Outdoors

Places I’ve left behind

The very first outdoors column I published in our weekly newspaper. I had published some pieces in various regional outdoors publications, but this was my break into the newspaper industry — the launch of a weekly column that would eventually lead to me taking on a role as a sports writer and, later, a full-time journalist position.

Looking back on it now, it all seems so distant and far away.

Yet I know that just over the next hill lies this remembered place that I am writing about, separated from me only by the inability to go back.

It is a place where the fields are filled with wildflowers and clover, disturbed only by the deer that feed there — and the bobwhites, cottontails and woodchucks that make their home there—as if humans never set foot on the place.

The evergreen groves beyond the field provide a dark, damp place full of shadows and mystical imaginations that only the human mind can conjure. Beyond that, the terrain opens into rolling hills of hardwoods, which eventually end abruptly at a cliff’s edge. It is here that you will find whitetail deer, wild turkey, ruffled grouse, wild boar, graytail and fox squirrels, redheaded woodpeckers, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, red-tail hawks, an occasional bald eagle and even a bear or two.

I only wonder how many more creatures call this their home, unbeknownst to man. Many claim to have seen or heard cougars here. Others swear that they have heard the cry of a gray wolf on a late summer night. The old man in the cabin up by Walker’s Grove even says that he saw a Sasquatch take down a fawn in the back pasture one morning … but common sense refuses to let me believe that.

My mind takes me back to sitting on the cliff’s edge, tossing rocks over the side and watching as they fall out of sight. It is here, perched high above the river that roars below, that you can watch the eagle soar across the canyon and listen to its piercing cry. If you look close enough, you can almost see a smallmouth bass surface in the deep, dark pool of water hundreds of feet below.

At night, you can sit here on the same rock and watch the moon rise across the sky as a coyote howls somewhere across the divide. You can continue watching as the moon descends out of sight, like the time that we have spent here. Soon, all we have left are memories, kept alive by our love for the outdoors and fueled by our longing to go back.

I think of the oak tree on the hill, the tree from which I deer-hunted last fall. The oak tree sits on the same hill all the year round. He sees the dogwoods bloom in the spring, the bright stars on a clear summer night, the golden leaves of autumn dropping into the clear pool in the creek, just below the roaring rapids. He watches as the stream’s flow becomes more and more sluggish, finally succumbing to winter’s freeze. He then watches as the snow blankets the forest floor against the dead silence of winter.

Spring mornings bring the turkey’s thunderous gobble and the sound of a beaver slapping the water with his tail somewhere upstream. An otter slides down the muddy bank and into the water across the way.

Something is missing … the sound of an elk’s bugle cutting through the morning still, perhaps. Other than that, this might very well be heaven on earth.

Although I’m sure time has colored the way it really was, it seems there was not a care to be had; just me and the outdoors, a man absorbed by nature. That is life and I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.

What happened to this place? It’s still there. Just over the next hill. A little free time and I’ll be back there again, just as I was last week.

But looking back on it now, it all seems so distant and far away.

Cross-posted at Medium.com

Destinations

The ins and outs of St. George Island

The sun sets over the Apalachicola Bay at low tide. If you stay on the bay side of the island's east end, where the waters are shallower, low tide will reveal countless hermit crabs.
The lighthouse at St. George Island dates back to 1833. It can be visited today, and there’s a museum adjacent to it.

A few years ago, I wrote an in-depth guide on St. George Island. It was the most popular article ever posted on this blog. Each year, when I post vacation photos on Facebook, people ask for info on St. George Island. That was the inspiration for this rewrite.

Looking for a reclusive vacation, away from the crowds and the hustle-and-bustle of resort towns? Florida has some coastal vacation spots that are well off the beaten path, but they usually don’t include pristine beaches. Then there is St. George Island.

