2008-10-22 / Outdoors

Blueway Festival starts this weekend

The Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival, a canoe-and-kayak eco-event across Lee County, kicks off Saturday, Oct. 25, for its nine-day run.

Events — many of which are free — happen in communities such as Bonita, Pine Island and Fort Myers and other waterfront sites along the Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail, recognized as one of the best U.S. kayaking destinations by both Paddler and Canoe & Kayak magazines. The marked trail was created to help people experience the natural magic of Lee County's waterways, with leggy mangrove forests, more than 300 species of birds and slivers of sugar-sand beaches.

Attending the festival is a way to blend two things on everyone's minds today — how to have an environmentally friendly outing that doesn't break the budget.

"Lee County is paradise without the passport or the expenses, and the festival's events offer a way for people to experience paddling for the first time or join with other kayakers and canoeists if they're already into it," said Betsy Clayton, waterways coordinator for Lee County Parks & Recreation and co-coordinator of the thirdannual festival.

Festivities, races, learning opportunities, waterway cleanups, a catch-and-release fishing tournament and cultural events are planned. There are more than 75 guided trips and two dozen sessions that involve speakers and hands-on clinics. Many sites offer free demonstration boats for people to try paddling. Complete details — times, dates, and places — can be found at www. CalusaBluewayPaddlingFestival.com.

More than 500 people are expected at the festival opening event at Riverside Park in Bonita Springs Saturday, Oct. 25, and also at the Pine Island weekend events, Oct. 31-Nov. 2. In between the opener and closer, there are many options for people to sample paddling — or to learn about it without getting wet. Several hotels and RV parks, for example, are hosting hospitality gatherings open to the public.

Festival go-ers are expected from Southwest Florida and beyond. Festival organizers, for example, received a call from a citizen of Tasmania who is visiting St. Petersburg and plans to shorten his trip there to come to Lee County to try kayaking.

"The Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival is now the premier ecotourism festival here in Southwest Florida," says John Kiseda, chairman of the Society for Ethical Ecotourism of Southwest Florida. "It's all about responsible travel to natural areas that preserves the environment and improves the well being of local people."

Among the types of events offered: . Competitive: Three canoe and kayak races are planned. The Imperial River Regatta is Oct. 25 at Riverside Park in Bonita, the Midpoint Paddle Sprint is Nov. 1 on the Caloosahatchee at North Shore Park, and the Paddle of the Pass is Nov. 2 in Matlacha. Competitive anglers will gather in that park Nov. 1-2 for the Calusa Pro-Am kayak fishing tournament, sponsored by West Marine. . Arts & culture: Results of the first Great Calusa Blueway Photo Contest will be showcased Nov. 1 at Berrietter Gallery on Pine Island's southern tip, with a free nature photography class and a free presentation from one of the contest judges. The north tip of the island will focus on Calusa culture Oct. 31-Nov. 1 with activities in Bokeelia on Jug Creek — and a chance to win a free kayak from Calusa Ghost Tours and Backwater Outfitters. Join in a 1500s period costume ball, story telling and a drum circle on Halloween night. Bluegrass takes center stage in Bonita at the Oct. 25 RiverFest in Riverside Park. The culture of the Calusa will be explored with boat tours from Mound House, Fort Myers Beach, on Oct. 27. . Environmental: Nine days of guided tours offered by 17 local outfitters and clubs will let you learn about birds, sea life and other creatures on the trail. Help keep things clean with Monofilament Madness on Oct. 26, which includes a paddlers' gathering at Lovers Key State Park. Raise money for the Imperial River by joining the Adopt A Quacker Family Duck Race on Oct. 25 at Riverside Park. Enjoy an educational Day at the Bay, which features a host of free activities Nov. 1 at Bunche Beach Preserve in south Fort Myers. . Learning opportunities: The Blueway Fest Speakers Series returns for 2008 with free lectures each weeknight Oct. 27-31 at the Support Services Facility in Rutenberg Park, Fort Myers. Experience hand-on clinics on topics such as how to pack for kayak camping or how to geocache on the blueway in free sessions Oct. 26 at Bowditch Regional Park, Fort Myers Beach. The Calusa Extravaganza on Oct. 30 at Upriver RV Park, North Fort Myers, lets you learn about Conservation 20/20 and manatees. Matlacha Community Park hosts a day of speakers and eco-activities Nov. 2. . Social: Hospitality events sponsored by outfitters, hotels and RV parks offer a chance to for lively conversation during evenings. A multi-club paddling picnic is at Lovers Key State Park on Oct. 26. Attend the RiverFest Fish Fry Oct. 24 in Bonita, the festival kickoff Oct. 25 in Bonita's Riverside Park or the closing weekend on Pine Island and visit the Blueway Mobile, a funky van decked out for the festival that features a drawing for a free kayak donated by Bass Pro Shops.

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