Florida's Panhandle - 11/05

Authors Mary & Bill Burnham paddling Florida's Panhandle

Nov. 18
We call this a “town day.” We put on regular clothes, like jeans and button-up shirts, and head to town to resupply, do laundry, the banking, etc. Today we need to have the “Bru” serviced, which coincides with meeting up with Mary’s brother and his family who are traveling in their RV. It’s great to see family after being on our own for a month, and we realize we’re just a tad homesick.

We spend a few hours at the Tallahassee Museum of Natural History, which is more like an outdoor living museum. I won’t call it a “zoo” because we didn’t see animals in cages, but rather in habitats, with boardwalks for humans. Our goal was to see the red wolves and Florida panthers, two species extinct in Florida. We’d seen plenty of wolf tracks back on St. Vincent Island where a breeding pair have been producing puppies for resettlement in North Carolina. But there’s little chance of seeing the animals on their own 12,000-acre island. Here we got to see several adults, about the size of smallish German shepherds, their coats indeed quite reddish. A group of school children on a field trip started howling, and this got the wolves quite riled up, with several running from one end of their enclosure to the other. The adults hushed the children and they moved on.

This reminded me of a story we’d been told by Thom Lewis, the wildlife biologist in charge of the St. Vincent red wolves. There’s only one breeding pair at a time on the island. One winter, the female died, and the male could be heard howling at night, standing at the western edge of the island. He was calling for a mate to the mainland, which is only a stone’s throw across a channel. Poor thing, the closest date for him would be in North Carolina! With the possibility his might swim across the channel, Thom and others rushed to transport a female to him. Coincidentally, she arrived on Valentine’s Day, and he hasn’t been heard howling since.

Nov. 10-12
After two nights primitive camping (we have sand in every orifice) we’re recharding at a a beautiful beach house rental on St. George Island (thanks to the Apalachicola Chamber of Commerce). We camped at either end of Little St. George island, a truly wild island off the Florida Panhandle. Undeveloped, except for a historic lighthouse that actually fell into the sea only two weeks ago! We took pictures of the rubble. It’s sad, but a reminder that barrier islands by nature are continually changing. A plus to the constant shifting of sand is the plethora of shells – giant cockels and mussels as big as baseballs, scallops of every hue.

We had a few adventures on this trip. Mary flipped her kayak doing a beach landing in heavy surf, quite tricky with a fully loaded boat. Fortunately the instinct to go for the grab-loop and pop the spray-skirt are well-ingrained.

As we were looking for a good campsite, a large rattlesnake slithered between us, about 20 feet away. It was good we saw him right off the bat, because we were much more careful, following the same trail each time we went to the beach, looking down, and not running around at night (as we are wont to do).

Then the mosquitoes came promptly at sundown. We have bug shirts with netted hoods, but even these were not sufficient protection. We had to run for the tent, where we stayed from 6 pm all night, reading to each other. What sounded like rain were hundreds – maybe thousands - of mosquitoes trying to get in, pinging against the tent. It was worse than the Everglades.

Around midnight the wind woke us up, a cold front moving in from the north. We went out to look at the moon, bug-free because of the cold. In the morning it looked like a a fresh desert, our stuff buried in the sand, all our footprints covered up. The second night we camped on the other end of the island, high on a dune over the Gulf. There was no wind when we set up, but it was still a tad chilly, and the mosquitoes never came out. We were able to enjoy dinner and a small fire. But again, around midnight, the wind picked up, this time much harder and we feared the tent would blow away (thank goodness we have special sand stakes) But there was no way we’d be able to sleep with the tent rattling like it was going to take off, so we picked it up and moved it!

We saw many bottlenose dolphins throughout the trip. Such curious, gentle critters, they would come close to our boats to check us out. The best was this morning as we left our campsite. Perhaps six of them were headed towards us to go out the channel between St. George and Little St. George to the Gulf, then changed their minds and followed along with us. A mother and baby surfaced several times always in perfect unision.

So, that’s what’s new! Now we are doing laundry, taking showers, washing our gear nd writing up the trip.

P.S. We think “Apalachicola,” in addition to being a great “old Florida” town and a fun word to say, has the most syllables (6) of anyplace in America. If you can think of one with more, please post it!

