The Travel Episodes

The Great Calusa Blueway, Fort Myers, Florida

100 miles on the tracks of the Calusa

The Great Calusa Blue­way is an almost 200-mile-long paddling trail off the Gulf coast near Fort Myers. Here Dirk Rohr­bach follows the tracks of the Calusa Indi­ans who were once sett­ling in this region in Florida’s Southwest. 

This is the top of the mound. It’s a nice sunny spot.“, says Mike Hammond. It only took us a few minu­tes to get here. A short trail through a thick forest of mangro­ves leads from the water to the top of the hill. „This is the highest point in Lee County“, says Mike. „30 feet above water.“ All thanks to the count­less shells that the Calusa had piled over many gene­ra­ti­ons to form this man-made hill. „Suppo­sedly the more important you were the higher up on the mound you’d be.“, says Mike. He is the coor­di­na­tor of the Calusa Blue­way and joins me for my first leg. „Back then you’d be able look out and see your enemies approa­ching. You get a nicer breeze and if there’s a flood you’re up higher.“

Mound Key is the first stop on my 100-mile-long jour­ney follo­wing the tracks of the Calusa for a week. Today the small island made out of tons of shells is a state park, roughly one kilo­me­ter long, that you can only reach from the water. Mike and I star­ted with our sea kayaks in the morning on the Estero River. After a short stretch on the river we were reaching the Estero Bay, sepa­ra­ted from the Gulf of Mexico through a series of narrow barrier islands. It is sunny and windy, making it diffi­cult for us to keep the course. 

Initi­ally I struggle a bit with the boat. In the past I have almost solely trav­eled in canoes, years ago I even built one out of birch bark to then paddle the entire Yukon River from the head­lakes to the Bering Sea, more than 3000 kilo­me­ters. Now, I am sitting in a kayak, wearing a life vest and spray skirt that covers the entire cock­pit. It is suppo­sed to protect from spray water from the padd­les and the waves. There are two hatches for loading the gear into the boat and a rudder, that I can flip in the water if necessary to correct the course via pedals. 

The land­s­cape is also some­thing that I need to get used to. Beyond the mangro­ves and small islands houses and hotel comple­xes line the shore. On the hori­zon a few wide brid­ges expand across the water and connect the barrier islands with the main­land. Paddling has always been a way for me to escape into the wild, away from civi­li­za­tion and to places that are other­wise impos­si­ble to get to. Here, paddling also beco­mes an urban adven­ture.

But on Mound Key I step into a diffe­rent, almost enchan­ted world. The island was the cere­mo­nial center of the Calusa when the Spani­ards arri­ved in the 16th century trying to settle in the area. Initi­ally they failed. Because the Calusa were known as fierce people pushing the intru­ders back. In contrast to other tribes in what now is Florida they did not grow grains or vege­ta­bles but lived prima­rily of fishing. And they gathe­red mussels, using their shells to wrest land from the sea. Dozens of islands were formed that way over the centu­ries before the Calusa, like all the other tribes, had to surren­der facing the supe­rior numbers of Euro­peans and finally gave up there terri­tory in the 18th century. Today there are no more descen­dants but a few of their islands survi­ved and are now preser­ved and studied by archaeo­lo­gists.

The Calusa Indi­ans were here for over 600 years and they built this mound.“, says Alison Giesen in the Mound House that Mike and I are paddling to next. It is loca­ted on Estero Island, a narrow stretch of land off the coast. „You were at Mound Key. That was their capi­tal. Their leaders, their noble were living there. And this would be like a small commu­nity within the Calusa people. So you were here at a little resi­den­tial mound.“, Alison conti­nues. Today there is nothing left. A few years ago the city of Fort Myers accqui­red and resto­red the almost 100 year old house sitting on the property along the water. They took out the added swim­ming pool and disco­ve­red layers of shells, several feet thick, origi­nally heaped up by the Calusa. 


