In today's economy, luxury item sales like boats are down across the board. But one way for many to enjoy our waters and still be financially frugal seems to be in kayaks.
According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, reports show that last year, outboard boat sales dropped nearly 20 percent and personal watercraft sales (Jet Skis, Sea Doos, Wave Runners, etc.) dipped 21.7. In 2008, kayak sales totaled 322,700. That's only 6.9 percent fewer than 2007.
"I can't drive to work and back without seeing a kayak or two or six strapped on top of a car," said Betsey Clayton, Calusa Blueway coordinator for Lee County. "Today there are kayaks designed for fishing, racing, touring, even standing up on. Despite the tough economy, new outfitters are still opening shops along the trail - a new one is set for Matlacha soon."
Paddlecreek Outfitters’ owner John Socha and helper Michael Salsa at the shop.
One area business that specializes in the kayak rental and sales is Paddlecreek Outfitters in Marinatown Yacht Harbour. Paddle Creek Outfitters serving Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Sanibel, Captiva and all of Lee County. Staff equips customers with the best gear to suit individual needs, from recreational paddling to fishing.
The shop opens at 7 am., and you'll often see kayaking and fishing enthusiasts outside discussing kayaking, what everyone is catching and the best bait.
Owner John Socha said he was heavily booked for the Fourth of July weekend. Socha said he sees a lot of locals as well as visitors considering kayaks.
"You don't have to be in top physical shape to go out and have a good time - they are stable, and easy to maneuver," he said. "There are a lot of models to choose from, and start at only a few hundred dollars, and for top -of-the-line can be thousands, if that is what you want to spend. We even have ones you can surf with," he said.
Socha lets people rent and try out models, then credits the rental to a purchase if they choose to buy a kayak.
"Paddle Creek Outfitters is among a growing number of kayak outfitters in Lee County who support the Great Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail," said Clayton. "John is helping people explore the newest leg of the blueway and helping garner interest in everything from kayak fishing and bird watching to nature touring and kayak regattas."
For those who aren't familiar with The Great Calusa Blueway, it stretches 190 miles and can be paddled year-round. It comprises three legs that encompass Lee County's coastal waters, from Cayo Costa State Park and Charlotte Harbor south through Pine Island Sound and the Sanibel-Captiva area. It continues through Estero Bay to the Imperial River in Bonita Springs. The newest segment takes paddlers up the Caloosahatchee River through Fort Myers.
For trail information, check out www.CalsuaBlueway.com. Maps are available or can be mailed to you. Online interactive maps, suggested routes, outfitter and put-in locations, wildlife tips and a social media site are included at the Web site.
The Web site for the Great Calusa Blueway now has a fresh look, cutting-edge functionality and interactive capabilities. The Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau launched the improved site to better meet the needs of casual visitors and first-time paddlers as well as experienced kayakers.
Unlike other sports, with kayaks you don't need a lot of other gear, and you can have fun in a shorter amount of time, without tailoring or launching a boat.
"We know residents and visitors are picking up paddles more often," said Clayton. "You can go kayaking for an hour and a half and feel like you've been out for a day."
Kids are even into kayaks.
"This week Lee County Parks & Recreation hosted a Kids Kayak Clinic for three days," said Clayton. "This was a pilot project and very successful."
Some had never been in a kayak before.
"By the end we had kids who said they were having their parents take them to an outfitter over the weekend to look at kayaks," Clayton said.
Local paddling groups
Gulf Coast Backwater Paddlers was formed about three years ago, said the group's vice commodore Diane Batchelor.
"It's still in its growing stages," she said.
She said convenience and affordability were some of the first reasons she got into the sport.
"You can put a kayak in at a park, you don't have to have a special launch, and when you're starting out you don't have to start at the top of the line until you know you like it," she said.
But she said those reasons weren't the most important to her.
"The best thing is that it's peaceful," she said.
She said the Paddlers group is a mix of many type of people.
"We have a lot of young people, and we have a good mixture of people who like to explore, and see wildlife," she said. "We aren't extreme kayakers, most of the people just liked to have a social experience too. Many have grown with the club."
They have safety officers who teach the basics and go on trips including camping trips and even barbecues.
"The fee is only $25 a year," she noted.
