100 miles on the tracks of the Calusa

The Nice Calusa Blueway, Fort Myers, Florida

100 miles on the tracks of the Calusa

The Nice Calusa Blueway is an nearly 200-mile-long paddling path off the Gulf coast close to Fort Myers. Right here Dirk Rohrbach follows the tracks of the Calusa Indians who have been as soon as settling on this area in Florida’s Southwest.

„That is the highest of the mound. It’s a pleasant sunny spot.“, says Mike Hammond. It solely took us a couple of minutes to get right here. A brief path by a thick forest of mangroves leads from the water to the highest of the hill. „That is the best level in Lee County“, says Mike. „30 toes above water.“ All due to the numerous shells that the Calusa had piled over many generations to kind this man-made hill. „Supposedly the extra necessary you have been the upper up on the mound you’d be.“, says Mike. He’s the coordinator of the Calusa Blueway and joins me for my first leg. „Again you then’d give you the option look out and see your enemies approaching. You get a nicer breeze and if there’s a flood you’re up greater.“

Mound Secret’s the primary cease on my 100-mile-long journey following the tracks of the Calusa for per week. Right this moment the small island made out of tons of shells is a state park, roughly one kilometer lengthy, which you could solely attain from the water. Mike and I began with our sea kayaks within the morning on the Estero River. After a brief stretch on the river we have been reaching the Estero Bay, separated from the Gulf of Mexico by a collection of slim barrier islands. It’s sunny and windy, making it tough for us to maintain the course.

Initially I wrestle a bit with the boat. Prior to now I’ve nearly solely traveled in canoes, years in the past I even constructed one out of birch bark to then paddle your entire Yukon River from the headlakes to the Bering Sea, greater than 3000 kilometers. Now, I’m sitting in a kayak, sporting a life vest and spray skirt that covers your entire cockpit. It’s supposed to guard from spray water from the paddles and the waves. There are two hatches for loading the gear into the boat and a rudder, that I can flip within the water if essential to appropriate the course through pedals.

The panorama can also be one thing that I must get used to. Past the mangroves and small islands homes and resort complexes line the shore. On the horizon just a few huge bridges develop throughout the water and join the barrier islands with the mainland. Paddling has at all times been a manner for me to flee into the wild, away from civilization and to locations which can be in any other case unimaginable to get to. Right here, paddling additionally turns into an city journey.

However on Mound Key I step into a distinct, nearly enchanted world. The island was the ceremonial heart of the Calusa when the Spaniards arrived within the sixteenth century making an attempt to settle within the space. Initially they failed. As a result of the Calusa have been referred to as fierce individuals pushing the intruders again. In distinction to different tribes in what now’s Florida they didn’t develop grains or greens however lived primarily of fishing. They usually gathered mussels, utilizing their shells to wrest land from the ocean. Dozens of islands have been fashioned that manner over the centuries earlier than the Calusa, like all the opposite tribes, needed to give up dealing with the superior numbers of Europeans and at last gave up there territory within the 18th century. Right this moment there are not any extra descendants however just a few of their islands survived and are actually preserved and studied by archaeologists.

„The Calusa Indians have been right here for over 600 years they usually constructed this mound.“, says Alison Giesen within the Mound Home that Mike and I are paddling to subsequent. It’s positioned on Estero Island, a slim stretch of land off the coast. „You have been at Mound Key. That was their capital. Their leaders, their noble have been residing there. And this is able to be like a small neighborhood inside the Calusa individuals. So that you have been right here at somewhat residential mound.“, Alison continues. Right this moment there may be nothing left. A number of years in the past the town of Fort Myers accquired and restored the virtually 100 yr outdated home sitting on the property alongside the water. They took out the added swimming pool and found layers of shells, a number of toes thick, initially heaped up by the Calusa.


