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Date of Issue: January 05, 2006

Sandscript

Ecotourism takes back seat to porch swing in Cedar Key

The plan was to extol the virtues of ecotourism in the Big Bend area of Florida. You know, kayaking, boat tours of bird rookeries, visiting historic sites.

But the laid-back ambiance of Cedar Key took a stronger hold than nature, and I basically spent three days sitting on my butt eating wonderful seafood and watching the world pass by from a porch swing.

Cedar Key is smack in the armpit of what is called the Nature Coast of the state, about 70 miles southwest of Gainesville. Cedar Keys is comprised of about 100 islands, with Way Key being the only inhabited key in the chain and holding the claim of having the town of Cedar Key upon its shores.

Population is all of 700. Cedar Key boasts of being the top clam harvesting center in the country, and boats ply the waters off the islands constantly to harvest the succulent shellfish. The clams, by the way, are small, very tasty and cheap - a 100-count bag of clams costs a whopping $15.

Commercial fishing has been the mainstay of the economy of Cedar Key for decades. The original "money harvest" came from cedar trees, but the timber was harvested to near extinction around the turn of the century for the pencil industry, and the residents turned to the sea for the livelihood.

Like Cortez, though, that livelihood was dashed in 1995 when the nearshore gill net fishing ban was approved by Florida voters. Mullet fishing ended, clamming began.

And also ecotourism. Today, there are shops and restaurants - no chains, of course - that cater to tourists before or after they hit the water to watch for dolphin, fish for trout or redfish or grouper, or explore the offshore islands.

Or, like me, just relax. At least, you can relax there for now.

The city clerk told me that developers have found Cedar Key and are picking up property at prices that seem to natives to be astronomical. A quick check on property for sale indicated that prices are still pretty cheap compared to Anna Maria Island. A one-bedroom, one-bath Gulffront home with a fairly deepwater dock was for sale for $530,000, for example. Imagine what that cottage would go for here.

There are plans afoot to redevelop 32 lots in the center of town into 67 hotel rooms. Restoration of several of the historic buildings within the project are planned, and despite several obstacles, the project will probably be approved.

It all sounds familiar, doesn't it? Welcome to paradise, now let's just change a few things ….

One thing that hasn't changed is the Island Hotel and Restaurant. The structure was built in 1859 and, with its creaky floors and suspect plumbing, is still standing and still packed. The restaurant serves the best food on the Island, the bar - all 24 seats of it - is packed nightly, and the proprietors fulfill the basic principles of B&Bs in that they never seem to sleep in order to keep up with their guests.

Maybe the best description of the Island Hotel lies in what it doesn't have. There are no telephones in the place except for the one behind the front desk, and there's not a TV to be found in the place. As a Weather Channel junkie, it took a few hours for my hands to stop shaking, but I got over it.

Cedar Key brings to mind a combination of Cortez and Bradenton Beach: Lots of terrific seafood, lots of low-key enjoyment, and lots of laid-back quaintness.

... and speaking of quaint

Just when you thought you'd heard it all comes this message from former Bradenton Beach resident Doris Silverthorn, who sent the following from the Ashville, N.C., Citizen-Times newspaper.

Apparently the residents of Brasstown, N.C., ring in the new year not with a giant ball dropping in the middle of a city square, but by dropping a possum at a gas station.

"The Possum Drop at Clay's Corner [gas station and general store] always uses a live possum - except for once, two years ago, when they used roadkill to fend off a threatened lawsuit by well-meaning animal rights activists.

'"People think we terrorize 'em, but if they're scared, they sull - it's like they hibernate, play possum,'" said Paul Crisp, who took the Miss Possum title in 1999, beating out other contestants in a friend's wedding gown. Hey, they're from North Carolina. '"We've never had one do that. They're inquisitive, you know. They like to watch what's going on around 'em.'

"The drill goes something like this: A possum, housed in a clear Plexiglas cage wreathed with garlands of tinsel, lights and a glittering mirror ball suspended from underneath, is gently lowered from the middle of the canopy overhanging the store's gas pumps while the crowd shouts out the countdown of the year's last seconds.

"Each year, organizers find a possum that's about to be shot for raiding a henhouse or a horse barn. 'We rescue 'em from a certain death,' Crisp says. 'We feed 'em for a couple weeks - they love that - and then we transplant 'em to where they won't be a nuisance.'"

"Brasstown is the self-proclaimed 'Opossum capital of the South,' having financed a government survey several years ago to prove it has a high population of the rodents."

And here we thought Islanders were a little weird.

Zeta? Jeez ...

It's somehow fitting that the busiest hurricane history on record should throw out a final storm on the last days of the year. Tropical Storm Zeta was churning up the Eastern Atlantic Ocean on Dec. 31, no threat to land but catching almost everyone by surprise.

Zeta brings the count to 27 for named storms for 2005. Next name up: Alberto.

Save the whales

A public awareness program has geared up on the east coast of Florida in an attempt to make boaters more aware of right whales.

The big mammals spend most of their time in waters off the Northeast Coast of the United States, but journey down south like big, lumbering snowbirds in the fall and winter to give birth to calves. Calving off Georgia and Florida, and the slow-moving whales are susceptible to boaters since they're not all that far from shore.

Georgia, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and South Carolina are posting signs at various marinas and boat ramps along in an effort to remind boaters that whales may be in the area during winter months.

"Only about 300 North Atlantic right whales remain," according to the FWC. "The signs relay tips for identifying right whales and remind boaters that they are required by law to maintain a distance of at least 500 yards from the whales."

Right whales, by the way, are black with white patches on their head and underside. According to the FWC, "They can be identified by their broad back with no dorsal fin, paddle-shaped pectoral flippers and a notched fluke, or tail. Adults can grow to a length of 55 feet and a weight of 55 tons or more. The slow-moving giants are so named because they were deemed the 'right whales' to hunt by whalers, who decimated the populations in the 1800s."

You would think that it wouldn't be all that impossible to get people to give something that big a wide birth, but apparently not. The FWC reported that there are increasing boat-whale interactions taking place, with the whales coming out on the short end of the visit.

"A right whale was struck by a yacht off the Georgia coast in March, nearly severing a portion of its fluke," FWC officials said. "The whale was seen recently in waters off the Northeast, and appeared to be near death as a result of injuries sustained from that collision."

Sandscript factoid

Brasstown had another claim to fame other than the annual possum drop: A presidential candidate representing the Possum Party.

According to the Ashville Citizen-Times, Mercer Scroggs ran for the nation's highest office in 1994, promising voters a "possum in every pot." In case you don't remember, he didn't win.

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