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Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park 4-18-10

Ed and Cheryl decided to stay in Community Harbor another night, but Nancy, Sandy, Gary and I wanted to go to Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park, so we ventured further south down the Keys today.

While going through a narrow channel called Steamboat Channel, White Swan ran hard aground.  Lily Pad was sailing ahead of us, unaware of our dilemma, and after we realized we were going to be there a while getting off the shoal, we radioed our sister ship with our VHF radio.  They came back to help us, and Sandy informed us we hadn’t furled in our jib sail, which was keeping us pushed up on the shoal.  DUH-H-H.  In our hast to do everything else we needed to do, we forgot about the jib.  Sometimes, Gary and I need a third brain, because the two we have together doesn’t do all the work necessary in certain situations.  Long story short:  We finally got off the shoal by both of us getting in the water and pulling up the rudders on both sides of the boat and dragging the boat backwards into deep enough water for the rudders and the outboard motor to do the rest of the work.  Gary hopped into our dinghy and he and Sandy stayed in their respective dinghy’s, motoring beside White Swan, in case they needed to assist her, until she was safely in deeper water.  (WARNING TO FIRST TIME BOATERS IN FLORIDA:  Later, we found out there could have been a fine for going aground with our boat in Florida because of “damage to reefs and seagrass beds“.  We are familiar with going aground in the Chesapeake Bay, which is commonplace there, so it never crossed our minds that it could be so detrimental in Florida to the point of a fine being issued for such an occurrence.  The rule of thumb regarding going aground in the Chesapeake Bay is, “If you’ve never gone aground, you’ve never really sailed the Bay. “  In Florida, the rule is to watch the color of the water and the saying goes, “Brown, brown, run aground. White, white, you just might. Green, green, nice and clean. Blue, blue, cruise on through.”  (Quoted from the Florida Keys Safe Boating Tips through the Florida Advisory Council On Environmental Education.)  The difference between the two quips is, in the Chesapeake Bay the bottom is mud for the most part.  In Florida, the bottom is coral or sand, and for both, guarded care is necessary to sustain the precious corals and seagrasses in the sand.

Since our encounter with the shoal in Steamboat Channel delayed our trip, we didn’t know if we could make it in time to get a tour of Lignumvitae Park.  But, we motored as fast as we could to get there just in time for the last tour of the day.  A private tour for just the four of us, at that.

Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park:

(By the way, for those of you have never traveled the islands of the Florida Keys, the word “key” means a reef or a low island.  In the British Virgin Islands, where we have chartered a sailboat many times, the spelling for “key” is “cay”. “Cay” is pronounced the same, and means the same as “key”; it’s just spelled differently.)

Lignumvitae Key is an island composed of fossilized coral rock.  Throughout time, soil built up on the rocks, enabling seeds to take root and start growing trees and flowers.  The seeds came from other tropical islands, carried by the wind, or by the droppings of birds, or by washing ashore from the sea.  Nonetheless, the seeds sprouted and the key became the lush tropical hammock that it is today.  (In this text, a “hammock” is the elevated land, above the level of the marshy part of the island.  The word hammock is used in this context a lot in Florida.  In fact, our new home is in a subdivision named Hammock Lakes.)

The Matheson House on Lignumvitae Key

Lignumvitae Key can be reached only by boat.  There are only two houses on the island.  One is where the ranger who cares for the island lives, and the other is the original house built in 1919, the Matheson House.  This house was built for the caretakers of the island, not for the owner’s use.  The Matheson’s chose to stay aboard their yacht when they visited their island. The house remains pretty much the same as it did back in 1919 and is in impeccable condition.  Most of the furnishing are of the original era in which it was built.  There are lots of pictures of days gone by throughout the house.  Outside, is the original windmill that supplied power to the house, minus it’s top.  Now, a family of ospreys has their residence on the pent house of the old windmill.  An adult and two nearly grown offspring were letting their presence be known to us, with their distinct osprey cries, as we ventured outside for our walking tour of the hammock.  When the osprey mother senses her young are in danger, she always takes flight from the nest, to divert the attention from her fledglings.  When she took flight as I approached their domain to take a picture, I was not surprised by her reaction; as Gary and I have seen the osprey mothers do this many times as we have passed their nests atop the waterway markers in the Chesapeake Bay.  I say “mother” loosely, as I don’t really know if it is the mother parent or the father parent displaying this protective strategy for their young.

The cistern that supplied water to the Matheson House was seen but not available to tour.  Most of the original caretakers’ needs were met by the land and sea.  The focus on caring for the island today, is to maintain it as true to it’s original state as possible.  It’s care is entrusted to the Florida rangers.  There is only one other house on the island and that is where one of the Florida rangers stays.  Electricity for the island comes from a generator and water and all other supplies are brought to the island by boat.

As the ranger spoke about the infestation of mosquitoes on the island, in 1919 and present day, I wondered how the original caretakers took care of the need to protect themselves from such a nuisance.  There was no DEET back then. Maybe they covered themselves with mosquito netting.  None of us asked the question, so I have no truthful answer.

Lignumvitae Tree

As we went down the steps of the fossilized coral rock structured house, we were promptly greeted by a lignumvitae tree.  Now you know why this particular island was so named.  The lignumvitae that stands proudly at the corner of the house adjacent to the stairs, is a small tree in comparison to many others on the hammock.  This particular tree is very slow growing.  It had little white flowers on it and delicate leaves.  The most unusual trait of this little tree is in it’s wood.  The wood from this tree is almost as hard as steel.  In days past, the wood was used as bearing material for propeller shafts in PT boats.  Nowadays, the rarity of lignumvitae wood prohibits it’s use for commercial purposes.  As we toured the hammock, we saw other lignumvitae trees, one estimated at being 150 years old, yet not considerably larger than the much younger one that graces the corner of the house.

Another interesting tree, introduced to us on our walking tour, was the gumbo-limbo tree.  The bark of this tree is it’s fascinating feature, as it resembles layers of skin that easily sloughs off the trunk of the tree.  It’s commonly called the “tourist tree”, because “the tourists in Florida always get sunburned and then their skin sloughs off“.

After our grand tour of Lignumvitae Key, we took our dinghies back to our boats where Sandy, Nancy and Gary swam for a while.  I chose not to swim because while we were on shore, Nancy asked me if I saw the huge Portuguese man-of-wars in the water as we came in to the key‘s harbor.  Portuguese Man-of-Wars are sea creatures that are like huge jelly fish with tentacles that can be 40 to 50 feet in length which sting the  heck out of you if you get near one.  We were told, never to get near one if it washes up on the beach, as the tentacles are still poisonous even if the Man-of-War is dead.   I want to experience an encounter with a Man-of-War about as much as I want to experience an encounter with a crocodile!!!

From Lignumvitae Key we motored to a nearby island, Fiesta Key, and anchored for the night near a campground and marina.  Before leaving this anchorage the next morning, we visited the marina for purchases of ice and the forever sought after ice cream…a boater’s coveted treat.

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