„Many historians and archaeologists usually check with the Calusa because the shell individuals not simply because they constructed mounds however as a result of they used shells for making jewellery, instruments, even weapons.“, says Dexter Norris. The biologist additionally works for the Mound Home, that recenty has been added to the Nationwide Register of historic buildings. On a picnic desk subsequent to the home Dexter has put just a few huge shells, a necklace fabricated from small shells and a crude knife. „It’s made out of a shark’s tooth on the top of a stick. Sharks are an important commodity round right here and they’d have been again then. You get meat, you get the tooth. You even have the pores and skin which might be used as a sandpaper. Shark pores and skin’s very, very tough and in the event you let it dry you’ve received historical sandpaper proper there.“, he explains. Subsequent to it sits a small carved, wood sculpture on the desk. It depicts a Calusa in a dug-out pushing his boat with a stick. „There had been some very massive dug-out canoes uncovered made out of pine or cypress.“, says Dexter. „Individuals would fell the tree off-site and lower off a few of the bigger branches. After which they might have introduced the trunk kind of again to this sort of website the place the neighborhood would have gotten concerned in hacking out items and even selectively burning out items and scraping it and inside about two weeks you’d have a canoe able to go.“

It averaged fifteen toes in size, similar to my glossy sea-kayak. Within the afternoon I push it again into the water, Mike can’t proceed and says goodbye. I shut the spray skirt and paddle again into the mangroves. The waterway by the thick maze of bushes and bushes narrows. The panorama right here appears to be unchanged because the time of the Calusa, apart from just a few markers within the water exhibiting the way in which.

Mangrove forests are among the many most necessary and memorable ecosystems on the planet. Greater than 100 totally different species exist, defending the estuaries alongside the coasts. They forestall erosion and are habitat for numerous fish, crabs and birds, which nest within the bushes and bushes.


Late within the afternoon I depart the idyll of the mangrove tunnels to paddle again into the open water and throughout the bay in the direction of Fort Myers Seaside. Right here, I’ll spend my first night time, in a motel, which you could paddle to. A brief dock in one of many canals permits me to land straight in entrance of my room. The solar sinks within the west over the Gulf of Mexico. Within the subsequent days I need to paddle on the market as nicely. However tomorrow I’m going to remain within the bay once more, a sensible choice as I’ll quickly discover out.

Day 2

30 Ft of Luxurious

Dirk strands in the midst of the night time in an oasis for snowbirds on the water.

„I don’t wish to suppose I’m a snowbird as a result of I don’t suppose I’m that outdated but.“ Becky is laughing loudly and hoarsely. „I like to journey. I like to see totally different locations. It’s simply the actual fact of being free after so a few years of being tied down.“ She is referring to work and household. The youngsters are sufficiently old and have their very own lives now. And after Becky’s husband Billy retired just a few years in the past they’ve been touring throughout America of their luxurios 30-foot RV. Air situation, propane range, dish washer, rest room, bathe, web, they lack nothing. „I may even watch TV whereas we’re driving. We’ve in-motion satellite tv for pc, so we are able to get TV wherever, anytime.“, says Becky. Their bus price 1 / 4 million {dollars}. „The minute you drive it off the lot it goes down. So, it’s not a superb funding, as a result of when we’re going to promote this we’re not gonna earn money.“ Not like a home or residence, Becky says. „The gorgeous factor about touring in a motorhome is in the neighborhood. We do get to satisfy good individuals like your self that come by and we get to share.“, provides Billy. I meet them in Matlacha, between Cape Coral and Pine Island, Florida’s largest island. Till the early Nineties individuals right here lived off fishing. Then the nets have been banned to guard the species. Right this moment Matlacha is a quaint artsy neighborhood with greater than 600 individuals, galleries, boutiques and cafés. The small RV park of Becky and Billy has solely 9 spots, all occupied by vacationers tenting right here permantly for a number of months to flee from winter. They pay nearly 2000 {dollars} monthly together with electrical energy, water, web and cable TV.

After I lastly arrived right here at nighttime final night time the dock helped me discover the way in which. It was low tide and windy within the morning, I needed to pull my kayak for a while to have the ability to make distance. That was time consuming, and since the times are brief now in January I needed to paddle till manner after sundown. Nonetheless higher than being out within the gulf, the place the waves would have been too harmful. Every so often my headlamp would catch a marker within the water, reassuring me that I used to be on the best path. However solely after I noticed the lights alongside the dock I might lastly chill out.

