A ship from the British Empire. A captain singing karaoke. Spirits at dawn. Martin Schacht and Ken Schluchtmann travel down the Ayeyarwaddy from north to south towards Mandalay.
„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.
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„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.
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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.
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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.
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„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.“
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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.“
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© Video Day 5: Matt Steeves