KEY WEST, Fla. - The term "backcountry" has taken on a whole new meaning for me after sampling some off Key West, Fla., last week.
For starters, there was no need for hiking boots - or footwear at all, for that matter. The Key West backcountry, as folks there call it, is decidedly lacking in the terra firma that I take for granted in Colorado. And so I found myself in the front end of a kayak, paddle in hand, exploring winding creeks and channels hemmed in by an immense maze of mangroves. What look like islands from a distance are actually dense stands of these trees sprouting up out of the ocean shoreline.
At low tide, in shallows where our boats glided silently over waving sea grass, the water was maybe 10 inches deep at most and teeming with marine life. Though I'd been told they don't make their way down to the southernmost key, I kept a watchful eye for alligators or crocodiles. Whatever. I make little distinction between the two. If it has powerful, snapping jaws studded with razor-sharp teeth, I prefer to avoid it.
On the reptile front, we saw only big, spiny iguanas, motionless in the mangrove branches until we got too close, at which point they disappeared into the tangle of branches with surprising speed.
Our guide, paddling from a standing position that she wisely suggested we not mimic, would poise, dip net in hand, like a crane waiting to snatch its prey. She'd stab the net into the water and lift out some new creature for us to admire: sea cucumbers (they look like dark dill pickles scattered on the sea floor), starfish and a jellyfish-like thing that did not sting. I held the cool, transluscent-coated blob in my hand, but only after the guide handled it first (I took no chances). We took turns returning it to the water to watch it propel itself with graceful pulses.
Her best find was a gorgeous conch with its resident mollusk writhing in and out of its protective shell.
It was certainly a glimpse of Florida one can't get from dry land.