In Chapter 1, "First Oyster," Doug describes his first exposure to the stark realities of the Big Bend Coast during a Boy Scout survival campout to St. George Island:
The date of the campout was a weekend in mid-August, just before school was to begin. It didn't dawn on me during the planning session that we were undertaking our survival trip to a sun-drenched barrier island during the hottest month of the year. Temperatures could easily exceed a hundred degrees; humidity levels would be on par with the temperature. Mercifully, we would be allowed to pitch tents to keep out insects.
On the morning of the campout, we drove to the eastern end of St. George Island and set up camp. This wild half of the island would eventually be developed into a premier Florida state park, but at the time there were no bathrooms, showers, water faucets, picnic tables or other amenities. We eager-faced Scouts were the only campers in this stark landscape of weathered slash pines, endless rows of sand dunes, and blue water.
After pitching tents, Ken announced that obtaining drinking water had to be our first priority. Our communal jug contained only enough life-sustaining liquid for a few sips per person.
With empty canteens, we began a long hike down a blinding sugar-sand road toward the artesian well. We often ducked into sparse shade provided by pines and shrubs; the sun had become hot and unforgiving. Those who were barefoot scurried faster to the shady spots. Our skin began turning a beet red.
Within a mile, my throat was parched and my stomach growling. In my short life, I had missed meals only when I was dreadfully sick; water had always been available. The idea of a wild artesian well, whatever it was, was growing in its appeal. I envisioned it as a cool, clear gushing outflow of water, nothing short of the Fountain of Youth. The sweet liquid would wash down succulent oysters that resembled oval chunks of baked chicken in both taste and appearance. Breezes would kick up and blow away biting flies and sand gnats. We would feed on nature's bounty rather than nature's critters feeding on us.
I later learned that Native Americans generally moved inland from coastal areas during summer to escape insect swarms and blazing sun. So much for emulating those first island survivalists.
As hollow-sounding canteens banged against dusty legs, we struggled onward in what was fast becoming the Boy Scout version of the Bataan death march. I daydreamed of visiting the island under different circumstances-on a beach trip with parents, brothers and friends. Lounging on towels and blankets under a huge umbrella, we'd sip soda from plastic cups filled to the brim with ice, munch on fried chicken, and scoop out baked beans, mashed potatoes and cole slaw from seemingly bottomless containers. Heaps of apple cobbler would follow…
We smelled the artesian well before we came upon it. Rotten eggs coupled with dissipating smoke from spent fireworks best described the smell. Putrid green algae covered our "Fountain of Youth." Scenes from western shows and movies flashed in my mind, ones that depicted half-dead desert wanderers reaching a watering hole, only to find it poisoned, the ground littered with dead animals. One crazed sap, however, would ignore the warnings and dive facedown into the bad water, slurping ravenously. Soon, we'd see him doubled over, retching, his face contorting grotesquely. Then he would die.
This scene did not play itself out with our group, fortunately. Ken refused to let us drink from the natural sulfur well, not that anyone volunteered.
We dragged ourselves to Apalachicola Bay, which was on the leeward side of the island. The bay continues to be one of the richest estuaries in North America, fed by the nutrient-rich Apalachicola River and protected by several barrier islands, including St. George. Oysters thrive in the special mixture of fresh- and salt water. It was a bounty Native Americans realized thousands of years before. They left behind long middens of shells, bones and other refuse, prehistoric trash heaps where calcium-loving cedar trees now grow. Those early oysters were often eight to ten inches in length, more than double the size of modern-day oysters. That's because oyster tongers from the towns of Apalachicola and Eastpoint have steadily harvested the shellfish for more than a century and a half. Their ways have changed little. Harvesters spend long days standing in a boat and pulling up oysters by hand with long-handled tongs. Helpers cull out undersized oysters and return them to the bay. The oyster tongers and commercial fishermen are a primary reason Apalachicola Bay has been carefully guarded from pollution and over-development through the years. Human livelihoods depend on it.
"How are we gonna' eat the oysters?" I asked Ken naively.
"Raw," he replied.
Raw meat? That didn't sound appetizing. "What do oysters taste like?"
He looked at me quizzically. "You've never had an oyster before?" His tone suggested that this was a hell of a time to try.
"You'll find out soon enough. Just don't chew when you put it in your mouth. Let it slide down your throat and then swallow."
"Yeah, it's just like a big booger!" a nearby boy crudely exclaimed. Ken gave him a stern look, but it was too late. My innocence was stirring up something in the other boys. They weren't quite like predatory hyenas sensing a kill; more like perched crows with a ringside seat.