It was pitch-black by now and I used to be grateful for Billy’s invitation to camp on the white seaside for the night time. I modified my soaked garments and was allowed to assist myself to the home made dinner buffet. „We’ll do a Mexican night time, an Italian night time. When persons are going to be leaving we’ve got somewhat get collectively for these individuals.“, Becky tells me the subsequent morning of their RV. At the moment she and her husband are the campground hosts and maintain the park. „For anyone who’s getting near retirement, the RV life and touring is the way in which to go.“, says Becky and laughs once more.



Day 3

Robinson on the Shell Island

For forty years Ranger Ed has been residing with mosquitoes, squirrels and hurricanes, however with out electrical energy and working water.

The wind has develop into a storm, ruffling the treetops of the palms. I depart anyway and need to paddle to a different shell island. Calusa Island is located on the northern most tip of Pine Island. I’ve to paddle roughly ten kilometers of open water, staying near shore till I can enter a protected bay that separates Calusa Island from the primary island.

„Just lately we had archaeologists and geologists out right here. Considered one of them took samples they usually carbon dated this website to about 1200 B.C.“, says Ed Chapin. He’s been residing right here on Calusa Island for greater than forty years, alone. „The seaside is now eroding. And I’ve seen it go 40 toes in 40 years. So, the ocean degree is rising.“ The erosion has uncovered quite a few artefacts that assist the scientists to study extra concerning the Calusa and inhabitants that potenially got here right here earlier than them to stay alongside the coast. Ed hails from Ohio however got here to Florida as a youngster. I had contacted him through telephone to satisfy with him on the north seaside of the small island within the afternoon. He’s sporting camouflage pants, a pale shirt that after could have been pink and a blue cap with the brand of the Calusa Land Belief. This organisation purchased Calusa Island and different properties to guard them from the event by buyers and to maintain them in probably the most pure state as a substitute. Ed works as type of a ranger and occupies a small, two-story constructing with a loft. „I’ve been off the grid for 40 years. I don’t have working water, I’ve received an outhouse, I acquire rainwater and I’ve batteries for lights and followers. It’s not for everyone.“ Partly due to the mosquitoes and hurricanes.

Visits by different persons are uncommon. On the weekends just a few paddlers and motorboats could land right here for a picnic or a tour of the property. In any other case Ed retains busy as a cell mechanic engaged on the engines of fishing boats and yachts. However it’s the solitude on the island that’s most interesting to him. A number of squirrels are his firm, he feeds them peanuts. “I by no means really feel alone“, Ed says. He enjoys the peace and quiet and his life as a modern-day Robinson Crusoe. „Let me let you know one different factor. People should not my favourite species of animal.“

Ed fascinates me, like all people who find themselves doing their factor with out caring for any conventions. And very often they appear to be loads happier than the cruel circumstances they’re residing in could counsel.


I get again into my boat, that has nearly develop into as acquainted to me as my birch bark canoe. It’s simply as steady however manner much less prone for wind and braves even the best waves. Right here inside the bay they’re blocked off by the barrier islands like Cayo Costa, my subsequent vacation spot. This island is roughly ten kilometers lengthy and solely accessible by water. I need to spend the night time in a small state park on the north finish. Thick clouds transfer in, thunderstorms are within the forecast for later. To be protected I’m not paddling straight west the place Cayo Costa can be simply ten kilometers away however need to bounce from island to island. Which means fairly some additional miles however a protected shore can be in attain if essential. First, I goal for Useppa, additionally a shell island of the Calusa and right now a luxurios personal membership. From there it isn’t even an hour of paddling to Cayo Costa regardless of the pinnacle wind. I attain the seaside simply earlier than the storm hits.

