Friday, July 22, 2011

St. George Island, Fla.

St. George Island has become a special place for my family. Starting in 2005 we have now spent week-long vacations on three different years, with ’06 and ’11 topping it off. It isn’t often that my immediate family, along with that of my brother and my parents get to spend a week together.

In ’05 we arrived a week after Hurricane Dennis hit the island. We drove over the bridge the first day it was open to non-owners, and we were greeted with lots of standing water, which remained in some portion the entire week. The water treatment plant was over run with the surge, and we could not get in the gulf until Thursday. Loads of sea worms (my best attempt at an official name) littered the beach, and generated quite a smell by mid week.

We got out in my dad’s pontoon boat during the week and after some fishing we headed over to Little St. George Island. Separated from the privately owned portion of the island in the 1950’s by a channel, or cut, to allow boats to enter the bay from the gulf, the only way to get to the island is by boat. As we beached on Little St. George at the cut, the beach was flat with hard ripples, and it almost felt like concrete. We walked to the wall of sand where the huge dunes started, and a whole sand dollar was embedded half way in the wall. It had been thrown into the wall so hard during the storm that as we tried to pry it out the sand dollar shattered.

One of my priorities on that trip was to see the lighthouse on Little St. George. It had been standing near the southernmost portion of the barrier island since 1852, and had originally been 500 yards from the water. Many years and numerous storms later, the natural movement of the barrier island had left the lighthouse in the water, with a precarious lean following Hurricane Opal in 1995. Through the efforts of grass roots efforts the lighthouse foundation was reinforced, but it fell in October 2005. Three months after I got one mile from seeing it.

We beached at the battered docks at the walking trail that led from the bay side across to the lighthouse in July 2005. The hurricane had blown the mosquitoes off the island ten days earlier, but the eggs had hatched. As I began my trek across the path and stepped into the black, murky wet trail, I was covered up. I ran my hands down my arm and shirt sleeve and left a black and red smear. I made it back to the boat after going forward about forty yards, and that’s the closest I ever got to the original location.

Fast forward to 2011. The lighthouse has been rebuilt on the main island using as much of the original structure as could be salvaged. It stands tall as you approach the island off the bridge. One more reason to visit beautiful St. George Island.

The St George Island State Park costs $6 per carload to enter, and the visitor is rewarded with miles of beach access, and the beauty of sand dunes that tower as high as twenty feet. This is how a barrier island looks when it isn’t built out.

The campground is large, and it was full during our July 2011 visit. A boat launch is available, and the eastern tip of the park is for foot and bike traffic only, along with a nature trail for hikers and photographers.

My brother and I rented two kayaks in the park, for $35 per day. Quite a bargain compared to other prices I saw online. We left the boat launch in the nine o’clock hour and we were greeted with a cool breeze and nice movement of the water. We split the day into two sessions, before and after lunch. I found out the hard way to wear shoes in Apalachicola Bay, in consideration of the oyster beds. Picture walking on glass; you get the idea. I stayed on the kayak after my first attempt to explore, unless we landed on a sandy beach. We saw eagle’s nests, lots of sea birds, blue crabs, conchs, and plenty of fish jumping out of the water. Rowing eastward, we ended up in a cove with high grass on either side, then it ended, and we headed back. After lunch we chose a different direction and we came across a large sand bar with a boat already anchored nearby. It was covered with shells, consisting mostly of oyster shells. All together we rowed around eight miles on a very satisfying day out.

Our return trip by boat to Little St. George was uneventful this time. My dad dropped me and my two teenage girls off at the cut and we proceeded to walk west around 2.5 miles each way. We had originally thought about taking the walk across the island that was interrupted in ’05, but we decided to not spend everyone’s time doing that. The others stayed close by to fish, while we walked the unspoiled beach and filled the burlap bag I brought with loads of shells and driftwood. We found seven whole sand dollars washed up in the surf, and all were already dead. We kept them. A tree not far from the cut was covered with shells along its trunk, a graffiti tree of sorts. We saw many areas marked as sea turtle nests.

I found the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve on Friday, and I wish I had stumbled across it earlier. Turn north at 6th Avenue East and you’ll run into it. You’ll have access to the bay and also a couple of small lakes that are probably good photo ops during different times of day. I plan to go back next chance I get.

The time spent with family was precious. My dad could not go a year ago due to severe back problems, and it was refreshing to see him enjoy this trip. Family means so much to him, and it was wonderful having everyone there.

A few other spots worth seeing as well: Apalachicola is full of rich history, and has some beautiful homes. An old cemetery is on Hwy 98, and many of the graves date back to the early to mid 1800’s. The waterfront park is a great place to photograph the sunrise. Unlike the beach on St. George, you can see the ball of the sun come up here. And, there are many shops and restaurants to enjoy.

St. Joe State Park is an hour away, but t features a 45 minute nature trail walk and beautiful beaches and camp sites It’s worth a visit. Entry fee is $6 per car.

On my wish list is St. Vincent National Wildlife Preserve. A ferry costs $10 or $20 if you take your bike. It’s over 12K acres, and hosts endangered red wolves, bald eagles, sea turtles, deer, alligators, and many different birds.

Lots to do at St. George Island. I could have easily have spent another week without slowing down. One word of warning, however. If you are looking for entertainment or convenience, it isn’t the place for you. No fast food, no miniature golf, just lots of opportunities to enjoy nature, and enjoy beautiful beaches.

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