Pat’s Wildways: Big Bend Road Trip

By Pat Foster-Turley

Bucko and I have lived in north Florida for decades now, but it doesn’t stop me from trying to find new things to see and do here. Last week I used my trip planning skills to better explore the Big Bend area of north Florida, that stretch of countryside in Florida’s “armpit” but with a more charismatic name. And now, sadly, the Big Bend area is solidly in the news. Hurricane Idalia has hit!

We spent our first night away at the Wakulla Springs Lodge in the state park just south of Tallahassee. This is always a perfect overnight stop for us, with its grand historic lodgings and restaurant and a perfect natural spring to cool off in 69-degree water. And best yet there is a scenic boat tour available for only $8 that passes by unperturbed alligators, marsh hens, cormorants, herons, and even a handful of manatees that are all used to the regular passing of these tour boats. No other boats are allowed there—it looks and feels like the Old Florida it is. Wonderful.

The Bottle House and Lighthouse is (was?) a Carabelle attraction.

From Wakulla, I plotted our drive onward along back roads through the Apalachicola National Forest. For miles, we saw no other signs of humans, just endless expanses of trees, shrubs and natural scenery. Our goal was to spot a bear, but no luck. Just trees and more trees, not that there’s anything wrong with that! On such trips, I often consult the website for Roadside America where quirky sights in all states are depicted on a useful map.

The Bottle House and Lighthouse in nearby Carabelle was on the Florida map, so off we went to find it. This place was a treasure, and it looked like people lived there, although we didn’t knock on their door. On the way back to the main road, still in the boonies, Bucko nudged me from my map reading. A bear! Here in the midst of homes and traffic, a bear crossed in front of our car and ran into a driveway where I managed to photograph it before it ran from sight. No pristine woods for this critter. Carabelle is right near where the hurricane landed on Wednesday morning. The area around the Bottle House looked low-lying and impoverished and the houses were mostly single-story old style; no stilted houses anywhere in sight. I fear for the local residents, both people and bears, and wonder if the Bottle House is still there.

A bear ran by us on the road from Carabelle.

We spent our next night in the town of Apalachicola, a mixed story. Once famous for its oyster harvests, this fishery has been temporarily closed for a few years now due to water flow and over-harvesting issues. While much of the town seems dormant there are signs of redevelopment and there are a few good hotels and restaurants to choose from. We stayed at the Riverwood Suites and ate at the Up to No Good Tavern, with great results. Happily it turns out that Apalachicola did not sustain much hurricane damage at all.

The next day we headed along the Big Bend Highway 98 to Steinhatchee, our last stop for the night. Along the way, we explored St. George Island, a low-lying barrier island, and drove out to the state park on the north end, down a single road not very high above sea level, most of it. Before leaving on the long causeway back to the mainland we photographed the Cape St. George Light, a lighthouse that was first built in the mid-1800s, then collapsed from beach erosion in 2005 and rebuilt in 2008. Well, with this being the biggest hurricane to hit this area in more than 100 years, I wonder if it will have to be rebuilt again.

The Cape St. George Lighthouse on Aug. 24, 2023 before Hurricane Idalia hit the area.

At Steinhatchee, we stayed at the Good Times Motel and relaxed at the adjacent Who Dat Bar and Grill watching the boats come and go at the marina. Just across from us was a view of the Sea Hag Marina, where boats carrying recreational scallop hunters were being loaded and unloaded from the dock. Videos after Idalia landed here indicate that the Sea Hag Marina has been lost, along with who knows how much else of this cozy seaside fishing town.

The Sea Hag Marina in Steinhatchee fell victim to the hurricane and won’t look like this again for a while.

Our trip last week wasn’t quite over yet. On the way home I spotted a small sign for “Otter Springs” and of course we had to follow this lead. We ended up at a beautiful spring that we had just about all to ourselves except for a mother and two young children playing in the cold water. A canoe launch at the spring leads right to the Suwanee River. Signs around the spring said “No Smoking or Vaping” and one was covered with mud. Was it from an angry smoker? No. These were mud dauber wasp nests placed there by nature, a good thing. But this spring feeds the Suwanee River, and is close to the eye of the hurricane. I’ll bet the mud daubers and even the signs are long gone now.

Otter Springs was quiet and pristine on a calm sunny day last week.

Bucko and I had a fun trip through one of our favorite areas in Old Florida, but who would know that it would be so heartbreaking to see Hurricane Idalia devastate the area a week after our visit?  Floridians know how to rebuild, but how long will it take many of the affected people to have a “normal” life again? My heart bleeds for them.

Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]

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Noble Member
9 months ago

How fortunate that y’all were able to visit these beautiful places before the storm put her mark upon them. I fret that little Cedar Key, a little place I visited many years ago to assist with TNR of stray and feral cats, will also be a long time in recovery. I also wonder how the animals fared during the storm. Buildings can be restored, but lives cannot. Many prayers for all of those impacted by Idalia. We have been blessed once again to have only received minimal impact from this one.

Richard Timm
Trusted Member
Richard Timm(@rtimm-ontheislandgmail-com)
9 months ago

Thank you for a timely view of what I hope is still a beautiful part of our state.