Paddling in Paradise

by Bill & Mary Burnham

WE ARE PADDLING offshore of Big Pine Key in the Lower Keys. It’s a clear day, and calm water reflects back the azure sky, forming a shimmering Caribbean-like mirage. Beneath our boats, a blue-green field of water frames darker shapes. The water surface ripples like some giant’s taut muscular skin. With each stroke, we fall into a living tapestry of sky and water.

In the virtual aquarium beneath a kayak, a Southern stingray the size of a car hood lies on the silty bottom off the Barracuda Keys. Sharks school on the back side of Little Pine Key. Tiny starfish cling to sponges on red mangrove roots through the Dusenbury Grottos. A skinny fish tails across nearshore flats off Dreguez Key, its prey firmly lodged in vice-grip jaws. And minutes after this display of raw nature, a small seahorse, one of the most delicate of creatures, floats past.

In the Florida Keys, the every day can be extraordinary. From mangrove-lined creeks in Key Largo to magnificent frigatebirds soaring above the remote Dry Tortugas, these shallow tropical waters possess wonders — natural and man-made — unmatched in the continental United States.

Upper Keys

When southbound traffic passes over the Jewfish Creek Bridge near the south end of the 18-mile stretch, or over high arching Card Sound Bridge, they cross an imaginary line. Behind them, mainland United States. Ahead of them, the Florida Keys, 100-plus miles of coral rock islands linked by a highway and 43 bridges, bounded by shallow Caribbean-like waters of Florida Bay and America’s only living coral barrier reef tract.

Mainland or island? At first glance, it’s difficult to tell in the Upper Keys. Key Largo’s four-lane highway and shopping centers give it a bit of the mainland feel. A quick stop-off at the Caribbean Club, setting for scenes from the 1948 Humphrey Bogart movie, Key Largo, dispels such notions. Off the bar’s back deck, Blackwater Sound laps up against boat slips.

Soaking in the atmosphere, listening to clattering wild parrots that flock from one palm to the next, you might spy on the water a small boat moving slowly toward the far line of trees. It is a kayaker, headed out to explore Dusenbury Creek.

Within an hour of parking, you’re in a kayak, slipping into a quiet creek. Red mangroves canopy overhead, forming a winding tunnel. Sunlight dapples a leaf here, a spot of water there. Down into the clear water, you see sponges and fish swim away from your boat.

If divers come to the Upper Keys for the offshore coral reef tract, kayakers come for clear, shallow nearshore waters. Water depth averages five to seven feet, and submerged mud banks form a patchwork of tiny lakes or lagoons. Hundreds of mangrove islands are critical bird foraging and nesting grounds. Except for three specially designated islands, landing or wading within 100 feet of any mangrove island in Florida Bay is prohibited within Everglades National Park, which encompasses much of the bay.

Sheltered paddling on the oceanside is characteristic of the Upper Keys. A string of oceanside islands begins with Rattlesnake and Elradabob Keys, near John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Both are riven with small mangrove creeks and tunnels. Farther south, Rodriguez, Dove, and Tavernier Keys stand alone, surrounded by seagrass meadows and patches of white sand that, on clear days, reflect back the cloudless blue sky.

The dangerous business of salvaging ships that wrecked on the reef — known as “wrecking” — and an Indian massacre are two hallmarks in the history of Indian Key, a small lump of coral rock offshore of Islamorada that has figured prominently in Upper Keys history and lore. A one-time seat of Dade County, it is now a state park, as is nearby Lignumvitae Key, where there’s evidence of an Indian burial ground. Landing is permitted on both islands (use kayak landing/launch areas, not the government docks), and rangers provide tours twice daily, Thursday through Monday. On Lignumvitae, there’s a grassy area for picnicking, a pit toilet, the 1919 Matheson historic house museum and a nature trail through the virgin forest. Beware the mosquitoes, and enter the interior only on a ranger-led tour.

Middle Keys

In a glance, the view from the bridge high above Channel 5, which you cross between Craig Key and Long Key, seems the epitomy of that popular Florida Keys ideal: a remote island framed by Caribbean blue water. Ideals aside, this snapshot captures nicely the transition from Upper to Middle Keys.

Beginning at Craig Key, the principal islands tapers into a narrow, linear chain. For thirty-three miles — across Long Key, Grassy Key, Key Vaca, and a host of smaller islands set in between — there are points where only a few hundred yards of land separate ocean and bay. There are fewer nearshore mangrove islands, of the kind that typify the Upper Keys. This layout, coupled with fewer coral reef tracts offshore, shapes the kayaker’s experience. The bottom is patchy grass, intermixed with hardbottom communities. Patches of white sand bottom frame brightly colored sea stars and sea cucumbers. Soft corals, sea whips, and hardbottom sponges populate these areas, and are especially notable around Molasses and Money Keys.

A dearth of sheltered paddling makes areas with such character all the more special. In Long Key Lakes, part of Long Key State Park, kayaks and canoes glide inches above a silty bottom replete with Cassiopei, or ‘upside-down’ jellyfish. Scores of tiny killifish create glittering silver rainbows as they jump from the water. Likewise, in the Whisky Creek mangroves in the heart of Boot Key, narrow creeks link three interior lakes. Mullet jump in frenzied fashion as you push through a break of mangrove branches into yet another shallow, seagrass-lined ‘room’. Wading birds flush from the trees. A circuit through this wonderland clocks in at only two miles, but it takes a full day of paddling to soak in the beauty.

