A Paddler's Journey
Terry Brennen has been paddling the waters off Florida’s Gulf Coast for more than a decade. His goal is to kayak 500 miles in Southwest Florida. Follow him as he spends a day on the Great Calusa Blueway.
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Trip plan: Matlacha Community Park through Buzzard Bay and Big Dead Creek to Marker 99, southwest to Jug Creek Point, east along the Pine Island coast into Smokehouse Bay, past Indian Field and back to Matlacha
Total distance: 26 miles
Weather: Clear, 50s-60s, wind NNE 5-10 knots, growing to 10-15 knots
Tides: High tide at 2:15 a.m.; outgoing tide all day
I put in at Matlacha Community Park, Marker 81, at 8 a.m. and paddled across Matlacha Pass into Buzzard Bay. The access was very shallow, since high tide had been at 2 a.m., and was half out by the time I got there. The water depth was less than one foot in Buzzard Bay.
I stayed on the west side of the bay, as it seemed deeper there, and I saw huge flocks of birds over on the east side. In my 15 years on these waters, I have never seen so many birds in one place at one time. I got my binoculars out and noticed two large flocks of white pelicans and many gulls, which surprised me as there was no beach in the bay. I also saw many white ibis, white herons and some other birds I couldn’t identify.
Jumping Mullet and Hunting ’Coons
Fish movement was everywhere; mullet jumped in front of my kayak, and I saw evidence of large schools even in the very shallow water, as there was a lot of grass. The bay inlet is narrow there, and as I waded, I noticed two raccoons foraging along the bank on the south side of the entrance to Buzzard Bay. They just stared at me as if they owned the bay.
Once I got into the bay, it got deeper, and I paddled through the western side of the bay and took the second opening to the pass, just north of red Marker 66. Here it was shallow enough that I had to get out and walk twice, so I turned around and waded back into the wide part of Buzzard Bay, trying not to spook all the birds. Once I could paddle again, I moved inside to Big Dead Creek and then regained the trail at Marker 94.
I traveled up the trail to Marker 99. (The distance between Markers 95 to 99 along the west coast is 4 miles.) I had to get out and walk several times because of the shallows. The terrain was much like at Bunche Beach but shallower farther out into Charlotte Harbor, with a sandbar one-quarter to one-half mile out.
Lunch on the Beach
I stopped at Marker 99, the northern boundary of Lee County, ate my lunch and hiked both ways on the beach, looking for access to Burnt Store Road, but decided to get back in my kayak as the wind was picking up, blowing 10-15 knots out of the north-northeast.
I started across the bay at 1:30 p.m. with a heading of 240, a distance of 6 miles, to Jug Creek Point, passed green Marker 83, then headed south intoSmokehouse Bay. It was very shallow, less than one foot. Here, too, there were many wading birds, even in the middle of the day. I watched an osprey catch a fish just 50 yards off my bow.
Retracing a Race
At the south end of Smokehouse Key, I cut back out into Matlacha Pass and paddled along Indian Field on the outside, following the track of a 10-mile kayak race I had won a few years earlier. I had intended to go into the bay south of Indian Field to identify the mouth of Pine Island Creek, as my intent is to do a circumnavigation of Little Pine Island in the future, but I was running out of daylight.
Instead, I paddled along the west side of Matlacha, looking for the house my wife Carlene and I almost bought in 2000, remembering the staggeringly beautiful sunsets that inspired us to consider the place. Then I paddled under the small bridge on the west side of Matlacha and back to Matlacha Community Park, finishing at 4:30 p.m.