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Florida's Nature Coast

Landing on the central gulf coast of Florida, I immediately wondered what kind of Nature can be found along one of the most highly developed parts of Florida's western shoreline. It turns out that there is a lot of natural substance to see and experience.

This is an area of rivers, some of them born in the abundant springs of the region, flowing with crystal clear water toward the sea, and then mixing with the gulf's salt water to create estuaries with fine salt marshes. Manatees gather in the warmer estuaries along with tropical fish and plants. River otters patrol the stream banks, and shore birds mix with sea birds where the rivers meet the sea. This is a zone where the sub-tropical meets the temperate, a world of wetlands where the landscape is constantly changed by water and wind, most dramatically by hurricanes and tropical rainstorms.

The southern boundary of this region is Tampa Bay—the developed part of the region—while the Suwanee River to the north with its origins in Georgia, cuts a swath through northern and central Florida, ending in a wide estuary just north of Cedar Key.

Since 1983, three manatee refuges have been created along the Nature Coast. But this notable accomplishment may have come too late, for the manatees are severely endangered, and 13 years later, in the spring of 1996, more than 120 manatees perished along this part of the coast and in Southwest Florida---more dead manatees than previously had been found in all of Florida in a full year. More recent cold weather may have weakened the warmth-loving "sea cows," and made them susceptible to a red tide toxin. Or could it be a more serious and permanent disease? The previous decline of the manatee has been largely credited to destruction by boat propellers. Before this recent event, there were about 2,000 West Indian manatees in all U.S. waters. The annual death rate hovers around ten percent.

The plight of the manatee has finally brought a great deal of attention to the declining state of wildlife along this busy and popular part of the gulf coastline. The newly dedicated sanctuaries and previously established estuarine preserves may help to restore the delicate wetlands balance to this highly-developed region.

Nature Coast

This is a a tourism region cobbled together from the coastal counties. The area's chambers of commerce and political leaders realized that the economic future of the region depends on tourism, and the best form of tourism is that which is based on visits to natural attractions. A visit to the Nature Coast can be extremely rewarding, with all of the sites within an easy day's drive of each other. The most important of these is Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, based on the rustic barrier island which retains much of its 19th century atmosphere. This is not an area of deluxe resorts, in the fashion of Sanibel, but a rustic area blessed with flocks of white pelicans between November and April, and nesting cranes, among many other species.

To the north is the Lower Suwanee Wildlife Refuge, taking up 26 miles of gulf shoreline and the banks of the Suwanee, the river made famous by the Stephen Foster song. The refuge combines salt water marshes with swampy alligator country. In the middle of the Nature Coast is Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. Located just south of the Crystal River, this is manatee country, and a sanctuary for many other animal species.

This part of Florida was one of the first to be settled. The town of Cedar Key had its first boom during the 1870s, when a thriving port was quickly built, complete with a railway line snaking across the state from Tallahassee. Ships loaded cotton, lumber mills cut timber, and the logs were loaded on freighters for transport along the Gulf Coast and to foreign nations. Hotels and warehouses were built. The bust came as soon as Tampa was designated as the region's deep water port, and commerce forgot about Cedar Key. The town is now much as it was many years ago, with period architecture, small inns, and a relaxed lifestyle. None of the original human inhabitants of the Nature Coast are found here now. While the Cedar Key area was once the home of the Timucua Indians, the sad story of all of the Florida native people was played out here, as well.

Cedar Key

Located mid-way between Tampa and Tallahassee, the town of Cedar Key is out-of-the-way, and the local residents prefer it that way. While big things were forecast for this area more than a century ago, little has happened to make it a center of commerce, although there have been some notable tries to make it so.

About 800 people live here, the remnants of the up and down existence that has plagued Cedar Key since sugar magnate and slaveowner David Levy Yulee planted a sugar plantation and championed the cross-state railroad that linked Cedar Key to Fernandina in 1861. Cedar Key was the second largest city in the state during the 1880s, with the trains bringing hundreds of thousands of tourists. Eagle Pencils set up a factory here to take advantage of the abundant cedar forests, and proceeded to make their famous pencils, which they exported to the world. The only problem was that within a few years the cedars had all been cut down, and Eagle moved to more productive areas. By 1890, the grand dream was over, and the town settled into a rustic obscurity. The two current reminders of Levy's career in the area are the ruins of his sugar mill at Homosassa, and the county which bears his name.

What commercial activity remained centered on harvesting seafood, including fish and oysters. Then, in 1896, a devastating hurricane destroyed the town and the docks and Cedar Key went back to square one. The venerable Island Hotel (1861) is one of the few pre-hurricane buildings standing today, and still operates as a favorite place to stay. Today it's a quiet little tourist town, next door to the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, playing its part in the growing eco-travel business. The Cedar Keys State Museum not only reflects the stormy and checkered history of the town, but also hosts a fine shell collection. The Cedar Key Historical Society Museum offers more artifacts and local lore. Several small cafes offer basic dining, including the indigenous mullet, served three meals a day.

Evening walks on the wharf and through the small town park where a plaque marks the terminus of the old railroad provide a reflective time, and spark quiet enjoyment at the thought of this little community sitting here after all these years of boom and bust, looking much as it must have looked before the rails came to town and the machinations of Senator David Levy Yulee faded from the scene.

Seashore Key is a nearby island that attracts visitors to its sandy beaches and excellent bird watching. You get there by local shuttle boats. The channels between the small islands provide chances for perfect canoeing expeditions---through bird-filled salt marshes and mangrove swamps, and through the mazes of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. This is not an area for a fast, hurried visit. There is much to see from this rustic little community, and a chance to explore remote areas not filled with other visitors. The mainland areas offer a look at shell mounds from the age of the Tocobaga people, plus much wildlife amongst the scrub, palmetto flatlands, and live oak groves.

There is a lot of Nature on the Nature Coast.

Fraser Bridges

 

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