Sanibel by Kayak
By Everett Potter
Sanibel Island is known for the calm Gulf waters that ripple the edge of its miles of hard packed sandy beaches. But it’s especially well known for the millions – make that billions – of seashells lying on those beaches. There’s a seashell museum on the island and should you walk along any Sanibel beach at virtually any time of day there will be people looking down at the sand searching for that perfect, elusive example of the rare junonia but settling for a fighting conch or a whelk shell. Some diehards go out at after dark, armed with flashlights, engaged in “night shelling.” Perhaps it has something to do with less competition.
Shells aside, Sanibel has a wonderful sense of detachment from mainland woes, enhanced by the fact that a single bridge connects it to the rest of Florida. You enter a world of peaceful, winding two lane roads with marked speed limits that people actually obey. There are nicely kept condos, mostly low rise, and some old 40’s style beach bungalows. There are no traffic lights, or fast food places, and no obvious nightlife. The parking lots of restaurants begin to get seriously full around 5pm and seriously empty by 9:30PM. When it gets dark, people go to sleep.
There’s a good reason for that. They wake up before dawn and head to the beach to watch the sun come up and the resident ospreys go fishing. Okay, and they go shelling as well. Many people get around on fat tired bikes and no one is in a particular hurry. Everything looks trimmed and immaculate, and given the strong presence of Midwesterners and the general air of politeness that prevails, we dubbed it the Door County of Florida. It’s that kind of nice.
We saw dolphins from the beach. Our daughter collected enough shells to cause baggage issues had we tried to take even a fraction of them home. But we also found ourselves drawn to the backside of Sanibel, to the mangrove choked coast that looks eastward towards the mainland. Here is a taste of the wilder Florida that has become harder to find. But it’s what we found when we went kayaking at the JN Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which is administered by the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
It great that someone had the foresight to make this a refuge, given that it preserves hundreds of acres that surely would have been snapped up by rabid developers. We arranged to go paddling with Betsy Clayton, who works with Lee County Parks & Recreation and is an avid kayaker. She hooked us up with kayaks from Tarpon Bay Explorers, who have the concession to launch kayaks in the Refuge.
“The point of paddling is to see things that you can’t see from the beach,” Betsy said. She explained how the gentle waters we were on were not an isolated protected park but part of The Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail, a 190-mile marked canoe and kayak trail that meanders through the coastal waters and inland tributaries of Lee County, Florida.
The Blueway is named for the Calusa Indians, who dominated South Florida for centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards in the early 16th century. It extends from Estero Bay toward the north into Pine Island Sound, Charlotte Harbor and the Caloosahatchee River. During a two hour paddle, we saw a snapshot of what makes it so special: mangrove tunnels and barrier islands, with glimpses of herons, kingfishers, roseate spoonbills and pelicans. Fisherman float these waters to cast for snook and redfish. Clayton, who lives on nearby Pine Island, explained that “the refuge is part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States.”
With a forest of low lying mangroves in every direction, it wasn’t hard to believe. We were also glad to have her as a guide in the mangrove maze. We paddled for a couple of hours, in and out of the labyrinth of mangroves, with branches rising high enough above our heads to make tunnels and provide welcome shade. The trail is perfect for different paddling adventures. Ours was relatively short and sweet. If you’re into longer paddles, you can do them and even arrange overnight trips.
After a paddle, I’d recommend lunch at Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille, a restaurant owned in part by Outside columnist, novelist (and former fishing guide) Randy Wayne White. If there’s a wait, buy one of his Doc Ford mystery novels, set on Sanibel, have a mojito at the bar, and then order the lime panko crusted fish sandwich. It might have been the best thing I ate all week on Sanibel. It’s was a nice reward after a trip to the other, wilder side of Sanibel, a glimpse into another, momentarily shell-free world.
For more info, visit The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel