Sunday, July 6, 2014

Beyond Key West

Key West is frequently spoken of as being the last of the Florida Keys, referred to even by native Floridians as "Land's End". A year ago today on this blog, we also examined the sketchiness of the "Southernmost point in the United States" claim, and now we see what lies beyond.

The Keys extend a great distance in a westerly direction past Key West, which is really only the end of the drivable Keys. For those among you with boats (and courage to navigate the treacherous reefs) there's a whole 'nother world way out there.

Wisteria Island, Sunset Key and Frankfort Bank are all wester than Key West, and there's actually a lot of hubbub on Sunset Key. Accessible only by boat, it's covered in luxurious homes of the wealthy and westerly.

Beyond that, there's a vast expanse of ever-shifting sandbanks, reefs and islands, so obscure that FlashEarth (which usually excels at island nomenclature) doesn't even list their names.

First is Mule Key. A lovely little secluded spot, but don't get your hopes up for partying on it because Coast Guard/Park Ranger types live here. Keep moving.

Next is Archer Key, Joe Ingram Key, and the Barracouta Keys. Joe Ingram Key was named after former U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Joseph Ingram after the 2004 midnight rescue of four fisherman adrift south of the key. That's all well and good, but I don't approve of such revisionism. The previous name for the island was "Key B", which, frankly, also sucks. Going even further back, we find that Key B and several other of these islands nearby were alternately known as Cayos Mulas, Cayos de Chequimula, the Mangrove Islands or the Crawfish Islands, depending on who you asked. A number of these islands once had names like Bluff Kay, Crawfish Kay, Double Key, Saragold Key and Cotterels Key, and are listed as such on old maps, but are not recognized today. According to The Key Names Gazeteer, "The place-name history of these keys is extremely convoluted and confusing. Names of keys have frequently been interchanged, changed, and generally jumbled over the years."

There are distinctly five islands which our current cartographers choose, insanely, to blanketly label as Man Key, and not even "The Man Keys". There's also a sixth one just north of them, and apparently nobody has a name for that one. Eventually I will publish an exhaustive online indexification of all Florida islands and their original nomenclature - something that, believe it or not, still literally does not exist in the year 2014 - and when I do, I'm gonna go all the way back to what the pirates and indians said, and reduce the goofy modern monickers to the asterisk, not the other way around.

Also to the north, there's Cottrell Key, Big Mullet Key and Little Mullet Key - not to be confused, obviously, with the more well-known Mullet Key in the Bayway Islands.

Next up, we find Ballast Key, which, for the billionaires among my readers, is actually for sale. It features the lavish home of eccentric developer David Wolkowsky, and made an appearance in the James Bond film License To Kill. Tennessee Williams spent a lot of time here as Wolkowsky's guest in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Ballast Key is another spot that has been, falsely, regarded as the last island and furthest point of the United States. But steer your rudder further on and you'll see that it ain't necessarily so. Woman Key is next, and it's practically swimming distance from Ballast Key.

The huge Boca Grande Key can be found several miles further. Though setting foot on most of these islands I've named so far is technically illegal because it's all "protected lands", many people do anyway - but at least on Boca Grande Key, anchoring is permitted on the northwest portion.

But wait, there's more! Even further out into the scary seas, there's a distant cluster called the Marquesas. Popular with fishermen, the Marquesas are made up of several islands whose names have a confusing history. The northernmost key is the largest and has a strip of sandy beach free of mangrove. In the past it was known as Entrance Key. It surrounds the lagoon in the north and east. Adjoining in the south are smaller keys such as Gull Key, Mooney Harbor Key, and several unnamed keys in the southwest corner of the group. Older charts show that two of these keys once were named Button Island and Round Island.

Is that it? No! Further west is Rebecca Shoal, an almost-island just a few feet below the sea's surface, upon which sits an offshore light station. Reaching it by boat is nearly impossible because of the extremely dangerous abrupt changes in reef level. You'd have to drop anchor in the deep water and send a small speedboat or something out to the station. Even the Coast Guard rarely attempts to approach it. There could be a family of gypsies living up there, and who would know?

37 miles beyond that - and now past the limit of the fuel capacity for most small boats leaving Key West - there's the Dry Tortugas. Most of their islands are little more than sandbars, and are constantly changing with the weather, disappearing, reappearing, reconfiguring their shapes. But the more stable islands here are Loggerhead Key, Garden Key, Bush Key, Long Key, Middle Key, East Key and Hospital Key. It's on Garden Key where you'll find what is possibly the weirdest thing in all of Florida - Fort Jefferson, a jaw-droppingly huge hexagonal building that is the largest masonry structure on this hemisphere of the planet. It's composed of over 16 million bricks and was 30 years in the making (beginning in 1846.) At its peak of military use during the Civil War, as many as 2000 people lived and worked here. Today, it's a national park and is open to the public, which is pretty hilarious since it is literally the most remote point in the United States unless you wanna talk about Alaska and I don't.

And technically, there's still just a little more to explore. Even beyond the Dry Tortugas, there's Tortugas Bank, Little Bank and 8 Fathom Bank, which were once islands but are currently submerged. But they could come back at any moment. Life moves pretty fast in Interzone.

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