Cruising on Last Dance

This blog archives the adventures of Glen and Jill Moore and provides a means of communication for friends and family. Exploration and adventure have been synonymous with boats and water for centuries. The joy of adventures shared while exploring new places and meeting new people has built a strong bond for Glen and Jill. Last Dance is the platform for the exploration.

"The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page." St. Augustine, 354 - 430

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain, 1835 - 1910

"There is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- half so much worth doing as simply messing around in boats." The Wind in the Willows, 1908, Kenneth Grahame, 1859 - 1932

"I've never believed speed and ease are conductive to living fully, becoming aware, or deepening memory, a tripod of urges to stabilize and lend meaning to life." River Horse: a log book of a boat across America, 1999, William Least Heat-Moon,1939 -

The Great Loop -- The current adventure is a circumnavigation of the Eastern United States, cruising north up the east coast through New York into Canada, across the Great Lakes to Chicago, navigating multiple river systems south to Mobile, along the Gulf coast to the Florida Keys and back to St. Augustine. This trip by boat is commonly referred to as the Great Loop. Progress and current location are indicated by the red line on the map to the right. It was titled the Traceless Path in recognition of a German sailor we met in St. Augustine who published booklets of his travels with hand-drawn, detailed maps describing his travels across the water as the Traceless Path.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park

The last virgin tropical hardwood forest in Florida is on Lignumvitae Key, located in the Florida Bay between Key Largo and Marathon.  Most of the Florida Keys have been vastly transformed from their natural state by development.  Lignumvitae Key was saved by William J. Matheson, a wealthy Miami chemist.  He purchased the island and built a caretaker's home in 1919.

The caretaker's function was to protect the island, which eliminated the poaching of trees from the island for building and firewood, and the collecting of highly valued tree snails.  Poachers often burned an island after collecting snail shells to make their shells rarer.  Thus, Lignumvitae Key became the only virgin hardwood hammock in the Keys.  Mr. Matheson never built a home for himself on the island, preferring to stay on his yacht at the dock where it was cooler and the unencumbered breezes reduced the number of mosquitoes. 

In the 1960s, new owners proposed a road to the key so that it could be developed.  Fortunately, their plans did not bear fruit and Lignumvitae Key was purchased by the Nature Conservatory, then given to the State of Florida.  The Park Service protects it as a botanical park, maintaining it in a natural state and providing guided tours.  As a measure of its biological importance, Lignumvitae Key has 12 champion trees - the largest trees of their species in the United States.  By comparison, the entire state of Texas has 2 champion trees.

Since the island was named after the Lignumvitae tree (Guaiacum Sanctum), the forest description should appropriately begin with this endangered tree.  Lignumvitae is a slow-growing tree living more than 1000 years.  It produces a very dense, heavy (88 pounds a cubic foot), and oily wood.  It is so oily, that a sanded piece of wood finishes itself as if it were varnished.  There are claims that parts made of Lignumvitae will outlast steel and bronze parts.  It has been used for bearings, particularly in the marine industry for propeller shafts.

The Lignumvitae at the corner of the Matheson house is 35 years old, but not typical of the tree in the wild.  This example has grown wide with unlimited sunlight, while trees in the forest are tall as they compete for light.  It also has benefited from fertilizer, increasing its size.  Merlin's magic wand was made from Lignumvitae as is Pete Seeger's banjo neck.  The national champion Lignumvitae, estimated to be 800 - 1200 years old is on this island.

The Park Service maintains the trails that were built through the island.  These trails provide the opportunity to see the many varieties of flora and fauna on the island.  The island has a variety of tropical hardwoods: many varieties of ficus, including the strangler fig; mastic, poisonwood, pigeon plum, mahogany, and Jamaican dogwood. 

 Of course, the storied gumbo limbo is throughout the island.  The example at right provides a good example of how the peeling bark, resembling a sunburn, has given the tree the nickname "tourist tree."  Below, an example in the wind protection of the hammock has large pieces of peeling bark.

One tropical tree that is important to recognize is the poisonwood, characterized by gray bark that peels away to reveal the orange cambium.  The black spots are particularly poisonous.  

The national champion poisonwood tree lives on Lignumvitae Key (image below).  Note that the park ranger is wearing mosquito netting over his clothes.  In some areas, he also wore mosquito netting over his head.  Mosquitoes are a part of nature and are not disturbed nor discouraged in this biological park.

Poisonwood is not the only plant that can cause pain on the island. The prickly pear cactus has obvious thorns that can be avoided, but the sweet fruit has many small, almost invisible thorns protecting them from predators.

There is wildlife in addition to mosquitoes.  An osprey watched closely from the roof of the Matheson house.

His nest, housing his mate and this season's offspring, is across from the house on top of the tower that once held the electricity-producing wind generator.  The park rangers have named the pair Desi and Lucy, and this year's chick, Amelia for the female aviator.  That's Desi watching from the high spot.

The area in front of the house was cleared of native vegetation, landscaped, and decorated with cannon from the British Warship HMS Winchester, which wrecked on a reef in 1665.  

The Matheson house, on the Register of Historic Places, is open as a part of the guided tour.  Although built on one of the highest spots in the Keys (16.5 feet above sea level) it was constructed 8 feet above ground on thick concrete arches.  It has proved to be a stout house, only being damaged in the great 1935 hurricane that destroyed Flagler's railroad.  That hurricane removed part of the roof. When it was rebuilt, long bolts were used to fasten the roof structure to the floor.  This, decades prior to Florida building codes requiring metal hurricane straps for roofs.

The house still has many original furnishings and serves as a museum for the island with a variety of displays from fossils and artifacts to information on seagrass beds to photos and history of the island caretakers.

One of the caretaker's work vehicles, a 1937 Dodge dump truck, has remained on the island, but without efforts to preserve it.

Much natural and pioneer history has been preserved by the Florida Parks.  A worthy experience in terms of history, beauty, and interacting with nature.

A sunset from Lignumvitae Key.

1 comment:

Diana Macfarland said...

Thanks for your fine account of this special Key. We were first there 45 years ago, when Russ and Charlotte Niedhawk were the caretakers. Later, in 1975, it was the final field location for our students in a two-month-long weekly field course on native trees and plants - a course inspired by the passing of our Monroe County Tree Ordinance to protect rare and endangered native species - the course was designed and taught by knowledgable citizens, long before anything was put together by the local college or school system.