„Many histo­ri­ans and archaeo­lo­gists often refer to the Calusa as the shell people not just because they built mounds but because they used shells for making jewelry, tools, even weapons.“, says Dexter Norris. The biolo­gist also works for the Mound House, that recenty has been added to the Natio­nal Regis­ter of histo­ric buil­dings. On a picnic table next to the house Dexter has put a few big shells, a neck­lace made of small shells and a crude knife. „It’s made out of a shark’s tooth on the end of a stick. Sharks are a great commo­dity around here and they would have been back then. You get meat, you get the teeth. You also have the skin which could be used as a sand­pa­per. Shark skin’s very, very rough and if you let it dry you’ve got anci­ent sand­pa­per right there.“, he explains. Next to it sits a small carved, wooden sculp­ture on the table. It depicts a Calusa in a dug-out pushing his boat with a stick. „There had been some very large dug-out canoes unco­ve­red made out of pine or cypress.“, says Dexter. „People would fell the tree off-site and cut off some of the larger bran­ches. And then they would have brought the trunk more or less back to this type of site where the commu­nity would have gotten invol­ved in hacking out pieces and even selec­tively burning out pieces and scra­ping it and within about two weeks you’d have a canoe ready to go.“

It aver­aged fifteen feet in length, just like my sleek sea-kayak. In the after­noon I push it back into the water, Mike can’t conti­nue and says good­bye. I close the spray skirt and paddle back into the mangro­ves. The water­way through the thick maze of trees and bushes narrows. The land­s­cape here seems to be unch­an­ged since the time of the Calusa, except for a few markers in the water showing the way. 

Mangrove forests are among the most important and remar­kable ecosys­tems in the world. More than 100 diffe­rent species exist, protec­ting the estua­ries along the coasts. They prevent erosion and are habi­tat for count­less fish, crabs and birds, which nest in the trees and bushes. 


Late in the after­noon I leave the idyll of the mangrove tunnels to paddle back into the open water and across the bay towards Fort Myers Beach. Here, I will spend my first night, in a motel, that you can paddle to. A short dock in one of the canals enab­les me to land directly in front of my room. The sun sinks in the west over the Gulf of Mexico. In the next days I want to paddle out there as well. But tomor­row I am going to stay in the bay again, a wise deci­sion as I will soon find out.

* * *

Day 2

30 Feet of Luxury

Dirk strands in the middle of the night in an oasis for snow­birds on the water.

I don’t like to think I’m a snow­bird because I don’t think I’m that old yet.“ Becky is laug­hing loudly and hoar­sely. „I love to travel. I love to see diffe­rent places. It’s just the fact of being free after so many years of being tied down.“ She is refer­ring to work and family. The child­ren are old enough and have their own lives now. And after Becky’s husband Billy reti­red a few years ago they have been trave­ling across America in their luxu­rios 30-foot RV. Air condi­tion, propane stove, dish washer, bathroom, shower, inter­net, they lack nothing. „I can even watch TV while we are driving. We have in-motion satel­lite, so we can get TV anywhere, anytime.“, says Becky. Their bus cost a quar­ter million dollars. „The minute you drive it off the lot it goes down. So, it’s not a good invest­ment, because when we are going to sell this we’re not gonna make money.“ Unlike a house or home, Becky says. „The beau­ti­ful thing about trave­ling in a motor­home is in the commu­nity. We do get to meet nice people like yours­elf that come by and we get to share.“, adds Billy. I meet them in Matlacha, between Cape Coral and Pine Island, Florida’s largest island. Until the early 1990s people here lived off fishing. Then the nets were banned to protect the species. Today Matlacha is a quaint artsy commu­nity with more than 600 people, galle­ries, bouti­ques and cafés. The small RV park of Becky and Billy has only nine spots, all occu­pied by travelers camping here permantly for several months to escape from winter. They pay almost 2000 dollars per month inclu­ding elec­tri­city, water, inter­net and cable TV.

When I finally arri­ved here in the dark last night the dock helped me find the way. It was low tide and windy in the morning, I had to pull my kayak for some time to be able to make distance. That was time consuming, and because the days are short now in Janu­ary I had to paddle until way after sunset. Still better than being out in the gulf, where the waves would have been too dange­rous. Every now and then my head­lamp would catch a marker in the water, reas­su­ring me that I was on the right path. But only when I saw the lights along the dock I could finally relax. 

It was pitch-black by now and I was thank­ful for Billy’s invi­ta­tion to camp on the white beach for the night. I chan­ged my soaked clothes and was allo­wed to help myself to the home­made dinner buffet. „We’ll do a Mexi­can night, an Italian night. When people are going to be leaving we have a little get toge­ther for those people.“, Becky tells me the next morning in their RV. Curr­ently she and her husband are the camp­ground hosts and take care of the park. „For anybody who is getting close to reti­re­ment, the RV life and trave­ling is the way to go.“, says Becky and laughs again.



