Head Down Past Gainesville, Turn Back 50 Years

Where the Suwanne hits the Gulf, a bygone Florida thrives in the wilderness

Bucky McMahon

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Not to slight the skill of local anglers, nor that of the resident gallery of brown pelicans (one on every wooden post), but by far the best fisherman today on the city dock of downtown Cedar Key is a great blue heron. It stalks among a few silver-crested retirees and ruddy-cheeked waterfront regulars like a stern professor of piscatology, and then pauses to kibitz over the shoulders of a father and his young son who are spin-casting bait into the fiery Gulf of Mexico sunset. You don’t often see this magnificent wading bird preening in public places or strutting on sidewalks (its bright orange feet are usually submerged). Or so close up that you’re tempted to tap its narrow shoulders and ask how they’re biting. But here on Cedar Key, the tiny fishing village and artists’ colony in the heart of the least-populated portion of the Tallahassee-to-Tampa stretch of Florida’s Gulf Coast, a nosy heron is just another town character.

Take a ten-minute stroll the length of Second Street under the hundred-year-old porches and gabled windows, and you’re bound to run into a few other offbeat locals. Like the Bird Man, a freelance pelican rescuer who monitors the waterfront for net-entangled birds on his motor scooter, a fully operational wildlife aid vehicle replete with nets, poles, and cages. Or the lady in the bookstore who said to me, “When people ask, ‘Where’s your fast food?’ we just tell ’em to go to hell, or Orlando.” After all, Cedar Key’s surrounding attractions—water, white sand, and wildlife—are strictly natural. Off by itself in a cluster of uninhabited islands, the cozy little town isn’t on the way to anywhere else (the nearest sizable town is Gainesville, 60 miles northeast), and so it misses the main seasonal drift of snowbirds but hosts a horde, some 20,000 strong, of nesting seabirds along with osprey and bald eagles.
From the relatively domesticated environs of Cedar Key itself, you’re ideally situated for easy day-tripping to Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge: 13 barrier islands, accessible only by boat, that are perfect for birding, shell-collecting, or just cooling off in the shallows. And nearby is Cedar Key’s great northern buffer to development, the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. In this 52,000-acre sanctuary, one of the nation’s largest unspoiled delta-estuarine systems, you can hike and canoe and stroll along the boardwalk on the banks of the tannin-dark Suwannee. On your way back to town, turn right on Levy County 326, which dead-ends at Shell Mound (whose namesake is a five-acre wide, 28-foot-tall pile of oyster shells), for a superb lookout over an endless stretch of marshlands and winding creeks. From the top of the mound sprouts a bevy of ancient oaks, their grasping roots uplifting seemingly endless strata of shells. Archaeologists believe this colossal midden represents 3,500 uninterrupted years of contented shucking by the Timucuan Indians—a heritage celebrated in Cedar Key with a seafood festival held each fall (October 16-17 this year).

During the town’s other big annual event, which takes place in April, the human population (about 700) swells to match that of the area’s pelican (about 2,000). This is the Sidewalk Arts Festival, which happily coincides with the spawning season of the sea trout. Bill Roberts, Cedar Key’s most experienced fishing guide, leads inshore trout or redfish angling excursions, and he can also set you up with other guides for offshore grouper expeditions or for fly-casting the flats and creeks that honeycomb the nearby estuaries. Or, if you’ve fallen in love with the town itself, buy a painting of a bird as a memento and take it with your tackle to the City Dock to have it appraised right there, under the furiously scrutinizing eye of the town heron.

Keys to the Keys

Cedar Key is a straight shot southwest from Gainesville, a 90-minute drive on Florida 24. Downtown’s historic, and reputedly haunted, Island Hotel (352-543-5111) has doubles for $75-$110, depending on the season. To get to Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge (352-493-0238), Island Hopper (352-543-5904) offers scenic cruises for $10, drop-off and pick-up service for $10-$20, and motor boat rentals, $90 per day, $60 for a half day. For a stealthier approach, hire a sea kayak from Nature Coast Expeditions ($24 per day for a single sit-upon; 352-543-6463). Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge (352-493-0238) is a 17-mile drive from town on Levy County 347. And for trout fishing, Bill Roberts (352-543-5690) can accommodate groups of up to four for $260 per person, half-day jaunts for $180.