If you go
Guided canoe trips
When: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday — 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Where: Collier Seminole State Park: 20200 U.S. 41 E., Naples
Ages: 6 and older
Something else: Moonlight trips scheduled for March 16 and 17, 7:30 - 9:30 p.m., $30/person, 12 and older
It’s just after 9:30 a.m. on an overcast Friday and the only sounds are paddles dipping into tannin-tinted Black Water River. The outgoing tide leaves behind a coffee-colored water line on a tangle of mangrove roots that seem to stretch on forever. A crab, dark like the water and the exposed roots, reveals its position as the fleet of canoes approaches and scurries out of sight to safety. An osprey sounds her alarm in the distance, but otherwise few clues of animal life shake the feeling that a thousand pairs of eyes are watching you.
Paddling through the mangroves at Collier Seminole State Park is an adventure, a meditation and an interactive classroom experience. John Welsh and Diana Warner, retirees from northern Michigan; lead four three-hour tours a week through the 7,500-acre park, about 20 minutes south of Naples along U.S. 41.
Our group, 10 paddlers and four guides, embarks on the tour as a dark bird with intermittent flashes of white passes overhead. Welsh immediately recognizes it as an anhinga, and demonstrates its steady wing flapping pattern, as opposed to a cormorant, which flaps its wings, pauses, then flaps again, he says.
About a half mile into the trip, Warner glides her canoe to a trail marker post near the bank. The paddlers hold on to each other’s canoes and Warner talks about the spectrum of plant and animal species, the role of estuaries in the ecosystem and the cultural history of the park.
“We are in the midst of the largest mangrove forest in the Western Hemisphere,” Warner says.
She points out the park is home to deer, bear, raccoons, squirrels, panthers, bobcat, minx, otter, alligators, crocodiles, feral hogs and a plethora of migratory birds, among other critters.
“If you’re going to see an alligator, it’s most likely you’ll see one at the beginning of the trip because there’s more fresh water,” Warner says.
Three species of mangrove grow there — red mangrove, which is the most common, black mangrove and white mangrove, she says. These mangroves, she says, are the “first line of defense against hurricanes.”
The American Indians, Warner says, called red mangrove the “walking tree” because the triangular root systems appear to be walking on top of the water. They drop giant, string bean-like “plant kits”, known as propagules. These propagules can float up to two years, according to Warner, and contain all the necessary parts for the plant to regenerate.
“It’s essentially a tree in itself,” says Warner.
The floating fleet of visitors listens as Warner explains they are currently in an estuary — a place where fresh water meets salt water. Estuaries are brackish nurseries for fish and other animals to spawn, she says, adding 70 percent to 80 percent of sea creatures begin their lives in estuaries.
After giving the group a rudimentary portrait of life in the estuary, Warner leads the canoers through the silent waters that mirror the mangrove canopy above. The group paddles into a lagoon, accessible only at certain tides. As the sun burns through the clouds overheard, Warner gives a brief history of the Calusa, the Seminoles and the early settlers in the area.
Looking at the deep dark mud and the muffled stillness of a terrain ready to reclaim anything that pauses there too long, it’s difficult to imagine subsisting in such a harsh landscape.
“When you go out there you start to appreciate how these people survived,” Warner says.
John Doeseckle, on vacation from Coral Stream, Ill., brought his 28-year-old son, Tom, on the morning guided canoe tour through the park’s estuaries.
Doeseckle explains his son has Down syndrome and early onset Alzheimer’s disease. He says Tom loves canoeing, and that the father and son duo are trying to pack in as many memories and experiences as possible.
“The nature talks were the best,” he says after the tour. “it’s what attracted me to come here. It’s serene. It’s peaceful. And the people are friendly.”
Al and Vicki Adams, a couple vacationing from Kennebunkport, Me., says it’s good to see Florida from a different perspective.
“I find the mangrove to be very beautiful and mysterious when seen from the water,” Vicki Adams says.
Dave Peters helps guide the tours. The retired personal trainer is also a former triathlete and covers distance in the canoe with ease and prowess — all the while smiling at the prospects of getting a good workout in a mangrove forest.
Peters and his wife travel year round, volunteering at state parks around the country.
He says he is impressed with the people he meets while canoeing the estuaries in Collier Seminole State Park. Just the fact they are out there, Peters says, demonstrates a curiosity and capacity to tackle adventure.
“You meet the most interesting people on these tours,” Peters says. “They are the 5 percent that leave the pavement or the beach.”
Last year, 800 people of all ages and levels of fitness made the four-mile trip, including a 94-year-old woman, Welsh says.
As the group reaches the homestretch of the trip, a slight drizzle turns to heavy rain and the canoers huddle under shelter of the mangrove canopy. But the air is warm, and everyone stays dry and content to take in the sound of the downpour. They watch the brown waters boil under the onslaught of the raindrops. Even when the rumble of thunder sends the group scrambling to reach the launch point, only smiles are visible.
Perhaps Peters is right about the people he meets along the canoe trails. Whether beginning canoers or seasoned adventurers, these are folks who realize a rainstorm is just water, and the dark, tangled expanse of mangrove and marsh is the canvas on which Southwest Florida’s story has unraveled.