Journeys: Cedar Key, FL (by small plane)

Cedar Key is untamed, yet lovely.

AOPA Pilot Magazine, Postcards, September 2004

Note: I’ve been working on a novel about flying; it takes me back to old aviation adventures, when Hal and I would climb into our little Cessna 172 and head to New Orleans Lakefront Airport, or Meigs Field in Chicago, or our favorite—Cedar Key, FL. Here’s an article we did together eight years ago about one of those trips.

Cedar Key's small airstrip (photo:

The searing Florida sun climbs high into a cloudless sky. It’s already 10 a.m., and still Charlie Harrison has not appeared. Eager families and solitary middle-aged men with an ardent gleam in their eyes bustle about the Cedar Key Marina, lugging ice chests and fishing rods aboard all manner of seaworthy vessels, as we scan the glittering sea for our very tardy captain du jour. Long before Harrison’s boat comes into view, there is the sound: A buzz like a low-flying airplane — but louder — comes ripping across the glassy water. Harrison’s magnificent airboat roars up to the marina with every eye on it. A few of those families cast doubtful looks at their much-less-sexy hired fishing boats, as a white-haired and mustached man with squinting blue eyes climbs out and approaches us. We haven’t been stood up, we realize. We’ve been treated to a grand entrance.

Reaching us, Harrison wipes beads of sweat from his neck. He looks flummoxed. “How are you?” we ask, each extending a hand to shake. “I ain’t worth a damn,” he says. “I just tore up $1,500 worth of prop this morning.” While working on the boat the night before, he figures, he left a wrench in the propeller cage. The hefty three-blade Kevlar propeller looks like it’s been gnawed by pit bulls. We commiserate. He looks like we felt one morning a few years ago when we stood over the twisted hulk that had been our beloved Cessna, smashed by a summer tornado.

“Yeah, I’m tore down now,” he says, his voice laden with gravel and regret. “I apologize, man. I hate to mess you up. I’m as sorry as I can be. We can’t run her like this.”

We three stand glumly on the dock, watching the shrimp boats and fishing trawlers motor out to sea, most of them laden with tourists no longer envious of us. It seems we are all anchored to the Earth on a beautiful summer Saturday, without a chance in Hades of getting out on that shimmering ocean.

We have come to Cedar Key — a place longtime residents of this tranquil Gulf Coast island compare to the Key West of 50 years ago.

It’s the anti-Daytona Beach: There’s no strip of raucous bars, no chain hotels or restaurants, no high-rise condos, and no spring-break influx of college kids gone wild. (In fact, there’s no beach at all to lure them.) The island’s thousand or so inhabitants prefer a differently paced kind of tourist: older folks content to putter around the tiny town in a rented golf cart; young couples who know there’s seafood beyond Red Lobster and Busch Gardens isn’t a jungle adventure; dads who see paradise as one dock, one kid, and two fishing poles.

The two main commercial thoroughfares in town, straightforwardly named Dock Street and 2nd Street, boast a handful of colorful, independently owned restaurants, gift shops, inns, and watering holes that pack full on winter weekends but slow to a crawl on off-season weekdays. Quiet, tree-lined residential streets make up the rest of the island, sprinkled with the occasional vividly painted bed-and-breakfast or mini art gallery.

Cedar Key is Old Florida, bearing more resemblance to the Deep South than to the state’s bustling eastern coast. At the southern extreme of Northwest Florida’s Big Bend, the marshy stretch of coastline where panhandle curves into peninsula, the town of Cedar Key lies four miles from shore along a chain of mostly uninhabited barrier islands called the Cedar Keys. First settled in the 1840s, Cedar Key’s booming lumber, fishing, and shipping industries, as well as a major cross-state railroad line, made it Florida’s second largest city a century ago. But a shift in port activity to Tampa in the 1880s followed by a devastating hurricane in 1896 sent the town into an economic tailspin.

That the city never became a New Orleans or a Key West doesn’t bother locals one bit. A frenetic Sin City wouldn’t suit this tight-knit community of fishermen, men and women who harvest their fortunes from the swamps and seas and who measure time by the tides. To reach Cedar Key by land, drive southwest from Gainesville on State Road 24, known as “the Swamp Road,” through 50 miles of scrub and salt marshes. You’ll get a sense of the isolation that kept away developers eager to convert the rest of Florida into one massive strip of concrete.

