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Island Sea-clusion

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 21, 2002

ANCLOTE KEY -- A storm front brewing on the northern horizon let us know we didn't have much time.

ANCLOTE KEY -- A storm front brewing on the northern horizon let us know we didn't have much time.

"We should be able to run out, have a look around and get back before the rain hits," Ranger Don Bergeron said as we piled into his flats skiff. "Crossing the channel might be a little bumpy, but we'll make it."

Four-mile-long Anclote Key is the northernmost in a chain of barrier islands that stretches to Cape Romano at the southern end of Collier County.

Most of these islands, formed at the end of the last ice age, have been built up, but a few, including Caladesi Island to the south, have escaped the developer's bulldozer. That's because there is no bridge to the mainland. The only way on or off Anclote Key is by boat.

Developed islands, including Sand Key and Clearwater Beach, get much of their stability from manmade structures such as breakwaters or groins. But left alone, a barrier island will recreate itself with each passing storm.

Sometimes an island gets smaller; the sand just disappears into the Gulf of Mexico. But Anclote Key has gotten bigger, a lot bigger, year by year.

Geologists estimate that about 1,000 years ago the island pushed up off the Gulf floor and came to rest on a limestone ledge. But since 1957 the island has grown by 30 percent.

For those who have visited Anclote Key and nearby Three Rooker Bar for a decade or more, the change is obvious.

"I can't believe how big Three Rooker has gotten," I told Bergeron, commenting on the sandbar that had become an island.

In the early '90s, Bergeron and I used to paddle sea kayaks to Anclote Key to fish for snook, cobia, Spanish mackerel and anything else that would bite.

From the public boat ramp on the Anclote River it is a leisurely 1-hour paddle. In a flats boat it takes 10 minutes.

The seagrass beds on the leeward side of the island are a favorite feeding ground for trout and redfish. Before the recreational scallop season closed the shallow waters also were a great place to snorkel for the tasty bivalves.

But it is the island itself, not the waters around it, that makes Anclote Key such an attractive destination.

Three Rooker Bar to the south and the newly formed North Anclote Bar to the north are popular with boaters, and those spots get crowded on weekends and holidays. Anchoring there is the nautical equivalent of tailgating in a parking lot before a football game.

Most people approach Anclote from the north because deep water there provides a better anchorage for big boats. But we came from the south, our eyes fixed on the lighthouse that served as a beacon to mariners for nearly 100 years.

When sailing or motoring along the mangrove-lined shores of Florida's West Coast, it is difficult to spot the inlets, bays and river mouths that provide sanctuary in foul weather. The Anclote River, hidden behind the key, was particularly difficult to find, especially at night.

So in 1896 President Grover Cleveland commissioned the 101-foot tall lighthouse, which the Greek sponge divers in Tarpon Springs would come to call the "angel of mercy."

For years Anclote Key has been a favorite camping spot for boaters and kayakers because the hammock provides an excellent place to pitch a tent. Waking up in the morning with the sun filtering through the pines as it rises in the east, it's easy to imagine you are on a deserted island somewhere in the far-off Pacific.

On a quiet island morning you might see a fisherman or shell collector walking through the shallow tidal flats. But just as often the island is deserted. Four miles of beach -- walk in either direction for an hour and never see a soul.

The Florida Park Service has restricted campers to the north half of the island. The rangers built shelters and installed a pit toilet, but vandals used the picnic tables for firewood. The tables, grills and shelters at the south end of the island, near the historic lighthouse, are for day use only and have remained intact.

"Most people are pretty good about hauling off their trash," Bergeron said as he cleaned up some garbage, left by somebody not so thoughtful. "I come up here a lot and find people just walking along with a plastic bag picking up any trash they see."

Most people who visit Anclote Key and take the time to walk along its deserted beaches can't help but fall in love with the place. For each there is something that calls him back.

Bergeron loves the birds. "We have a nesting pair of bald eagles and great horned owls," he said. "I feel lucky every time I come out here and see them."

Whenever I come to Anclote I think of the shallow wreck that lies about 100 yards off the beach. It was there I caught my first cobia on an April afternoon when the water was as clear as a freshwater spring.

So we laughed about the years gone by and all the fish we caught and lost. Then we worked or way through the trees to the lighthouse, which is officially off limits unless, of course, you are in the company of a ranger.

The stairs are creeky and in disrepair. But after a long, winding climb, you enter the chamber that once housed the light, and you are greeted with a spectacular view of Anclote Key in all its glory.

Bergeron scanned the treetops in search of his feathered friends. I looked out toward the Gulf hoping to see the shadow of the little wreck.

But the wind had kicked up and the once-calm water was flecked with white. A squall line was fast approaching. The ride back to Honeymoon Island would be rough.

Still we lingered longer than we should. The beach below was empty, as it has been for most of the past 1,000 years.

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