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Florida's Forgotten Coast

I have been living in Florida for almost twenty years now and continue to discover interesting new locations for photography.

This summer I took my first visit to the Florida “Panhandle”. My original plan had been to drive from Naples, about a 9-hour drive, but at the last minute, friends offered a ride on a private plane and who can say no to that?! Thank you, Lou and Marie! The plane, a Columbia 350, is small aircraft, not well suited for photography as doors and windows have to remain shut, and shooting through the window has a lot of limitations with angles and glare. But it is always a wonderful experience to see the world from the “over-view”. For example, I had never realized how vast and seemingly untouched the coastal mangroves are around Crystal River. Maybe my next trip will take me there?

Crystal River power plant, a preferred spot for manatees.

My main reason I wanted to visit the panhandle was the "Dead Lakes". I had seen beautiful images by other photographers of cypress trees logged in water and wanted to see for myself. The pilot was kind enough to detour over the Dead Lakes before approaching Apalachicola airport, which allowed me to scope the area I wanted to capture.

The Dead Lakes from above

Base camp was Apalachicola, a small town on the Gulf of Mexico (2-traffic-lights-town), but with an airport and a few simple hotels. It is also the commercial center of the panhandle. I had booked the iconic “Gibson Inn”, which is well over 100 years old and the best place in town.

Apalach night life

The Dead Lakes are near the even smaller town of Wewahitchka ("Wewa", a one-traffic-light-town), a good one hour drive from Apalachicola (or “Apalach”, as the locals call it).

Tupelo and Cypress trees

The tupelo trees of the swamp are the reason Wewahitchka is known as the country’s best source of tupelo honey. “Ulee’s Gold” - a movie from 1997 with Peter Fonda refers to tupelo honey and plays here. It portrays a Vietnam veteran turned apiarist, and, yes, Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey" is the theme song. Look for the movie on Cinemax.

Dead Lakes

The lakes were formed when a dam was placed across the Chipola River in 1960 near Wewahitchka. The creation of a Chipola Cutoff canal diverted the river’s main flow away from the cypress swamp to the Apalachicola River, changing the hydrology of the area. The dam was supposed to create great fishing. And for a while it did. By the 1970s, fishing was on the decline. And in 1987, the Dead Lakes Dam was removed. Without the dam, fish populations and species diversity have risen every year. Anglers again enjoy excellent bream and shellcracker fishing in spring, but the dead trees remain.

Survivors

My plan was to hire a boat to take me out onto the lakes, but when I got there, the boat captain cancelled due to mechanical problems. Despite my desperate attempts to hire another boat, I could not find anyone willing to go on the Dead Lakes. I couldn’t believe it! An area as scenic (to me) as Angkor Wat, and no tourist infrastructure for the Dead Lakes.

That evening, I photographed from whatever elevated position I could find. The next day I returned and hiked down the banks, fighting shrubs, muck, and insects in an attempt to get a better viewing angle. No luck. I then explored the larger area around the lake by car, asking anyone who passed by, but they just gave me strange looks. Eventually, I was invited to someone's back porch where I could see the Chipola river (thank you, Billie). I will have to come back another time with a boat plan that will hopefully work out.

Chipola River view.

Most visitors now come to the Panhandle for the beaches. They are a spectacular, sugary white summer playground for the neighboring states Alabama and Georgia. Life revolves around water, not the land. Everyone seems to have a boat, the favorite pastime is fishing, or boating, and people arrive at restaurants via boats.

There seem to be only two kinds of restaurants - fried seafood (most common), or steamed seafood (harder to find), but seafood is served in all of them.

Colorful new development on St. George Island

The ongoing building boom is insane. Partially, to re-build from the destruction of hurricane Michael in 2018, but also many new developments. The demand for beach front property is insatiable.

Thankfully, parts of the barrier islands of St. George, San Blas, and St. Vincent are now protected parks. This fragile dune ecosystem is also habitat to a large number of sea birds.

St. George Island

The history of the panhandle is also a history of economic cycles. Before the boom in tourism, seafood was the key economic driver. It ended when the BP Oil Spill in 2010 and Hurricane Michael in 2018 made big dents in the seafood industry in this region. Only a small fraction of its former size remains. This once self-proclaimed former Oyster Capital of the World now produces no oysters at all.

New Beginnings

To go back another step in history, before the now-defunct seafood industry, the main economic driver was timber, until timber was logged out.

Storms visit frequently and in 1889 during the Georgia Hurricane, the neighboring town Carrabelle took a heavy beating. It had been the economic center of the timber trade but its port and the international fleet in the harbor were completely destroyed. Recent hurricane Michael unearthed one of the shipwrecks from 1898 near Dog Island and it is now a tourist attraction.

Displays in the Carrabelle History Museum

With all the history, the scenic landscapes and fabulous beaches, why is it then called “The Forgotten Coast”? As the story goes, the editors of a comprehensive guide to Florida’s tourism treasures forgot to include this section of the coast in their book and the error was only corrected a few years later. Hence, the Forgotten Coast

Personally, I was pleasantly surprised by the beauty, diversity and relaxed atmosphere of the area. Anyone looking for a few days of getaway would enjoy it. I will certainly be back!

Apalachicola Bay