Into The Forest

(Part Two of our adventures in northwest Florida.)

… Two roads diverged in a wood, and I  –  I took the one less traveled by …  Robert Frost 

We would have been perfectly satisfied to remain aboard our comfortable houseboat, well, probably for the rest of our lives, but that’s another story. The floor-to-ceiling windows in the living area provided views up the creek, down the creek, across the salt marsh, of the mouth of the river, the bridge beyond which lay the vast bay, the endless blue sky (after that first night!) – why would we want to leave? When we did venture away from our dock to explore along the coast, the scenery was so spectacular we didn’t want to return to the confines of the boat. What might be around that next curve of shoreline? I suspect Gini and I were both explorers in another life. It was inevitable our souls united.

My brother suggested we escape the magnetic forces of the coast to wander for a day in a little different environment. The Apalachicola National Forest covers over half a million acres spread out north and east of Apalachicola. There are at least three major rivers flowing through the forest and myriad creeks, lakes and natural springs. It has the largest remaining stands of longleaf pines and wiregrass in the country, an ecosystem which used to cover the majority of the southeastern United States. Most of the roads are not paved, many require four-wheel drive and there just aren’t many humans out here. Our kind of place.

There’s no substitute for local knowledge when traveling in unfamiliar territory and my brother is as much an expert on this area as one could hope to find. He pointed out Tupelo trees which in the spring will blossom and attract bees which will produce my favorite honey. Out of the way bayous, a road which dead-ends on the shore of a beautiful bay, evidence of recent bear activity, a pitcher plant prairie, a rare flower. And where to have lunch. Just because we were “away from the coast” didn’t mean we were “far from the coast”. So my fear of going a day without fresh seafood was unfounded. You know you’re in the right spot when the “good ‘ole boys” pull up in their swamp buggies and mud-splattered pick-up trucks. Throw in the hound dog wandering through the broken screen door and rips in the vinyl seats and all that’s left is to order a glass of tea and figure out whether you want grouper, shrimp or crab.

Our last evening of a memorable vacation was highlighted by a Bald Eagle drama we watched unfold from the upper deck of the houseboat. The eagle used a channel marker from which he could spot schools of fish. We watched him fail to snag dinner three times. On the fourth try, he latched onto a striped mullet but I think the water was deeper than he anticipated and the fish may have been larger and heavier than he thought. As he attempted to take flight with the fish, he couldn’t become airborne, probably due to soaked feathers and the weight of the fish. Not wishing to fail again , he turned toward his channel marker perch and began “swimming”. As he reached his perch, he realized he couldn’t fly up that far with his fish. Spotting a tree branch in the shallow water, he hopped onto it with his prize only to be dumped back in the water as the branch was not stable. The eagle finally had to let the fish go or risk drowning as the tide was rising. Without the extra weight, the bedraggled bird flew to his perch and hoped the humans aboard the passing shrimp boat hadn’t witnessed his disgrace. We did, but we won’t tell.

 

Moving away from the coast, we encountered vast marshes, creeks and bayous winding southward.

Apalachicola

Cash Bayou

Apalachicola

Cash Bayou

 

At the end of Sand Beach Road, one would expect to find – no sand and no beach. Plenty of shallow water and grass.

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Sand Beach

 

From Sand Beach, looking across East Bay, we could see the long bridge which connects Apalachicola and Eastpoint.

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Sand Beach, East Bay

 

One of the main rivers flowing through the forest is East River.

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National Forest – East River, Gardner’s Landing

 

Even in late fall there are plenty of wildflowers blooming throughout the area, such as this Narrow-leaved Sunflower.

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Gardner’s Landing, Narrow-leaved Sunflower

 

Along Graham Creek we found Tupelo, Cypress, Oak, Maple, Bay and other tree varieties.

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Graham Creek

 

Florida Lobelia and False Foxglove added splashes of color to the prairies.

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Florida Lobelia (Lobelia floridana)

Apalachicola

False Foxglove (Agalinis sp.)

 

My brother found a fairly rare wildflower known as Largeleaf Grass-of-Parnassus. It’s only been observed in four counties in Florida.

