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Archive for February, 2011

St. Joseph Bay in the morning

Updating this blog is on our list of ToDos, but being down in the south has seeped into our bones and slooooowed us way down. A combination of warm sun, the relaxed pace and the drawl in Southerners’ speech — our motto is now “What’s the hurry”.

We spent a week on a narrow strip of land off of the Florida Panhandle on the Gulf of Mexico. St Joseph Peninsula State Park is about 6 miles, as the crow flies across sheltered St Joseph Bay, from the small town of Port St. Joe. It is a 20 mile drive from that nearest heavily populated area. There are lots of residential, waterfront properties on the peninsula, an incredible number of them for sale, but there is none of the boardwalk, hotels, restaurants, etc., sort of commercialization, congestion, noise and bustle as with so many beaches. And once you pass the State Park’s gates, you leave even that behind.

Click to enlarge image

February is a wonderful time to visit northern Florida. Few bugs, no crowds of tourists and comfortable temperatures. When we picked up our Florida State Parks guide and said, “let’s try this place,” we had no idea how lucky we were in our selection.
St Joseph Peninsula State Park preserves the natural landscapes of gulf and bay, sea grasses, beaches, dunes and inland coastal woods and marsh. With the bay to one side, the gulf to the other, the peninsula is so narrow that we felt that we could stretch out our arms and just about touch the water to each side. Camping in the park enabled us to live within a wild, natural coastal environment; to live beside the abundant beauty — scenic, plant and animal alike — 24 hours a day.

Wading in the Gulf in February

A wooden walkway channels human traffic from the campground across and, more importantly, above the sand, to protect the large, but fragile dunes. As we crest the dunes, the wind suddenly picks up. The fresh salty breeze plasters our clothes to our sides as we come down off of the boardwalk, kick off our flip-flops and sink our toes into cool sand so snowy white that it hurts the eyes in the full bright sun.  We make our way to the shore, dodging bits of broken shell that never seem to hurt our feet even when we do step on them, and begin wading in the gentle, light, clear green waves of the Gulf of Mexico. The colors — white sand, pale green water, deep blue sky — are so unusual in our day to day experience. Those colors soothe, the light warms and the combination of it all has finally brought us the bone-deep relaxation we’ve craved.

Young ghost crab

Looking over the dunes

White-tailed deer

Dunes

Marsh at dawn

We’d awake in the morning to the sound of waves crashing on the nearby gulf shore while, closer in, the air was filled with myriad birdsong and the drip-drip of heavy morning dew on the roof of the RV. The air was still cool, but not for long once the sun cleared the horizon. We’d get up, grab our Camelbacs, binocs and cameras; snap Annie’s leash on and make sure she had her ball; and head out the door. Mist usually hung lightly just above the marshes and birds called everywhere from shrubs and treetops. Mating season is in full swing here. Since arriving down south, we’ve watched all sorts of courting behaviors from the preening of Great Egrets in full breeding plumage, to Osprey showily diving and swooping or carrying large sticks to their nests, to (very large!) Water Moccasins slithering in a slow dance over and around each other.

Morning dew

Morning dew is so heavy it drips like a light rain and we have to wrap a protective hand over cameras and binocs as we walk under tall palms and pines.

Bayside

Brian & Annie (w/ her ball)

We’d like to see more of Florida, but February’s heat is the most we feel we can take. Daytime highs of 60s in the sun with humidity — that’s our limit. We hope to come back soon, another winter, to explore more of this state.

Low tide

Peninsula woods

The effort to reestablish Longleaf Pine forests requires fire. Throughout our travels in the south, we’ve seen large tracts of land and foliage turned orange and black by fire. The peninsula is no different. Fire destroys in order to restore, clearing out overgrowth and invasives and creating habitat for native animals and plants to re-inhabit. We came upon a controlled burn on one of our walks. Volunteer fire crews worked with “prescribed burn” specialists to create and monitor this blaze. They moved along with deliberation and no haste, settlng fire to the undergrowth, monitoring and moving steadily on down the peninsula. They burned hundreds of acres that day. Orange flames leapt from one plant to the next, devouring the lowest plants and clawing 15 feet up the trunks of Longleaf Pines. The heat was tremendous, as we stood some 20 feet from the blaze.

Controlled burn

The air has just cleared, embers are still lightly smoking here, but already birds have returned to the high branches of the pines.

After the burn

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We’re on the road again, having left cold, snowy Maryland behind last week in search of sun and warmer temperatures to the south. It is great to be mobile again, but it was hard leaving family behind.

We lost our Millie just over a month ago. Annie feels the loss of her buddy keenly and we all have found it hard to readjust to life on the road without her.

Brian, Annie & Millie

Brian, Annie & Millie on a picnic in Maryland, Oct. 2010

We had originally intended to stop in the Carolinas for a month or so, but the temps were still too cool so we continued down to Georgia, to do some exploring of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Nights have been cold, but the days warmer than further north, with highs in the 50s to low 60s. There has been lots of rain, but brilliant sun, too.
Okefenokee was a great place to visit. We spent just a couple of days there and saw only a smidge of it. It was a good time to visit. Too early and cold for the hordes of mosquitos and tourists. We strolled along the most popular trails — easy access routes — rarely passing another visitor.
We walked trails that wandered through forests of towering Longleaf Pines which rose from a dense ground covering of Saw Palmettos. These forests, once covering vast areas of the southeast, are carefully managed now in an effort to re-establish their dominance in at least some areas. Undergrowth is periodically burned away to allow young Longleafs a chance to grow.

Longleaf Pine Forest

Lisa beside Saw Palmettos

On the second day, we took a guided boat tour. We bought tickets for the earliest tour, 9:30 a.m., and found ourselves the only customers for that ride. It was crisply cold with a bright sun doing it’s best to melt the light frost. We wore windproof clothes, but felt the sting of icy wind on our faces and on fingertips not protected by fingerless gloves as we were born along on a large tour boat — just the two of us and our own private guide.

Brian on the tour boat

Our guide was knowledgeable about the Okefenokee and told us he was a 7th generation “swamper”, his family having lived in and around the Okefenokee for all of that time. He stopped when we wanted to take photos, answered all of our questions and turned off the motor for an extended period of time to let us absorb the absolute peace of the Okefenokee in the still of the winter’s day.

Great Egret

One of many alligators seen that morning

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