Friday, April 20, 2018

The Apalachicola NERR Nature Center


A museum may not be the first thing that comes to mind on a beach vacation, but the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR) Nature Center is a stop worth making on your visit to the FL panhandle. The ANERR headquarters are located just northeast of the St. George Island Bridge in Eastpoint, and includes 90+ acres that stretch along the St. George Sound. The oyster harvest area to the south is one of the most productive harvest areas in the entire Apalachicola Bay System, and the Nature Preserve helps conserve the shoreline of this ecologically unique area, as well as provides an educational opportunity for visitors to learn more about the region.


First stop is the Nature Center, where a range of interactive and live exhibits allow visitors to delve into the topic of most interest to them. We watched a movie highlighting the system of rivers, estuaries, bay and gulf that makes up the very unique ecosystem, and then the kids drifted around to the exhibits that most called to them. Mikus was enthralled with the hundreds of shells identified and displayed, and recruited the help of a naturalist to help identify a shell he had found in the Gulf waters near Bradenton. Lauris gravitated towards the displays about the history of the region, and Vilis toured the aquariums in search of inhabitants he could recognize.


While the Nature Center could be saved for a rainy day, the nature boardwalks provide a nice outdoor exploration of the marsh and flatwoods that you won’t want to miss. About ½ mile of trail takes visitors for loops through the forest and to an overlook on the Sound; grab an informational card and follow the numbers to learn about some of the species that call this area home, or bring the binoculars and enjoy the view of the St. George Sound. Make sure to stop in the butterfly garden, and you might be rewarded with a monarch butterfly sighting!


On the other side of Millender Street is Millender Park, complete with beach access and picnic pavilions. Visitors can launch non-motorized boats here, or just enjoy the water on a summer day. There is a third parking area at the base of the St. George Island Bridge, which provides access to the remnants of the old bridge which today serve as a fishing pier. You can get a good view of the boats out harvesting oysters, or take in the views of the water and St. George Island across the Sound.


The Nature Center is open Tuesday to Saturday from 9am to 4pm and admission is free. Find the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve on facebook and twitter, or visit their website here.

The boys spotted this green anole and tree frog on our boardwalk hike

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Black Lagoon and Wakulla Springs

Billed ‘strange and mysterious waters,’ a 6,000-acre sanctuary is hidden away in a quiet corner of the Florida panhandle, 30 minutes from Tallahassee and more than an hour from St. George Island. However the unique cinematic history as well as its incredible geographic features convinced us to make the trip to Wakulla Springs State Park, and we were so entranced that we are already making plans to return!

The deepest part of the spring is just beyond the buoy

The heart of the park is Wakulla springs, one of the largest and deepest in the world. The freshwater springs are a result of the unique geology created by the prehistoric seas that once covered the area; when the seas retreated they left behind sandy soils over limestone, and when water eats away at the limestone, holes develop. The result is called ‘karst,’ and the holes and tunnels (resembling Swiss cheese) are linked in an enormous underground cave system that serves as the aquifer for the region. The freshwater springs are 185 feet deep with a flow rate of 250 million gallons of water per day.


Several underwater scenes for the 1954 horror movie “Creature from the Black Lagoon” were filmed in Wakulla Springs, as well as Tarzan movies from the 1930s, “Return of the Creature,” “Night Moves” and “Airport 77.” The clear water of the deep spring along with the tropical vegetation growing along the Wakulla River (and the alligators that go with it!) make for ideal filming conditions. If you take the boat tour your guide might point out some of the spots utilized most frequently in filming.

One of the River Tour boats making the rounds

One of the boys’ favorite portions of our visit was the boat tour. When the water is clear enough, the Park offers glass-bottom boat tours over the spring itself, however on our visit rainfall (with higher nitrogen levels) and the invasive & exotic species of hydrilla and algae had teamed up to create a dark water day; on these days visibility in the basin is too low to permit the glass-bottom boats to operate. However, the 3-mile River Tour operates 365 days a year (with exceptions for extreme weather) taking visitors up the river among the giant bald cypress trees to see alligators, native birds, turtles and other wildlife up close. The morning of our visit dozens of alligators were taking advantage of the warm day to sun themselves on the banks, and a manatee was seen on its way out to the coast to feed; the gentle giants cruise the waters in the summer, and a pod has been known to winter around the springs where the water stays a constant 70° year round.

See it?

The tour guide was very knowledgeable on the flora and fauna of the park, but also the historical aspects. Archaeologists have uncovered giant Mastodon bones and evidence of inhabitants dating back more than 14,000 years in the area! A complete mastodon skeleton recovered from the spring is on display at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee.

