The Kayak Chronicles ©

by Darren Caffery



July 18, 2006


After a couple of days of poolside lounging and feasting on home-made Italian cooking from visiting relatives in the greater Orlando area, Jersey Shore Sea Kayak member, Tom Kelly and I packed up our gear and headed down to the Gulf Coast for a few days of relaxation and kayaking.  Since our last Florida paddle was around Fort DeSoto and the Tampa Bay area, we decided to explore a little farther south this time around. Nigel Foster’s Guide to Sea Kayaking in Southern Florida had a few good trips listed for the Sanibel Island and Captiva Island areas.  After a three hour drive from the Orlando area, we arrived at our Sanibel Island hotel, The West Wind Inn, on the Gulf of Mexico. 

After gathering some local information from maps, paddling guides and a few natives to the area, we planned a kayak route in the Pine Island Sound and the shoreline of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Since we arrived to Florida via plane, we did not have our own kayaks, but found a local place to rent them on the nearby island of Captiva.



The J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is located on the subtropical barrier island of Sanibel in the Gulf of Mexico and is part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States. It is world famous for its spectacular migratory bird populations.  The "Ding" Darling is one of over 540 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System administered by the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service and encompasses over 70 percent of Sanibel Island.

Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling was a political cartoonist with an eye toward conservation.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him as the Director of the U.S. Biological Survey, which was the forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In this position, Darling initiated the Federal Duck Stamp Program, designed the first duck stamp, and vastly increased the acreage of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Darling also lead the effort to block the sale of a parcel of environmentally valuable land to developers on Sanibel Island. At Darling's urging, President Harry S. Truman signed an Executive Order creating the Sanibel National Wildlife Refuge in 1945.  The refuge was renamed in 1967 in honor of the pioneer conservationist.

In addition, Darling also designed the Blue Goose logo, the national symbol of the refuge system. Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, scientist and chief editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1932-52, wrote of the emblem, "Wherever you meet this sign, respect it. It means that the land behind the sign has been dedicated by the American people to preserving, for themselves and their children, as much of our native wildlife as can be retained along with our modern civilization."

The J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge was created to safeguard and enhance the pristine wildlife habitat of Sanibel Island, to protect endangered and threatened species, and to provide feeding, nesting, and roosting areas for migratory birds. Today, the refuge provides important habitat to over 220 species of birds.  It consists of over 6,400 acres of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes, and West Indian hardwood hammocks. Approximately 2,800 acres of the refuge are designated by Congress as a Wilderness Area.  The "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is part of a larger complex that encompasses the Caloosahatchee NWR, Matlacha Pass NWR, Pine Island NWR, and Island Bay NWR. The majority of the lands in these refuges are nesting and roosting islands. The entire complex is approximately 8,000 acres.


We arrived at Captiva Kayak Co. on the Pine Island Sound at about 9 am.  The temperature was already in the 80’s, the sun was shining bright, and there was a slight breeze.  There was a very pungent ‘fishy’ odor and we soon noticed a boom in the water around the kayak launch area.  The boom was holding back patches of dead fish from making their way to the sandy beach of the kayak launch area.  Before we secured our rental kayaks, Barbara, the operator of Captiva Kayak, explained there was a red tide in the area the previous week and that some remnants would still be observable  … and smellable in the Pine Island sound.  After scouting the waterway with binoculars, Tom and I decided to continue our plan to explore the sound by kayak.  The plan was to explore a few miles of the sound and the mangroves and then cross over into the Gulf waters by the early afternoon.  The waters of the gulf were reportedly much less affected by the red tide and there would be plenty of white sand beaches to land the kayaks, relax and swim in the warm, clean, circulated waters of the Gulf. 

Although we had our choice of various kayaks to rent, we decided on the 16 ft Tarpon sit on top kayak (with rudder) for our journey. The open style cockpit would allow us to keep cooler than the closed cockpit style of the traditional sea kayak.  The kayaks also had plenty of hatch space for our supplies which included our lunches, plenty of water bottles which we froze the night before, and a few drybags with other necessities. For navigation, the outfitter gave us laminated maps and I also  loaded the Garmin BlueChart Maps of the area  into my GPS. I carried a VHF marine radio in the pocket of my PFD and after a short briefing by the outfitter, we were in our kayaks and making our way across the Pine Island Sound towards the northern tip of Buck Key in the wildlife refuge.


