Tag: Gulf Islands National Seashore



As I was cycling today I dropped into inner stillness. As I pedaled and pondered, realization dawned. The angst over the past several months is rooted in a feeling of concern that we will wake up too late.

When I was studying Outdoor Recreation and Resource Management at Auburn many years ago, the curriculum took me on a journey through the great conservationist’s efforts. I read of John Muir who journeyed on foot through the wilds of the Sierra Nevada and Alaska. I read about his walk from Indiana to the Florida Keys in 1867. Through his diary entries the sacred beauty he experienced in Nature as well as the heartbreak he felt at the destruction of vast lands to fill pockets of the wealthy was evident. His writings heavily influenced the creation of places we now know as Yosemite National Park, Sequoia, Mount Rainer, Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon and more.

Film maker Ken Burns had this to say about him: “As we got to know him he ascended to the pantheon of the highest individuals in our country; I’m talking about the level of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Thomas Jefferson and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jackie Robinson–people who have had a transformational effect on who we are.” Muir’s writings inspired Teddy Roosevelt to create conservation programs and the first national monument…Yosemite National Park.

As I reflect on his life, John Muir reminds me that one person can indeed make a huge difference. Activism, people caring enough to be involved in whatever way their passion leads them is what makes a country great. Not hate, not violence. Love….for places, people…whatever the heart whispers.

And then after lunch I read where the new US government administration wants to allow oil and gas drilling in these sacred lands that John Muir lovingly championed in the late 1800’s. I was torn between wanting to: 1) Scream at the greedy individuals ‘leading’ our country into darkness; 2) Express shock at their unapologetic push to deregulate protection for our environment; and 3) Sit and wait for inspiration to come so I might be a person that makes a difference.

“There is nothing more eloquent in Nature than a mountain stream, and this is the first I ever saw. Its banks are luxuriantly peopled with rare and lovely flowers and overarching trees, making one of Nature’s coolest and most hospitable places. Every tree, every flower, every ripple and eddy of this lovely stream seemed solemnly to feel the presence of the great Creator.” Muir wrote this September 12, 1867 about a branch of the Clinch River in the Cumberland Mountains.

He wrote this about the Oneness of all life. “There is not a fragment in all nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself. All together form the one grand palimpsest of the world.”

“Muir was a quintessential romantic frontier figure. Unarmed, carrying only a few crusts of bread, a tin cup, a small portion of tea, a notebook and a few scientific instruments, Muir walked into the vastness of the Sierras to search out truths. Single-minded, he did not hesitate to challenge the accepted authorities and their explanations regarding the wilderness he loved; he formulated his own theories and carefully searched out the evidence….he was an activist. He not only explored the west and wrote about its beauties–he fought for their protection….In the forests and national parks he helped to preserve, he gave the natural world back to the people of America.” Frank E. Buske wrote this in the introduction to Wilderness Essays.

Why are we so willing to have our sacred lands–set aside because of their beauty and uniqueness–raped and ravaged by greedy politicians and their backers? My heart is breaking as each day brings a new onslaught of attacks against our environment and the places held most sacred by those who saw this great country before it was developed. When we fail to remember history, we are destined to be destroyed by ourselves.

While I have screamed–and quite honestly scared my dog and cats and quite possibly the neighbors–and I have expressed shock to my friends and companions, today I find myself more at peace with waiting…for inspiration, the right door opening, the right phone call that leads to opportunity to share my work with more people.

I long to wander like Muir and connect with the magnificence of Nature and feel first-hand the spark of the Divine that lives within all life. And like him, write with passion to inspire others to care. And with my cameras capture the essence of life that shines so brightly if we take the time to see it in a flower, a stream, a dolphin, a frog, a mountain.

It may seem as if I am doing nothing sometimes but this pause reminds me: I am like an arrow being slowly drawn through a bow. With steady determination and a sense of purpose my work will find its mark. Let us remember that everything we do makes a difference. We are part of the solution. Let us rise up to protect that which we love.

Sunrise…No Excuse Necessary

Sunrise…No Excuse Necessary

photo-1In the wee hours of the morning I found myself driving to Destin, Florida for a morning of diving. The two hour drive would give me a chance to wake up. Of course the 63 degree temperature was helpful in chasing slumber from my groggy mind.