Nov. 9
An even better morning (according to Mary) We awake at the Turtle Beach Inn, owned by a nature-lover who dims the lights for sea turtle nesting season. We're right on the Gulf of Mexico with a wide sandy beach, just a few miles from St. Vincent Island where we paddled 10 miles and hiked 4 yesterday. This fascinating refuge is a propagation area for red wolves being reintroduced to eastern North Carolina. Only one breeding pair and their pups live here at any one time. When the pups are old enough - about two years - they're moved to NC. We didn't see them - people rarely do - but we saw plenty of tracks. Exciting stuff!

P.S. Those oystermen were actually harvesting seed oysters to move out into the bay, not to eat. They're paid by the bushel.

Nov. 8
What a morning! Sounds of outboard motors woke us up at 5 a.m. Struggle as we tried to resist their siren call, we finally poked our heads out of the tent. Lo and behold, spread out on shallow mud flats off shore of our campsite floated a small legion of oystermen busy with their tongs. The water was smooth and the men's reflections shimmered pink and red from the sunrise. Each stab of their tongs down into the water was followed by a loud "clunk" as a mess of oysters dropped into the bottom of the boat. I think, tonight, Mary and I may head back into Apalachicola and order us up some fresh ones.

Nov. 7th
Hey all - and HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my little sis, Julie. 40 never looked so good, honey!

We're at Indian Pass in beautiful Gulf County Florida. It's called the Forgotten Coast (not that you'd ever FORGET that nickname, because it's plastered everywhere!) Anway, we found a killer campsite on the pass with a view of St. Vincent Island across a small channel. That's our destination tomorrow, and we should be able to launch from the campsite itself. We're meeting a naturalist who'll tell us how they are returning the red wolf to the island. Look for some pictures coming from Mary.

Nov. 5-6
St. Joseph's Peninsula. It's not an island, but it's trying to be. We stayed in a nice cabin at the state park, hiked 7 miles out onto the tip of the peninsula, where we saw the highest dunes we've seen so far - upwards of 70 feet. Paddled in St. Joseph's Bay, the seagrass bottom alive with sea urchins, starfish, crabs and other critters. They say we must come back for scallop season. Kayaking is a great way to catch them (they actually swim away from you!) The shells are all different colors - one woman described it as hunting for Easter eggs!

Nov. 3-4
St. Andrew's State Park and Shell Island. We meet state park biologist, Tovah, for the short paddle out to Shell Island. We have to cross a major shipping lane - Navy ships, barges, jetskis, etc. We do some snorkeling on the jetty and in the seagrass beds. Next day Bill and I paddle further up the island to what they call Spanish Shanty, built by shipwreck salvagers, now a popular beach for boaters. Our campsite at the state park is nice and shady, and close enough to the water we can launch right from it. Very nice, large state park surrounded by beach, with nature trails throughout.

(Rob... I think the "we" is a bit generous on your part. I owe you one!

*Bill, did we finish that last bottle of Kettle One?? Can't seem to find it... R.S. PS- BLOG ON!!

Nov. 3
Thanks for posting some great stuff. Robert, I propose that we sail away sometime after Thanksgiving, but before Christmas. And tell those mangrove I miss them too, dear chaps. We'll be back sooner than later.

*Hey Guys, I hope this reaches you, this is my second attempt. Colleen And I are in the Keys but CB will only be here for a couple more weeks and then back to her folks in northern Florida. I'm still gearing up for the big sail. When are you planning on landing in the Keys? The mangroves are whispering your names.If one listens closely, the murmer is quite distinct."wwwhhheeerrree iiss MMaaarrry aaannnddd Bbbiiilll" They and we hope to see you soon! Robert and Colleen

Nov. 2
Hey all, Mary and I are sitting in the Santa Rosa Mall in Mary Ester, FL (lucky lady, gets a whole town named after her). We just bought a Verizon broadband PCMCICISCIASCI card and wanted to test it out. We're wireless on our laptop without a wi-fi network or a cell phone. It's kind of like drifting in space - no gravity, no wires. Whaaaa-hooo!!! Technology rocks. Now back to the tent!

*Hey kids, sounds like a great adventure. Mary, don't let Bill give you any BS about gators. P.S. nice legs in the Perdido Key shot. Talk to you soon. -Josh G.

Nov. 2: 10 days and counting

Mary and I have been 'on the road' for a little over a week. Right now, we're enjoying the cush life at Water Color resort, in Walton County. Outside our third-floor balcony doors, I can hear the Gulf waves washing ashore. The forecast calls for temps in the high 70's, a welcome change. But it's the nighttime temps that have us running for the long underwear and layers. In our six nights camping, temperatures have been downright chilly!

