FL - Cedar Keys - 2007/01/20 - 11.9 miles

Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge on Florida Nature Coast is a 1929 addition to the National Wildlife Management system. With a long history of development in early Florida history, these islands are now reverting to a natural state. They make for an easy and safe place to paddle on a day trip.

Lying off the developed key of Cedar Key just offshore of the coast are four small keys, Atsena Otie, Snake Key, Seahorse Key and North Key. Three islands are designated as wilderness areas. Seahorse Key is one of largest bird nesting sites in northern Florida. At certain periods of the year, approaching the island is forbidden. With the exception of Atsena Otie, walking into the interior of the islands above the high water mark is banned. Atsena Otie was the site of the old Faber pencil company sawmill that prepared southern red cedar logs harvested from the mainland for use in pencils.

The area has a number of deep leads in from the open Gulf of Mexico through the islands and approaching the inland Cedar Key. This natural deep water is the only access close in to shore in the region. Goods being brought down from the plantations along the Suwannee River were brought by paddle wheel steamers to the Cedar Key area for loading onto deep draft sailing vessels that accessed the Gulf through this channel. Although shipping commerce has long since bypassed Cedar Keys, the small community has transitioned to a tourist based economy with bed and breakfast accomodations, rental condominiums and restaurants overlooking the water.
Along the shore on First Street is a large parking lot and launch ramps looking south onto the open water. Electric golf carts and plastic Heritage recreational style kayak rentals are available from Kayak Cedar Keys. The irrepressible Tom Liebert also provides guided tours and cheerily provides a running history of the islands, the Faber pencil company development on Atsena Otie ( At' sen a O' ti pronounced "correctly" or Sen a ot e pronounce locally ) key and the other keys in the area.

At one corner of the parking lot next to the community park beach are two parking spots reserved for kayak unloading. The upper beach here is sandy, but at anything but near full high tide, you will be dealing with some sticky mud on the gently sloping foreshore. At low tide the carry to the water is about 50 meters. As an alternative, if you follow First Street north until it turns east, there is an oyster shell beach with a wide shoulder for parking that provides a closer and more solid launch spot. There are some small rocks scattered on the shore here so some care is required when coming in on a high tide. But at least the bottom is firm.

From the launch areas, Atsena Otie is just over .6 miles away. There is a collapsed dock on the Northwest corner of the island that server as the loading dock for the sawmill. On shore are some remains of the old saw mill including some bricks and steel from the boilers. There is a path through the middle of the island that leads back to a small cemetery. Along the path is a old wind vane and cistern that provided water for the operation.

From the north side of the island a small lead goes back into the interior of the island. At high tide this path is navigable into a large shallow lagoon. I was there at half flood tide and was only able to get part way up the inlet before grounding out in the soft mud. Outcrops and small groups of sharp shelled oysters waited to munch on my fiberglass hull so I decided to turn around and continue my circumnavigation. Raccoons were rummaging across the oyster reefs looking for any food opportunity. I saw four mangy fur balls within 100 meters of shoreline. I also saw a large bald eagle nest with a mature bird in attendence and another bald eagle flying between Atsena Otie and Snake Key.

The northeast side of Atsena Otie island is shallow and the bar extends south to Snake Key about 1.8 miles away. Current flows over the shallow bar on its way in and out of the large bay behind it. At half tide the current was about 1 to 1.5 knots. With the current and shallow water and against a 15 knot head wind, the passage over to Snake Key took longer than it appeared it should. I landed on the northwest corner of the key on a pretty beach. Tracks for raccoons and a turtle were pressed into the solid sand along the heavily vegetated shoreline.

Back in the kayak, I paddled around Snake Key, with the shallow water forcing me to be well away from the beach at times. Rounding the southwest tip of the island, I came into a small lagoon with another passage back out to the south that I had not noticed on my trip around the southern side of the island. The sky was perfectly reflected in the still water of the protected shallow lagoon. Small fish were chasing even smaller fish over the mud covered by just a few inches of water. This lagoon might be completely empty at low tide. White herons stalked the unwary fish along the edges of the water.

I paddled out of the lagoon and headed west toward Seahorse Key across the marked channel. During low tide when most of the water is constricted to this narrow channel, I would imagine that the current could be strong here. With no wind and nearing high tide the current was not significant. Seahorse Key appears to be a treed sand dune that has formed a high and eroding bluff on the south side. At 28 feet, it is the highest point along the coast for the entire west coast of Florida. To take advantage of this height, a lighthouse was constructed on the bluff. Trees have grown up around the lighthouse and it is no longer visible. A biological laboratory is housed at the dock serving the lighthouse on the north side of the island. No entry is allowed on the shore of Seahorse Key and even approaching the key is off limits at certain times of the year when the birds are nesting there.

I approached via the southwest side of the key where a long beautiful beach stretched along the entire south side of Seahorse Key. The tall bluff was eroding onto the beach and the bones of trees that had toppled down the cliff littered the beach.

As it was not nesting season, access to the beach was allowed so I stopped and used one of the downed trees as a camera stand for a self portrait. On the beach were some interesting shells and the bleached skeletons of the oldest creature still on earth, the horseshoe crab. It felt good to get out and walk up the sugar white sand beach under the deep blue sky.

Back in the kayak I paddled around the west end of the key and into another lagoon. This one was much deeper and the fish racing around in it were larger. Fringed with palms and dense vegetation, a large flock of grackles chattered away in the tree tops. Several small inviting white sand beaches were still exposed by the not yet high tide. A toppled palm leaned well out over the beach. Another stop provided a pleasant half hour sitting in the warm sun and watching the birds flying overhead and working the sides of the lagoon.

I got back into the kayak and paddled back the four miles to the launch point. By now the tide was almost full and I pulled right onto the sand portion of the beach where I had launched in the mud just 6 hours previously. At high tide it was a marvelous place to launch. The soft glow of another Gulf of Mexico sunset was warming the western sky. I loaded up the boat and drove down First Street to watch the sun set at the other launch spot. Next time I plan to get in a little earlier, put on some clean clothes and watch the sun go down from the deck of one of the bars or restaurant over the water.




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