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Nature's cathedrals

Mangrove tunnels access to serenity

By BETSY CLAYTON
bclayton@news-press.com

To paddle among mangroves can be magical.

Branches intertwine overhead as paddlers navigate beneath them in limbo-like moves. The shade and bark, the light and dark of mangrove tunnels are reminiscent of cathedrals.


GAINING ACCESS: Connie Langmann, owner of GAEA Guides, paddles through a mangrove tunnel near Matlacha Pass. Kayaks have the ability to go many places other boats can't. ANDREW WEST/The News-Press

Then the trees open up as paddlers push through green leaves into saltwater lagoons, where the brush appears to be decorated with Tricolored herons and roseate spoonbills —their pink bodies like neon Christmas lights on Southwest Florida evergreens.

Glance back, and its as if the mangroves that ushered paddlers into the sub-tropical natural world have joined hands behind them. Now they are circled by flora and fauna.

It's just a paddle in paradise.

The scene is not uncommon for nature kayakers who explore wonderlands such as Matlacha Pass, Estero Bay, Tarpon Bay and even tributaries of the Caloosahatchee River.

People who stay away sometimes mistakenly think mangroves are too buggy and September's heat is too intense. Paddling the tunnels proves not only doable but enjoyable this time of year.

The trees offer shade; the bugs remain relatively calm as long as it's not dusk and paddlers don't shake too many branches and disturb too many insects.


JOIN A CLUB

Southwest Florida Paddling Club meets the second Wednesday of the month at 7:30 p.m. at Lakes Regional Park. Anyone can come; it's free. Call (239) 860-1804 or 945-3336.

A Lee County Parks and Recreation-sponsored kayak clinic this weekend can boost paddlers' and newcomers' confidence. Or there's a guided nature trip later this month with the Department of Environmental Protection to celebrate the region's estuaries.

September also offers a harvest moon on the 21st of the month. Paddlers can leave shore smothered in insect spray at sunset to see the glories of the moon, which rises two days before autumn begins. A few area guides, such as Connie Langmann of GAEA Guides, offer moonlight paddles.

She's notorious for leading kayakers through mangrove tunnels. Her trips snake in and out of the wooded estuaries the way a black racer moves across a field. She paddles twice a week and has been in love with nature kayaking 25 years. The affair has been romanced by Southwest Florida's beauty.

"When I'm in some of these mangrove tunnels, they remind me of a great cathedral —like the great cathedrals of Europe," Langmann said.

For those who haven't been to Europe, the tunnels are reminiscent of a scene from "Pirates of the Caribbean."

"I had a teenager tell me once that a mangrove tunnel was better than a ride at Disney," Langmann said.

Many people she guides are first-timers. They want someone to provide the boats, take them out and tell them the stories of nature from a birds-eye view.

Others venture out on their own, using private kayaks or renting from one of the dozens of businesses that dot the coastline. Paddling is not difficult; the boats are not tippy. Six-year-olds to 80-year-olds easily maneuver the plastic sit-on-top-style kayaks used for nature touring.

Boater Paul Lucas reflected on kayaking recently when he launched his fishing skiff at Matlacha Park and noticed some kayakers nearby. "I haven't done that in years," the old-timer from Cape Coral said. He remembered, though, it got him ever-so close to the natural world when he did it.

Kayaks have a stealth-like quality foreign to aluminum canoes. Birds, otters, dolphin, tarpon —nothing appears to be bothered by the boats' presence.

Maybe it's that they're so low to the water. Maybe it's that people aboard them are so overwhelmed by wildlife sightings, they cannot speak.

Maybe it's that the mangrove tunnels make paddlers feel as if they're on a Robinson Crusoe-like voyage and no one speaks to avoid breaking the magical spell. It's cast nearly every time a kayaker dips a paddle on a still September morning and navigates into the world where silence is only broken by the sound of a manatee inhaling and the squawk of a great blue heron as it takes flight.

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