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Campers paddle the Caloosahatchee
August 11, 2017

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Six campers and two Sanibel Sea School counselors paddled 41 miles from Alva to Bailey's Beach along the Caloosahatchee late last month giving them a new appreciation of the river.

"The canoe trip was magical," Sanibel Sea School Co-Founder and Executive Director Dr. Bruce Neill said. "Taking a river trip by canoe, I think for everyone, is transformative. There is no noise. There are no pedestrians. There are no cars. And very quickly, like within six hours, your life becomes the rhythm of the paddle. You pass under the bridge and you see cars driving across it and it's abstract. It's like ants walking across a limb. You are in a different civilization. All that matters is the group of you on the river."

Spencer Richardson, Sanibel Sea School outdoor coordinator, said she learned that the "water is all controlling" during the 41 mile paddle. She said the water can be completely calm, providing for a great time paddling, or can turn stronger, which results in having to push yourself harder to get to a destination.

"It's almost like meditation," Richardson said of learning the water's ability while paddling.

The trip down the Caloosahatchee was taken earlier this summer with just Sanibel Sea School staff, making the July 24 camping trip the first with kids. Neill said the campers began asking where they were going to stay for the night, which resulted in the answer "I don't know."

"It was refreshing for the kids, all of us, because we are all used to having all of the answers," he said. "This particular experience, we are going into the unknown, into our own backyards. The Caloosahatchee is beautiful. It's a beautiful river. It really is an interesting expedition . . . see the world from a different perspective."

The trip consisted of paddling for 40 to 60 minute intervals before taking a short break. Neill said the goal of the trip was to create a paddling harmony with the other member in the canoe.

"It really becomes this two person mediative practice. You are not talking. You are just matching your paddling stroke with the person in the canoe with you. The utter silence, except the noise of the paddles dipping into the water, is a way that we are not used to doing," he said. "Nothing matters, but the raft. You become this family."

Carson Liebetrau, 14, decided to sign up for the expedition because it was a new Sanibel Sea School offering.

"It was a great experience. I can't wait to do it again next year," he said. "I have canoed in the past for a little bit, but not for miles. Probably a half an hour, or hour."

He said he's been with the Sanibel Sea School for nine years and had participated in the Paddleboard Survival Camp, a prerequisite of Canoeing the Caloosahatchee.

"It was kind of a way to get into the canoeing," Liebetrau said, which included an overnight stay on Picnic Island. "You learned how to camp, and learned how to paddle."

Before they began their Caloosahatchee canoeing trip, he said they further learned how to paddle in the canals around Sanibel. They practiced different paddling positions.

"It was amazing what we saw," he said of the manatees, eagle rays and jelly fish. "I couldn't believe that was in our own backyard."

The first day, after launching from a boat ramp in Alva, took them 16 miles past the I-75 bridge.

The first day on the Caloosahatchee, Liebetrau said, was "pretty great." They saw a lot of bigger houses and horses along the river, which he was not expecting.

"We paddled through the locks. That was really cool the first day. They trap you in this big cement building kind of thing. When you talk, your voices echoed throughout all of the walls. That was a really interesting experience," he said.

Although the first day was challenging with the 16 miles they paddled, they did not face any bad weather.

At the end of the day, Liebetrau said they decided to camp at Beautiful Island, but found that someone was already camping there, so they decided to go to the next island, so they would not disturb him. The gentleman on the island had been living there for 20 years.

"It was a bit buggy and hot, but in the morning it was a beautiful sunrise," he said.

Richardson said they pitched camp, and slept right on the beach hearing a train in the near distance. She said after rising at sunrise, eating breakfast and packing their gear they traveled another 15 miles to the Cape Coral Yacht Club.

On this leg of the journey, Liebetrau said they saw many birds ranging from pelicans to egrets.

"It was a bit windy and stormy the second night, but no storms can stop the Sanibel Sea School," he said.

Richardson said she was thankful a park ranger helped them work out the logistics of staying at the park because of a storm that formed over them. She said they sought out refuge at a park next to the Cape Coral Yacht Club. As the thunder and winds became stronger, the group ended up staying under a concrete slab next to the bathroom.

The winds, Richardson said ending up snapping two middle fiber glass poles for the tent during that storm.

The following morning everything was calm again, allowing them the opportunity to eat breakfast, pack their gear and head the remaining nine miles back to Sanibel.

The trip was three, very full days, of paddling.

"It was awesome. It was great. Everyone was pushing themselves. I'm so proud of them. They came together and worked as a team to get to our spots," Richardson said of the trip. "It was a great, true adventure. It was a great journey."

The one thing that stuck out to Liebetrau during the canoeing trip was that although the river was clear, it was still a little brown. He said growing up on Sanibel seeing the fresh water was really cool and weird.

"We went swimming at times for a little break," he said, adding that he tasted fresh water instead of salt. "I really appreciate the river. It's really nice and beautiful and a lot cleaner than I expected."

Although, Liebetrau was "pretty sick" of canoeing by the end of the trip, a few days later he said he really appreciates the whole canoeing experience.

"The people that I paddled with, I really got to know them better. You are stuck in a little canoe with them for hours. We had to pass the time some how. We did a lot of talking. We shared stories with one another. We busted into chants to try and row faster," he said.

Neill said the kids did a great job and covered monumental amounts of distance to finish the trip earlier than scheduled.

"It is a testament to them," he said, adding that they will refine the canoeing trip and develop it for different ages.

Richardson said the trip, she believes, was just as rewarding for the kids as it was for her and Neill.

"It was awesome, crazy," she said smiling.

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