Paddling around Pine Island Sound

Pine Island Sound
Pine Island Sound

It’s certainly true that we live on an island but not every property is on the water. So one of the questions we get asked a lot is how people can take full advantage of our island without buying canal-front or waterfront property.

Getting a boat, of course, is the best way to explore Pine Island Sound and Matlacha Pass. And it doesn’t have to be a big power boat that you keep at a marina or trailer to your favorite ramp (though that’s certainly a great option).

One of my favorite ways to get out on the water is in a kayak or canoe. I had a recent opportunity to do just that during my daughter’s baby shower. It’s her first baby, and so it drew family from all over, including my cousins who — thanks to their dad — have paddling in their blood.

Their dad, Henry “Mac” McCarthy Jr., was a Coast Guardsman who moved to Fort Myers Beach in the 1950s. After getting married, he worked in the construction industry and eventually moved to Sarasota where, in the 1970s, he started building small wooden canoes under the “Feather Canoe” brand he famously developed. One boat style he built was called the Wee Lassie. (He even wrote a book called “Feather Weight Boat Building” with step-by-step instructions that even a novice can follow.)

Uncle Mac passed away in 2011, but his sons still carry on the wooden canoe tradition, and I’m fortunate to have one of the Wee Lassies that Uncle Mac built himself. I don’t know about you, but my cousins and I aren’t big on baby shower games, so we decided to paddle around Pine Island instead.

We put in around 9 a.m. at Pineland, near the Randell Research Center, which is dedicated to learning and teaching the archaeological history of Southwest Florida — especially the Calusa Indians, who were the most powerful society in the region until wars with the Seminoles and the Spanish, being sold into slavery in Cuba and diseases brought by the Spanish eventually wiped them out between 1500 and 1750. (Read more about the Calusa in Charles Blanchard’s book, “New Words, Old Songs” or visit Randell’s Calusa Heritage Trail near the Tarpon Lodge.)

The Calusa were a complex society and built the mound complexes that dot our region, including the mound at Pineland and many others on keys in the Sound that are only accessible by boat (Josslyn Island is a good example).

Our small band of paddlers putting in near the Pineland mound was essentially following in the Calusa’s paddle strokes in our own exploration. From Pineland, we paddled north and headed up Big Jim Creek, part of the Big Jim Creek Preserve at the north end of the Island that was purchased by the Calusa Land Trust and Nature Preserve of Pine Island in 1990. This 325-acre property is a wonderful mangrove forest perfect, for exploring in a canoe or kayak, and the Land Trust should be lauded for protecting and preserving it for future generations.

We also passed by Burgess Island and Patricio Island and then paddled west to have a burger in paradise at Cabbage Key. Along the way we saw plenty of dolphins and fish. We could just look down in the water and see horse conchs, little sharks and horseshoe crabs. A big loggerhead sea turtle even popped its head up out of the water for air right next to me.

Paddling around Pine Island is one of the easiest trips you’ll ever make with plenty of islands to stop at and explore and plenty of wildlife to get close to. Lee County Parks & Recreation has made it even easier to explore by developing the Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail. This 190-mile trail goes from Estero Bay to Matlacha and has three main sections, including one focused in Pine Island Sound. They’ve put together maps that include trail highlights and access points (you can download their map app and take it with you on your phone).

By 4 p.m., when we returned to our launch point, we were a little tired out, but ready to go again. There’s a whole other world out there you can paddle out to. I like to stop every once in a while to take in the scenery and imagine what this place must have been like when the Calusa were kings.