10 PM on a Saturday night and we're finally watching bad TV in our room at the Sportsman's Lodge in Eastpoint, Florida. Liz and I drove from Asheville, NC, the night before and met John in Savannah, GA, on a circuitous route to the Florida Panhandle. There we breakfasted with Julienne, a SCAD student and John's daughter, unexpectedly running into friends Cathy and Joey, also from Asheville. Taking an unintended detour towards Perry, FL, added more time than we'd like to think to an already long drive but John's new van, lawn chair "Suicide Seat" and all, kept us reasonably comfortable. We checked in to the call of sex-crazed peacocks who had the run of the grounds, met our hostess, Edda Allen, and left for dinner at Sharon's Place. We collected fishing tips, which turned out better than the food, then shopped at Apalachicola's Piggly Wiggly for last minute camp supplies. Back at the motel, next morning's shuttle contact made, we watched a Bond flick on the tube and fell asleep watching "Sleepless In Seattle".
Next morning's breakfast at the La Fiesta was a step worse than our meal at Sharon's the night before. Maybe we should have tried the burritos because the grits were about the consistency of motel carpet. Liz spied a pair of bald eagles on a nearby sandbar in the Apalachicola River, which borders the grounds of the complex of buildings that is the Sportsman's Lodge. Purple martins and their rickety apartments lined the river edge of the Lodge.
Slowing for a gaggle (?) of peacocks, we drove across the bridge to St. George Island, eyeing the strong north winds that had blown up the previous night, turning the usually protected bay into a minefield of whitecaps. At Survivor's Bait and Tackle we learned that the winds were forecasted to be 15-25 knots with gusts to 28k. As we perused the well-stocked store and chatted with the friendly and helpful clerk, he let us know that the lee side of the island, the Gulf of Mexico, was accessible by a beach access point just before the gate to the Plantations, a community of mostly vacations homes for those who had not kept their money in stocks through the millennium. Relieved to learn we had an alternative, we drove two miles west on the island and found our put-in as described. Not as still as lake water, but much improved over the situation in the sound.
By this time, we had made a moving target of our meeting time for our shuttle, the ever patient and instantly likeable Reverend Billy Dickson of Port St. Joe. I drove to our take out, Indian Pass, 45 minutes (allow more time if you are afraid of flying) and a number of miles west of Apalachicola. Billy was there waiting in his taxi and we started into conversation like we'd grown up together.
Reunited with Liz and John at 1 PM, we finally pushed off into ridiculously soft breakers and rode westward traveling swells under blue skies and 75° temperatures. Dolphins played around us as we made our way quickly down the coast, past an empty beach and large summer homes. Government Cut is the name of the divide that separates St. George Island and Little, or Cape, St. George Island. It is less than a hundred yards wide and we anticipated some strong currents but our passage was not at all difficult. Expecting the stiff winds to die down in the evening hours, we set our camp up on the sound-facing side of the island point. John and I set off in opposite directions to use our temporary fishing licenses and I came back with a nice sized sheepshead without wetting a line (it was given to me by a local who'd already caught his limit). Cooking in the still gusty breeze was difficult so, desperate but lazy, we took refuge behind a nearby two-foot high dune. The sheepshead was delicious, cooked in onions, peppers and olive oil but further campfire activities were awkward so we retired around 9 after contemplating the constellations.
We woke to somewhat less windy conditions and watched a nearby eagle while breakfast was made. Moving in vacation mode, we didn't push off until after ten, passing scaups, grebes and terns as the sun broke through and lit our westward passage through the still choppy waters of the sound. Just shy of two hours later, paddling through increasingly rougher waters, we pulled in to shore next to the smaller of two docks about halfway down the island.
