Finding the surprising coastal riches deep in the Big Bend
This story featured in the 2012 Buyer’s Guide issue.
By Conor Mihell
Four days out of her government office, suntanned, and chattering happily, Liz Sparks is in her element, sautéing a massive pan of fresh shrimp over an open fire. She tells us about the people who lived for millennia on this sandy north Florida island, and points out a mound of discarded shells, now topped with palm trees. The age-old midden of shells bears evidence of the progression of tribes that have inhabited this rich coastline for well over 10,000 years. “When you camp here, you can feel their presence,” says Sparks, a recreation planner with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation.
Sparks is taking time away from her Tallahassee office to introduce photographer Fredrik Marmsater and I to a wild stretch of Gulf of Mexico coastline she helped make more paddler-friendly over a decade ago. She’s the brain behind the Big Bend Saltwater Trail, a backcountry route spanning the last of Florida’s undeveloped coastline. This week she’s been our personal tour guide, setting up meetings with local characters, shuttling our supplies, serving us surprise locavore meals and occasionally acting as our sag wagon. Marmsater and I are sea kayaking the coastal trail in style.
Between Tallahassee and Tampa, the Gulf Coast bears little resemblance to the wall-to-wall condos, resorts and tacky theme parks of the south. Locals call this part of the state “Old Florida” and the “Hidden Coast.” The arc-shaped corridor linking the panhandle to central Florida is comprised of sweeping shallow-water salt marshes and verdant seagrass beds teeming with bird and sea life, interspersed with the arterial chocolate-colored fingers of inflowing rivers, isolated limestone outcrops, and “hammocks” of palm-topped sand beach. Impenetrable wetlands and shallow water extending miles offshore has kept the crowds down; signs of human development are intermittent, with the odd hard-scrabble fishing community turned fledgling tourist town located at the end of two-lane highways—sleepy outposts like Steinhatchee, Horseshoe Beach, and Suwannee—whose populations barely reach the triple digits. You won’t see a high-rise, chain hotel or box store along the entire shore.
Sparks’ beloved Big Bend encompasses the most remote section of coast: a 105-mile stretch from the mouth of the Aucilla River, just south of the capitol buildings in Tallahassee, to the Suwannee River (recently, a 50-mile extension pushed the water trail south to Yankeetown). It’s all part of Florida’s ambitious 1,515-mile Circumnavigational Paddling Trail, a government-led program highlighting campsites on a continuous route around the state’s entire coastline. Our campsite at Butler Island, where we pitched tents on sandy ground beneath native palm trees for the last night of our five-day trip, captures the best of the north Florida paddling experience. The April humidity drops with the setting sun, pesky biting stable flies disappear, and the ocean comes alive with jumping fish. As the sky transitions from peach to mauve and pewter and the long shadows of twilight deepen, it’s not hard to imagine ghosts dancing just beyond the glow of the campfire.
Sparks disturbs my reverie. “Dinner’s on, y’all,” she shouts. “We’ve got five pounds of fresh Gulf Coast shrimp here. Grab your plates and dig in.”
When Sparks first told me about the Big Bend—one of the longest undeveloped stretches of publicly owned coastal wetlands in the Lower 48, rich in iconic Florida megafauna like alligators, manatees, and black bears, sparsely inhabited by throwback communities of fishermen and hunters—I promptly placed it at the top of my list of winter paddling destinations. As a Canadian, I had heard about Sunshine State’s quintessential off-season paddling charms like the mangroves of the Everglades and the sweeping sand beaches of Florida Bay. But the loosely managed, infrequently traveled Big Bend sounded more feral than the well-known destinations to the south. I was fascinated that vestiges of the Old South still existed and were best experienced from the seat of a sea kayak.
Researching the possibility of an area paddling trail was one of the first tasks when Sparks was hired by Fish and Wildlife Conservation in 2001. It was on these initial field trips into backwaters of forgotten Florida that Sparks—an Indiana native who spent her youth hitchhiking across North America, married young and came to Florida to work as a nurse—discovered the “Southern momma dance.” She developed a mean drawl, adopting local vernacular like “y’all,” “hooo-weee,” “hell, yeah,” and “Good Lord,” and learned just how important it is to make small talk with Southern folk about their families and travails. The local rednecks, always protective of their hidden oasis and wary of government intrusion, suddenly had a new friend at “Fish and Game.” In return, they kindly steered her to the best campsites and shared stories about the coast.
The Big Bend is designed to be a nine-day trip for experienced sea kayakers. Seven campsites were established along the route at roughly 12-mile intervals, often taking advantage of the only dry landings on the coast or tucked into the forest a mile or two inland on tributary rivers. Sparks anticipated that paddlers would be happy to celebrate the midpoint of the trip with one night’s accommodations at a motel in the hamlet of Steinhatchee. Though the route could be paddled faster, she’s a big proponent of side-trips on wildlife-rich estuaries and swim stops at freshwater springs.
