The Ultimate Guide to the Great Calusa Blueway

The Appalachians may have their Trail, but Florida has the Great Calusa. Chart the twisting, hidden path of one of America's greatest blueways, and discover more places a small boat and a paddle can take you

A forceful exhalation wakes me before dawn: a blast of air, just beyond the beach.

Minutes later, a second exhale, followed by another. Multiple breaths explode in the water. Stretching in my sleeping bag, I peer out to see the silhouettes of coastal bottlenose dolphins feeding in the shadowy water outside my tent. I climb outside.

The sand is cold between my toes. San Carlos Bay gently ripples in a breeze, reflecting the waning light of a paper-thin moon, a dock light, and the red glow of a channel marker. Here on Florida's southwest coast, despite being only a tree line or two away from early morning commuters navigating the highways around Fort Myers, I feel myself on the edge of a continent, my only companions the constellations drifting overhead. That, and my kayak: the watercraft that has taken me so deftly to this place that feels so profoundly remote.

This is morning—this is life—on the Great Calusa Blueway, a 190-mile stretch that threads Lee County's coastal waters and inland tributaries, skirting tidal flats and deepwater passes, shifting its salinity as it moves from fresh to salt and in between. Like a dotted line along a map's azure realms, a blueway is a trail that follows water from one point to another. (In the case of the Great Calusa, it begins on the freshwater Caloosahatchee and Imperial rivers, and is bridged by the saltwater bays, passes, and sounds of the Intracoastal Waterway.)

But a blueway is more than just a trail: An official designation of the U.S. Department of the Interior since 2011, it describes water set aside by government agencies at the municipal, county, or state level for protection of habitat and for gentle exploration by canoes, paddleboards, and kayaks. Cousin to the great wilderness trails on land that thread their way along scenic and ecologically important earth, blueways bring journeyers to waters and shores that they may never see otherwise, revealing millennia of nature, habitation, and culture. On a blueway, the paddler becomes a pilgrim both literal and metaphorical, always guided by the waters that lie ahead.

I myself have been a pilgrim on the Great Calusa, plying a 45-mile segment of the trail over four days. But I'm not the first pilgrim to drift through; these waters have drawn their share, from pirates hiding out behind the many mangrove islands that dot the bays to a late–19th century utopian community known as Koreshan Unity, not to mention the namesake for the trail itself, the Calusa people. Married to this coastline for thousands of years, the Calusa believed people had three souls, one being their reflections. Setting off for the day and paddling an estuary of hip-deep waters, I find myself staring at my own soul in the ever-changing surface.

Reminders of the Calusa people are everywhere. Up the trail in Estero Bay, I come upon a massive shell midden believed to have been the tribe's ceremonial center. What likely began thousands of years ago as an oyster bar barely above the waterline, the outcropping was a perfect spot for local Calusa to throw leftover fish bones and shellfish. The pile grew and grew. By the time the Spanish arrived in 1513, the midden was the highest elevation for miles around, rising more than 30 feet. Now covered in hardwood hammocks and called Mound Key, it's an archaeological state park with self-guided trails to explore on foot.

I leave my boat for a walk-around—a rest for my arms—but eventually return to my kayak and slip back into the salty waters, leaving nothing but a few footprints to mingle with the relics. Four days is not enough, I realize. Perhaps a lifetime isn't, either, but as the afternoon sun warms the waters and my paddle dips rhythmically, I determine to absorb as much as I can. After all, I think, there's no added weight when you fill a boat with experience.

I skim along in water just slightly deeper than the reach of my paddle, and head for a dense thatch of mangroves that reveal, as I draw near, a break in the wall of green. If the blueway were a highway, these mangrove tunnels would be its scenic waysides to take a break, find shade, and peek into the richness of a world that provides food and habitat for about 70 percent of local marine creatures. Among the red mangrove's prop roots, which curve out and away from the base of these trees much in the way a spider's legs support its body, crabs, shrimp, juvenile snook, starfish, and sponges find sanctuary from predators too large to navigate the narrow passageways. Leaning in my kayak, I peer into the thicket. Dappled light breaks through the canopy above, and in the clear water, scales reflect a trail of light as fish dart away from the shadow of my passing boat.

