By Conor Mihell
Far removed from the condos and theme parks of south Florida lies a quieter part of the Sunshine State where deserted coastlines, crystal clear rivers, diverse wildlife and southern hospitality abounds. Locals call the 150 miles of Gulf of Mexico shoreline from St. Marks to Yankeetown the "Hidden Coast". This wild piece of coastline holds the unlikely distinction of being one of the longest stretches of publicly owned coastal wetlands in the Lower 48.Last spring, photographer Fredrik Marmsater and I ventured into the heart of Old Florida on the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail on a six-day assignment for Canoe & Kayak. With the support of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) recreational planner Liz Sparks we paddled 100 coastal miles, meeting local characters, enjoying southern cuisine and camping in some of the most remote parts of the state. (Watch for a feature story in the December issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine, available Nov. 6).
Meanwhile, on the first weekend of October, Sparks will be sharing her passion for the region at the third-annual Hidden Coast Paddling Festival, which takes place in the town of Suwannee, in the heart of the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. The theme of this year's three-day event is "Wildlife Encounters", appropriate in a biologically diverse area featuring iconic Florida megafauna like alligators, black bear, manatee and wild hog, as well as over 300 species of birds, and rich arrays of reptiles and fish.
Wildlife experts will be on hand to deliver presentations on sturgeon and manatee research, while FWC ornithologist Andy Wraithmell will lead birding tours and state fisheries biologists (and avid kayak anglers) Eddie Leonard and Mason Smith will share fishing tips. A choice of 10 half-day paddling tours guided by local sages like Sparks will give paddlers a taste of the rivers and open salt grass flats that define this largely undiscovered treasure.
Ultimately, the idea is to promote sustainable tourism, says Sparks. "This is a stretch of coast where it's easy to leave behind all signs of modern civilization and to just breathe in rhythm with the tides, soaring pelicans and gently waving sea grasses."