Alexandra Fiedler is a second-year student at Florida International University, seeking her BA in Psychology with a minor in Spanish. Alexandra enjoys the multitude of unique and captivating things Miami has to offer as both a city and a classroom to expand her knowledge and discover new enchanting things about this place she now calls home.
I volunteered at Chicken Key, located a mile off the coast of Miami’s Deering Estate with Professor John William Bailly, Teaching Assistant Claudia Martinez, and several other Honors students in Miami in Miami. The deering Estate is full of diverse and endangered wildlife and vegetation, making its conservation especially crucial. The waters surrounding the Deering Estate are home to mangrove forests, seagrass beds, and coral reefs which are all critical ecosystems teeming with life. The Deering Estate works tirelessly to conserve and protect both these amazing animals and plants.
Because of the current state of the pandemic, the Chicken Key excursion for Miami in Miami became the chosen volunteer opportunity for the year. As a psychology major, a canoe and beach cleanup excursion does not necessarily align with my professional goals, but it was tremendously impactful nonetheless. I am currently taking Ecology of South Florida and its associated lab. I chose this class of my own volition–not because I was being required to complete it. Learning about the environment, various flora and fauna, conservation efforts, and generally the world around me has always captured my fascination. I grew up in New Mexico, next to the mountains, which I continuously explored throughout my years there. I love hiking, being outdoors, exploring, learning, and making a difference. Hence the Chicken Key beach cleanup was the perfect opportunity for me to connect with the naturalistic side of myself that has almost gotten lost in Miami’s seemingly endless urban jungle. I’ve only lived by the water for a short amount of time, but a lifetime of watching documentaries has taught me just how crucial our waters and beaches truly are. Furthered by my higher education here, my concern and love for the earth have only dramatically increased since moving to Miami. I believe actually putting my paddle in the water, my feet on the sand, and the trash in my bag is not only the most physically impactful way to make a difference but also the most fulfilling way to help make a change.
Because of the current state of the pandemic, Professor Bailly was able to provide the Miami in Miami students a really great way to complete a form of service while still maintaining safe health practices. The class was able to leave from an isolated area on the Deering Estate and travel to an uninhabited island, where we could pick up trash without putting ourselves or anyone else at risk.
WHERE & WHAT
Beginning bright and early, we faced Chicken Key from the shoreline of the Deering Estate. Getting into pairs we began our mile-long journey past the edges of the mangrove forests, through the waves, above the seagrass beds, and finally onto the shore at Chicken Key. Initially, I was apprehensive about the canoe ride because as previously mentioned, I am from the desert. And my partner for the ride comes from the great state of Minnesota. So we were logically worried about our ability to paddle a mile to an island in open waters. But as we cut through the water, my many ventures of white water rafting, kayaking, and paddle boarding came to mind. Similarly, my partner grew up around lakes, and on boats, and by water; proving herself to be beyond capable of the task at hand. We had such a blast paddling to shore, forgetting all of our previous doubts.
Once arriving on the uninhabited island, we took in a saddening scene. Trash. It was everywhere. It was inescapable. Tangled into mangrove roots. Half buried in the sand. Bumping onto shore from the shallows. Littering the beach and even scattered about the highest points on the island. It was disheartening to see such a blatant lack of disregard for the planet, the environment, for our own home’s wellbeing. Although initially unnerving, the trash was an excellent motivator. The students quickly spread throughout the island, grabbing bags to start restoring the island, one piece of trash at a time.
After working near the canoes for a while, I eventually traveled through the water along the side of the shore with Professor Bailly, a few canoes, some supplies, and a few other classmates. We took the supplies to the far side of the island, making it easier to spread further and successfully access trash we did not even realize we had access to. This was personally my favorite part of the day. I walked with Professor Bailly and a fellow student to the furthest point of the island, with the intention of exploring on the way out, and picking up trash on our return. We trudged through muddied ground, hopped around mangrove roots, and (usually successfully) dodged spider webs. I felt very connected to the world around me in those moments. We went all the way to the tip of Chicken Key, and even got into the ocean. It was breathtaking. I even pushed my comfort zones–doing things like getting into water when I couldn’t see what was in it, holding a hermit crab for the first time. It just scratched the surface of how amazingly beautiful our natural world can be, and why it’s so important to fight for it and just put in the work to protect it.
After collecting a discouraging amount of trash, and being forced to leave even more behind due to lack of time and manpower, we loaded our bags onto the canoes and began our journey back. While the journey out was fun, carefree, and almost easy, the way back was an exhausting nightmare. Our canoe was significantly heavier and unbalanced, an unfortunate fact we only realized after our departure from shore. The mile felt like five in our canoe that ceaselessly veered left no matter how hard we paddled against it. We took much longer on our return, needing frequent breaks to let our canoe reorient itself and to rest our weary arms. Relaxing out in the open water was peaceful, which was nice as serenity is yet another thing that is nearly never associated with the typical Miami atmosphere. Upon our return to shore, we unloaded the boats, moved the trash, washed our life jackets, put our paddles away, and our beach cleanup at Chicken Key was thus complete.
As a whole, I had an incredible experience at Chicken Key. Even the just the journey was eventful and something I am grateful for. I think the connection I felt to the people I was with is an awesome benefit from this experience. We worked hard as a collective team to achieve one common goal. We swam in the ocean, playing around, laughing, sharing, and really connecting with one another. It was a refreshing change of pace from my normal schedule. I really think the best way to describe this experience is “soul food.” The adventure warmed my heart in so many ways and from so many things. I loved being in nature, surrounded by a truly naturalistic environment where the only thing I had to focus on was picking up trash and actively seeing the difference I was making. I loved hearing Professor Bailly explain natural phenomena, uniquely fascinating creatures, and the importance of Chicken Key. They were all lessons that I clung to and still remember now and believe I will for a very long time. I loved being in the water, being in the canoe, and just feeling like I was part of the world, that this is my home too. The good outweighs the bad–easily.
Although I would love to sit here and paint a scene of solely rainbows and sunshine, there were some harsh realities of our excursion as well. Right off the bat, the canoe right home was my least favorite part. It was a test of endurance I did not know if I would pass while I was going through it. It was frustrating and tiring to fight so hard against our canoe. It was irritating thinking of how pleasant the ride to the island was as we battled to keep our canoe straight. It was embarrassing receiving well-intentioned advice from peers to, “paddle to the left!” as we unsuccessfully struggled through the waves. But I felt such strong compassion and camaraderie when a classmate attempted to tie our canoe to the back of his and drag us to shore behind him. I know they were trying to support us, and make sure everyone was okay, which I appreciate so much. And so, the good still manages to outweigh the bad.
I was about to delve into the discomforts of the island, but I really don’t see those as necessarily negative. I was not on that beach to have fun. I was not on that beach to be comfortable. I was there to work. And so, the hot sun, itchy sand, micro cuts on my feet and legs, sunburnt face, and sore arms are simply part of that work. They gave me a sense of pride in what I was accomplishing. I buckled down and disregarded my discomforts, just like everyone else around me was forced to do. We put our personal comfort away for just a few short moments to achieve something of arguably, much higher importance.
The biggest lesson of this adventure is that we have so much more work to do. We barely made a dent in the colossal amount of trash that continuously washes up on Chicken Key. Seeing a picture a few weeks later made my heart ache, as I saw mounds of trash covering the beach we just worked so hard to clean. It only goes to show that humans have much work to do to successfully restore this planet. Our beach cleanup was only the beginning. I know my determination to make a difference has only hardened as time goes on, and I hope many others share that sentiment. I want to make a change. I want to make an impact. I want to save our home. And hopefully, one day I can say I did.