On the Bay

by Kris Thoemke

SMALL IS GOOD... at least when it comes to Estero Bay. A blip on the map compared to its larger and better known counterparts — Pine Island Sound and Charlotte Harbor to the north and the Ten Thousand Islands to the south — Estero Bay is now considered among the best places for paddling and boating in southwest Florida. With plenty of access points, enjoying a day on the water in Estero Bay couldn’t be easier… or more fun.

But this almost didn’t happen. Until recently, Estero Bay was overlooked. With development sprawling south from Ft. Myers and north from Naples, the land surrounding Estero Bay rapidly became a part of the urban landscape and experienced the negative impacts of this rapid development. Water quality deteriorated and proposed new development along the mangrove-fringed shoreline property became the talk of the town. The declining quality of water entering the Bay from its major tributaries - Mullock Creek, Ten Mile Canal and the Estero and Imperial Rivers and fears of too much development prompted state and local government officials to initiate several programs to protect the Bay’s natural resources, preserve land around the shoreline as a buffer against future development and clean up the polluted water entering the Bay.

The success of these efforts no doubt contributed to the Bay’s current status as a desirable recreational destination. With more people looking for a place to enjoy some time on or near the water, Estero Bay became the logical ‘backyard’ choice for many new residents that moved to southwest Florida in the 1990s and early 2000s and tourists visiting the area.

Recognizing the Bay’s popularity, Lee County established one of its first segments of the Great Calusa Blueway in Estero Bay. Canoeists and kayakers can paddle the marked trial traversing Estero Bay from Bunche Beach to the north to the Imperial River at the south. They can also access the Bay from the Estero River and several locations on Estero Island (Fort Myers Beach) and Lovers Key State Park.

The trail follows the mangrove shoreline and passes numerous ‘flats’, shallow water areas where, at low tide, wading birds congregate to feed. Time your paddle around a low tide and you are likely to see herons, egrets, ibis and maybe some roseate spoonbills. It’s also common to see dolphin and manatee. Manatees are an endangered species and can grow to be as large as the canoe or kayak you are paddling. Both species are exciting to see and are often the highlight of the day.

The trail is too long to traverse from end to end in one day and camping along the way, except for the campground at Koreshan State Historic Site on the Estero River, is not an option. The best way to take advantage of all the Blueway has to offer is to plan a series of day trips. There are numerous public launching spots including Koreshan State historic Site, Lovers Key State Park, Bunche Beach and the Imperial River Boat Ramp. Combined with launching points at several commercial sites on Estero Island, access to any part of Estero Bay is easily within a day’s paddle.

One of the most interesting features along the Blueway is Mound Key Archeological State Park. Accessible only by boat, canoe or kayak, the 125 acre island literally stands out among all the other islands in Estero Bay. With a maximum elevation of 32 feet, the island is the ancestral home to the Calusa, an ancient Indian tribe that inhabited the region about 2000 years ago. The island is an example of a shell mound created from centuries of using the site as a place where the Calusa dumped the shells of clams and oysters and bones from fish, major sources of food for this tribe of hunter-gatherers. Over time, mounds of shells and bones became substantial enough to become visible features.

Archaeologists speculate that Mound Key served a special ceremonial purpose for the Calusa. What special role it played and why the Calusa choose this site will forever remain a mystery. The Calusa left no written accounts of their history

The mound is now overgrown with rare tropical trees. The Florida Park Service maintains a series of hiking trails with self-guiding interpretive signs, but visitors must be prepared for the walk. Mosquitoes and other biting insects are usually abundant so long pants, a long sleeve shirt and plenty of insect repellent are recommended, especially in the summer. For more information about Mound Key, contact the park at 992-0311.

Wildlife watching, especially for birds, is very good along the many parts of the Blueway. Birdwatchers will see all the region’s wading birds including roseate spoonbills, white ibis and reddish egrets, plus osprey, bald eagles and many of the area’s plovers and sandpipers. The Bay is shallow and, especially at low tide when most boats can’t navigate outside of the channels, canoeists and kayakers can make their way through the shallow waters to observe birds on the exposed mudflats and oyster bars.

Paddlers who like to fish from their canoe or kayak will find the miles of mangrove shoreline and large areas of seagrasses - great places to catch snook, redfish and trout, three of the region’s most popular saltwater gamefish. This segment of the fishing industry is becoming more popular. Not only is iy an inexpensive way to fish, anglers find that fishing from canoes and kayaks allows them to reach places where boaters can’t go. That advantage provides for some high quality fishing experiences.

Canoes and kayaks can be rented at Koreshan State Historic Site, Lovers Key State Park, and commercial facilities on the Estero River and in the town of Fort Myers Beach. Call Lee County Parks at 433-3855 for more information and a map of the Blueway in Estero Bay.

Estero Bay has much to offer paddlers including a chance to sneak into an out of the way back bay and sit quietly enjoying whatever happens to swim or fly by. Listen carefully and you may even hear the whispers of the ancient Calusa. •

from the March-April 2009 issue

photograph by Lynn Berreitter

Estero Bay