Cedar Keys; A Step Back in Time

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We decided to visit Cedar Key on our way home because the area is home to some really cool nature. We stayed at Cedar Key RV Resort, a well managed upscale park originally designed more for large Class A vehicles. But like many businesses during the down economy, they had to branch out and serve a broader clientele. I guess we would qualify as that broader clientele. Mostly hobby fishermen and their wives, this is a bit of a cocktail club. I might have been a bit out of place with my hiking boots  vs. their pretty beaded sandals. But we had a nice visit and enjoyed the extra amenities. They have  A great Clubhouse, laundry, heated pool and nice bathhouses. During the winter season they provide a lot of activities for the women to attend while the men fish. On one day of our visit, the local quilting shop was conducting a class in the Clubhouse.

We needed to pick up a few supplies, so we first journeyed the short distance into town. Cedar Key is one of the oldest ports in the state, and when Florida’s first railroad connected it to the east coast, it became a major supplier of seafood and timber products to the northeast. Evidence of lumbering is still evident with vast stands of replacement pines planted along the highway.   My own fascination with Cedar Key relates to John Muir’s book, 1,000 Mile Walk to the Gulf. Later, his Grandson, Micheal Muir, who was diagosed with MS at a young age would retrace his Grandfather’s journey on horseback to highlight the capabilities of people with disabilities. Today, Cedar Key has clearly become a haven for artists and writers, who must find the unspoiled environment inspirational to their work.The vibrant arts community was enjoying its off season while we were there, but a few shops  featuring local work were open.

But tourist stops aside, the Cedar Keys are for nature lovers. They form a chain of barrier islands, ideally suited to a vast range of migratory and shore birds, including the elusive white pelican, roseate spoonbill and bald eagle. The variety of natural habitats, from salt marshes to scrub, hardwood and pine forests to Indian shell mounds, makes this truly a nature lover’s paradise. We tried to sample as broad a variety of the offerings as possible.

There are multiple Refuges, Preserves and Historic sites to see in the surrounding area of Cedar Keys. We began with Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge which was established in 1929. You may have read or seen in documentaries that this was a time when wading bird breeding plumage was highly valued for fashionable ladies hats. Species were slaughtered and their numbers dropped dramatically, some to the point of extinction.  Coastal Refuges such as the one we visited were established to provide safe breeding and nesting grounds.

Part of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge is a huge rookery, a breeding place for multiple species. Once 200,000 birds nested in the Cedar Keys; now, the numbers are nearer to 20,000.  Egrets, night herons, brown pelicans, white ibis, cormorants, and in the past few years, reddish egrets and roseate spoonbills have made themselves at home in the Seahorse Key rookery. We learned that parent birds must fly thirty plus miles up the Suwannee or to alternative freshwater sources to gather food for their young that is not salty, in order not to dehydrate the young. And I complain about driving to Publix !

After some shore bird watching in the Refuge, we visited an historic site known as The Shell Mound. The Shell Mound Unit of Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge is adjacent to Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. As we walked away from the shore toward the path, we could see that the landscape was going to change. Stepping onto the trail head for the Shell Mound Trail, we entered a cool forest habitat. It seemed odd that we would encounter so much elevation so close to the shoreline, but then we realized that this mini mountain was completely composed of shells with a forest now growing on top of it. The trail circumnavigates the 5 acre mound. The literature available at the site tells us that this unique feature was created by archaic period Eastern Woodland Indian cultures by discarding oyster and clam shells they used as a food source. The area was inhabited by this culture for at least 1,000 years from about 450 to 1,800 years ago. Once used as a source of materials for road construction (prior to Refuge ownership) the mound is now protected from all but foot traffic. It is easy to imagine a people who would have lived here and thrived on the bounty of the sea. As you walk the trail, you can look down at the shore and out to sea. It appears relatively untouched and is a delightful way to spend some time in the woods.

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Later, we drove the Lower Suwannee Nature Motor Trail.  The 9-mile, unpaved Lower Suwannee Nature Drive and cruised through upland pine forests and dark, cool lowlands and swamps that provide great habitat for songbirds. We saw Swallow-tailed Kites overhead carrying nesting material in their talons; the refuge is an important breeding site for this species.

The Lower Suwannee Nature Drive is good for butterflies, too. Lace-winged Roadside Skippers occur in the canebrakes, Banded Hairstreaks are common around the oaks and hickories and Appalachian Browns are a rare treat in wet, wooded spots. At one point, we were driving slowly along chatting and a huge black butterfly flew into the truck cab, fluttering in my face, skimmed down my legs and dove down to my boots. Since I had just been reading to Arnie about the large population of bats housed in bat houses in this Refuge, I had a moment of girl panic over this Chance Encounter.

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With mixed feelings, we prepared to depart Cedar Key for home. It would be good to see everyone. We visited seven states, covered 3561 miles in two time zones over the course of the five weeks we were on the road. It must have been a good trip since we cannot decide what our favorite highlights are and we are not completely broke. Now marriage and retirement are properly celebrated, we could decide to settle in and live the quiet life, but………………………….

The Wildwood, the Open Road and Riverbank are still out there calling our names. We will stay home long enough to plan where we go next!

Image result for images of lower suwannee motor trail SEE YOU SOON!

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