Apalachicola

Largeleaf Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia grandifolia)

Apalachicola

Largeleaf Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia grandifolia)

 

Carnivorous plants abound in some areas here attesting to a healthy bug population. Pitcher Plants seemed to be everywhere at the same location we found the Grass-of-Parnassus.

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Pitcher Plants

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Pitcher Plants

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Pitcher Plant

 

This type of Pine savannah used to cover the entire southeastern United States.

Apalachicola

Pine Savannah

 

The Bald Eagle is a mighty hunter, but even the best of us don’t always bring home dinner on time.

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Bald Eagle

Apalachicola

Bald Eagle

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Bald Eagle

Apalachicola

Bald Eagle

Apalachicola

Bald Eagle

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Bald Eagle

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Bald Eagle

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Bald Eagle

Apalachicola

Bald Eagle, Shrimper

 

One more outstanding sunrise greeted us as we prepared to head across the Apalachicola River toward home. Among the items we packed for the journey are some very special memories.

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Sunrise – Apalachicola River

 

 

We made it home safely. It took a few days for our bed to stop “rocking” with imaginary waves. We’re looking forward to returning.

 

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

 

See more birds at:   Paying Ready Attention   (Check out Wild Bird Wednesday.)

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

The Unforgettable Coast

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

We have been planning an extended visit with my brother in Florida’s panhandle for years. There were interruptions. Finally, we decided to just do it or else we knew there would be more delays. He lives in the town of Apalachicola, a small community located at the mouth of the Apalachicola River which empties into Apalachicola Bay. The huge estuary is protected by a couple of barrier islands between the shallow nutrient rich bay and marshes and the vast Gulf of Mexico. The seat of Franklin County, Apalachicola is about an hour and a half southwest of the state capital, Tallahassee. Population is less than 3,000. Over 80% of the county is environmentally protected state or federal land. The chamber of commerce has coined the term “The Forgotten Coast” in an effort to attract tourism. Please don’t tell anyone about this place.

It takes about five hours of easy driving to reach Apalachicola from our house. We made it in about nine. There was stuff to see along the way. Trees, creeks, birds … you know – stuff. The drive was by way of a four-lane divided highway in great condition and we often drove for miles without seeing another car ahead of us or in the rear view mirror. Thank you, interstate super-highway system. It took most of the traffic away from some of these formerly major travel arteries. As we approached the “big bend”, where Florida’s coast line begins to curve westward, we saw huge thunderheads building over the Gulf of Mexico. About 30 minutes from our destination, drops of water the size of pancakes crashed onto the windshield.

I wanted to find “something different” from a standard hotel room during our visit. My search uncovered a nicely furnished place with two bedrooms, open living area with a fully stocked kitchen, screen porch and a balcony, all with a view of the Apalachicola River and extensive marshes. And only a few blocks from my brother’s place.

“A HOUSEBOAT???”

I could tell, Gini was excited at the prospect….

….until we pulled up to where our accommodation was moored. It was getting dark, the torrential downpour showed no sign of easing, the water level had risen with the high tide and gusting wind, the gangplank of the floating dock was fixed in mid-air at a 45 degree angle. We have both been in hurricanes before. This was eerily reminiscent.

My brother pulled up and was prepared to help me hustle our provisions on board but suggested since the town’s eateries would all be closing soon it might be a good idea to find some fresh seafood and wait for a break in the storm. “Fresh seafood.” What storm?

After a very enjoyable platter of sweet shrimp, the clouds parted long enough for us to scurry on board and secure our belongings. I promised my brother a pot of fresh coffee at sunrise and Gini and I surveyed our shelter. The rain began again and the wind literally howled around the rope lines holding us fast to the dock. Thank goodness the hallway was narrow or else we would have been thrown to the deck several times. I was going to recount the experience of someone being actually thrown off the toilet seat, but who would believe such a tale? As we pulled the covers up tight, we could hear the waves breaking over the dock, the rain pelting the side of the boat, the palm trees bending to the wind and their fronds sounding like one long, loud “sssshhhhh”. It brought us a whole new meaning of “rock and roll”. We held on to each other in order to keep from being thrown out of bed. Things were looking up.

