Category Archives: The South

Tate’s Hell State Forest

One of the things I meant to post about was our visit to Tate’s Hell State Forest. It’s a weird place that was once a dense swamp that got remade into a tree plantation. It lies between the Apalachicola and Ochlockonee rivers in the Florida panhandle. It got its name because a fellow named Cebe Tate got lost in the swamp for days in 1875 and when he finally found his way out he announced “”My name is Cebe Tate, and I just came from Hell.” That’s the legend of how the swamp got its name.

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The original swamp from hell was drained, flattened, and many roads and deep drainage ditches between by flat planted forest blocks result in a grid like set up which reminded me of the prairie more than anything else. Beyond the grid pattern there is little resemblance to the prairie. The combination of deep ditches and forest and open roads has changed the nature of the place from an inaccesible forbidding swamp like Okefenoke Swamp to a place you can drive right in and yet see all kinds of wildlife up close. There is only primitive camping in designated areas of the forest so it isn’t a place for big rigs even though the main roads are wide enough. There are many trails in addition to the roads and it is a favoured hunting ground for the locals. Some of the roads have been allowed to deteriorate until they are nothing but trails and some roads were very well maintained and even a little sports car can manage them. The forest is huge. We explored only one small bit right off the highway. I am told it includes great places to fish, oyster and canoe in addition to hunting. We went in for a short visit late in the day after a long walk at St George Island and a pizza dinner.

On our visit we saw deer, more birds than I can name, opossum, and a small snake. The place reputedly is full of alligators which would not surprise me one bit.  Those big wide deep ditches would be great gator habitat and all the associated mammals and birds would make for good eating. Our hosts, Jane Elzie Brand and Jack Rudloe gently suggested maybe Dick’s interest in closely examining the lily pads by leaning over the edges on his knees was better done just a little further back from the black water. I would not recommend taking a dog off leash either lest a beloved pet end up like Jack’s poor Megan did. These deep ditches are just a bit too good for gator sneak attacks. (We did not see any gators. It was cool and they don’t normally do much in cool weather.)

One of the more interesting features of the park is “miniature” or “hat rack” cypress. You can get right up close to one such stand at the Ralph G. Kendrick Boardwalk. It is an easy drive in and there is good parking. (I would not recommend doing it with a big rig as the ditches full of water are on both sides and it would be a bit tight to turn around. You could leave the big rig on the road before the turn and walk in.)

The cypress trees are literally dwarf or miniature and you can see them up close. Being winter, the cypress were silvery with no green except the Spanish moss green and the rest was kind of brown and drab. I half expected to see Frodo and Sam on their way to Mordor. Still we had a very nice time. There is information on these little trees posted on the dock and they are not a distinct species as I first thought. Underlying impermeable clay means the swamp is shallow and nutrient poor. The trees are stunted rather than dwarf.

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We spent about an hour at the boardwalk. There was a lot to see but the sun was setting and the no-see-ums got pesky in spite of how cool it was. It was a nice way to end a very nice day and I can heartily recommend taking a detour through this fascinating forest if you are in the area.IMG_0241

Riding the Tide into a Salt Marsh

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We did something I have wanted to do for a long time. We rode the incoming tide from Levy Bay to the big pool at the intersection of Chattahoochee St in Panacea and Highway 98. There is a channel that winds through marsh grass swamps, sinkholes with springs, and some forested areas. The land is privately owned so you can’t leave the water but you do get to see some forest along the trip. We started at the Levy Bay landing which is a public boat dock. The marsh turns into impassable mud flats at low tide so we arrived one and half hours before high tide. By the time we had the canoe down and everything set up, we had one hour until high tide.

The tide rushes into these narrow channels at a brisk pace. You have to pay careful attention to avoid getting stuck on sandbars or hitting oyster bars. There are also lots of obstacles like fallen trees, remnants of old docks, and debris. Additionally the channel itself has many deep pools over springs where you simply can’t see the bottom in the brownish water. So we rode the tide in. In places it was like mini rapids. Always a strong flowing current, fast moving, to ride. The water is topped with foam, full of all kinds of bits of debris and detritus and full of crab holes along along the muddy banks of the marsh grass. We saw mullet, smaller fish, a string ray in black about 18 inches across the wing tips and many birds, especially egrets, cranes and vultures.

We did not bring our camera. We have used the rice trick (putting the camera in a bag of rice to dry out) once already after a canoe trip. While the camera recovered, the calendar never worked again. My pictures always download marked as having occurred on 2013 date the camera got dunked. It was a good thing we didn’t try to take pictures. Riding the tide in those narrow channels at quite a good clip while avoiding all the potential places to spill was challenging enough. If you look at the satellite picture you can see near the end of the route one very large and very deep pool. It was a real pleasure to come charging in there at top speed and find ourselves in this huge relatively calm place. The volume of water there is so deep even the incoming tide makes only a small impression. Though the water was clear we could not see the bottom making me wonder if maybe there is a smaller version of the Wakulla springs in the deepest place.

