[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[ft-l] Trip Report: Mucking Around St. Marks

by Sandra Downs (aka "Navigator")

[written for the FTA Cracker Call newsletter...and y'all ;)]

Scarcely a quarter mile south of where the Florida Trail crosses the road to 
Wakulla Beach, a lone dirt track launches east from a Forest Service gate, 
wending its way through stands of slash pine and scrub palmetto to greet the 
rising sun. This is St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, one of the 
Panhandle's ecological treasures, encompassing vast reaches of salt marsh 
blurring the border where Florida meets the Gulf of Mexico.

Our objective is Gibbs' Island- some four miles east, beyond the end of the 
road, beyond the last peninsula. An island in the estuary, a hammock of 
palmetto and pine, rising a scant foot higher than the marshes that surround 
it- but that foot of sand made all the difference in the world.

It's early. We rose with dawn. Armed with a crude map and transcribed 
directions from a phone conversation with Dale Allen, of the FTA Appalachee 
Chapter, Linda "Earthworm" Patton and I make our way through the morning 
bustle of Tallahassee down to the refuge, down to what we hope is the right 
dirt track. 

Loggers travel these roads. Selective cuts, no prettier than clearcut forest 
when you see the destructive force of tractors, front-loaders, crushing deep 
ruts through the profusion of wildflowers in the drainage ditches-deep purple 
violets with bursting white stars for centers, bluish-purple blooms of 
blue-eyed grass, white-throated lilies with yellow stamens. Behind them, 
trees marked for death, a blaze of blue paint sealing their fate.

For such a sprawling refuge, we feel an acute lack of wildlife. No waterfowl 
peering from sloughs. No alligators creeping through the salt marsh. A 
woodpecker rattles in the distance, breaking the stillness. It can't be the 
road that keeps them away, for it's painted with tracks of deer, coyote, 
raccoon. So we revel in the minutiae- monarch butterflies flit from flower to 
flower, strays left behind from the annual winter migration that colors the 
trees of St. Marks in stripes of orange and gold. Mating, snails with curving 
lilac shells twist in a lover's embrace. Hermit crabs scuttle to their holes, 
waving ridiculously oversized claws in a show of power, parting before our 
steps like the Red Sea, scattering to left and right.

Emerging from forest to savanna, the track becomes marshy. We arrived at this 
obscenely early hour to beat the tide-for Gibbs' Island is truly an island, 
and we'd prefer to walk there, not swim. The satisfyingly squishy marsh muck 
makes sticky sounds underfoot-"squick, squick." Sand fleas emerge as the sun 
warms the tidal basin, worrying us mercilessly. Boulders rise from the muck, 
young limestone, without fossils, frothy like fluffy marshmallows. We walk 
across salt flats, crisp and white.

The trail ends. We bushwack through slender reeds with sharp-needled tips, 
make our way onto the hammock that forms a peninsula stretching southeast, 
towards the St. Marks River. Under stands of slash pine, through palmetto 
scrub, we spy clear sky ahead. One dead palmetto stands strangely peeled, 
banana-like, its empty insides, lined with a dense mat of fiber, open to the 

Linda stops, points. Bear scat. We're searching for the game trail, the trail 
the deer, the bear, the bobcats use to make their way from island to island, 
to cross the great tidal marsh. I find deer tracks. The salt pans lead us in 
the correct direction. A stick is handy, as the marsh mud is slippery, 
particularly over the gash where the tides rolls in and out twice daily; the 
water now a scarce trickle, sparkling with fish.

Gibbs' Island. A small Civil War outpost, scarcely two acres, serving the 
Confederacy as so many of the small Florida islands once did-producing salt. 
Here, the kettles still stand, a silent reminder of skirmishes and battles, 
life and death, over humanity's most precious seasoning, salt. Salt was 
crucial for preserving meat, for tanning leather. For the Confederate States 
of America, Florida salt meant not giving up the fight-and during the war, 
salt became so precious that the price of salt rose from $1 a bushel in 1861 
to $50 a bushel in late 1864.

While Union gunboats sat in wait at the mouth of the St. Marks River, a few 
miles away, soldiers and civilians tended salt works like these, ladling the 
marsh waters into kettles, lighting fires under them, watching the water boil 
off. Transported by horse and mule, the not-quite-dry salt was packed onto 
waiting boats, whose captains played an endless game of cat and mouse with 
the Union blockade. 

The men who manned this outpost watched limestone turn orange and red under 
the heat of the fires. They chopped down the big pines for fuel, leaving only 
palmettos to guard the kettles. These aren't your ordinary rounded iron 
kettles, found elsewhere off the Florida Trail-they're big. Very big. At 
least eight feet long, the welding on these kettles indicates they might be 
boiler units from steam engines, sliced in half, set well above the tide on a 
bier of native stone, decorated with prickly pear cactus. 

Linda pokes around the island, picks up the trash left by previous visitors, 
points out the broad flat area where the soldier's tents were likely pitched. 
I peer closely at the kettles, probe at rusting iron, scan for artifacts.

Around Gibbs' Island, it seems, the salt marsh stretches on forever. But it 
wasn't enough to protect the men who tended the kettles, guarded the salt 
works-- which in their heyday, produced more than 4,800 bushels of salt per 
day. A Union sympathizer in the town of St. Marks tipped off the crew of the 
blockade vessel Tahoma, which dispatched a raiding party across the swamps. 
They captured a dozen Confederate calvarymen, tore the kettles to pieces. 

I stand at the island's edge, looking out towards the St. Marks River, 
feeling the salt breeze. Palmetto fronds rake the deep blue sky. How lonely 
this task must have been, in an age of war, in a long-forgotten outpost, a 
footnote lost to history.
* From the Florida Trail Mailing List | http://www.backcountry.net *

To:            ft-l@backcountry.net