I return to my main route, and dig in to paddle. There is a special pleasure in paddling a kayak—sitting so low, I'm of the water. I slice that thin membrane containing the liquid below and around me in a spiral that arcs both right and left, and traces shapes in the air as well as the water. I press forward, my kayak moving with precision, with exploration. This is not my first long-distance journey, so I know to wrap the paddle lightly with my hands, and my cadence meets a gentle, late-afternoon wind with ease. This is an ancient rhythm; it suits this place, this journey.

The next day I awake to my final push, and paddle confidently through the southern reach of Estero Bay. Above me, an osprey circles calmly in the sky, scanning the blue for a meal. Below me, the redfish and sea trout rocket around thick beds of marine turtle grass, making their own hunt for nourishment. A sea turtle swims patiently, pushing against an ebbing tide. With my eyes on the narrowing waterway ahead, I none-theless look back in memory. I've greeted broad bays where oyster bars rose and fell around me. I've snaked between mangrove islands where kingfishers leapfrogged from branch to branch. I've sat in my kayak for hours, until my back ached, only to forget my pain the moment a manatee snorted beside me. And each night I've pitched my tent beside my kayak and waited, hoping for a green flash at sunset.

I've left my sense of land-time behind, I realize. Even in the short span of four days, I've adopted the clock of the blueway: a clock set by the warmth of daylight, the movement of the tides, and the approaching promise of a campfire. I've been reminded to slow down and observe all of the subtle ways a landscape changes. The way a river empties into an ocean. The way water moves against a continent. The excitement of inlets and the shelter of bays. The dance of people casting nets in skinny water and of mangrove crabs shuffling down prop roots.

These past few days, my kayak has been more than just a conveyance. It has been a guide to the blueway, keeping me even-keeled and at a steady pace, showing me where to look and when to wait. And the paddle has been my pilgrim's staff, a comfort held gently in my hands as I've discovered my reflection—and that of a wondrous world—in the shallow, rippled waters of the Great Calusa.

Doing the Great Calusa

Paddle Florida's annual mid-February blueway paddling adventure is a weeklong trip that covers 60 miles of river, mangrove channels, and bays surrounding the pristine barrier islands off Florida's southwest coast. Meals, gear shuttling, and evening entertainment is provided, along with options to rent kayaks locally if needed. The trip is limited to 60 paddlers, so book early for 2018. Fees start at $700, with discounts for seniors, college students, and kids.

Want to Own Your Own?

Kayaks range greatly in price ($400 to $3,000), so shopping can be daunting. To begin, consider the kind of paddling you want to do. If you dream of short jaunts on bays and ponds, look for recreational kayaks, which are 10 to 12 feet long, easy to turn, and generally inexpensive. For longer journeys, touring kayaks are your best bet: At 12 to 17 feet, they are designed to be very stable, hold gear, and track well. (Day-touring kayaks are a bit smaller and maneuver better.) No matter what your price range, find a dealer with a rental or demo program, so you can try out different models on the water.

4 More Blueways to Explore

Here are some of the best watery trails to navigate, from New England to the tropics.

1. Paradise Coast Blueway
This Florida trail mines the great gifts of the Everglades National Park and Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

2. Southeast Coast Saltwater Paddling Trail
Connecting the Chesapeake Bay and the Georgia/Florida border, these more than 800 miles reveal paddling riches along the shores of Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.

3. Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail
With many trails branching off into the myriad corners of the Chesapeake watershed, this trail adds up to nearly 3,000 miles of discovery that mirrors those of the famed explorer.

4. The Maine Island Trail
A 375-mile trail, it winds through coastal Maine's wild islands, from Kittery to the Canadian Maritimes, past beaches, bays, saltwater rivers, and dramatic shore-lines.

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