A 28-mile barrier island located off the coast of historic Apalachicola, St. George Island is one-of-a-kind: an inhabited, yet largely unspoiled island. It’s not the Caribbean, and Jimmy Buffet never sang about it, but it still has a lot of the stereotypical island feel to it — where time slows down (island time) and everything is a little more laid back.

When someone asks me about St. George Island, I always start by telling them what SGI isn’t. There is no Walmart or McDonald’s anywhere close; no miniature golf*, no water parks, no movie theaters, no ritzy shopping developments.

The sun sets over the Apalachicola Bay, as seen from St. George Island.

All of that is, of course, the allure of St. George Island. But it’s not for everyone. If you’re a 20-something (or an any-something) who loves the night life, you’re probably not going to like SGI. If your family likes to always be on the go, you probably aren’t going to like SGI. If you have to have a Walmart or a Target or a Five Guys burger joint or a shopping mall close at hand, you probably aren’t going to like SGI. If your idea of a beach vacation is more about great food than natural surroundings, you probably aren’t going to like SGI. I can’t imagine being one of those people and stumbling onto SGI expecting a Destin-style vacation. I would be sorely disappointed.

But if you like to go to the beach simply to relax, to get away from the people and traffic, SGI may be exactly what you’re looking for. If you’re a middle-aged or older couple, SGI is perfect. If you have young kids, SGI may or may not be a suitable vacation destination. It’s definitely family-friendly, and lots of families vacation on the island with their kids; families with small children probably make up a majority of the island’s visitors at any given time during the summer tourism season. We’ve been vacationing at SGI since my kids were eight years old, and they’ve always loved it … but, then, they’ve never been accustomed to vacations that include laser tag, mini golf, parasailing, water parks, go karts, and etc.

A large sign welcomes visitors to St. George Island as they come off the 4-mile bridge connecting the island to the mainland at Eastpoint.

I searched out St. George Island when I got tired of the crowds of people at Panama City Beach. I love PCB … and I like Destin and the other beaches of the Florida panhandle and the Alabama coast. But I don’t like the crowds of people that accompany them. A few years ago, I got caught up in a traffic jam during my first night in PCB and angrily swore that I was going somewhere else the next year. The next year, we vacationed on the bay side of St. George Island. A year after that, I stupidly decided to go back to PCB. On Day 1, I was reminded why SGI was worlds better. And I’ve never been back.

So now that we’ve talked about what St. George Island isn’t, let’s talk about what it is.

SGI has low-density zoning and strict building codes, which preserves the low-key, laid-back feel. There are no high-rise hotels or condominium complexes, no chain restaurants or high-profile retail shops. (There isn’t even an Alvin’s Island, if you can believe it!) As a result, the entire island feels like a village instead of a resort town.

St. George Island’s most famous resident is country music star Billy Dean, who resides with his wife in a humble home in the center of the island.

There are “drawbacks,” of course. Without them, SGI would lose its allure. One of the drawbacks is that most of the lodging options are vacation rentals. Some of them are independently owned and managed and available through rental services like VRBO, AirBNB and a regional service, Emerald Coast By Owner. Others are owned or managed by rental companies like Collins Vacation Rentals and Fickling & Co. There are only two exceptions: a small motel on the beach — which is dated and frills-free, to say the least — and a small inn that is located off the beach.

Vacation rentals tend to be pricey. The best approach is to join forces with friends or family and split the cost, especially since many of the homes are larger and luxurious. There are some smaller cottages that are suitable for single family units and will fit more modest budgets, but they’re often located away from the beach.

Not all of the homes at St. George Island are luxurious. There are lots of nondescript homes, lots of homes in various states of disrepair, and million-dollar homes — often located side-by-side, both on the beach and away from the beach.
Not all of the homes at St. George Island are luxurious. There are lots of nondescript homes, lots of homes in various states of disrepair, and million-dollar homes — often located side-by-side, both on the beach and away from the beach.
A new, large home is being built on the beach at St. George Island.

