Friday, March 29, 2024

Paddling off the coast of Cedar Key

February 2024                                                           Most Recent Posts:
Cedar Key RV Resort                                                Shell Mound
Site 77                                                                          Hiking In and Near Cedar Key
Sumner Florida

Atsena Otie Key was a proposed housing development in the early 1990’s but thankfully the Florida Coast Nature Conservancy encouraged and lobbied for the public acquisition of the land.   It is now part of Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge and is accessible only by boat.

I’d been watching the weather for a day of light winds and when I finally got one I took my kayak to the city park to launch it for a paddle to Otsena Otie Key.   The city park is a really lovely spot with a sandy beach, benches, restrooms, and a gazebo.


You can park you car right next to the beach but you have to carry your kayak from there and launch among the sun bathers.  There is a private rental company there as well.


You can see my launch site behind me.


As I paddled  away from the shore, I passed the back of the dock street merchants’ buildings  and the fishing dock  in the distant left and the power boat ramp on the right.


Same buildings and dock just a bit further along.


Atsena Otie Key (aSEEna OTee), there in the distance,  is a barrier island and is the original Cedar Key. In 1842 the first people settled on the island (key) of Atsena Otie calling it Cedar Key.  By 1860 more than 200 people lived there and had established businesses.   The Eberhard Faber Pencil Company built a lumber mill in 1868 on Atsena Otie Key to supply wood for its pencil factory in New Jersey


According to the local history museum, by the 1870s the oyster, green turtle, and fishing industries had also grown on Atsena Otie. By the 1890s lumber production was making a profit of almost $900,000, and the Faber Mill alone produced wood for casing more than a third of a million pencils.

A 10 foot tidal wave washed it all away in the hurricane of September 29, 1896.  People were killed, the mill was destroyed and the island wrecked except for a few buildings.  A business building and several houses that escaped destruction were floated across one island closer to the mainland.  The formerly named Way Key was renamed Cedar Key and lumber salvaged from the wreckage of the mills was used for construction of the town we visit today.  The last wooden house standing on the island was torn down in the 1940s and the lumber was taken to Cedar Key.


When I landed on the sandy beach there was not another soul in sight. 
Take a look at this short video to get a real feel for what a beautiful spot this is.


I set out looking for the path to the cemetery that David and I had found on our trip here in March of 2014.



IMG_1352I walked in both directions but all I found was  this Horseshoe crab. I haven’t seen a crab or a shell in a very long time.  In February of this year a petition was filed with NOAA Fisheries seeking federal Endangered Species Act protection for the American horseshoe crab.  Long a ubiquitous species its populations have dropped dramatically because of overharvesting and habitat loss.  If you remember seeing them in numbers on beaches like I do, then you’ve no doubt noticed that is no more.

I walked as far on the beach as I could before running into the mangroves.  No sign of the trail.  The dock, in extreme disrepair,  for the town can be seen in the distance.  Being accessible only by water, everything came by boat.


I got back in my boat and paddled around toward the dock to see if there was anywhere else to land that might have the trail.  It’s been 10 years and I just don’t remember.

But I did find remains of buildings on the shore right next to the dock.

The sign indicating an archeological site told me I was in the right place.  But I could find not trail here either.



I paddled around, under and past the long dock which has been taken over largely by cormorants and a few other birds.



Although I was certain the trail was between the landing area and the dock, I had been unable to find it so I paddled on to do a circumnavigation of the island.

As you can see here, it was a gorgeous day.


I slipped into some of the mangrove coves


These are red mangroves.  You can tell by their bent roots.


I really had to pay attention as there were some quite shallow spots.


As I began to turn to what I’m calling the south side of the island, I heard distinct voices and found a group of paddlers come into view.   I didn’t get any pictures of them or their leader “Kayak Bob” as I was too busy asking Bob who brings small groups out to the island, if he knew where the trail was.  He gave me directions and we both continued our trips around the island going in opposite directions.


Lucky catch or fisherman’s loss??


I saw a group of what I think are Lesser Scaups but Laurel will let me know if I’m wrong.

According to Bob, I was in the right place at the far end of the sandy beach going toward the dock.  So I returned and looked again with no luck.  Just as I got in the kayak to leave, the group came paddling up and were on their way to find the trail. Lucky for me Bob found it.  The entrance and boardwalk that had just been built within the last year or two were destroyed by the late August 2023 Hurricane Idalia.  Thus the trail really was not visible without walking into the Black Mangroves which I did not do.

But we did.  The mangrove pencil roots were over my knees and the water up to my ankles.


The further inland we got, the clearer the trail and the greater the destruction.