„This is likely one of the final pure and unspoiled islands you’re going to search out, particularly down in southwest Florida.“, says ranger Invoice Nash. “It’s an important habitat for nesting shorebirds and sea turtles. And the state wished to accumulate this land to maintain it from getting developed in order that we might have a superb barrier island for the pure sources and pure communities.“ For guests there are trails, a small campground, just a few cabins and greater than fifteen kilometers of sandy seashores which will have appeared simply the identical for the previous 1000’s of years. „A variety of occasions you drive by Fort Myers and all you see is housing complexes, condos and golf programs.“, says Invoice, who lives on the island along with three different rangers. „We would like individuals to see what we name the true Florida. That is what Florida appeared like earlier than man received right here.“ Certainly, that’s the enchantment of my journey. Though I’m not completey within the wilderness out on the water and motor boats, sailboats and the buildings alongside the shore remind me of the civilized coast my kayak brings me to impenetrable mangrove forests, idyllic bays and lonesome seashores with palm bushes.


The primary heavy drops hit the bottom after I pitch my tent. I rush beneath the palm roof of a close-by shelter that’s open to all sides. I unfold your entire gear on the benches to dry them and boil water on the tenting range for a fast pouch of soup. Then I stroll by the pouring rain over to the bathtub home. Two outside showers are positioned behind the constructing. The water is chilly and refreshing. Drained and somewhat bit cleaner I crawl into my sleeping bag.


Day 4

Hammerhead Sharks, Shell Scientists and Wild Waves

Florida’s Westcoast has extra to supply than sandy white seashores.

The wind has pushed the rain away over night time. However now there are whitecaps even within the bay. Normally a sign that it’s too stormy and harmful to paddle. I need to strive it anyway, trusting in my boat as I slip again into the water and keep inside Pine Island Sound. The open sea on the opposite aspect would have been wild and interesting however most likely additionally too dangerous. Near shore I push on towards the wind and waves.


I quickly attain the top of Cayo Costa. Now I must cross Captiva Go, an nearly one kilometer huge opening between the 2 barrier islands of Cayo Costa and Captiva. Right here the robust wind forces excessive waves from the Gulf of Mexico proper into Pine Island Sound. Moreover, the tides are stirring up the water, leading to bizarre currents and gigantic swells. The breakes roll over my deck and the spray skirt. I attempt to preserve the steadiness and should appropriate my course so the waves don’t flip the boat. The progress is gruelingly sluggish. I take into consideration what Ranger Invoice advised me concerning the hammerhead sharks trying to find tarpon within the deep waters of the passes. These fishes shine silvery and might develop over two meters in size. My boat is greater than twice as lengthy and shines white, however within the midst of a chase for meals which will give room for misjudgement. Undeterred I paddle on whereas maintaining a tally of triangular dorsal fins. Thankfully, I don’t see any and after a really sluggish half an hour I lastly attain Captiva Island.

Prior to now the island was inhabited by the Calusa, right now trip houses and resorts line the seashores. Image-perfect Florida. Snow-white sand, palm bushes, solar umbrellas. Households benefit from the inexperienced water, kids beachcombing for shells. The explanation that these exist right here in higher numbers than nearly wherever else on the planet lies within the geology. „The west coast of Florida has a really broad continental shelf.“, says José Leal. The Brasilian native is a marine biologist and the science director of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel Island, the one shell museum in America. „Florida is at the least twice as huge beneath water than it’s above water. A variety of mollusks are rising there. So if there’s a storm, if there’s a altering present, if there’s a robust wind all of the shells are pushed onto the seaside.“ Mollusks are the animals that produce the shells to guard their weak physique. „Mollusks are probably the most numerous group of animals within the ocean. So that they play main roles in meals webs and within the construction of the residing planet.“, says Dr. Leal. It’s estimated that there are over 80.000 totally different species of mollusks. Squid and octopus belong simply as a lot as snails. However the majority lives within the ocean and actually likes Florida’s shallow waters.



Day 5

Ding Darling

How a Cartoonist from Michigan turned a fowl conservationist in Florida.

„I used to be sitting out on the grass flats on a simply spectacular blue sky day with flat clean water when a few six foot reef tip shark paddled as much as me.“, says Mark Melancon. „He scared me as a lot as I scared him as a result of he rotated and bolted within the different route and threw a foot and a half wake going away from me.“ The shark was nearly two meters lengthy and innocent, often. Apart from a bull shark. „I used to be with my paddle membership and we have been doing a gaggle paddle and I had rotated on my board and face backwards to take an image of the group.“, Mark continues. „ And abruptly my board exploded out of the water.“ This story additionally had a contented ending. As a substitute of the aggressive shark that Mark intinially suspected, it turned out to be a good-natured manatee being accountable for the shock assault.