We waded into the water, but a protruding shark fin prompted a quick retreat. "Probably just a sand or nurse shark," said Ken. "They won't hurt you." Still, I hung back. While living in Illinois, I had read a huge book that chronicled every reported shark attack off Florida's coast. I felt sure that a big shark would drag me underwater at the first opportunity, providing a new case study for the revised edition.
Ken and some other boys bravely waded a short distance and soon found an underwater oyster bar. They eagerly pried loose dark clusters of oysters, driven by hunger and a foreknowledge of their edibility. With a stout knife, Ken cracked open a big oyster and loosened the meat. I watched with keen interest and concealed horror as Ken's son Terry leaned his head back and let the slippery oval meat slide into his mouth. Then he swallowed. He glanced around to show that the feat had been accomplished without squeamishness.
"Hey Doug, why don't you eat the next one," challenged a boy. "You ain't chicken, are you?" Others offered similar encouragement.
"Okay," I said nervously. Perhaps I sensed an initiation of sorts. Upon passage, I could penetrate the inner sanctum of the troop, no longer relegated to the fringe with other new boys. Then, I could more freely partake in crude language, bathroom humor and mean-spirited pranks. It was behavior that tests the limits of adult tolerance--a multi-year outbreak of male adolescence.
Ken opened a palm-sized oyster and handed it to me. The wet meat jiggled in its perfect natural container. Somewhere inside this humble creation, I knew there was a beating heart.
"Now remember, don't chew until you get used to them," Ken reminded.
I looked at the oyster, glanced at the many eyes upon me, looked back at the oyster, then brought it to my lips. I tilted my head back. The slimy meat slid into my mouth and throat. It was worse than a booger! Far worse. I gagged. That brought the oyster back into my mouth. Panicky, I chewed. The oyster squished between my teeth. I thought of those oyster organs-the still beating heart, the stomach, liver and intestines… With those scrutinizing eyes upon me, however, I refused to spit it out. Not then. With strength I didn't know I possessed, I willed myself to swallow my first oyster.
A nine-day sea kayaking trip from the Aucilla River to the town of Suwannee is a colorful thread through much of the book. Here's how Doug, a novice kayaker at the time, describes the beginning of the trip with his kayaking partner, Liz Sparks:
We were nearing the Gulf, and cordgrass and needlerush extended for miles on both sides of the river in a vast wet savannah, broken by storm-battered palms. Resonant cries of hidden rails and wading birds issued from the grass, along with trilling marsh wrens. I thought of early native people who had used this river and coast. They paddled in dugout canoes crafted from huge cypress and pine trees. They didn't have foot-controlled rudders or plastic kayaks.
An alligator cruised across the river mouth, a large one. I saw only his bony eye sockets and snout before he ducked underwater. Fish-including huge longnose gar-- thrashed the water's surface, startled by my boat. Occasionally, a motorboat whined in the distance.
Once in the Gulf of Mexico, Liz and I headed southeast along a windswept marshy shore. Skies were still gray. Water was murky. The sea had a lonely, forbidden feel.
The tail end of Tropical Storm Henri was still churning up the Gulf--a moderate to heavy chop, as the weatherperson would say. The storm had delayed our trip by two days. At the storm's peak, an Internet weather site said the waves were rolling in at eight to ten feet high.
I tightened my life vest straps. Liz paddled up beside me. She glanced to see if my spray skirt was snapped snugly around my cockpit to keep out water. "Don't worry, this is a shallow coast," she said. "The water's not that deep. If you tip over, you can probably stand up." I nodded, trying to look cheerful.
"Do you have your whistle within reach?" she asked.
"It's in my deck bag."
"That won't do you much good if you tip over. You should attach it to your life vest." I dutifully followed her orders. Liz was a seasoned kayaker and former nurse. My survival, in part, depended upon her guidance.
I spotted the slicing fin of a bottlenose dolphin. A large sea turtle poked its head up, then quickly ducked under as we approached. Liz moved away, silhouetted against the gray, open Gulf. I dove my paddle into the water, trying to establish a rhythm, pushing and pulling simultaneously. Fulcrum, I thought, I am a fulcrum.
I flashed on a memory of fishing the Big Bend when the water was clear. A fat shark had cruised up and parked itself beneath my boat, following along as I drifted. I wondered if it was waiting for a handout, or a hand.
Suddenly, the memory of eating my first raw oyster didn't seem half bad.
Here's an excerpt from Chapter 2, "Seminole Whispers," which is a lead-in to an account of the Big Bend's role in the Seminole wars.
That night, I knew Liz was the perfect wilderness partner. Some time in the wee hours, a wild animal approached her tent and started to growl. Liz growled back. The creature, most likely a wild boar, moved away.
