I wrote this story a long time ago… and forgot about it until I stumbled across it in my files. It’s a nature-travel piece about Cedar Key, Florida, and what this unique place means to me.
It’s starkly bright. I pull my visor lower. Out here on the glassy Gulf water off Cedar Key, the crisp morning clarity borders on surreal. The fabric of my childhood is interwoven in this island-dotted waterscape, where mainland Florida begins its westward curve toward the panhandle.
I am paddling my kayak toward a small island and bird refuge, Seahorse Key. It lies low and proud off my bow while Cedar Key and Atsena Otie grow smaller behind me. A belted kingfisher flaps overhead. Three double-crested cormorants gaze warily from channel-marker perches.
Something about these islands pulled at me so deeply last night that I just had to drive up today, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint the source of my hankering. A salty northeaster’ licks my cheeks with familiarity. It whisks me back through childhood memories as numerous as the turtle grass splayed sideways under my hull, their soft blades pulled semi-taut by the estuarine tide.
Growing up, my family trailored our 18-foot Grady White to Cedar Key almost every weekend. We caught redfish, Spanish mackerel and sheepshead. We prowled mudflats for stone crabs on 20-degree mornings. But really, we came for the simple soul-freeing feeling of being out on our boat.
I vividly recall, at the age of 7 or 8, jauntily walking the oyster bars in my mom’s too-large scuba booties. A handyman’s apron full of warm, limp shrimp hung from my waist. Trying to overcome my squeamishness enough to pierce a still-alive shrimp with a hook, my father’s tall profile caught my attention. His arm was raised back, poised to send a cast flying off the tip of the oyster bar.
Skewering the shrimp with finality – determined to make him proud – I sent my next cast careening over Corrigan’s reef, without a backlash. Kerplunk. The sound of it hitting the surface triggered a surge of inner pride as broad as the fluid horizon.
Back in the present, cold water spatters off my paddle and sprays my calves. Dried salt patterns cake my legs.
I squint and scan the tree line of Seahorse Key, looking for the white punctuation of the Cedar Key Lighthouse. The historical structure remains hidden, for the moment. Each summer between the ages of 14 to 18 I attended marine biology camp on this island. It remains a magical part of my childhood. We slept in rickety bunk beds in the historic lighthouse, built in 1854 atop the highest point. During midnight low tides we caught fish with seine nets on the artificial reefs. By moonlight we piloted canoes across the flats. Our paddles left sparkly, green trails from bioluminescent plankton. We collected specimens on the mudflats at high and low tide, the same ones my family stone crabbed each fall.
Breaking my reverie, a porpoise’s melon-shaped head bobs into view off my stern. Sunlight glints off her torso. Her dorsal fin cleanly slices the surface. Frozen in mid-paddle, I watch. She rolls deep, dives, and stays down. I slip the paddle blade in noiselessly and push onward. A few minutes later she exhales a two-syllable spray of mist. “Pf-oouf.”
Suddenly a mullet shoots three feet high, spooked by the predator. Its body is arched in an effort to flee. Fast. It lands flatly in a heavy crash. With a tail-flip-kick-start the dolphin accelerates. A dark shadow pursuing her meal.
“Enjoy your lunch,” I say aloud then scout the now-near beach of Seahorse Key for a good place to enjoy mine. Startlingly cold water greets my feet as I step out onto spongy sand the color and consistency of oatmeal.
I pull the boat safely up to rest on mounds of dried Sargasso and turtle grass. Ghost crabs skitter shyly back and forth. Sand gives way to a thicket of thigh-high sage-colored grass. Oaks and palms overhang a small sign reading: Posted! Bird Sanctuary, Island Closed to the Public. People can walk along the beach, but you can’t pass the tree line.
Years back, my fellow marine biology campers and I tried repeatedly to score one of those Posted! signs. To be honest I can’t recall if we ever made off with one. If we did, I regret it a little now. I turn and face the mainland. In that direction lays my job, deadlines, health insurance payments and puttering half-finished projects that – in today’s Gulf-kissed light – suddenly don’t feel pressing. My feet sink in water-logged sand. The rough and gritty sensation squishing between my toes delights me.
I’d felt compelled to come here today but couldn’t identify the driving force. Why this sleepy group of islands? Then in one sudden epiphany, an awareness of my roots settles upon me. I know the reason. I didn’t come just to kayak, I came for a homecoming.
Four years after moving from my Gainesville home to Orlando, away from my family’s boat and access to the Gulf – a part of me recognized the danger of forgetting how I grew up. Seahorse Key called me here so she could remind me.
“You know what your problem is? You’ve got sand in your shoes!” my dad joked when I was college-bound and about to graduate from high school. I’d adamantly refused to consider schools beyond Florida’s state lines. Back then I wasn’t so sure what he meant. Now I understand.
I eat my lunch sitting cross-legged and admiring the waterscape which so deeply defines my perception of Florida. Eager for a handout, an oyster-catcher edges closer. I shove off a few minutes later. Disturbed, the oyster catchers and terns disperse then regather. I decide on a return route via Snake Key. I navigate home in a dead-on reckoning.
My feet are bare inside my kayak. But there’s a lot of sand in my shoes.