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A Breeze through the Keys

by Bill Scheller

Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas

Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas

Photos by the author


After the first twenty yards we gave up paddling, and yanked ourselves along by grabbing at the mangroves.  More than once I missed a sharp turn, and snagged the kayak’s prow among the leggy roots.    We were in a tunnel walled with mangroves, a shadowy channel threading through an opaque saltwater forest.


Here on the fringes of No-Name Key, it is anyone’s guess where the water ends and the land begins.  But if you are nosing a kayak through the mangroves with a naturalist like Bill Keogh, the challenge of comprehension is more vertical than horizontal: it’s like playing checkers on one of those three-dimensional boards, trying to pay attention to each level at the same time.  Bill would point down into the shallows to show me Cassiopeia jellyfish, indolent even by jellyfish standards, lying upside down on the bottom while life and lunch drifted by.  Then we would watch the shimmer of quick little  silversides, fish nearly as transparent as the water around them, while a finger-sized mangrove snapper darted among the gnarled prop roots of the trees.  “They’ll grow to three feet out on the reef,” Bill told me, “but the mangroves are their nursery.”


At the next level of the checkerboard, up around our gunwales, were the mangrove tree crabs, keystone-shaped creatures that eat algae off the roots.  Slyly camouflaged, they looked like half-dollar-sized bumps on the wet bark.


Uppermost — no, at every level — were the birds.  An immature Great White Heron stalked a shallow spot; egrets, their dark legs trailing, flapped overhead.  “The dark legs are the giveaway for egrets,” Bill told me.  “Herons have yellow legs.”

Bill Keogh earns part of his living as an environmental photographer.  The rest of the time he is out here among the mangroves, guiding clients and knowing his herons from his egrets.  As the Keys go, he represents the world away from Route 1.



President Truman's Little White House, Key West

President Truman’s Little White House, Key West

Getting off Route 1 — the Overseas Highway — is the ticket, if you want to know the Florida Keys.  Strung together like white coral beads first by the railroad, then by the highway, they are a skein of islands, and of communities, which a traveler can negotiate only by passing through each place in sequence via that 127-mile road and the 42 bridges that hold it together.  You cannot get to Marathon without visiting Key Largo; you can reach Key West only by way of Big Pine Key.  A man I met in Islamorada told me that since he moved to the Keys more than 20 years ago, he had lost most of his driving skills:  “All you do is go in a straight line, and make right and left turns.”


The beauty of this slender arc of islands lies largely in which rights and lefts you make — and, above all, in remembering to make them.  Barrel straight down the Overseas Highway, hell bent for Key West, and you’ll find plenty of places to eat, to spend the night, to shop.  But you will miss the shadowy groves of ironwood, gumbo limbo, poisonwood, soapberry, and wild tamarind in the hardwood hammock at Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.   You will easily overshoot the Wild Bird Center in Tavernier, where pelicans, cormorants, owls, hawks, rare white-crowned pigeons, and other injured birds find a home — and where healthy herons and egrets cruise in to hang around the walkways and mooch food.


Skip those rights and lefts, and you won’t meet Sebastian, all nine feet and 400 pounds of him.  Sebastian is an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin.  Our paths crossed one morning at the Hawk’s Cay resort, on Duck Key near Marathon, where Sebastian is on the staff of The Dolphin Connection.  After a quick but informative orientation — I learned, among other things, that dolphins have cone-shaped teeth while porpoises’ teeth are rectangular, and that dolphins’ echolocation signals are sent through their blowholes and received through their hollow, oil-filled jaws — I got into the water with Sebastian and his comrades. When I had my arms around Calvin, seven years old and somewhat smaller than Sebastian, and could feel his heart beat beneath his slick taut leathery hide.



Way off Route 1 — right off terra firma , in fact, and out in the Straits of Florida — I spent a day seeking a less cordial relationship with creatures of the deep.  I set out on the Catch-22 , Captain Richard Stanczyk, in pursuit of sailfish.


“The Keys are home to more International Game Fishing Association records than any other area in the world,” the Captain told me as we left our dock at Islamorada.  Stanczyk, with a clipped mustache and silver hair impervious to the ocean breeze, has the look of a cruise captain but is a seasoned sportfishing skipper.  “Everything now is catch-and-release, of course,” he continued.  “I doubt if anyone has killed a sailfish here in five years.”  I entirely approved, since there are only so many sailfish in the world and, besides, my wife favors a fishless motif for the space above our mantel.