* * *

Day 3

Robinson on the Shell Island

For forty years Ranger Ed has been living with mosqui­toes, squir­rels and hurri­ca­nes, but without elec­tri­city and running water.

The wind has become a storm, ruffling the tree­tops of the palms. I leave anyway and want to paddle to anot­her shell island. Calusa Island is situa­ted at the nort­hern most tip of Pine Island. I have to paddle roughly ten kilo­me­ters of open water, stay­ing close to shore until I can enter a protec­ted bay that sepa­ra­tes Calusa Island from the main island.

Recently we had archaeo­lo­gists and geolo­gists out here. One of them took samples and they carbon dated this site to about 1200 B.C.“, says Ed Chapin. He’s been living here on Calusa Island for more than forty years, alone. „The beach is now eroding. And I’ve seen it go 40 feet in 40 years. So, the sea level is rising.“ The erosion has expo­sed nume­rous arte­facts that help the scien­tists to learn more about the Calusa and inha­bi­tants that pote­ni­ally came here before them to live along the coast. Ed hails from Ohio but came to Florida as a teen­ager. I had contac­ted him via phone to meet with him on the north beach of the small island in the after­noon. He is wearing camou­flage pants, a faded shirt that once may have been red and a blue cap with the logo of the Calusa Land Trust. This orga­ni­sa­tion bought Calusa Island and other proper­ties to protect them from the deve­lop­ment through inves­tors and to keep them in the most natu­ral state instead. Ed works as sort of a ranger and occu­pies a small, two-story buil­ding with a loft. „I’ve been off the grid for 40 years. I don’t have running water, I’ve got an outhouse, I collect rain­wa­ter and I have batte­ries for lights and fans. It’s not for ever­y­body.“ Partly because of the mosqui­toes and hurri­ca­nes.

Visits by other people are rare. On the weekends a few padd­lers and motor­boats may land here for a picnic or a tour of the property. Other­wise Ed keeps busy as a mobile mecha­nic working on the engi­nes of fishing boats and yachts. But it is the soli­tude on the island that is most appe­aling to him. A few squir­rels are his company, he feeds them peanuts. “I never feel alone“, Ed says. He enjoys the peace and quiet and his life as a modern-day Robin­son Crusoe. „Let me tell you one other thing. Humans are not my favo­rite species of animal.“

Ed fasci­na­tes me, like all people who are doing their thing without caring for any conven­ti­ons. And quite often they seem to be a lot happier than the harsh condi­ti­ons they are living in may suggest. 


I get back into my boat, that has almost become as fami­liar to me as my birch bark canoe. It is just as stable but way less suscep­ti­ble for wind and braves even the highest waves. Here within the bay they are blocked off by the barrier islands like Cayo Costa, my next desti­na­tion. This island is roughly ten kilo­me­ters long and only acces­si­ble by water. I want to spend the night in a small state park on the north end. Thick clouds move in, thun­der­storms are in the fore­cast for later. To be safe I am not paddling strai­ght west where Cayo Costa would be just ten kilo­me­ters away but want to jump from island to island. That means quite some extra miles but a safe shore would be in reach if necessary. First, I aim for Useppa, also a shell island of the Calusa and today a luxu­rios private club. From there it is not even an hour of paddling to Cayo Costa despite the head wind. I reach the beach just before the storm hits. 

This is one of the last natu­ral and unspoi­led islands you’re going to find, espe­ci­ally down in southwest Florida.“, says ranger Bill Nash. “It’s a very important habi­tat for nesting shorebirds and sea turt­les. And the state wanted to acquire this land to keep it from getting deve­lo­ped so that we could have a good barrier island for the natu­ral resour­ces and natu­ral commu­nities.“ For visi­tors there are trails, a small camp­ground, a few cabins and more than fifteen kilo­me­ters of sandy beaches that may have looked just the same for the past thousands of years. „A lot of times you drive through Fort Myers and all you see is housing comple­xes, condos and golf cour­ses.“, says Bill, who lives on the island toge­ther with three other rangers. „We want people to see what we call the real Florida. This is what Florida looked like before man got here.“ Indeed, that’s the appeal of my jour­ney. Even though I am not comple­tey in the wilder­ness out on the water and motor boats, sailboats and the buil­dings along the shore remind me of the civi­li­zed coast my kayak brings me to impene­tra­ble mangrove forests, idyl­lic bays and lone­some beaches with palm trees.


