Area canoeing and kayaking trips offer a carefree day on the water for paddlers of all experience levels.
An Estero River canoe trip might reveal an otter diving into the water, egrets wading along the shore, and turtles or maybe even a young alligator basking in the sunlight. Tarpon have been known to swim upstream from the Gulf and jump in the brackish water following heavy rains when waters are high.
“I raised my five children and two grandchildren on the river,” says Jerry Hessler, who has been out on the water almost every day since moving here 40 years ago. “It’s a beautiful river, just nice and kind for people to paddle on.”
Hessler works at Estero River Outfitters and has since the business opened 30 years ago, helping customers select canoes or kayaks to buy or rent and selling bait and tackle. “The river hasn’t changed much,” she says. “What you see up on the banks might have changed some, but it’s still the same old river.”
Over the years, owner Pauler Stuller has watched the interest in paddling grow. “When I called the manufacturer for my first order of canoes, I was told I couldn’t sell them,” she remembers. “I asked the salesman – he was up around Orlando – why. The way he’d said it, I was wondering if it might be illegal to sell canoes or something, but he just said that I’d never sell them because he’d never heard of anyone doing that down here before. There were no other canoeing places around when we first opened.”
While canoe sales might have been a novelty 30 years ago, navigating the region’s backwaters is an activity with a long history. The Calusa Indians canoed throughout the peninsula thousands of years earlier, before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. Before the Tamiami Trail came through, the only convenient way to move any distance in this neck of the woods was via water. Members of Dr. Cyrus Teed’s Utopian pioneer settlement, established in 1894 and now Koreshan State Historic Site, located just across the street from Estero River Outfitters, used the river extensively.
Stuller credits increased interest in backwater boating in recent decades to Greg Barton’s Gold Medal in kayaking during the 1984 Olympics. The kayak has since surpassed the canoe as the preferred vessel, but both are popular.
“Kayaks are lighter, easier to maneuver, more stable and a lot more user-friendly,” says Stuller. “A family with one or two young children will find the canoe to be an ideal vehicle, with a paddler on either end and the children snug in the center.”
Estero River Outfitters has rentals for all day or part of the day for kayaks. Experienced guides offer historic as well as eco tours. One tour, designed for nature-loving paddlers of all levels, is a trip to the Estero River Scrub, part of the Estero Bay State Aquatic and Buffer Preserve. The tour highlights efforts to protect the river and Estero Bay. A tour to Mound Key takes 61/2 hours, and includes a picnic lunch and hiking. Participants paddle 4 1/2 miles to the historic Estero Bay site where the Calusa Indians ruled tribes as far away as the Florida Keys.
“With a lot of sports you need to know the rules of the game or be physically fit,” explains Stuller. “Both kayaking and canoeing involve low-impact exercise. This is an activity that doesn’t really require training.”
Across U.S. 41 at Koreshan State Historic Site, 18 canoes are available for rental in addition to the park fee, which includes complete access to the historic religious settlement. “This is the best deal in town,” says David Harris, park ranger. “We give out life jackets and insist everyone wear them, but on this river canoeing is a relaxed activity.”
Besides getting started early to make a day of it, packing water and bringing recommended safety gear, there’s not too much to know besides your own endurance level, as a trip down the river means a trip back. A trip west leads into Estero Bay in approximately two hours.
Those who get the bug will buy a kayak, as there is much to explore on area waters. Last year the Great Calusa Blueway, a marked trail of waterways, opened.
Phase 1 of the Great Calusa Blueway has 48 markers in Estero Bay, from Bonita to Fort Myers Beach, leading paddlers thru the back bays and away from motorized boat channels, close to mangroves and often thru mangrove tunnels that would not be accessible in bigger boats.
“The Lee County Tourist Development Council started promoting Lee County as an eco-friendly kayaking destination years ago,” says MacPhee, project coordinator for Lee County Parks and Recreation’s Great Calusa Blueway. “We have great back bays and shallow waterways to paddle.”
MacPhee envisions a time when all of South Florida’s waterways are linked. “If we linked with Collier County we would actually have a marked paddling trail from Charlotte County down to the Everglades,” she says. “There is the potential to link the whole peninsula with paddling trails if we could just get our agencies together.”
Estero River Outfitters sells a bumper sticker that sums up the paddler’s credo; A Bad Day on the River is Better than a Good Day at Work. While not quite the lazy river of Hoagy Carmichael’s time, paddlers on the Estero River might appreciate one phrase from the composer’s 1931 tune, throw away your troubles, dream a dream with me. On any quiet afternoon on the water, time fades softly into a natural backdrop.
“You can take your time coming back,” Hessler tells a novice. “And don’t worry about getting lost. It’s a gentle river; we’re old friends.”
Cocohatchee Nature Center
In Collier County, Cocohatchee Nature Center offers narrated pontoon boat tours on the Cocohatchee River leading west to Wiggins Pass and out into the Gulf of Mexico or north toward Little Hickory Island. Kayak. The non-profit organization subsidizes educational class trips for school children with funds raised from the tours and rentals.
The Cocohatchee Nature Center’s deck features market umbrellas and seating for 40, for those who want to set up and enjoy a meal prior to boating.
Cocohatchee Nature Center
12345 U.S. 41 North