I soon learned that before you troll for sailfish, you have to catch your bait.  Our mate, Sam Milazzo, deftly and repeatedly cast a big net off the stern to haul in ballyhoo, six-inch fish with a long, snoutish underbite, that would serve as live bait at the end of our lines.


Sam Milazzo casts his net for baitfish off Islamorada

Sam Milazzo casts his net for baitfish off Islamorada

It didn’t turn out to be my day for sailfish.  But even though those sleek, 60-pound six-footers eluded me, I did learn that a bad day’s fishing in the Keys stacks up well against a good day anywhere else.  Fishing with rod and reel for other bait, I came up with a grunt, a queen triggerfish, and a grouper; then, trolling a ballyhoo in mid-afternoon, I stumbled into a fight with a barracuda.  It took nearly twenty minutes, but I got the fish aboard — more than three feet of pure muscle, with a mouthful of daggers.  After a quick photo — no hugs or heartbeats –the barracuda went back into the drink, wiser, crankier, and ready to give the next guy at least a half-hour.



The part of Route 1 that hops from Marathon to Big Pine Key is called the “Seven Mile Bridge”, although it does touch down on several small keys along the way.  It is actually two bridges — the 20-year-old span that carries today’s traffic, and the original bridge built at the beginning of the last century for pioneer Florida promoter Henry Flagler’s remarkable Over-Sea Railway.  Flagler defied all odds to create the first fixed link between the mainland and Key West, and the trains ran until the great 1937 hurricane ruined the roadbed and made an automobile route, laid across the original 500-plus concrete piers and spandrels, a more practical alternative.


I stopped at little Pigeon Key, near the beginning of the Seven Mile Bridge, to visit a museum dedicated to the railway and its builders, men who bunked and boarded on this tiny outcrop while pulling down fifteen cents an hour for ten-hour days spent pouring concrete and laying track in the subtropic sun.  It was one of them who remarked that “building this railroad has become a regular marathon,” and thus named the nearest town.


“Flagler was a teetotaler, and he didn’t want his workers exposed to temptation,” a guide told museum visitors.  “He ordered his foremen to fire on the boats that anchored off Pigeon Key offering liquor and women, so the boats had to moor beyond rifle range.  The men would swim out, first to the booze boat and then to the women, and swim back, in shark-infested water.  When the sharks got a man, one of his fellow workers still sleeping in a tent might move up on the waiting list for a spot in a bunkhouse.”


I arrived in Key West a half-hour before sunset.  Key West all but copyrights its sunsets.  Every evening, as the clouds begin to turn that special shade of apricot, the throngs gather at Mallory Square on the waterfront.  Mallory Square is where the cruise ships tie up, and where the purveyors of petrified sharks’ teeth and hellaciously good conch fritters set up shop.  It’s also where, when sunset approaches, jugglers, fire-eaters, and less easily categorizable street performers claim their patch of pavement My favorite was a young woman all in white, and in white makeup, who stood still as an alabaster statue to airy New-Age music.  Whenever someone dropped her a dollar, she rang a triangle with a stately slow-motion flourish, as if calling elves to dinner.



The author with barracuda, caught and released

The author with barracuda, caught and released

And then the sun hisses into the water somewhere out beyond the Marquesas Keys.  Everyone claps, and then drifts back onto the downtown streets.  Duval Street, mostly: along with sunset at Mallory Square and the beached buoy at the end of Whitehead Street that marks the continental United States’ southernmost point, Duval Street has an iconic status in Key West.   It’s where the bars are — not all of them, but enough for a slow promenade down this bright thoroughfare to be known as the “Duval crawl.”


On the way back to my B&B from Mallory Square, I realized that I hadn’t seen a street sign in a while.  When I pointed out what I thought was a municipal deficiency to a local whom I asked for directions, he just smiled and said, “Hey, Keys disease.”  A local affliction, and it comes in many forms.  The guy I saw a block further down had another version; he was riding a bike with a cockatoo perched on the handlebars, squawking “pretty bird” at passersby.  The bird, not the guy.



