Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Full-Frontal Keys Experience

Because of the offshore reefs, Florida Keys beaches have little surf.  Here on Anne's Beach, a toddler inspects the one-inch breakers

"Key West or Bust" - Day 131

I'm talking about natural, not cultural.  I expect I'll have to wait for Key West for the latter.  But I'm more a nature kinda guy.  Well, I like monuments to human achievement too - things that have stood the test of time.  I got my first solid exposure to Henry Flagler's Folly - the miles and miles of Overseas Railroad bridges bringing land transportation to Key West, which he completed in 1912.  Here's the two-mile Long Key Viaduct.

The railroad route was converted to an automobile road in the 1930's, and served as the route of US 1 until the early 1980's.  Some of this has now been converted to a bike path and fishing pier.

Other parts have not been converted.  Here's a section that the birds have taken over.  When I last visited the Keys on a Christmas Break driving trip back in the late 1960's I drove this old bridge.

The Keys don't have a lot of long beach strands.   Sea Oats Beach on Lower Matecumbe Key is one of them.

Anne's beach, shown in the headline photo, is the more common situation - pockets of coral sand protected by mangroves.  The great thing about Anne's beach is that it has a quarter-mile boardwalk beside the water connecting two paved parking areas.  It is one of the few places where I could get off the bike path.

Other stuff today in the nature department included my introduction to this tropical shrub, the Florida Keys Blackbead, Pithecellobium keyense.

The curly seed pods (Pithecellobium translates to 'monkey's earring') hold a colorful surprise.

For me there's nothing like the super-fragrant Plumeria to give me that tropical vibe.  They're everywhere in Hawaii--a common flower used in leis--not so common here.

Finally, crossing the boundary between nature and culture, is this manatee mailbox.

The 'Force' was strongest on Lower Matecumbe Key where the ocean side was lined with nice waterfront homes that provided me with frequent glimpses of the glistening Atlantic Ocean.  Weather was comfortably cool with wall-to-wall sunshine.  It was the Keys experience I had been hoping for.

Here's a map of the route hiked today, with links to more photos.

Islamorada at EveryTrail
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Tavernier - where the 'real' Keys begin

"Key West or Bust" - Day 130

The vibe - the feeling of being in a special place - finally hit me as I was crossing the bridge over Tavernier Creek onto Plantation Key after passing through little historic Tavernier.  Here I got the first view of the open Atlantic Ocean and its tropical emerald blue waters.

The majority of commercial establishments along the road were beginning to appeal to tourists more than locals.  Resident artists had been employed to paint grand murals on the sides and fronts of buildings.  Most of them have an undersea theme, since snorkeling and diving and fishing are the big attractions here, but this one had a historic theme.

It depicts Henry Flagler and his Florida Overseas Railroad, completed in 1912, making the 'land' connection between mainland Florida and Key West.

Then I got to watch the drawbridge over Snake Creek open and close.

And while I waited I had plenty of time to absorb a much more expansive view of the ocean.

I finally felt like the Overseas Heritage Trail was delivering what its name promised.  Yes, there was still the noise and congestion of US 1 traffic.

The Keys inevitably suffer from too much love.  This time of year the 'snowbirds' flock here, and they all have to funnel through the same bottlenecks.  This one was at Coral Shores High School as it was letting out early, at lunch time.  Tourist rush hour is around midday here, so it was the wrong time to be on the road--better time to be hiking!

By the end of the day I had crossed Windley Channel, where I got my first good look at the Gulf of Mexico (bayside),

and an almost 180 degree view of the Atlantic.

I ended the day on Upper Matecumbe Key in Islamorada, and was finally feeling the 'vibe'.  Not a Caribbean feel, but a legitimate resort feel comparable to many of the Atlantic beach communities.

Here's a map of today's hike, with links to more photos:

Tavernier at EveryTrail
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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Key Largo - in search of the Keys 'vibe'

"Key West or Bust" - Day 129

Today, after ten miles of US 1 causeway, crossing over this high bridge, I arrived on the Florida Keys and started along the Overseas Heritage Trail.

