Stress and anxiety. For years I have managed them — but during the holidays, I just can’t seem to shake them. On a recent Saturday afternoon, I drove to Pine Island with the intention of getting away from the crowds and de-stressing. My destination was the Randell Research Center in Pineland, and my plan was to walk the Calusa Heritage Trail.
When I arrived at the center, a couple of volunteers welcomed me with information and a laminated map for my self-guided walk. While pointing on the map, volunteer Ruth Marcus encouraged me to look at a specific gumbo limbo tree along the Calusa Heritage Trail because it’s the largest one on the grounds.
“Keep to the right,” volunteer Alan Marcus, Ruth’s husband, advised as I stepped onto the trail.
Although not complicated to navigate, his words of wisdom helped make the most of my visit, especially when I came to forks in the trail.
Armed with sunscreen, insect repellent, a hat, water, comfortable walking shoes and the map, I set out on the not-quite-a-mile trail. It had been years since I last visited, and this was my first time visiting the site alone.
The Randell Research Center is a treasure — a 67-acre of a Calusa Indian archaeological site that was occupied by the tribe for about 1,500 years. The Calusa were once the most powerful nation of Southwest Florida. Research indicates their population reached about 50,000. Shells were vital to the Calusa economy and way of life, and they used them as tools, utensils and jewelry.
They built elaborate canal systems and enormous shell mounds. Men and boys fished for their food using nets made from palm fiber and seashells as anchors. They caught mullet, pigfish and catfish, among others. They used spears to harvest turtles and eels. Women harvested shellfish such as crabs and clams.
Along the Calusa Heritage Trail, signage tells the story of those who lived there. I walked to the top of a shell mound, sat at one of two benches under a pair of gumbo limbo trees, and looked over the serenity of Pine Island Sound. I felt as though I was on top of the world — or at least on top of Pine Island.
I continued on the trail toward Smith Mound. Along the way, I watched as several osprey screeched and flew overhead. Some had fish grasped in talons. Others were perched in treetops consuming lunch.
Smith Mound is unlike the other mounds along the trail. At 25 feet tall and 230 feet long, this is a burial area. While most of the mounds at RRC are made from discarded shells, bones and charred wood, Smith Mound is made of sand.
All of RRC commands respect, but especially this sacred area. I quietly and carefully walked along a canal which hugged the mound. Oak, palm and other trees provided some shade. The canal system around and leading to the mound was used by the Calusa to transport bodies for burials.
Taking in my surroundings and listening to the calls of birds and wind rustling through the trees, I felt a peacefulness. The moment seemed appropriate for saying a prayer for the souls buried in that area, so that is what I did.
As I wrapped up my visit on the Calusa Heritage Trail, I stopped at the gumbo limbo tree Ruth had suggested. It is a grand tree worthy of appreciation, a few selfies and a hug.
When I left the trail, I felt the burden and stress from the holidays and day-to-day life lifted. I lost track of time and spent nearly two hours exploring the grounds, appreciating the lives of the Calusa, and pondering decisions I need to make in my life.
The Randell Research Center is a special place for its history, nature, and some may argue, its spirituality. When walking the Calusa Heritage Trail, listen closely. The wind rustling through the trees just may be whispers from the mounds and could hold the answers you are looking for.
Plan Your Visit
The Randell Research Center is a program of the state’s official natural history museum, the Florida Museum of Natural History. In 1996, Donald and Patricia Randell gifted 53 acres of land to the University of Florida Foundation.
Randell Research Center, 13810 Waterfront Drive, Pineland. 239-283-2062 (main office), 239-283-2157 (book store). FloridaMuseum.ufl.edu/rrc
Admission: $7 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $4 for children is requested.
The Calusa Heritage Trail is open daily sunup to sundown for self-guided visits. Restrooms, book and gift shop, and classroom are open Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Guided tours are offered to the public at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from Jan. 2 to April 27. Groups may schedule guided tours for other times by contacting the RRC.
Where to Eat Lunch
Tarpon Lodge & Restaurant, 13771 Waterfront Drive, Bokeelia. 239-283-3999, TarponLodge.com
The Tarpon Lodge is located across the road from the Randell Research Center. Lunch is served daily from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and dinner is served from 5 to 9 p.m. Hours may vary on holidays and special events.