Lignumvitae Key click here to read or make an observation about this  article
By Gary Blankenship & Helen Snell - Tallahassee, Florida - USA

We went to see the lignum vitae trees and we did.

Just don’t ask us what one looks like. (Well, okay, we did look them up on a website when we got back.)

click to enlarge

The dark trees in the background look like the picture we found after the trip on the Internet.

(click images to enlarge)

The occasion was a recent trip to South Florida and the Florida Keys that combined visiting relatives, business, and vacation. Around midweek, we found ourselves with free time and decided to kayak to Lignumvitae Key, about a mile into Florida Bay from the bridge and spoil island that connects Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys, a few miles south of Key Largo.

This clump is another likely candidate.

click to enlarge

I had always wanted to see the famed lignum vitae tree, renowned among old time shipbuilders. One of the hardest and heaviest woods in the world, it can be heavier than water and consequently sink. It is highly rot resistant (one website recounts lignum vitae posts in Indian dwellings on St. Thomas being 800 years old) and will rapidly dull tools used to cut and work it. It only grows in the U.S., if I recall correctly, on the Keys and most of it is gone there, except on Lignumvitae Key, which is owned by the state. Lignum vitae means long life in Latin, and its characteristics have earned it the nickname “Tree of Life.”
We had been unable to bring our own, comfortable 15 ½-foot, two-person kayak, so we rented a 10-11 foot two person sit-on-top model from Marathon Kayaks ( and headed up the Keys.

click to enlarge

This has possibilities, but were less sure it’s the "Tree of Life."

It was time to take stock. I’m in pretty good shape, but have less than optimal eyesight. Helen has excellent peepers, but has been bothered by an old injury in her right shoulder, a fresh case of tennis elbow in her right arm and carpal tunnel in her left wrist. We figured there was one healthy person between us, and that should be enough.

I did forget that Helen, while intrepid, has a highly developed sense of self-preservation. When encountering new situations or the unknown, she will tend to assume the worst until shown otherwise. Her predilection would be given plenty of exercise this day.

We launched from the spoil island between Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys. This used to be a paved ramp, with a seawall on either side, and no dock. Recent hurricanes have left the seawall as rubble and the ramp is sand. That actually made the kayak launching easier, and judging from the other boat trailers parked there, it wasn’t causing the power boaters any difficulty either.

We shoved off and got the feel for the sit-on-top kayak. It seemed to have plenty of stability, although it felt a bit tippier than our kayak. Also, without a foot-pedal-controlled rudder, we found it harder to keep a straight course.

Nonetheless, we bravely zig-zagged from shore toward Lignumvitae Key, all of about a mile away. Our course would take us over a series of shallows interspersed with channels of much deeper water. It was hitting that deep water in a still unfamiliar craft that triggered Helen’s first bout of self-preservation – the state of her nervousness seemed directly related to the distance to the bottom. I assured her we were okay as the wind was gentle and the chop negligible. This worked for a few minutes until, in about five feet of water, we provoked a noticeable stir in front of us. Two sharks, one about five feet and one about six, went streaking along the bottom by the kayak, one on each side, neatly bracketing us.

“Sharks,” said Helen.

“Don’t worry. They’re lemon sharks,” I replied. That’s what we tell tourists in Florida when they see a shark, that it’s generally a mostly harmless lemon or nurse shark. Actually, I had no idea, but later found out, from the brief glimpse I had, that they were indeed probably lemon sharks. At least they showed no noticeable interest in us other than getting away from us as fast as possible. Maybe they found my paddling technique objectionable.

A little bit further on, we reached a channel and even deeper water, deep enough that we couldn’t see the bottom despite the clear water. Although I had told Helen her paddle was, in light of her injuries, for decorative purposes only, she decided this would be a good time to pitch in. There was a noticeable increase in the leisurely pace I had been setting.

A few minutes later, we were in shallower water, and shortly after that at the island. We could see a big dock where the park rangers shuttled over most visitors, and a smaller dock for their service boats. Both were empty. Next to the smaller dock was a sign in an opening in the mangroves proclaiming it as a kayak landing.

We decided to kayak to Lignumvitae Key, about a mile into Florida Bay from the bridge and spoil island that connects Upper and Lower Matecumbe Keys, a few miles south of Key Largo.

click to enlarge

We beached and set out on our quest for the lignum vitae trees.
Except there was no one there to tell us where they were. (Helen notes: Now, despite reduced government spending, it would seem appropriate to at least hoist signs up, indicating the famous trees! Certainly other adventurers have stopped at this key in search of the unknown!)

There was a white building (apparently the home of the island’s former private owner) in the center of a mostly cleared area, set up on arched pillars, and a smaller building behind it that looked like a water catchment structure. There was no visible way into the smaller structure, and the larger one was locked. Off to the side of the cleared area were restrooms and a bit further back was what looked to be a 1930s vintage pickup truck that appeared to be a pile of rust held together by memory.

We poked around the mostly cleared area, but there were no signs identifying the trees. We were pretty sure the spindly trees with the fronds at the top (palms) weren’t lignum vitae. And I managed to recognize one tree as a type of oak. But the rest were mysteries. We shot pictures of several trees and clumps of trees and figured somewhere in there was a lignum vitae. We could actually claim to have seen one, as long as no one pressed us for details.

