New Year’s Day St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
By Julius Ariail
Posted December 19, 2013
For over 25 years a group of hardy adventurers from Christ Church, accompanied by their equally hardy friends and family members, have been spending New Year’s Day at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge — rain or shine, cold or not-so-cold. We’ve sort of lost track of the precise year this trip started, but the first year was during the time that the Rev. Henry Louttit was rector of Christ Church (before his election in 1994 as the Ninth Bishop of Georgia, consecration as the Rt. Rev. Henry Louttit, and move to Savannah). Bishop Henry and Jan Louttit and members of their extended families still attend this event regularly, and it’s always good to be able to visit with them again. Any and all are welcome to join the trip on January 1, 2014 — no sign-up or other advance notice is needed. Just bring a picnic lunch to share, come to St. Marks, meet up with the group, and take part in the day’s adventures. One recent development is that several families are now represented by members in three generations, so all ages are welcome — we’ve even had babies in strollers.
There is no formal organization to the trip, but these notes might be useful for anyone who has not participated in the past:
1) St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is located on the Gulf coast southeast of Tallahassee, about 89 miles from Christ Church in Valdosta. It takes about two hours to drive there without stopping. If you would like to participate in a driving caravan there, meet in the church’s paved parking lot off Patterson Street by 8:00 a.m. on January 1st. Phyllis and John Hiers will be there to lead the driving caravan to St. Marks.
2) There is a $5/vehicle entrance fee to the wildlife refuge. The visitor’s center is scheduled to be open on New Year’s Day from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., but since it is staffed by volunteers that schedule might change (or even be cancelled). The only public bathrooms on the Refuge are located in the visitor’s center and next to the picnic area (where we will be setting up our picnic lunch). Other than the visitor’s center and the bathrooms near the picnic area, there are no enclosed areas on the Refuge where one might seek shelter from cold weather or high winds (or both), so please wear clothing appropriate for the weather that day (which can often change suddenly).
3) Most people arrive on the Refuge by 11:00 a.m. and drive straight to the Lighthouse area (just follow the paved road from the entrance, past the visitor’s center, and drive until you’re just about to drive straight into the Gulf of Mexico…then stop and park near the Lighthouse.) We walk along the Lighthouse Trail looking for birds and other wildlife. if you have binoculars, you might want to bring them, but no previous experience with birds (or anything else) is necessary. Some of the participants are experienced birders and can point out interesting species, especially the wintering ducks and other waterfowl. Last year the main birding attraction was a group of Razorbills, small offshore water birds that normally winter no further south than the coast of New Jersey. For some unknown reasons, hundreds of them came south to Florida, and were spotted on both the Atlantic and Gulf sides of the state.
4) We re-group around noon at the picnic area north of the Lighthouse (you’ll pass it on your left as you drive to the Lighthouse, one of those “you can’t miss it” locations) to set out a picnic lunch. Please bring picnic food and drinks for your family and to share. Paper goods and plastic eating utensils will be furnished by the Ariail family. The Hiers family will bring a camping stove to heat up a big pot of black-eyed peas for luck and wealth in the New Year.
5) After lunch, there are optional excursions to walk on one or more of the hiking trails at the Refuge, check out the Refuge Visitor’s Center, or just continue to visit in the picnic area. In mid-afternoon, most participants make the short drive to Wakulla Springs State Park to take part in a river boat excursion down the Wakulla River. The entrance fee for Wakulla Springs State Park is $6/vehicle, and tickets for the river boat excursion cost $8/adult, $6/child. The last river trip of the day usually leaves the dock around 4 p.m.
6) By 6 p.m., participants will meet up again at the Spring Creek Restaurant in Spring Creek, FL, for a seafood dinner in a private dining room filled with art depicting coastal scenes by one of the restaurant’s owners. The capable wait staff there look forward to our return each year. An average supper meal for an adult costs around $20, not including tip. We are usually through with supper by 8 p.m. and on the road back to our homes.
Of course, it’s not necessary to stay for all of the day’s events. Just come and go as your schedule dictates. As stated above, there’s no tight organization here, just an easy flow of friends and family from place to place. On January 1, 2013, about 45 people were at the picnic area around noon, and 25 stayed on for the afternoon events and then the supper at Spring Creek. If you haven’t been before, come and join the group in 2014! if you’ve been before, come again!