Gulf Coast Blog

Journal of Mary and Bill Burnham's trip along Florida's Gulf Coast.

(Read the full account of the Great Calusa Blueway trip here: Calusa Blueway)

Feb. 10, 2006
A perfect evening on Anclote Key

Things are looking up, at least at this very moment. And that's what we're trying to do more of, enjoy the moment.

As I write this, it is 9:30 p.m. We are camping on Anclote Island, a three mile paddle into the Gulf Coast off Tarpon Springs.

Yes, it's primitive camping, and yes, we have high-speed Internet to do this blog, thanks to a nifty drybag for my laptop, and a Verizon wireless card that works whever we can get cell phone reception.

It warmed up to almost 70 today and even this evening it's quite balmy, probably in the upper 50s (the last two nights dipped below freezing). We saw a dolphin and a small sea turtle on the way out here. Bill looked it up in his book when we got to camp, and we believe it was a Green Turtle.

Tomorrow we're in for another 'winter blast,' but for now, all is perfect: a nearly full moon, bright stars, a blinking lighthouse, a walk on the beach, the sound of the surf.

We even have a picnic table under a pavilion on which to work. Our tent is nestled in the pine trees nearby.

This is what I call camping. Tomorrow we'll take a hike along this four-mile-long island.

Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day

We’ve been weathering the unusually cold Florida temps (below freezing at night!) at Sutherland Crossing Resort in Crystal Beach (north of St. Pete). Tucked into a quiet natural setting among mangroves, pines and palms, the resort is actually a community of three-bedroom vacation homes with all the comforts of home. The resort has teamed up with the Clearwater Marine Aqarium to offer weekly kayak trips for guests. (We hope to meet up with the guide and go out to Caledesi Island later this week.) It’s not a big, luxury resort, but it’s the small, personal things that make a stay special. There’s a butterfly garden and nature trails on site, with plenty of birds and gopher tortoise in residence. The resort’s clubhouse has recycling bins (which scores big points with Mary), and a FEAST box for the needy where guests can leave extra food at the end of their stay (big points with Bill). On Sunday, with wind chills in the 40s and gusts to 35 knots, we opted not to paddle and instead visited the a href=""> Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s
We saw dolphin and otter demonstrations by rehabilitated animals. Some will eventually be released into the wild, but others, because of injury or illness, have little chance of surviving on their own.

We were treated to splashing, jumping, waving and twirling by dolphins like Panama, who came to the center with severe sunburn and teeth worn down so much she cannot hunt for fish on her own.

We were told of Winter, a baby dolphin rescued just two months ago from a crab trap, with a tail so damaged that it fell off shortly after her arrival. The center is getting ready to fit her with a prosthetic tail.

These two and others, as well as turtles and otters have a permanent home here, with all the fresh fish they can eat.

Feb. 18
The sunset beach

We walked across the road from the Silver Surf Motel in Bradenton Beach, a comfortable, “Keysy” and friendly place with its own beach access. Tomorrow we need to check out about a dozen beaches on Anna Maria and Longboat Keys for the beach access guide we’re writing.

The sun setting on the Gulf of Mexico turns the water a soft, luminescent aqua blue-green, and the sand a glowing pink. A mob of gulls and royal terns stand fcing the sun, just as people have come down to the beach to sit and watch the last rays. Sanderlings dart out nd in with the gentle surf, their tiny black legs going so fsat as to be invisible. Like them, children run in nd out, playing and laughing, racing the surf.

Reminds of what state biologist told us with regard to the numbers of people visiting gulf coast beaches. The birds and people yearn for the same thing: the water, the surf, the sand. The birds need it to nest (Jim Watkins on Egmont told us how they scope out the beach months before nesting to make sure it’s safe - that's why the southern portion of that island is reserved just for the birds).

Somehow, we have to learn to live together on the beach.

Feb. 20 - Presidents Day

We were looking at the map today and lo-and-behold, the west coast of Florida is tapering south and east, soon to merge into a mangrove wilderness known as the Ten Thousand Islands. We'd like to hit all of them, but I suspect we won't have time.

A few representative samples will have to make do.

We've called Ft. De Soto Park home for a few nights, and now we're enjoying the hospitality of Oscar Scherer State Park in Osprey, Fl.

Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, a.k.a. "Dr. Beach," rated Ft. De Soto the #1 Beach in America in 2005. It's a gorgeous one -- miles long, with a sheltered lagoon for swimming. The park itself is well-maintained: stonework on all the signs, trash cans everywhere and nary a piece of litter in sight.

Our eyes, however, were set a bit farther offshore. Three miles, to be exact. Egmont Key is a delta island formed by sediment flushed out of the Hillsborough River and out to the mouth of Tampa Bay. As such, it differs from other nearby islands, which are true barrier islands, formed by centuries of sand deposited by wave action and storms.

