My first adventure on the Great Calusa Blueway was like dipping my paddle into kayak heaven. The shallow, clear waters on the bayside of Captiva Island were perfect for easy peeking at crabs scurrying through sea grasses, tiny bait fish flashing silver in the sun and lightning whelk resting undisturbed on the flats.
Islands were skirted with rich green mangroves where great blue herons and snowy egrets perched, resting after breakfast; osprey flew low overhead carrying fresh-caught fish in their talons. Then there was the calming seduction of the silence, broken by splashes of jumping mullet, the calls of gulls and the gurgles of manatees surfacing for a breath of warm, sea-scented air.
I must admit, however, that I was a bit nervous when I arrived at Captiva Kayak Co. and Wildside Adventures for a Sunday morning tour. As a novice kayaker, I was still making up my mind about the sport (my two previous kayak trips in other parts of the country were mixed experiences). And I was worried about keeping up with the rest of the group, as my paddling skills were iffy at best. I was relieved when owner/naturalist Greg LeBlanc gave detailed instruction on the art of the stroke.
“Use it like a lever,” Greg said, demonstrating with a paddle. “Put 70 percent effort into pushing the top half of the paddle and only 30 percent on pulling the bottom half, while rotating your torso like a swimmer. That way you’re working as one with the kayak instead of fighting it. Now put on your life jackets, and let’s get out on the water.”
My nerves calmed a bit as I walked down to the water’s edge, where a large selection of cream-of-the-crop kayaks rested on the shore of a little half-moon cove. Greg’s partner, Barb Renneke, prides herself on making kayakers comfy; she assigned kayaks based on individuals’ body type and skill level.
I slipped into a sleek red one with a foot-controlled rudder, which made steering extra easy. She told me to sit up straight, slid in a lumbar support, bent my knees to a comfortable angle and slipped cushy pads under my bare heels. Everyone was outfitted with first-rate paddles, bottled water and spritzer bottles to keep us cool (“A kayaker’s A/C,” Barb said.). The “oohs” and “ahs” started even before we left the cove when a couple of manatees surfaced with their precious calves.
We paddled slowly across the deeper waters of Roosevelt Channel, where cormorants dried their feathers atop channel markers, to the shallows aroundBuck Key. As we glided past red, white and black mangrove trees whose roots were surrounded by oyster shells, a bald eagle soared above and brown pelicans dived for food.
Along the way, Greg told tales of local lore and pirate legends and shared information on area wildlife and the history of the ancient yet advanced Calusa Indians, for whom the Blueway is named. My heart leapt as dolphins arced out of the blue-green waters of the aquatic preserve, and before we headed back, more manatees graced us with their presence.
When Greg encouraged us to paddle around on our own on this calm, open water, something transformational happened to me. My quiet repetition of his instructions became a rhythmic mantra: “push … pull … push … pull….”
I relaxed into my stroke, and my paddling eased into a moving meditation where I was gliding over the water without effort or apprehension. I became one with the kayak, the water, the bright blue sky and the wildlife – with all of the beauty that Mother Nature had blessed us with that day. I believe the old-time locals might say that I had caught the Calusa spirit.