Nature tours along Florida's Gulf Islands let you in on the area's natural beauty.

Strolling along a beautiful shoreline usually conjures up feelings of serenity and awakens your senses to the splendid surroundings unfolding before you. Yet, did you ever wonder about all the people that journeyed on that beach ahead of you? My family and I recently walked a gorgeous coastline of Florida's Gulf Islands and discovered its rich history and all the secrets it holds.

Where the southern shores of Tampa Bay meet the Manatee River and Terra Ceia Bay lays rustic and old-Florida style Snead Island. Here you'll find the 365-acre Emerson Point Conservation Preserve. This Manatee County property located on west end of the island has witnessed human use for more than 4,500 years. Both ancient inhabitants and Florida pioneers have called this breathtaking stretch of land home, along with diverse groups of native and exotic animals and plants.

Just Around the Bend...

Karen Fraley, a naturalist and the owner of Around the Bend Nature Tours, escorted my family on a hike throughout the island where modern and ancient mix.

"This is a nice change of pace from the theme parks," said Fraley before we embarked on our eco-tour. "You can have a real adventure in the real Florida."

Fraley explained to my husband and I and our two sons, Baker, 13, and Jake, 11, that the original inhabitants of the island are referred to as "Amerindians." Their true names are unknown. "The Amerindians came to Emerson Point Preserve for the abundant shell fish and other food and raw materials thousands of years ago," she said.

Emerson Point

Remnants of the cultures that lived on Emerson Point Preserve are still there today. Fraley exhibited reconstructed artifacts from the native people and asked us to speculate what they are and for what they were used.

"That's a shovel," guessed Baker, looking at a conch shell fastened to a piece of wood with homemade rope. Fraley explained it was actually a hammer used to open shellfish.

We tried to deduct the uses of other artifacts like hoes and weaving looms, all of which were made from wood, sticks, shells, bone and rope. Fraley told how the Amerindians made canoes, homes and other necessities from what was available in the environment surrounding us.

Our tour guide asked the boys to pull some fiber strands from the native cabbage and sabal palms. Baker and Jake quickly granted her wish with handfuls of the stuff. She sat them down and engaged them in native rope weaving, which entailed braiding the palm fibers. Proud of his work, my younger son took a piece of his creation and fashioned a rope bracelet around his wrist.

The native Indians used rope like the boys made in many ways, and not just for accessories. They used the palm fiber to make casting nets to catch fish, fastening heavy shells on the nets for weights, and also for fire.

Fraley brought out a mechanism made from a round chip of an oak tree, a stick and the homemade rope. The device created friction to start a kindling fire. The boys took turns furiously churning the fire starter, trying to get a puff of smoke.

"This is hard," Jake said with a wide grin on his face. Fraley encouraged the boys to keep trying and they abided, enjoying every minute of it.

The most intriguing artifact was the Indian spear thrower. "This is a special lever the native people made from carved wood to help them cast their spears farther and faster," Fraley described. Both Baker and Jake attempted several tries and finally got the hang of it, proving its usefulness. The Amerindians used spears on Emerson Point to hunt deer, fish and wild turkey.

Ceremonial Grounds

As a group, we ascended a wooden boardwalk that led us to the highest point in the park, the Portavant Temple Mound. Overlooking the Manatee River, the 1,200-year-old Indian mound is the largest in the Tampa Bay area.

"This was not a burial mound," Fraley said in response to my older son's question. "It was a place were chiefs and elders would have ceremonies and people could watch." On top of the shell mound, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was easy to imagine a chief or shaman leading a ceremony for the villagers below.

Major Robert Stewart Griffith built the island's first pioneer home on top of the Portavant mound in 1867. Griffith introduced citrus trees, bananas, peppers and tomatoes to the island that now features a combination of residential homes, agricultural endeavors, a marina and a restaurant. Griffith married Anna Webb, a member of a pioneering family that settled in Sarasota County.

Fraley showed us the remains of their small home, along with other pioneer dwellings that were constructed the late 1800s to the 1960s. "They used shell, sand and burnt oyster to create lime for concrete to build their homes," said Fraley.

Baker and Jake were then challenged by our guide to pull a pod off a nearby nickerbean tree and open it up. Inside the pod the boys found two brown, round, and hard beans. "That is what the pioneer boys and girls used to play marble games," she said.

"That's cool," said Jake as he juggled the beans in his palm. He put the beans in his pocket to show his friends later. Baker followed suit and grabbed a couple more pods to open as we continued on our trek.

As we hiked along, we also saw gumbo-limbo trees, strangler figs - which enticed my children because they really do strangle other trees - wild coffee, native beach sunflowers, blanket flowers, fire brush, coral bean blooms and mangrove trees. Animal sightings were scarcer, but the preserve is home to raccoons, foxes, gopher tortoises, ospreys, anhingas, wood storks, roseate spoonbills and abundant sea life.

The culmination of our journey was when we reached the observation tower. We were awed by the breathtaking views of the three bodies of water coming together and the view of the entire island. It was there we could see why man has chosen to settle on this spit of land for thousands of years.

"There's the Sunshine Skyway Bridge," observed Baker. Jake noticed a large cruise ship in the distant channel of Tampa Bay bringing my thoughts back to the present time.

It occurred to me that my family and I just received and enjoyed a great history lesson of a splendid part of Florida.

Around the Bend Nature Tours also provides nature-heritage experiences in the Bradenton area at Coquina Baywalk on Leffis Key (for birding), in the Rye Wilderness Preserve in Parrish, in the Joan M. Durante Park mangrove forest on Longboat Key, dip-netting in the grass flats of the Manatee River and Sarasota Bay.

Two other exciting, family-friendly water eco-tours in Manatee County include Ray's Canoe Hideaway on the Manatee River and Canoe Outpost on the Little Manatee River.

At Ray's you can enjoy a paddling adventure by canoe or kayak on the serene Upper Manatee River Florida State Canoe Trail. The scenery offers jungle-like surrounding where you and your family can swim with manatees, soak up the sunshine, hunt for fossils, or picnic on white-sand beaches. Fishing is available for striped bass, bream, speck and the area's largest freshwater catfish. Or, you can just drift leisurely and spot herons, egrets, hawks, ospreys, otters, bobcats and turtles. Primitive camping also is accessible on the river or at Rye Wilderness Park.

Real canoe enthusiasts can take on a journey on the Little Manatee River through the Canoe Outpost. Paddlers can chose from a four trips, ranging from two-and-a-half miles to 15 miles depending on whatever suits your family. Designated an "Outstanding Florida Waterway," the river has the highest level of water quality in the state. A steady current makes for easy paddling through the 2,200-acre Little Manatee River State Park. Picnic pavilions, rest rooms, hiking trails and nature walks are along the river. Any adventure is great for the beginner or experienced paddler.