Working with a cramped schedule, Marmsater and I would attempt the trip in double-time, taking advantage of Sparks’ shore support and local knowledge. We’d log 20-mile days and Sparks would use back-road launches to paddle in and meet us at campsites. A native of Sweden and formerly employed as Ph.D. chemist in the pharmaceutical industry in Colorado, Marmsater’s redefined himself as a Boulder-based adventure photographer. As a teenager, Marmsater’s family uprooted and moved to north Florida, where his father was recruited to work as a computer engineer. The wiry, blond-haired Swede learned English in the most unlikely of places, and received his undergraduate degree from Florida State. Our five-day trip would mark Marmsater’s return to old digs, and it would be his first time paddling this section of coast.
Planning was well underway for an April trip when my enthusiasm hit a brick wall. I’d brushed aside Sparks’ warnings about Florida’s prolific biting insects, presuming they’d be the same old mosquitoes and no-see-ums I’ve grown accustomed to at home. Then, an innocent Web search introduced me to ticks and chiggers, the former a bloodsucking vector of debilitating illnesses like Lyme disease and ehrlichiosis, the latter a reddish mite that bores into the skin and leaves itchy, pimply sores. “Don’t sweat it,” Sparks insists. “I’ve got a full arsenal of insect repellents. When I was out last week I only picked up a few ticks. You’ll feel ‘em when you’re lying in your sleeping bag. It only takes a minute to pick ‘em off.”
I knew my fears were irrational: People recreate in the Florida outdoors all the time, and Center for Disease Control and Prevention maps indicated that the region we’d be exploring has only a low incidence of Lyme disease. Perhaps I should’ve been more afraid of alligators, wild hogs, venomous rattlesnakes, and water moccasins, which inhabit in the area. But ticks and chiggers—foreign, insidious, crawling invisibly and digging into my skin—had me panicking. I Googled “tick-resistant clothing” and discovered a chemical treatment—yet to be approved for use in Canada—that repels ticks; REI was happy to ship my $100 order to a U.S. address. Then I loaded my truck, escaping the last throes of the Canadian winter and witnessing the rapid onset of spring over the course of a 1,300-mile drive south.
The three-day drive ends in Tallahassee, where I finally put a face to Sparks’ voice and we load up a state kayak trailer, en route to the Big Bend. On the way to the put-in, Sparks suggests we stop for a chat with JR Walker, an avid sportsman and owner of the only gas station in the area. Photos of hunters posing with deer, turkeys and hogs plaster the walls and the shelves are well-stocked with fishing tackle. I feel self-conscious in my wrinkle-resistant, tick-proof clothing that seems more appropriate for casual dining than wilderness travel. Barrel-chested J.R., on the other hand, wears stained camo. I do a double-take when I notice a handgun holstered at his hip. I casually drop a question about ticks.
“Where y’all goin’?” he booms. Liz mentions our plan to hike in to check out a Big Bend campsite on a nearby river that our compressed schedule won’t allow us to visit from the water. “Did you say the Eeeconfeeena River? That’s the worst place I know for ticks. I was in there last week and they was just crawlin’ on me. I’ll tell you what,” he says, rummaging behind the cash register and thrusting an oversized can of Raid in my direction, “Take this. It’s the only stuff that works. Spray a fine mist on your shoes and pants and them ticks won’t give you any problems.”
The chemist Marmsater cringes when we pull over at the trailhead and I follow J.R.’s advice. There’s a host of safety warnings on the can of ant and roach spray, the first indicating that the product shouldn’t be applied to human skin or clothing. I try to relax as we hike a half-mile to the campsite on the Econfina River. The forest feels tropical, the vegetation lush and bustling with songbirds. At the campsite, we spook an alligator that’s basking across the tannin-colored river. We catch a brief glimpse of a swallowtail kite, a dive-bombing bird of prey with a 4-foot wingspan. Miraculously, we all survive the hike parasite-free.
My enthusiasm returns when we finally wet our kayaks in the Aucilla River. We count a dozen alligators in the mile-long stretch of river separating the launch from the coast. Palm trees crowd the shores, towering over the thick mat of sedge that extends far inland. “Man, it’s really stacked in here,” says Marmsater when a surfacing ‘gator interrupts his effort to photograph me paddling beneath a crooked palm. I’m strangely unafraid of the 7-foot reptile cruising alongside my kayak.
Instead, I feel alive.
When Doug Alderson looks across the Gulf of Mexico from Rock Island, our first night’s campsite, he sees 100 miles of prairie inhabited by mastodons and giant sloth, “just like the Serengeti.” It didn’t take much arm-twisting by Sparks to convince Alderson, a local paddler, author and frontman on the circumnavigational trail project to camp with us for the night. The 20-acre limestone carapace of Rock Island represents one of Florida’s last barrier islands, explains Alderson. Rising sea levels over the past 10,000 years have obliterated most signs of bedrock and inundated the grasslands Alderson likes to envision. Climate change is fast-tracking the process today, advancing the tide inland. In our day on the water, Marmsater and I quickly learned that paddling here is very much like navigating a featureless saltwater prairie; it’s impossible to judge distance, tough to pick out deep-water channels through oyster bars, and more difficult still to pinpoint your location without a GPS.
