sound, and the Caloosahatchee. It uses Global Positioning System coordinates and key points are marked along the trail to aid in navigation. Many routes follow trails charted some 2,000 years ago by the area's earliest inhabitants, the Calusa Indians.
Along the Estero Bay portion, paddlers can explore archeological sites on Mound Key, once inhabited by the Calusa. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the site includes ceremonial shell mounds and canals that are part of the history of the complex society that lived there from about 100 to 1750 AD.
The second phase takes paddlers along the sandy shores of Sanibel and Captiva islands. It passes Cayo Costa State Park, known for its shells, then crosses Pine Island Sound, passing by Cabbage Key and Useppa Island, both accessible only by boat.
The new leg up the Caloosahatchee and its tributaries adds 90 miles of lush, green Old-Florida vistas to the Blueway, extending it from San Carlos Bay to the Hendry County line.
The Fort Myers-Sanibel Island area has been recognized as one of the best kayaking destinations in North America by both Paddler and Canoe & Kayak magazines. The trail itself has garnered National Recreation Trail designation and is part of the evolving Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail.
There are some 40 launch sites and numerous rentals along the Blueway. Outfitters offer guided trips to view sunrises and sunsets, bird rookeries, manatees and dolphins, shells, archeology, and history. Besides guided tours, Kuenzel offers kayak fishing trips, where catches can include redfish, snook, trout, snapper, and jack. A new option is kayaking for fitness, one-hour classes that include a 20-minute endurance paddle and 20-minute paddle intervals, a combination of fast and slow paddling that keeps the heart rate elevated.
All that paddling is sure to raise an appetite. Fortunately there are restaurants, inns, and campsites along the Blueway. Just be sure to bring dry clothes.
Ellen Albanese can be reached at email@example.com.