Indian Key

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View from the tower on Indian Key

With the prospect of a three- to four-hour drive from Fort Lauderdale to Key West, flying directly to the southernmost point in the US offers a convenient, if costly, option for those travelers on tight schedules. But the balmy, flat, and winding 110 miles of the Overseas Highway that run from the Florida mainland to the bottom of US-1 will yield wild and weird corners for those able (or willing) to take the time.

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Paddling up to Indian Key

From the geological wonders of Devil’s Milhopper to the picturesque sands of Bahia Honda, Florida has a varied and truly amazing state park system. One of its most distinctive parks is also one all too easily overlooked on a drive through the Keys. Located a half-mile, ocean-side, off Islamorada lies the lush but unassuming Indian Key Historic State Park. Accessible only by boat, the uninhabited 11-acre island was, two centuries ago, the original county seat for Dade County.

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The old streets are still evident.

But that simple historical fact doesn’t begin to belie the tranquil key’s colorful and, at times, lurid history. From here, Jacob Housman built a formidable “wrecking” business in the early 19th century, salvaging valuable cargoes from ships that met their ends on the treacherous reefs in the surrounding waters. In 1838, the Philadelphia botanist Dr. Henry Perrine moved to the island, bringing with him a host of non-indigenous flora, including agave (used in the manufacturing of sisal), tamarind, and large yucca plants. By the close of that decade, the island boasted a population of about 60, and even a nationally advertised resort hotel. Later, Henry Flagler would use the key as a base for dredging operations during the construction of his Overseas Railroad.

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Cochineal insects – the red dye carmine is made from them

But Indian Key’s golden heyday drew its last breaths in the wee hours of August 7, 1840, when an invasion force of more than 130 Spanish-speaking Seminoles descended upon the island from nearby Lower Matecumbe Key. Twelve hours later, six people were dead (including Perrine) and much of the looted settlement laid in smoldering ruins. The United States Navy subsequently used Indian Key as a base of operations for the Second Seminole War, but the island’s halcyon days as a thriving, self-sustaining commercial center were effectively done.

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Brad Bertelli and WPT

Today, visitors may rent canoes and kayaks from Robbie’s of Islamorada and paddle out to Indian Key. Make the most of the trip by enlisting the services of historian, author, and tour guide Brad Bertelli of Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours to bring the island’s crumbling foundations and crunching gravel streets back to bustling life. If you appreciate vivid detail, humor, and a healthy overdose of enthusiasm for esoterica in your docent, then the affable Bertelli – who, with co-author David Sloan, recently published Bloodline: A Local’s Guide to 50 Famous Film Locations in the Florida Keys, an indispensable, trivia-packed self-guided tour for fans of the Netflix Original Series Bloodline – is your man.

Small shark resting in the shallows, just offshore
Small shark resting in the shallows, just offshore

Back in Islamorada, at the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center, where Bertelli also serves as the Curator/Historian, a fine scale model of Housman-era Indian Key provides additional perspective.

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Model of Indian Key at Florida Keys History & Discovery Center
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Model of Indian Key at Florida Keys History & Discovery Center

It is worth noting that there are no restroom facilities, nor fresh water, nor trash cans on Indian Key. But there is some decent snorkeling off its craggy northeastern shore. So any which way, plan accordingly.

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Florida Keys History & Discovery Center

Chicken Run Rescue

We were incredibly lucky to squeeze in a quick visit to Chicken Run Rescue at its new location, just south of Minneapolis. Chicken Run Rescue started with its founders, Mary and Bert, rescuing cats and dogs in urban Minneapolis in the 1980s. As vegans, they saw the need for advocates and direct action for chickens and began working with Minneapolis Animal Care and Control. The birds who made their way to Mary and Bert’s home had been intended for slaughter, used for their eggs, for fighting and ritual sacrifice, and as hatching projects. The number of homeless birds has increased exponentially since they opened the sanctuary.

