The Unforgettable Coast

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

We have been planning an extended visit with my brother in Florida’s panhandle for years. There were interruptions. Finally, we decided to just do it or else we knew there would be more delays. He lives in the town of Apalachicola, a small community located at the mouth of the Apalachicola River which empties into Apalachicola Bay. The huge estuary is protected by a couple of barrier islands between the shallow nutrient rich bay and marshes and the vast Gulf of Mexico. The seat of Franklin County, Apalachicola is about an hour and a half southwest of the state capital, Tallahassee. Population is less than 3,000. Over 80% of the county is environmentally protected state or federal land. The chamber of commerce has coined the term “The Forgotten Coast” in an effort to attract tourism. Please don’t tell anyone about this place.

It takes about five hours of easy driving to reach Apalachicola from our house. We made it in about nine. There was stuff to see along the way. Trees, creeks, birds … you know – stuff. The drive was by way of a four-lane divided highway in great condition and we often drove for miles without seeing another car ahead of us or in the rear view mirror. Thank you, interstate super-highway system. It took most of the traffic away from some of these formerly major travel arteries. As we approached the “big bend”, where Florida’s coast line begins to curve westward, we saw huge thunderheads building over the Gulf of Mexico. About 30 minutes from our destination, drops of water the size of pancakes crashed onto the windshield.

I wanted to find “something different” from a standard hotel room during our visit. My search uncovered a nicely furnished place with two bedrooms, open living area with a fully stocked kitchen, screen porch and a balcony, all with a view of the Apalachicola River and extensive marshes. And only a few blocks from my brother’s place.

“A HOUSEBOAT???”

I could tell, Gini was excited at the prospect….

….until we pulled up to where our accommodation was moored. It was getting dark, the torrential downpour showed no sign of easing, the water level had risen with the high tide and gusting wind, the gangplank of the floating dock was fixed in mid-air at a 45 degree angle. We have both been in hurricanes before. This was eerily reminiscent.

My brother pulled up and was prepared to help me hustle our provisions on board but suggested since the town’s eateries would all be closing soon it might be a good idea to find some fresh seafood and wait for a break in the storm. “Fresh seafood.” What storm?

After a very enjoyable platter of sweet shrimp, the clouds parted long enough for us to scurry on board and secure our belongings. I promised my brother a pot of fresh coffee at sunrise and Gini and I surveyed our shelter. The rain began again and the wind literally howled around the rope lines holding us fast to the dock. Thank goodness the hallway was narrow or else we would have been thrown to the deck several times. I was going to recount the experience of someone being actually thrown off the toilet seat, but who would believe such a tale? As we pulled the covers up tight, we could hear the waves breaking over the dock, the rain pelting the side of the boat, the palm trees bending to the wind and their fronds sounding like one long, loud “sssshhhhh”. It brought us a whole new meaning of “rock and roll”. We held on to each other in order to keep from being thrown out of bed. Things were looking up.

The coffee was brewing as a steely-gray bay tried to calm itself after a restless night and the sun found a hole in the remnants of storm clouds through which it illuminated our surroundings. Shrimp boats returned from a rough night in the bay, visiting yachtsmen checked their moorings along the dock, dark clouds scuttled northward across the extensive marsh, seagulls screamed, pelicans grunted. A new day was ready for us to enjoy.

And enjoy it we did. Along with several others. The rest of our stay was filled with blue skies, calm waters, birds galore, fresh seafood and just plain visiting. To add to our joy, my sister and her husband arrived and for the first time in at least 25 years I sat in the same room with my brother and sister and our families and talked and listened and laughed and – lived.

This trip was all about me but I took a couple of tourist snapshots for those who might be curious what another part of Florida looks like.

 

Dawn following a stormy night. This is the view from our back porch looking eastward where the Apalachicola River flows into Apalachicola Bay.

Apalachicola

Sunrise – Apalachicola River

 

A shrimp boat returns to port after spending most of the night in the bay. We were moored at the entrance to Scipio Creek and many shrimpers dock up the creek at a city marina which is in protected waters.

Apalachicola

Shrimper

 

From our back porch we had a great view of the expansive salt marsh north of Apalachicola Bay. Many of the shrimp we enjoyed during our stay were born in this area. This was, thankfully, the last we saw of any storm clouds.

Apalachicola

Storm Over The Marsh

 

One of the large barrier islands, St. George, is home to a large state park and offers fabulous birding, especially during fall and spring migration. We were a bit late for the height of fall migration but we managed to find a few birds hanging about.

Saint George Island

House Wren

Saint George Island

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Saint George Island

Brown-headed Nuthatch

Saint George Island

Eastern Phoebe

Saint George Island

Downy Woodpecker

 

From the upper deck of our floating hotel, moonrise over the bay was heavenly, even if it was obscured by clouds.

Apalachicola

Moonrise-Apalachicola River

 

After more coffee and a leisurely breakfast, we were treated to a spectacular sunrise over the western part of the bay with another barrier island, St. Vincent, in the distance.

Apalachicola

Ten Mile

 

Hard at work as the sky begins to lighten, oystermen ply the shallow bay for some of the world’s best oysters. This is a tough job and has usually been passed from father to son. With an onslaught of natural and man-made disasters over the past several years, this may be a disappearing vocation.