We rested a bit and then took the final small channel to the egret pond next to the highway. That was our goal. We see that pool every time we drive to the beach and I really wanted to find out why it always has at least three white egrets in it. We arrived at top speed out of the channel to find ourselves on a flat mud basin. The egrets were intently feeding and barely looked up, as if canoes with humans arrive here all the time. They had certainly had no need to worry since we were firmly grounded on smelly mud.

We unstuck ourselves with much heave ho-ing and worked our way back up the channel to the deep pool. The tide was already ebbing. By the time we crossed the deep pool the rush of water had ended so we leisurely wended our way across the pool and then back up the channel. As we arrived in sight of our truck the tide began to turn and run back out. We rode the reversed current the last few hundred yards.

Being a prairie girl and not accustomed to the ocean, the tide fascinates me. The marsh breathes the water in and then breathes it out. The grass and creatures that live on the shore line have adapted to thrive in the rhythmic rise and fall. The marsh’s rich detritus is carried out of the marsh with the tide and feeds the wildlife at the bottom of the food chain. Farther and farther up the food chain, larger and larger creatures wait at the mouths of the channel and then at the mouths of the bay ready to eat. The marsh is the food source of many creatures in the bay.

The marsh also serves as a nursery for much of the sea life. Many fish swim into the bays and lay eggs and then swim out. The fry hatch and grow in the shelter of the marsh, feeding on insects and the like until they are finally big enough to ride the tide out. The endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles feast on blue crab in the bay for two years or so before continuing their slow migration back around the gulf to their breeding places. The mud flats, like the final place where we saw all those egrets, is its own feasting place for these and many other glorious birds..

One of the unfortunate things that has happened in Florida is that many of these nurseries and feeding places have been filled, levelled and now have shopping malls and hotels and houses. Wakulla has been blessed with acres and acres and acres of coastal wetlands that protect and nourish the Gulf. There is a tale of this area that says a very rich woman once asked naturalist and writer Jack Rudloe how to best help sea horses. He told her protect the marshes on the coast because the marshes feed the reefs just off shore where the sea horses live. And so she bought six miles of coastland marsh and she does nothing with it except protect it in order to protect the sea horses.

The world needs more such wise women.

Peaceful Days

We have settled into our Florida home. Life has been gentle and sweet. Long days of lazy beach walking, and collecting natures treasures. We were walking the beach and found endless sea pansy soft coral so we carried handfuls back to the marine lab where they will be put to good use instead of dying. Another day we watched our favourite dolphin pod driving mullet into the shore in high surf and we were overjoyed to see they have a new baby. I shouted my congratulations and was treated to a waving tail display and a happy jump and a rolling wave of one flipper in the air. Dolphins call dogs. Jack’s Lily swims out and then swims with them when they call. The dolphins like Lily, especially the younger ones and they greet her and try to get her to play but she isn’t a very good swimmer. When they get bored with her simply one dimensional stroke they swim off and she returns to shore, exhausted but full of doggy joy.

On the walk pictured below, in a heavy fog, we disturbed a large osprey who had just caught a fish. The bird flew off with the squirming fish tight in its grip. Yet another day we found a pile of slag from the clearing of a canal and it was packed full of fossils. We carried home chunks of ancient sea bed turned to rock with shells and worm tracks that day. We saw my favourite bird of all birds, the impossible, ridiculous, roseate spoonbill which is much more respectable looking in its native habitat doing its natural thing than when seen in any zoo. The winter birds who headed south before us, but whom we left in Georgia, have finally arrived and the trees are full of cardinals, robins, oriels,  blue jays, hundreds of starlings in stunning murmurations, golden and brown finches and yellow warblers and all those nondescript little brown ones I can never distinguish. They are far quieter and far more social in winter than when they are combating for mates and nesting places back in Alonsa so one can see entire folks living in peaceful close proximity.

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The dogs love the beach. Each morning a large group of dog owners meets early and walks the beach with dogs off leash. The dogs run and play and do the dog thing with abandon while we walk and chat about grandchildren, vehicles, our aches and pains, and where good sales are. The dogs roll in the stinky gunk, swim in the water and dig, endlessly dig in the sand. We moan about how they will need a bath again but none of us makes a move to interfere with their dog play. Some dogs try fishing. The fish are too smart. The crabs fight back and win. Yelp and a quick walk back and the dropped crab moves off. Some dogs, like my Trusty, prefer to just lie there and enjoy the sun and the heat in quiet dignity. Trusty watches the others with disdain and she never needs a bath. The only time I have ever seen Trusty get excited and take to the surf was when the dolphins called her, presumably to show off their new baby. She’s not as good at swimming as Lily and she gave up when the waves hit her chest. She ran up and down the beach crying, unable to fully answer their song. I wish I could hear it.