How are we doing? I joke with Mary we're in the 'honeymoon' stage, being extra nice to one another, flexible to each other's needs. How long can this last? Who knows, but it's nice. We had a couple of flare-ups driving down from Virginia, and it was a wake-up call. We have five months of very close quarters in that cramped sardine can of a home, and if we don't make it work, we are in more trouble than we know.
Speaking of that car... Man, I wish we'd bought a camper. Getting anything out of there is like a playing Chinese checkers. Need electronics? Have to move the backpack, dirty laundry bag and canvas sack of PBP (petroleum-based products, i.e., plastic jackets, pants, etc.). Need the printer? Have to slide out the crate with sleeping bag and hammock. Our camping gear is actually pretty accessible, but we're severely lacking in backseat space. That's where we have the suitcases and miscellaneous other stuff. I won't even get into all the stuff cluttered around the floor of the front passenger seat - let's just say we have a lot of chargers for phones, computers, etc.
Our schedule has been go-go-go. If we're not paddling or hiking, we're doing interviews with naturalists, biologists or locals who fill us in on all the details. It feels like we're on staff. Case in point, yesterday (Tuesday): We met a kayak guide and paddled Peach Creek. It poured rain the last 10 minutes of the trip, with thunder and lightning thrown in for good measure. We ate lunch under a pavillion, shivering in the rain, waiting for our shuttle. It was back to the hotel for a 2 p.m. interview with the resort's on-staff wildlife biologist. That finished at 4:30, just in time for an hour-long interview with a scientist whose specializes in coastal dune lakes, a really cool phenomenon here in the Florida panhandle. More on that later.
We have this funny little thing going on with daylight saving time. The Panhandle is in Central Time, and we switched our clocks back an hour when we arrived. Then daylight savings time kicked in, and I went back ANOTHER hour. Mary didn't though - she claims that by not "falling back," her watch reflects the actual natural rhythm of daylight hours - or something like that. And when we hit Tallahassee in two weeks, we have to 'spring ahead' into Eastern Time. So we're operating on two clocks, one an hour ahead of the other. It makes for some interesting conversations. So far, we haven't missed an appointment!

Nov. 1
Bill paddled solo today while Mary did beaches. Around the mouth of the Choctawhatchee River saw more alligators than he's ever seen. Also a rattlesnake as big around as his arm. Mary said "See what happens when I don't go with you! Danger!"

Nov. 1
Let’s hear it for the beach mouse!
Here in Florida’s Panhandle we’ve got an earful about the beach mice, so far four kinds – the Perdido Key, the Santa Rosa, Choctawhatchee and the St. Andrews – all with their own isolated barrier island, and either threatened or endangered status. The tiny mouse – weighing about two nickels – has been mightier than any environmental group in regulating development on fragile island environments. Even the giant developer St. Joe has bowed to the little critter, preserving dune habitat beside its communities and hiring a naturalist to monitor the health and habitat of the mice. Their gorgeous Watercolor Inn, where we stayed two nights, has dimmed lighting for turtle nesting on the beach, native plantings, and a rare coastal dune lake. This is a quiet oasis just east of the busy Destin beaches.

Being nocturnal, we haven’t had a chance to see the mice, but we’ve seen plenty of their tiny tracks, and the tracking stations (aka “mice hotels”) where they get a free meal in exchange for their footprints on an ink pad. The slew of hurricanes in the last two seasons have done a number of some of their habitat, but there’s plenty of folks looking out for them. Turns out what’s good for the mice is good for humans: Preserving their dune habitat also preserves that first barrier to storm surge and hopefully the houses behind it.

Nov 1: A soggy paddle on Peach Creek with Tracy and Matt. Great picnic lunch, Tracy, and thanks for the local knowledge, Matt. He's a master naturalist starting up a kayak tour business, Blue Sky Kayak.

Oct. 31: A tip o' the hat to Rob & Joanne, our unofficial mascots on the Panhandle leg of Bill & Mary's 'Wild Island Tour 05-06' (that's what I've nicknamed this trip... I mean, we're rock stars, aren't we? I say name this puppy and sell tee-shirts!). Rob and Joanne Scott live in Marietta, Georgia - Rob is a friend from college - and we used their pad as a jumping off point. For those of you who worry about what we'll do if another hurricane threatens the Gulf, we've dubbed the Scott compound our Southeast Regional Hurricane Evacuation Center (SRHEC, pronounced 'sir-eck'). We'll hightail it north to their place and hunker down with a bottle of Kettel One until it's over.
A year ago, Rob and Joanne answered one of those adds in the paper promising swamp land in Florida at low, low discount prices. They are now the proud owners of a piece of real estate in Gulf County, Fl., near Cape San Blas (they swear it really does exist, and it's not under water!). For those of you who are geographically challenged, Gulf County is... on the Gulf of Mexico. Very good. And Cape San Blas is this funky little arm that sticks off the coast, like a lever. We haven't been there yet, but Rob and Joanne assure us it is beautiful and unspoiled -- with the exception of the dog flies, which swarm like banshees and bite. Thankfully, we haven't experienced them yet, and we may not, given the cold snap.
Joanne - if you're reading this, please send some butternut squash lasagne!! And thanks for the moral support. Its nice to know someone out there cares.

