Meteors and Monarchs

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If you're looking to really get away from it all, try a camping trip to St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in northwest Florida.

This trip, I really wanted to get away from it all. I was looking for something different. Something wild. An adventure. Northwest Florida, with its miles of unspoiled beaches, looked promising. I had a tent, a sleeping bag and a kayak and, most importantly, an imagination. I decided to head north, with my beat-up sit-on-top kayak strapped to the roof of my truck. I'd paddle out to a deserted spit of sand and camp.

T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park has received its fair share of press since Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, a.k.a. "Dr. Beach", declared it "America's Best Beach" in 2002. The miles of sugar sand shoreline backed by 25-foot-high dunes make it one of the nation's most private beaches with public access.

Even at the peak of the summer tourist season, the beach at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park never gets as crowded as its commercial cousins to the south. But visit the park in the winter, like I did, right after a good cold front rolls through, and you might just have the place to yourself.

Neighboring St. George Island has many of the same charms as St. Joseph Peninsula, but with a gently developed feel. There are plenty of rental and vacation homes here for those that can't necessarily see themselves primitive camping for more than a night.

Ask the rangers at the entrance station for a backcountry permit that will allow you to explore the seven miles of the wilderness area.

Bounded on one side by the Gulf of Mexico and the other by St. Joseph Bay, the narrow spit of land extending like an arm, elbow bent, into the Gulf looks much the way it did when Native Americans used it as a base from which to gather shellfish from the surrounding waters.

Sliding the kayak into the shallows near the park's Bay View Picnic Area, I soon realized that a pair of wading boots might be more helpful than a paddle. A full moon had sucked most of the water out of the bay and crabs scurried for cover beneath my feet as I dragged my watercraft through the ankle-deep water.

Finally, after I slogged through the mud for 20 minutes, my boat could float, and I settled into the seat for the one-hour paddle to Pompano Cove. Moving silently across the meadows of sea grass, I watched as a pair of dolphins herded red drum as if they were cattle. The fish, obviously sensing they had nowhere left to run, boiled on the surface as the dolphins picked off the stragglers, one by one.

Drifting, I looked down into waist-deep water and spied a spotted sea trout hiding in the grass. I couldn't have been more than five feet away and could see the trout's dark eyes as clearly as the black spots on its side. Was the fish looking at me, or was it watching the osprey circling above?

Scanning the shoreline for a patch of high ground to make camp, I set course for a stand of pines, one mile in the distance. I wanted to get as deep into the wilderness preserve as possible, far from the park and nearby Port St. Joe.

I had just a few hours left before sunset and needed time to set up my one-man tent, fire up the camp stove, and brew some coffee and canned soup before the show was to begin.

If I dallied, I would have to wait another 30 years to see a Leonid meteor shower of this magnitude again. The astronomical display, produced by bits of the Comet Temple-Tuttle that broke off as it slid by the sun more than a century ago, was expected to be at its peak sometime that night.

Living in a major metropolitan area, I seldom got to see the night sky in all its glory. But stargazing on a peninsula is the next best thing to being at sea. Meteor shower or not, you can admire the heavens in all their glory, far from the electric lights that have become the trademark of civilization.

As I drew closer to the fringe of pines, the water grew shallower. The walk through the ankle-deep water would be worth it if I had this little piece of paradise to myself, even for just one night.

Dragging the kayak up the beach, I soon realized that I was not alone. A pair of deer prints headed down along the water's edge.

I set up my tent and unpacked my sleeping bag. Off came my wet shorts, diving boots and paddling jacket. On went the long underwear, fleece pants and coat. It was still in the low 70s, but I knew that in a few short hours it could be in the 30s.

Sitting in a camp chair watching the sunset behind the dunes, I caught a brief flash of orange out of the corner of my eye. The monarch butterfly provided a splash of color against the dull green of the scrub.

Each fall, thousands of monarchs pass through here on their way to their wintering grounds in Mexico. These butterflies live only 10 weeks, yet each one knows where to go when the first cold front rolls through - even though it has never been there before.

Ten weeks doesn't seem like much, but it is a lifetime to a butterfly. A century, however, is just a second in the life of a comet like the Temple-Tuttle.

The things you think about when you?re sitting on a sand dune sipping decaf.

As the sun slipped low on the horizon, I scoured the sky for signs of life. Not extraterrestrials, but winged creatures of earthly origin. Each fall, thousands of birds of prey travel from the northern states and Canada toward their wintering grounds in Mexico and South America.

Hawks don't like to fly over open bodies of water if they can help it, so when they hit the Gulf of Mexico, they turn and continue down the coast. Since the St. Joseph peninsula averages only a third of a mile in width, the hawks get bunched up, which is what makes this a favorite destination for birdwatchers. It is not uncommon to see 200 of these free-flying raptors - including the sharp-shinned, Cooper's and broad-winged hawk - soaring above the scrub on an autumn afternoon. More than 240 different types of birds have been recorded within the boundaries of the 2,516-acre park. The park is also known for its other abundant wildlife including deer, bobcat, raccoon, otter, squirrels and other wildlife. Sea turtles and shore birds nest on the beaches of St. Joseph Peninsula Park.

But I had come to watch meteors, not birds. And as the full moon rose over the town of Port St. Joe, I prayed the soft light wouldn't drown out Temple-Tuttle's show.

By 10 p.m., I had watched and waited long enough for shooting stars. It was cold and time for bed. I crawled into my warm sleeping bag and drifted off to sleep.

Six hours later, the alarm rang and I climbed out of my cozy cocoon and stumbled into the cold, clear night. Still half asleep, I scanned the night sky, and then as if on cue, three grains of molten meteor streaked across the eastern sky.

I stayed up 'til dawn, admiring the occasional celestial sideshow against an ink-black backdrop. Then the sun peeked its head up over the coastline and lit up the mud bank that had once been bay bottom.

The moon had done it again - run off with all my water. So I packed my gear into my kayak and got ready for what looked like a long walk home.


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