The first heavy drops hit the ground when I pitch my tent. I rush under the palm roof of a nearby shel­ter that’s open to all sides. I spread the entire gear on the benches to dry them and boil water on the camping stove for a quick pouch of soup. Then I walk through the pouring rain over to the bath house. Two outdoor show­ers are loca­ted behind the buil­ding. The water is cold and refres­hing. Tired and a little bit clea­ner I crawl into my slee­ping bag. 


* * *

Day 4

Hammerhead Sharks, Shell Scientists and Wild Waves

Florida’s West­co­ast has more to offer than sandy white beaches. 

The wind has pushed the rain away over night. But now there are white­caps even in the bay. Usually an indi­ca­tion that it is too stormy and dange­rous to paddle. I want to try it anyway, trus­ting in my boat as I slip back into the water and stay within Pine Island Sound. The open sea on the other side would have been wild and appe­aling but probably also too risky. Close to shore I push on against the wind and waves.


I soon reach the end of Cayo Costa. Now I need to cross Captiva Pass, an almost one kilo­me­ter wide opening between the two barrier islands of Cayo Costa and Captiva. Here the strong wind forces high waves from the Gulf of Mexico right into Pine Island Sound. Addi­tio­nally, the tides are stir­ring up the water, resul­ting in weird curr­ents and gigan­tic swells. The breakes roll over my deck and the spray skirt. I try to keep the balance and have to correct my course so the waves don’t flip the boat. The progress is grue­lin­gly slow. I think about what Ranger Bill told me about the hammer­head sharks hunting for tarpon in the deep waters of the passes. These fishes shine silvery and can grow over two meters in length. My boat is more than twice as long and shines white, but in the midst of a chase for food that may give room for misjud­ge­ment. Unde­ter­red I paddle on while keeping an eye on trian­gu­lar dorsal fins. Fortu­n­a­tely, I don’t see any and after a very slow half an hour I finally reach Captiva Island.

In the past the island was inha­bi­ted by the Calusa, today vaca­tion homes and resorts line the beaches. Picture-perfect Florida. Snow-white sand, palm trees, sun umbrel­las. Fami­lies enjoy the green water, child­ren beach­com­bing for shells. The reason that these exist here in grea­ter numbers than almost anywhere else in the world lies in the geology. „The west coast of Florida has a very broad conti­nen­tal shelf.“, says José Leal. The Brasi­lian native is a marine biolo­gist and the science direc­tor of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sani­bel Island, the only shell museum in America. „Florida is at least twice as wide under water than it is above water. A lot of mollusks are growing there. So if there is a storm, if there is a chan­ging current, if there is a strong wind all the shells are pushed onto the beach.“ Mollusks are the animals that produce the shells to protect their vulnerable body. „Mollusks are the most diverse group of animals in the ocean. So they play major roles in food webs and in the struc­ture of the living planet.“, says Dr. Leal. It is esti­ma­ted that there are over 80.000 diffe­rent species of mollusks. Squid and octo­pus belong just as much as snails. But the majo­rity lives in the ocean and really likes Florida’s shal­low waters.



* * *

Day 5

Ding Darling

How a Cartoo­nist from Michi­gan became a bird conser­va­tio­nist in Florida.

I was sitting out on the grass flats on a just spec­ta­cu­lar blue sky day with flat smooth water when about a six foot reef tip shark padd­led up to me.“, says Mark Melan­con. „He scared me as much as I scared him because he turned around and bolted in the other direc­tion and threw a foot and a half wake going away from me.“ The shark was almost two meters long and harm­less, usually. Other than a bull shark. „I was with my paddle club and we were doing a group paddle and I had turned around on my board and face back­wards to take a picture of the group.“, Mark conti­nues. „ And all of a sudden my board explo­ded out of the water.“ This story also had a happy ending. Instead of the aggres­sive shark that Mark inti­ni­ally suspec­ted, it turned out to be a good-natured mana­tee being respon­si­ble for the surprise attack.

Mark is my guide this morning. We want to fish, he from his board, me from my kayak. That is beco­m­ing increa­singly popu­lar here in Florida, as an alter­na­tive to deep-sea fishing with expen­sive power­boats. We paddle out of the little bay in the north of Sani­bel and go east first, back into Pine Island Sound, that I have almost circum­na­vi­ga­ted since I star­ted a few days ago. Mark was born in Loui­siana but he’s been living on Sani­bel for years, owns a gym and rents out stand-up padd­le­boards. „I can’t tell you how much I love it here. It’s the first time I’ve put down roots since I was a kid.“, he says. In the after­noon we throw out the lines again. People are waving from a viewing plat­form on the shore. We have reached the Ding Darling Natio­nal Wild­life Refuge, that covers a great portion of Sanibel’s east coast. 