Clockwise from left: white ibis, hooded mergansers, male anhinga (during breeding season flesh around the eyes turns bright emerald green), double -crested cormorants and the common gallinule

The river boat tour presented an opportunity to get up-close views (and identification) of wading birds, anhingas, grebes, ducks, and many others.  A number of species breed and raise their young in the waters of Wakulla River, and migratory species travel through from fall through spring. For boat tour pricing please see the Wakulla Springs website.

A cooter sunning itself among the cypress knees

It isn’t necessary to take the boat tour to see the spring, however. The deepest spot is adjacent to the swimming area, and a dive tower allows for viewing the spring and a two-story perch to plunge into the cool waters. The historic tower used to be four stories; I will admit jumping off the bottom level provided enough excitement for us, and swimming/jumping is at your own risk – no lifeguards are present. Also, swimming and snorkeling are limited to this designated swimming area (alligators!), and although scuba diving is allowed at some designated sinkhole areas, the Wakulla Springs are off limits.

Then and now. Historic photo source here

Another way to see the park is on the 9 miles of trail, either on foot, bicycle or horseback. The Nature Trail leads through southern hardwood and maple-cypress forests, with several state and national champion trees along the way. The entrance to the Cherokee Sink trailhead is on Hwy 61 two miles south of Hwy 267, and leads 1.4 miles to an 80 foot deep sinkhole lake. On the Riversinks Tract of the park visitors can hike the Bob Rose Trail, which follows the cave system and showcases karst features such as dry and wet sinks, swallets, and collapsed caves. On our visit we stopped at Sally Ward Spring, the reason why the area is called Wakulla SpringS, not spring; the second, 18ft deep spring is located near the park entrance and flows into the Wakulla River just downstream of its sister spring.


Placards throughout the park describe the biological, historical and other features that make Wakulla Springs so unique. It was shortly after Edward Ball purchased the property in 1931 that the Historic Wakulla Springs Lodge was built, and period furnishings include a grand piano, marble checker tables, a massive fireplace and the lodges only TV. The Spanish-Moorish style mansion (Mediterranean Revival architecture) is two stories with 27 rooms, lavished with pink and grey marble (including one of the world’s longest marble counters in the gift shop), and cypress beans and ornate hand painted ceilings grace the grand reception room. Upon Ball’s death in 1981 the property went to the State of Florida, and today the Lodge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated as a National Natural Landmark. Even if you’re not staying/dining in the lodge, plan to stop in, if only to see “Old Joe,” the 11’2” stuffed alligator that was a longtime resident of Wakulla Springs before it was illegally killed in 1966.


Visitors should definitely plan on spending the whole day at Wakulla. We utilized picnic tables for lunch, swam for several hours, toured the grounds, took the boat tour and still had multiple things we wanted to do before we left. In the immediate vicinity of the Park you’ll find other points of interest as well, including state capital Tallahassee, St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge and the St. Mark’s Lighthouse (on the Forgotten Coast Lighthouse driving tour), the world’s smallest police station in Carrabelle (plus stop here for coffee!), and the National Forest. That evening our route would take us to a favorite spot for Apalachicola Bay oysters back on St. George Island, and the next day we would be on our way west through Apalachicola and St. Joe, to Panama City Beach.



Monday, April 16, 2018

St. George Island on the Florida panhandle

St. George is a 22-mile barrier island on the Gulf Coast, just south of Apalachicola. Connected to the mainland by a 4 mile bridge, the island is less crowded than some of the other Florida panhandle barrier islands, but every bit as beautiful, with its stunning beaches and clear blue water. My last visit to the area was over 10 years ago during a family reunion; we vacationed on Cape San Blas (on the opposite side of the point from St. George Island) and explored St. Vincent and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges, as well as the St. Joseph peninsula. My memories of the beaches are of white sands and clear, sparkling water with the nearby marshes & unique scrub forests offering unique wildlife viewing, while the towns of Apalachicola and Port St. Joe featured mouthwatering seafood and laid-back Florida hospitality without the crowds of the western FL shoreline.

St. George Island Lighthouse

The bridge to St. George crosses Apalachicola Bay straight to the middle of the island, the Cape St. George Light cheerfully greeting visitors from the Gulf shore. This central portion is where the majority of restaurants and a couple of hotels are located. The scenery and atmosphere were as I expected; despite being spring break season, the crowds and traffic were nowhere near the level of the Pensacola and Panama City area beaches.

Easter eggs, beach-style

The southern ¼ of the island is a part of the St. George Plantation, a private recreational community that has multiple vacation homes for rent. We spent Easter with family and friends, emerging to the beach for shelling and swimming forays, and to hunt sand crabs with flashlight by the light of the full moon. We often saw dolphins headed along the shore, and great blue herons stalked the coast in search of a meal.

