Waxy leaves flicker in the golden sun. Saline waterways appear through the tropical mangroves. The view of the paddling route ahead offers a crisp mirror of the pink and orange clouds above. A gull flashes across the glassy scene and my eyes struggle to focus on which plane to view: the sky or its perfect reflection. Silver baitfish help out by breaking through the aquatic barrier, taking my gaze back to the water, where an indolently cruising nurse shark navigates through its aquatic world under our paddleboards.
The alternate view, from above, would show our progress snaking through these clear aquatic trails—water channels weaving through the mangroves with a fluid lack of destination. We do have a goal, eventually, to push into Largo Sound. But for now, disappearing in the maze of spider-web roots takes us to a different place, what feels like the edge of the world.
It’s sunset in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The busy mid-day crowds are nowhere to be seen. Only the occasional hum of a fisherman's slowly weaving boat breaks the silence. The bright smile against the hardy, bronzed face reminds us of the timeless laid-back lifestyle here in the Florida Keys.
As soon as we headed from the swampy flatlands over the U.S. Highway 1 bridge and into Key Largo, we knew that we were someplace much different. This 33-mile-long key of limestone and fossilized coral holds a rich history. Pirates and exiles frequented this land in its earliest days. The charts made in 1639, of Dutch cartographer Johannes Vingboons, named this location “Caio dos 12 Ligues.” Spanish explorers later mapped this area for sunken treasure exploration, naming the island “Cayo Largo."
"Key Largo" is the recognizable name today, yet it still remains a refuge of sorts as around 10,500 residents now call it home.
Andrew Morris came here for the world-class scuba diving, the instruction leading him naturally into kayak guiding and outfitting. The bayside sunsets on the west side of the Key, made it easy to stay. "It's the most serene, pristine environment," Morris said. "I love being on the calm, glassy water— when you're out there on the water it's like your part of it."
It wasn't hard to spot Morris, in his bright sun hat, just as it wasn't hard to spot Florida Bay Outfitters, where he works. The colorful selection of kayaks, and the sound of gravel crunching in and out of the parking lot lured us into this indispensible stop for maps, touring and fishing kayaks, SUPs and sunscreen—with expert advice and a few popular shop pets to welcome adventurers.
A huge number of possible adventure options are housed in the waterproof maps FBO includes with sales and rentals. Fortunately we had Morris — potentially a descendant of pirates—to point us in the right direction to find the paddling treasure. What about the best one-day option within reach? Morris smiled.
“If you want the best of fishing and paddling, look no further than Rattlesnake Key,” Morris exclaimed. “Loads of snappers at the base of mangroves. Juvenile tarpon cruise through all the time. And keep your eye out for the fiery barracudas that cruise through looking for meals.”
He pointed back to the map, “Find your way to Upper Sound Point on Rattlesnake Key at low tide," he said. "The flats fishing there is not to be missed.”
The only thing missing from the equation was fishing gear. Fortunately, Pete's Pro Shop—a must-stop for interested anglers—is only a short drive from FBOs. The dedicated staff at Pete's has an interesting organizational method for fishing gear, with sections dedicated by species. A complete beginner would feel at ease searching out the appropriate gear; the advanced angler acknowledging a professional touch with no shortage of key advice.
Loaded up, we paddled out on the east, Atlantic side toward Rattlesnake Key.
"It feels like we're paddling on the moon," Aaron said, assessing the suddenly empty coral surroundings toward the northeast end of the key, paddling past a shipwreck landmark, and then getting out to explore the enclosed reef fish and crab scurrying among the tide pools.
On the paddle home we discussed just how quickly a side-venture off the Highway 1 strip of businesses leaves any tourist crowds immediately behind. After looking at the next possibilities on the map, and spitballing ideas with the local guides, we realized what an easy jumping-off point the Keys present paddlers wanting easy, instant access to a totally unique, yet forgiving environment. When the mid-day heat and the winds don't cooperate, there's still a place to paddle with the mangroves offering respite. The talk turned to multi-day itineraries, shuttled downwind paddling adventures. We'd only scratched the surface. We needed more water, and more time.
We ended the day at a Cuban cafe known for café con leches with sweetbread in the morning and grilled shrimp by night. In the glowing dusk light, that edge-of-the earth feeling returned. Bright sand melted into the wild turquoise of the Atlantic Ocean. On the wild and beautiful horizon, billowing thunderheads reached into the atmosphere as vivid orange starfish slowly worked their way on the sandy flats. Tarpon of a bull shark's stature plowed the waters searching for the next meal.
With a taste for more, we eyed another magic sunset tour back into the mangroves.