The town that greeted me (and the island) is Key Largo.  The trail follows beside the highway at the backbone of the island.  I could see no emerald blue water, no serene beaches, no upscale resorts, only urban noise, clutter, and congestion of the sort I can find anywhere in the US.  It did not feel like a resort community, let alone the unique one that is the Florida Keys.

The best part of the trail was at the entrance to Pennekamp State Park.  The landscaping and decorative heavy fence lasted only a few hundred yards.

Otherwise the trail itself was nothing but a roadside bike path of the sort, once again, that can be found in urban settings all over the US.

I was looking for Poisonwood in order to get myself thoroughly familiar with this plant, so that I could avoid it.  Finally I spotted some, stopped to study it and memorize the blotchy bark pattern, the shiny oval leaves with prominent yellow center vein and closely spaced step-ladder-rung side veins.

Poisonwood protects itself with the same chemical that poison ivy has--it can give you a horrendous itchy rash that lasts more than a week.  I wanted to be sure that when I stepped into the woods to take care of business or to bushwhack to a view of water, that I wasn't making contact.

Satisfied that I could avoid Poisonwood, I returned to the search for the elusive Keys 'vibe'.

The Keys promote themselves as having a Caribbean flavor.  Perhaps that means different things to different people, but I wasn't feeling it, and never did today.  The closest I got was when I crossed the first canal, cut deeply into the coral bedrock.

That was at least distinctive.  The sheer vertical walls of coral were incorporated into the 'landscaping' of the various residences.

One other thing that promised a resort feel was the mile markers--in this case the distance from the southern end of US Route 1.  Plenty of vehicles sport the green 'Mile 0' sticker, indicating their love of Key West.  I'm familiar with the importance given to mile markers on many east coast beaches.  Today I got as far as Mile 100.

And that's where I had to stop, never getting the 'vibe' I was expecting.  Note the bike path beside the marker--pretty ordinary.  Maybe tomorrow.

Here's a map of the path I took today as I reached the Keys, with links to more photos:

Key Largo at EveryTrail
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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Chevy on the Levee - Nine Days across south Florida

This is a long post because it's actually nine short ones.  During the nine days covered I hiked from the St. Lucie Canal east of Lake Okeechobee, around a quarter of the lake on its levees, then I followed canal levees south through sugar cane country, into the Redlands Agricultural district, then through the Everglades to the threshold of the Florida Keys.

I'm back on the Eastern Continental Trail.  With these nine long days under my belt I have 120 more miles to hike - US 1 and the Overseas Heritage Trail across the Florida Keys.

"Key West or Bust" - Day 120

Today I followed FL 76 beside the St. Lucie Canal for seventeen miles.

On the other side of the road was dominated by huge tracts of land owned by familiar names like Del Monte and King Ranch.

My favorite moment was when I spotted a male African Redheaded Agama - a big non-native, 8 to 10 inches long, introduced into Florida about 1976 by the exotic pet trade.

Weather was comfortable, cloudy, in the 60's with some rain.  I managed to duck into my Chevy van in time to avoid the one major downpour.

Here's a map of the day's route, with more photos:

St. Lucie Canal at EveryTrail
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"Key West or Bust" - Day 121

Just eight miles today because I had off-trail business to take care of and got a late start to avoid morning rain.  By the end of the day the weather was beautiful, and I had reached Lake Okeechobee at the town of Port Mayaca.

Here's a map of the route:

Port Mayaca at EveryTrail
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"Key West or Bust" - Day 122

Starting today I began to really crank out the miles.  I did twenty-one today.  I followed the Florida Trail around the east side of Lake Okeechobee through the towns of Canal Point and Pahokee, then struck out southward to the sugar cane town of Belle Glade.  Half the sugar cane produced in the US is grown in the rich black muck soil here.  It was harvest time and the cane haul trucks were constantly roaring by.  Here's a view of a cane field being burned and harvested:

I was surprised to learn that Lake Okeechobee is only 6000 years old - a result of rising sea level after the last ice age.