The recent upsurge in keeping backyard chickens has been detrimental for many birds. The Star Tribune noted an increase in stray birds in a 2013 story, “In 2001, Chicken Run rescued just six birds. Last year, Clouse and her husband, Bert, fielded almost 500 surrender requests for ‘urban farm animals,’ mostly chickens, and rescued more than 30, many with ‘special needs,’ such as chickens that lost feet to frostbite or reproductive cancers linked to constant egg-laying. Some of the rescues have been waiting for new homes for more than a year, she said. …‘I knew this was going to happen,’ Clouse said of the explosion in surrendered and abandoned chickens. ‘All the other sanctuaries and shelters have noticed an increase. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion.’”

As Mary told me, “Chicken Run provides the birds with sanctuary and foster/adoption placement when appropriate. Teaching and assisting others to help birds in their communities is accomplished through vibrant volunteer and education opportunities.” Promoting birds as sentient individuals is a core part of their outreach, as is adopting a plant-based diet.

Below are a few of the birds I had the pleasure of meeting. Mary provided me with a few of their stories (also below). Check out the Facebook page too.

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Fremont

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Zazu

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Fifi

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Obie

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Cristhina

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Genevieve

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Ms. Machowski

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Akers

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Perry

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Akers

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Sadie

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Shopper

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Xavier

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Mavis Davis

Mavis’s story: “Mavis Davis (aka Mabiff Dabiff) named after our beloved friend Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns. With a severely crossed beak, she has trouble pronouncing s’s and v’s. Her beak deformity was likely the result of poor nutrition of her mother and in her young life.”

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Derek

Derek’s story: “Derek was our 848th rescue. He and his sister, Rachel, arrived here in September 2012. They were apparently Advanced Placement students — they were found wandering on the U of M campus but couldn’t find their way back to the dorm. Fortunately, another kind student took them under her wing and contacted us. Good thing, they were only a few weeks old. They have grown up here with us. Rachel is still here too. Derek became a member of the Justice League, he and 2 other roosters, Butler and Quincy, went everywhere and did everything together. He has outlived his buddies and after their passing (heart disease very common in roosters), he was very depressed, not knowing where he would fit in without them. He recently got a job looking after hens, sometimes Renee, and Elisa, sometimes Janet and Carrie. He wasn’t sure at first just how to tidbit for them and supervise them, but now has it mastered. Looking after hens is hard wired into roosters, their purpose in life. Derek says its good to have a job.”

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Rajij

Rajij’s story: “Rajij is our 827th rescue. He is a timid juvenile Malay, probably born in December 2011. No spurs, barely a bump on his ankles. He and his brother Satar were discovered by police during a drug bust in North Minneapolis, each locked in a dark basement closet. They were both remarkably calm, quiet and healthy despite having plenty to protest about their life so far. They were constant companions at CRR. Satar passed away in 2013 and Raj grieved for him for a very long time. Raj is now our senior resident rooster and reviews his troops every morning with a powerful sense of duty and eagerness to serve. He loves having his head groomed, we keep a comb handy to preen him and keep those feathers gorgeous.”

Fort De Soto Park and Egmont Key

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Way down at the mouth of Tampa Bay sits Fort De Soto Park. Within that park is access to Egmont Key, a state park. Fort De Soto is a large county park offering beaches, camping, a dog beach, a historic fort, trails, and multiples of habitats for Florida’s flora and fauna. It has been named a #1 beach by places that rank such things. It is also a nesting spot for many kinds of turtles and birds. I’ve now visited twice, once in winter and once in summer, and it is a truly lovely spot. The entrance fee is nominal.

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At the Fort De Soto Bay Pier you’ll find a concession stand, bathrooms with showers, a postcard-worthy beach, and the ferry to Egmont Key. Only accessible by boat, Egmont Key is a wildlife refuge and bird sanctuary. The lighthouse there has stood since 1858 and Fort Dade was founded on the island in 1923. Now mostly ruins, the island is cordoned off for nesting birds and sea turtles, but there are swimming beaches and trails. I visited Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas two weeks prior and Egmont Key reminded me of Fort Jefferson, but the trip cost about 90% less and the ferry ride over to the Egmont Key took 20-30 minutes instead of 2 1/2 hours.

