Tracing the Calusa

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Paddle and learn, then stop for lunch along the Great Calusa Blueway.

A stir to the right grabbed our attention. There, in the ripples of the brackish water, the snout of a manatee appeared. With the cry of a young boy, my 54-year-old dad yelped, “How cool is that?” breaking the silence in the mangrove-lined cove. We came to the Fort Myers/Sanibel area to paddle part of the Great Calusa Blueway, a trail system that follows the water routes of the Native Americans who ran their 2,000-year-old empire from area islands. My archaeology-nut father, Steve, organized our daytrip after reading about the Calusa in local author Randy Wayne White’s suspense novel Everglades.

Despite years on the water in his sailboat C’est La Vie, dad wasn’t sure if he would like kayaking – he was here for the history. I was just happy to be on the water. We found our way onto the Great Calusa Blueway with Connie Langmann, a 40-year resident who owns GAEA Guides, named after Greek mythology’s earth goddess. Connie offers archaeology- and nature-focused tours, including a five-day tour of the entire trail visiting six big islands and dozens of smaller ones. All tours are led by a Florida Master Naturalist.

Despite the heat, a gentle breeze began to blow as soon as we got on the trail. As we slid smoothly through inches of water, Connie told us about the Calusa who ruled south Florida until the 1600s. Tens of thousands of Calusa lived on the islands and the coast until Spanish explorers arrived. Despite their power, the Calusa were eventually wiped out by war and disease. Any survivors ended up in Cuba.

Passing close to exposed mangrove roots, Connie pointed out the salt residue left by the plants at low tide, which the natives used to season their catches. Continuing north, we spotted osprey, red egrets dancing on sandbars and even a rare great white heron. Every so often Connie would break the quiet of our paddles dipping into the water to pull out shells and explain how they fit into the ecosystem.

Shells were extremely important to the Calusa. Unlike tourists who usually scour area beaches for colorful keepsakes, the Calusa used oyster and conch shells to build enormous mounds, called middens, that could reach 30 feet high. The mounds were used for lookouts, ceremonial locations and even burial grounds. Several of Connie’s tours visit Mound Key and Pine Island, where you can walk atop the remains of these massive mounds.

Later that weekend, dad and I visited the Randell Research Center (Calusa Heritage Trail) on Pine Island’s Pineland archaeological site, once home to a 1,500-year-old Calusa settlement.

With our flip-flops crunching on the shell path’s self-guided tour, we climbed a staircase to the 20-foot summit of Brown’s Mound. From here, we could see across the sound to North Captiva Island and Cayo Costa and south toward Sanibel Island. Behind us lay the remnants of a hand-dug canal that once crossed the entire island, creating an easier path to the Caloosahatchee River and Lake Okeechobee. (I chickened out and didn’t venture into the woods to see the property’s second mound, a Calusa burial spot.)

Across from the center, we stopped for lunch at Tarpon Lodge and Restaurant, a 23-room, 1920s fishing lodge on the Great Calusa Blueway where many boaters and kayakers dock to dine. As dad and I feasted on shrimp and crab cakes, he kept rehashing our manatee encounter the day before. While we talked, a tour boat motored by, taking visitors to uninhabited islands on the northern edges of the Great Calusa Blueway.

Dad paused, shook his head and said, “That’s not how the Calusa did it.” I knew I’d never have to ask him twice to go kayaking again.

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