The next morning, Liz exclaimed jokingly, "There's way too much nature out here!" What with the growling episode, scurrying raccoons and other critters, she claimed to have taken only "little naps" during the night. I had slept fairly soundly, dreaming of otters that frolicked and played in a wild, swirling river.
We watched dawn unfold on the Econfina. A pileated woodpecker drummed, then issued its rising cry. Two chattering belted kingfishers swooped low, chasing each other across the channel. A green heron poked along a half-submerged log, almost invisible. Countless songbirds sang while the quiet wings of a red-shouldered hawk sliced through the air. I felt invigorated.
No wonder Seminole and Creek Indians had fought to remain, I thought.
The Big Bend area of the 1700s and early 1800s was a refuge. Not only was it home to Muskogean peoples who had fled warfare and increased European pressure in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, but untold scores of free blacks and escaped slaves formed their own villages as "maroons," or they lived with the Seminoles.
"Shitty Bill" is one of the most colorful characters one will find along the Big Bend Coast. This is from the chapter named after the long-time resident:
We drove back to Billy's small one-room home to view his collection of rattlesnake buttons, raccoon penises, turkey beards and projectile points. They hung from fishing lines in front of the windows like strange holiday ornaments. I had seen people in the Southwest hang green and red peppers in a similar manner.
Billy's brown-haired wife stayed glued to the computer, playing an on-line slot machine. Occasionally, she'd glance up at a football game on television. "Oh, that pass was way overthrown," she moaned at one point, then redirected her attention to the slot machine.
"I'd better be careful," whispered Billy, "or she'll want me to take her back to Biloxi. Already took her a couple of weeks ago."
Once we were outside again, standing beneath a vertical row of deer racks tacked to a PVC post, beside a sign that read, "Shitty Bill's Fish Camp," curiosity got the best of me. "So, how come they call you Shitty Bill?"
Chapter 10, "Living History," covers race relations along the coast, along with other history. Here's an excerpt about turpentining:
Workers generally earned from $1.00 to $1.75 a day (in the late 1930s), depending on the number of trees chipped, cups dipped and barrels filled. Poor weather or dips in the market could affect workers' income for long stretches of time. One white manager of eight turpentine camps near Opal, Florida, in 1922 described what happened during a lengthy rainy period: "It poured down bullfrogs for weeks, and water stood knee-deep all over the woods. We had to set in camp and do nothing. Besides the four hundred niggers, there was thirty head of horses and mules eatin' up rations; and the wet weather made the horses' and mules' backs so sore we could have worked even if it had stopped rainin'. I shore had a peck of trouble on my hands. To make everything worse, the big bosses in New York kept telegraphin' me wantin' to know why no production. Finally I got mad, told em to go to hell, and waded off the job."
I live in a remnant longleaf forest near Woodville, south of Tallahassee. After a prescribed burn on my property, scattered sherds of red-brick turpentine cups lay exposed on the blackened earth, and I wonder about the souls who once worked the trees. It is difficult to contrast the lives of turpentiners with the peace of the piney woods. Likewise, it is hard to picture human toil and suffering when paddling along blankets of marsh grass or shoreline walls of second-growth forest.
In the late 1930s, as part of the Florida Writer's Project of the Works Progress Administration, Stetson Kennedy, Robert Cook and Zora Neale Hurston ventured into a Cross City turpentine camp in Dixie County. Kennedy later described the visit:
we had gained access by telling the (heavily armed) owners we were looking for songs. We set up a night-time recording session around a campfire. In between songs, I said to the "hands," "Don't you know they can't make you work against your will?"
"They do do it," was the answer.
"Then why don't you leave and get out of it?"
"The onliest way out is to die out. If you tries to leave, they will kill you, and you will have to die, because they got peoples to bury you out in them woods."
At this point several young men jumped up and disappeared into the underbrush-to serve as sentries in case one of the white woodsriders were to show up.
Sure enough, after a while one of the sentries rushed into the firelight urgently whispering, "Here come the Man! Sing somethin', quick!"
Chapter 11, "Turtles and Pirates," chronicles the long history of sea turtle exploitation and Big Bend pirates. More recently, the area was infamous for drug running:
St. Petersburg Times reporter Lucy Morgan helped to break the story about Big Bend drug running in the early 1980s. "I was working on a story about the ineffectiveness of the statewide grand jury--which was created at [then Florida governor] Reubin Askew's urging to deal with drug smuggling--and almost everyone I interviewed said I needed to be spending time in Dixie and Taylor counties," she said. "Cops who worked drug cases said they were frequently followed by green and white deputy cars within minutes of arriving in the area; the Dixie County Commission had traveled to another county to defend a drug smuggler, saying it would be an economic threat to the county if he was jailed, etc. So I decided to spend time looking at the situation. I wrote a series of stories that began running in April 1981 and continued on and off through '82 and more sporadically afterwards. The feds redesigned the district so Dixie County was shifted into the Northern District of Florida for drug prosecutions and they arrested more than 250 people."