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After the excitement of the car accident the night before, Garnet and I were looking forward to a peaceful day of swimming and adventuring. We took the first ferry over and while onboard, he met Jackson, a boy his age who was visiting with his grandparents. We exited the ferry and within three about minutes we excitedly found a gopher tortoise near the lighthouse. There is a large population of the tortoises on the island.

 

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The ruins of the old gun batteries were fun to explore. We walked out to the beach on the west side of the island. The water was ideal and boaters had anchored near shore. With the boys safely splashing around, I went exploring and blundered into a nesting area for skimmers. The birds told me I was intruding even before I spotted the signs. The chicks were running around being absurdly adorable.

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The ferry offers an optional snorkel tour and Garnet, Jackson, and I went off to do that for a bit. They took us to an area of sea grasses, but the water was a bit murky in the shallows. It was fun watching the boys claiming to see fish and rays that weren’t really there. Once you are on the island, you are free to stay and take whichever afternoon ferry works for you and the boats sell snacks and water. Pay heed to the warnings about dehydration, especially in summer.

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Overall, Egmont Key and Fort De Soto Park are well worth exploring. Having been twice, I feel like I have another 5-6 visits ahead of me to get a true feel for the place and intend to return.

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Floating Amid Stars: Snorkeling the Florida Keys

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Birdwatching is a globally popular hobby and continues to grow. I’m a huge fan of birds and enjoy watching them, but I love to fishwatch even more. Somehow, that hobby has never taken hold like birdwatching. I don’t get it. I mean, you have to stand there on a ground like a lump watching the aerial dynamics with birds. With fish you can actually join in and swim among them. When was the last time you got to fly with a flock of starlings or glide with an eagle?

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I love the Florida Keys because they meet so many travel wants and needs. My greatest want, the one that I daydream about and that pushes me to return repeatedly, is the water. More specifically, the fish and other wildlife that inhabit the waters off the Florida Keys. I don’t visit captive animal attractions – I prefer to watch animals in their natural environments.

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At some point, I lucked into snorkel gear (mask, fins, snorkel) at a yard sale and later upgraded to a better snorkel with a valve. The fins are small enough that I can pack them in my carry-on luggage. Over the years, my kit has expanded to rubber-soled water shoes, a point-and-shoot underwater camera, DIY defogger spray, and many ziplock bags. If you are going to snorkel more than a handful of times it is worth having your own equipment and it also means you can check out offshore spots spontaneously. Some of the best spots I’ve found have been just offshore and do not require a boat ride. While boat rides are part of the fun, they add up if you are traveling on a budget. Snorkeling is one of those things that can be as cheap or as expensive as you want to make it.

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I like to go to the Keys in summer because it is off-season, the crowds are smaller, and unless there are storms afoot the winds tend to be calmer, which means the waves are smaller and the water is clearer. I learned the hard way that going in the winter can make for terrible snorkeling.

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I feel I should note that I am a snorkeler, not a diver. My ears let me freedive about 8-10 feet and that is it. Diving is also expensive and there are restrictions about diving and flying within 24 hours. I’m quite happy bobbing along the surface, suspended between worlds.

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These are spots I checked out in July. I also read Snorkeling the Florida Keys by Brad Bertelli before we left and found it very helpful.

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Cheeca Rocks

We took the 3:00 p.m. Happy Cat Snorkel Boat out from Robbie’s in Islamorada the day we arrived. The boat took us a few miles offshore to Cheeca Rocks. It was hot and the water was very clear. We saw several sea turtles and huge schools of small silverfish. Unfortunately, this charter attracted the kind of people I want to smack the shit out of. I watched a young woman “petting” the coral. You don’t “pet” coral. When she bobbed up for air I yelled at her to stop and she claimed she didn’t know any better. EVERY SINGLE snorkel charter I have ever gone on tells you this will kill the coral. Look, don’t touch. Then someone else with extra-long dive fins started treading water near the coral heads. They did decades’ worth of damage in seconds. I get that you have fancy-ass dive gear and are proud of it, but you don’t need long fins in calm, shallow waters.

