VINCE DROPS OFF the four of us - Debby, me, and Rick and Janet (husband and wife kayakers from St. Petersburg, Florida) - at the dock at Cayo Costa State Park, which is 2,416 acres of hardwood hammock and lovely beach abutting the Gulf of Mexico. We slide our kayaks into the water. Within minutes, we are tracking a pair of manatees, watching the water's mirrorlike surface for telltale ripples.

The docile giants - picture sea lions with elephantiasis - give us more than a humpback sighting. Then the still morning explodes, and a great plume of water, flung by a powerful fluke, soaks Rick. He manages to retain his aplomb and his upright position, though I note he takes a few backward strokes.

"Never seen that before," he says. "Maybe they're mating."

During the next several hours, we slide across the lightly ruffled waters of Pine Island Sound. We skirt the eastern edge of Cayo Costa, making our way past several mangrove islands that not one of us recognizes, despite the maps Rick and I carry. We're hoping to find our way to Cabbage Key, where there's the bar at which Jimmy Buffett purportedly penned "Cheeseburger in Paradise." We eventually find both key and bar, and we toast our navigational skills with cold beers. After another hour or so, we even find our way back to Pine Island. We hone in on the marina by simple, and altogether pleasant, means: The marina is the only sign of man along the mangrove shore.

THE NEXT MORNING, I paddle with Connie Langmann, owner of Gaea Guides, and with some 20 other kayakers. It's a Sunday, and the second day of Pine Island's first Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival, a low-key gathering that includes various paddling outings as well as demonstrations at a local park.

Our outing begins with a stroll along the Calusa Heritage Trail, the archaeological site on Pine Island that was once the Calusa Indian village of Tampa. We follow Connie through the hot morning as she explains how the Calusa made the most of their environment. Lacking stone, they used shells for everything from tools to foundations, which still remain, in the form of enormous shell mounds. The Calusa also made the most of their size, since the average Calusa male was six feet tall. In the 1500s, they were the equivalent of today's Shaquille O'Neal, only with more attitude and with an impressive array of sharp weapons.

"'Calusa' means 'fierce people,'?" Connie tells us. "Other Indian tribes would pay them tribute money so the Calusa would be nice to them. Kind of like the mob."

The Calusa eventually met their match - not in the form of the Spaniards, who had tried vainly to dispatch them - but in the diseases the Europeans brought with them. At least, that's the history according to Connie.

When she finishes, Joe Mullen leans in close to me.

"They drank a lot of rum, too," he says.

Joe is attending the festival with his friend Ed Engel. Avid kayakers and Florida residents, these men have kayaked together along much of the Calusa Blueway, not to mention their adventuring on waters as distant as Scotland.

I immediately like Joe and Ed. It's obvious that they love their home waters. Plus, they offer me a nice counter to the official party line I'd been given earlier, when I was told that there are only three places along the Calusa Blueway that allow camping: Cayo Costa Island, Picnic Island, and Koreshan State Historic Site, along the Estero River.

When I mention this to Joe, he snorts.

"You can guerrilla camp anywhere you like. Pull in after dark, set up the tents, and be gone by morning."

In short order, the lot of us are paddling in Pine Island Sound. An osprey beats overhead, a fish in its talons. (Note to romantics: Ospreys mate for life, but each year the male must court the female again before breeding commences.) Mullet leap from the water, white undersides flashing in the sun.

I suddenly realize that Joe is right - the sheer breadth and loveliness of the natural world make man's adherence to regulation seem silly.