Man in kayak
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Outdoor Adventures: Kayaking the Keys

I dipped my paddle into the crystal-clear saltwater shallows and set off a series of minor explosions. Instantly, a dozen elegant, squawking great egrets leaped into the air from a grove of leathery-leafed mangroves. Then a school of silvery baby tarpon erupted, splashing beneath the prehistoric-looking, reddish-orange dangling roots.

When the ruckus quieted, I sat in my red-top ABS-plastic kayak and paused. That’s when a dive-bombing osprey plummeted from the sky, made a quick hole in the water, and emerged with a striped mullet writhing in its talons.

I was happily exploring a tiny corner of 800-square-mile Florida Bay, a vast backwater region of sand flats and mangrove islands, all connected by channels of turquoise green and blue that beckon swimmers and snorkelers, anglers and boaters. A long string of subtropical ancient coral reefs called the Florida Keys—from the Spanish “cayo” or small island—protects the bay from strong ocean winds off the Atlantic.

Sea kayaking is the perfect way to explore this marine wonderland. Today’s modern kayaks are rugged, lightweight and easy to transport. You can launch them practically anywhere—and the Florida Keys offer an array of public and private boat ramps, state parks, beaches and fishing piers. Best of all, once you’re in the water, you slip around quietly, experiencing nature on its terms and at your pace.

Bring binoculars. Fishing and bird watching are, of course, two compelling reasons for kayaking the Keys, but there are other attractions I recommend you visit. One is the National Deer Key Refuge—some 8,500 acres of critical pine and hardwood hummock upland and freshwater-marsh wetland habitat in the lower Keys, mostly on Big Pine Key and No Name Key. This is where you’ll find the miniature Virginia white-tailed deer, which are relatively easy to see from one of several hiking trails, especially at daybreak and at dusk. There are only 600 to 800 of them in existence.

Although all of my explorations of the Florida Keys over the years have been day trips,   camping overnight offers interesting possibilities for the adventurous. You can also paddle your kayak from town to town and stay at one of hundreds of inns and hotels. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Greenways and Trails has produced an excellent guide to 10 kayak trips, complete with detailed downloadable maps of the Florida Keys Overseas Paddling Trail.

One important tip: always carry a rain jacket. Even if you set out to kayak for only a few hours, assume it will rain. Florida experiences more thunderstorms than any other state. Days often start sunny and bright. By afternoon, dark clouds build on the horizon. Sheets of pounding rain are brief. And by early evening the sun is back, the fragrant, still air smelling of bougainvillea.


Flagler’s Folly
One interesting feature of the Florida Keys that’s seldom out of sight of kayakers is a dilapidated railroad that opened in 1912. Henry Flagler, who earlier served as John D. Rockefeller’s right-hand man at Standard Oil, constructed luxury hotels from Jacksonville to Palm Beach to Miami, connecting them with the Florida East Coast Railway to deliver guests. The Key West Extension, which cost Flagler the equivalent of more than a half-billion dollars in today’s money, was supposed to add to his success by making the end of the Florida Peninsula a deep-water shipping port. Trouble was, there was no deep water.

The railroad ran for more than two decades, anyway, helping to make Key West a popular tourist destination. But in 1935, a Category Five hurricane hit the archipelago, killing some 500 people and wiping out rail bridges. Flagler’s Key West Extension was never rebuilt. The State of Florida later acquired the remaining trestles and piers and rights-of-way, tracing the island-hopping route with today’s 113-mile-long Overseas Highway, aka U.S. 1. —T.P.


TRAVELER INFORMATION
Airports: Florida Keys Marathon Airport (MTH) offers access to the middle Keys and has a 5,008-foot runway. Key West International Airport (EYW) provides access to the lower Keys and has a 4,801-foot runway.
Kayak rentals and guides: Andrea Paulson, Reelax Charters at Sugarloaf Marina, (305) 304-1392, keyskayaking.com; Bill Keogh, Big Pine Kayak Adventures, (305) 872-7474,  keyskayaktours.com; Bob Rankin, Keys Kayaks, (305) 743-8880, keyskayaksllc.com.
Campsites: (800) 326-3521, reserveamerica.com
Inns and hotels: fla-keys.com

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