Boys + flashlights + nighttime = adventure

The north 1/3 of the island is St. George Island State Park, one of a dozen Florida state parks along the panhandle coastline. Nine miles of pristine beach with majestic dunes, bay forest, sandy coves and salt marshes await exploration. The main drive only takes you halfway into the park; the remainder is accessed by bicycle or on foot on a series of hiking trails, boardwalks and the beach. Pack a lunch and take advantage of one of the multiple picnic pavilions. Not only can you cook up burgers on one of the grills, but the pavilions offer a rest from boogie boarding & shelling, and shade from the midday sun.

Great blue heron

Canoeing and kayaking are favorite activities in the shallow Apalachicola Bay, but my preferred form of recreation to experience the bay on this trip was eating. Apalachicola Bay oysters represent 90% of Florida’s oyster harvest and are renowned for their size and taste. Apalachicola is the last place in the US where, by law, wild oysters are still harvested by tongs from small boats. The brackish waters in the bay that allow the local wildlife (including oysters) to thrive are a result of the rivers that empty into the bay: the Chattahoochee flows along the Alabama-Georgia state line, the Flint River and the Ochlockonee River runs through Georgia, and Apalachicola River in Florida (which is actually the Flint and Chattahoochee together). Together they drain a watershed of over 20,000 square miles, but over the last decade the growing water shortage in the Atlanta metro area led to additional water diverted from the Chattahoochee; the result was a three-state legal fight over water rights and the tragic decline of oysters in the Bay. Although the populations are slowly recovering, the delicate balance of fresh water and saltwater in the Bay is surely to be an issue in the future as the Southeast’s thirst for water grows. (For a more in-depth read about the Apalachicola Bay oysters, here’s an article on Eater)

Raw oysters and shrimp at Paddy's Raw Bar

If sunning, beach-combing, swimming, fishing and birding aren’t enough to keep you occupied on St. George, there are multiple nearby destinations to keep you busy for weeks.
  • I highly recommend a stop at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve on the mainland just across the bridge in Eastpoint (which I’ll be writing a separate post about in the near future): 90 acres on the Sound, complete with wonderful exhibits in the Nature Center, ½ mile of boardwalks, and Millender Park with picnic pavilions and beach access.
  • The Cape St. George Lighthouse is one of four lighthouses on Florida’s Forgotten Coast Lighthouse Driving Tour. 
  • St. Marks and St. Vincent Wildlife Refuges offer wildlife viewing opportunities and educational programming. 
  • The nearby towns of Apalachicola and Carrabelle have their own unique charm and offerings. Tate’s Hell State Forest and Apalachicola National Forest have hiking, camping, fishing, horse & ATV trails. 
  • A little further is Wakulla Springs State Park, famous from movies such as Tarzan and Creature of the Black Lagoon, but a Panhandle gem with its spring-fed lake, historic Lodge and ranger-led riverboat tours.


However you just might be content in settling in with a good book while the kids spend their time in the surf and sand. Whatever floats your boat, St. George seemingly has it all; I’m sure we’ll not allow another 10 years to pass before our next visit to the area.


Friday, April 13, 2018

The dunes of Jockey's Ridge

The wind coming off the Atlantic Ocean has played a primary role in the history of the Outer Banks. It provided the Wright Brothers with needed lift at the Kill Devil Hills site of first flight, yet it also blows in hurricanes and storms so powerful that some theorize might have been a factor in the disappearance of English Colony on nearby Roanoke Island. Whether this is fact or fiction, what we do know is that the barrier islands have been shaped – physically and historically – by these winds, and nowhere is this more evident than at Jockey’s Ridge State Park.


Jockey's Ridge is the tallest active sand dune system in the Eastern United States, the shifting winds constantly reshaping the dunes. Nags Head Woods and Jockey's Ridge were designated a National Natural Landmark in 1974 by the National Park Service. Today, the park is a favorite spot for flying kites, sandboarding (with permit), hang-gliding (through vendor) and watching sunsets, and the trails and visitor center provide insight into the history and ecology of this unique region.


You’ll want to start your visit at the visitor center & museum. After exploring the exhibits and picking up maps, take some water and sunscreen and head out onto the dunes on the 360ft boardwalk. From a viewing platform you can get a good perspective of the expansive sands of the park’s 420 acres before heading off into the dunes.


Jockey's Ridge encompasses three distinct ecological environments: dunes, maritime thicket, and the Roanoke Sound estuary. We explored the dunes first, and although for every two steps you take up the dune it’s one step back, don’t let that discourage you from climbing to the top of the biggest dune. There you’ll have a view of sand, surf, and sea - from the Sound all the way to the ocean. The park’s dunes consist of three peaks, and due to the constantly shifting sand, plants and animals do not live there. Around the base of the dunes you’ll find grasses and plants, providing habitat for small animals and insects. Don’t forget to bring shoes (the sand gets hot!), sunscreen, your sunglasses, water bottles, and a kite!



