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Sea School scouts Caloosahatchee for camp trip

By Staff | May 25, 2017

Outdoor Educator and SUP Coordinator Spencer Richardson enjoying the scenery in a canoe down the Caloosahatchee earlier this month. PHOTO PROVIDED

A handful of staff members of the Sanibel Sea School took a scouting canoe trip down the Caloosahatchee for a summer camp being offered in July for teenagers.

“Four staff members and I went down the stretch of the Caloosahatchee. We had intended to run a 50 mile stretch from just south of LaBelle to Sanibel,” Co-Founder and Executive Director Dr. Bruce Neill said to look for places to camp and understand the lay of the river and land.

The scouting trip included an odd number of people, which in itself was a challenge with two person canoes. To make it even, Neill did the trip on a standup paddle board heavily loaded with gear.

“We were challenged by very strong headwinds,” he said. “There is, and have been recently, very few releases from Lake Okeechobee, so there is not much flow. Ordinarily you are riding the current down the river, and paddling, but this time there wasn’t much current down the river and 20-30 mile an hour winds up the river. It was hard.”

Neill said with the tough conditions they faced the first weekend of May, he was very proud of his staff.

“It actually embodies one of our philosophies at Sanibel Sea School. Part of it is there is a definition of adventure. When you are in the middle of it you hate yourself and ask yourself ‘why in the world did I do this?’ But, then at the end you value and cherish it,” Neill said. “I have gone on many canoe trips. I have canoed since I was a young child. I really don’t remember any of the ones that were easy, when the weather was beautiful, the sun was balmy, there were no insects and there was no wind. The ones that truly are meaningful to me, were the times it poured rain the whole time and wind and full of difficulties.”

In keeping with one of the Sanibel Sea School’s goals, to push people out of their comfort zone, the scouting trip was perfect for staff to experience that again. Neill said he believes if any of the crew were asked, they would say it was a great trip.

Outdoor Educator and SUP Coordinator Spencer Richardson said they had a great time.

“It was really amazing to paddle the river. It was a really great experience to see the different ecosystems from the fresh kind of transition to the salt water,” she said. “It was an experience of a lifetime because it is so unique. It is great that we can kind of do it basically in our backyard.”

Richardson said the patches of houses, and various preserves, was “cool” to see wildlife, as well as how the river was shaped.

The first day, the Sanibel Sea School staff met at the flagship campus at 5:30 a.m. Friday, May 5, and drove to LaBelle. The crew was on the water by 7:45 a.m.

The original plan was paddling all day Friday, camping overnight, paddling all day Saturday, camping over night and arriving on Sanibel Sunday. A couple challenges surfaced with that plan. For starters they all had to work Monday, second they were able to paddle further than originally thought, and lastly the constant wind wore them out.

Friday they paddled from LaBelle through the Franklin Lock. Although the water inside of the lock changed levels, it was a “nonevent” for the paddlers.

“We had been on a pretty feisty river all day long, so it was like this was a nice break because the walls of the lock buffered us from the wind,” Neill said laughing.

Once they exited the lock, the angle of the river and the time of the day, the staff spent 45 minutes paddling and only gained a quarter of a mile. Neill said at one point he was paddling as hard as he could, all while going backwards.

“I realized this was not sustainable. We turned around and came back the quarter of the mile we had gained to the campground at Franklin Lock and spent the night at that campground,” Neill said.

The first leg of the trip was 18 miles long.

The following morning, they began their trip early. Since the wind died down, they made good headway under I-75 into the very wide part of the mouth of the river, the estuary in Fort Myers. Unfortunately the wind picked up again, but this time coming out of the west.

“It wasn’t directly a head wind, but it was coming sort of diagonally to us, which is perhaps the hardest angle of wind for a canoe, or a paddle board. It is easier to go straight into it, as opposed to having it hit you on the front corner,” he said.

They “raised their white flag” and called their pick up crew. They were picked up at Centennial Park in Downtown Fort Myers.

Neill said for all of them the hardest stretch was hugging the Cape Coral coastline, along the west side of the river. They took this route to hide behind the trees to escape the wind.

“The hardest stretch was going from under the 41 bridge to Centennial Park,” he said of the three quarters of a mile.

The last leg of the trip was 14 miles.

Throughout the trip they paddled for two hours before stopping to drink water and take a 10 minute break before resuming paddling again.

“Our motivation to engage the Caloosahatchee . . . I know in hindsight have three redeeming points. One is we ought to take ourselves out of our comfort zone more often and challenge ourselves and take on true adventure. I think there is a real human value in that to really do things we are not sure we are going to enjoy,” Neill said. “The second thing is the river was fantastic. As a coastal person we love to demonize the river and we have this vision as a pollution, riddled, nasty, septic, sewer, pipe running down to spoil our beaches. But, it’s gorgeous and beautiful. There are trees and lovely homes along the way. The third part, shame on all of us coastal people for not going there more often on the weekends.”

The ocean, he said is unquestionably a fantastic environment and they want people to know the ocean like the back of their hand. However, Neill said it is a real shame if teenagers go away to college without experiencing the Caloosahatchee as a river.

The idea behind “Canoeing the Caloosahatchee” summer camping exhibition in July is to show teenagers, ages 13-18, acceptance of one another, as well as look at water quality problems holistically.

“This is the practicality of that. Let’s go inland. Let’s explore the far reaches of our neighborhood where people are different. They are different in the way they make their living. They are different in what their backyard looks like,” Neill said. “Let’s recognize despite those differences, what we mostly have is similarities.”

Although the trip will mimic the staff’s scouting trip, it will be spread out over more days.

Richardson, who is spearheading the summer camp, said the scouting trip helped in realizing how many miles to paddle a day, as well as how weather affects them on the water. She said the trip also revealed some great places to go camping along the river.

“It was awesome to find those little hidden gems along the river,” Richardson said.

This first-time offered summer camp will hopefully be one of a three year growth strategy.

The first year will begin with a small canoe segment, 30 miles, with the following year offering a second offering, 60 mile canoe trip. The final trip in 2019 will start from Lake Okeechobee, a total of 85 miles. The big goal, Neill said is to start in the Atlantic Ocean, a 120 mile canoe trip.

To learn more about “Canoeing the Caloosahatchee,” visit www.sanibelseaschool.org.

“It’s about taking kids and putting them in their natural environment and stimulating their brains while stimulating their physical bodies and really pushing them, challenging them and let them realize that I am strong,” Neill said. “Our goal is to produce, and help produce effective and powerful citizens.”