Volume 12, Issue 9 ~ February 26-March 3, 2004

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Chesapeake Outdoors

AWOL Down South After Hidden Treasures

The last thing I packed into my dry bag, as an afterthought really, was a worn copy of John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez. The collaborative effort with friend and noted marine scientist Ed Ricketts details their journey into the Gulf of California. Many scholars believe it to be Steinbeck’s most important non-fiction work.

The two men spent a month studying that wondrous region’s flora and fauna. When the Log was published just before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, it not only was a pioneering effort on intertidal ecology but also a glimpse into Steinbeck’s view of the creature he called “that two-legged paradox.”

In the introduction, there is a rather plain phrase about the “mental provisioning” of the expedition that strikes a cord with me whenever I travel. Before Steinbeck and his colleagues left the docks of Monterey, they decided to “go wide open. Let’s see what we see, record what we find, and not fool ourselves with conventional scientific structures.”

Their statement of purpose was apropos of my recent trip to the Florida Keys to inhale their supercharged marine world. Couple that with another Steinbeck declaration — from Cannery Row, another work inspired in part by Ricketts — “a party hardly ever goes the way it is planned or intended,” and you have the essence of my trip.

The crew of roaming spirits I signed on with to poke, peer, prod and ponder where the currents took us — reefs, mangroves or grass flat — professed to be conservationists, but they could be mistaken for foragers, rumrunners or less savory sorts who peopled the Keys of say, the 1920s or ’30s. These modern excursionists packed a synergy of wonder and wild anticipation held in similar surplus by Steinbeck’s crew more than 60 years earlier. The smallest of creatures held their attention like a tractor beam.

Steinbeck’s and Ricketts’ expeditionary force traveled aboard the beamy Western Flyer, which provided a stable platform to range far and wide to see what was to be seen. Our vessels were less complicated. We traveled by trucks, skiffs and kayaks, all packed full with gear, food, fishing rods and tackle, nets and whatever else might be of service in our brief sojourn.

Strong northerly winds brought cold weather, chilling the shallow waters of the innumerable keys and putting a damper on the fishing. (My only memorable moment in the angling sun came when a large cobia highjacked a mangrove snapper I hooked with a shrimp imitation, and then summarily inhaled the whole fish sans head. It was awesome.)

We traversed the guts and mangroves thatches. By hook and line, cast net or seine net, we caught, inspected and occasionally ate nearly 30 different kinds of fish: several species of grouper, bonnethead shark, barracuda, lizardfish, snappers and blue runners. When the sun finally burst through, the azure water shone like forbidden gems.

In reflection, perhaps equally appropriate reading material would be Ernest Hemingway, who for many years found inspiration, and trouble, among the kindred town folk. He wrote A Farewell To Arms in Key West.

His running mates, who became known as the Key West Mob, included legendary angler Joe Russell, later called the infamous Sloppy Joe and namesake of the present-day Key West bar. Everyone in the Mob had a nickname, and it was through these experiences that Hemingway became known as Papa. They’d fish for days, even weeks on end in the Dry Tortugas, Bimini and Cuba for tuna and marlin.

Our window was small, allowing us to explore only so far, but the allure of the hidden treasures left indelible marks on both our soles and souls.

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Last updated February 26, 2004 @ 1:12am.