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East to West and Back Again

This post is part 4 of 6 of the series Florida's Forgotten Coast

The Span of the Forgotten Coast in Pictures and Words

 

THIS IS A DIVERSE PLACE, as much as it is relatively unspoiled. Heading west along Highway 98 from the “Nature Coast” and “Big Bend” areas of northwestern Florida, the farms, acreages, and small rusting towns like Cross City, Salem, and Perry slowly morph into more natural, protected spaces. There is a growing sense that rather than just being an out-of-the-way place that people would rather not be, the area has been consciously conserved and protected.

St. Marks Lighthouse, built around 1830.
St. Marks Lighthouse, built around 1830.

You encounter various “conservation” and “wildlife management” areas first. They’re heavily managed, the forests harvested and thinned, but they obviously lack condos, hotels, or the staples of other parts of the Florida coast. These then give way to Econfina State Park and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge—true protected lands that still offer a respectable level of public access. The St. Marks Lighthouse, built in various stages around 1830 and watching like a sentinel over the refuge is a unique sight, surrounded as it is by salt marsh and leveed-ponds full of alligators, big blue and tri-colored herons standing among flocks of white egrets. A few miles east along the Coastal Highway is the road heading south to the town of St. Marks, located at the confluence of the St. Marks and Wakulla rivers. The town is tiny and charming, complete with a small marina, “yacht club,” and a few little eatin’ joints selling local seafood.

On the south end of town are the remnants of an old Spanish fort, San Marcos de Apalache, dating back to 1679. The site itself was used by the Spanish from 1528 until Andrew Jackson took it from them in 1818, as part of the US campaign against the Seminole. As ruins go, they’re unimpressive. But what remains is a reminder that people other than us have been in this area much, much longer than we.

It was in St. Marks and not far from the ruins of the fort, that I came upon a scene that spoke to me, a scene representative of what I saw elsewhere along the Forgotten Coast. A small park runs along the St. Marks river just east of the fort. It appeared to me an inviting place, a pier running out into the estuary and a sidewalk snaking off into what looked like a sawgrass marsh. On the pier was a sign attached to a railing, placed next to a large net, instructing an unlucky soul how to first snare (the net) and then remove a fish hook from an even more unlucky sea turtle, caught inadvertently by a fisherman’s hook. I wondered if this occurrence were frequent enough to justify such specialized equipment, and wandered up the path through the salt marsh. 

It ended just a few hundred yards from where it began at a facility that I quickly recognized as a sewage treatment plant. My immediate reaction was one of contempt. This beautiful trail, with birds and frogs and insects flying and croaking and singing around me, ended in a center for the processing of human waste. It was located just a few yards from the St. Marks river, and I immediately thought about the possibility of contamination. But then I took out my iPhone and looked at the spot on Google Earth. Sure, there it was, plain as day, but from the global view I could see that it (and the town itself) was surrounded by thousands and thousands of acres of protected land, most without the obvious scar of a private development, a house, a trail or road marring the green virginity of these tracts. The turtle net, the treatment plant—these were representations for me of my original thesis, possibly still intact…

Fishermen accidentally catch turtles. The net is an effort at responsible management of that apparent inevitability. A sewage treatment plant (albeit a small one) exists on an estuarine river. It is glaring evidence of human presence. But it also cleans the effluent of that human presence. In days past, the line with the turtle on it would have been cut and the animal would have probably died. In days past, the sewage would have been merely dumped into the stream without treatment at all. Such is the nature of perspective—It is as fluid as the stuff coming out of the treatment plant. Or as imperfect and contaminated as the stuff going in.

Between St. Marks and Apalachicola lies over 65 miles of rural landscape. There are small towns along the way; charming, well-kept places like Panacea, St. Teresa, Carrabelle, Eastpoint. These towns are tiny and are often comprised of a few houses only. There are even a few good restaurants. Angelo and Sons Seafood was a standout (and yes, here I digress). With outdoor seating along the restaurant’s deck, extending out into Ochlockonee Bay, they admonish folks to “come enjoy the freshest, preservative-free, locally sourced seafood caught by the very same hands that will be cooking it!” I had a Mahi-Mahi fillet with locally caught oysters as an appetizer. Both were excellent and the atmosphere on a clear, 75 degree day, breeze blowing off the bay, was as good as anything could be.

Just down the road lies Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Lab in St. Teresa. The lab is staffed by dedicated people who care deeply about studying and protecting the extensive marine environment of the area. I had the privilege of meeting a few of these folks during my time exploring the Forgotten Coast. The lab does good work, and their stuff is definitely post-worthy. Stay tuned for a closer, future look.

