‘Make a left at that sign and civilization just disappears,” our guide says, pointing toward a bright blue sign that reads Commodore Creek Kayak Trail.
We're 10 minutes from land, having pushed off from Tarpon Bay, a concession tucked within Sanibel Island's J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, and it feels like Barry is speaking after the fact. Yes, you can hear the distant hum of motorboats – far enough away to barely even count as white noise – but otherwise all is quiet save for the caws and tweets of birds, the gentle rhythm of paddles on water and, loudest of all, the occasional plop and splash of mullets jumping straight up out of the bay. It feels like civilization dropped off long before I hit the water, likely left behind about nine kilometres back when I drove across the causeway from Fort Myers, Fla., onto Sanibel late the night before.
As far as I'm concerned, I'm already in the middle of nowhere.
Our group – there are 11 of us, in six kayaks, plus Barry the guide – paddles into the creek and what's left of civilization drops off completely. We're swallowed into a silence as thick and lush and dense as the southwest Florida air.
As we paddle into the narrow canal, lined on both sides with the gnarled roots of mangrove trees, you can hear every rustle and snap. Egrets, cormorants, blue herons – just a few of the hundreds of bird species that inhabit the refuge – launch from the trees, diving for fish and digging for snails. Each time we see a new species – a huge white and brown osprey with fish in its claws settles into a high branch to feast – my fellow kayakers point and whisper, despite Barry's assurances that we won't scare them away.
These birds and all manner of other wildlife – raccoons, otters, giant Florida manatees – are the prime draw for many of the 800,000 people who visit “Ding” Darling each year. And while most of the members of my 1.5-hour tour seem keen on chasing nature, asking about the tiny tree crabs that scurry up the mangrove roots and grabbing for cameras each time a new bird reveals itself from within the trees, I'm chasing peace and quiet.
But the beauty of a place like Sanibel, and its sister island just to the north, Captiva, is that you don't really have to chase either – they just come to you.
At about 19 kilometres long and less than five kilometres wide, Sanibel is tiny; Captiva, which is attached to Sanibel by a short causeway, is about one-quarter of its size. Only two main roads traverse the islands – there's not a single stoplight on either island – and much of the land is either wildlife refuge or beach. Both are barrier islands, built up from sand, and naturally formed by tidal action to protect the mainland from erosion (this ridge forms a shelf of sorts along the Gulf Coast, catching a huge number of seashells, which then wash up on the islands' sandy beaches). The islands also feature an extensive waterway system called the Great Calusa Blueway – more than 300 kilometres of marked kayak and canoe trails – that has made kayaking popular among both residents and visitors.
While tourists flood the area, particularly in the winter months, what makes Sanibel and Captiva so special is how much remains untouched. The next afternoon, I push off for another paddle, this time from Tween Waters Inn in “downtown Captiva” (this terminology is a stretch), and once again, I'm struck by how tranquil it is. Zoning laws prohibit the construction of any building taller than a palm tree, which means the view back at the island is almost completely unspoiled. And again, though I'm out on the open water of Roosevelt Channel, part of the massive Intracoastal Waterway, motorboats are few and far between.
Like Tarpon Bay, the channel is part of the Blueway – named for the Calusa Indians, the region's first inhabitants who travelled the local waters. Navigating the narrow coves and inlets, it's easy to pretend you've paddled that far back in time. Other than the wreckage of a boat brought into one nearby cove for protection against a hurricane six years ago, and blue signs marking the route, there is not a single sign of humanity. Impressively, this includes no litter and no graffiti.
Eventually though, the call of civilization does beckon (one of our guides has to pick up her daughter from soccer practice), and it's time to paddle back. As we near the beach, we see a woman standing at the shore, holding a dog by its leash and peering into the water.
“I think there's a manatee,” she calls to us. Sure enough, the manatee's blunt, dark nose pokes up to the surface and then disappears back into the water. As I drift closer to shore, he swims directly under my kayak – surprisingly fast, for something so large – and toward the open water.
His nose touches the surface again, and then he swims away. Peace and quiet, and more.
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