According to Lucy, those arrested included the chief deputy in Dixie County, a former school board chairman from Dixie County, the chairman of the Taylor County Commission, the Taylor County sheriff and other well-known people in the area. "Essentially they were providing the boats to off-load larger boats carrying thousands of pounds of marijuana," she said, "and in the later years, cocaine."
Lucy's journalistic sleuthing was not without risk. "I had any number of threats," she said, "But more often the people I was interviewing were threatened--sometimes while I was at their house doing the interviews. FDLE (Florida Department of Law Enforcement) once monitored a conversation among the smugglers in Tarpon Springs when they discussed whether it would be feasible to kill me because I had really screwed up the offload sites on the west coast. They concluded it wouldn't be worth the uproar it would cause.
"I frequently got calls asking me to meet someone with a hot tip on the Steinhatchee River bridge at midnight, things like that. I always countered with 'How about the courthouse steps at noon?' The good ole' boys often twirled their guns as I walked by them--it was great sport. I always thought it was an advantage being a woman in those situations; most of those people would be slow to hit a woman."
While Lucy survived the ordeal to become the Tallahassee bureau chief for the St. Petersburg Times, many of the Times' green metal distribution boxes found a new use-as artificial reefs. Some say they can still spot them at the bottom of the Gulf, collecting barnacles.
Chapter 12, "Fragile Existence," includes an encounter with a manatee:
As we approached our evening destination-Butler Island-Liz and I kept our gaze fixed on a huge billowing cloud before us. Early evening light tinged it pink. "I swear," said Liz, "that looks like one big poodle."
"It sure does," I agreed. Suddenly, the back of my kayak lifted up and a huge manatee exploded from underneath. My first thought was that I had encountered a whale. I scrambled to steady myself.
From poodles to manatees, this coast can really surprise you, I thought.
In the turbid water, I hadn't seen the manatee, and he must not have seen me. Manatees are surprisingly quick when startled. "There's a manatee on the Wakulla River that purposely tips over canoes," said Liz.
"Maybe it's the same one, heading south before cold weather hits," I replied, scanning the water for signs of a torpedo-like return.
Manatees are Florida's gentle giants, often called sea cows because they graze on voluminous amounts of sea grass and water weeds. This can give them enormous amounts of gas, too; those bubbles rising up through the water are not just exhalations of carbon dioxide. I've had to hold my nose while paddling over a manatee pod on the Wakulla River.
Manatees often move back and forth along the coast. They venture up Big Bend rivers such as the St. Marks and Wakulla in warm months, and seek refuge in constant temperature springs in winter, especially along the Suwannee and at Crystal River. They also enjoy the warm effluent of power plants.
Red tide and sudden cold snaps are major causes of death, but people driving high-powered boats kill scores of manatees each year for a total of 1,237 verified deaths from 1974 through 2003. Florida has almost one million registered powerboats, and slightly more than three thousand manatees. Through the eons of their evolution, they've never had to flee large, threatening objects swiftly moving across the surface. Now they do. When a boat approaches, manatees generally dive and move away, flipping up their powerful tails. This is why their tails and lower backs are the body parts most often struck by boats. While about half of boat-related manatee deaths are attributed to blunt trauma from a collision, almost all manatees have propeller scars. Many sea cows that return year after year to various freshwater springs and power plants can be identified by them.
Chapter 13, "Simple Life," describes a visit with local historian Preston Chavous, who turned an 1863 log cabin into a type of family museum:
"This place has changed," said Preston, speaking more broadly of the entire area. "It will never go back to what it was. People are coming here unbelievably. I sold a lot of land that was developed, but I preserved a little bit of it. Maybe I might leave this damn place to the state. I don't know."
He sighed and glanced wistfully around the room, before moving toward the front door. I followed him outside. Despite the chilly night air, I felt warm, richer of spirit, as if many people had shared their lives with me. "Thank you, Preston," I said, shaking his hand. There was little else to say. Preston's world was ebbing like an outgoing tide; we both knew you couldn't stop it or even slow it down, only grab a small piece and hold on tight.
Other chapters describe marine life, bird migration, seagrass beds, global warming and its effect on the coast, a long-standing family feud, the saga of the Fenholloway River and paper mill pollution, sponge fishermen, the net ban, a journey through a coastal swamp, early logging, Spanish explorers, and following in the footsteps of famed naturalist John Muir through Cedar Key.
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