FL - Florida Keys - 2004/03/03 to 2004/03/13

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Bahia Honda State Park in the lower Florida Keys is a beautiful base for kayaking the islands of the Great White Heron Wildlife Refuge. Usually sold out a year in advance, I snagged a cancelled reservation for a campsite for 10 days, loaded up the kayaks on a trailer and took off for three weeks of Florida sun. From there we took several day trips to various nearby locations.

March is a horrible month, especially in Maryland. Winter has sunk its icy fangs into you. A few tantalizing warm days are sprinkled among rainy windy cloudy skies lowering over a sea of mud. The Chesapeake Bay water temperature is in the high 30's, and the ocean temperature is only slightly better. Getting excited about going out in the kayak is difficult. So when I saw a lonely entry of a cancelled reservation for Bahia Honda State Park in the beginning of March, I pounced upon it. My fingers flew over the keyboard as I entered my information into the Florida State Park reservation system. I pressed enter, waited with growing trepidation, and then....the confirmation came. It was mine. I was going to the Florida Keys! Palm fronds, azure waters, soft tropical breezes..........Ahhhhh!

So enough dreaming. Now that the $36.00 per night camp site was mine, a rather stiff price for a picnic table, a parking space and a shared rest-room, I needed to plan some day trips in the area.

Bahia Honda is one of two state parks in the Keys that allow camping. If you can't get in one of them, then you need to find space at a commercial park catering to fishermen and retirees with their stratolounger RVs. The picture below shows the location of the Florida Keys and the location of the two state parks along the string of islands threaded on route U. S. 1.

Map of the Florida Keys

Once I had my reservations and some plans, I told my kayak buddies. Fellow Susquehanna Flats Kayak Club members Julio, Steve and Mary decided to join me for a week of my trip by flying into Key West airport. The price of the flight from Miami to Key West was almost the same as the flight from Baltimore to Miami. We saved money by trailering all our kayaks down to the Keys instead of renting cars and boats down there. Most kayaks rented in the Keys are "sit on tops" for short paddling excursions and snorkeling. We prefer longer trips and touring kayaks. But I would have to be the one to take the boats down and back. We borrowed a trailer from Hal at Ultimate Water Sports where the guys give lessons during the summer.

It took two days to drive down the coast. I stopped in Ft. Lauderdale to visit my snowbird folks staying at a boat yard they have frequented for 45 years. There is always something exciting going on along New River, the river flowing through the heart of the city. Multi-million dollar yachts pass up and down the channel on a daily basis. I used the brief stop over to get a water proof chart of the Lower Keys from Bluewater Books & Charts. In this nautically oriented city, you can get anything marine. The next day I took off for the Keys.

Seven Mile Bridge
Portion of old roadway - Seven Mile Bridge

Billed as the "Islands you can drive to", the Florida Keys can be reached by driving through the southeastern most part of the Everglades along the western edge of Miami. Several toll expressways lead to the final connection with venerable U. S. Route 1. This road, which for many years was the major road north and south along the United State's eastern coast, ends in Key West in the south and the Canadian border in far away Maine in the north. Originally built on top of the abandoned railroad bridges of Flagler's Florida East Coast Railroad, it now parallels its old route on newly constructed pillars and road deck. Portions of the old roadway are accessible for walking and fishing. Two and a half miles of roadway is accessible on the east end of Seven Mile Bridge.

The history of the old railroad is quite interesting in itself. Henry Flagler, a multimillionaire from his early partnership with John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil, built Florida East Coast Railway. He was instrumental in the early development of cities along Florida's east coast, particularly Miami. He owned a number of large hotels on the coast in St. Augustine, Palm Beach and Miami. It was his personal obsession to build a railroad down through the keys to Key West, the Florida Overseas Railroad. He spent 20 million dollars on the technologically complex and advanced project. In the early 1900's, 20 million was a fantastic amount of money. Flagler saw the railroad as the gateway to Latin America. He expected the railroad to be the entry point for goods from all over Central and South America into the burgeoning United States. Many others called it "Flagler's Folly". Finally completed in 1912 just one year before Flagler's death, it never made money and was abandoned after being damaged in the hurricane of 1935. It saved many lives hauling evacuees out of the Keys before that devastating hurricane came ashore. The last train bringing out evacuees was toppled off the tracks by the wind.
This day there was a horrible head-on collision on the road from the mainland to the first of the Florida Keys. Head-ons are common on this road as many impatient people take chances passing slower vehicles on the two lane highway. In spite of the periodic sections of road with a passing lane, some people can't wait. The latest crash was so bad that the road was closed all morning.

