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Kayak Cedar Key, Heart of Florida’s Nature Coast
Art galleries, museums, a community organic garden, nearshore clam farms– all are endemic to Cedar Key– a small island community on Florida’s Gulf Coast about halfway between Tampa and Tallahassee. But one of the best ways to get acquainted with the heart of Florida’s Nature Coast is to paddle it in a kayak or canoe.
Your options for exploration are nearly limitless, and even if you do manage to cover every creek, bayou, river, swamp, or mud flat in the 800-acre Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, you can simply head north a few miles to the much larger Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. Much of its 53,000 acres is either next to water or is easily connected to it and it really would take a lifetime to see it all.
Visiting Cedar Key for the first time recently, I got to experience a brief but intriguing taste of this paddling paradise. Guide Brack Barker of Wild Florida Adventures — naturalist, anthropologist and instructor– escorted me on a half-day kayak excursion beginning at the Shell Mound park at the Suwannee refuge’s southern end.
Because the nearby islands are surrounded by shallow mud flats and jagged oyster bars, timing our paddle to the rising tide was imperative. While we waited for the optimum tide, we explored the upland Shell Mound for which the area is named.
At 28 feet high, the mound is basically an ancient landfill of discarded oyster shells and animal bones from the Timucua Indians who inhabited the region between 500 and 800 A.D; it offers an osprey’s-eye view of the islands dotting the Gulf.
In late afternoon, Barker and I set out from the boat ramp in two kayaks for a spin around Hog Island–once a dumping site for overgrown hogs, but now devoid of porkers. Flocks of pelicans, skimmers and terns escorted us. The occasional mullet leapt from the shallows and I think we probably startled more than one redfish– judging from the wakes powering away from our kayaks.
Many Gulf islands have beautiful white-sand beaches and Hog Island is no exception. It also sports rolling piles of worn-down shells beneath the cedars. Strolling the beach, Barker suddenly picked up a dull-gray object that looked like a piece of a clam shell.
“Ancient Indian pottery,” he said.
When I looked more closely, I realized it didn’t look anything like the shells piled up all around us on the beach. Barker put it back where he had found it, then picked up a similar artifact a few feet away.
“This is a more modern piece,” he said, pointing to scores in the surface.
We also discovered some old ballast stones used in sailing ships centuries ago; blockish and rectangular, they definitely weren’t the region’s native limestone.
We set out again just before sunset, and Barker surveyed the island beach once more.
“It’s isolated….away from Cedar Key. No buildings to have to look at. We’ve got history and pre-history,” he said.
Our avian escorts rejoined us for the return trip to Shell Mound with a breathtaking sunset as our backdrop. Stunning–especially when you consider there is so much more to see and, through the vagaries of tide and light, nothing appears exactly the same way twice.