IT’S ONE OF THOSE pristine mornings along the Florida Panhandle when the sunrise colours the sand dunes in daybreak orange while waves gently tease the shoreline. The water hasn’t yet built up the full head of steam that creates afternoon whitecaps. Early morning is my favourite time to wander the trails, boardwalks, coastal marshlands and dunes of Gulf Islands National Seashore, America’s largest national seashore.
EVERY FEW YEARS, HY HUSBAND and I come back to camp on this blissful stretch of barrier island where we can re-wild our urban lives.
Gulf Islands is an oft-overlooked corner of Florida – one of the last bits of land jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico before the Alabama state line. With brackish Pensacola Bay on one side and emerald saltwater and white sand beaches on the other, it’s a wilderness that’s hooked my heart. And yet it’s a short 25-minute drive from the bustle and amenities of nearby Pensacola – a drive well worth the trip, if only to buy fresh shrimp from the docks.
Back at home, mornings are for schedules and productivity; for fielding electronic notifications and punching out e-mails with haste. Here, a world away, my early morning strolls are a cherished opportunity to breathe deeply, turn on my senses and park the world of work and deadlines.
AS I NAVIGATE THE PATHS AND raised wooden walkways that wind through freshwater wetlands and stands of pine, oak and palmetto, the stillness of the day affords me the opportunity to sneak up on some “locals” going about their morning routine.
One morning I come upon a row of six great blue herons, standing at attention on the boardwalk handrails of the Blackbird Marsh Trail. I hold my breath and watch, focusing my camera and taking only pictures. After several minutes I shuffle forward a few steps and, one by one, the young birds take flight with such grace and fluidity that it plays out like a slowmotion reel. Another morning, it’s the snuffling of armadillos as they rummage for their breakfast.
Each time I return to Gulf Islands National Seashore, things are a renewed version of how I left them. On my morning walks I play a game of “spot the changes.” Without fail, the biggest change I notice takes place along the shore. The constant action of the wind and waves wear away some parts of the terrain while building up others, shifting the curves of the sandy barrier islands. It spells a slow march westward, sculpting the dunes into a fragile ecosystem held together by grasses and tall sea oats.
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After ambling through the marshlands, I end my walk at the shore, burying my toes in the powder-soft sand. If I stand still enough I can hear the graceful sea oats playing in the breeze, whispering secrets of survival in their ever-shifting world. And perhaps that’s the lesson they hold: find strength and resilience in bending with the wind while the world unfolds in its own way, on its own schedule.
When You Go:
Fort Pickens | Sherry Young
WHAT TO DO: Walking stretches of shoreline, swimming, birdwatching, fishing and exploring historic Fort Pickens are atop the list of things to do at Gulf Islands National Seashore. If you feel the tug of “urban time,” Pensacola is close by and home to the National Naval Aviation Museum – one of the world’s largest air museums – and the pretty Pensacola Lighthouse.
WHERE TO DINE: You won’t find seafood any fresher than right from the docks at Joe Patti’s Seafood market in Pensacola. The locals come with coolers to stock up for the week.
WHERE TO STAY: Fort Pickens Campground, located in the National Seashore, has tent and RV sites – some with electrical and water hook-ups.
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