It’s a chilly morning, and while it’s not as cold as the rest of the country, it’s still more than jacket weather here in the sunshine state. My mom and I are set to launch a kayak in four hours. Over OJ, bagels and coffee, we devise a plan for what we’ll do in the event we flip our kayaks over and fall into deep, bone- chilling salt water. So we pack a contingency bag — towels, a change of clothes, sweaters, socks, anything we can think of. After all, we’re up for an adventure, and not even the dawn’s brisk temperatures will keep us from this long-awaited paddling trip. We head out at noon.
Grande Tours (grandetours.com), the kayaking outfitter in Placida near Charlotte Harbor, is about
30 minutes from where we’re staying at Fishermen’s Village (fishville.com) in Punta Gorda, just north of Fort Myers. We stop for lunch first at the Fishery Restaurant (sunstate.com/fishery), just a block from our launch point; here, fifth-generation owners Gary and Margaret Albritton maintain the eatery, margaret’s tropical-art gallery and several other on-site shops. Try the pan-seared redfish, reeled in from local waters, with homemade tartar sauce (Gary’s mother’s recipe).
Sated and bag in tow, we arrive at Grande Tours and meet Bill, our master-naturalist guide who’s studded with cargo pockets, and the father-son team, Don and Peter, who’ll be risking their lives — I mean, kayaking — with us. They seem calm and are in shorts and t-shirts. Are they crazy? No, just from Boston. Bill gets each of us into our kayaks, explains how to paddle and then gives us the go. We aren’t on the water for more than a few minutes before the sky turns from gray to blue, the sun wakes up and the day turns glorious — an invitation for all the birds and wildlife to come out and play.
Coral Creek is our first stop, where a cenote, or sinkhole, descends to 25 feet, the deepest area we encounter (contrary to our visions of bottomless, turbid water). Snowy egrets and ibis flit above the towering gumbo-limbo trees as we make our way through Indian shell mounds dating back to 200 A.D. and oyster-shell-covered mangroves originally planted to protect the marshland and create a more stable habitat for animals. As I paddle just a few feet from a huge brown pelican, I see that it’s resting on a cushion of sea grass. carpets of sea and turtle grass sway beautifully just below the surface; Bill explains that without these grasses, which are actually flowering plants, there would be no marine life in these waters. Moving into Charlotte Harbor, we paddle across the open water to one of many mangrove tunnels that branches off the main waterway. As we approach the canopied passage, Bill hops out of his kayak to search for critters to show us. he spots a jumping striped mullet, a bunch of mangrove seeds (which look like pea pods) and a stone crab that had taken shelter in a conch shell. Every once in a while, I look over at my mom, and we exchange a look that lets the other know how happy we are to be right here in this place together.
Around the next bend, we glide into a teeming bird rookery, where stunning white pelicans (with wingspans up to 9 feet) have come to winter and mingle with ospreys, snowy egrets, blue herons, rare tricolored herons and roseate spoonbills, their pink-lined wings striking even from a distance. As we inch closer and closer, a few fly away while others perch motionless, almost inviting a photo. We slowly paddle out so as not to infringe on their territory too much. Looking back toward the trees, I long for the peaceful, graceful life of a bird. Our feathered friends couldn’t have been more welcoming today, and surprisingly, so was the weather.
More Kayaking Trips
- Northeast - Amelia Island
At Kayak Amelia, rent a kayak to explore on your own or take a guided tour. Go north or south on Simpson Creek, separating Big and Little Talbot Island State Parks, to explore the inland marshes and creeks. Be sure to ask about tide times so you don’t end up paddling against the current. kayakamelia.com
- South - Florida Keys
Choose from an array of Marathon Kayak’s trips through the exotic ecosystems of the Florida Keys, from swamp kayaking in the Everglades to island-hopping between the Keys to sunset tours of the flats of Florida Bay. marathonkayak.com
- Northwest - St. George Island
Paddle into the black water of Northwest Florida with Journeys of St. George Island. You’ll see tupelo trees (the origin of the famed tupelo honey), ospreys, napping alligators and nesting turtles. At Nick’s Hole, learn how to hog your own oysters! sgislandjourneys.com
- Central - Rock Springs and Tavares
Central Florida Kayak Tours offers several trips. For the experienced adventurer, spellbinding forests and savannas full of racoons, turtles and bobcats await. For the slower-moving crowd, kayak an Old Florida swamp, once the stomping ground of Seminole Indians. centralfloridakayaktours.com