HERE IN KEY WEST, WE TEND TO err on the side of hyperbole. Like Key Lime pie? We’ve got an entire festival dedicated to it. Disagree with a road block on your highway? We seceded from the United States and started printing our own passports. Trying to decide what to be for Halloween? We spend ten full days in costume and own at least two tutus per household. Feel like hitting the bar? We’ve got hundreds to choose from — including some that would prefer you leave your pants at the door. We don’t do things halfway, and we take pride in how far we fall from normalcy; our drag queens are the most sparkly, our deer the most adorable, our sunsets so spectacular we literally applaud them every evening, and our hangovers so epic that our seven square mile island is able to sustain two separate, restorative IV-dispensing companies. (We’re also totally modest.)
Birdwatching at sunset. COURTESY PHOTOS
But beyond the sequins and cocktails served in coconuts, Key West — and our upland brethren, the rest of the Florida Keys — is absolutely superlative when it comes to nature. Home to the only living barrier reef in the continental United States, it’s the aquatic activities that tend to hog most of the limelight, and with good reason: some of the best fishing, diving, treasure hunting, paddle boarding and lobster tickling can be found in the waters surrounding the 1,700 or so islands that make up the Florida Keys. But things are equally as bonkers back on land: spread across the Keys are four dedicated national wildlife refuges hosting some of the planet’s most endangered wildlife and plants (including the aforementioned Labrador retriever-sized Key deer).
A kayak ride through backcountry mangroves looks like another planet when compared to a picnic on one of the Pirates of the Caribbean-esque sand bars of the Content Keys; from the shallow turquoise waters just west of Key West to the Amazonian thickets of Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Key Largo, the sheer majesty of it all inspires Thoreau-like rhapsodizing from those fortunate enough to experience firsthand how transformative and untamed our wilderness can be — with an emphasis on the “our.” It’s an important point of distinction for Kristie Killam, a park ranger with the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge. Killam, along with a small team of biologists, law enforcement officers, maintenance workers and volunteers, keeps watch over the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex, which encompasses hundreds of acres of land and water. “I think it’s important to recognize that these refuges belong to the American people,” she says. “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages them with specific goals and objectives, but the ultimate plan is to make sure the magnificent wildlife and habitats, including those that are endangered or threatened, are there for future generations of Americans to see and appreciate.” Of course, in order to inspire stewardship, one must first get said Americans out into the wilderness to see firsthand just how important the refuges are. Enter: FAVOR, also known as the Friends and Volunteers of Refuges. Established as a nonprofit “friends group” to support the refuges in volunteer-recruitment, fundraising, advocacy, education and outreach programming, the Florida Keys’ FAVOR members help maintain trails, host trash cleanups, create events and help visitors at the Keys’ four refuges: The Crocodile Lake National Wilderness Refuge, Great White Heron National Wilderness Refuge, National Key Deer Refuge, and the over 100-year-old Key West National Wilderness Refuge.
Nature therapy sketching and beautiful bird silhouettes flavor the festival. COURTESY PHOTOS
Of course, even with an army of 501(c) (3) friends at your side, getting people off the couch (or, in Key West’s case more often than not, off the bar stool) and out into nature isn’t easy. It was only two years ago that the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges and FAVOR announced a new venture aimed at educating and engaging refuge visitors on a much larger scale: the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Outdoor Fest, a four-day festival that Killam and her colleagues created in the hopes of educating and engaging visitors to participate in what the USFWS likes to call “wildlife-friendly” activities outdoors. Outdoor Fest 2016 and 2017 boasted a variety of family-friendly, mostly free activities that spread from Key West to Key Largo, including guided walks, art workshops, birdwatching, bike rides, kayaking tours, and a 5K through Key deer-infested territory. The event has been such a success that the group is bringing it back again this year. Outdoor Fest 2018, which runs from March 10-17, will offer more than 50 curated outdoor experiences — most of which, thanks to fundraising efforts by FAVOR, the festival is proud to offer free of charge. This year’s festival will use the nature/visitor centers at the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Key Largo and the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine as base camp bookends; the two centers will host fairs on March 10 and 17, respectively, offering nature-oriented kids activities, workshops, live music, silent auctions, and food and artisan stalls. In between, the FKNWR and its friends at FAVOR have queued up an exhaustingly fun list of nature-revering adventures from dawn to dusk. Early risers can enjoy biologist-led nature walks, composting and native plant tutorials, sunrise photography treks, three-hour catamaran tours of the backcountry, and birding, while afternoons may be spent kayaking through American crocodile habitats, exploring the Nike Missile Site, a kids’ scavenger hunt through the forest, and a five-mile bike ride through Big Pine Key. Night owls will no doubt enjoy a family-friendly stargazing event on March 17 (telescopes are helpfully provided for those who don’t regularly vacation with theirs).
