Monday, December 11, 2006

St. Vincent and the Wolves

(click on 'click here' to see photos; then click your Back button to return to the blog.)
There are wolves on St. Vincent Island. We'd heard that. Even thought we'd seen their footprints on past visits. A friend spent 6 months on the island doing a research project and never saw a wolf, but the story is that there's a breeding program in which red wolves were introduced on the island and are thriving along with (also introduced) Sambur Deer and a host of other native fauna. While staying with Jeff and Sue at Indian Pass for a few days last month, we took a day to visit the wilder eastern end of the island.

Having had some bad boating experiences down there before (one day I'll write about them), we took every precaution with the boat. Picked our way carefully through the numerous oyster beds that seem to protect Tahiti Beach (click here) - that's the name of the beach at the east end - from much traffic. Only oystermen visit this treacherous part of Apalachicola Bay with regularity. They were a colorful crowd on this lovely calm low tide as we passed (click here). Jeff dropped us near the beach, then took the boat into deeper water for safer anchorage and paddled a small kayak to shore.

After dragging the kayak up to the edge of the woods, we ventured off on a small trail along a beautiful creek. Bluebirds and Pine Warblers flitted around us. (click here) Various hawks glided overhead. We passed an old boat house on the creek (click here) before coming to a ranger outpost (a nice cabin where our researcher friend had stayed). Soon after that we were deep in the forest heading for the lakes we'd seen on the map. We came upon 9 large alligators lolling in a pristine, picturesque cove (click here). It was early afternoon and time to turn back... but instead a new plan was hatched. Sue had always wanted to hike the length of the island (close to 10 miles including a few zigzags). We didn't have on hiking shoes, but somehow decided to push on. Jeff sacrificed and returned to the boat, planning to drop a couple kayaks at the west end for us to use to cross Indian Pass to the mainland. We planned to make it by sunset (3 1/2 hours and about 8 miles to go).

Almost immediately we got distracted off the trail by the lovely ponds, birds, and woods... and surprises. We lost an hour without even noticing. The surprises came as we returned to the trail - two wolves, a mama and 'teen' pup were coming up the trail toward us. Despite the fact that I was carrying 30 pounds of camera gear including a solid tripod, I was unprepared and kind of shocked by the encounter. (How many times do I have to learn this lesson?) We sat down and watched. They stopped and watched as well. A moment later a big black pig crossed the trail just behind the wolves. It was incredible. I made a few images - all disappointing (no, I won't show them here). After a few minutes of trying to figure us out, the wolves wandered into the forest and palmettos, and were gone.

We hiked on, ready for anything. After another mile, we realized we'd never make it by sundown, had no light, and there'd be no moon. The walk became a march, a real cardiovascular workout. Our joints and feet suffered, but we reached familiar territory at the western end with a few minutes of light to spare... in fact, we ran into Crystal (my wife) on the trail looking for us. As I reached the beach at the western tip, a huge flock of pelicans was gradually breaking up to fly off to their roost. The big sun dipped into the Gulf behind them (click here).

Epilogue: Jeff didn't make it back to the boat without mishap. He was stopped by rangers who said the area was closed due to controlled burning. When he explained that we'd just come from there, they gave him a ride back to Tahiti Beach through the burn zone. They were all aghast to find the kayak and paddle had been badly burned in the blaze and were unusable (click here). Jeff had to swim to the boat. Strike Three of boat mishaps in West Pass! (West Pass, 'west' of Little St. George Island is the break between the two barrier islands, Little St. George and St. Vincent.) The draw of the wolf sightings was so great that the four of us returned the next day to the same spot. We waited quietly for several hours without luck... well, except that the kayak and boat were fine when we got back to Tahiti Beach. There are wolves on St. Vincent. They are shy but they are there.
For more about St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, visit the 'Supporters' website at