It was a much different era, before Jet Skis and time-shares and traffic signals came to the Keys. Now they're trying to four-lane U.S. 1 all the way from Florida City to Key Largo. Ted Williams has moved away, and the water isn't always as blue as it should be.
Florida Bay is a thousand square miles of hard-bottom shallows, grassy banks and mangrove islands that stretch from the Upper Keys to the rim of the Gulf of Mexico. On low tide the flats become exposed, pungent and crunchy, revealing the labyrinth of spidery ditches by which the backcountry must be navigated. Casual boaters seldom venture here more than once. Getting beached on the banks is no fun; getting lost can be worse. Despite its smooth and placid face, the backcountry sometimes roils to a murderous fury.
In 1948 a promising young jockey named Albert Snider won the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah. To celebrate he and some friends took a fishing trip to Florida Bay. They anchored their yacht off a small island named Sandy Key.
Snider and two pals got in a rowboat to go redfishing. They were still within sight of the yacht at dusk when a storm blew up out of nowhere. The next morning the Coast Guard launched an extensive air-and-sea search, which lasted for days. Snider and his companions were never found.
The racing world was shocked. Snider's mount in the Flamingo, a horse named Citation, was given to one of Snider's best friends, a rider named Arcaro.
That year Citation won the Triple Crown, and the famous jockey gave part of his winnings to Snider's widow. Eddie Arcaro had considered joining his buddy on that fishing trip to Florida Bay but had gone to Santa Anita instead.
Historically the backcountry has belonged to fishermen, smugglers, poachers, bootleggers, fugitives and the occasional professional adventurer. Its gallant snook and tarpon attracted Zane Grey in the 1920s; its imposing eagles, ospreys and herons caught the artistic eye of John James Audubon in the 1830s.
Early this century, plume hunters in Florida Bay wiped out many thousands of wading birds because rich ladies on Park Avenue fancied white feathers in their hats. When the law cracked down and plumed hats went out of style, the egret and heron populations slowly rebounded—only to be ravaged again as wetlands dried up, victimized by drought and greedy water "management" practices. Today most of the backcountry lies within the boundaries of Everglades National Park, so the birds, manatees and crocodiles enjoy a modest degree of protection. The water itself is under no such stewardship.
The decline of Florida Bay has spanned the terms of several park superintendents, who have displayed widely varying degrees of concern and influence. Blame must also be assigned to the state of Florida. It boasts strict pollution laws for rivers and coastlines, but enforcement is a farce in the Everglades, which is used as both a cistern and a sewer by industry and agriculture. By the time freshwater reaches the bay, scientists can do little but draw samples and hope for the best.
To be sure, some of the bay's natural spectacles still appear unharmed by man: A fire flash of roseate spoonbills high in the black mangroves. Or the sparkle of jittery bonefish tails among mangrove shoots at dawn. Or a steep tannic creek so teeming with snappers that you can't see the bottom for the fish.