Kayaking trail to Glades envisioned from jungle of light and shadow on Collier coast

Some of the finest kayaking waters in the country are secret coves in mangroves behind Wiggins Pass. They could be linked to the Ten Thousand Islands.

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Mike Devlin runs a kayak tour business and gives lessons.

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A mile from the traffic on U.S. 41, among twisted tunnels of mangroves and hidden coves, even the peaks of North Naples high-rises fade away.

Shallow bays behind Delnor-Wiggins State Park are accessible only by kayak. Near the end of one of the bays, just south of the ever busy Wiggins Pass, is the start of a trail, almost invisible, a path so narrow it is easier to move forward by grabbing the legs and branches of the mangroves than it is to paddle.

The dome-like branches stretch dozens of feet high and create a thousand little windows for a noon sun. Light and shadows echo off the still water. The crash of ocean waves can be faintly heard but not seen.

Mike Devlin, a kayak tour guide for 20 years who stumbled upon this place, calls it “The Church.”

“Isn’t it great?” Devlin said. “And you can come in here at different times of day and the light is completely different and the water levels are different. Raccoons and crabs and everything can walk through here fine, but I will bet that no man has ever set foot in here.”

Devlin and a group of kayakers and Collier County park officials are working to create a paddling trail, a blueway that would span the coast of the county and serve as a back door into Everglades National Park. It would cut through the labyrinth of the Ten Thousand Islands, offer backcountry campsites on isolated beaches and take paddlers through secret ways north into Lee County.

The question is: How are they going to map it all out?

“What we need is a person who will kayak the routes in high tide, mean tide and low tide and find out how long it will take in each,” Devlin said. “We need to find out where we can put signs.”

The group will need to have a list of GPS coordinates, run a website and work with local outfitters, rental shops and tour guides to market the trail. They would like to say with certainty where water can be found, as well as bathrooms, campsites and launch points.

People will need to know how long they can expect it to take to get to certain points on the map, Devlin said.

Once the paddling trail is up and running, kayakers will find it, he said.

“I take clients out all the time who just can’t believe what we have here,” he said. “It’s one of the best kayaking places in the country, and I want people who live here to see it and recognize what we have.”

Ideally, Devlin said, the paddling trail would link up with blueways in Lee County and beyond and have a draw similar to some of the country’s famous hiking trails, such as  the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail or Florida Trail. Expert paddlers would come to do it all. But it also would need to be accessible to beginners, tourists and families who want to set out for a morning or a day.

The main trail would wrap around Collier’s entire coast and include some open-water sections in the Gulf, but Devlin would like to see offshoots in calm estuaries that could be tackled in a few hours — the equivalent of a green circle run on a ski hill.

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Getting it Built

Collier County is on board. The county and its tourism arm technically created the first part of the trail several years ago, calling it the Paradise Coast Blueway. Coordinates for the first leg of it were drawn and posted online, from Everglades City through the maze of the Ten Thousand Islands and into Goodland.

But subsequent legs of the trail — to take paddlers to Naples and up to Lee County — have not been finished. No agency has taken ownership of the trail, to serve as an information source or keep coordinates up to date with the tides.

The Collier County parks department is planning to ask commissioners sometime this fall to set aside money to finish the trail, said Nancy Olson, region manager for the parks department.

The department is meeting with Devlin and a nonprofit group of paddlers to gather ideas and options for routes and ways to market the trail. A website with coordinates and access points will be key, Olson said.

The goal is to make it easy for people to get out on the water, she said.

It's also to help keep kayakers safe. In Southwest Florida, especially among the Ten Thousand Islands, tides can work against kayakers, and everything starts to look the same. Maps and guides are safety issues, Olson said.

“This was a place that was a bootlegger’s paradise,” Olson said. “People could not be followed in the Ten Thousand Islands, and sometimes they can’t get themselves out. Goodland tow boats have pulled many exhausted kayakers out of there.”

On the Trail

Launching out of Goodland is a large bay with a mouth leading straight to the Gulf. From the Gulf, take a left and you’re in the Ten Thousand Islands, a labyrinth of keys, mangroves and shell islands.

Dead ends look like routes look like dead ends.

The tide can make it especially tough, said Ben Olson, a Goodland tour guide.

“The tide in Goodland can be to the point where even good and strong paddlers have a tough time going against it,” he said.

Olson typically leads clients no more than an hour out of Goodland. It would take a good two to three days, without getting lost, to kayak through the islands from Goodland to Everglades City, he said.

The length of the trail probably would attract only experts and people who already are  reasonably certain of the way, he said.

“The thing is, there are just such limited places where you can stop to get out and stretch or get water,” Olson said. “If people aren’t prepared to do a trip like that with the proper equipment, it would cause safety problems.”

That’s why Devlin wants the trail to be easy and clearly marked for beginners, especially in the calmer estuaries of North Naples.

Devlin paddles in a lightweight kayak he made himself. An Ohio native, he remembers being a beginner and struggling against the tide for the first time.

“That’s why we need a blueway,” he said. “You get so many people who come from places like Ohio and say, ‘Oh I’m going to do 20 miles today.’ No, you’re not.”

Devlin has kayaked through many parts of the country. He paddled with Diana Nyad in 2013 as she swam from Cuba to Florida, part of a small team of kayakers who stayed within a few feet of her to stave off sharks.

The mangroves of Southwest Florida offer some of the best kayaking in the U.S., he said.

“It’s wilderness down here. It’s true adventure,” he said. “People call it a mangrove forest, but when you’re down in here, it is a jungle.”

A great thing about the estuaries in North Naples, he said, behind Wiggins Pass and Barefoot Beach, is how close they are to traffic and shopping centers and strip malls, yet how hidden they are from all of it.

Even after two decades of leading tours in the waters behind Wiggins, he continues to discover new nooks and tunnels.

He is a believer of the old conservation mantra that if people don’t see nature and spend time in it, they won’t love it and protect it.

“These mangroves that we have here are so important to so much life in the Gulf. It just makes us unique.”

 

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