From a map perspective, Egmont Key has clear strategic and commercial advantages, situated as it is at the mouth of Tampa Bay. The U.S. Government built Ft. Dade on the island during the Spanish-American War in the late 1800s. As Tom Watson, assistant park manager and full-time resident of the island, told us, Ft. Dade still was still under construction when the four-month war ended!

Ft. Dade served as a piece of the country's coastal defense system, and as a quarantine station for yellow fever and malaria. Today, it is jointly managed as a state park and a national wildlife refuge, and its southern end is a bird nesting habitat.

One fascinating aspect to Egmont is it's population of gopher tortoises. Amy Emmert, a biologist for Florida State Parks, spent a summer on the island in 1997 and GPS'd every burrow she could find. Her final estimate: 1,100 burrows. She did this work as a part-timer for the park service, lugging around a 50 pound GPS unit (technology has come a long way - my unit only weights a pound, if that!). Hats off to you, Amy.

But back to the gophers. As Amy's work indicates, Egmont has a phenomenal amount of gopher tortoises for such a small area. Of particular interest to me, and to the idea of islands, is how these amphibians have adapted in ways not typical of their mainland brethren. One way is by sharing burrows, a necessity borne of their limited habitat.

Caladesi Island, another state park north of Egmont, held a different surprise for us. This large island has a bona-fide maritime forest in its middle, higher elevation areas. Even if you didn't know such a forest from, say, a hole in the wall, you'd know it the minute you saw it, and walked into it. Old live oaks spread their old branches, decked with resurrection ferns and Spanish moss, creating a shady understory.

Barrier islands are, in general, very temporary places, their size, shape and even existence altered by daily weathering and violent storms. But this forest gives a sense of something very permanent, and it was a pleasure to walk the trails with Park Biologist Sally Braem, looking at shrubs and flowers.

Very cool animal note: Sally pointed out a doodle bug burrow. The bug, when it matures, is a beautiful lace-winged flying insect, she said. In its larvae stage, however, it has another nickname, the "Antlion." The larvae reside at the base of the burrow, which is dug in such a way that, when an ant walks by, the edges of the hole crumble and the unsuspecting prey falls in. The doodlebug larvae is waiting at the bottom with very strong fore-legs that grab the ant and eat it. It reminds me of another beach bug more familiar to the mid-Atlantic area, the northeastern beach tiger beetle.

So the Tampa Bay/​St. Petersburg area has been great for island. Bird nesting is an oft-repeated theme along this stretch- really, on all coastal islands, but particularly so here. Nesting and resting habitat for birds is important to sustaining populations and assisting migrating birds. But there's always competition with condos and homes.

All of which underscores, for me as a kayaker, we need to respect the bird's shrinking territory. It's tempting to think that because we're offshore, in a boat, we don't pose a distraction to the birds.

I learned differently the other day. While paddling the St. Martin's Keys, we came around a point of an island and thrilled at the site of some 300 white pelicans resting in the lee of a mangrove island across the channel. We moved closer for a look, drawn by the sheer number. Within a few tenths of a mile, however, they sensed our movement and, en mass, the entire grouping stand and slowly move toward the water.

I won't lie to you. The sight of them moving as a unit is one of those wildlife moments that you never forget -- the instinctual reaction to a possible threat and their moving as a unit to protect themselves, and in such numbers. It almost looked computer generated.

To know in hindsight that the coldest days of winter were coming up, and that every movement is a precious use of energy that could mean the difference between freezing and living, well, it all takes on a greater significance.

So I gave myself three raps on the wrist for being a bad birdlife observer. And we paddled away.

March 6-9, 2006: Ten Thousand Islands
(until we get a map up, it’s on the Gulf Coast of FLA, just north of the Everglades and south of Naples)

A women’s canoe group from Outward Bound is camped on the east side of Camp Lulu, while a college group from Penn State is to the southeast. But here, on the western tip, where we enjoyed our last Gulf sunset (at least on this trip), we might as well have the island to ourselves.

These are the first paddlers we’ve seen in the last three days as we’ve explored miles and miles of mangrove islands – literally thousands, if not “Ten Thousand” – of the Rookery Bay Aquatic Preserve from Goodland, near Marco Island, to here, near Everglades City.

It’s a wonderland for mangrove gunkers, and thanks to Bill, we’ve gone down a good many of the creeks. The beauty of it is the outer islands have great beaches for camping, which you can do anywhere and without a permit.

This island’s proximity to Everglades City, and specifically the Ivey House B&B and Great American Canoe Outfitter, is the reason we’re now seeing paddlers. We’re heading there tonight.

Bill figured out today we’ve paddled the last 15 out of 16 days, so we’re due for a weekend. Heading to Miami to see Sarah and Greg, celebrate finishing the Gulf Coast and rest before traveling the east coast north.