Wandering the West | ParkRecord.com

Wandering the West

by Larry Warren

Thirty-five winters in the Wasatch have convinced me its time for a change in the routine. In Alaska, when a resident leaves the state boundary to anywhere else, it’s called "Outside." As in "are you going Outside this year?"

After all these winters in the Wasatch, my wife and I decided we too needed to go Outside (of Utah) every winter. We started last February with a trip to Hawaii, and it proved the "need" to get outside of a Wasatch winter once a year (at least) and just find a beach, a palm tree, a good book and a rum drink, complete with tiny parasol stabbed through a Maraschino cherry.

This year Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young pointed the way. A few years ago the four reunited for an album called "Looking Forward." The album was rock solid good, and ended with a curiously sweet song carried by Graham Nash. It was called "Sanibel" and immediately sent me to Wikipedia to figure out where it was. I thought if it sounded that good on my car’s CD player, it must be worth a visit.

Having just returned, I must say Sanibel was as good as CSNY made it sound. Sanibel Island is a short drive from the Ft. Myers Airport on the Florida Gulf Coast. It’s a tiny island separated from the mainland by a short bridge over the Intercoastal Waterway, filled with all manner of watercraft, from cigarette boats to pontoons and elegant yachts.

The island runs about 10 miles parallel to the Florida Gulf Coast, and is separated by another short bridge at Blind Pass from Captiva, a more exclusive and smaller island community of opulent beachfront homes. You could say Captiva is the Deer Valley of Sanibel. Yes, this column is called "Wandering the West," but we were wandering southwestern Florida at least.

At only 10 miles and maybe a mile or two wide in places, you can explore the whole island by bicycle and the main drag, Sanibel Captiva Road, runs parallel to a paved bike path. Side roads have light traffic and more paved paths. Once on island, a car really isn’t much needed. The attractions, of course, are the Gulf-side beaches. Something about its orientation leads to mammoth tides of seashells. All day visitors walk up and down the white sand beaches in the "Sanibel Stoop" looking for shells. The serious collectors have sifters on poles to save their backs, lifting scoops of shells to eye level, and scanning the haul for the perfect periwinkle. While Sanibel attracts many people, simply walk a mile past the condos and you’ll have the beachcombing to yourself. I’m not exaggerating when I say there are exposed seams of shells two feet thick in places.

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One great stop is the J.N. "Ding" Darling Wildlife Refuge on the east side of the island away from the gulf. "Ding" Darling was a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist for the Des Moines Register who was also an avid duck hunter and conservationist. He founded the National Wildlife Federation and started the federal duck stamp program, which uses proceeds to protect wildlife habitat, like that at the refuge. His namesake refuge has wide expanses of water filled with herons, cranes, ducks, avocets, osprey and hundreds of other bird species. The vegetation is alive with tree frogs, and tortoises and alligators muck around in the swamps. On a hike toward sunset we were probably the last people in the refuge, and came across a rather large alligator on the bank of a swamp. For landlocked Utahns, the sight of a free-roaming alligator is more than a bit spooky.

Aside from shelling, sunning, biking and hiking, Sanibel offers great boating opportunities as well. The Tarpon Bay Marina has everything from kayaks to ski boats for rent. Kayaking in the refuge seemed like a grand idea but we wound up sipping those rum drinks on the beach instead.

You won’t find big resorts and chain hotels here. Lodging runs more to small condo projects and cute little pastel cottages. As popular as Florida is in winter, and as many people as there are along the East Coast, Sanibel seems a bit quaint and underdeveloped by local design I’m sure. The only drawback was trying to leave. With one two lane bridge as its only mainland connection, it took us 90 minutes to move two miles and cross the bridge, and begin the road back to reality, and another six weeks at least of winter we hope.

And where will we go Outside next winter? We’ll have to find another tropical song to guide us. "Margaritaville" perhaps? I know "It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere."

Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.