As a tourist destination, Florida can seem cliché to the untrained traveler. Each year, more than 75 million people troop to the Sunshine State visiting the usual places - Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Sea World and the Kennedy Space Center. But it also offers plenty of entertainment for those who shun commercial holiday havens in favor of turkey hunting for Osceolas (found only in Florida), fishing for snook or snorkeling.
I recently found something new to love about Florida. While traveling to the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association (SEOPA) conference in Punta Gorda, I stopped to visit my sister-in-law, who lives on the charming, eclectic barrier island, Siesta Key. If your feet love the feel of sand that’s the consistency and color of powdered sugar, stop what you’re doing and go right now. It’s that awesome. Watching the sun set while wiggling your toes in that sand is a happy place for your mind to visit no matter how crappy your day is.
Another memory-worthy moment was seeing my first roseate spoonbills while sightseeing at a nearby island. I immediately knew what they were, having recently visited the Birds in Art exhibition at the Woodson Art museum in Wausau, Wis. where these pink beauties were all the rage on canvas.
More birding was in store as I kayaked for the first time. As a guest of Grande Tours in Placida, Fla., I paddled the waters of the Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserve. White ibises, great egrets and several members of the heron family stood wing to wing on sandbars and in the shallows while pelicans, gulls and osprey were also part of the scenery.
Guide Chris Warren introduced us to a few groovy gastropods, too, such as Florida’s state shell, the horse conch, and the belligerent, yet beautiful banded tulip. These shell-dwelling marine critters do the locomotion using a big, flat foot situated alarmingly close to the mouth. Living among the sand and weeds, these species are easily overlooked but well worth discovering.
The grass flats we paddled across were alive with mullet leaping out of the water. Chris said nobody really knows why these vegetarians go airborne, but he did offer four possible theories : 1) sea lice under their scales gives them the willies, 2) they’re escaping toothy, underwater predators, 3) it fires up their gizzard and aids digestion, or 4), they were jumping for joy at seeing us. Whatever, the reason, Gasparilla Sound is a productive fishery with tarpon, grouper and about 200 other species.
The best part of the eco-tour was gliding through the spooky cool mangrove tunnels. No wider than a dirt road with a thick canopy overhead, it makes you feel a zillion miles away from civilization. We kayaked through a portion of Woolverton Trail, which has been groomed for the last 30 years by Ed woolverton. When he took this chore upon himself back in the ‘60s, he did so without a permit. However, the state discovered it was healthy for the mangrove forest and granted him permission to continue. Now 93 years old, he still travels the tunnels in a poke boat armed with a pair of hand loppers trimming the red mangroves’ prop roots.
On our way back to the outfitter’s home base, a couple of bottlenose dolphins surfaced and a bald eagle did a flyover. While I wasn’t ready for the trip to be over, I have to admit it was a picture perfect ending.
If you dream of exploring paradise from a kayak, visit http://www.grandetours.com/
I’d like to thank Jennifer Huber of the Charlotte Harbor Visitor & Convention Bureau for coordinating the trip and Chris Warren of Grande Tours for his expertise throughout this 2-hour complimentary tour.