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Beyond the theme parks: Florida’s wild side

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According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Apalachicola River area, in the state’s panhandle, supports the highest biodiversity of animal species in the United States.

And from the screened porch off my room at the Water Street Hotel & Marina, overlooking this river in the coastal community of Apalachicola, it seems that I can either see or hear half of them.

It is late evening and off to my left, in the tall marsh grasses, the insect chorus is just striking up, while fish splash down below in the river. Frogs are croaking, pelicans and seagulls soar through the warm, summer air, and occasionally a fishing boat motors upstream, its creels full after a day’s work in Apalachicola Bay.

A gentle breeze moves in and down on the docks, halyards knock against sailboat masts. Across the river, the immense fields of sawgrass, bulrushes and cattails appear tawny-amber in the fading sunlight, and there’s not a high-rise hotel in sight.

The Mary Ellen motors upstream and again I am reminded of fresh seafood. So a few minutes later, my wife, son and I leave our room and walk two blocks down Apalachicola’s sleepy waterfront to the Up the Creek Raw Bar, where we order grouper sandwiches and homemade potato chips.

It is late June – Florida’s busy season – yet there are only a dozen or so patrons here at this quiet and unpretentious restaurant overlooking the Apalachicola River. But this is a fact of life here on the Gulf Coast, roughly 75 miles southwest of Tallahassee, where the pine-fringed roads, rivers and beaches are remarkably devoid of human existence. Here, there are no chain restaurants, no nightclubs and in Apalachicola, only one lazy traffic signal, its flashing yellow light very much like the community’s pulse – slow and steady.

Ironically, “Apalach,” as the locals refer to it, was once the third-largest port on the Gulf of Mexico, playing a pivotal role in the distribution of cotton and, later, lumber, to the world. But other than the rustic brick and metal buildings along the river, the dozens of antebellum homes lining the town’s quiet streets, there isn’t much evidence of the community’s industrious past. Today, these waterfront buildings serve as oyster- and shrimp-processing houses for the town’s thriving seafood industry. About 90 percent of Florida’s oysters are harvested here in Franklin County, where the tide and the nutrient-rich waters of the Apalachicola River converge to produce some of the world’s most succulent seafood.

I end the day by relaxing on our screened porch that overlooks the river. Though we’re staying in a well-appointed apartment, wild Florida is only a few paces away, where marsh grasses stand eight feet tall just beyond the Water Street Hotel’s well-manicured grounds and warm red walls. The symphony of frogs and insects is amazingly vibrant and I feel that I have a front-row seat to the world’s oldest and most unadulterated concert. Save for an occasional fish jumping out in the river, all is quiet.

Then a sudden, violent commotion in the water causes me to sit up straight. Down below, in the moonlight, I see the silhouette of a six-foot alligator moving through the shallow marsh and into the river. I will rest easily tonight knowing our room isn’t on the ground level.

The next morning we meet our fishing guide, Captain Keith Grimes, at the Port St. Joe city boat ramp, 23 miles west of Apalachicola. We have opted to fish St. Joseph Bay based on Keith’s recommendation, as the water here is clear and there are lots of fish that my wife, Ellen, and seven-year-old son, Jackson, can catch. I’m a saltwater enthusiast and I have booked this trip with Captain Grimes in the hope that my family might experience some of the sea’s majesty which I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy so many times.

After a 20-minute run across the bay to the pristine waters off the barrier island known as Cape San Blas, we’re headed to one of Keith’s seatrout spots when a school of dolphins finds us. I count six of them as they take turns darting in front of our boat, then paralleling us, rolling over on their sides, their curvy mouths suggesting smiles. Ellen and Jackson are ecstatic.

Minutes later, after saying goodbye to the dolphins, we pass a pair of spotted eagle rays gliding off the flats and into a channel, then a couple of big sharks. Soon, we’re anchored in 15 feet of water, casting pilchards and shrimp to a school of seatrout. Jackson hooks up on the first cast, and then Ellen follows suit. This continues for the better part of an hour until we pull anchor and move up the coastline toward the tip of the Cape. It is a bright, hot day and as the sun climbs higher in the sky, the white sand flats and verdant grass beds contrast sharply with one another in the clear water. Everything “pops,” as a photographer would say. Colors explode – in the water, in the brilliant blue sky, and on the beach where a strip of sugar-white sand frames St. Joseph Bay. Just beyond this white strip, the coastal forest of palms and pines shine like emeralds in the late-morning sunshine.

The tip of Cape San Blas is part of St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, a designated wilderness area where no motor vehicles are allowed. This is apparent as we round the tip where, other than a park ranger sitting on an ATV at the water’s edge, both the beach and surrounding waters are remarkably empty and deserted. The ranger has his arms crossed, a Smokey hat shading his face from the sun. Probably, he is in awe that this is his office.
I want to try for a tarpon with my fly rod, but Keith says the long rolling waves, which are coming in off the Gulf of Mexico, will prevent us from moving in close enough to shore to sight-fish. So we head back into the bay to a deepwater cut where Keith says we can catch all kinds of fish. And this is exactly what happens.

During the course of our six-hour trip, Jackson catches seatrout, bluefish, Spanish Mackerel, and the highlight of the day – two sharks, including a five-foot bull shark. He is only days away from his eighth birthday and I’m thrilled that he has had such a productive outing. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve hooked him for life and landed a permanent fishing partner.

That afternoon, we head back to Apalach where Ellen spends time shopping in the city’s quaint downtown district, while Jackson and I enjoy the Water Street Hotel’s swimming pool. Dinner that night is more fresh seafood, this time from a restaurant called That Place in Apalach, a three-block walk from our room. Life is good here on Northwest Florida’s Natural Coast. The seafood is fresh and savory, and the people are so relaxed and friendly that you feel like you’re at home among family.

We spend our final day enjoying the beaches at nearby St. George Island State Park. Like all Florida state parks, St. George Island is unspoiled, well-managed, and utterly scenic. The rolling dunes of sugar-white sand, the thickets of sea oats, the clear, greenish-tinted water along the beaches are stunning examples of an overlooked and unspoiled stretch of Florida coastline. With the surf crashing on the beach and the gulls, pelicans and terns soaring through the air above, we enjoy the kind of natural perfection that humankind simply cannot manufacture.

Walking the beach, casting to roving schools of ladyfish in the surf, I look out just beyond the first sandbar and notice the olive-and-white-mottled head of a sea turtle floating on the surface. Not long after it disappears a school of dolphins moves in, working its way down the shoreline. The dolphins appear individually on the surface, exhaling sharply, blasting mists of water into the air. This is followed immediately by the sight of a rolling dorsal fin, then a tail. And as if to send its regards, one of the dolphins slaps its tail down vigorously on the surface. “Until next time,” it seems to say, for the dolphins will be back to this wild coastline, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week. And next year, so will I.

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