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Living Sanibel: Great Calusa Blueway

By Staff | Oct 26, 2012

Photo courtesy of LVCBureau Kayaking at dawn in Pine Island Sound

In May 2010, the annual Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival was included as one of the top 20 events and festivals by the Atlanta-based Southeast Tourism Society (STS). With more than 1,000 events and festivals in 12 states competing for this award, winning it is no small achievement.

This unique paddling trail, covering more than 190 miles of creeks, estuaries, back bays, and rivers throughout Lee County, originated in 2003 as a joint venture between the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau and Lee County Parks and Recreation Department. The first Paddling Festival was held in June 2006. This annual event is now held every fall from the last weekend of October through the first weekend of November.

The Great Calusa Blueway is divided into three geographical sections: Estero Bay; Pine Island Sound/Matlacha Pass; and Caloosahatchee River and tributaries. The Estero Bay zone begins at Bunche Beach to the northwest and ends in the southeast corner of Lee County at the headwaters of the Imperial River. This is the most protected of the three legs of the Blueway and includes Hurricane Bay, Hell Peckney Bay, much of the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve, and both the Estero and Imperial rivers. While there are several channel crossings and open-water stretches in this section, most of the Blueway paddling trail hugs the mangrove-lined shore, and the open-water stretches are seldom more than a mile in length. Intermittent trail markers along the way also help to make this section the best bet for the less experienced paddler. Stops include Mound Key, Lovers Key State Park, Matanzas Pass Preserve, and Koreshan State Historical Site.

The second section stretches from Bunche Beach northwest to Cayo Costa State Park, with a branch going to the Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park to the northeast. Covering this large area would take an average kayaker four to five days, and there are numerous islands and parks where the overnight adventurer can find a safe place to pitch a tent or sleep under the stars. Places to visit along the way include Picnic Island, J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Cabbage Key, Pine Island Flatwoods Preserve, and Buck Key. While there are Blueway trail markers throughout much of this section, they are sometimes too far apart to be spotted visually, so a handheld GPS is recommended for longer trips. Most of these trails wind through the protected waters of Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve, but open-water paddling is required to get to the Charlotte Harbor Preserve and Cayo Costa State Park. Care should be taken when crossing the Intracoastal Waterway near Punta Rassa and between Useppa Island and Cabbage Key since it is heavily traveled by large cruising vessels.

The third Blueway section runs parallel to the Intracoastal Waterway, beginning at the Punta Rassa boat ramp and continuing east down the Caloosahatchee beyond the Franklin Locks in Alva. While there are plenty of safe havens such as Shell Creek, Whiskey Creek, Yellow Fever Creek, and the Orange River, paddling the broad, heavily trafficked Caloosahatchee can be best managed by staying along one shore or the other. There are some great places to explore in this section including Manatee Park, Four Mile Ecological Preserve, Hickey’s Creek Mitigation Park, and Caloosahatchee Regional Park.

Photo courtesy of LVCBureau Paddling along the beaches

The Great Calusa Blueway has much to offer the novice and experienced paddler alike. Along the way you are going to see scores of birds, manatees, dolphins, and possibly even alligators. The fishing is fabulous and ranges from snook and mangrove snapper to largemouth bass in the freshwater sections near Alva. Because this expansive trail covers so much territory (encompassing many of the same preserves and parks identified in this book), the best way to get a handle on it before taking your first stroke is to visit its comprehensive website. The many places to stay, restaurants to enjoy, launches, rest stops, and more than 100 trail markers and GPS coordinates to upload will help you grasp the enormity of the Great Calusa Blueway. The website has a list of 20 canoe and kayak vendors who participate in the program, as well as identifying a half-dozen paddlecraft-friendly lodges that will help make your journey more comfortable.

The Great Calusa Blueway is such a refreshing and novel concept that it well deserves the accolades bestowed upon it by the Southern Tourism Society. While motoring across the back bays and estuaries of Lee County might get you there faster, the slow, steady pace of a sea kayak or canoe allows you to slow down and see the watery world of the Calusa Indians much as they did 1,000 years ago in their dugout canoes. Watching the mullet jump, the blue crabs scurry along beneath you, and the frigate birds hover above makes it all worthwhile.

Author’s note: The Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival is planned for November 1-4, 2012. For more information about participating in this exciting event, please go to www.Calusabluewaypaddlingfestival.com.

This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast-A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.