DAYS LATER, near the southern end of the trail, I kayak along the shoreline of Lovers Key with Nancy McPhee and Trudi Edelman. Trudi has kayaked and guided in these waters for 38 years. Nancy was instrumental in seeing the Calusa Blueway become reality.

We rent kayaks from the Lovers Key park concessionaire. As we take our first strokes, nothing but mangroves and a riverlike spread of Zamboni-smooth water is visible.

"This is what the Calusa saw when they paddled here," says Nancy quietly. "This is what we wanted people to see when we created the Blueway."

Moments later, we see a trail marker, a post emblazoned with a pair of crossed oars and the number 11. This is my fifth day on the water, and this is the first Blueway marker - other than the one I spotted while jogging - that I've seen.

When I tell Nancy this, she shrugs.

"I didn't put up a whole lot of markers. To be honest, I don't want to see the next one. We want the Blueway to be an adventure. Plus, the hurricanes and the fishermen took a lot of the signs out. I think we might have marked some of their favorite fishing holes."

The women turn their tandem kayak toward a seemingly impenetrable mangrove wall. We push through a narrow, shaded channel. The mangrove roots resemble the curved fingers of an emaciated pianist. The bottom of my kayak scrapes across an oyster bed, and then the three of us are out in the bright sunlight again. The world is nothing but caws and trills. We drift in our own private lagoon, watched by egrets and ibis, resting in the mangroves like white linen handkerchiefs. A roseate spoonbill registers our sudden intrusion - and perhaps his opinion of man - with a great gastric expulsion.

I LIKED PADDLING and exploring with my fellow kayakers, but, as anyone knows, in nature - and perhaps in life - true discovery comes alone, with silence.

On my last day, I push off again from Lovers Key. I plan on paddling for Mound Key, one of the centers of Calusa culture, but I get hopelessly lost. Over the next five hours, I see mangrove islands that all look the same, several bottlenose dolphins, and hidden backwaters so quiet that I can hear the sudden scatterings of tiny fish - they sound like a handful of tossed pebbles.

When I pull my kayak up onto a 10-yard scrim of shell and sand and sit alone in the middle of Estero Bay, here is what the wind whispers: It is the moments between the markers that matter. Even the Calusa, who no doubt knew where they were paddling, could not see to the end of the trail.