Wednesday, May 4, 2011
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.
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.
Labels: Cedar Key