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04
Sep

Trip 5: Lover's Key Paddle and Hike

Written by Ryan S.

If I’m being totally honest, the thought of going and paddling and hiking Lover’s Key didn’t excite nearly as much as some of our other adventures. It wasn’t that I didn’t think it would be cool, it’s just that I have boated, beached, walked, and biked just about every inch of the perimeter of Lover’s Key several times over. With that said, I had never actually been into the park center, mostly due to the fact that there is an $8 entry fee, and so much of the perimeter of the park is accessible for free. You can paddle in from the back side starting from Little Carlos Pass. You can walk around to the beach from the north side via Big Carlos Pass, although they recently built a fence to alleviate the monetary lost from everyone who knew that trick. I believe they now charge just a couple of bucks to enter from that side. On a low tide, you can even walk in from New Pass (link) to the south. In fact, if you have some sort of boat, you could do laps around Lover’s Key all day, stopping just about anywhere to gain entry into the park for free. And yet, there we were, waiting at the park entrance with a $10 bill in hand. Not because we couldn’t get in for free elsewhere, but because we wanted to make sure to get the experience from the epicenter of the park and where we could branch out to from there.

 

Upon entering, there are several small trails and paths to walk or bike, most of which take you right alongside the canals and lagoons that separate Black Island and Estero Island and wind their way into a spiral inside the park. We didn’t find the placard that said so, but those in the know will tell you the origin of Lover’s Key is deeply rooted in pirate history. The park and islands are said to be named for a pair of pirate lovers, Anne Bonnay and Calico Jack Rackham.  Anne Bonnay, a fiery irish woman, married a lesser known pirate named James Bonnay after stabbing a local woman and running away from home, all before her 13th birthday. It wasn’t long before she found the next big bad thing in Calico Jack, and they ran off and made their way to Northern Cuba, then up around the peninsula to Southwest Florida. They shared a legendary few days on the islands now known as Lover’s Key which gave way to a little baby pirate 9 months later, forever cementing the name Lover’s Key.

As we were unloading the canoe, the unmistakable splashing of some big freakin aquatic creature was heard from a few hundred feet away. We put a little giddy up in our step, focusing less on filming and more on getting over there before the splashing went away. In short order, we were well on our way across the lagoon and toward the splashing, well aware by that time that what we were approaching were mermaids. Fat mermaids. Or at least that what the drunken, woman-deprived sailors that firs t found the gentle giants swimming in our temperate waters used to think were fat mermaids—manatees.  Manatees are not altogether uncommon if you spend a lot of time on the water, but the behavior we were witnessing certainly was. I’ve had manatees follow my canoe for a good distance, and one or two can usually be found cruising the deeper grass beds around the Estero Bay, but I’ve never seen manatees engaged quite like they were. They were rolling, flipping their tales, playing and wrestling in the water. I don’t know too much about the mating habits of manatees, but I have at least a basic understanding of physiology to know that manatees were not mating. Perhaps some crazy manatee flirting and canoodling at best.

A couple of juvenile manatees, merely the size of small  but well fed cow, found us curious and began following us around. They treated us to a show, popping up right beside us, swimming underneath and around us, and even giving us a tail slap that soaked Ryan Y in the front of the canoe. Never seen that before! We could have watched them all day and drained all 3 batteries just filming this one of a kind display, but they got bored with us and moved on, so we reluctantly turned our backs on them and moved on.

We paddled about a mile north of the ramp to Black Island, an island named after another pirate named Black Augustus. According to local legend, this pirate was captured by authorities, only to escape and take up residence on the island that now bears his name.  On the way we swung in and out of the park by entering Little Carlos Bay, the small section accessible from Little Carlos Pass (a very literal name—it’s tiny). “The Gates” at the entrance to the park keep motorized vessels out, but also provide a bit of structure around which a dozen species of fish will congregate.

We found a random spot next to the north end of the island to tie off the canoe and jump up onto the trail. The hike wasn’t very long, but we did manage to goof around with the camera enough to get some good blooper reel footage. The island itself is pretty incredible. It’s hard to imagine a former pirate once calling it home. That’s not to say I wouldn’t make it my home in a heartbeat if given the opportunity. In fact, Lover’s Key almost became a private residential community during the 1960’s and 70’s according to the Lover’s Key History page. The unique winding canals were actually dredged for this purpose, but thankfully the state acquired the land in 1983 and turned it into a State Park in 1996.

After the hike, we popped back in the canoe and headed south back toward the ramp. In an effort to get some quality B-roll footage, I used the powerful suction cup mount to attach our GoPro camera to the side of the canoe. It’s important to mention that not only have we had this same mount on the front of a truck at 60 mph, but it was also successfully attached to the front of the canoe for most of the paddle there. Also, we have had prior visual confirmation of the waterproof case that the GoPro was in floating. I mention all of that to tell you this: the suction cup isn’t as reliable when it’s dirty and the waterproof case attached to the heavy suction cup mount most definitely does not float. Of course, we had to learn this the hard way. As we paddled back, the distinctive kerplunk of an expensive camera dropping into murky water (who hasn’t heard that 100 times?) snapped us both back into reality. Not worried, I looked back to see where the camera was floating. Then panicked. The damn thing didn’t float after all.

We immediately turned around and tried to mark the spot where we thought it dropped. It turns out that every spot in moving water looks like the one next to it, so we set a general search area, tied off to a nearby tree, and started praying. The big guy must not have wanted us to abandon all hope in the project, but he also didn’t make it easy, because the only thing we had to find the camera was a pair of old competitive swimming goggles (swedes, for you former swimmers). Long story short, it took nearly an hour of combing with our faces in the mud, unable to see our outstretched hands at the end of our arms, before the GoPro materialized a few inches in front of my face. Clutching this thing like a winning lottery ticket, I sprung up off the 8 foot deep bottom and literally shouted for joy as I broke the surface of the water. Ryan nearly fell out of canoe trying after an unsuccessful attempt to contain his excitement, and minutes later we were on our way.

The initial plan had been to head to the beach to get some more pictures and video, but after that near brush with certain failure, we decided enough was enough. Plus, we had already been spoiled by a perfect day that was turning overcast and by manatee acrobatics I didn’t think possible. We loaded up the truck and made the short drive home.

In the end, the experience was an affirmation of the entire reason we got into this whole Do Florida Right business. Even when there is a place that you’ve driven by two thousand times, even if it is somewhat touristy and overpopulated, even if there is an easily avoidable $8 entrance fee, there are hidden treasures everywhere around us in Florida. All you need to do is be willing to step off the beaten path and keep your eyes peeled. Before too long, you’ll see something that will blow your mind and keep you coming back for more, always searching for that next great adventure. 

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