There is no entertainment to speak of on the beach. Instead of parasailing and jet ski rentals, you’ll find bicycle, paddleboard and kayak rentals. There are a handful of the typical beach souvenir shops (we prefer Island Dog, a family-owned and -operated shop that is tucked away off the main street). There is a miniature golf course just across the SGI bridge on the mainland at Eastport, but none on the island. There are no theaters, no water parks, no go-kart tracks.

There are two small grocery stores on the island: a Piggly Wiggly Express and a newer, independently-owned grocery. Both are convenient, but have little in the way of selection. Most people prefer to make the 20-minute drive to the mainland and into Apalachicola to purchase groceries.

The first sight you see upon arriving on the island is a Piggly Wiggly Express. Your first impression of St. George Island may be that it appears run-down and dated. But it’s part of the charm and the allure. Time moves slower and things are laid-back here.

As for restaurants, there are a few — but they’re limited. There’s only one beach-front, open-air-dining restaurant, the Blue Parrot. It’s good, but it’s also hit-or-miss. Otherwise, the quality, prices and atmosphere are about what you’d expect from a typical beach-front restaurant just up the road at PCB. Other popular restaurants on the island include Harry A’s Bar & Grill, Paddy’s Raw Bar and Doc Myers Island Pub & Raw Bar. The latter is probably the closest to a typical beach-town nightlife establishment that you’ll find on SGI. You’ll find live music and crowds of people playing corn hole and enjoying their favorite beverages at Doc Myers on any given night.

Other restaurants on the island include the Beach Pit, which is a BBQ joint, and BJ’s, a pizza and sub place. There’s also a Subway sandwich shop (the only chain restaurant you’ll find on SGI or in either of the neighboring towns of Apalachicola and Eastpoint), an ice cream shop and a donut shop.

To be completely blunt and perfectly honest, I can’t highly recommend any of them. The food is okay at several of them, but none of them will knock your socks off. Our trips to SGI usually include at least a couple of trips to the Blue Parrot, mainly because we like the beachfront, open-air dining style, and a trip or two to Aunt Edy’s (the ice cream shop). They serve Blue Bell, which is a plus. BJ’s is incredibly over-priced for the quality of the pies, but they have an appetizer — crab bites — that will be as good as any crab cakes you can find anywhere on the island or the neighboring mainland.

Restaurants on the mainland include Lynn’s Quality Oysters — a bayfront combination fresh seafood market and seafood restaurant. It looks shabby, but then the best ones usually do, it seems. In any event, it comes well-rated and highly-recommended. There’s the Pesky Pelican Grille (which is okay but not great), the Red Pirate (which always seems to be packed), the Family Coastal Restaurant (bayfront) and Eastpoint Beer Company (a bar/pub) in Eastpoint. Across the bay in Apalachicola, there is Hole in the Wall (a tiny establishment that has a pub feel with decent food), the Owl Cafe (upscale dining), The Station Raw Bar (a popular place with food that is good but not great) and the Up the Creek Raw Bar (bayfront). It’s not an exhaustive list, but you get the point.

Inside the 13 Mile Seafood Market in Apalachicola. There, you can watch the fishing boats come in and unload their catch.

The best option? Visit one of the two fresh seafood trucks that set up on the island almost daily, and fix it to your liking. You’ll find Doug’s truck on one side of the lighthouse and Dail’s truck on the other. Their prices are fair and their fish is excellent. If the trucks aren’t there, head across the bridge to the mainland and you’ll find several seafood markets. The nearest option is Lynn’s Oysters. A cheaper option, if you want to drive a bit further into downtown Apalachicola, is the 13 Mile SeaFood Market. There, you can watch the fishing boats come in and unload their catch, then head inside and pick out what you want to take home with you.

