November/December 2001

Paddle Power

The peaceful approach to exploring the waterways

Of all the ways to get out and experience our watery paradise, nothing compares to canoeing or kayaking.
Heralded as “zero impact” sports, these are the most environmentally sound ways of traversing the waterways. Noiseless and close to the water, they offer the best chances to get up close and personal with the marine ecosystem and wildlife. Curious dolphins surface slowly to look paddlers eye to eye, while manatees amble alongside without fear of propeller scars or pounding.
   Getting out on the water and paddling also is the best way to reconnect with the spirit of the indigenous Calusa Indians who lived in harmony with the local environment for thousands of years. They relied on dugout canoes, carved out of trees, to travel their territory from Punta Gorda down to the Keys without disrupting the ecosystem that supported them.
    Archaeologists also suspect that the Calusas were involved in trading routes that might have taken them as far south as the Amazon River basin and as far west as the Yucatán in Mexico.
Today, more power boats and personal watercraft are on the water than ever, but paddlers tend to be the sort of people who are more interested in seeking peace and quiet than a speedy thrill across the water.
    Paddling also is a fabulous exercise—and one that you can do at your own pace. Cruising quickly provides a great aerobic, upper-body, and abdominal workout. For the pleasure seeker more interested in checking out the intricacies of the estuary and river environments, paddling at a relaxed pace can be meditative and reflective.
    Places to paddle along the Lee Island Coast abound. From creeks in North Ft. Myers, to the grass-flat shallows and mangrove islands of the Charlotte Harbor estuary, to the more challenging waters of the Gulf of Mexico, paddlers can find a variety of waterways to experience.
White-water paddling is restricted to rivers farther north and west, but some good surf skiing is available in the gulf, especially during winter storms when paddlers put on their wet suits and crash through the waves.
    Various outfitters can help you figure out what you want to experience on local waters.
    From Estero River Outfitters (941/992-4050), located on U.S. 41 in Estero, paddlers can rent various types of canoes and kayaks. Adventurers can launch from the Outfitters directly into the Estero River where lush vegetation flows over its banks. Chances are that the twists and turns of the river will reveal an alligator, blue heron, or an osprey screeching overhead.
    Trips include tours to the Estero Bay Scrub Area, which highlights the need to protect the river and the estuary it feeds. Tours also go to the Koreshan Village, a state historical site where pioneers at the turn of the last century tried to establish a “New Jerusalem.” A guide also offers in-depth historical tours to Mound Key, the ancient capital of the Calusa Indians.
    Just south of Ft. Myers Beach on Estero Boulevard is the concession center for Lovers Key State Recreation Area (941/765-1880), where tours of Estero Bay and Mound Key also are available. Experienced guides offer adventure paddling tours, including overnight trips to the state park at Cayo Costa, as well as guided tours of the Everglades. Fishing enthusiasts can rent canoes outfitted for a full day of fishing in the bay.
     Wild Vision Kayak & Canoe Tours (941/765-1880), on Estero Boulevard in Ft. Myers Beach, also offers rentals and tours of the Estero Bay area.
     On Sanibel Island, Tarpon Bay Recreation (941/472-8900), located on the bay at the end of Tarpon Bay Road, offers tours and excursions through mangrove trails of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Both canoes and kayaks are available for rent and experienced paddlers are welcome to launch their own vessels.
    For tours of the Sanibel River as well as narrated adventures through the wildlife refuge, former Sanibel Mayor Mark “Bird” Westall (941/472-5218) is available for bookings. A longtime resident of the island, Westall specializes in birding and natural history.
    On neighboring Captiva Island, paddlers can sign up with veteran paddler and naturalist Brian Houston for kayaking instruction and tours of Buck Key. Operating out of ’Tween Waters Inn, Houston’s tours can be booked by calling Sanibel Sea Kayak Wildlife Tours & Adventure (941/437-0956).
    Also on Captiva, on the bay at the end of Andy Rosse Lane, Captiva Kayak Company/Wildside Adventures (941/395-2925) offers one of the most varied and extensive arrays of kayaks for rent in the area. It features full-moon tours, guided wildlife excursions through the Pine Island Sound Aquatic Preserve, and tours through the old mosquito ditches and mangrove trails at Buck Key. Pointed instruction on paddling techniques also is provided.
    For a different view of the local ecosystem, Gulf Coast Kayaks on Pine Island (941/283-1125), just over the bridge in Matlacha, offers nature tours through Matlacha Pass. In season, it also features manatee tours.
    Paddlers with their own vessels can experience the Pine Island Sound Aquatic Preserve by launching from the historic site at Pineland on the northwest side of Pine Island. Located at the foot of a 30-foot Calusa Indian shell mound, the launch site ignites an awareness of the indigenous people.
    For a fresher water experience, venture to Arcadia for the Canoe Outpost on the Peace River (800/268-0083), where peace and quiet can be discovered far away from the tourist-oriented gulf coast.
    For a good workout or reflective excursion that leaves the environment at peace, paddle your own canoe or kayak.
    Freelance writer and photographer Barbara Linstrom can sometimes be spotted paddling around Sanibel Island, where she lives and works.