Our old Niner One Echo

Flying VFR to Cedar Key from parts north hardly mitigates a traveler’s sense of the place’s remoteness. Although a three-mile causeway connects the key to the mainland, Cedar Key remains an island in every sense of the word. Pilots may cross only a few miles of that sectional-chart blue that quickens a single-engine driver’s pulse, but for a good 30 minutes before that, the green parts of the chart are little better; it’s a decidedly unsolid type of green. In every direction the verdancy of a vast marsh furnishes aviators with splendid vistas but little peace of mind.

A fuel stop at the nontowered Cross City Airport, 30 miles north of Cedar Key, bestows a smidgen of extra confidence for the journey to and from Cedar Key’s George T. Lewis Airport, which has no FBO or fuel service. A credit card activates Cross City’s self-serve fuel pump 24/7, and if you stop in during daylight hours you receive an abundance of unconditional love from Orville, the airport pooch.

After a flight over that unbounded wilderness, sleepy Cedar Key looks to the relieved pilot like a metropolitan oasis. Flying at pattern altitude over Dock Street on the south end of town alerts Judy Mason, Cedar Key’s lone taxi driver, to the arrival of a fare; incoming pilots can also hail her on the published unicom frequency. You approach the airport’s paved 2,355-foot runway (lighted from dusk to dawn — beware the black-hole approach over water) from either the northeast or southwest and tie down on a small ramp on the south end of the taxiway. (Bringing your own tiedown ropes isn’t a bad idea.) Try to remember to fly the airplane while you’re enjoying the view — saltwater submersion negatively impacts most airframes (even rentals).

Once on terra firma, your lodging choices range from low budget and funky to elegant and manicured. If long hours of lazing with a novel in a shady swing or dangling a pole from a private dock appeals to you, try one of the casual, offbeat seaside motels. Many offer outdoor grills for roasting the day’s catch and bikes to ride to town if the fish aren’t biting. More upscale tourists might opt instead for one of the quaint historic inns or B&Bs.

Once you’re comfortably ensconced in your accommodation of choice, hot-foot it into town for a taste of very fresh seafood. Locals brag about their famous clams (with good reason) and, if pressed, will even recklessly allege that Apalachicola’s celebrated oysters really hail from Cedar Key waters. Ask your waiter for whatever’s local and in season, and whether you prefer your sea creatures grilled, fried, or Rockefellered, you won’t go wrong. If you order any fish or shellfish that, like you, has arrived on an aircraft, you will earn the scorn of all within earshot.

Most restaurants and hotels lie within easy walking distance of each other, but plan at least one dinner at the Blue Desert Cafe, a couple of miles out of town on State Road 24. A quick bike ride from Dock Street, this cozy eatery offers an intriguing selection of homemade dishes — seafood, pasta, brick-oven pizza, and Southwestern specialties — made-to-order by the creative chef-owner. After a carafe or two of wine shared by candlelight in the tiny dining room that somehow manages to be both intimate and cheery, you’ll feel as if you’ve unearthed a rare treasure, known only to a select few.

photo: Trip Advisor

Even rarer treasures await adventurous travelers who brave the seas and swamps of Florida’s Big Bend, known also as the Nature Coast. The barrier islands and shallow saltwater estuaries along this nearly untouched stretch of Gulf Coast teem with life in all its varied splendor. Twelve of the islands make up the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, home to tens of thousands of water birds: egrets, cormorants, herons, and white ibis, to name a few. Shuttle boats deliver tourists to the keys’ pristine beaches for shell collecting and bird spotting. For a more solitary exploration of those lonely sand spits and mangrove swamps, paddle yourself there in a canoe or kayak.

Cedar Key is paradise for the hard-core fisherman: Dozens of charter services offer half- and full-day excursions. Fish inshore for trout, flounder, shark, and bluefish, or drop a line (and a hefty buck) offshore for grouper, sheepshead, or king mackerel.