The coffee was brewing as a steely-gray bay tried to calm itself after a restless night and the sun found a hole in the remnants of storm clouds through which it illuminated our surroundings. Shrimp boats returned from a rough night in the bay, visiting yachtsmen checked their moorings along the dock, dark clouds scuttled northward across the extensive marsh, seagulls screamed, pelicans grunted. A new day was ready for us to enjoy.

And enjoy it we did. Along with several others. The rest of our stay was filled with blue skies, calm waters, birds galore, fresh seafood and just plain visiting. To add to our joy, my sister and her husband arrived and for the first time in at least 25 years I sat in the same room with my brother and sister and our families and talked and listened and laughed and – lived.

This trip was all about me but I took a couple of tourist snapshots for those who might be curious what another part of Florida looks like.

 

Dawn following a stormy night. This is the view from our back porch looking eastward where the Apalachicola River flows into Apalachicola Bay.

Apalachicola

Sunrise – Apalachicola River

 

A shrimp boat returns to port after spending most of the night in the bay. We were moored at the entrance to Scipio Creek and many shrimpers dock up the creek at a city marina which is in protected waters.

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Shrimper

 

From our back porch we had a great view of the expansive salt marsh north of Apalachicola Bay. Many of the shrimp we enjoyed during our stay were born in this area. This was, thankfully, the last we saw of any storm clouds.

Apalachicola

Storm Over The Marsh

 

One of the large barrier islands, St. George, is home to a large state park and offers fabulous birding, especially during fall and spring migration. We were a bit late for the height of fall migration but we managed to find a few birds hanging about.

Saint George Island

House Wren

Saint George Island

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Saint George Island

Brown-headed Nuthatch

Saint George Island

Eastern Phoebe

Saint George Island

Downy Woodpecker

 

From the upper deck of our floating hotel, moonrise over the bay was heavenly, even if it was obscured by clouds.

Apalachicola

Moonrise-Apalachicola River

 

After more coffee and a leisurely breakfast, we were treated to a spectacular sunrise over the western part of the bay with another barrier island, St. Vincent, in the distance.

Apalachicola

Ten Mile

 

Hard at work as the sky begins to lighten, oystermen ply the shallow bay for some of the world’s best oysters. This is a tough job and has usually been passed from father to son. With an onslaught of natural and man-made disasters over the past several years, this may be a disappearing vocation.

Apalachicola

Ten Mile – Oystering

 

There are many unique features along the stretch of coastline between Apalachicola and Indian Pass to the west. This whole area bears many geological features more typically found further north.

Apalachicola

Ten Mile

 

At the western boundary of Apalachicola Bay is St. Vincent Sound and one can transit Indian Pass into the Gulf of Mexico. A beautiful side trip into the quiet waters of Indian Lagoon is very rewarding.

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Indian Lagoon

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Indian Lagoon – American White Pelicans

 

 

A popular spot for beach-goers in Cape San Blas jutting into the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, there are extensive salt flats and marshes begging to be explored and fished.

Apalachicola

Road To Cape San Blas

 

Returning to Apalachicola, Lafayette Park near the public marina and historic residential district has a terrific pier from which to fish, crab, watch the bay or enjoy a little sunshine under whispering palm trees.

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Lafayette Park

 

Fiddler crabs hunt from a tidal pool.

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In a dramatic change from our first evening, a more typical Apalachicola sunset highlights the grasses of the salt marsh. A trio of Black-crowned Night Herons flew by our screen porch at eye level grunting to each other along the way. This was to be a nightly occurrence as up to a dozen herons followed the creek as it opened into the bay and promised a successful night of hunting.

Apalachicola

Scipio Creek

 

As we lay in bed the second night and the boat moved gently with the incoming tide, I was happily surprised to hear my bride gently sigh:  “I could get used to this.”

Stay tuned! Coming next, Chapter Two of our Exciting Excursion: “Into The Forest”!

 

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

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