At several points we could see the crumpled remains of the clearly brand new boardwalk that had been tossed hither and yon by the winds.


I was told that this was an island cistern.  Not sure I understand how it worked.  But obviously the people needed something other than water from the gulf.


As promised the path led to the cemetery.  The wooden post sign lists the people buried here along with their birth and death dates.  Many of the headstones are gone, have been damaged or are barely readable.

It doesn’t appear that anyone is actually taking care of the cemetery any more.




It turned out to be a beautiful day on the water, I met some very interesting people and found the cemetery.  Life is Grand.


Later in my time here I had another kayak meet up with Kayak Bob and got a stealth picture of him.  He doesn’t like pictures but his “story” is really interesting.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Shell Mound

February 2024                                                   Most Recent Posts:
Cedar Key RV Park                                           Hiking In and Near Cedar Key
Sumner, Florida                                                 Cedar Key – the Island Town

The Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge (all the green on the map below) is a big land area around Cedar Key.  Shell Mound is one part of it.  When David and I visited on one of our early winters in Florida, we stayed in the tiny county campground with perhaps a dozen sites and were awakened early in the morning by the deafening sound of air boats going out just at dawn from the boat launch there.

You can see the Shell Mound area in the lower section of the NWR map below.  Both that time and this time I visited and hiked Shell Mound several times. 

The town of Cedar Key is on the far island at the bottom of the map.  The darker red road line on the far right is the only road leading to it.


PXL_20240206_175542772.MPYou can see here that the Shell Mound is a semi circular ridge of shell and earth that was originally constructed on the arm of an ancient U shaped sand dune.  It lies at the end of a peninsula  a short distance above Cedar Key.  The road you drive in on is part of that ancient dune.  

PXL_20240206_173636369.MPThe county park and campground are in yellow at the top of the map and in easy walking distance of the mound trail and the mound park and kayak launch which were both sadly closed for this visit due to hurricane damage.

But the two trails luckily were open.  I talked about the Dennis Creek trail in my previous post.

The Laboratory of Southeastern Archeology has been doing site work at Shell Mound since 2012 and with sophisticated equipment provided this 3 D image of what they feel the area looked like between 400 and 650 CE

The site features mounds of marine shell (predominately oyster) measuring about 23 feet high surrounding a large central plaza. Excavations by archaeologists from the University of Florida have discovered the remains of large feasts that took place in the summer–likely celebrating the Summer Solstice–the longest day of the year.

This map below shows the walking trail and the numbered information signs which are extremely well done.  In all the maps, you can see that Shell Mound resembles an amphitheater.


Mother Nature has taken the mound area back, with her tree cover and it isn’t really possible to “see” the mound from ground level.  When you hike you do  know you are going up.  There has been some desiccation of the mound by fill removal.  At this point it is 23 feet high.  But imagine building even 23’ of earth and shell.

The information signs tell that the mound is composed of about 1.2 billion oyster shells.   From them I also learned that pits were dug into the dune to cook large quantities of food presumably for ceremonial feasts.  The pits then became refuse bins containing oyster shells and bones from  fish, especially mullet, birds and sea turtles.  Apparently fragments of 15 gallon cooking pots were found.


This is the bulldozer trench dug into the south ridge of the mound in the 1970’s by a private landowner not long before the mound became public land and was protected.  So sad that it appears someone wanted to get in just under the wire and make money.  The shell of many mounds in Florida was taken for road aggregate, fertilizer and building material.


You can see shell  on the trails up the mound and on its sides.




The original view from the top enabled you to look down into the amphitheater and opposite out to the gulf.  There are only  only small views to the gulf available today.


The closest island off the coast of Shell Mound is Hog Island where there was a burial mound named Palmetto Mound by archeologists.  It has been completely destroyed.  I have no idea what happened to the bodies of the ancestors.

The signs say that perhaps before Shell Mound was constructed rising seas had separated Hog Island from the dune arm.  Or perhaps the water divide between the living and the dead was symbolic.  So much has been destroyed that a lot is guess work.    Look closely at the time line.  It is very interesting that Shell Mound was abandoned long before burials ceased at Palmetto Mound.

It is so sad that none of this was protected in the early part of the 20th century.


In this photograph you can see the relative placement of the two mounds.


A view out to Hog Island.


History prior to Shell Mound.


The current trail near the top of Shell Mound looks very different from when the Native Peoples were creating the mound.


Archaeologists refer to places such as this as “civic-ceremonial centers,” locations of both residence and ritual activity.

It is an easy trail and a wonderful place to visit and reflect.