Fourteen people smelling faintly of sunscreen and insect repellent are gathered around Bob Merkel, a naturalist and tour guide with the Deering Estate at Cutler. The group is outside the visitors' center at the South Miami-Dade park, and Merkel, a cheerful, grandfatherly man, is spinning the area's history in the morning sun. He tells of the Paleo-Indians and Tequestas who fished Biscayne Bay millennia ago, of a pioneer town called Cutler that sprung up around the turn of the century, and of the Mediterranean-style castle that industrialist Charles Deering built in 1922. "Well, there's more," Merkel sighs, "but I can't give you all the history, because we're all going on a canoe trip now."
That's the newest attraction at the 420-acre Deering Estate, a wonderland of thick mangrove preserves, robust bird and marine life, and historic architecture. The curious come to admire the natural beauty and learn about the rich local lore. But this morning adventure-seekers armed with sunglasses and life vests have come mostly to paddle canoes on Biscayne Bay. Their destination: Chicken Key Island Nature Preserve, a seven-acre mangrove isle one mile out. Park naturalists started guiding the three-hour excursions into the bay about a month ago.
On the way from the visitors' center to the boats, Merkel leads the canoeists past Deering's pink-and-yellow limestone castle, dubbed the Stone House, and the park's other important historical structure, the Richmond Cottage, a wooden inn built in 1900. He offers another brief history lesson, and then takes everyone around the corner of the Stone House, where its famous keyhole-shape harbor feeds into the sparkling bay.
The troops board silver, two-seat canoes docked in the shadow of towering palms. It's a bit of a rough start: A young married couple capsizes not ten paddle strokes out. But not to worry. The bay's maximum depth is only eight feet. Everyone, including the soaked husband-and-wife team, is soon gliding over the emerald waters in formation, stroking toward Chicken Key, just a dark clump of vegetation in the distance. The sun beats down, and the wind is blowing stiffly against the procession. When arm and back muscles start aching about halfway into the journey, Merkel considers steering the group into a nearby mangrove forest, an alternate destination for days when conditions make the trek to Chicken Key strenuous.
It's a strong group today, though, and Merkel decides to press on. If you're lucky enough to get paired with Merkel, not only will he do most of the work, but he'll also show you all the sights. "I just like the idea of being out in nature under my own power," says Merkel, who has been canoeing for more than twenty years. "I like the way you're low in a canoe and everything looks diferrent. And I like the way everything is quiet." He points to a pelican floating overhead. He tells you to look toward the horizon, where shimmering like an urban mirage among all the blues and greens is the downtown Miami skyline.
After 45 minutes the canoes drift into Chicken Key, a rookery that attracts herons, hawks, cormorants, and pelicans. The wind dies here on the eastern side, and a symphony of insects chirping pulses through the mangroves. As Merkel maneuvers along the tangle of branches girding the ring-shape key, he sees a small shark prowling the shallow waters below, and farther ahead, a glossy brown cormorant flying inches over the surface, raising rapid-fire splashes with its beating wings. The paddlers follow the contours of Chicken Key and then land on a bank strewn with seaweed. For half an hour, the group wanders around. Merkel identifies bushes and trees on the rocky ground, birds in the trees, and fish in the channel that winds through the middle of the key. One of the excursion's highlights occurs when the other naturalist along for the trip captures a blue crab and shows off its armored belly and pinching claws.
When it's time to head back, Merkel has some good news: The same strong wind that was in the canoeists' faces on the way over will be at their backs for the return. That means they can concentrate less on paddling and more on enjoying the scenery.