*Key Lime Pie. Key Lime Pie. Key Lime Pie.

*by the way - the following comment is from MRB!! (and Steve says Hi)

*Finally managed to find a working link to your blog! I've been at it for days. Love reading about your adventures. Will be checking in every day. Jules and I won a Fishhead this past weekend at the Head of the Fish. Fish heads, fish heads...

*Hi guys! Nice pictures! I hope you're having fun..!E

Oct. 29-30:
Mike Martino really hooked us up. He runs Eco-Beach, a kayak and bike rental on Navarre Beach, a vacation community on Santa Rosa Island virtually wiped out during Hurricane Ivan (or was it Dennis?) Anyway, folks are rebuilding, but he still hasn't had enough business to open the shop full-time. Give him a call, though, and he'll run over to accommodate. There's great snorkeling along the old fishing pier, permanently damaged by the storm and now a marine sanctuary. The western end of the island is Pensacola Beach, a hopping spring break town, but between here and there are 18 miles of primitive coastal beach - it's part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, but the road/​bike path is wiped out and you can only get in by foot or boat. From a spiffybeach house (Thanks, Mike!) we did an overnight paddle, camped among the moon-like landscape and watched the sun rise and set over the Gulf.

Oct. 26-27:
TMI (Too Much Information)
Bill took a shower Wednesday morning. Mary, embarassed that she might actually smell worse than her husband, took one Tuesday evening.

Explored the wild, east end of Perdido Key by kayak and by foot. Paddled 10 miles one day, hiked 14 the next. Saw only a couple of surf fisherman with a bucketful of Pompano, and some shellseekers. The winter beach is a great time to see animal tracks in the undisturbed sand.

*Bill and Mary, Its so nice to see that you guys have finally taken a picture with a different pose! We need to talk soon. Its starting to get chilly up here in VA. Richie Prado

Oct. 25: We wake to chilly temps: high-40s, donning hats and gloves instead of swimsuits. It's to the beach anyway, a wild one of native vegetation. Across the water is Perdido Key, where we expect to paddle tomorrow.

Oct. 24: As Wilma clears S. Florida, we head south to the Panhandle, where the forecast is for sunny skies the rest of the week. Camping at Big Lagoon State Park, paddling the barrier islands of the "Forgotten Coast."

Bill's Doubts: They came upon me as I was putting up our tent on the first night. After driving six or seven hours from Atlanta to Pensacola, Fl., we pulled in just before dark. It was cold - not wimpy Florida cold, but down in the mid-40's. If you're running the garbage out to the curb, or walking the dog, that's not cold. If you're facing five months of living on the road, and a good bit of that in a tent, that's cold. There was little time for pleasantries: no looking around and saying, 'Boy this place is beautiful. I'm sure glad to be here.' Mary whipped up a quick meal (see Grub and Grog under our FAQ, left) as I hooked on the rain fly and set up the sleeping mats. Somewhere, in that process, doubt turned to uncertainty turned to worry and, finally, a little bit of fear.

I read, in the forward to a great play my sister, Mary Rose, got me, entitled "Doubt," that the onset of doubt may be viewed as the beginning of true learning. Think of our daily lives as a superficial string of events. Doubt comes along and disrupts that placid scene, rents the fabric and exposes things we've gotten along fine without. You can deny it, or peek through the hole in your life and wonder, 'What's down there?'

First night in Tent...
Mary: "Bill, do you think there are alligators here."
Bill: "Mmmhmmm. Now go to sleep."

Oct. 22-24: Holed up in Marietta, GA, watching Wilma on the weather channel. Eating, drinking with friends Rob & Joanne (five-star lasagna, Joanne!. Hoping for the best for our friends in the Keys.

Oct. 21: Overnight in Raleigh, NC to visit cousin Dahr. Thanks for the toast!

Oct. 20: We leave Virginia heading south. What Hurricane?