NAPLES — President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt established the first National Wildlife Refuge more than 106 years ago at Florida’s Pelican Island to protect birds from poachers and plume hunters.
Today, the National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 550 refuges and more than 150 million acres, sets aside a week to celebrate and enjoy the richness and beauty of these protected refuges.
The Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge in Collier County kicked off National Wildlife Refuge week Saturday by celebrating the Grand Opening of the recently improved Marsh Trail.
The National Wildlife Refuge Week celebration runs until Oct. 17.
The 1.1-mile-long Marsh Trail, which is an access point to the north end of the Ten Thousand Islands refuge, used to be unaccommodating and relatively unsafe to visitors, who had to park on the grass shoulder of U.S. 41.
“For the public to utilize that for various outdoor recreation activities, they needed a safe access,” said Ben Nottingham, manager of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. “Basically this 18-car parking lot is the missing link for that access.”
Improvements to the Marsh Trail site include a parking lot, an information kiosk, a boardwalk leading to the trail, a watercraft ramp and a handicap accessible observation tower, which will be completed at the end of November.
The Florida Department of Transportation Enhancement Program gave the Ten Thousand Islands refuge a $785,000 grant for improvements. In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge Roads Program and the Southwest Florida Gulf Coast Refuge Complex provided funding to complete the more than $975,000 project.
“There are so many partners that are involved in establishing this location and this place and making it accessible to people,” said Lisa Ostberg, president of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. “I think most people who have ever visited this refuge have done it from within a boat … well today we have the opportunity to start visiting it on foot and in little tiny boats.”
A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held at the entrance to the Marsh Trail’s new boardwalk.
“We all appreciate nature at its finest,” said Jim Coletta, a Collier County commissioner who helped cut the ribbon. “This is an example of what we can do when we work together.”
In a speech, Coletta stressed the importance of public access to wildlife preserves such as the Ten Thousand Island refuge.
All recreational usages of a refuge have to cooperate with the primary mission of wildlife conservation and preservation. With that said, there are six designated priority usages for refuges, which include hunting, fishing, wildlife photography, environmental education, wildlife observation and interpretation of environmental resources.
“One thing that distinguishes the National Wildlife Refuge System is that it’s a place of conservation lands where wildlife comes first,” Nottingham said.
The day’s festivities included guided bird walks and hikes, kayak tours and a build your own kayak demonstration.
The co-founders of 21st Century Kayaks LLC, Mike Devlin and Don McCumber, took less than 40 minutes to show audience members how to build a kayak with their kit.
“If you have a two-week vacation, assemble your kayak the first week and paddle it the second week,” McCumber said.
The pair’s passion for the history of kayaks drove them into initially building skin-on-frame kayaks for personal use. After building kayaks for themselves, McCumber said he realized the commercial potential of their kayak kits because other people would probably enjoy building them, too.
“If you get this boat built by some other skin-on-frame builders, this same boat would cost three times as much built. So you’re looking at a $2,200 kayak that you can do for $775,” Devlin said.
Devlin and McCumber tested 15 prototypes until they arrived at their current model, the 14-foot Alpha Centauri.
The advantages of these kayaks are their light weight, comfortable seats with good back support, durability, large cockpit, stability and maneuverability.
The kayak kit comes with an instructional DVD and paper instructions.
“Our biggest complaint was that people who know what they are doing, and are handy, said it was too easy,” Devlin said.
Several visitors toured the Marsh Trail at their own pace without a guide.
“I saw a red and black snake,” said Isabel Morris, 5, who walked down Marsh trail with her father and brother. “I caught a bug. It was a type of beetle.”
A couple of kayak tour participants said they enjoyed listening to the sounds of nature.
“We passed through three ecosystems: the mangroves, the tall grass and the marshes,” said Mary Fink, who went on a kayak tour. “It was very serene because your kayak actually goes right through the grass and that’s what you hear as oppose to a motor running or a boat. So you really feel like you are a part of the environment.”