By this time, the day had warmed and we had a relaxing lunch under an oak tree. Nearby were two small government buildings and three young employees, who gave us directions to the lighthouse and mentioned that they were there collecting information on snowy plovers, whose numbers seemed to be diminishing. We set off through a landscape of sparse pines and seaside rosemary, seeing palm warblers along the sand road and enjoying the scarcity of biting insects. The road turned out to be the wrong one but led us to the gulf and we walked the shell-laden beach until we reached the Little St. George lighthouse.
I'd first heard of this lighthouse years ago in a trip report published in a paddling newsgroup. At that time, it was damaged by wave action and leaning towards the water. Since then, the base has been shored up with concrete and we could detect no tilt. Not out of danger though, the waves lap at its base and the Save The Lighthouse group has its work cut out for them. The lighthouse was built in the late 1800s and nearby was the chimney of the lighthouse keeper's house, all that was left from a wooden building erected 100 years ago. [Editor's note: The record-setting 2005 hurricane season proved to be the final blow. After 153 years, the St. George Lighthouse lost its battle with the Gulf of Mexico.]
The return trip began through a graveyard of unused bags of concrete, heavy equipment, pallets and pipes waiting their chance to become part of some project. Halfway, we met Tennessee friends Pam and Robert with amiable guide Alex Crawford also doing the lighthouse walk. We had met Pam and Robert in the Charleston Harbor, paddling around Fort Sumter with the Seayackers and were glad to make their acquaintance once again. We parted company and walked the last mile to the boats, having spent almost four hours on our round trip.
It was a sunny and pleasant paddle to the west end of the island, once known as Sand Island, since it must have been separate from the main body of Little St. George. In the late afternoon warmth of the setting sun we set up camp on a beautiful wide beach with our next day's destination, St. Vincent Island, clearly visible across half-mile wide West Pass. We scavenged firewood and drift lumber to make a table and, after a meal of tortellini, sipped peach schnapps around a fine campfire. There was only a slight breeze and any bugs quickly chilled out of the picture as the temperature dropped. For entertainment, we shone a flashlight into the water at the shoreline and watched sand fleas bury themselves as waves receded and millions of inch long minnows, dozens of which would wash up with each splash of surf, probably providing food for evening critters or morning birds.
The calm of the morning cast a spell on our get up and go plans. In the pine forest behind the dunes, we spied a pair of great horned owls and their nest on the ground. It's not typical for them to nest on the ground, but several books do list this as common behavior. Given the fresh raccoon tracks that crisscrossed the beach around our tents, the odds of those eggs hatching don't seem high. Sparrows flitted in the sparse and swampy scrub underneath, though some vining relative of the blackberry was blooming in white. Many burnt pine stumps were visible, possibly from fires during the previous drought years.
Quickly packing the boats, we made the short trip to St. Vincent's, passing through a pod of nine dolphins and a loon on the way. When Liz and I last visited the island we were all but carried off by the mosquitoes the moment we stepped out of our boats so mentally we prepared ourselves for bugs that never really materialized.
Just a short distance from our landing point, obviously sited by the Apalachicola Anti-Tourist League, was the Visitor's Center for the island. We then visited with the assistant manager of the refuge, who, given her helpful and friendly nature, was not likely a member of the League. Using her directions, we walked up "B" road, as it is imaginatively called, with Oyster Pond on our left. While John and I waited on the hard sand roadside for Liz to finish inspecting something in the palmettos, two sambar deer crossed 100 feet ahead of us, the well-antlered, 400lb. male pausing long enough for us to realize we had our mouths open but just shy of enough time to extract our cameras from our packs. From then, our cameras and binoculars were always readily available.
Lunch was at one end of long and narrow Oyster Pond. We sat on the bank by the roadbed and looked out over the freshwater marshes, looking much more healthy than during the drought of '99, when we were here last. Two raccoons squished through the mud, looking for their idea of lunch and we watched warblers and kingfishers until we reluctantly moved on. A side trail led to the beach but after a few minutes walk in a debatable direction and reconsidering our time, we reversed our steps and hiked down the opposite side of the pond. We passed an armadillo or two and realized that the red-bellied woodpeckers were thicker than the mosquitoes, which had scarcely bothered us since we'd started walking. Sambar deer tracks, prehistorically huge, were everywhere. Clouds were moving over us as the Visitor's Center came into view. We dawdled nearby, seeing another great horned owl, an anhinga and an alligator, who thrashed the water at our approach.