We have over 250 diffe­rent types of birds throug­hout the year.“, says ranger Toni West­land. „The majo­rity of them are snow­birds. They’re here Janu­ary through April.“ Toni welco­mes Mark and me as we land on a small beach within the refuge. Just like the birds the warm weather lured her in. Origi­nally Toni is from Wiscon­sin. „I don’t like snow. At a young age I went ice fishing and I used to go deer hunting, bear hunting in the cold. But then I reali­zed you could do all that fun stuff in the warmth.“ She has been working in the Ding Darling Refuge for the past sixteen years. It is named after cartoo­nist Ding Darling who became famous for his news­pa­per cartoons a hund­red years ago.


He also was a duck hunter.“, says Toni. „And he deci­ded if I’m going to hunt the land and take the resour­ces, the hunters should also be giving back and conserve the resour­ces.“ Darling became an activist and initia­ted the duck stamp, in 1934 he drew the first one. Since then hunters have to purchase the stamps before going after water fowl. The money coming from the stamps is used to create and esta­blish refu­ges and conser­va­tion areas. „This was desi­gna­ted the Sani­bel Natio­nal Wild­life Refuge in 1945. Because of him. And then they rena­med it in his honor.“, says Toni. It’s a para­dise not only for the birds but also for the many birders who come regu­larly to watch and observe them. Ameri­can peli­cans, ospreys, herons, roseate spoon­bills and the rare mangrove cuckoo. The list of birds you can see here is long. „In the summer the tides fluc­tuate a lot and we will actually see stin­grays in here, sharks, mana­tees and dolphins“, says Toni. „Oh, it’s beau­ti­ful out here.“

* * *

Day 6

Finish With Police Siren

Dirk padd­les the last miles across the tropi­cal para­dise.

My last day on the water. Susan picks me up in the morning, with her offi­cial vehi­cle, a brawny power­boat with two equally immense motors and a siren. She is working for the marine unit of the sheriff depart­ment in Lee County, that covers the city of Fort Myers and the islands I have visi­ted. „We assist Fish and Wild­life with all their laws that they enforce.“, she tells me. „We also work hand in hand with the Coast Guard.“

But today Susan will escort me to the take-out at the Sani­bel Cause­way, using her police siren, of course. „To let ever­y­body know where we’re going “, she says and starts the engine. Susan is here because of Nancy McPhee who initia­ted the Calusa Blue­way and asked her to come. Nancy accom­pa­nies me as well, toge­ther with Mike. He traded his kayak for a padd­le­board so Nancy can paddle his wooden boat. „Long ago the Calusa padd­led these waters, they lived off the waters, they harve­sted fish.“, says Nancy. „And with the Calusa Blue­way the idea was to just get in a canoe and paddle from one end of the county to the other and along the way you’re expe­ri­en­cing a little bit of ever­y­thing we have to offer here. Whether it’s in a mangrove tunnel or near the fish stocks. You’re immer­sed, sitting in a craft on top of the water and you’re visi­ted by mana­tee and dolphins.“ And Mike adds, „It’s really cool that the Calusa Blue­way connects ever­y­body just like when the Calusas were here. The water still connects us all. I love it.“


* * *

© Video Day 5: Matt Stee­ves

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An Episode by

Highway Junkie

Dirk Rohrbach

Dirk Rohr­bach is a travel­ler, photo­gra­pher, jour­na­list and doctor. His live travel repor­tage is award-winning, and he also blogs stories of his expe­ri­en­ces around the world, writes books and campai­gns to preserve the languages of indi­ge­nous Ameri­can peop­les. Over the last 25 years he has travel­led inten­si­vely in North America, and is curr­ently navi­ga­ting the Yukon in a canoe. Dirk shut­tles between America and Europe, without resi­ding perman­ently in either.

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  • Pradeep on 11. März 2020

    Vielen Dank, dass wir dies geschrie­ben haben. 

  • Mathis Claudel on 31. Mai 2020

    What an amazing story !

  • Adam on 31. Juli 2020

    Amazing Story!

  • Nath on 3. August 2020

    I love your blog and content, I find it super useful and looking forward to reading more.