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‘Ding’ Darling gets a spot in nationwide documentary project

By Staff | Feb 8, 2018

TIFFANY REPECKI Dr. Dirk Rohrbach and Claudia Axmann arrive at the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge with two of their guides.

A National Geographic journalist and photographer recently made stops at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Cayo Costa and more as part of a five-year documentary project.

Dr. Dirk Rohrbach, a German physician who is also a radio journalist and one of Europe’s most renowned inspirational speakers, is traveling the United States for his newest project, “50 States – A Journal into America.” Aiming to learn about the different cultures and people in each state, he and a partner kayaked the Greater Calusa Blueway trails for nine days for one of his Florida segments.

Rohrbach and his photographer, Claudia Axmann, visited the Koreshan State Park and Fort Myers Beach before paddling to Sanibel and Captiva. Partnering with the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau to plot out the adventure, they camped or were set up with accommodations during the trip.

Rohrbach explained that there are distinct differences between the European and American cultures. He created the 50-state documentary as a way to explore those differences and the people within them.

“It’s to learn about the different cultures and the people and the areas,” Rohrbach said.

TIFFANY REPECKI Dr. Dirk Rohrbach and his photographer, Claudia Axmann.

“It’s more about the people, the characters and stories,” he added.

When he was approached by the bureau about exploring an estimated 100 miles of the Blueway ——— a 190-mile marked canoe and kayak trail Rohrbach jumped at the idea. An avid outdoorsman, he saw it as an opportunity to learn about one of Florida’s Native American cultures and speak to area experts.

“And on the path where the Calusa Indians used to paddle and fish and travel,” Rohrbach said, referring to the Blueway. “It was a great opportunity to explore it.”

During the stop on the islands, Rohrbach and Axmann kayaked the refuge with two guides, as well as did a little fishing. Once on dry land, they meet with Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland.

She had a more in-depth tour planned, along with a stop by the untouched Indian mounds.

TIFFANY REPECKI Dr. Dirk Rohrbach and one of his guides, Mark Melancon of YOLO Board Adventures on Sanibel.

“He needs to understand the concept of who we are,” Westland said of the refuge.

A national wildlife refuge, it welcomes about 1 million visitors per year.

Rohrbach explained that people like Westland, who have a passion for and a knowledge of a certain area, are exactly the subjects that he is looking for to interview and document for his project.

“You can feel how much time and love she has put into this,” he said of the refuge.

Also on the island itinerary was stops to spots like the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum.

TIFFANY REPECKI Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland, with the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, greets Dr. Dirk Rohrbach.

Asked about his first time paddling the Blueway, Rohrbach noted that it was not all easy. He explained that the stretch from Cayo Costa down to Sanibel was “a little rough” due to the wind and current.

Having paddled the Yukon River, Rohrbach noted that this adventure was triple the length.

“I’ve always liked water,” he said.

Nancy MacPhee, product development manager with the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, hand a strong hand in designing and creating the Blueway. She helped to plan out Rohrbach’s route.

“We wanted to expose him to as much of it as possible,” MacPhee said.

TIFFANY REPECKI Dr. Dirk Rohrbach and his photographer, Claudia Axmann.

She noted that Rohrbach wanted to focus on the history for his documentary.

“So we focused around these cultural sites. We wanted people to see what the Calusa would have seen,” MacPhee said. “We’re exposing him to a couple areas.”

She added that Rohrbach is known in Europe for his adventures and Germany is a top market.

“It will provide exposure to not only the paddling and the Blueway, but to a lot of our natural attractions,” MacPhee said. “It’s good for the conservation. It’s good for tourism.”

In 2013, Rohrbach traveled across America with his bicycle and camera for the project “Highway Junkie,” collecting stories and photos for a picture book published by National Geographic Germany. Another, called “6000 Kilometers West,” documents his bike trip from New York to Los Angeles.