The lab complex, located at the intersection of 98 and Route 319 (leading to places inland like Sopchoppy, Crawfordville, and up to Tallahassee), is bookended on the west and east by a new residential development, “SummerCamp Beach.” And here again was a representative metaphor. The development is a few years old and seems to have fallen on hard times. The handsome, modern community building once held a well-reviewed restaurant; the only remains of which was a “For Rent” sign in the front of the building. Many lots are yet to be sold and the place seems vacant, quiet; a few modern homes built in an “Old Florida” style (as the development company’s website states) stand tall and lonely among Long Leaf pines and other native plants. The place is attractive as developments go, but it engenders a sense of failed intent. St Joe (the developer) advertises that half of the land area of the proposed development is dedicated to conservation. The lots themselves can only be landscaped with native foliage. SummerCamp Beach got me thinking about real estate in the area and I sought a realtor for an educated perspective, and met Sherri Parsons of Coastwise Realty.

Sherri grew up in Crawfordville, the seat of Wakulla County, in the center of the Forgotten Coast. I asked her some questions about her perception of growth in the area, and a little on what makes it special. Sherri said that over the course of her lifetime (after moving to the area in the 1980’s) there’s been a lot of growth. Crawfordville in particular has expanded. The county’s population is now at over 30,000 people. She says, though, that development will always be restrained by the amount of protected land, the national forest, the wildlife refuge, the state forests in the area. The County also has strict wetland ordinances that prevent building in many areas. The real estate market saw extreme growth in the early 2000’s, but was hit hard by the nationwide market crash in 2009. It was further damaged in 2010 by the BP “Deep Water Horizon” oil spill, which killed the local seafood industry—a substantial job-provider. Things were hit harder still when a tropical storm made ground shortly afterward, causing substantial flooding and a re-drawing of flood-maps, and massive increases in flood insurance premiums. The market today, though, is on a pretty substantial up-swing, and developments (like “SummerCamp”) are starting to pick up again.

Sherri said that folks who live in the area really value and try their best to protect its natural character. She said that despite the growth, most people who live along the Forgotten Coast have family and historical ties to the place. “They remember what it was once like and try their hardest to preserve it.”

Click HERE for the FULL TEXT of my interview with Sherri.

Over the few weeks I explored the Forgotten Coast, I could agree with Sherri, that most of the people I met had grown up in the area, or had been there for years not wanting to make their homes anywhere else. They valued the natural spaces, the rural feel, and the unique “Old Florida” culture of the place. People were invariably warm, friendly, welcoming. I wasn’t so sure about the prospects for future development, however.

Traveling further west along 98 you encounter houses on stilts lining the coast for nearly 10 miles, some clumped into small communities like “Lanark Village.” There’s an award winning public golf course even, inland a mile or two from the coast, St. James Bay. There’s some diversity, but many of these homes along these stretch are large, vacation homes for the wealthy, or retirement homes for the moderately successful and hard-working. Private piers invariably extend out into the dark water, pointing toward the sandy barrier islands just a mile or two offshore. The stretch does not, however, seem “over-developed” to me. The lots are large, with native trees preserved. It’s understandable that people want to live on the coast. It is indeed beautiful. The dark water just south of 98, the water of St. George Sound invokes a sense of depth, of profundity—though I know that the continental shelf is exceedingly gradual here, and the water is shallow. The gradual shelf contributes to very high storm surges all along the Forgotten Coast, and I wonder how protected from catastrophe these houses really are, raised just a few feet on stilts.

The town of Carrabelle, population 2,788, is a charming place sprung up around the mouth of the Carrabelle River as it meets the Gulf. The marina here dominates—its berths populated by working fishing boats, sailing yachts, sleek and fast sport fishers. A friend of mine described the place as looking almost like a small coastal town in New England, the salt marshes giving way to a wide river on one end, the Gulf on the other. It was here that I had the chance to travel up the Carrabelle River in a kayak with some friends of mine.

Kayaking in coffee. Carrabelle River.
Kayaking in coffee. Carrabelle River.

The day was cool, blustery, the sun intense. We started off my friend’s pier (he owns a house along the river) and headed north. The scenery was beautiful, and the experience somewhat surreal. I’ve kayaked in Florida plenty, but never before on water so tannic, so dark and mysterious. My friend mentioned repeatedly how prolific the wildlife was. Manatees, otters, large fish, porpoises, monstrous alligators all make the place home. As I climbed down into my boat, I remarked how unique it was to be floating on coffee. A few moments later, paddling hard against the wind, I had the sense that all of these beasts were there, with me, watching me, but I couldn’t see more than a few inches into the murk. There were times when a brief flash, a hint of some shadowy bulk would catch my attention and I would expect the spray of a blow-hole or some large unblinking eye emerging from the darkness, but none materialized.

