A Great Blue Way

by Bill & Mary Burnham

An outgoing tide had turned a shallow bay inside Lovers Key State Park into a slick patina of mud. Low tide is feeding time for wading birds, and the reddish egret upon which we'd set our sights provided us with nature's version of dinner theater.

Methodical and graceful, each high-step of the bird's skinny black leg reinforced the notion of a dance. Out of sight, beneath ankle deep water, a pair of tactile feet worked muddy substrate. When it disturbed prey (a small crab or a small fish) the head darted with lightening agility. Up it came, the neck convulsed, and I could just imagine a slimy morsel sliding down its gullet.

I didn't want to look away when Connie Langamm of GAEA Guides directed us toward a shoreline mangrove. Frozen in concentration, a great blue heron strained its neck to the limit and drilled beady eyes into murky depths. I realized I too was holding my breath, waiting, anticipating a strike.

Once, I'd felt sorry for these birds. Scouring mud flats for the odd fish—that's a tough way to make a living. Fact is, the fish don't stand a chance. Nor, I imagine, did the Gulf grouper, grilled and blackened, that a waiter set before me at lunchtime at Flippers on the Bay, a bar & grill at Lovers Key Beach Club & Resort, ranked with the best I've tasted.

Wildlife to waterside grill pretty much sums up the potential of the Great Calusa Blueway, a new 70-mile water trail that traverses waterways in Pine Island Sound, Matlacha Pass and Estero Bay. Like rediscovering your own backyard, the Calusa Blueway's route through mangrove tunnels and quiet backwater lagoons covers familiar terrain in an eye-opening way. The route takes equal advantage of quiet tucked-away spots accessible only to human-powered kayaks and canoes, and the comforts of luxury hotels, waterside restaurants and state parks. That evening’s sunset found us sipping cool margaritas by the pool, then soothing our muscles in a hot tub overlooking the bay.

Our sixth floor balcony suite at Lovers Key Resort provided a birds-eye view of Estero Bay, the setting for the first 35 miles of the blueway. (A second 35-mile leg in Pine Sound and Matlacha Pass opened this summer). To the northeast rose Mound Key Archeological State Park, once the cultural and religious epicenter of the trail's namesake, the Calusa Indians. Beyond Mound Key, the blueway detours into the Estero River up to Koreshan State Historic Site. Close by is Estero River Canoe & Tackle Outfitters, which provides kayak rentals and moonlit paddling tours.

A line of brown pelicans flew low to the water, backlit by the setting sun. South of us, beyond Big Hickory Island was an area called Intrepid Waters, our planned route for the next day's paddle. My chart showed it as a network of small creeks serpentine through mangrove islands, the perfect setting for an escape.

Langamm met us at Lovers Key in the morning. Her outfitting is bare bones—wide, stable kayaks for one or two people, paddles and life jackets—but her knowledge base is anything but. Her title as a Florida Master Naturalist simply names what was obvious to us after just an hour or so. She knows a lot about wading herons, egrets, sanderlings, red and white mangrove, blue crabs, oysters, whelks, pelicans—both white and brown—mangrove snapper, sharks, osprey, roseate spoonbills, anhingas, frigate birds, wood storks, cormorants, manatees and dolphin. The list goes on and on.

And as if on cue, every twist and turn in the mangrove creeks brought into view another white-feathered bird standing still and silent. Langamm pointed out indicators — ‘golden slippers’ on the snowy egret, black legs of the white egret, a yellow cap on the yellow-crowned night heron. With a rush of air, or an obnoxious "gaak", the bird would flee, leaving us with a thrill and a pleasant memory.

From New Pass, we moved out into wider water and headed across the bay. Where I'd been regretting using my 17-foot sea kayak in the tight mangrove creeks, now I was thankful for the tracking it provided. I made an extra effort to insert the paddle quietly into the dark water on each stroke forward. Quiet boat, quiet paddle, I'd been taught, and I've grown to understand why this is so desirable: I felt part of the scene, integrated into the natural rhythm of water and wind and wildlife, rather than an observer passing through.

We took a bead on a distant mangrove island and moved back out into open water. From this distance, the island had appeared in full bloom with large white blossoms, on the order of a magnolia or gardenia. The closer we paddled, into focus came the massive bodies of white pelicans roosting in the trees. White guano covered green leaves, and I offered up a silent "amen" we were not downwind of this repository.

We floated quietly. The birds squabbled, clucked and snorted. I took a moment to scan the horizon. A few high rise condominiums, some homes. Faintly, I could hear the highway. Motorboats buzzed by at some distance.

Here, amid fully-developed southwest Florida, within reach of hundreds of thousands of people, we were ensconced in a water-bound sanctuary. A fitting description for all of the Great Calusa Blueway, I thought: A sanctuary for birds and paddlers alike. •

Mary & Bill Burnham are the authors of the Florida Keys Paddling Atlas, due out this winter (www.BurnhamInk.com).

from the September-October 2005 issue

Wildlife to waterside grill pretty
much sums up the potential of
The Great Calusa Blueway,
a new 70-mile water trail
that traverses waterways in
Pine Island Sound, Matlacha
Pass and Estero Bay.