Kayaking tours are a highlight of the Outdoor Fest.
In addition to the festival’s active outdoor offerings, this year’s lineup also includes a few activities for the less limber, including a wildlifethemed origami class, a nature writing and sketching workshop, an introduction to Adobe Lightroom photo editing, a nighttime moth-viewing party, and series of academic talks including the March 15 “Creepy, Crawly Things, Insects and More!” hosted by Florida Museum Research Technician Sarah Steele-Cabrera.
There is no telling what you will spot during this year’s Outdoor Fest. COURTESY PHOTOS
If the thought of waking up early to wade amongst spoonbills at the National Key Deer Refuge or trekking deep in to the forest in search of the endangered Key Largo Woodrat and its signature massive stick nest isn’t enough to get you outside, Killam has one more trick up her sleeve when trying to convince adamant sun chaiseloungers to leave the pool and venture into the wild: it’s actually really, really good for you. “One other thing we really want to emphasize is that research has shown that when people get outdoors and experience nature, their overall health improves,” she says, explaining the festival is chock full of events that provide Nature Therapy — which which, for the skeptics, is an actual field of study, so much so that The John F. Kennedy University recently began offering a graduate-level certificate in Ecotherapy, an emerging branch of therapeutic care that studies the palliative and curative benefits of exposure to outdoor exercise and sun and animal-assisted therapy. Those in need of an extra push may even go so far as to solicit an actual prescription for Outdoor Walks from one of the dozens of health care professionals who have graduated the Health Care Nature Champions program, a partnership between the National Environment Education Foundation, various health organizations, and those steadfast stewards of the National Wildlife Refuges themselves, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Though the positive results of the Health Care Nature Champions program remain mostly anecdotal, the message from health care professionals across the globe is clear: getting outside more and interacting with nature is good for you. Period. It can reduce stress, aid in weight loss, and help counter the effects of depression and anxiety. And of course, as with any healthy habit, the earlier one is able to start, the more likely the practice will stick. “We feel it’s really important for parents to take opportunities like the Outdoor Fest to get their kids outside for some fresh air,” says Killam, citing activities like butterfly scientist-led big walks, a kids beginning photography workshop, and “Keys Kids in Nature,” which educates kids on the food web via an exploration of the interconnectivity that exists within an ecosystem.
And, while the majority of this year’s Outdoor Fest activities are happening a bit north of Key West, Killam and her fellow Outdoor Fest event-coordinator Nancy Chatelaine are hopeful that the festival will continue to expand to include more events central to the Southernmost town. Chatelaine, who works with FAVOR, explains that those refuges closest to Key West are mostly water-based, including the picturesque Marquesa Islands and Boca Grande, both a do-not-miss on many Key West visitors’ itineraries. Boasting the kind of technicolor water and white sand beaches normally reserved for desktop backgrounds, the Marquesas and Boca Grande both offer a slice of Caribbeanstyle paradise just a boat ride away from the Key West mainland — that is, as long as you have a way to get there. Right now, the trip is limited to those with private boats. But including these refuges, remote as they are, in the Outdoor Fest schedule is certainly on Killam and Chatelaine’s radar.
Both Chatelaine and Killam are eager to remind potential Outdoor Fest attendees that, while the events included in this year’s festival are mostly free, some are extremely limited in space. Those interested in attending any of this year’s activities, or who would like to view a full schedule of events, should do so by visiting www.floridakeyswildlifesociety.org/outdoor-fest.
Chatelaine ends all her emails with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt — fitting, as it was the 26th president who established the first National Wildlife Refuge, Florida’s Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, in 1903. For Killam, Chatelaine and the rest of the Outdoor Fest family, the quote is a credo as well as a warning:
“Wild beasts and birds are not the property merely of the people ali ve today, but the unborn g enerations whose belongings we have no right to squander.” — Theodore Roosevelt
Whether it’s on behalf of Roosevelt, your health, or the Key Largo Woodrat, it’s obvious: we should all really go outside more. Now, thanks to the crew at Outdoor Fest, you’ve got 50 new reasons to do so. ¦