For nearly 30 years, Ed Woolverton trimmed the mangrove branches that line the maze of canals dug for mosquito control at the edge of Gasparilla Sound near Placida, Florida. Using a small boat and a hand lopper, Woolverton's work has resulted in a spectacular route for paddlers, and an important addition to the Charlotte Harbor Blueway trail system.
At first, his efforts were frowned on by purists who tend to wince at the thought of anyone touching the red and black mangroves without a permit. But state officials, realizing the mangroves were benefiting from his grooming, gave him their blessing, and the paddling community is the big winner.
In 2007, the Charlotte County Visitors Bureau presented him their Pioneer Award for his contributions to the area's recreational resources. Woolverton celebrated his 93rd birthday in 2010, and volunteers now do much of the mangrove pruning, but as of this writing he continues to be a guiding spirit of kayaking and canoeing in Gasparilla Sound. His grandson and others continue the heavy lifting in the mangroves.
For any visitor to the area, the Woolverton Trail and the look-alike mangrove islands in the Sound make exploring the area alone inadvisable. I had looked over Gasparilla Sound last year, but time ran out before I had a chance to hook up with a guided tour. This year, I stumbled onto a relatively new company, Phoenix Rising, operated by a transplanted Maine resident, Chris Warren. Chris had been kayaking in Florida for three years, much of that time as a guide for Grande Tours at Placida. Since December 2009, he had been on his own.
Chris and I launched from Eldred's Marina just north of the Gasparilla causeway at about 1:30 in the afternoon in mid-February 2010. We paddled under the causeway and across open water toward the Woolverton Trail. A breeze whipped at the water, stirring things up a bit as we avoided a couple of powerboats and entered the mangrove canopy.
On the way in, Warren showed me a gastropod area. Reaching down with a mechanical gripper, he pulled up a medium-size conch. Returning the gastropod to the estuary, Warren led me into the mangroves. He explained the difference between red mangroves (they send out roots which buttress the plants and filter out salt) and black mangroves (they stand taller, usually grow on higher ground, and send out pneumatophores, or breathing tubes, to take in oxygen).
The trimmed mangroves provide a trail wide enough to permit paddling with a full paddle, with no need to paddle "canoe style." Warren had no choice. He had carved his paddle from a single block of cherry wood, using a design "as old as the Vikings," he said. The paddle's working ends were shaped "a bit like an airplane wing," Warren explained, and allowed him to stroke the water with less stress on his shoulders. I learned later the design is called a "Greenland style" paddle, and is gradually becoming more popular.
We passed a sunken boat that Warren explained had once been Ed Woolverton's favorite. A mangrove was growing through its ruined hull. "It sprung a leak when he was trimming the mangroves, and he had to leave it here," Warren said.
An osprey provided a photo shot, and we moved farther back in the canopy. Turning a corner, we discovered a downed branch that blocked our way, forcing us to turn and take another route. We then entered a large circular pond, surrounded by high vegetation. Behind the trees, Warren said, were middens � shell mounds � built by the Calusas, probably as early as the 15th century. "It's believed they dug the pond as a harbor for their war canoes," Warren said. "The single entrance to the waterway would put enemies at risk if they attacked."
At the edge of the mounds a flock of brown pelicans was roosting in the mangroves. Warren pointed out that some of their heads were white. "They're the old guys," he said. "The adolescent birds have brown heads."
Warren offered more pelican lore. "Did you know the brown pelican is the only pelican that roosts in trees? They have an appendage on their feet like an opposable thumb. The white pelicans don't have it. They have to roost on sandbars. Pelican Island near here is a rookery for the white pelicans."
We left the Calusa mounds and paddled into Catfish Creek, a wide stretch of open water. On the way we came upon a flock of ibis, a pair of white pelicans and a kingfisher.
It was getting late, and we began our return trip to the marina. As we approached the causeway, Warren pointed to an island. "That's Mad Dog Island," he said. "When the Inter-coastal Waterway was dredged in the 1920s, the company was supposed to haul the spoils out to sea, but to save money, they dumped them here. Over time, trees grew and the island matured."
How did it get its name? "A man who worked all his life as a hearing aid salesman retired to the island to get away from everyone," Warren said. "He built a shack on the island and came over to the mainland once a month to pick up his retirement check and buy groceries."
"One month he failed to show up on the mainland, and they called a constable who went to the island with his deputy to check things out," Warren said. "When they got to the island, the man was dead � which wasn't too surprising, as he was pretty old. But they also found a pack of maybe 50 dogs running around the island, and a large pile of empty cans of Spam. Apparently, every time he came over to the mainland he'd pick up a stray dog that needed a home and bring it back. The constable and his deputy eventually found homes for the dogs, but the name stuck."
We returned to the marina after a pleasant three hours on the Woolverton Trail and Catfish Creek. Thanks to Ed Woolverton and his 30 years of trimming the mangroves, the trail makes a great kayaking destination.
Nearby restaurants include the Fishery, a great place for seafood.
Village of Placida has interesting galleries & shops.
Take Placida Avenue south from Englewood. Turn right at the Boca Grande causeway to Eldred's Marina.
Charlotte County Cooperative Extension Service
Boating and Angling Guide to Charlotte Harbor