Leaving the lake I walked FL 715 between Pahokee and Belle Glade.  On the south side of Pahokee the highway is lined by these stately old Royal Palms:

Here's a map of today's hiking route with links to more photos:

SE shore of Lake Okeechobee at EveryTrail
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"Key West or Bust" - Day 123

This was the first of two days needed to traverse 41 miles along a major canal following US 27.

It is a busy four lane divided highway but the guard rail between it and the canal is well away from traffic, set in pavement, and is sprayed with herbicide, making it a ready-made hiker trail.

Yes, the guard rail is virtually continuous for the entire 41 miles from the town of South Bay near Belle Glade down to I-75/Alligator Alley.  Today's twenty-three miles took me out of the sugar cane fields and into the northern Everglades

Spotted along the way today was this black racer, so-named because it's a fast mover.

Here's the map of today's route and more photos can be accessed via the red "pins".

South Bay and sugar cane country at EveryTrail
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"Key West or Bust" - Day 124

More guard-rail trail today - twenty-three miles worth, mostly through Everglades lands, which got me to I-75

Roadside reptiles were on display again today, both living and not-so-much

Hiking weather was ideal--low 70's all day with sunny skies and a refreshing breeze.

Here's the map of the route and more photos:

Everglades WMA at EveryTrail
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"Key West or Bust" - Day 125

Today I continued road-walking south  I left US 27 and began the hike along Krome Blvd/FL 997.  This highway is being upgraded from two lanes to a four lane divided highway.  The unfinished lanes were great for hiking.

Today's route skirted the boundary between developed areas east of the highway and Everglades wetland to the west, much of which was clogged with the badly invasive Melaleuca quinquenervia - the Australian paperbark tea-tree. 

Weather continued to be ideal, so I accomplished twenty-two miles with ease.

Here's the map of the route, with links to more photos:

The edge of developed south Florida at EveryTrail
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"Key West or Bust" - Day 126

Today I got back on the route of the Eastern Continental Trail, joining it where it comes east along the Tamiami trail and turns south on 997, which I had been hiking since yesterday.  The junction is the site of the big Miccosukee casino and resort hotel.

I continued through the sixteen mile construction zone on 997 and ended the day in the heart of the Redlands Agricultural district where the land is a patchwork of large-scale nurseries and agricultural fields.

There were more wetlands infested with Melaleuca - here's a good look at its bottle-brush flowers, five-veined leaves, and peeling paper bark:

Also spotted today, and new to me, was the yellow Mexican Poppy:

Here's the map of today's trek, with links to more photos:

The northern Redlands at EveryTrail
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"Key West or Bust" - Day 127

This was the first of two days hiking the levees of the C-111 canal on the South Dade Greenway trail system.

To the west were the Everglades ...

... and to the east, today, the Redland agricultural district continued.  Set within that is the busy Homestead General Aviation airport.

The trail here has mile markers, though the locals think of them more as targets of opportunity:

Where the trail is on the west side of the canal, it feels remote even though the sounds and sights of civilization are abundant just across the water.

Here's a map of the route hiked today, with links to more photos.

Everglades Trail, a South Dade Greenway at EveryTrail
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"Key West or Bust" - Day 128

Today's hiking brought me into the low flat, relatively unspoiled wetlands of the southern Everglades.

The wetlands were particularly wet this winter, and another heavy downpour flooded the land some more today and thoroughly soaked me.  Before the rain I encountered this South Florida Water Management District helicopter, hired to carry equipment and water samples into and out of remote sites in the Southern Glades Wildlife and Environmental Area.

Also before the rain, I had a close encounter with a big fat water moccasin.

When threatened, they show you their cottonmouth.

I wasn't really that close--the photo was taken with a zoom lens.  At the end of the day I was within ten miles of the Florida Keys.  I could smell the ocean on the south wind.  Tomorrow I'll be on the Overseas Heritage Trail.  120 miles to go.  It's beginning to feel like the goal is in sight.

Here's the map of today's hike, with links to more photos:

South Glades Trail at EveryTrail
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