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June 13, 2013

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Cruising the Big Bend

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Page 3

Also on the river's north bank, about midway from the mouth to the village, there's a place as ancient as the nuclear power plant is modern: the Crystal River State Archeological Site. Considered one of the longest continuously-occupied prehistoric sites in Florida, the 14-acre site was a major ceremonial center from 200 BC to 1400 AD, a total of 1600 years. Talk about OLD Florida!

The Crystal River is also one of the great fishing spots in Florida. It is noted for flats fishing where redfish, sea trout, tarpon and mackerel abound, and for the plentiful grouper in the deeper waters. There are also local fishing guides if you need some assistance in locating your prey.

Eight miles north of Crystal Bay, the Withlacoochee River is rated by many as the most beautiful on the Big Bend, and one of the deepest, with approach depths of eight feet, although in a rather narrow channel you may have to share with a lot of commercial fishing traffic. Seven miles upstream, full service is available at Yankeetown Marina and Riverside Marina has dockage.

Twenty miles northwest of the Withlacoochee, Cedar Key is the halfway point of the Big Bend cruise, and a trip back in time to an island fishing village with an abundance of local color, a former coastal focal point that has reinvented itself as a tourist mecca and artists' colony. (Some visitors say that it’s what Key West was like in the Good Old Days.) Cedar Key is a charming combination — picturesque Old Florida with hotels, several good restaurants (especially for seafood), shopping and shore attractions that are often restored old homes.

Roughly a century ago, Cedar Key was one of the largest cities in the state, the western terminus of Florida's first major railroad (which ran across the state from Fernandina), and a bustling major seaport. Much of the island's long-gone native cedar was shipped north to be made into pencils, while the surrounding waters contributed to an active fishery. You can get a glimpse of the area's glorious past by visiting the Cedar Key Historical Society Museum (352-543-5549)  and/or the Cedar Key Museum State Park (352-543-5350).

These days, Cedar Key is more geared to tourists by land than by sea, and hasn't many marine facilities worthy of note. The municipal dock is small and usually full. You're invited to visit City Hall to learn more about it ... there's no phone at the marina. The newly-rebuilt county dock is actually a Fishing Pier and no tie-ups are allowed although the folks do refer to it as "The Big Dock." We told them we'll all enjoy knowing it's "local" name! See Chart 21 for what is available for cruisers. (The people we have talked with at the city admit that while they love having visitors, they don't want to overly encourage cruisers who may be disappointed by the lack of facilities.)

Be aware that currents are strong and the tidal range is about three feet. Area boatpeople usually anchor off and join the tourists ashore by dinghy, rowing or motoring in to that small-boat municipal dock — which may or may not have space available — even for the dink!

One place that does have its own docks is The Island Room Restaurant at Cedar Cove. The approach channel is chancy at low water, however, and dock space is limited, so you still might want to dinghy in and walk over. For reservations (recommended) or other info, phone 352-543-5332. The on-site restaurant there is excellent and you may decide to stay ashore in Cedar Cove's hotel rooms. Hotel phone is 352-543-6520.

Cedar Key is reached via a well-marked channel broad and deep enough to still be called the Main Ship Channel but do pay attention to the markers — and the chart! There's an S curve just waiting to trap the unwary.

Note also that Northwest Channel meets the Main Ship Channel about four miles from the entrance at marker #30. You'll pass it on the way in, but Northwest Channel might be the better way to leave Cedar Key if you're headed north unless you need more than four and a half feet — the channel's controlling depth.

A short run north of Cedar Key is the world-famous Suwannee (not Swannee) River. (Interestingly enough, composer Stephen Foster never actually lived here and never even visited the river or the area, but rather chose the name from an atlas. It is said he was fascinated by the sound of “S'wannee River” and the Old South image it conveyed.) The town of Suwannee is a short run upstream with a couple of marinas, restaurants and shore facilities, and many good places to anchor in the protected harbor. Miller’s Marine, a mile and a half upriver, offers service and transient facilities and will rent you a fishing boat or houseboat to explore the river upstream; Suwannee Shores Marina, farther upstream, is more geared for small craft but has dockage and a restaurant. (Continue...) 


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