I decided that instead of taking the detour around the smash up on the only alternate road to the keys, I would just kill an hour or so and visit the Biscayne National Park. Located on the western and southern shores of Biscayne Bay south of Miami. ( See our 2007 trip to Biscayne National Park ) The park is quite new and preserves the mangroves that have been developed out of existence along most of the rest of the Florida Gold coast. The park includes several small keys on the eastern edge of the Bay, the reefs to the ocean side of the bay and all the turtle grass flats in between. The route to the park is marked by the usual brown signs. Following them carefully through a series of right angle turns brings one to the Dante Fascell Visitor Center in the middle of the park. ( Map )

There is no admission fee to this park and the great launch ramp is free also. There are kayaks and canoes for rent there. The small visitor center provides a thoughtful look at the ecology and resources of the Biscayne Bay. Excursion boats leave twice daily for snorkeling and ferry service to the outlying keys. A boardwalk along the bay shore provides bird watching opportunities. There are picnic tables under shade trees along the well manicured paths for a pleasant stay near the water's edge.

The road was reopened while I was checking out the Park at Biscayne Bay, so I rolled right on down U.S. 1 onto the Keys. The upper keys are the most developed with lesser development as you progress down the keys until nearing Key West when things pick up again. It took about two hours to drive through the various islands and over the bridges between them to reach Bahia Honda Key and my home for the next week and a half.

Bahia Honda (Ba-hee-a On-da) means deep bay in Spanish. Just to the west of the island is an inlet of deep water connecting the flats to the north to the 20 foot deep water between the island and the reef some 5 miles out to sea. Beyond the reef, the Straits of Florida channels a portion of the Gulf Stream that comes out of the Gulf of Mexico. Squeezed between Florida Bay, its string of islands and the large island of Cuba 90 miles to the south, the swift warm current flows from west to east before turning northward to flow along the east coast of Florida.

The state park is the only development on Bahia Honda Key. The park is heavily used by day beach goers who pay $3.50 a head to use the beaches on the east and south sides of the islands. The high day usage and the near year around sell out of the campground make the rangers at this park very protective of the environment. Their Gestapo attitude was apparent from the first moment I arrived. I got hassled more here than any other park I have ever been in. They had rules for everything and cut no slack on any of them.

The park has 3 camping sections. One is over on the bay side of the island near the 6 rental cabins. It is more of an overflow type area with sites backed into the mangroves along a man-made lagoon. The bugs and the smell of rotting seaweed over there made me glad that I was not booked in there. The main camping area is intended primarily for camping rigs and it was full of RVs in size from normal to extra large. The sites are close packed with enough foliage for partial privacy. This area is next to the boat ramp and boat basin. The park concession is adjacent to a large parking area where boat trailers and my kayak trailer were to be parked. Next is the bathing beach. Finally a section of the bridge and the old highway is accessible, taking visitors out over the water. This is a favored spot for watching the sunset. There is also a great view of the beach, the entire island and the blue water between the two bridges.

The final camping area, Sandspur tenting area, is reached by a driveway along the shore. The drive is lined with palms and sea grape trees. Morning glories cover much of the rest of the vegetation. The shallow waters off the shore has an exposed sand bottom at high tide. This gives the water a wonderful palette of colors when the tide is high.

The northern end of the park is heavily vegetated with natural species and invasive species such as the Brazilian pepper plant. The park is attempting to eradicate the invaders, but I think it is a lost cause. Catbirds were distributing the seeds of the pepper plant much faster than park personnel or funding will ever halt. There were quite a few impressive gumbo limbo trees here. Gumbo limbo trees are also called "tourist trees" because of their red and peeling bark. On the very northern part of the park are two more bathing beach parking areas. This section of the beach was voted one of the world's ten best beaches in 1992. However, the beach is quite narrow and doesn't deserve such a high rating, at least at this time. The large amount of turtle grass washed up on the beach made it less pleasant as well. The grass is not removed as it protects the beach against erosion in the stormy winter months.

The camping sites in the Sandspur area are so small that no trailers can be parked there. I had to leave the boat trailer back at the boat ramp. While not as convenient for loading and unloading, it was a reasonable trade off for access to this area of the park. This section is very lovely with heavy vegetation and good distance between sites. I found my site #55, just one site from the bathroom, right on the edge of the beach. A very lovely spot. I backed in and set up camp.

By the time I set up camp, it was 3:30 PM. The wind was blowing hard and the waves were pounding the shore of the beach across from the campsite. I decided to skip going out that afternoon. I decided to do a little car exploring and check out this park and the neighboring island, Big Pine Key, the largest of the Florida Keys. While looking for a launch site on Big Pine, I came across these three out for a leisurely afternoon bike ride. The macaw sat peacefully on the handle bars. The cockatoo was worked up about a dog coming down the street. When the man said, "Eddie, look at the dog." the cockatoo started a high pitched "woof woof woof" that was hilarious. Just another citizen of the Conch Republic.

