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Archive for the ‘Florida’ Category

Prickly Pear, defeated

We left Florida in early March, ahead of the heat, humidity and increasing number of bugs, but we had lingered in our leaving, hopping west along the Panhandle, touching down in a few state parks and in towns for supplies.  The bright white sand beaches continued along the gulf, but there was otherwise little resemblance to the natural, wild coast we’d so enjoyed in St Joseph State Park.  We’d spent only a week immersed in the peace, beauty and relative isolation of that state park, yet the drive along the coastal highway seemed a bombardment of bustle, smell, sound, clutter and litter of civilization.  To our left, the expansive blue ocean glistened, framed above by soft blue sky, below by white sand or scrubby dune, and then the sight would be wiped out by stretches of towering hotels beneath whose shadows small shops elbowed each other, toes to the highway berm, anxiously jostling for the tourist trade.  Clearly popular vacation destinations, these towns, so we drove on.

Brian and Annie, St Andrews State Park

St. Andrews State Park was our first stop.  Out on a point, with the gulf to one side, Grand Lagoon to the other, and Panama City looming from across St Andrews Bay, this was a busy park.  We rolled in, got the last available site that night and settled in amidst the thumping of music, laughter and yelling of other campers cooking dinner and telling fish tales.  We enjoyed the following day spent exploring the marshes and pine flatwoods, leaving the beaches, piers and waterways to the majority of the park’s human visitors.  These coastal state parks are little pockets of semi-natural environment tucked in amongst such a network of waterways, roads and development so that they seem like zoos, or museum dioramas — encapsulated examples of how life once was.  Wallowing gators were a common sight and we would come upon egrets, dozens at a time, many in showy breeding plumage, preening and nodding.  The place was film set pretty with palm trees and blue-green water, but long lines for the showers are not something we look for in an RV park, so we only stayed a couple of nights.

St Andrews State Park

Close to Pensacola, closer still to a busy naval air station, Big Lagoon State Park was nonetheless a much more relaxing and interesting place to visit and, at that time of the year at least, we had trails mostly to ourselves.  After stocking up on food in Pensacola at the Everman Co-op we stayed mostly within the state park’s boundaries during our week and a half stay.  Our’s was a grassy, back-in RV site stopping just short of a freshwater marsh.  Tall scrub to either side, generous space between sites and no one behind or directly across, created a private and quiet retreat, perfect for observing the wildlife that visited, unaware or uncaring of our presence within the RV.  The large rear window gave us a fine, close-up view of the marsh where we watched all sorts of birds feeding on seeds and insects.  One afternoon, a cracking of twigs and rustling of leaves drew ever closer.  Our dog, Annie, listened, head tilted while seated tall, frozen.  The noise grew louder, closer and the three of us crowded into the open doorway, two of us hoping we weren’t about to get a visit from a skunk.  Shrubs and grasses began quivering at the edge of our clearing and there it was, snuffling across the grass, an armadillo.  Sighs of relief from us, astonished expression on Annie’s face.  She’d never seen one.

A pine cone is an acceptable substitute for a tennis ball

We followed trails from sandy beach, to boardwalks over tidal salt marshes, through pine flats and beside freshwater marshes.  One stretch of trail ran several feet higher than the marsh to either side and we came to a spot where the path was muddied and etched with the dragging of a heavy body — an alligator crossing.  We picked up our pace.

A sandy trail beneath Slash Pines took us out to a pond where we watched Water Moccasins in a courting ritual.  A stroll in the pink light of evening took us out to the Big Lagoon where egrets were perched high in trees, their beautiful breeding plummage streaming out from their bodies in the breeze.  Ospreys swooped and dove in display near a nest-building in progress.

Boardwalk in Big Lagoon

Boardwalk over marsh, Big Lagoon State Park

Jets often roared overhead, heading to and from nearby NAS Forrest Sherman Field, home base of the US Navy’s Blue Angels and a training base for Navy, Coast Guard and Marine pilots.  Nights were quiet except for the night we heard scrabbling at the back of our RV.  A raccoon, reminding us that we’d forgotten to close the gate on the rear cargo area.

Purple pin marks Big Lagoon State Park



One more stop before leaving the state: a day trip to Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park where kilns once processed tar from southern Yellow Pines for maritime and other uses.  No sign of industry now as we walked a paved trail and boardwalk that took us through quiet pine woods, wet prairie where last season’s pitcher plants were harmless husks, above marsh and then out over the bayou.  We had the place to ourselves the entire time.  We ate a picnic lunch, watching birds, the fish and crabs in the bayou, the wind in the reeds and grasses.

Tarkiln Bayou



Beside the bayou

Spending part of winter in Florida is something we’d like to do again some year, but now we headed for Highway 10 and Alabama, sorry to be leaving, yet excited to be on to something new . . .
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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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