Thursday, February 17, 2011

Florida and the Great Calusa Blueway

A few months ago, my step-sister Augusta sent me a link to this article, saying that she was sure I wasn't in need of ideas, but that this one made her think of me. I liked it, and for the fun of it sent it back to her and a few other friends. One of them - Javier - wrote back and said, "you know my family has a home there, right?" I didn't, I swear, but the end result was, well, this trip!

Our experience was somewhat similar to the folks' in the article as far as kayak rental went. The folks we rented from were friendly but astonishingly casual about sending us headlong into the wide ocean without wondering too much about who we were, how much experience we had, our level of preparedness, or pretty much anything beyond making sure we paid up front in cash. None of us had paddled in sit-on-top tandem kayaks before, but apparently that was the recommended way to navigate 3-5 miles of open ocean that separated us from our destination, Cayo Costa. The guy went so far as to inform us that you steer these boats from the front - a choice bit of misinformation that had one of our boats practically going in circles for 4/5 of the way out there, when we finally figured out the problem. For those of us used to paddling open water in sea kayaks, the sit-on-tops were miserably inefficient, unseaworthy, and DAMP! (There's a hole in the middle of all the seats that goes right through the boat, allowing for a continual flow of fresh seawater right, well, you get the idea! Not sure of the logic behind that design, but I've got to hope that there is some!). They're far wider and flatter than sea kayaks, and don't have skegs or rudders to help them track - essentially great boats for recreational river and lake exploration, but not designed for what we were hoping to do!

I am happy to report that in spite of the challenges presented by our un-seaworthy craft, four-foot waves due to strong wind, difficulty with actually aiming for the correct key island, and sea-sickness, we did finally make it to our destination. Jamie says it's the dolphins. We did run into a pod of 'em (woo hoo!) and while we had no luck at all in capturing them with the camera, we saw at least two mothers with their tiny babies surfacing right at their side. It really was neat.

Camping on Cayo Costa was pretty plush for being state park camping. They had clean bathrooms, showers, (ok, no electricity, and thus, no hot water, but hey, who needs it!) a gathering area with mendicant guitar-playing folk singers from the Catskills ("two things money can't buy / true love and home grown tomatoes"), picnic tables, fire rings, posts for hanging stuff (including hammocks!) and a shuttle to take you back and forth across the island.

Sunday we spent reading and hanging out, then paddled our way over a crazy surf-like wave shelf (supposedly shark-infested, but that can't be right, can it?) to neighboring Boca Grande for lunch. We did see heaps more dolphins with babies on the way back - and even saw some black dolphins! The birds were just amazing, with pelicans and osprey and terns of some sort wheeling up, and then diving straight down into the water. It never got tiring to watch - although it was seemed the osprey had the most success with pelicans and terns mostly coming up empty in spite of all the dramatic effort. We ended the day with a campfire and hot cocoa and take-out from the restaurant - let's hear it for good food in the wilderness regardless of the means by which it as acquired!

Monday was head back day, and we got off the island in plenty of time to really enjoy it. The water was far calmer, the weather far warmer, and the sun far, uh, sunnier than it had been on our way out.  We paused on several sand bars and explored around, looking for shells and other sea treasures and oddities. Then we headed to the inland canal system that follows the coast and used it to navigate our way to our launch point. Mangrove swamps and all sorts of crane/heron/egret things rounded out our nature explorations for the trip.

Tuesday was spent in more traditional "vacation in Florida" pursuits: we slept in, yawned our way to the beach, and caught rays for much of afternoon. Not a bad way to wrap things up before heading to the airport and back home. 

And now... can you say "Great Calusa Blueway" fast five times?! 

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