After crossing the boom at the launch site, we encountered many marine species, however, and unfortunately, most of them were dead from the red tide algae bloom.  For the first half mile, every few yards we would encounter patches of dead fish, eels and sea worms. We also encountered some very large dead grouper fish.  The water was calm and glass like and the patches of dead marine species  made for a very surreal “Dead Sea” like scene.  As we approached Buck Key, the patches of dead fish were more sporadic. We made our way towards the island and paddled along the contour of the mangrove forested shoreline.  As we got close to the island and paddled along the mangrove trees and bushes, we could hear loud swarms of either mosquitoes or bees in the inner portions of the mangroves. It was a very loud buzzing noise which sounded like millions of flying and potentially very annoying insects.  Interestingly, we were not bothered by any biting or flying insects while in our boats for the full duration of our trip and I was grateful that the pesky and noisy little buggers were occupied within the mangrove forest and not near where we were paddling. We certainly didn’t want to disturb them so we soon kept a safe distance from the shoreline as we continued paddling south along the eastern shoreline of Buck Key.


After paddling another 1.5 miles we approached the shallow channel which separates Captiva Island from Sanibel Island. It was here we actually began to see our first signs of wildlife which was alive!  There were a few wading birds and ducks in the mangroves.  We observed a few Ibis which ducked into the forested shoreline as we approached. As we made our way towards Runyan Key we ducked into a partially canopied mangrove forest which provided some shade and protection from the midday sun. As the map on my GPS showed a channel between Runyan Key and Albright Key, it was nowhere to be found. Upon further exploration, we did find a very small opening in the mangrove forest where the channel was ‘supposed’ to be.  The opening in the forest was about 2.5 feet wide and it looked about 15 – 20 feet deep until it opened back up to the cleared channel.  Peering through the very small opening we could see the channel ahead and rather than turn back and go around the island to the other side, we decided to charge through the small narrow opening, despite the sound of those swarming and buzzing insects within.  We both made it through the narrow opening with minimal difficulty and without getting swarmed or stung by anything.


The Wulfert Channel had a few rather large homes on it but was very shallow.  All the boats were suspended on hydraulic lifts which appeared to protect their boats from sinking into the muck and mire of the low tide. As we paddled along the tiny Albright Key, the water became shallower and as we approached the Gulf of Mexico, the channel faded to a combination of muddy and sandy beach. The map indicated the area as Blind Pass and was shown to connect the water of Pine Island Sound to the Gulf of Mexico. We were notified however before our arrival that a few years of beach replenishment on the surrounding Gulf Coast beaches and some severe storms had shifted much of the sand, filling in the pass completely and therefore blocking continuous navigation from the sound to the gulf.  It was very odd to see a bridge over nothing but sand.  Where we would have simply paddled through the inlet under the bridge which connects Captiva to Sanibel, we ended up portaging our boats and gear about 500 feet across the hot sand to the clean, warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

The beach had quite a few people enjoying a sunny Florida afternoon. There were sunbathers and swimmers and a few people combing the coastline for beautiful shells. We hung out a bit, drank some cold water from the frozen bottles we stored in our hatches and munched on some snacks.  Within just a short while, we were both ready for a dip in the warm waters of the Gulf.  The water temperature in the Gulf was 87 degrees.  I won’t say it was refreshing, but it was slightly cooler than the 95 degree air temperature, and it was relaxing, in a ‘bath tubbish’ way.


After taking a quick dip, we combed the beach a while for some shells. The sizes, shapes and colors of many of the shells we found were unbelievable. I wasn’t aware that Sanibel Island was well known for shelling but quickly realized why that was.  A few of the shells I plucked from the shallow waters of the Gulf were still housing living organisms so I tossed them back.  There were certainly plenty of other shells that had been abandoned by their previous living residents and would be more appropriate to keep.  The palette of colors on each of the shells was a soft, and perfect blend of natural pastel color and texture. Each individual shell was a sample of Mother Nature’s creative perfection. I collected a few in the hatch of my kayak to bring back to NJ and share with my young nephews. 