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Indian Key State Park

The next day we went back to Robbie’s and rented kayaks to go out to Indian Key. We were given a tour of the island by Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours, run by the aforementioned Brad Bertelli (that will be a post of its own shortly). Afterward, we entered the water on the northeast side of the island. The waters around the island are very shallow and we saw conch, starfish, baby sharks, parrotfish, and watched nesting ospreys from the water. It was a nice little spot.

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Fort Zachary Taylor State Park

Fort Zachary Taylor is one of my all-time favorite snorkel spots. There are rock formations just off the beach and while the action is often there, I’ve seen a school of cuttlefish in the shallows. It was crowded the afternoon we went and the winds and tide had the water rather turbid. Overall, it was lackluster this trip. You can snorkel the same place 10 times and never experience the same conditions.

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Key West Marine Park

Another offshore snorkel spot in Key West is the Key West Marine Park, located on the east side of the island. The pilings and debris make for great fishwatching, as they are ideal for juvenile fish and invertebrates, but the morning we went the tide was moving and the winds had kicked up. The water was so turbid that it was almost disorienting. I will definitely go back next time and hopefully the conditions will be better.

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Sand Key

We sailed with Captain Dennis on his boat Breezin out to Sand Key. Again, there was some wind up, so we moored on the rubble side of the key. Snorkeling can be very different depending on where you moor and the wind/water conditions, even within 100 yards. In this case, we were in an area that would be easier to swim in, but the rubble zone belied the health of the reef on the opposite side. The water was bath temperature. I watched and listened as a school of parrotfish munched loudly.

 

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Dry Tortugas National Park

By far, the best snorkeling this trip was out at Fort Jefferson. It is in my top five snorkeling spots, period. Fort Jefferson has been on our list for years, but the tickets aren’t cheap. This was finally the year. Located about 70 miles west of Key West, the Dry Tortugas are in the middle of nowhere, but the fort is rich in history. There are two decaying docks, which offer ideal food and shelter for the tropical fish that surround the island. You can put your head down and watch 10-15 species of fish swirling below and then look up to see nesting brown noddies at the tops of the dock pilings. The clarity of the water was amazing and it was a pleasant swim around the exterior of the fort. The height of day was blistering, but the ferry we took out to the island put out a delicious spread and made sure everyone had enough water.

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Turtles, rays, and larger fish are great, but I am just as happy seeing common nursery fish and invertebrates. If you are willing to take your time and look into crevices and among the sea grasses you’ll be rewarded. I still haven’t seen an octopus in the wild, but I’ll keep trying until I do. Swimming with huge schools of small silverfish is like floating amid the stars.

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Breezin Charters

13669847_10157106853055702_1711600339449912319_nShortly after clearing Key West Harbor, bound for the reef at Sand Key Lighthouse some six or seven miles offshore, came that most cherished moment when, with sails full and neatly trimmed, you kill the diesel grumbling beneath your feet and, like 300 generations of your forebears, give yourself over to the power of the wind.

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Unlike today’s hard-chine powerboats, the sailboat’s traditionally curved hull rides the waves like a duck, and one momentarily reverts to that evolutionary stage when mankind pursued its own ends by harnessing the forces of nature rather than trying to dominate them.

13754342_10157106852945702_8921155845293474025_nOf course, modern sailboats offer amenities your ancestors never could have foreseen – global positioning systems (GPS), refrigeration, roller furling, autopilot, self-tailing winches, and satellite radio, to name a few – but the tried-and-true fundamentals of sailing remain the same. And sea-legged visitors to Key West can enjoy the best of both worlds aboard Breezin, a 42-foot Catalina sloop that offers full- (seven hours) and half-day (four hours) charters on the balmy surrounding waters.

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But what really sets Breezin apart from the competition is her skipper, Dennis Krinitt. We first met “Captain Dees” about a decade ago, when he worked for a nearby sailing charter company. While that all-day snorkel excursion was everything we’d hoped for, it was the smart, good-natured, soft-spoken Krinitt – whose conversation shifted from jazz standards to Tom Robbins to basic seamanship as naturally as the changing tide – that really shone. And despite his credentialed profession, the native Californian may well be the most productive-yet-chill human being I’ve ever met: calm, collected, unflappable.