Mark is my information this morning. We need to fish, he from his board, me from my kayak. That’s turning into more and more widespread right here in Florida, as a substitute for deep-sea fishing with costly powerboats. We paddle out of the little bay within the north of Sanibel and go east first, again into Pine Island Sound, that I’ve nearly circumnavigated since I began just a few days in the past. Mark was born in Louisiana however he’s been residing on Sanibel for years, owns a fitness center and rents out stand-up paddleboards. „I can’t let you know how a lot I adore it right here. It’s the primary time I’ve put down roots since I used to be a child.“, he says. Within the afternoon we throw out the traces once more. Persons are waving from a viewing platform on the shore. We’ve reached the Ding Darling Nationwide Wildlife Refuge, that covers an important portion of Sanibel’s east coast.

„We’ve over 250 various kinds of birds all year long.“, says ranger Toni Westland. „Nearly all of them are snowbirds. They’re right here January by April.“ Toni welcomes Mark and me as we land on a small seaside inside the refuge. Similar to the birds the nice and cozy climate lured her in. Initially Toni is from Wisconsin. „I don’t like snow. At a younger age I went ice fishing and I used to go deer looking, bear looking within the chilly. However then I spotted you would do all that enjoyable stuff within the heat.“ She has been working within the Ding Darling Refuge for the previous sixteen years. It’s named after cartoonist Ding Darling who turned well-known for his newspaper cartoons 100 years in the past.


„He additionally was a duck hunter.“, says Toni. „And he determined if I’m going to hunt the land and take the sources, the hunters also needs to be giving again and preserve the sources.“ Darling turned an activist and initiated the duck stamp, in 1934 he drew the primary one. Since then hunters should buy the stamps earlier than going after water fowl. The cash coming from the stamps is used to create and set up refuges and conservation areas. „This was designated the Sanibel Nationwide Wildlife Refuge in 1945. Due to him. After which they renamed it in his honor.“, says Toni. It’s a paradise not just for the birds but additionally for the various birders who come repeatedly to observe and observe them. American pelicans, ospreys, herons, roseate spoonbills and the uncommon mangrove cuckoo. The checklist of birds you may see right here is lengthy. „In the summertime the tides fluctuate loads and we are going to truly see stingrays in right here, sharks, manatees and dolphins“, says Toni. „Oh, it’s stunning out right here.“

Day 6

End With Police Siren

Dirk paddles the final miles throughout the tropical paradise.

My final day on the water. Susan picks me up within the morning, together with her official automobile, a brawny powerboat with two equally immense motors and a siren. She is working for the marine unit of the sheriff division in Lee County, that covers the town of Fort Myers and the islands I’ve visited. „We help Fish and Wildlife with all their legal guidelines that they implement.“, she tells me. „We additionally work hand in hand with the Coast Guard.“

However right now Susan will escort me to the take-out on the Sanibel Causeway, utilizing her police siren, after all. „To let all people know the place we’re going “, she says and begins the engine. Susan is right here due to Nancy McPhee who initiated the Calusa Blueway and requested her to return. Nancy accompanies me as nicely, along with Mike. He traded his kayak for a paddleboard so Nancy can paddle his wood boat. „Way back the Calusa paddled these waters, they lived off the waters, they harvested fish.“, says Nancy. „And with the Calusa Blueway the thought was to simply get in a canoe and paddle from one finish of the county to the opposite and alongside the way in which you’re experiencing somewhat little bit of every thing we’ve got to supply right here. Whether or not it’s in a mangrove tunnel or close to the fish shares. You’re immersed, sitting in a craft on prime of the water and also you’re visited by manatee and dolphins.“ And Mike provides, „It’s actually cool that the Calusa Blueway connects all people similar to when the Calusas have been right here. The water nonetheless connects us all. I adore it.“


© Video Day 5: Matt Steeves

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