I found a good launch site at the end of the road providing access to the north end of Big Pine Key. It was guarded by this iguana which I just got a fuzzy picture of before he ran off deeper into the shaded mangroves.

On Big Pine is an area of walking trails and a pond of fresh water, referred to locally as a "Blue Hole". It is not a blue hole in the usual sense of a inland body of water connected to the ocean with tidal flow, but rather a quarry that has filled in with fresh water. There is a trail around its edge and an observation platform where I met both of the two resident alligators. A number of large fish and some carp seemed to know the proper distance to maintain. However, the plump nature of these 'gators intimated that their judgement was not that good.

This island is famous for its population of Key Deer, a miniature species of deer. They look just like regular white tail deer, just about a quarter of the size. I saw several as dusk fell. The mosquitos were not out in any profusion, possibly because of the wind. I was prepared with my spray in any case. I returned to camp for dinner and then sat in the moonlight under the overhanging tree swaying in the stiff southeast wind. Sleep was not far off.

I awoke the next morning to continued strong winds of 20 to 25 knots. In March the wind often blows strong the whole month, and this would prove to be the case on this trip. Most scenes of kayaking in the Keys show flat water reflecting clear sky. But in winter months, it is more likely to resemble the picture to the left. Nice on land, OK on the beach, but difficult for paddling. The wind comes mostly from the southeast, aligning perfectly with the shape of the islands ( not a coincidence ), and making it difficult to utilize a lee. I even had trouble getting a good picture of the morning glories and tiger butterflies at my camp site.

Bahia Honda is one of the few islands in the lower keys that is oriented east west. So there was a lee to the north side of the key. I decided to launch and paddle around the north side up to Seven Mile Bridge on the east side of this group of islands. About a mile from the beginning of the bridge is Monkey Key, which I would visit if the wind was not too strong. I launched at the boat ramp in the park and headed out through the boat basin. The water in the channel was calm in the protected lee and there was very little current running. It was easy paddling until I turned the corner and started heading east where the wind found me as it skipped over the low mangroves. With such little fetch and the shallow water, there were no waves to speak of but the constant pressure of the wind made progress difficult.

Turtle grass flats extend from the shore to several hundred yards north of the Bahia Honda Key shoreline. These rich nurseries are the dominant feature of the Lower Keys. They are so shallow at low tide that even the 3" draft of a kayak can not pass over them. Not deep enough to cover a paddle blade, the increased resistance of the bottom creates a pronounced drag on your kayak. However, the numbers of different creatures that depend on these meadows of grass is astounding. I paddled over the shallow area, which had much clearer water than the deeper areas, spotting sea cucumbers, sea slugs, nematodes and darting fish shapes in and on top of the gently swaying branches of the turtle grass.

I battled my way up to the end of the island group to the start of parallel spans of the old Flagler Railroad topped by the crumbling remains of the old roadbed and the new concrete pillars of the current road. The old bridge supports built nearly 100 years ago and not maintained for the last 20 years or so were is remarkably good condition. Built to support the much greater weight of a fully loaded train, they were much more substantial than the tall spindly legs of the current roadway.
The bulky mass of the train bridge cut the 20+ knot wind down to make paddling less of a chore. But the wind was funneled through the arches at even greater speed. Paddling behind the bridge was a strange scene of intermittent wind and relative calm. I paddled east along the bridge until I was opposite Monkey Key, then I struck out through the bridge and headed over to the uninhabited isle.

Monkey Key had little place to land and what was there was being ground constantly by breaking waves. I decided not to land but rather circumnavigate the island and head back to the park on the south side of the islands, riding with the wind and the surf. The roiled waters out in the open were a bright turquoise under the clear skies. The three foot waves would mount over the shallow bars, break and spill over the back of the wave and then diminish as the water deepened once more. They were perfect for surfing and I had a great ride back to the park boat ramp. I could surf in toward the coast, then paddle back out and surf back in as I zig zagged westward.

I got back in plenty of time to clean up my gear and head to Key West to pick up my friends at the airport. We had a great Mahi Mahi fish taco dinner at a restaurant on Duval street in Key West. We returned late that night. In the following days we would take several day trips in the Lower Keys area, but today's 12 mile paddle was a great introduction to the Keys and a good use of an otherwise poor weather day.

Arrival at Bahia Honda and circumnavigation

Day trip to Snipe Key

Rest day playing tourist on Islamorada and Bahia Honda Keys

Day trip to Content Keys

Day trip to Looe Key

1/2 Day trip at Bahia Honda

Day trip to Johnston Key

Day trip to Coupon Bight




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