The town of Eastpoint lies just west of Carrabelle, and has the feel of a place catering more to the practical needs of people visiting the white beaches of Saint George Island across a bridge spanning the sound. The beaches are indeed worth visiting, with most of the island protected by the state on both its west and east ends. The developed portion of the place is like any other beach town, with short term rentals and vacation properties making use of every available space. There are barrier islands all along the coast here—from Alligator Point in the east to St. Vincent in the west, just off Apalachicola. They are invariably protected places, providing rich habits for wildlife, though some are developed to an extent with handsome beach homes on stilts that still strike me as precarious. I’m reminded of my early days as a child in Sunday School: “The wise man built his house upon the rock…” the song went. Quickly researching named storms (tropical storms and hurricanes) that have hit the area over the years, I’m instantly struck by how numerous they are. I try and imagine what a 20 foot storm surge would look like, roaring over a place like Saint George Island.

Across the John Gorrie Bridge, spanning 4.5 miles of open water, I come to what often seems the vanguard town, the representative place of the Forgotten Coast—Apalachicola. Much has been said here and elsewhere about the trouble the river is in, the river from which the town gets its name. Just a little over a week ago it was named by the D.C. based conservation group American Rivers as the most endangered in the United States—the chief factor being the rapid depletion of its watershed by urban growth upstream (Atlanta). But behind the relatively recent headlines is a town of unique character shaped by the environment and a unique history. In the antebellum South, before the advent of railroads, the town was the third busiest port on the Gulf, behind only New Orleans and Mobile. Other places along the Forgotten Coast have history, but nowhere does that history seem as alive and present as it does here. The downtown, the buildings along Water Street retain the look, the feel of the Victorian Old South. Walking the streets, my camera in hand, I’m reminded of parts of the French Quarter in New Orleans. The old Victorian homes a few blocks from downtown invoke a quieter, smaller Key Westcomplete with the free-roaming roosters. Beyond the obvious oyster trade, there are tourists here. And there are cafes, restaurants, art galleries and boutique hotels in buildings that look like the plantation mansions of many a romantic (or romanticized) film.

I stop and film shrimp and oyster boats about to set out from the marina just off Scipio Creek. A few of the boats are rough, used hard. The men I see getting out of their trucks and loading gear into these boats are just as rough, just as hard—men of all ages, of all races too, their faces weathered and dark. There are seabirds perched on the old green piles the boats are moored to. Pelicans and gulls squawk and call, circling these working men aggressively for a probable handout. I wander back down Water Street, past the hotels, cafes and seafood joints and into a block of smelly warehouses and massive grey-bone-white heaps of discarded oyster shells. Here the birds are too, just as loud, but seemingly less motivated, less hungry. They hop upon the oyster heaps like children protecting some imaginary fortress, some redoubt of the playground. I wander further and see two fathers teaching their daughters softball in a public diamond. Next to it a middle-aged fisherman and his wife cast out into the river with rods from a small public pier hidden in the willows. These are all images of a place that although not quite “Forgotten,” is still very, very real.

That evening, just as the sun is setting below a thick bank of clouds off to the west, I head back toward the house in Sopchoppy where I was staying. I see people pulling off to the side of the roadway just before reaching the bridge from Apalachicola to Eastpoint, in a spot wide enough to allow it. The grey-haired couple don’t look like tourists to me, their old but well-kempt truck has a sticker of a redfish in the rear window, a rusty trailer hitch on the back. I realize quickly that they’re stopping to watch the sunset. I pull over behind them, watching both of them and the sky to the west. It’s disappointing. The sunset. The bank of clouds is too much—the sun can’t get below and underneath them—the prelude to a really great display. Its disc moves below, hidden, and the sky just turns grey. The two stay for a moment longer, maybe enjoying the breeze off the water, maybe something else, before getting back in their truck and driving toward town.

Moon rising above a church steeple, Apalachicola.

30 minutes later, I’m driving through Carrabelle once again. As I cross the bridge spanning the Carrabelle River I realize that everything, the water, the waterfront below, the town is glowing platinum and gold. The clouds to the west had parted, and the sky was alight. Knowing that it would be my last night in the place, I hurriedly stopped my rental car and searched for a vantage point. It didn’t take long. I stop on the sidewalk of a backstreet along the edge of the fisherman’s portion of the marina and near a kind of residential shack that although dark and closed-up is emanating a steady beat, grunts and quick exhales punctuated by an occasional female scream. I have just a minute or two to snap  some pictures and take a few seconds of video before the light fades and the moment is lost. The boats, the water, the sky are once again dark and I notice that the sounds from the shack have quieted too. I have just a few moments to take a deep breath, inhale the briny sent of a low tide before I realize that I’m being attacked by an army of mosquitos. I hurry back to my car and drive slowly out, out and away.

The sky alight. Dusk over Carrabelle Harbor
The sky alight. Dusk over Carrabelle Harbor

Will Burcher is a former police officer and current author of “The GAIAD,” a story of ancient secrets not quite forgotten and the positive power of global perspective. He lives and works in Colorado, USA.


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