St. George Island is a 28-mile barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico. It is separated from the mainland by a 4-mile bridge that crosses the Apalachicola Bay. The island is no wider than a mile, and is usually narrower than that. It was originally settled by the Muscogee, and later the Creek Indians after disease killed off the Muscogee, beginning in the 10th century, before European settlers arrived and eventually took control of the island. Until 1965, the resort town that was developing on the island was accessible only by ferry. Two bridges were constructed that year, connected by a tiny island in the middle of the bay, to reach the island. In 2002, the much larger and current bridge was built after the original buildings were deemed unsafe.

The rising sun shines through the palms and the pines on St. George Island. Forested areas are rare overall, and the island is by no means picturesque with its sea oats and scrub growth. But the sunrises and sunsets are magical.

SGI has a colorful history. It was used as a practice range for Air Force bombers during World War II and a cut was later made between the island and nearby Little St. George to provide access to the Gulf of Mexico from the bayside. Today, that cut is used by fishing fleets from Apalachicola. A lighthouse was constructed on the island in 1833, and was later destroyed by hurricane. It was rebuilt and, except for during the Civil War, when it was decommissioned, it served the island until the 1960s, when it was decommissioned. It was later damaged by two more hurricanes and collapsed, before being rebuilt in the middle of the island several years ago.

St. George Island is not fully inhabited; fewer than 10 miles of the island are inhabited. The eastern end of the island is St. George Island State Park, which includes pristine beaches, protected dunes and a campground. The west end of the island is a large, gated community called The Plantation. Although it is an upscale, gated community, rental homes are available inside. This is the widest part of the island, and also the most forested. Trees become sparser on the east end and central parts of the island, where only palm trees, sea oats and scrub grows along the gulf side of the island and slab pine and other trees grow on the bay side of the island.

The beach at St. George Island at sunset.

When choosing where to stay on SGI, there are generally a few options:

• Gulf-side: The east-end beaches are generally a bit less congested than the west-end beaches. The Plantation is the least congested of all and does include some beach-front homes, but they’re very pricey. Across-the-street beaches still provide beach views for cheaper prices. In the center of the island, there are a number of town houses along the beach. There’s also a large town house community on the beach along the east end, just before the entrance to the state park.

• Bay-side: Staying on the bay provides its own advantages. It’s further from the beach, and you lose the sea breeze (which means it’s going to feel hotter, and be “buggier” — the mosquitoes are merciless). But you are sometimes still close enough to walk to the beach. If not, you can drive to the nearest public beach access (or rent a golf cart of a bicycle). Most bay-front homes have private fishing piers, and many are a bit more secluded than beach-front homes. You’ll encounter more wildlife on the bay side, including pelicans (rarely seen on the beach except for in the surf), lizards, frogs, snakes and scorpions (I’ve learned my lesson the hard way — don’t leave your shoes on the porch if you’re staying on the bay side of the island).

A crab plays in the surf at St. George Island. Crabs are plentiful, both on the bay side and the gulf side. Set a trap and catch some for yourself.

SGI is widely known as a loggerhead turtle nesting area. Locals are strict about beachfront outside lights being left off at night and belongings being removed from the beach in the evenings. It’s also requested that holes not be left on the beach.

You’ll see dolphins on the gulf side just about any day during the summer months, and they’re commonly seen within a hundred yards of the beach. It’s also not uncommon to see them in the bay.

SGI is a dog-friendly beach.

A pelican eats a shrimp from a dock on the bay off St. George Island.

The “worst” part of St. George Island is getting there. It isn’t an easy drive from anywhere. It is an hour-long drive through the aptly-named Tate’s Hell State Forest to reach the coast at Eastpoint. But Apalachicola is quaint and worthy of exploration. PCB is about a two-hour drive along the coast to the west; Alligator Point is an hour drive along the coast to the east. Tallahassee is the nearest major city, about 90 minutes away. The nearest Walmart is about that far away. The nearest McDonald’s is a 30-minute drive.