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So impressed were we by Captain Dees that we went out with him again before that trip was up. And thereafter, on each return to Key West, we made a point of booking only those trips he was scheduled to helm, including one sunset cruise on which Captain Dees – also a licensed notary – officiated our renewed wedding vows.

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Eventually, Captain Dees landed Breezin a slip in the Key West Bight Marina, at the foot of William Street, where he now offers sailing charters, lessons, sunset cruises, and more. (And those modern amenities also include the ability to book your reservation online.) On your way there, stop by the nearby Cuban Coffee Queen for a café con leche and pan cubano, or anything from their extensive menu. But get there early, as the line quickly builds – and you don’t want to miss the boat!

Breezin Charters

Historic Seaport Walk

Key West Bight Marina, Slip E-7

201 William Street

Key West, FL 33040

P: (305) 797-1561

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Cuban Coffee Queen

284 Margaret Street

Key West, FL 33040

P: (305) 292-4747

Downtown Location

5 Key Lime Square

Key West, FL 33040

P: (305) 294-7787

Like Ramen Left Out in the Rain

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I volunteered to help organize a conference for work. An unexpected perk was that I needed to go to Tampa/St. Petersburg, FL to conduct site visits at three hotels and one museum. One of the hotels comped a night’s stay. I realized that Garnet was old enough to entertain himself while I worked and invited him to join me for a bit of adventure.

We had completed all four visits and intended to spend the evening swimming at the hotel pool. A thunderstorm disrupted our plans. We were up in the room watching the sky flash in the distance. Garnet was rather agitated because he wanted to buy a perfect birthday present for a friend. It was almost 8pm. I thought about how I felt at that age and asked if he wanted to go shopping. He nodded.

So off we went into the rainy, tropical night. We were in St. Petersburg, on Central Ave. waiting to turn right on 3rd Street. The light had changed, but there were pedestrians crossing the street. Behind me, a black Saturn Vue XR saw the light change, but missed me stopping for the pedestrians and slammed into the back of me when it skidded in the rain. I completed the turn and pulled over in front of a row of bars and restaurants. Seconds later a distraught young blond woman appeared beside my door, the rain and tears streaking her mascara. Garnet was upset by the noise and my sudden seriousness, but I assured him we were okay.

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed an indigent man trying to make the chaos we created work for him. He was taking a grocery bag and hitting passing cars with it, then pretending the car had run over his foot. No one was stopping. I calmly told the crying girl to go back to her car. It was her first accident too.

I called Budget, who took the report and told me that in the state of Florida cops often don’t come out for minor accidents. There was a rap on my window. It was a bouncer from one of the nearby bars. He said that the indigent man was claiming that the woman who hit me had run him over. I got out in the rain and followed him over to the sidewalk where the man was in his death throes. I laughed. He was overacting his part something fierce. Pedestrians were stepping over him.

The bouncer said they had to call the cops and that we should wait. The bouncer said that the guy was a known local drunk and that the cops weren’t going to take his word over ours. So back to the car I went, glad that the hedge blocked Garnet’s view of the scene.  It was then I realized the indigent man had been hitting the passing cars with a bag of ramen. The bag was now run over in the crosswalk, noodles crushed, scattered, and rehydrating in the rain.

I didn’t want to leave the girl to face the cops on her own, but they still hadn’t arrived after 15-20 minutes. I saw something going on in the rearview mirror and assumed another bouncer was confronting the guy, who had made a miraculous recovery. The first bouncer reappeared at my window and told me another bum had arrived on scene, saw the guy playing dead and called him a scumbag. They got into a scuffle and went off into the night. He suggested we leave, quickly, and if the cops ever came they would handle it.

Later, I would realize that I had gotten my learner’s permit in Florida and almost 30 years later was in my first real accident in the same state. You can say what you want about Florida, but the state has the best writers. I mean, where else can you have your first car accident resolved by a bum fight?

 

 

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