A Refuge On Florida’s Forgotten Coast

By Betsy Schifanella • Photographs by Tom Schifanella

Rich in Florida History 

Spread across Apalachee Bay, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), consisting of 68,000 acres, was established in 1931 as a wintering ground for migratory birds. Most of the roads, ponds, and levees in this refuge were originally built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), part of Roosevelt’s New Deal after the Great Depression. The ponds and impoundments range from fresh water to salt, accommodating the many species of migratory birds passing through Florida’s Big Bend. The refuge also encompasses the estuaries of seven freshwater rivers—the Ochlockonee, Sopchoppy, Wakulla (St. Marks), Wacissa, Aucilla, Enconfina, and Fenholloway—making it an amazing aquatic nursery for fish, oysters, and crabs.  

Toward the end of the Civil War, the area of St. Marks was strategically important to the Confederate Army for delivery of supplies and to the Union Army trying to capture the capital, Tallahassee. The Union regiment, which came ashore at the St. Marks Lighthouse, was repulsed at Natural Bridge (where the St. Marks River goes underground), but not before destroying several bridges and the salt factory, essential for preserving food for the Confederate troops. 

Exploring Florida’s Best Scenic Trails 

St. Marks is a gateway site for the Great Florida Birding Trail and can be easily reached by car. For the more energetic, the 16-mile Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail also provides access to the area. Ending at the coastal community of St. Marks, this biking trail follows the railroad corridor used to carry cotton through the early 1900s from the plantation belt to the coast for shipment to textile mills in England and New England. There are also boat ramps at St. Marks and within the refuge to explore and fish the estuaries. 

For the hiker, the Florida National Scenic Trail traverses the refuge for 41 miles. We choose to hike the Cathedral of Palms trail which begins in St. Marks NWR, and follows the Florida National Scenic Trail to Shepherd Spring. Bring your bug spray for this wonderful hike through a stand of majestic sabal palms stretching from cypress swamp to marsh. There is not another soul on the trail, and, in the quiet, the sound of the palms murmuring in the breeze is magical.

We also take several hikes around ponds to observatories and along the levees, marveling at the variety of grasses and wildflowers. Butterflies are everywhere, including the migratory monarchs passing through St. Marks NWR on their way to Mexico for the winter. 

A Night Under the Stars

We first enter St. Marks NWR just as the sun is beginning to set. On a spit of land reaching into the bay, the St. Marks Lighthouse, the second oldest in Florida, proudly sits, reflecting the gloriously red sunset. Opening the car door, I am greeted with a symphony of bird song. Both overhead and in the marsh, it is a surround sound set against a horizon ablaze with color. It has been a crystal clear, cloudless day and will be the perfect night for stargazing. As twilight settles, Jupiter and Saturn appear first, then Mars. There are no lights, so it gets pitch-black dark. The Night Sky app helps us find the constellations: Sagittarius, Cygnus (the Swan), Cassiopeia, and Ursa Major. By 9 p.m., the Milky Way is streaming over us, the only cloud in the sky.

For the black-and-white images in this article, Tom used an infrared filter which eliminates 95 percent of visible light, opening up an unseen world that lies just beyond the visible spectrum that we normally see. The exposures are long, sometimes 30 seconds, giving a soft appearance to the grasses and palms blowing in the wind.

St. Marks NWR offers such a variety of settings for painting, drawing, and photography as well as opportunities for birdwatching, stargazing, hiking, biking, and fishing, that there is a little something for everyone to enjoy. Step into nature here for it is a truly magical experience at anytime of the day.

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Author: Arbus

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