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Most people like the beach when its sunny and hot. I prefer to go to the beach when it’s cloudy and cool and a stiff breeze makes for rolling surf. On such days it’s often just us with our dogs and we can walk for kilometres without meeting another human being. These are also the days one is most likely to see the dolphins.

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There is something healing about the beach. The voice of Ulmo (if you are a Tolkien’s Silmarillion fan you will recognize that) is soothing.

As a child I had favourite song. I learned it in school. Our school day began with the Lord’s Prayer and two hymns from an English child’s hymnal.

I often hum it quietly to myself as I walk the beach listening to the waves.

“This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.”

“This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.”

“This is my Father’s world, dreaming, I see His face.
I open my eyes, and in glad surprise cry, “The Lord is in this place.”
This is my Father’s world, from the shining courts above,
The Beloved One, The Holy One,
Came—a pledge of deathless love.”

“This is my Father’s world, should my heart be ever sad?
The Lord is King—let the heavens ring. God reigns—let the earth be glad.
This is my Father’s world. Now closer to Heaven bound,
For dear to God is the earth we trod.
No place but is holy ground.”

“This is my Father’s world. I walk a desert lone.
In a bush ablaze to my wondering gaze God makes His glory known.
This is my Father’s world, a wanderer I may roam
Whate’er my lot, it matters not,
My heart is still at home.”

There should be something about dolphins in there. Perhaps I will have to add a verse.

Florida is in full bloom.

It’s getting to be far too hot and I am counting the days until we head north to escape the heat (32C) 89F yesterday with 100% humidity so the sweat just rolls off instead of evaporating and cooling. I will miss Florida when we leave, but not this heat. The locals are just now coming alive and have stopped complaining about the bitter cold of temperatures that require more than a T shirt. They haven’t started sweating yet either. They just laugh at me when I complain about the heat.

One thing that has just astounded me with the arrival of heat has been the way everything has suddenly decided it’s spring and now is the time to start blooming. There is so much that is green year around here in winter that I didn’t notice it’s drab for most the time we have been staying here. Now we have this positive riot of passionate colours that could teach the north a little about blooming. I took pictures of just the flowers on my two short blocks walk from our parking spot to the Marine Lab when I went to pick up the mail. Wow. I recognize fuchsia (pink) and wisteria (purple) but the rest are unknown to me. It’s just lovely.

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Mission Accomplished; I love my Truck!

One of the fun things about hanging about at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab and being handy and available, is you just never really know what you might be asked to do. This day, it turns out their truck was in the shop and the boat was back from the shop, and they had specimen orders waiting to be filled. So Cypress Rudloe, who is Jack’s son, and their managing director, asked me if I could move the boat for him. I had already done this once before so I jumped at the chance to give the old Ford F150 pickup a chance to act like a real truck instead of a fancy fully equipped passenger vehicle with a funny trunk. Just in case the warranty people are checking up on me, I did make sure this boat and trailer were below the maximum specified weight in the manual. This whole boat going down the road is about an every third truck occurrence on this highway here. It seems like everyone has a boat.

This was all great fun for me. There was even one muddy mushy spot where I had to switch into four wheel drive to get out of the muck and move along. Oh how fun! Vroom Vroom goes my truck and I love my truck. I might just leave that mud on it for while, I am so proud of it. I have a working truck.

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St George Island

We enjoyed a quiet afternoon at St George Island. This lovely long stretch of stunning white sand is accessible via a long causeway/bridge. It has a lighthouse, miles of beach, a state park. The state park has a campground but it is always full and booked months in advance in the reservation system. There are a lot of beach houses, rental condos and many very large luxurious beach houses of the very wealthy that could pass for mansions in most places. There is also a great pizza place. Good pizza is hard to find in the south. The road from Panacea to St George follows the coast and there are multiple small antique and curio shops on the way. So we spent a day walking the beach, seeing the sights, shopping (we didn’t find anything this trip), and closed with pizza before driving home. No spectacular wildlife scenes but we did see dolphins beyond the breakers. SAM_4853SAM_4928SAM_4927SAM_4926SAM_4919SAM_4914 St George’s is a long thin sand bar with high dunes on one side and the road runs down the middle. We explored both sides of the road.

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Dick took his very first selfie but I don’t know it counts when you use a mirror. SAM_4872 SAM_4868SAM_4867SAM_4864SAM_4862SAM_4854