Back in our boats and crossing in light chop and small swells, we readied our tents for what looked to be approaching yet distant rain. Our temporary fishing licenses had gone to waste thus far, and, now, in the twilight of their lives, John and I were determined to make use of them, storm or no storm. Isn't it said that the fish bite hardest just before the rain? Thirty minutes later, watching the nearby and nearly black clouds, I decided I preferred a dignified stroll to the safety of the tent and almost made it. John, however, was some distance away and not as willing to let the state of Florida have his money so easily. When the sheets of rain and lightning swept across the point of the island, John had just reached his tent as the wind tore it loose from the sand. It would have been a comical scene except that I ended up joining him to rescue his gear and the kayaks, which were beginning to be spun on the beach by the storm. We were in our sleeping bags by 7PM.
An hour or so later, the worst was over and around three that morning, I joined John, already at the campfire and unable to stay in his tent any longer. Liz also came out and we cooked an early breakfast under the clear night sky. By 9:35, after a last walk in the pines, we had our wet and sandy gear packed in our boats for our last day of paddling.
It was a thirteen mile paddle to the Indian Pass boat ramp; the first leg, in smooth water, was to St. Vincent Point, where we had a 10 yard carry across an oyster bar. The wind hit us hard as we rounded the point and entered St. Vincent Sound. Playtime was over. It wasn't easy to bird watch but we saw hooded mergansers, oyster catchers, a lesser blue heron, two bald eagles and a flock of white pelicans on our way to Big Bayou, the halfway point on the island. On a little sand beach at the mouth of the bayou, we ate and rested for a whole peaceful hour. We paddled along the Pickalene Shore of St. Vincent, seeing two more eagles, a few dozen scaups and lots of jumping mullet. The winds remained strong; chop steady at 1ft. With just a couple of miles to go, we beached and got out for one last walk. We said goodbye to an armadillo and a catbird, then paddled out into wind-roughed waters, arriving at Indian Pass at 5:10. A long hour later we were back in our room at the Lodge, washing bodies and clothes as the sunlight faded. Liz crashed; John and I went out to find the town shut down at 9 o'clock except for La Fiesta. The Mexican soap opera on the restaurant television was about as good as the food but we ate everything, pretending our stomachs would not complain later in the night.
In the morning, we drove east on Rt. 98 and at Harry's Restaurant, we got a good breakfast and directions to the State Forestry office also in Carabelle. Our contact there turned out to be Ace Haddock, a restoration specialist for the state's forestry division. We were hoping to find information on red cockaded woodpeckers in the Apalachicola Forest and Ace turned out to be the right guy for the job. He provided us detailed maps on nesting locations and answered our numerous questions until past time to leave for an important meeting concerning daily donut selection. (Just kidding, Ace.)
After using the designer bathrooms and filling our pockets with brochures, we were back on the road looking for Rt. 67, the entrance to Tate's Hell. This is a section adjoining Apalachicola Forest with a local legend that grew until it deserved its own song. On the way, John braked sharply for a beaver crossing Rt. 98 and the "suicide seat" dumped me into the foot-deep mess that had accumulated on the van floor.
Using our locator map, we stopped at three of the marked nesting areas. After several hours of walking in beautiful longleaf pine forests and watching everything but red cockaded woodpeckers, our travel schedule insisted that we move on. We re-explored Sapelo Island, Georgia, and this part of our journey will soon be added to our original Sapelo trip report.
Contact information (current when this trip report was written, YMMV!)
Florida Wildlife Magazine has written about Tate's Hell Forest (July-Aug 1998 issue) and St. Vincent Island (July-Aug 1999).