Because there are no high-rises, the beaches at St. George Island are never crowded. They were a bit more crowded in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has more people seeking vacationing opportunities on the island to avoid the Covid-19 hotspots elsewhere in Florida (there had only been two cases of Covid-19 in all of Franklin County as of June 21, 2020). When the beaches do start to fill up, head to the east end of the island and pay the small fee to enter the state park. The island’s most beautiful beaches are inside the state park, and you’re guaranteed to find a section of beach where you won’t have any neighbors within shouting distance — literally — if you want to walk far enough.

Fishing from a dock on the bay side of St. George Island. Fishing is excellent at SGI, both in the surf and in the Apalachicola Bay. On the bay side, fish with shrimp (live are best, but good luck finding them) or live minnows.

The best thing about SGI besides the beaches and the lack of people is the fishing. The Apalachicola Bay is a rich estuary. The Apalachicola River — formed when the Flint River and Chattahoochee merge — dumps into the sea at Apalachicola, creating a bay that is teeming with life. More than 300 species of birds, 186 species of fish and 57 species of mammals call the Apalachicola Bay home. Sadly, the town of Apalachicola is in decline as the seafood industry diminishes. The Apalachicola Bay once produced 90% of Florida’s oysters, but climate change is causing the oyster populations to diminish rapidly.

The sun sets over the Apalachicola Bay at low tide. If you stay on the bay side of the island’s east end, where the waters are shallower, low tide will reveal countless hermit crabs.

The bottom line: The sands at St. George Island aren’t as white as they are at Destin and Panama City Beach, the Florida panhandle’s most famous beaches. And the water at SGI isn’t nearly as clear. But there isn’t a single stoplight on the island; a pair of 3-way stops in the center of the island are the closest you come to it. Most of the streets are not paved and are dirt roads — the main exceptions are Gulf Beach Drive, the main street through the island; Bay Shore Drive, which parallels the bay; and Gorrie Drive, which parallels the gulf. Residents and visitors alike toil about on golf carts, which are permitted on all streets except Bay Shore Drive. If you stay close enough to the center of the island, you can walk to any destination and will not even need your vehicle for a week. And unlike most beach resort towns, the neighborhoods smell of dinner cooking as the sun sets, which underscores the family-friendly and laid-back nature of the island. Things truly do move at a slower pace on St. George Island. And while the island is slowly becoming more commercialized and congested — I’ve noticed a difference just in the past five years — it’s because more and more people are discovering just how magical a place it is.

Shells litter the beach at St. George Island. The sand isn’t as white here and the water isn’t as clear as it is at other panhandle beaches like Panama City Beach and Destin. But if you like shelling, you’ll love SGI. Some exceptional shells can be found along the island.
The beach is nearly deserted at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Saturdays are turn day for most vacationers, but the beach is seldom crowded at SGI — and if it is, you can head to the state park, where there are even fewer people.
A 4-way stop on St. George Island, and all the streets are dirt roads. Most of the streets on the island aren’t paved.
A 4-mile bridge separates St. George Island from Eastpoint.
A paved biking and hiking trail runs the length of the length of St. George Island from The Plantation to the state park.
The sun sets behind a vacation rental overlooking the Apalachicola Bay at St. George Island.
A Saharan dust cloud shrouds the sky over the Apalachicola Bay during the Summer of 2020.
A pelican awaits its meal at St. George Island.
A view of the lighthouse at St. George Island, which dates back to 1833.
The sun sets over the Apalachicola Bay at St. George Island.
Historic downtown Apalachicola.
You can watch the fishing boats come in and unload their catch at the 13 Mile Seafood Market in Apalachicola.
City hall is in an old warehouse in historic downtown Apalachicola.
Sadly, the seafood industry in Apalachicola is in decline. The Apalachicola Bay provides 90% of Florida’s oysters, but the oysters are being reduced by climate change.
The almost vacant beach at St. George Island State Park.
The almost vacant beach at St. George Island State Park.
The grass flats in the Apalachicola Bay just off the coast at Apalachicola.
The historic cemetery in downtown Apalachicola is worth exploring.
The historic cemetery in downtown Apalachicola is worth exploring.