The next day, Sparks and Alderson retreat to the state Jeep and Marmsater and I continue, paddling 10 miles to Spring Warrior Creek. Sparks has set us up for lunch with Billy Sullivan, a lifelong Big Bend resident who befriended Sparks while she was researching campsites on the coast. “Shitty Bill’s the emperor of the area,” says Sparks, referring to the cherubic, camouflage-clad man who’s now tending a stovetop covered with oil-filled pans in a cluttered, one-room “fish camp,” talking nonstop.
With little provocation, Sullivan launches into a series of stories: about a childhood spent running wild in the Florida swamps (“I never knew what underwear was ‘til I joined the Navy”); how he got his nickname (for getting the short end of the stick in negotiating a visitation schedule of “good eatin’” and “good lovin’” with his wife, who lives in the nearby town of Perry); how he acquired his coastal property (by chance—“I likely burned the rubber off my tires getting to the credit union”); and his bizarre cabin décor (which includes a display of wild turkey beards, raccoon penises and a bevy of firearms).
“I’m gunna see just how Southern these boys are,” he hollers, piling Styrofoam plates with mullet, venison, French fries and cornmeal hush puppies, locally harvested (read: poached) swamp cabbage, the tender shoots of a palm tree, chopped and boiled, baked beans, hot dogs and coleslaw. “Hope y’all are huuunnnngry,” says Sparks, admiring the spread and plugging her ears when Sullivan describes the illegal butchery that goes into collecting swamp cabbage.
After lunch, we lounge on Sullivan’s roof-level deck, which boasts a spectacular panoptic view of the coast. He gestures down the shore, where Confederate soldiers once operated a saltworks, boiling seawater to produce salt in the Civil War. “The Yankees would come in, bomb ‘em and leave,” says Sullivan. “But our boys were tough. Why, they’d have the boilers fired up again before the Yankee ships crested the horizon.” With such a view, it’s easy to see why. A decade ago in the peak of the Florida housing boom, a speculator offered Sullivan $8 million for his 20 acres of land. “But I’d never sell it for all the money the world,” he says.
We encounter similar hospitality all along the coast. That night, we devour fresh Gulf oysters at a raw bar in Keaton Beach, another tiny coastal outpost. The next day, we paddle into the village of Steinhatchee, where we’re treated to a spectacular seafood dinner by Dean Fowler, a Southern gentleman who moved to here from Georgia after he retired, 22 years ago. “I had a second house here,” says Fowler, who’s developed The Landing, a resort on the Steinhatchee River with architecture, gardens, and footpaths modeled after a traditional Florida fishing town. “I decided I liked it so much I didn’t want to go home.”
We’ve discovered the heart of Old Florida, where outposts like Fowler’s once dotted the coastline before interior highways and large-scale commercial fishing wiped out the hand-to-mouth way of life. “There were more people on the coast back then,” says Russ McCallister, a guide and outfitter based in Suwannee, rhyming off a half-dozen coastal hamlets along the Big Bend coast. “The old fishing camps were about 10 miles apart—a day’s oar for fishermen in dories.”
When fishing waned, locals turned to other means of making a living. Big Bend communities were critical ports of call during Prohibition. Then, in the 1960s and ‘70s, the region was a key conduit for South American drug-runners. On our fourth day, Sparks takes us on a road trip to the infamous “Highway to Nowhere,” an arrow-straight band of county-funded blacktop running straight to the deserted coast. Locals still remember the contraband-laden boats and planes coming in and a proliferation of shiny new trailer homes and pick up trucks that followed amongst the once destitute. An IRS sting operation launched in the early ‘80s revealed a complex network of bale handlers, truckers, deputy sheriffs, and county commissioners—all making a mint to pose as fishermen and simple country folk.
Sparks likens days like this to paddling into the “ether”—hot, windless afternoons when it’s hard to tell the sky from the horizon. After three days of persistent winds, we’re lucky to enjoy two days of flat-calm seas en route to our final campsite at Butler Island and our takeout in Suwannee. By now we’ve left the sprawling salt marshes of the northern reaches of the trail behind and entered a section of idyllic palm-topped islands and white sand. Marmsater marvels at witnessing palm trees in their native environment. Finally, we slow down and hug the shore, landing on narrow spit of sand that might as well be called paradise.
Marmsater and I are sunbaked and tired when Sparks metes out a final surprise. Along with Suwannee River outfitter Russ McCallister and his wife, Kay, she meet us by powerboat on a sandy island a mile from the Suwannee takeout, strings a hammock between two palms and produces a cooler of icy beer. We take turns lounging until the sun nears the horizon and the thought of another Southern dinner compels us to paddle a few final strokes.