In February we stayed at a campground called Presnell’s in the town of Port Saint Joe, located on St. Joseph Bay. The bay is beautiful and protected by a spit of island called Cape San Blas. If you come to Port Saint Joe looking for what Ben calls “trinkets and trash,” there are one or two places like that, but the area (for now) is devoid of high rises and spring-break commerce. What the area has in abundance are ungroomed beaches, fishing and boating. There are swimming beaches but at this time of the year the wind and the water are still a bit chilly, leaving the beaches to blue-lipped kids and hardier souls in search of an early tan.
Presnell’s boat ramp is one of the main put-in areas along the shoreline of St. Joseph Bay. A deep channel has been cut into the shallow bay that allows bigger fishing boats to navigate to deeper waters and the Gulf of Mexico. In the morning sport fishing boats roar out into the channels for bigger deeper water. The rest of the bay is left to those of us in shallow drafting kayaks or pirogue type boats. Most mornings at low tide dozens of shore birds troll the muck for crabs and critters. It was fun to watch them wiggle their feet and beaks in the tide pools to catch breakfast. When the tide comes in pelicans, gulls, terns, osprey and eagles take over the bay. Our campsite was right on the water’s edge. It was a real luxury to be able to walk out the door, grab the kayak and plop it in the water, or sit in the morning with a cup of coffee and watch the shore birds search for food. The campground faces due west out to the Gulf of Mexico, so we all congregated each evening to watch the sun set into the water.
Paddling any section of costal Florida requires an understanding of how wind, current and tide affect conditions for all boaters. Winds whip across the shallow bay to stir up waves and whitecaps most days in winter. That combined with tide ebb and flow can make being on the water interesting. Really windy days made the water in the bay slosh alarmingly. I learned the hard way one day when I really wanted to go out in the boat even though the wind was fierce. I thought I’d hug the shore and explore some of the inlets. By the time I turned back, the wind had kicked up from the southwest in a big way. When I came out of the inlet to head to camp (southwest of course) the wind slammed me hard. I had to paddle furiously the whole time, making headway only when the wind died back a bit to catch it’s breath. When it resumed in a giant exhale, I had to paddle even harder just to maintain my location. I usually set my paddle straight but this was one of the rare times I had to feather (offset) my paddle because the wind would catch the upper blade, pushing me backwards across the water. After a few close calls, I decided to change the paddle rather than risk getting flipped. This all sounds dramatic, but most of the bay is very shallow and the most interesting places to paddle are about waist-deep. Every so often the wind would die away and the bay would look like a sheet of glass. We quickly learned to check NOAA reports daily to see what tricks the wind and tide would play on us.
Most of the floor bay is covered in sea grasses. All manner of crabs, mollusks and fish live there. At low tide our little dog Henry loved to chase the hermit crabs and the little fiddlers that popped out of their holes in droves to pick at the sand. In February it happened to be horseshoe crab mating season and my boat glided over dozens of amorous couples. The male is the smaller of the two, and if the she-crab was perturbed by my intrusion, she would abruptly drag her partner across the sea floor to a more discreet location. In deeper
areas of the bay the grass gives over to sandy bottom. You can tell when you’re approaching the sandy areas because you can see bright turquoise patches of water as the sun reflects off the white sand below. The effect is dramatic and you get an appreciation for the clarity of the water, as the optical effect makes it look like you’re floating on air. Where the water deepens you can see bigger fish and sea urchins. One day a school of pink jellyfish drifted under our boats. If you’re really lucky, dolphins will check on you to see what the heck you are up to in their territory.
There are all kinds of interesting islands that dot the bay. I wrote earlier about Black’s Island. Directly in front of our campground sits Bird Island, a tiny spit of land that is a rookery for pelicans and other sea birds. The state of Florida flags areas to keep people away during breeding season, so the shoreline was festooned with yellow flags. You can still paddle over to the island to check it out as long as you keep a respectable distance. That is easy to do. If you ever do paddle to Bird Island I recommend staying upwind of the place unless you really are into that chicken coop smell.
Towards evening the fishers roar back to the docks that dot the bay to clean their catch, drink beers and tell tales. You can tell how successful the day was by judging the size of the crowd of gulls circling the cleaning tables. In our campground there were five pelicans that hung around permanently, waiting patiently for a snack of fish guts.