SARASOTA -- It is a still, hot day on Sarasota Bay as we slide our kayaks into the water. Too lazy to use our oars, we drift a little and watch the mullet jump while we wait for the last members of our tour to arrive. Suddenly a pelican swoops down and grabs a silvery fish, startling us.
We set off a few minutes later, seven of us with little or no kayaking experience. Kelly, our guide, points his oar in the direction he wants us to go, then stays in the middle of our disorganized pack, showing us how to paddle, how to turn and stop, calling out encouragement to whoever is trailing.
Kelly talks about the bay’s wildlife — the cormorants that are diving under our kayaks for fish, the sea urchins that would prick our feet if we tried to walk in the shallow water, the manatees that come and go with the seasons. As we pass bayfront mansions, Kelly also tells us about some of the famous people who live — or once lived — in them: Lucille Ball; Jerry Springer; Brian Johnson, the lead singer of AC/DC.
And he talks about John Ringling, who in 1927 moved the winter quarters of the circus that he and his four brothers founded to Sarasota. He had already been spending winters in Sarasota and buying real estate, wanting to turn this city on the bay into a fashionable resort town. At one point, he owned 25 percent of the land in Sarasota.
He and his wife Mable built a winter home here, a Venetian Gothic mansion they called Ca D’Zan — House of John — where they displayed part of their art collection. As the collection grew, the Ringlings built an art museum, inspired by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, on their waterfront property. In his will, Ringling left the estate, including more than 600 works of art, to the state of Florida.
I listen attentively because I’ll be at the Ringling — now part of Florida State University — later to view an installation piece, SkySpace, in a building created just for that purpose.
On my trips to Sarasota, I sample what I find most interesting: nature and the arts. So I kayak the bay, take a boat ride with a marine biologist, explore Myakka State Park, spend a day browsing the Ringling’s various art and circus exhibits and return on another trip to see the sunset transformation of James Turrell’s SkySpace, wander through the historic Towles Court artists colony. And of course watch the sunset from Siesta Key.
Woven throughout is the story of Ringling and how he contributed to Sarasota, a city with a rich cultural life that attracts affluent snowbirds and retirees, as he envisioned, but also visitors and residents who are drawn to its bay, rivers, parks, mangrove islands and wildlife.
On the bay
It is Sarasota Bay that drawn me on this day. We look for manatees as we make a leisurely circle around a tiny island. Cormorants dive and surface around us, unperturbed by the humans jerking at our oars. Occasionally a light breeze ruffles the water, and I enjoy the peace of being on the bay.
The first part of our tour is just a warmup. Our destination is the tunnels through the mangroves that carve a protected section of the bay into small enclaves. It is shady in the tunnels, the water illuminated by the sunlight that filters through mangroves.
Maneuvering is difficult in these narrow passages, and it’s easy to see why we learned to paddle on open water first. Kelly cautions against correcting our course by grabbing for low branches. He points out tiny tree crabs and large spiders crawling along those branches. After that warning, I avoid reaching for the branches, instead jabbing my oar at thick clusters of roots to try to change direction.