For a closer look at Roanoke Sound head out on the 1.5 mile Tracks in the Sand trail. The trail starts off with a short section through a forest of shrubs. The maritime thicket grows best in areas protected by the dune, which provides protection from wind and salt blown off the ocean. The live oaks, persimmons, red cedar, wax myrtle, bayberry, sweet gum, red oaks and pines are stunted by the effects of the wind and salt, causing them to look like shrubs. Fox, deer and raccoons live in the thickets, but you’re more likely to spot birds and a variety of insects.


The trail crosses a wide section of dune before reentering the forest, and eventually loops for a section along Roanoke Sound. At the shoreline, there is an area of restored marsh where nesting ospreys visit during the summer months, and the views of the dunes and sound are magnificent no matter the season. The trail is a Kids in Parks TRACK Trail, and brochures are available at the trailhead or inside the visitor center. A section of the North Carolina Mountains-to-sea trail is also located within the park.


The Sound-side of the park offers a completely different experience: sunbathing, wading, paddling and the 1-mile Soundside Nature Trail that tours the wetlands, grassy dunes and maritime thickets of the southern corner of the park. The Roanoke Sound Estuary is a rich habitat for a variety of plant, animal and bird life; the sound provides nesting areas for waterfowl, serves as a fish nursery, and is home to the blue crab. Windsurfers and kiteboarders are a common sight, and the sun setting over the sound often brings a crowd.

Events such as this lights on kites festival are a regular occurrance at the park

Legend says the park was named as a result of the early inhabitant’s practice of capturing wild ponies and racing them on the flat surface at the base of the dune, while the steep sides of the ridge served as a grandstand of sorts for spectators. Horses are no longer free to run on this portion of the Outer Banks - you’ll have to head north of Corolla to see the remaining population of wild Spanish mustangs. However, there’s still plenty of motion to be seen from a perch on the ridge: the dunes endlessly shifting, boats on the water, kites in the air… Jockey’s Ridge truly is alive, and a must-see for visitors on the Outer Banks.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The peak of spring ephemerals and a waterfall


Invited to view wildflowers on a Conserving Carolina property on the North Pacolet River, I didn’t hesitate – I convinced a few friends to join us, and we headed north a few days later, knowing that there was only a narrow window to catch the peak bloom of the spring ephemerals. I knew we were in for a treat when we started seeing trillium from the car window as we slowly wound along the North Pacolet, and the notion was confirmed upon parking at the small trailhead – enormous trillium among Solomon’s Seal literally just outside the car door.

Jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum

Sweet white trillium, Trillium simile

Formerly the Pacolet Area Conservancy, Conserving Carolina owns and protects several parcels of land between US176 and decommissioned railroad tracks along the North Pacolet River. A trail was installed to discourage visitors from utilizing those tracks to access a waterfall on a side creek, and that trail has also opened a one-of-a-kind property to those seeking the ultimate spring wildflower experience.

Sessile bellwort, Uvularia sessilifolia

Wild ginger, Asarum canadense

The trail was promoted to me as “the best place for spring ephemerals in the region,” and it didn’t disappoint – this was the most incredible wildflower experience I have ever had. Our progress was incredibly slow as we stopped to look at every new flower we found, and although this tempo considerably added to the total hike time, it also distracted us from the terrain. Though not a difficult hike, there is enough change in elevation to rate this trail moderate. However, the trail ends at a rocky overlook to a 60ft waterfall, and the trail at this end is steep and dangerous. Just last week a local man fell 70 feet at this point, sustaining severe injuries; please know that a slip or moment’s inattention can end in disaster, and use common sense and more than a grain of caution. 


The trail also crosses two small tributaries, both homes to multiple species of salamanders. The streams can be crossed by rock hopping, or getting your feet a little wet – possibly both, if you’re a three year old.


Branch lettuce, Micranthes micranthidifolia

There are also two unofficial trails head down to Big Fall Creek, however both are heavily eroded in steeper sections. The second of the two provides a safer method of access to the bottom of the waterfall (than climbing down from the top), although the falls themselves aren’t completely visible. And finally, closest to the trailhead there is a spur trail that leads past rock outcrops to the railroad tracks.

Dutchman's Breeches, Dicentra cucullaria

Yellow mandarin, Disporum maculatum

In addition to the hazardous cliffs area of this hike, there is also a high concentration of poison ivy; even this early in the year we found vines and budding leaves that could transmit their poisonous oils.

White baneberry, Actaea pachypoda


So, sum total: moderate terrain, creek crossings, dangerous drops, poison ivy, plus the usual hazards (ticks, chiggers, snakes etc.) = the most incredible spring ephemerals in our area… Choose your own adventure!

*****

In addition to the wildflowers pictured above, we also saw: violets, Solomon's Seal, toadshade (Trillium cuneatum), trout lily (Erythronium americanum), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), wild bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia) and another dozen that I'm not confident enough to identify...

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