We are paddling offshore of Big Pine Key in the Lower Keys. Calm water reflects the azure sky, forming a Caribbean-like mirage. Beneath our hulls, a blue-green field of water frames darker shapes. The 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 our boats, we’ve seen a Southern stingray the size of a car hood on the silty bottom near the Barracuda Keys. Sharks schooled around us on the back side of Little Pine Key. In the Dusenbury Grottos, tiny starfish cling to sponges on red mangrove roots. A skinny fish tailed across the flats off Dreguez Key, its prey firmly lodged in vice-grip jaws. And minutes after this display of raw nature, a small seahorse, a most delicate creature, swam past.
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Every day can be extraordinary in the Keys. From mangrove-lined creeks around 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.
Drive over the Jewfish Creek Bridge near the end of the 18-mile Stretch, or over high-arching Card Sound Bridge, and you cross an imaginary line. Behind, mainland United States. Ahead, the Florida Keys, 100-plus miles of coral rock islands linked by a highway and 43 bridges, bounded by shallow waters of Florida Bay and America’s only living coral barrier reef.
A quick stop at the Caribbean Club, setting for scenes from the 1948 movie Key Largo, sets the stage. Soaking in the atmosphere, listening to clattering wild parrots flock from one palm to the next, you spy out on Blackwater Sound a small boat moving slowly toward a far line of trees. It is a kayaker, headed out to explore Dusenbury Creek.
Within an hour of parking, you’re slipping into a quiet creek. The canopy of red mangroves forms a winding tunnel. Sunlight dapples a leaf here, a spot of water there. Down into the clear water, fish swim away from your boat.
Mainland? What mainland? Welcome to the Keys.
If divers come to the Upper Keys for the offshore coral reef, kayakers come for clear, shallow nearshore waters. At Garden Cove, MM 106 on the oceanside, tips of turtle grass emerge from the water at low tide. Kayaks can skim across this watery meadow with ease to a creek entering Rattlesnake Key, a densely forested mangrove island. The canopy provides critical habitat for foraging and nesting birds.
Your approach may startle a heron or egret. “Old Cranky” is one nickname for these wading birds; their loud call — an impatient-sounding “gaaaak” — bears this out. Beyond Rattlesnake, five-mile-long Elradabob Key, inside John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, is riven with small mangrove creeks and tunnels to explore.
This kind of sheltered, nearshore paddling is characteristic of the Upper Keys. Near Tavernier, the narrow confines of Dove Creek empty into a quiet lake. And in the heart of busy Islamorada, it’s possible to slip among the mangroves that line Little Basin to the small tuckaways where nurse sharks and rays lurk.
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.
The view from high atop Channel 5 Bridge as you cross from Craig Key to Long Key seems the epitome of the Keys ideal: remote islands framed by Caribbean blue water. Ideals aside, this snapshot captures nicely the transition from Upper to Middle Keys.
From here, the main islands taper into a narrow, linear chain. For 33 miles — across Long Key, Grassy Key, Key Vaca and a host of smaller islands set in between — are points where only a few hundred yards of land separate ocean and bay. Instead of the nearshore mangrove islands that typify the Upper Keys, there is more open water and hardbottom communities. Swaths of white sand bottom frame striking orange sea stars and burnt-red sea cucumbers.
The dearth of sheltered paddling makes areas like Long Key Lakes, inside Long Key State Park, all the more treasured. Here, kayaks and canoes glide inches above a silty bottom replete with Cassiopeia jellyfish. Scores of tiny killifish create glittering silver rainbows as they jump from the water.
Amid the Whisky Creek mangroves in the heart of Marathon’s 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.” 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 to Conch Key is its best display. From a boat you can see up close what you can’t in a car: The architecture of the Long Key Viaduct. In name and appearance, this bridge conjures up Romanesque grandeur. In a bygone era, the 186 “spandrel arches” across 2½ miles of open water carried passenger rail cars on a narrow track 30 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 took on 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 the Keys as a tropical paradise.
The Lower Keys are nothing like what precedes it. 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 sponges predominate in 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 Backcountry. Birding is phenomenal in this vital nesting habitat for the namesake of the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge. Royal terns group on a sandbar near the Contents, intermingled with laughing gulls and the odd oystercatcher. Near the Mud Keys, osprey soaring high overhead issue their signature whistle as they scan 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 the mangrove flats from Cutoe Key to Cayo Agua.
