Rising early to pick up our kayak, we had left contemporary Florida by degrees -- from the hotels and office buildings on the Fort Myers waterfront, along the commercial sprawl of North Fort Myers, through the colorful art galleries and restaurants of Matlacha, and to the weedy roadsides, fruit tree nurseries and waterside cottages of Pine Island -- until finally we looked at the vessel we had reserved for our paddle across several miles of open water to Cayo Costa State Park. It was a tubby plastic tandem kayak. No compartments for gear. No bulkheads to prevent the boat from filling.
"Do you have a spray skirt to seal up the cockpit?" I asked the attendant, a woman with a husky voice and multiple piercings. I listened to the wind whipping southwest up Pine Island Sound. Gusts reached 20 knots, and I imagined long fetches filled with boiling whitecaps.
"No, we don't have spray skirts," she said. I pictured us in the midst of the boating channel, a mile or more from any scrap of land, sitting in a kayak filled to the brim, as seaworthy as a Victorian bathtub. Then she asked, "What are those?"
We stomped to the car in frustration. It was already after 11. "What a morning!" exclaimed my wife, Susan Binkley. "We got up at 6. Why aren't we on the water?"
We were trying to explore the Great Calusa Blueway, a 190-mile water trail near Fort Myers named for the Calusa Indians, long-ago inhabitants of southwest Florida's coast. The many tentacled route winds through freshwater streams, brackish estuaries, mangrove shorelines and low-lying coastal islands. While some of the route follows urban waterfront, much of it probes wooded and undeveloped waterways.
The portion of the Blueway that caught our attention dodges among the keys of Pine Island Sound -- some covered by houses, most wooded and uninhabited -- to Cayo Costa (pronounced here, all Spanish rules, Kay-yo Cost-a). Located near famous Sanibel and Captiva, Cayo Costa is what those high-priced resort islands are not: wild, barely developed stretch of beaches, pine forests, oak-palm hammocks and mangrove swamps.
Cayo Costa can be reached only by boat. We planned to launch from Pineland on Pine Island, paddle 8 miles to Cayo Costa, cook out and camp for a couple of nights at Cayo Costa State Park, exploring the island on foot and by kayak. Then we'd follow a slightly different path back home, taking in other sights along the Blueway. Total distance: 20 miles. The trip promised a wilderness in easy reach of hundreds of thousands of coastal residents.
But only if we could find a kayak. I recalled that the manager of the canal-side inn we had rented in Matlacha said he rented kayaks. I called. Yes, he said, he had a tandem, an unsinkable sit-on-top. He'd trailer it to a suitable landing for $15.
The breeze was freshening as we loaded our camping gear and shoved off from Pineland amid darkening clouds in a charged sky. "Nothing like a little excitement," Susan cracked.
As we cleared land, the cold waves grew, breaking across the deck, drenching us to the skin. Clearly, the first kayak we had looked at would have swamped on the windy sound.
We planned a route from key to key. We had to cross a couple of heavily traveled channels, so we kept our eyes open for fast-moving yachts and fishing boats. The distances between the islands weren't much more than a mile, but the navigation was trickier than I had anticipated. The low wooded keys were largely indistinguishable. I relied on a hand-held compass to keep my bearings. My GPS, were it not in the bottom of a dry bag, would have worked better.
As we rounded Useppa Island, lightning shattered the sky. We retreated to the dock of the private Tarpon Bar (of which there must be dozens down here). The managers were kind and allowed us to wait out the storm. Good thing. The heavens emptied volumes. Outlying keys vanished in a veil of mist.
For nearly two hours, we shivered and watched. But as abruptly as the storm began, the veil lifted, revealing our destination, Cayo Costa. We launched our tandem kayak and raced toward our destination. We reached the island as another bank of black clouds closed in. Soaked and exhausted, we were glad not only to be spared electrocution, but to arrive at a slice of old Florida before nightfall settled in.
