Photo credit to The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel.
Shiny water beetles dance in the sunlight, skimming the water’s surface as my paddle slices through the Estero River. It’s a lovely Saturday morning, with a rustling breeze and plenty of sunshine, ideal for kayaking. The shoreline is lush with native and exotic vegetation, thanks to the Koreshan Unity, a religious sect which brought civilization – and exotic plants – to Estero in the 1890’s. Above the spider-like root system of the mangroves, towering bamboo gives an eerily hollow clank with each gust of wind.
The occasional water bird greets us with curiosity, taking in our brightly colored kayaks and the awkward strokes of the novice paddlers among us. Estero River not only embodies nature and history, it’s an ideal place for paddling newbies, with its narrow, tree-lined waterway. As we glide along the surface, breathing in nature, it’s hard to imagine we are helping to tear down invisible fences, which have existed for half a century between historical preservation groups.
Our kayaking adventure is courtesy of the College of Life Foundation, which was originally founded by Koreshan Unity member Hedwig Michel as the Koreshan Unity Foundation. She was among the last four surviving Koreshans who agreed to donate their 300-acre commune to the state in 1961, creating the Koreshan State Historic Site. However, Michel fell into disagreement with the park’s management, so she opened a competing foundation, taking much of the Koreshans’ wealth and artifacts with her, explains master naturalist and College of Life Secretary/Treasurer Peg Egan.
The feud continued after Michel’s death, when her successor, Jo Bigelow, sold Koreshan land for the development of Pelican Sound Golf and River Club and refused to share proceeds with the Friends of Koreshan State Historic Site to help pay for building preservation. Current College of Life Chairman Charles Dauray has been more generous with the foundation’s resources in recent years – donating two historic buildings to the Estero Historical Society and paying for their relocation to Estero Community Park – but has still been criticized by the estranged sibling foundation for lack of generosity to Koreshan State Park. All this is changing, thanks to Egan’s simple idea of running historical kayaking tours along the banks of the former Koreshan colony. “Everybody has embraced the concept of doing a Koreshan tour on the river,” Egan says. “It’s a huge asset that has not been utilized.”
Egan now sits on the Friends of Koreshan board – a giant step toward tearing down partitions. “We’re excited to pull these groups together as they should be, keeping in the spirit of ‘Koreshanity,’” says Park Services Specialist Mike Heare, who has welcomed a variety of new activities to the park in recent years, spurring record attendance levels. “Koreshan is Estero.”
This fall, the partnership will continue strengthening as the state park intends to give College of Life Foundation exclusive rights to operate a camp store and paddling rentals, Heare says. The long-term goal is a separate boat launch area for canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, apart from motorized boats, Egan adds. Historical kayaking has been so popular, Egan convinced longtime kayaking buddy Brandy Minchew to relocate from Georgia to help run tours. Both are trained by the American Canoe Association and in ﬁrst aid and CPR. Although we felt safe in the stable sea kayaks and shallow river basin, it’s comforting to know our guides are prepared to do a water rescue if needed.
As naturalists, Egan and Minchew point out many interesting plants, including Resurrection Fern, which turns brown and shrivels without water but “resurrects” a brilliant, perky green after a good rain. There’s also “perseverance palm,” so dubbed by Egan because this lone palm greedily stretched its way out to the sunlight right into the middle of the waterway, creating an eye-catching (and perhaps eye-poking) scene for kayakers as they paddle around its reach.
Then there’s the region’s lone “monkey puzzle” tree, towering far above the other foliage, an exotic from the Chile/Argentina region producing oversized cones, undoubtedly planted by the Koreshans. While enjoying natural beauty is the reason most people choose to go kayaking, this tour adds another dimension. In keeping with the foundations’ mission, it’s also a lesson on the historical contributions of the Koreshan Unity.
Founded by Cyrus Teed in 1894, Estero was to be a “New Jerusalem” for his followers, who believed and set out to prove the universe existed inside a hollow sphere. He claimed revelation from an angelic visitation and attracted about 250 followers before his untimely death from a ﬁght with the county sheriff in 1908. The Koreshans were largely responsible for bringing industry and culture to Estero, operating an art hall, bakery, machine shop and post ofﬁce. But with leaders vowing celibacy, the sect did not last long after Teed’s death.
With U.S. 41 being merely a cow path in those days, the main entrance to the colony was by water. As we paddled past Bamboo Landing, Egan explained how the Koreshans used the landing to import materials and export goods. Other historically noteworthy stops include the picturesque Boomer estate, which will become part of the historic site’s holdings upon Nola Boomer’s death. Her husband was the grandson of Berthaldine Boomer, an original member of the Koreshan Unity’s Planetary Court.
“I love to tell people about our local history and how amazing it is,” Minchew says. “It’s the nation’s history, too, and it goes along with the College of Life’s mission to preserve the history and educate about the environment.” Egan and Minchew also run tours to Mound Key, another former Koreshan property, with the history dating back to the Calusa Indian empire. For more information on kayaking and hiking tours, contact College of Life Foundation at 239.992.2184 or visit www.CollegeOfLifeFoundation.org.