I know what you’re thinking, but I didn’t end up paddle boarding on a former segregated Florida beach intentionally just so I could write this blog post. It was a coincidence. What happened was…A few days before my daughters and I left the cold, damp area of is-spring-ever-coming Providence to visit my Dad and his wife Sue in sunny Ft. Myers Beach, Florida, my younger daughter Darla became obsessed with the idea that we all had to go paddle boarding.
Once we arrived in Florida, Darla hounded me to search the internet to find a place that would give us lessons and a tour. I did and landed on one that promised a paddle through mangroves and calm waters, where we might spot dolphins, manatees, and all sorts of bird life. In smaller print below, they let us know they couldn’t promise we’d see all or any of these things on our particular tour. Still, the two-hour session sounded promising and I booked it in a phone call with a very cheerful guide who said she could squeeze us in on the last day of our visit. Cool. Done, I thought.
But then, a day before our anticipated adventure, Lauren from Paddleboard SWFL, called me back from a message I had left earlier in the week. She was even more cheerful than the other company’s gal, and promised a one-hour tour, with special attention given to teaching Darla, since both companies worried at her lightweight size and eleven years of age, she might have some difficulty handling the board. Between the other company glossing over what we’d do if Darla couldn’t manage, and me thinking about two hours out in the heat with an already sunburned big sister Leni, I booked the tour with Lauren, and cancelled the tour with the other place.
I felt proud of myself for making what seemed like the best decision for all of us. That in itself was a victory since I questioned every other one I was hedging on that week–like, should I make the kids stop staring at their phone screens long enough to watch the osprey soar overhead, or should I force teenage Leni to get up off the couch and go to the beach with me and Darla?
Then came Wendy Jane Soul Shake karma. I looked up directions for Bunche Beach, our meeting place for the paddle board tour. I found out that the beach was named after Dr. Ralph Bunche, the famous black educator and diplomat who earned a 1950 Nobel Peach prize for his work mediating the Israeli Palestinian conflict in the late 1940’s. There was even a dedication naming ceremony, barbecue and festivities with over 3,000 people in attendance in 1949 at the beach, which was deemed a black beach during segregation times.
It’s no longer a segregated beach of course, though I couldn’t find out when it became more open. The 700-acre natural wetlands is now a part of the city Parks and Recreation department. Bunche is a little slice of a beach with soft white sand. All of it’s plants and trees are native to Florida, existing long before exotic tropical varieties like palm trees were brought in.
Quiet, still waters awaited us as our fearless leader, Christina, a marine biologist from Paddleboard SWFL, started us off on our boards with an introductory lesson on how to get on the board, (you kneel first, then stand, using a long-handled plastic paddle to right yourself), and how to paddle.
We all thought we might have trouble balancing on the flat board, but it really was pretty easy, and the paddling similar to what you’d do in a canoe, only you’re standing. With a few turns of Darla and I steering ourselves into the mangrove islands, we learned Christina’s backward c-circle paddle move which redirected us, and we were off.
For a family that rarely does athletic activities together, it was cool to watch my girls stand tall and glide effortlessly through the narrow channels surrounded by the mangroves with their many short roots sticking up out of the sandy earth. Christina, our excellent guide, taught us about these species of trees and shrubbery that are able to thrive in saline water. She even had us lick one of the leaves of the trees on a short break we took on one of the tiny inlet island beaches, and it tasted of pure salt. Christina explained how mangroves can strain out the salt from the water in order to survive and give off oxygen. She said it much better than I have; she was a wealth of knowledge.
While we didn’t spot any manatees or dolphins on our short trip through the mangroves, we all enjoyed our first paddle board experience and look forward to finding places on our Rhode Island coast where we can paddle board some more this summer.
For me, it was an added treat to experience a bit of southwest Florida history. To know that the beach we were privileged enough to spend some time on, had once been a place relegated to people who weren’t allowed to enjoy the beaches that white patrons enjoyed during segregation, made me remember the times when things weren’t so open, even made me think just now about when as a young girl I asked my dad why all the people at our pool club were Jewish, and he told me because Jews weren’t allowed at the Christian pool clubs.
Luckily, like the mangroves species, we too have evolved.
photo credit: bluebrightly on flickr.com
Bunche Beach information: http://www.leeparks.org/facility-info/facility-details.cfm?Project_Num=0025