Surviving a deluge of biblical proportions, we were assigned a campsite among a convocation of young Christians on spring break from Ohio State University. They asked several times if they were disturbing us or if there was anything they could do to help. If you're going to camp among a group of college kids, this was the bunch.
No sooner did we set the tent than we explored the shoreline, pounded by foamy green rollers off the Gulf. "It's a huge beach, and it's all wild," Susan noted. As we walked, she emitted little exclamations as she found yet another kind of shell. Whelks, cockles, pen shells, scallops -- the sand was rich with shells. "Oooooooh," cried Susan, finding another.
The next morning we hiked through the native forest of "old Florida" -- the Florida before the golf courses and condos -- and then south along the beach. Shells were even more plentiful. When cornered, a bold golden ghost crab charged us, pincers flexing.
Along a salty lagoon, we found assistant park manager Barry Stevens posting signs on a sandy strand where dunlins, sanderlings, dowitchers, least terns, forster's terns, royal terns and Wilson's and snowy plovers nested. "This is really an important birding area," he said. "It's one of the best in Florida." Last year, 500 black skimmers settled in. "We fledged 100 birds. That's a fifth of the population for the state." All but 50 of the park's 2,400 acres are protected in public ownership, a precious commodity on Florida's coast. Said Stevens, "Where do you find this, so undisturbed?"
That afternoon, Susan and I paddled Cayo Costa's leeward shore. The eastern side of the 9-mile-long island is nearly always protected enough to kayak. Even the western shore, open to the Gulf, is navigable on calm days. We patrolled Pelican Bay, as streamlined mullet sprinted out of our path. We poked into a snug natural harbor ringed by mangroves, and took turns casting flies for snook and redfish.
Our real catch of the day were the birds we saw: tricolored herons, little blue herons and great egrets. A green heron walked a mangrove root like a high-wire artist. Kingfishers swooped and cackled. Hovering ospreys collapsed like broken kites and plunged into the sea. Better fishermen than we, they lumbered slowly from the water, dinner in their talons.
And when we weren't paying attention, we nearly bumped into a basking manatee, which escaped in a swirling wake. That evening we cooked over our camp stove and crawled into our tent to listen to the rollers pound the beach.
In the morning, we broke camp, loaded our kayak and followed the sheltered shore to Murdock Bayou, a bay that cut deep into Cayo Costa's waistline. The bay funneled down to a mangrove tunnel that led nearly back to the Gulf side of the island.
We beached the kayak and met Cheryl and Finn Jensen, who had motored over from nearby Cape Coral in their 40-foot trawler. They had just come from combing the beach. "I have jars and jars of sorted shells and I still can't resist picking them," said Cheryl, unpacking her trove to show it off.
Three men paddled up in a pink canoe. "It used to be red," shouted the man in the stern. "No one steals a pink canoe." He was Jim Schulte. He and his brothers, all from Sarasota, sailed over in their 26-foot boat and paddled their canoe down the shore. They make the trip every spring to "putz around" in an area that's pristine compared with much of the coast.
Retracing our way through the mangrove tunnel, we left Cayo Costa for nearby Cabbage Key, a midden of shells left by Calusa Indians. Sailboats, runabouts and cruisers packed the dock of the Tarpon Lodge, once a Depression-era estate. The restaurant walls are covered not only with trophy snook and tarpon, but also signed $1 bills -- an estimated $80,000, said our waitress. We ordered our burgers with cheese, both thinking that if they truly were the inspiration for the Jimmy Buffett song, as rumored, we wanted to taste the original cheeseburger in paradise.
The breeze off the Gulf pushed us back toward Pine Island. Our first day out, we were so intent on battling wind and dodging lightning that we barely appreciated our surroundings. Now, we watched shallow flats pass beneath our hull. We tucked in beside undeveloped keys and followed their lush shores. Ospreys and white ibises sat in the taller trees like ornaments.
Finally in sight of the Pineland marina, we crossed the boating channel to Pine Island, the first step in our re-entry to modern Florida.
St. Paul-based writer Greg Breining's latest book is "Paddle North: Canoeing the Boundary Waters-Quetico Wilderness."