For a taste of wild Florida, wilder even than Daytona during spring break, take a tour inland. Ecotours rove the tidal creeks and expansive salt marshes of the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge and the Wacassassa Bay State Preserve. Take a knowledgeable guide into this lush labyrinth of tributaries snaking among groves of live oak and 100-year-old cypress. They’ll not only point out critters you wouldn’t have seen otherwise, but also they’ll be sure you make it back out. Only kayaks and small, flat-bottom skiffs can navigate the creeks and sand flats.

Personally, we recommend the airboat.

We should have known Charlie Harrison was a pilot from the confident way he drove that airboat. It turns out he has a second boat — his personal craft he uses for tooling around and fishing by himself. “It’s all full of crap right now,” he tells us. “Haven’t started it in six months. Don’t know if it’ll even fire up.”

“Sounds perfect,” we say immediately.

Minor mishaps notwithstanding, Harrison takes care of his boats just as carefully as he took care of his airplanes in his flying days. The airboat roars to life on the first try, so we load up in the truck and put in at Shell Mound Park. Piloting the craft with the confidence of a 10,000-hour aviator, he flies the airboat across the water at what must be very nearly the craft’s VR, because it spends some time airborne. He banks it sharp and fast along the serpentine channels, spilling a raucous wake into the tall sawgrass. He shoots across open sea and sand flats and navigates narrow backwaters, going where outboard motors dare not.

A lifetime of gator tracking and fishing up and down the Big Bend has bestowed upon Harrison an intimacy with that landscape — an understanding based on years of depending on the fruits of the sea and swamp for sustenance. No amount of gruff exterior can conceal his love of the place once he shuts down the engine along a teeming backwater creek. The propeller’s roar gives way to the uproar of crickets, frogs, and birds. Harrison points to an ibis — flash of white amid the dense green; he regales us with tales of his gator-stalking youth as he spies a pair of slitted eyes that slip silently underwater; he points out a mating pair of the largest grasshoppers we’ve ever seen, jet-black and perched on an overhanging limb. He shows us all his favorite places: lonely island beaches teeming with birds, a 100-year-old abandoned house on its own key.

What seemed a monotonous breadth of violent green from 3,000 feet reveals itself to be anything but. It’s an untamed place, resplendent with the rich details that we pilots often miss from our bird’s-eye view. Drifting silently through this tunnel of foliage, surrounded by hundreds of square miles of swamp you could lose yourself in for years, you suddenly realize that the Earth is, in fact, very big. It’s easy to forget this when you routinely survey the planet from thousands of feet above it, clipping off miles much faster than the average mortal.

But down here, amidst this abundant nowhere, we are suddenly vulnerable; our relationship to the land has changed. Lost is the distant objectivity of observing the world from above, just as a pilot’s feelings about wind, storms, and icy clouds change forever when he first takes to the skies.

We philosophize with Harrison about these and other adventures over beers at a dockside bar along the wide Suwannee River. He’s having fun showing us his favorite haunts. “But this is just scratching the surface,” he says with a wink, after an incredible nine hours of manic touring. “You need to come back and do a three- or four-day trip out here. We’ll camp on one of the islands….”

We strongly consider it, as we wing our way north, dodging summer storms all the way home to Nashville. Each time we journey to Cedar Key, we stay a day or two longer than we’d planned: Unpredictable coastal weather usually provides a worthy excuse to wait another day. Besides, the treasures of this place take time to discover, unlike showier destinations with more obvious attractions. After a few days here, you’ll adjust to a new pace. Maybe you’ll decide you don’t have to be back on Monday morning after all.

photo: Trip Advisor

If You Fly Into Cedar Key:

George T. Lewis Airport at Cedar Key is a great day-trip or vacation destination, but be aware of the hazards. Since the runway is only 2,355 feet long and summer temperatures are high, weight and balance numbers along with takeoff performance at high density altitudes need to be considered. The runway is 100 feet wide, creating an optical illusion that the length is greater than it actually is. Finally, night takeoffs are especially hazardous since the horizon — mostly water — seems to disappear. A plaque at the airport was erected by friends of a pilot who died after losing control at night. See comments in AIRNav’s Airport Directory

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