Sunday, December 27, 2020

Florida Wilderness St Mark's NWR

I was standing on the river bank watching the sunset. A family was fishing from the boat ramp pier downstream, but I couldn't see them, only their reflected shadows.

 It was a worthwhile moment to be standing there even as temperatures plummeted. Rusty enjoyed 41 degrees, his fur came into its own.


It looked to me more like a bayou in Louisiana than Florida backwoods. North Florida as everyone likes to say is more south Alabama than part of the tropical toe of the peninsula. This however was a different place altogether. I liked it very much. St Mark's National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1931, 68,000 coastal acres set aside by the Department of the Interior to benefit migrating birds. There had been a  lighthouse on the coast for a hundred years but now the focus was moving from commerce to coastal protection. 


I didn't see many birds until I stood on the bank of the Aucilla River  and watched flights of geese streaming overhead.  The original human inhabitants of these estuaries fished and hunted and did well for themselves until the Spanish came along and took over. After the Louisiana Purchase when Spain sold the western regions to France and two years later after minimal involvement later France did the biggest real estate flip ever and sold the unseen lands on to the US for $15 million. Spain figured Florida was now a useless appendage and in 1819 sold the territory for five million dollars to the US and set an agreed eastern boundary to their territories in Texas. Which ultimately got taken by Mexico in their revolution and so it goes. 

The point being that the US now had a convenient shipping port on the Gulf Coast close to the crops in Alabama and points inland. Cotton was king but only as long as it was exported so they built Port Leon on the St Mark's river starting in 1838 . It was a town of 500 people until a traveler from Key West brought yellow fever off a ship in 1841. 140 people died and 70 more left the coast and the remaining two hundred soldiered on until a  hurricane in 1843 put paid to every last trace of Port Leon. Wakulla County needed a new county seat which is now firmly inland in the uninspired town of Crawfordville. As we nudge our way out of our pandemic and plan hurricane tactics every single year it's worth remembering how hard they had it two hundred years ago.
My wife and I failed completely to make the tourist rounds after we found peace and quiet on the banks of the Aucilla River which is on the eastern boundary of the refuge. We had feeble Verizon internet which came and went so my research on this area had to wait until we were back in range and besides that we parked at the river to find stillness, to stop traveling and to take time to do nothing of great moment. My wife painted and I walked the camera with Rusty and that was all we wanted to do
Of course now I have read about the St Mark's river and lighthouse I'd like to make another visit to this least visited part of Florida, the bit one usually rushes past on I-75 or Highway 98, and of which rushing I have been guilty too of course. I think an off season, Spring or Fall vacation exploring the estuaries could be great fun. Covid has apparently closed the visitor center but the dirt roads and views are still open to visitors, most of whom congregate at the light house area.
For us the boat ramp was ideal and with 60 degree days and 41 degree nights boating was for the hardy, not pansies like me. Normally you will see campers and motorhomes loaded with external gear, bicycles, motorcycles, canoes kayaks and all the variants you can imagine. We have decided to go our own way as usual on this subject. We neither of us want impedimenta hanging off the van and furthermore if we did go kayaking or cycling we'd have to leave Rusty behind which you can probably imagine is a non starter for us. I'd rather walk with Rusty than bicycle. Yes he could run alongside but as I indicated relaxation is the key and while walking I can manage camera and dog. Add a bicycle and the equation starts to look too hectic for me. Besides I like walking. 
I am not a fan of bicycles and in our litigious Facebook fueled world I need to specify I don't hate cyclists. I just don't find bicycle riding to be as relaxing as walking. Bicycles are extremely useful and should be encouraged and were I in a city I would undoubtedly ride one to get things done instead of driving. However a bicycle is a vehicle and as such requires concentration as it puts the rider in the flow of traffic. Walking is inefficient and slow and contemplative. If I can't walk there or take my 21 foot camper there I shall either have to use a cab or bypass it, whatever it may be.
For the first time we will be traveling with income thus our journey will not be circumscribed by a diminishing supply of capital. As we have contemplated our pension situation we have come to realize we will be able to rent facilities as we go, a with no time penalty on the length of the trip. Previously we used to celebrate "No Dollar Days" as a way to extend our trip. This time we will be able to tailor our budget to include renting facilities we don't carry with us.
I see a rising trend requiring four wheel rive vans as the "ultimate" travel vehicles. Naturally I don't agree and not because I am simply perverse but because I don't want to take our home rock climbing. My idea is if we come across say an archeological site worth visiting but only accessible by four wheel drive we stop and plan a day trip by hiring a local guide with suitable transport, When I suggested this approach to my wife, the family tight wad/accountant, she thought I was a genius. If she thinks its a good idea I must be on to something.
So instead of listening to seventy pounds of kayak bouncing over the road we will rent them as needed. This plan, thanks to the monthly income, is subject to change but one firm rule in our lives is to buy only after the need has revealed itself. Its not an easy rule to follow and like diets it fails us from time to time but overall we have managed to cut back stuff quite well by pining for stuff rather than anticipating the need for it. We have a rigid throw it away policy too if we don't need it. Collecting stuff for the sake of it is not my way or my wife's luckily as 70 square feet of living space does not allow for much collecting.
Twenty years ago I could see the first glimmers of a useful transformation in society that I knew was coming even though I had no idea how far reaching electronic wizardry would transform our lives. On the one hand miniaturization ahs gone beyond my wildest hopes.  On the other electronic communications are changing the way the younger generations live which may or may not be bad for them but for us older folk there is reason to worry, especially if you are a parent or grandparent. For us older people the Web has given us a whole new virtual world to live in. Lucky us with our life experiences already in place.
For a loose cannon like myself the ability to take pictures, develop them and store them for almost no money and with no space constraints is utterly brilliant. I appreciate the joy of printing especially as self important Real Photographers view the masses as beneath contempt if they don't print, but for a hermit like me with no wall space printing pictures is an absurd proposition. Google stores them for me, unlimited storage for one hundred dollars a year, and my two bridge cameras between them cost a thousand bucks with no ability to use extra lenses or much of any accessory. And with my van loaded with electricity I am set. It is mind boggling how small and comfortable my life can be nowadays.
The problem as an adult is that the promise of electronic living is dependent on human ability to keep it working. Our electronic overlords have created the expectation that electrons are at our beck and call and when they aren't we are helpless. I have a paper atlas in the van, I carry a paperback, usually a book not available on Kindle, and our van systems are as simple as they can be with back ups built in. We have made conscious choices and I feel lucky that we can sit down with experience to know what we want and what we can discard. My wife often says she would never have agreed to not have hot running water had she not lived on a boat with the amenity and never found it satisfactory in use. She is happy to use a solar shower as a result of the boating life we lived.  We travel with knowledge and in hope.
These are not the woods Rusty and I typically walk. Tall trees! Firm ground! Slanting light! No sweating! A different world outside the van.



We parked on the edge of the boat ramp field, at the edge of the river. swatting no see 'ums at dusk, listening to the silence after the last pick up truck drove away. 
In the morning Rusty and I would get up around five and leaving my wife sleeping we would be alone in the field in the wood. We had a street lamp positioned over  the boat ramp which meant I didn't need to use my flashlight much as the weak yellow lamp cast enough light for us to see each other.  I kept an eye on Rusty as he ran back and forth chasing smells, closing in only when I had to clean up after him. He would spend an hour happily chasing his tail and then we went back to the van where I'd make tea and open my paperback and he would climb into bed and join the hump under the sheets snoring. I could have stayed a week but we only had two and a half days. We made the most of them.