There was once a famous part-time local resident, who loved this town even though he was the last person anyone would ever have diagnosed with  Keys disease.  “I’ve a notion,” he once remarked, “to move the capital to Key West and just stay.”


Harry Truman used to duck out of Washington whenever he could and settle in, loud Hawaiian shirts and all, at the former commandant’s quarters at the Key West naval station.  Truman first showed up in Key West in November of 1946, and came back ten times.  The president brought plenty of work with him, but there was always time for fun.  One of the highlights of a tour of what is now preserved as the Harry S. Truman Little White House is a big poker table on the downstairs veranda, where Truman would stay up late with naval officers and civilian aides, playing hand after hand in a mellow matrix of bourbon, conversation, and cigar smoke.



But it isn’t Harry Truman’s bespectacled visage that stares down at drinkers in Duval Street’s biggest saloon; and nobody runs a Harry Truman lookalike contest.  The outsider who has captured the Key West imagination more than anyone else arrived nearly twenty years before Truman, and probably could have drunk him under his poker table.  He was Ernest Hemingway, and he came here in the spring of 1928 to fish and to write.


Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, bought their Key West house in 1931.  Built 80 years earlier by a prosperous wrecker, it was one of the finest in town, with thick stone walls and the island’s only  basement — perfect for the writer’s wine cellar.  It was in a studio out back that Hemingway wrote To Have and Have Not, Green Hills of Africa, and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”.   Portable manual typewriter and all, the studio looks as if time might have stopped somewhere between a good morning’s writing and a good afternoon’s fishing circa 1932.  It’s actually a better Hemingway memorial than the house itself, which seems more Pauline’s.  The rest of the property, lovely tropical gardens surrounding the first swimming pool built in Key West, attests to Hemingway’s love of cats: there are 60-odd kitties in residence, all of them supposedly descendants of the writer’s own polydactyl (six toes on each front paw) felines.  They go through 80 pounds of dry food a week, and get regular visits from a veterinarian.  I asked my tour guide if the cats all stayed on the property.


“If you were a cat,” he answered, “would you leave here?”



For all its air of “that’s all there is, there ain’t no more,” Key West isn’t the last of the Florida Keys.  To reach the westernmost of the islands, you have to leave even the Overseas Highway behind, and travel by boat or seaplane to the Dry Tortugas, nearly 70 miles beyond the last bar on Duval Street.


The author, up close and personal with Calvin the dolphin

The author, up close and personal with Calvin the dolphin

Romantic as it sounds today, the name is pure practicality, shorthand useful for 16th-century mariners wondering where on the map they might find provisions: “dry” meant there was no fresh water; “tortugas”, Spanish for turtles, meant there was fresh meat.  There wasn’t much else, until 1847.   That was when the United States government started laying bricks on the Tortugas’ Garden Key to create the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere.

Fort Jefferson seems like the unlikeliest and most desolate of all American coastal defenses.  But that’s not really what the fort was all about.  The massive structure, which is nowhere near the coast, was built primarily to provide a safe haven for American vessels pausing near the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico for repairs or provisioning.  It was a big, brick umbrella, bristling with guns — though never nearly as many as the 400 originally envisioned.


Fort Jefferson, in fact, was never completed at all.  It was still unfinished when the Civil War began in 1861.  The fort became a military prison, housing captive Confederates.  Immediately after the war, its most famous inmate was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who treated John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg, and who was himself implicated in the Lincoln assassination plot.  Mudd, who was later released because of his heroic medical efforts during a yellow fever outbreak at the fort, was confined to a cell deep within its walls.  As I stood in this dankest, dreariest of places, though, I had to wonder if life was much better for the woolen-uniformed Yankees stationed here.


Abandoned by the Army in 1874, Fort Jefferson later became a coaling station for the Navy.  This was the last stop of the battleship Maine  before her fateful entry into Havana harbor in 1898.  Then came a far longer stretch of dereliction, until the vast old pile and its surrounding reef became a National Park in 1992.


At Fort Jefferson, the grim business of homeland defense has long departed from the world of bricks and mortar, leaving the waters beneath these walls to corals and reef fishes and people who bob around looking at them.  With bridges and boats, kayaks and mangroves and dolphins behind me, I put on my flippers and waded off the edge of North America.




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