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Reconnecting with nature in Jacksonville.
A sweet and salty Florida breeze stirs the salt-marsh cordgrass all around my kayak. I’m paddling just a bit inland from the beach and surf of the Atlantic, but except for the unmistakable briny air and the occasional ungainly pelican sweeping by overhead, the ocean could be hours, not minutes, away. What is here is contented simplicity.
I’m exploring the huge Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve on the northeast edge of Jacksonville. Nature’s anthem – birds, whirring insects, the hollow plop of a trout returning to the water after gulping a dragonfly – is everywhere. Cars, trains, shouting angry people? They have no presence here. And that is a very good thing.
It’s hard to believe that just a few pelican wing-beats away is the bustling city of Jacksonville, neatly divided in two by the fertile St. Johns River and home to more than a million people. The whole area buzzes with activity: salt-water fishing, golf, hiking, stand-up paddle boarding, surfing, birding, sea-turtle conservation, living history experiences. The Jacksonville area positively vibrates with busy people doing fascinating things, more than a few of them happily enjoying the city’s 84,000 acres of public parkland, the largest urban park system in the nation.
A lot of it is wet, for instance the tidal creek I’m drifting on at the moment. This suits Ray Hetchka just fine. “Growing older, I’ve discovered that it’s the water and being on it and in it that really speaks to me,” says Ray, operator of Kayak Amelia, a local outing organizer. All around, the coastal wetland blooms with natural grace. The water laps gently among the reeds, sunlight glints from tidal pools, and the whispery trills of a salt marsh sparrow drift out from somewhere in the underbrush.
A great blue heron leaps clear of a wading spot and sweeps across in front of me, wing tips tickling the water before he gains altitude and soars over the palmettos and away. The mud along the channel is busy with sharp-fingered raccoon tracks and the rounded prints of a wandering bobcat. A snowy egret watches from the lower branches of an oak cedar, and far overhead an osprey circles, looking for an unwary kingfish or snook to snatch for lunch. This is actually a pretty busy neighborhood.
No doubt that’s why these marshes and tidal creeks are known as a great place to observe wildlife, especially birds.
“I love birding in Jacksonville,” says Inez Whipple, of the local Audubon Society. She ticks off all the different habitats on her fingertips: “Ocean front, river, marsh, estuary, swamp.” There’s a comfy home for every bird, and a great bird for every birder. “My very favorite bird is the roseate spoonbill. My friends and I call it the ‘northeast Florida flamingo,’ ” she laughs, teasing a bit about the pink waders that are the unofficial mascots of the downstate Miami area.
Plenty of folks love to get out in the marshy areas, as Danielle D’Amato tells me. A graduate student in marine science who studies diamondback terrapins – a wetland turtle with beautiful concentric patterns on its shell – Danielle likes nothing better than a nice outing in the wet woods. “The more I am in the wetlands the more I like them,” she says. “Typically people only see them as a muddy area, but the amount of diverse species that inhabit them is amazing—the different crabs, or marsh snails. And the birds, oh, the birds love the marsh.”
But according to Danielle, the pursuit of happiness in Jacksonville goes beyond the wildlife extending to the lively strip of barrier island properties along the Atlantic that vary from woodsy Amelia and Little Talbot islands to the cottage-filled communities south of the river. “You can drive in town and enjoy the river, but in Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach you have a very beach-town feel,” she says.
That can include everything from fresh seafood served within earshot of the Atlantic surf, golfing into the prevailing sea breeze at manicured links among the coastal dunes, playful dolphin cruises, or romantic sunset sails, deep-water fishing, bocce on the beach, or even taking surf lessons from Tiffany Layton Oliser, a former member of the University of North Florida Surfing Team, who started Jacksonville Surf & Paddle.
“We’ve been sending our daughter to summer camps and lessons with Tiffany and her crew for three years,” says Carrie Lantzy, a regular Jacksonville visitor. “Kids absolutely love the instructors and they learn to love to surf. Many smiles and positive vibes come from hanging with these guys!”
A bit farther south at Ponte Vedra Beach, Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve offers guided Cultural Hikes covering 5,000 years of human habitation in the area and Interpretive Beach Walks, where guides share the secrets of dune preservation and introduce you to a variety of sea birds. During endangered sea-turtle nesting season (April-October), volunteers hit the beach every morning to find and protect the previous night’s nests.
Walking the sandy beach after the mother turtle has laid the eggs and gone, volunteers locate the nests by back-tracking her laborious midnight journey to the sheltering surf. “For me it’s the ‘thrill of discovery’ in finding the turtle crawl,” says volunteer Joan Becker, “the challenge of understanding what she did and where she laid her eggs.”
The satisfaction of finding something interesting is always an easy reach around Jacksonville. Visitors find they need little more than their eyes and their ears, their senses of taste, touch and smell, and maybe a few spare minutes to discover something they’ll remember forever.
No one knows that better than Tom Weeks and his wife, Anne, who have been seasonal live-in volunteers at the Kingsley Plantation Historic Site in the Timucuan Preserve for a couple of years now. The Kingsley site’s plain 1799 plantation house overlooks the Fort George Inlet within easy reach of salty Atlantic breezes. There are the remains of a long vanished Spanish mission, trails wind beneath towering palmetto trees, and there’s enough Spanish moss to beard Sherwood Forest.
Tom and Anne spend their time helping visitors, pitching in with upkeep, and keeping their eyes open for the unique – but often very simple – Jacksonville experience that keeps them coming back.
“The site is very serene, with the view of the river, the palm trees, the various structures, and the ever changing tide,” Tom says. “We watch the sun rise and set over the salt marsh. It is astonishing how little one really needs to be happy.”
Local Expert, Guest Blogger: Danny Lee
Local Expert Guest