Of all the wondrous spectacles the Keys have to offer, the first thing my mother wanted to see on her inaugural visit to the islands was the world-famous Key deer. Of course, she was assuming they would be in some sort of enclosure, readily available for viewing and photo opportunities.
All her friends in Pennsylvania were telling her how cute they were and not to miss seeing one. Imagine her disappointment when I told her she would have to case out some 30 islands and 84,000 acres for a chance encounter with the endangered animal.
OK, maybe I exaggerated a little, but the National Key Deer Refuge is incredibly expansive and much different than a typical national or state park.
A refuge has a different mission altogether, said Alison Higgins, president of Friends and Volunteers of Refuges. A park preserves land that is for the enjoyment of the people, while a wildlife refuge preserves land for the animals and plant life that are there.
The Key Deer Refuge is unique in that people live within the boundaries of the refuge, which include Big Pine and No Name keys and dozens of smaller islands. That actually has a lot to do with when the refuge was formed, Higgins said. By 1957, when the refuge was named, there were some lands that were still federally owned and a lot that had been sold off previously.
Today there is a near-moratorium on development within the refuge, with Big Pine and No Name keys having recently completed a Habitat Conservation Plan. It basically lays out what you can do and what you cant do for the future, Higgins said. Theyll discourage building, but they cant disallow it.
There are many things to do in the refuge, but first on everyones list is seeing the Key deer. The smallest of 28 subspecies of Virginia white-tailed deer is just one of 22 federally listed endangered and threatened species of plants and animals living in the refuge. Their population, thought to have reached a low of only 27 by 1957, has rebounded to roughly 800 today.
Higgins says the best place to see the deer is on No Name Key or the northernmost end of Key Deer Boulevard, where my mother eventually spotted several deer lingering near the edge of the road. I recommend going at dawn or dusk because thats when the deer are most active, she said. They take naps in the middle of the day, and when its hot theyre in the shade somewhere.
Visitors are encouraged to observe the deer in their natural habitat, but feeding them is strictly prohibited. Most people come down here thinking that these are really elusive deer, but living alongside people for as long as they have in a residential setting means they are very used to humans, Higgins said. So when it walks up to them and gets close people think oh, lets give them something.
And what they give them, she says, is usually junk food lying around in the car. Thankfully, mom read up enough to know better than to feed the deer anything, much less junk food.
Most of what they give them isnt even good for people, Higgins joked, and its not good for them because then they dont eat what they are supposed to eat.
This interaction with humans is the cause of several behavioral changes detrimental to the deers well-being. The deer congregate when fed, making them more susceptible to disease, and their lack of a natural fear of humans results in them being hit by cars they think are going to feed them. The speed limits are low inside the refuge for good reason, and it is important drivers adhere to them. People need to make sure and realize we are trying to keep these places and their inhabitants as wild as possible, Higgins said.
Aside from deer watching, the refuge has plenty to offer visitors. The Blue Hole, once a limestone quarry, is another popular destination. Filled with rainwater and salt water flowing through the surrounding limestone, it is home to fish, turtles, birds and alligators.
FAVOR volunteer Carlene Edwards, who spends a great deal of time at the Blue Hole, says several tarpon have ended up there because of the flooding from Hurricane Wilma.
A quarter-mile north of the Blue Hole on Key Deer Boulevard are the Jack C. Watson and Fred Manillo wildlife trails. Theyre basically a tour of the pinelands, Higgins said. It has signage talking about some of the plants, shows you a mosquito ditch and what were doing to save the Key Deer.
The signage makes those trails good starting points for newcomers to the refuge because it offers insight into the complexity of the habitat.
On the oceanside of Big Pine, Long Beach trail runs parallel to the road of the same name. Visitors can hike the trail, take in the plant and animal life and explore at waters edge. The trail was hard-hit by last seasons string of storms, but vigorous cleanup efforts have made it accessible again.
Visitors are also welcome to hike any fire roads open for access. Portions of the refuge closed to the public have signs denoting that, while accessible areas have signs listing approved activities. Most access points are blocked by metal or wooden barriers but are open to hikers unless signage says otherwise.
Renting a bicycle, available at Big Pine Bicycle Center, is a great way to see the refuge. There are numerous trails for visitors to ride, including the blinking light at mile marker 17 on Lower Sugarloaf, Sugarloaf school at mile marker 19.5, and off Look Down Lane on Cudjoe Key at mile marker 22. If you prefer mountain biking, the planned subdivision turned off-road circuit on No Name Key is not to be missed. Stop and see Marty Baird at the Big Pine Cycle Center on County Road for directions and a map.
Higgins also recommends taking a kayak trip with Bill Keogh of Big Pine Kayak Adventures. Hell take you on a trip around No Name Key so you get to see a view of the refuge from the water, she said.
Originally published in the Fall 2006 edition of Keys Living.