I wasn't even out of the Ft. Myers airport before I was on the phone, searching for somewhere to paddle in Florida. My mom's plane hadn't even landed when I talked with Chad from Southwest Florida Standup about booking an eco tour for my mom (I hoped) and me. This was Wednesday. We were to paddle on Monday. I couldn't wait that long.

We are Made of Saltwater

I live closer to the beach in Wilmington than my parents do in Florida.

After 24 hours out of site of a salt marsh creek I was getting twitchy.

The day before I left for the Sunshine State, I'd seen the sun rise over the inlet between Figure 8 Island and Wrightsville Beach. I saw it set behind Harbor Island. In between, some work. But knowing that at any moment, if I really needed to, I could flee my living room (where I work) and be at the beach in 10 minutes does wonders for my anxiety. Paddling, for me, is like running for some people. I have to do it. Saltwater is the cure for my ills.

I saw someone post something on facebook one day. "Saltwater heals everything: sweat, tears, the ocean." Yes.

Strike One

By Friday, I was pacing the house like a caged animal. Even though my mom had a cold, she figured it was better to get me to a beach, I guess. We headed over to Sanibel and Captiva. First, shopping, before we got sticky. Then up to Captiva for lunch and to try our luck at YOLO Watersports. They're unrelated to YOLO paddleboards, but they do have Yolo boards for rent. The usually (in summer) calm Gulf was whipped to a froth. It looked better on the bay side. I walked in the door to try my luck at a rental. Chaos. The staff person shouting "If you get tired, don't drop the paddle! It will sink!" to a bunch of unsuspecting tourists. I wasn't sure where they were planning to get in. I think it was gulf-side. I walked out.

We went to the beach. In the water I could breathe.

Strike Two

Saturday we headed for Naples with beach chairs in the car. We got as far as Bonita Beach where I wanted to check out a paddle shop. It wasn't lightning. There was an access where my mom could sit and read, gulf-side and I could paddle, sound-side. After asking about alligators (no worries-they don't like salt water) I plunked my cash and headed out to where two rental boards were waiting to be picked up. I was to take my pick and paddle in the canoe trail. Mom and I made a plan to meet back at two. I found my board.

A 12 ft soft top Yolo and a paddle made from, I swear, rebar. The board was fine. The paddle was sketchy. The shop will go unnamed. I'm sure they don't have many repeat customers. I don't know what happened to the paddle before I got it, but it was filled with water. I paddled the canoe trail in 45 minutes and ran back to the beach.

"But you have two hours!" said mom. "Are you DONE?"

I'm probably a spoiled brat, but the rickety paddle clanked every time I pulled a stroke and I thought it might actually break in half. I feel sorry for the paddlers renting from this jet-ski-turned-paddle-shop outfit. They probably won't come back. "Have you scratched your itch?" Mom said. "I think so." I was noticeably calmer on Sunday.

Home Run

Monday, Mom was still sick so I drove down to Lovers Key State Park to meet Chad Gillis-co-owner with his wife Marcie-of Southwest Florida Standup. We were to be joined by two Canadians, Sue and John:

Sue paddles in Lake Ontario. Brrr! John had never paddled before. We set out for our 2 hour eco tour. I was on a  Naish 14' Glide. Chad had a Jimmy Lewis Albatross. Sue was on a Hovie, and John was on a Boga. SWFL Standup is serious about good equipment. We paddled across New Pass, past the dog beach, and into shallow salt marshes in Lovers Key.

In 16 inches of water, we saw the world.

Sheep's Head fish. Mullets. (Did you know that mullets are vegetarian?) Needlefish. Blue crabs. An ENORMOUS old Horse Conch:

Chad holding the horse conch

We saw stingrays and ospreys. Tiny lightning whelks and a bald eagle. "This water is some of the healthiest in Florida. You can tell from the diversity of creatures," said Chad. John, as a first-time paddler, was doing so well that we went farther than they usually ever go, even with more experienced paddlers. We decided to "off road."

"This area is a bit shallow, but if you guys are up for it, we can see what we can see. There's a cut-through, I think." Famous last words.

"Scoot up on your boards to get the fins out of the water." We did as instructed.

With the tide coming in, there were hundreds of small baitfish shooting past our boards to the deeper marshes. Larger fish just waited in the shallows to eat them. We paddled through mangrove tunnels. "Look! There's a piece of coral!" THUNK. That's the sound of my Naish Glide with a 10 inch fin running around on the mud.

Deja-vu, anyone? 

We got off our boards and walked. Thankfully there weren't really oysters in the knee-deep mud. Just coral. I hoped to avoid it. Having learned something useful from the last time this happened, I flipped the board over. With the big nose rocker it was too shallow to paddle, but at least I didn't have to hold the fin up.

"This is the mud-bath pedicure portion of the trip! Free! No extra charge!"

John was a trooper. I was glad I had my brand-new camelback with 100 ounces of water. It was pushing noon and 92 degrees. (Chad had bottled water for everyone, but I'm a heavy drinker.) Eventually we got to water deep enough we could stand and paddle. Until we couldn't. At which point I flipped my board upside down and sat on it.

Paddling this particular board upside-down is like pushing a snowplow through jello. Chad and the Canadians started paddling back toward me.

"The cut through has grown together." I guess mangroves do that.

Dog Beach

Chad helped me with my race stroke while Sue and John paddled and laughed and got standup paddleboarding out of their systems forever. Against a pushing tide near an inlet we stopped to play on the dog beach. I'm sure some of them would have liked to hitchhike on our boards. In sight of the bridge and the area where we put in, we made a last run. John somehow ended up on his board backwards. He must have been paying too much attention to my hijinks. With the current sucking him toward the bridge I reveled in my rental status. "You're the instructor," I said to Chad. "I'll let you go fix that." (Of COURSE if there had been more than one person in trouble, I would have gone to help! I'm not heartless! Chad was faster than me, anyway.) I don't know if we'll ever get John on a board again, but he was the most stellar beginner I've ever seen.

It made a big difference to have good equipment.

When you rent, try to see what they have to offer before you pay the money. Now, I was lucky to get a Naish Glide. That's unusual, but Chad SUP races and has years of experience canoe racing.  Even Sue and John got to go with carbon paddles and nice, lightweight boards. That's pretty unusual in a rental situation, which is one reason why SWFL Standup is a standup company. If you have your pick of several companies, call around and ask before you go. One will have better options than the rest–I guarantee it. You probably won't get a carbon fiber paddle, but you won't get rebar, either, if you look around. If you're visiting anywhere between Cape Coral or Fort Myers down to Naples, Southwest Florida Standup is the ONLY place you should call for renting or an eco tour. Chad and Marcie won't take everyone on a four hour tour (unless you want to go that long). "Some people just want to paddle to dog beach and play with the dogs," said Chad. We go with whatever you want.

Paddle People are Just Better People

I've found my home away from home paddle company. I come to Florida about three or four times a year. With paddling in my blood, I don't like to go long without it. I'm so grateful to have met Chad and Marcie. I feel like I've already known them for years. Our two hour tour turned into a four hour tour, but I went back for more the next day. This post is already long. You'll have to wait for the rest of the story. 

A quest for the perfect paddle in Southwest Florida.

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