Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Exploring The Great Calusa Blueway

This was written for the Sanibel-Captiva Sail and Power Squadron Soundings a short time ago. I wanted to hold it until our squadron members had a chance to read it first. Life here is more than just hurricanes and politics. It’s also living life to its fullest with my beautiful and delightful wife Julie.

Julie and I love to canoe. We have done it together since we were first married and living in the Washington DC area. We would rent a canoe from Fletcher’s Landing about two miles upstream of the Watergate, where the National Park Service put on summer evening concerts from a floating band shell. While most folks would sit on the steps leading down from the Lincoln Memorial, the best seats were in the gap between the shell and the seawall, where you could park your canoe and listen to the music. A bottle of Blue Nun, some cheese and crackers and you had yourself a delightful (and inexpensive) evening.

Over the years we have tried kayaks, but we still prefer canoes. They are a bit faster when passage making, hold bulky items better (like backpacks or a mother-in-law) and they’re what we’re used to. We had read about The Great Calusa Blueway and wanted to experience it.

The Blueway is a series of paddling trails in Lee County waters. There are three distinct areas: 1. Estero Bay and rivers; 2. Pine Island Sound and Matlacha Pass and; 3. The Caloosahatchee and its tributaries. The first two have marked trails along the shore line. The Caloosahatchee is unmarked but the brochure shows the tributaries to explore and provides their latitude and longitude so you can find the entrances with a GPS. While the river itself is considered part of the Blueway, it is heavily trafficked with high speed boats. The brochure warns you to stay away from the channel to avoid damaging wakes. It’s best to launch near the area you want to explore and limit the time spent in the river unless you are with a large and highly visible group.

So we decided to get our feet wet. We have done Sanibel’s Tarpon Bay so often the birds know us. We wanted something different and we chose Estero Bay Outfitters. They are located on the east side of US 41 on the Estero River. They have a good variety of fresh kayaks and canoes. The canoes are fiberglass Indian Rivers which I prefer to the softer, heavier plastic ones. Prices are reasonable, $22.50 for 3 hours and $5.00 more for the full day. We wanted to get an early start so we arrived a bit before 8 am. Early departures are called for in the summer when winds are light, temperatures moderate and skies clear. You definitely want to time your return to avoid any afternoon thunderstorms.

We didn’t know what to expect and we were pleasantly surprised. The first three quarters of a mile was reminiscent of the St John’s River and waterways in Georgia, with Spanish moss covered low hanging trees. There were large stands of bamboo. We passed the Koreshan Village which has a boat landing if you want to stop and explore. We didn’t. We wanted to see if we could make it to the mouth of the river, about 4½ miles from the start counting all the squiggles. The next mile and a half was scenic on one side of the river and built up on the other, mostly mobile home parks with docks. Fortunately this was summer and boat traffic was light. We stopped at times to take pictures of flowers. Bird life in the upper part of the river was spotty, not unusual for this time of year. We finally reached the State Buffer Preserve where civilization stopped and the shoreline became all mangroves. This is the Florida we are used to on Sanibel. The outfitter had suggested this should be our turnaround point in order to make it back in 3 hours. We had reached it in about an hour so we continued on. The deadline wasn’t that important anyway.

As we made our way downstream the current picked up. The tide table predicted the low tide at 9:43 am at nearby Coconut Point and we figured we would arrive at the mouth around 10:15. That would give us a following current upriver. We reached an area called the Bottleneck, where the river narrows and the current flow increased substantially to around 1½ knots, even 2 in spots. It made paddling easy. Along the shoreline we spotted old Calusa Indian shell mounds, and marked them on our map for a photo shoot on our return. Bird life improved as we neared Estero Bay and my new camera got a workout.

We rested for a moment or two and started our return. The tide hadn’t turned as expected and we had to dig hard to fight the current. We reached our shell mound, an 8 footer, and began taking pictures. There were about two dozen wasps darting around the mound. While they never appeared to threaten us, they did act very, very angry. Julie protested my idea of using her as a visual reference close to the mound, so we used more distant photography. Next we encountered a more modern pest, a jet ski. This one passed us at high speed about 40 feet away. Our shouts to slow down only angered him and he returned, this time to soak us down from about 15 feet. It was intentional. Fortunately our cameras were stowed in waterproof containers and survived.

The rest of the trip was delightful. After getting above the Bottleneck, the current slowed and we made great time. About a mile from our destination we spotted a green heron. It flitted from tree to tree, always staying 50 to 100 yards ahead of us. It seemed to act as a guide, welcoming us home.

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