After the shell collecting, we decided to launch into the Gulf and head a bit south along the coast to some more secluded beaches to do some more shell collecting.  Interestingly, beach launches in the Gulf are nothing like those at the Jersey Shore. There were no “breaking dumpers” to charge through and within minutes we were easily beyond the gentle rollers of the shore, headed south towards a natural area called Bowman’s Beach.  We paddled a few hundred feet offshore for almost a mile, past a few patches of beachgoers until we reached an area which was void of people and waterfront residences.  We landed again and combed the beach for shells. Since this beach was not already recently combed by other visitors, we were able to find a few more natural treasures from Mother Nature’s sea chest.  After loading a few of our treasures into our kayak hatches, we launched again into the Gulf and headed northward towards our takeout.   

The paddle northward on the Gulf of Mexico was another great moment in the Tao of Paddling.  We kept up a nice cadence, about 100 yards offshore, as our kayaks gently rolled over the mild summer swells of the clear gulf waters.  As we paddled the coast in the Summer Florida sun, we glided with minimal effort as the large homes and white sandy beaches to the east, and the beautiful puffy cloud filled sky to the west seemed to roll by a like a picturesque Hollywood movie backdrop.   


The exhilaration of the Tao of Paddling however, only lasted a good mile or so as the scene in the sky to the east began to change from clear to hazy with developing ominous storm cloud formations.  With an eye on the developing storm, we picked up our paddling pace quite a bit since we were still a little more than three miles to our takeout. With the ominous clouds moving towards us, we paddled faster, each stroke more vigorous than the previous with our attention totally focused on treading water as fast as we can to beat the storm from intersecting our path. Within a few minutes, we heard thunder in the distance and about ten minutes later, we heard it again, only this time a little louder than it was the last time.  The storm was getting closer and the sky over the Gulf became darker.  As we looked to the coastline, people were starting to pack up their stuff and were getting off the beaches.  We continued to paddle with anxiety running high and fueling the vigorous strokes as we treaded water as fast as we could.  With a few more loud booms of thunder and what looked like dumping rain in the distance, I could not keep the negative thoughts about the recent NJ tragedy at Round Valley Reservoir out of my mind.  


I began looking to the coast for shelter in case we would have to land immediately before our destination.  There were a number of large homes on pilings along the shoreline which appeared closed up for the season. If the storm was to get any closer, an emergency landing would be required and we had planned to land on the beach and seek shelter under one of the unoccupied homes. The loud thunder roared again, only this time it seemed a little farther in the distance again.  The dumping rain clouds in the distance now seemed to be moving farther north.  It was now clear they were moving almost parallel to us instead of on an intersecting course.  The wind picked up a little and we began paddling closer to the shoreline in case we still had to land.  At one point we got a little too close to the coast and within the surf zone without really noticing until it was almost too late.  A few surprise breakers to my beam almost dumped me but some quick bracing into them saved me from the capsize.  We continued paddling using the adrenaline of the situation as our fuel.  The  sky remained dark but the storms we were watching had passed parallel to us and did not appear to be a threat.  Some more thunder boomed and another set of storms appeared from where the initial storm started.  They were again in the distance but making their way towards us.   The whole process began again with my GPS indicating a little more than one mile left to our takeout.  We paddled faster while continuing to watch the sky and keep a lookout for a place to seek shelter in the possibility the storms were to get too close to us. I grew tired and a bit frustrated and impatient until I was able to see the site of the takeout.  Before the storm approached and after almost 10 miles of paddling, we finally landed safely at the beach of a waterfront restaurant called the Mucky Duck.  Much to our surprise, the outfitter was waiting for us at the beach with the trailer. He said when the storms were approaching, he took a ride down the main road which runs parallel to the beach and observed us “hauling ass” towards the takeout and decided he’d just meet us there instead of waiting for us to call in when we got there.  Great timing!  We loaded up our boats and gear, hosed ourselves off with some freshwater at the outfitter post and were soon on our way back to our hotel. On our way back to the hotel, the sky opened up and dumped a good deal of rain on the area for about 20 minutes.  There were some more loud thunder boomers and a few flashes of lightning.  Upon our return to the hotel the sun was shining bright again, so we took advantage by lounging in the pool for a bit before dinner.  While we were out for dinner. A number of storms drenched the island with rain, thunder and lightning. 

Later that night, when we returned to the hotel, the island air had that clean fresh scent of ozone from the lightning storms and which made the hibiscus on the grounds of the hotel seem that much sweeter.  More storms rolled over the area and we watched a spectacular lightning storm over the Gulf of Mexico from the balcony of our hotel.  I was grateful for our safety and another great day in the Tao of Paddling.


Ding Darling Wildlife Society      West Wind Inn     Mucky Duck


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