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Adventure on the History Trail

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I don’t remember precisely when I first became enamored with maps and compasses. I do recall one of my earliest memories is that of my brother and me standing in the driveway of our St. Petersburg home in the late 1950’s while he patiently instructs me, his wide-eyed younger sister, in the basics of navigational direction. In front of us is south and behind us is north, he explains. The tree with the little black berries is east he gestures, and down the road where my playmate and her brother live is west. The concept of knowing exactly where I stood in relation to a place beyond my yard was somehow very reassuring. Many times later I would stand grounded securely in that same spot while I allowed myself to imagine the world around me growing increasingly larger.

It must have been the beauty of the colors and intricate details drawn in the over-sized books of maps that sat on the shelf of our living room bookcase that initially attracted me. Like first learning to read and understand words, when I learned to read and comprehend a map, my world forever changed. Doors magically opened to the wonders of geography and history, and maps became alive with the past, present and future. Gazing at a map could transport me to many different places, expose me to other peoples, and connect me to the past. Maps simply awakened a desire to know more, and sometimes revealed things totally unexpected.

Recently I happened upon an unexpected delight when I discovered the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge History Trail. This newly established series of interpretive signs and informational brochures was funded by a matching grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Federation to showcase important cultural resources of this area. Many volunteers and organizations assisted with this project which appears to be another precious jewel in the crown worn by the one of the oldest refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Spread over 68,000 acres encompassing coastal marshes, tidal creeks and estuaries, oak hammocks and pine forests, and home to an incredible diversity of plant and animal life, the St Marks NWR is an authentic natural treasure. This expansive area also lays claim to a rich cultural past.

The unadorned map of the History Trail begins coming to life as I work to weave historical facts into the cloth of map coordinates. Long-ago places like Mandalay, Port Leon and Spanish Hole suddenly are more than just names. From the Paleo-Indian period to European arrival, to the Civil War and WW II, through to present day, the colorful tales rest there just waiting to be uncovered. The History Trail begins at Wakulla Beach, site of the Wakulla Beach Hotel and West Goose Creek Seineyard, and ends at the Aucilla River. Most of the destination points are located along the 7 mile road that leads from the Refuge Visitor Center down to the lighthouse and site of Fort Williams. Eleven beautifully written and illustrated brochures are available at each of the well-stocked kiosks along the trail. They open a window to the past and I am intrigued.

On a recent afternoon I invited a friend to join me to explore the Mounds Trail, one of the hiking trails located along the larger History Trail. We are both Certified Green Guides and always ready for the next eco-heritage adventure. This particular trail winds through an area of former Swift Creek Indian settlements and shell mounds. It is also the site of a previous long leaf pine forest which supported a thriving turpentine industry. The Mounds Pond Interpretive Trail also known as the Tower Pond Trail is located 5 miles south of the Visitor Center and begins just outside the parking lot. It is here that we decide to begin our brief journey back to the past.

We enter our time travel through the doorway thicket of palmettos and pines and emerge out into the open at the feet of an old fire tower erected over a shell midden mound of long ago. Through my mind’s eye, I see the small native camps scattered along the trail and families tending to their daily life. Further forward into time, we come upon evidence marking the tragic hurricane of 1843. I sense the panic and hear the cries of people being swept under the wall of water that devastatingly surged in from the sea. This hurricane altered the history here, a reminder of the incredible power of nature. Now we watch the ground for tracks left behind by animals that inhabit this area – bobcat, raccoons, wild hogs, and white-tailed deer. A slight perception of distant movement prompts us to turn our gaze upward. There staring directly at us, 100 feet ahead in his full rut glory, wide-racked, 10 points or better, stands a magnificent buck of enormous stature.

We continue along the trail moving through a transition zone from sandy soil to oak hammock, from late afternoon to the beginning of dusk. The shifting light signals the start of evening flight as birds return to roost as they have done for hundreds of years. We hear their calls as they closely fly overhead. In the woods, bright red cardinals flit back and forth between the ground and the large oak trees draped heavily with Spanish moss, plant material once used widely for packing and stuffing. Next we pass by fresh water pools separated from the natural salt marsh by earthen levees constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s to create food and nesting areas for wildlife. These young men built the Refuge by mostly incredible muscle and skill. We stop at the blind overlooking one of these pools to watch migratory waterfowl while the sun casts long golden shadows across the pond. Further ahead running across the trail is a broad muddy slide made by alligators and used by other wildlife for crossing between the pools.

We arrive back at the doorway thicket of cabbage palms and slash pines. The beacon from the lighthouse in the distance begins to beam signaling its nightly sentry as it has done nearly every night since 1831. The coastal sky fills with the colorful light of sunset and the approaching night. We stand there savoring the beauty of the moment in quiet reflection. How many others before us and after will watch this very same sky?

We reemerge from the trail into the parking lot and back to present time. We drive away and as we round the bend, there before us almost as if purposely prearranged, is the big beautiful full moon spectacularly rising over Headquarters Pond.

Sometimes we are simply in the right place at the right time to make instant history. Other times we create history more quietly, blending into the collective map that only grows richer with age.

To see the brochures and maps and learn more information about the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge History Trail, visit www.stmarksrefuge.org.