If the Florida Keys were a church, the backcountry would be their sanctuary.
The Gulf region of pristine waters, wizened clusters of mangroves and unspoiled sand banks that stretch the length of the Keys from Key Largo to Key West are known simply as the backcountry.
While most people would never call the pace of life in the Florida Keys frenetic, compared to the backcountry anything off U.S. 1 feels feverishly hurried. Its otherworldly calm is disturbed only by the occasional boat motor gliding carefully over the shallow water so as not to run aground or the call of a native bird claiming territory over a section of mangroves.
Yet, dont mistake the backcountrys tranquil atmosphere for boring. The region is anything but dull.
Whether you want to actively engage in the backcountrys outstanding flats fishing, squeeze a kayak through the narrowest openings between the mangroves, watch the intermittent ray swim by, or just sit back and relax on the banks of a beach that has emerged because of the low tide, there is hardly a better place to do it all.
Its like a whole other world out here, said Reelax Charters Capt. Andrea Paulson, who guides all-inclusive backcountry kayak, snorkel or boat tours out of Sugarloaf. I love what I do... its just about the best job.
The backcountrys uniqueness is what appeals to people, said Loren Rae, who assists her husband, Capt. Justin Rae, in running the backcountry fishing charter company, Sting Rae Charters.
Its full of mangrove islands, sand flats, sea life and exotic birds, she said.
In addition to the activities offered by guides such as Paulson, the backcountry is teeming with some of the best fishing in the Keys. Tarpon, permit and bonefish are widely sought after in the Middle and Lower Keys backcountry regions, and the Upper Keys and Florida Bay boast of plentiful snook, speckled sea trout and mangrove snapper.
For the most part its pretty good fishing, said Rae.
While the Upper Keys have more vast flats and are somewhat protected by the mainland, the Lower Keys backcountry is more exposed, but no less remarkable or chock-full of fish, said Rae.
Fishing guides, many of whom catch and release their fish, know the area and are eager to spend the day teaching beginners the finer points of backcountry fishing or testing the limits of more advanced fisherman.
Clearly, there are several ways of getting out into the backcountry, but however you choose, make sure you go with someone who knows what they are doing.
Because of the shallow water depths sometimes just 1 or 2 feet deep even midsized boats and skiffs must be on plane to avoid running aground or sucking sand into their engines.
Experienced captains and boaters can navigate the waters fairly well, but we still have to be careful, Paulson said. The backcountry changed after [Hurricane] Wilma.
Broken trees limbs now jut up from the water like icebergs, waiting to entangle an unsuspecting boat in their water-soaked branches.
While weekends draw more boaters and kayakers headed out to party on Marvin Key or spend some time fishing between the mangroves, the region is somewhat isolated.
Its very peaceful, Rae said. All you can hear is birds and the water floating by... for me its just alone time.
Perhaps the shallow water and occasional obstacle are what keep the backcountry unspoiled, untouched and completely natural; perhaps it is what separates the everyday tourist from the authentic adventurer.
Clear blue and green channels of water wind their way around white-topped sand flats, seagrass and mangroves as a kayaker idly watches some osprey guarding their nest, while a lone egret flies above the head of a sponger who is standing on the bow of his skiff staring down into the water, intently set on his work.
I hope it stays this way forever, said Paulson. I hope our children and grandchildren are able to see it this way.
Originally published in the Spring 2006 edition of Keys Living.