If open water distinguishes the Middle Keys, the crossing from Long Key and Conch Key is its best display. From a boat, it is possible to see up close what people in cars never do: The architecture of the Long Key Viaduct. In name and appearance, this bridge conjures Romanesque grandeur. In a bygone era, its 186 “spandrel arches” that span two-and-a-half miles of open water carried passenger rail cars on a narrow track thirty feet above the water. The bridge was the “first completed triumph” of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad, writes Pat Parks in her book, “The Railroad that Died at Sea.”

With the coming of the railroad, the Florida Keys were learning a new identity, one far removed from that of an isolated archipelago suitable for only the toughest and hardiest pioneers. Flagler built the Florida East Coast Railroad’s Key West Extension to link Miami with Key West, and to cash in on Cuba’s proximity. Long Key Fish Camp, it’s been written, was the Florida Key’s first “resort.” Built as a work camp, Flagler had the cabins converted into lodging for guests of the railroad. Postcard images of small seaside shacks set amid silver palms did much to boost the image of Keys as a tropical paradise.

A creek on Long Key bears the name of Zane Grey, the famed Western writer, who frequented Long Key Fish Camp. Locals use it for access to the ocean, but paddlers will find two hidden delights in the form of short, narrow mangrove passages near the mouth. Twice-daily tides keep waters here clean and clear, making it easy to see the mangrove snapper that school amid submerged roots. Small sharks congregate near the mouth to feed on fish that ride the tides in and out.

Lower Keys

The Lower Keys are nothing like what precedes it up the island chain. With a healthy does of imagination, they appear on a map as if someone smeared them across shallow waters of the backcountry. Islands are oriented northwest-to-southeast, divided by long, wide channels. Soft corals and colorful sponges predominate in many nearshore hardbottom environments. The channels, by contrast, are carpeted with turtle and manatee grass.

More than 200,000 acres of water and small islands make up the Lower Keys backcountry. Here visitors can view a great white heron—a color variant of the great blue heron—hunt in shallow water alongside Big Pine Key. Royal terns group on a sandbar near the Content Keys, intermingled with laughing gulls and the odd oystercatcher. The shoals around the Water Keys are littered with burnt orange-colored sea cucumbers. As you approach the Mud Keys, osprey soar overhead and issue a sharp-pitched whistle as it scans the water for prey. White and brown pelicans, little blue herons, tri-colored herons, great egrets, snowy egrets, and a host of wading birds work swampy mangrove flats from Cutoe Key to Cayo Agua. West of Key West, loggerhead turtles nest on natural sand beaches.

The north tips of three large Lower Keys islands—Big Pine, Little Torch and Cudjoe—offer an intriguing mix of shallow water, hardbottom flats and sheltered shorelines. Purple and red sponges dot the bottom. Stingrays raise a cloud of silt as they flee your approach. Closer to U.S. 1, paddlers will find classic Keys mangrove tunnels within Perky and Fivemile creeks.

The highlight of the backcountry has to be a string of islands that start at the Content Keys and run southeast to include the Sawyers, Barracudas, Marvin, Snipe Point, Mud and Lower Harbor Keys. At low tide, miles of sandbars are exposed and recreational boaters pull up onto them for a few hours of lounging in the sand and sun. These are as remote as they are beautiful It is an ambitious open water journey for a kayak, set as they are between five and seven miles offshore from convenient put-ins. But a trip out to the “edge of the nearshore waters,” as we’ve come to term them, is one not soon forgotten.

Mainland Florida is a distant memory by Big Pine Key. Off the highway, places like the No Name Pub and Geiger Key Marina don’t mimic someone’s idea of the Keys—they are the Keys: Good food and cold beer, and an ear you can bend with a good story about that twelve-foot bull shark that bumped the boat. An old dog greets you at the Sugarloaf Airport. If you’re to believe every story you’re told, movie directors use this location for Third World airport scenes. What’s undeniable is the beauty of Five Mile Creek, within sight of the airstrip, and the creeks that wend their way through the deep mangrove forest around Five Mile. In the lower Keys, such creek systems are few and far between, and appreciated all the more because of that.

Remember that imaginary line you crossed on U.S. 1, when you entered the Florida Keys and left the mainland behind? It’s been a few hours since we crossed it, and you’ve slipped into the quiet of a mangrove creek. Perhaps a manatee has gently bumped the underside of your kayak, or poked its grey snout and rough whiskers out of the water. Maybe you’ve been startled by the sudden “whoosh” of a stingray or nurse shark swimming away.

What’s certain is you’ve never paddled in a place quite like Keys. •

Bill and Mary Burnham are authors of The Florida Keys Paddling Atlas, published this summer by Globe Pequot Press. Their book, the result of three-and-half years researching Keys paddling destinations, features 52 charts of the Keys from Angelfish Creek to the Dry Tortugas. There are notes on creeks, bird watching and snorkeling, as well as lists of outfitters, lodging, great places to eat, and Keys history. It is available at Amazon.com. In the coming year, the Burnhams will produce two more Florida guidebooks: The Florida Beach Guide, and Wild Florida Islands for the University Press of Florida. Keep up with their travels at www.FloridaPaddling.com.

from the May-June 2007 issue