A string of islands starts at the Content Keys and runs southwest to include the Sawyers, Barracudas, Marvin, Snipe Point, Mud Keys and Lower Harbor Keys. A small reef abruptly marks the boundary between the Keys’ shallow waters and the deeper Gulf of Mexico. It is an ambitious open water journey for a kayak, between five and seven miles from convenient put-ins. But a trip out to the edge of the nearshore waters is not soon forgotten.
Mai nland Florida is a distant memory by the time you reach Big Pine Key, where some still live off the grid. 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 story about that 12-foot shark that bumped the boat.
An old dog greets you at the Sugarloaf Airport, a favorite of movie directors filming Third World airport scenes. Within sight of the airstrip, Five Mile Creek takes you into a mangrove forest via a network of deep, crystal-clear creeks lined with sponges and starfish.
Remember that imaginary line on U.S. 1? It’s been a few hours since you 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 small brown nurse shark swimming away. What’s certain is you’ve never paddled in a place quite like Keys.
This article is based on the Burnhams’ new FalconGuide, Florida Keys Paddling Atlas (Globe Pequot Press, 2007).
From mom-and-pop motels to luxurious resorts, “The Florida Keys Paddling Atlas” lists dozens of establishments that don’t mind you launching your kayak or pulling up on their beach in wet shorts and sandy feet. Just plug in the GPS coordinates (in parenthesis), and head out for the day or a week. Here’s but a selection:
Where to stay
- Sunset Cove Beach Resort, 877-451-0705, www.sunsetcovebeachresort.com. Efficiency cottages with a lively beach at MM 99, Key Largo. (Global Position: N25 05.606 W80 26.655). Cottages, $115-$225.
- Cheeca Lodge & Spa, 800-327-2888, www.cheeca.com. From beachside cabanas to multi-bedroom condos, this elegant resort lets you come as you are. At MM 82, Islamorada. (N24 54 936 W80 37 975). Rooms from $199.
- Coconut Cay Resort & Marina, 877-354-7356, www.coconutcay.com. Colorful efficiencies at MM 51 in Marathon. (N24 43.245 W 81 03.821). Rooms, $69-$179.
- Old Wooden Bridge Guest Cottages and Marina, 305-872-2241, www.oldwoodenbridge.com. Efficiency motel, store, and kayaks on Big Pine Key. (N24 41.843 W081 20.909). Rooms, $90-$190.
- Sugar Loaf Lodge & Restaurant, 800-553-6097, www.sugarloaflodge.com. Waterfront rooms, restaurant, marina at MM 17 on Upper Sugarloaf Sound. (N24 38.831 W81 33.919). Rooms, $105-$155.
Where to eat
- The Buzzards Roost, MM 106.5, Key Largo, 305-453-3746, www.buzzroost.com. Fresh Florida seafood. Kayak-level dock. (N25 10.228 W80 22.286). Entrees, $12.95-$23.95.
- Island Grill, MM 85.5, Islamorada, 305-664-8400, www.keysislandgrill.com. Land on gravel beach at this lively lunch and dinner spot. Live music nightly. (N24 57.091 W80 35.316). Entrees, $11.95-$26.95.
- Geiger Key Smokehouse & Tiki Bar, 305-296-3553, www.geigerkeymarina.com. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner at Geiger Key Marina, MM 11. (N24 34.905 W081 38.910). Sandwiches, $6.95-$11.95.
- Hurricane Joe’s Bar & Seafood Grill, 305-294-0200. Great spot to begin or end a day of paddling the Key West Salt Ponds. Next to Lazy Dog outfitters on Stock Island, MM 4.5. (N24 34.262 W81 44.853). Entrees, $17-$35.
Meet the authors
Mary and Bill Burnham, authors of the Florida Keys Paddling Atlas, a FalconGuide by Globe Pequot Press, will appear at these book-signings:
- Saturday, Dec. 8, 1-3 p.m.; Jet’s Florida Outdoors, 9696 Bird Rd., Miami; 305-221-1371.
- Friday, Dec. 14, 5-7 p.m.; Backcountry Cowboy Outfitters; MM 82.2 B/S, U.S. 1, Islamorada; 305-517-4177.
- Saturday, Dec. 15, all day starting at 10 a.m.; Florida Bay Outfitters, MM 104 O/S, Key Largo; 305-451-3018.
Paddle with the authors
Sunday, Dec. 16, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; Florida Bay Outfitters, MM 104 O/S, Key Largo; 305-451-3018. Free to those who purchase a book; rentals available from FBO.