Apalachicola

Ten Mile – Oystering

 

There are many unique features along the stretch of coastline between Apalachicola and Indian Pass to the west. This whole area bears many geological features more typically found further north.

Apalachicola

Ten Mile

 

At the western boundary of Apalachicola Bay is St. Vincent Sound and one can transit Indian Pass into the Gulf of Mexico. A beautiful side trip into the quiet waters of Indian Lagoon is very rewarding.

Apalachicola

Indian Lagoon

Apalachicola

Indian Lagoon – American White Pelicans

 

 

A popular spot for beach-goers in Cape San Blas jutting into the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, there are extensive salt flats and marshes begging to be explored and fished.

Apalachicola

Road To Cape San Blas

 

Returning to Apalachicola, Lafayette Park near the public marina and historic residential district has a terrific pier from which to fish, crab, watch the bay or enjoy a little sunshine under whispering palm trees.

Apalachicola

Lafayette Park

 

Fiddler crabs hunt from a tidal pool.

20151030 Apalachicola 00234.jpg

 

In a dramatic change from our first evening, a more typical Apalachicola sunset highlights the grasses of the salt marsh. A trio of Black-crowned Night Herons flew by our screen porch at eye level grunting to each other along the way. This was to be a nightly occurrence as up to a dozen herons followed the creek as it opened into the bay and promised a successful night of hunting.

Apalachicola

Scipio Creek

 

As we lay in bed the second night and the boat moved gently with the incoming tide, I was happily surprised to hear my bride gently sigh:  “I could get used to this.”

Stay tuned! Coming next, Chapter Two of our Exciting Excursion: “Into The Forest”!

 

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

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16 thoughts on “The Unforgettable Coast

  1. What a great story! I never would have thought to stay in a boat. Apalachicola was one of my dad’s favorite places to visit on our way down to Clearwater from Birmingham when we use to visit our grandparents when I was a little. I barely remember it. Your amazing pictures makes me want to get back there.

    • Hi, Dina! It may not have changed all that much since you last saw it! With the exception of a few sweet shoppes, bed and breakfast places and some gentrification, it’s still a very laid back community. Some really beautiful places all around, too.

  2. Beautiful shots! Sigh… It’s snowy here.

  3. Oh this sounds so wonderful — maybe not the first night on the boat, but all in all a beautiful trip (and family reunion for you). Great birds. Apalachiola is on our short list of places to visit this spring when we start our roadtrip at the end of our season here. I think your post just moved it up to the top!

    • Spring would be a superb time to visit the area! The combination of coastal areas, marshes, forests and small towns is hard to beat in my book.

  4. I admire your courage on that first night, Wally. I’m sure I wouldn’t have slept a wink for fear of the boat slipping its moorings and waking up to being adrift miles from anywhere in the Gulf of Mexico!

    Your so-called ‘tourist snapshots’ are fabulous. That first image is amazing and should be framed and on a wall. Other favourites include the Shrimper, the Ten Mile sunrise, Ten Mile with the tree stumps – pretty much everything, really! This is another post where your portrayal of the locality and the atmosphere of the place outstrips your excellent bird images.

    And, of course, your entertaining narrative is the icing on the cake. A wonderful post!!!!!

    My very best wishes to you both – – – Richard

    • Thank you very much, Richard! It’s easy to take inspiring photographs in a spot which is so inspiring! We weren’t worried about being adrift, it might even have been a subconscious objective of the whole trip……

      We are looking forward to the next visit!

  5. Hola Señor Wally. Greetings from Spain. At 23 degree s the weather is quite Floridian here. Take care you don’t slip and fall in all that snow and ice my friend. Time to find your winter woolleys?

    • I wouldn’t know where to look for a winter woolley. Is it like a Mastodon? Have a safe trip home. Hope you’re rested as I’m sure there are birds waiting to be ringed.

  6. Hi Wally Well you never fail to surprise me and make me laugh with your posts and this one is no acception. WOW1 What a way to start your holiday.in a storm but falling off a toilet seat!!! At least you got a realy good cuddle (although i suspect that happens often with your Gini!) That shrimp boat with all those birds coming to harbour is amazing but what a gorgeous sunrise the next moring and also what a stunnning sunset later on. The salt marshs look so peaceful and quiet and the bird shots you have shown us are fabulous. It was a very special time for you to be with both your sister and brother. I love the shot of the broken off trees with the gorgeous light – brilliant shot. Well, i am off next week to Costa Rica but await with great anticipation for the next instalement when you take us ‘Into The Forest’ with you. All the best to you and Gini.

    • Good Morning, Margaret! It was the best vacation ever! We are excited about going back. Enjoy your adventure in Costa Rica and watch out for those hummingbirds! They will steal your fruit drinks and your heart!

  7. Hello Wally,
    What a magnificent and dramatic series of pictures you offer here!
    The Shrimper coming in with all the gulls literally exploding around the boat is spectacular!
    The moonrise and the landscapes are also wonderful shots.
    I like the new look of your blog 🙂
    Again I enjoyed spending some time in your world !
    Keep well and enjoy your weekend

  8. That is a truly beautiful place and the birds you showed are especially beautiful.
    The coast with the shallow waters look very similar to around here and the salt marsh etc looks very similar too. The trees back from the water are different looking – just replace them with some eucalyptus and I would definitely call it home! A lovely place for a holiday – thanks for sharing your great photos.

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