"Kayaking is something most everyone can do," said club member Lynette Brown. He husband has MS and kayaks. "It is a sport that is good for people with disabilities."
She said she likes long paddles.
"I recently went 15 miles in a day," she said. "I spent the day meandering. When you kayak you see more - today we saw a heron perched on an oak limb and we were able to paddle by him without disturbing him."
While regular membership meetings won't be held in July or August, group representatives have information on the site about spearheading an activity. The next meeting will be held Monday, Sept. 21, at 7 p.m. Normally meetings are held every third Monday at the same time and same location, Rutenburg Park, Parks & Recreation Building. That's located on South Point Boulevard between College Parkway and Cypress Lake Boulevard.
For information, go to gulfcoastbackwaterpaddlers.com.
Mark your calendar now for the Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival, always a popular event.
"The nation's premier canoeing and kayaking destination will sizzle with autumn activity in late October during the fourth annual Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival along the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel in Florida," said Clayton in a recent notice for the festival.
The 10-day festival offers what she terms "a buffet of speakers and instruction, cultural and eco festivals, competitive races and tournaments, paddlers - get-togethers and green activities."
Events are at public parks and archeological sites as well as resorts and campgrounds along the Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail, a 190-mile marked-and-meandering saltwater trail on Southwest Florida's Gulf Coast.
Festival attendees also can get competitive. A photo contest, two canoe/kayak races and a catch-and-release fishing tournament are planned; some have cash prizes. Visitors can give back to the community by joining in a countywide waterway marine debris cleanup called Monofilament Madness.
The festival features daily activities, with emphasis on the Oct. 23-25 and Oct. 30-Nov. 1 weekends. Many activities are free.
Festival details are available at www.CalusaBluewayPaddlingFestival.com, including entry forms for canoe and kayak races, a catch-and-release fishing tournament and photo contest.
You can take a photo now while on the Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail and submit it for Shooting the Blueway photo contest. Check out guidelines at www.calusabluewaypaddlingfestival.com and e-mail entries to firstname.lastname@example.org by Oct. 1. The contest is free with prizes awarded.
Part of the Blueways event will be a kayak angling tournament.
The fourth-annual tournament this year will feature cash prizes for the top three finishers in the catch-and-release event, which is scheduled for Oct. 31 as part of the 10-day canoe and kayak festival along the Calusa Blueway Paddling Trail. Get details at www.CalusaBluewayPaddlingFestival.com.
Past tournaments have run two days with a pro and an amateur division. This year's event will feature a one-day competition for amateurs who catch and release snook, redfish, sea trout and other species. All fishing must take place on Lee County waterways.
Top prize is $500, based on 50 participants. The second-place finisher gets $300 with the third place garnering $200. In addition to cash prizes, there will be prizes from West Marine and Bending Branches.
"The Prawn Broker is going to host anglers on the eve of the event and Tarpon Lodge will welcome them after," said Clayton. "West Marine is also one of our big sponsors."
The Prawn Broker Restaurant is located in south Fort Myers and will host the captain's meeting Oct. 30. The awards ceremony and digital weigh-in will be at Randell Research Center in Pineland, followed by a celebration for anglers at the Tarpon Lodge, also in Pineland, on Oct. 31.
Tournament proceeds go to the Great Calusa Blueway and Randell Research Center. The Society for Ethical Ecotourism is organizing the event with assistance from Lee County Parks & Recreation volunteers and Kayak Excursions, a Fort Myers-based outfitter.
Registration forms and rules are at www.CalusaBluewayPaddlingFestival.com. Call 433-3855 or 233-0655 for more information.
Clayton, Brown and Paddlecreek owner Socha said that the North Fort Myers area is great for sightseeing and exploring.
"Hancock Creek is a treasure," Socha noted. "It's a nice little backwater with numerous little fishing area that are popular to those here, but little known to other people. Depending on the time of year, you can catch excellent tarpons to reds, to snook to trout. We have it all and people don't know about it."
He's the Harbor Master at Marinatown Yacht Harbor as well as the store owner, which means he's in charge of all the docks there.
"We have 130 slips," he said.
Paddlecreek Outfitters is located at 3444 Marinatown Lane in Marinatown Yacht Harbour, North Fort Myers. For information, call 997-2248.