(Helen, digging an elbow into my ribs as I write this, notes that the reddish-bark tree she pointed out on the island as the most likely lignum vitae candidate is the one that matches the picture we found on the website after returning home.)

The mosquitos were discovering our presence and we decided to beat a retreat, after Helen visited the restroom. Where, alas, she had her second acute bout of self preservation.

Okay, so even though it was broad daylight, it was a little eerie being on the key with no one else around, not even friendly signs to guide us. That apparently was the sense that overtook Helen when she went into the restroom and looked under the toilet seat and saw . . . not a comforting porcelain bowl but the deep, black hole of a primitive privy. Deciding discretion was the better part of valor, she exited, unrelieved. (Although I kidded her about this, it was not necessarily a bad decision. I have a vivid recollection of the rangers at Canyonlands National Park warning my bother and me to carefully check under the seats of their primitive outhouses, lest a lunking black widow spider bite us in places difficult or painful to apply a tourniquet. We had no one to warn us of what lurked in dark places on Lignumvitae Key . . .)

We shoved off and paddled to the big dock where the tour boat lands. There was a big sign, announcing tours every day at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., except on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when there were no tours. Today, of course, was Wednesday.

One mystery explained, we pondered our options. We could head back, but I wanted to paddle some more. Two miles eastward was Shell Key, but that felt a bit far. So we decided on a daring circumnavigation of Lignumvitae Key.

click to enlarge

Helen surveys the baby mangroves sprouting off the southwest corner of the island.

Off we went. The water was deeper than I expected, but only 3-4 feet and startlingly clear. (I had been conditioned by Chuck Leinweber’s and my recent passage across the shallows of Florida Bay, a few miles to the north of where we were now, and had half expected to be pushing the kayak more than paddling.)

Other than a few no trespassing signs among the mangroves on the shore, there was nothing but island, clear water, blue sky and sun. We hadn’t paddled far when Helen asked me if I had noticed the round objects here and there on the bottom, the ones with the funny, sort-of-metallic-looking center. I confessed I hadn’t seen them, being preoccupied mostly with keeping the kayak straight.

“You don’t think they’re underwater mines, do you,” Helen asked, in the throes of her third bout of self preservation.

Mines! Okay, so there were no trespassing signs, but enforced by mines?

Helen digs in as we cross over the minefield.

click to enlarge

Presently we came upon another cluster of the circular menaces and I could see that they were — sponges, globular shaped with holes in the center. Later, an inquiry to a marine biologist produced the information they were most likely the common loggerhead or black ball sponges.

Eventually it occurred to me that I had purchased a perfectly good disposable underwater camera and could stick it under the surface and take a picture of the “mines.”. But by then, we had passed the last of the sponges (which seemed to be on the north side of the island), so the outer defenses of Lignumvitae Key went unphotographed. (The mosquitos are the inner defenses.)

click to enlarge

Shot on an earlier trip to the Keys, this is an underwater photo of what we how have dubbed the "underwater mine" sponge. They look a lot deadlier from above the water . . .

The western end of the island somehow seemed a bit wilder, perhaps because now the island blocked the view of civilization. The southern side, still marked with no trespassing signs, had small sandy beaches here and there and a windblown look, probably from the hurricanes that passed nearby last year. The southeastern corner was enchanting as it appeared to be a mangrove nursery. Sprigs from a leaf or two in size to small clumps of branches dotted the water, giving the impression the island was reaching out, seeking to grow in that direction. Our starting point for the adventure came into view.

We soon completed our rounding of the island and headed back to our truck. Helen was more relaxed this time over the deep water. She occasionally had been paddling, but suddenly about halfway back, over the deepest water, she began applying her double paddle in earnest, and our speed leaped upward. Rumors that cigarette boats came over to check out the resulting rooster-tail wake, however, are exaggerated.

Helen waited a minute to tell me the reason for the burst. “Sharks on the bottom,” she said. “Two of them.”

She didn’t get a good look (okay, to be accurate, neither she nor the sharks hung around long enough for a careful examination), but Helen was sure of two things: 1) They were a lot bigger than the first two we had seen; and 2) they were a lot meaner. I was disappointed at missing them, but we obviously weren’t going back.

The spurt put us close to shore and we landed back on the ramp and loaded the kayak on the truck. Not being quite willing to call it a day, we went to Little Duck Key, on the west side of the Seven Mile Bridge, and paddled around there for an hour, seeing stranded crab traps, vase sponges, and some mild current when we cruised under the bridge and back. Then satisfied and tired, we returned the kayak.
The next morning, we both woke up, feeling exhilarated from our adventure. Even better, Helen’s shoulder, elbow, and wrist seemed improved from their exertions.

“I’m chuffed,” Helen announced.

Look it up. That’s a good thing.

Later, we were driving down the Keys to a meeting I had to attend (if you have to work during a vacation, it might as well be in Key West) and passing a paradise of shallows, channels, uninhabited keys, and beautiful water. I posed a question to my intrepid spouse: “So when we come back to the Keys and bring our own kayak, where do you think we should take it?”

“That’s easy,” replied the I.S. “Everywhere we haven’t been!”

Oh, Lord.

Other articles by Gary Blankenship & Helen Snell: