“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Cedar Key, Florida

"Well, it got pretty damn grim around here for a while." says Captain Ron, "I had a couple of shots taken at my boat." We've chartered Ron's boat for the day and, while we pull speckled trout one after another into the boat, he is telling us about the rancor and conflict that accompanied efforts to implement a commercial net fishing ban in Florida. "Fishing is big around here and you don't mess with fishing without causing problems. It was the commercial men against the sportsmen."

While the rest of Florida agonizes over condo building permits, beach development, and real estate deals, the big issue in Cedar Key is fishing. That's because fishing is still a way of life here; condos, restaurants, and amusement parks have not yet arrived to destroy the key's easy ambience and convert the locals into shills for timeshares and beach front lots. A laid back vestige of the Florida of the 1950's, Cedar Key is a small unassuming town with no stop lights, fast food joints, four lane roads, or sprawling condominiums to muck up the place. Handpainted signs advertising fresh bait are the norm and many of the locals still make an honest living from fishing and sponging. A couple of bars on the main drag turn lively on weekend nights with an easy mix of locals and refugees, but for the most part the town is quiet. In short, Cedar Key is what the rest of Florida was like before it was ruined. Seemingly indifferent to the pursuit of the tourist dollar, the town is largely devoid of T-shirt shacks, trendy restaurants, and condos.

Situated at the end of a desolate stretch of two-lane highway on Florida's western coast, the town of Cedar Key sits on the island of the same name, a tiny speck of land surrounded by marshland and mangrove. Nearby, Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge's twelve islands lie within five miles of the town pier. Isolated and lightly visited, the Refuge islands offer outstanding beachcombing and fishing. The refuge is the highlight of a stretch of uncommercialized Florida that reaches from just below Tallahassee nearly to Tampa. This western coastal area, aptly called the nature coast by locals, is a paradise of tidal flats, tangled mangrove swamp, and marshes which have stymied development. Swamps and mangrove may be nirvana for fish but they don't have the appeal of a white sandy beach on the cover of a real estate brochure.

Captain Ron beaches our boat on the soft sand of North Key and scatters hundreds of tiny ghost crabs in front of us. A short, distinctive hiss resembling steam from a boiler drifts across the bay. We look around to see two bottlenose porpoises surfacing fifty yards off of the beach. The exhaled mist from their vent holes hangs in the still afternoon air, glistening in the hot blue Florida sky. Other than the great blue herons stalking the island's ponds and the blackheaded gulls wheeling overhead, the porpoises are our only companions all day. The lack of facilities and the fact that these islands are accessible only by boat means that they are not visited by hordes of sun worshipers. So you can pretty well be assured that you will have the place to yourself if you are ambitious enough to boat to any of the keys.

If you prefer not to take the Captain Ron route, sea kayak or canoe is the way to go. The nearest island to Cedar Key, Atsena Otie (Seminole for "cedar island"), is within an easy fifteen minute paddle of the Cedar Key pier. This pretty little dot of an island is neat for exploring the old cemetery, building foundations, and the remnants of a pencil factory that once dominated the island. An ancient wooden pier extending from the west end of the island makes an excellent fishing spot and a sliver of white beach provides shelling opportunities.

The twelve islands of the refuge demand a little more exertion to reach, but most of the water, though open, is shallow and dotted with shifting sandbars that provide convenient opportunities to stop and rest along the way. Each of the islands offers solitude, wildlife, and natural beauty. Seahorse Key, the refuge's largest island, is dominated by a large central ridge that rises some fifty feet above the water surface. A lighthouse that was built on the island in 1851 and used as a military prison during the Civil War still stands on the key.

Back at North Key, we drop the fishing gear and do our Robinson Crusoe routine, walking aimlessly along the key's edge while Ron takes a siesta. The incoming tide rushes through a narrow inlet on the north side of North Key, pooling into a small natural bowl before disappearing into the palmetto, cabbage palm, live oak, and red cedar of the interior. Sitting on the edge of this impromptu pond, we watch a pair of osprey feed their fledging young, then reluctantly rouse Ron and head back to Cedar Key before the sun dips below the horizon.

After docking at the marina we grab a cold one at the local bar, then sit on the edge of the bridge to take in the sunset. I reach for my camera as the sun burns orange and flaming red over the water, silhouetting an abandoned beach house sitting on stilts in the bay. But then I say to hell with it and just watch the show. A picture can't come close to the real thing, just like the rest of Florida can't come close to Cedar Key.