It was a perfectly beautiful start to the morning with clear skies and a stillness that foretold of potentially great diving. There was barely a ripple on Perdido Bay and Pensacola Bay.

photo-2The sun was just peeking over the horizon as I neared Destin when I received a call from the dive shop that the trip was cancelled due to high wind and rough seas. I was shocked…wind? Evidently the wind was blowing from the east and offshore seas were over six feet. Ugh….I was happy to miss that! But in truth, I felt that odd intuitive uneasiness had been with me since the day before.

I had my tanks serviced at a local dive shop and asked them to put a mixture of gas known as nitrox in the tanks. Nitrox is a rich oxygen mixture used in diving. It’s beneficial in that you build up less nitrogen, which is good. Nitrogen is an inert gas and if you apply the laws of physics related to pressure you know that a gas under pressure….oh, bother. The short version is it is better to have less nitrogen in the bloodstream and nitrox, being oxygen rich, makes that a reality. The downside is that breathing a richer mixture of oxygen you have more oxygen in your system because you are under pressure from being under water….it won’t bubble like nitrogen but the partial pressure of oxygen has to be closely monitored so you don’t overdose on oxygen. Making sense? Oxygen can be toxic if you get too much. So there are depth limits for each mixture of nitrox.

Anyway….the mixture I asked for was 32% oxygen (instead of air which is 21%). The guy at the shop didn’t have me analyze the tanks there…which is the usual protocol. When I got home and analyzed my tanks the digital readout kept going up and up. It didn’t stop at 31.7 or 31.8 or 32….it kept going to 35.7 for one tank and 35.9 for the other. Hmmmm. The maximum operating depth for that mix is 95 feet and that was the depth of the first dive. I don’t push limits so this concerned me.

photoI haven’t used my nitrox analyzer in a couple years so perhaps the sensor is bad. I calibrated it before using it and everything seemed to be working perfectly. But it made me nervous. I could dive that mix and stay shallower but I simply don’t push my limits when diving. And I always like to leave room for contingencies.

So when the call came canceling the dives I wasn’t really upset. The trip already had a weird feel to it. And even though I had planned to re-analyze the tanks at the shop in Destin before using them, it was almost a relief to scrub the trip. Once I get that ‘feeling’ –especially about a dive trip–its best to just not do it.

I had two hours before the natural foods store opened for my weekly shopping in Pensacola so I headed to the Gulf Islands National Seashore for an early-morning visit with the beach. It was very chilly and the wind was blowing. Offshore I could see jagged rollers dotting the horizon. Oh, I was happy to be on land!

Peace enveloped me as I strolled along the edge…that place where big water and earth come together. It had been a while since I treated myself to sunrise on the shore.  With the Sunday morning sea turtle team duties ending September 1st, nothing had motivated me to get up at 4.30am for a sunrise visit to the beach. Pity really.

photo-3Without the distraction of my heavy camera I found myself more present and focused. The glory of nature brought me into balance and filled a longing for the elements I didn’t realize I had. I miss the mountains and the opportunity to connect daily to such immense energy as the Appalachians yet equally important to me is the chance to dance with waves and wind of the ocean…the one world ocean of which the Gulf of Mexico is a part.

The theme of self-care was really evident with the nitrox mix-up and the rough seas…and the quiet time spent wandering the white sands of the beach. I left the gulls and sanderlings and beautiful, salty water feeling clearer and more focused. And happy to have had an excuse to witness the sunrise on the shore.

Beauty Expanding

Beauty Expanding

I left the house at 5.30am, destined for the Gulf beaches. A short 20 minute ride later I was standing at Gulf State Park watching the sun rise over the sugar-white dunes. An hour spent walking this undeveloped beach started my day off in a state of beauty. Clear blue-green water lapping at my feet, warm breeze blowing from the southwest bringing salty air from across the water onshore. This balmy hug created a joy within me and so I left the beach ready for breakfast and more beach time. I had an appointment at 11am with a special someone.

After breakfast overlooking the Gulf, I motored down to Alabama Point, another part of Gulf State Park, and sat on the beach for about thirty minutes. I got out my pad and wrote a few notes….

“Sitting on snow-white sand watching blue-green waves roll onshore. A school of medium-sized fish are jumping and leaping about 50 yards offshore. My mind moves to wonder…what is chasing them?

A sanderling wanders toward me from the west and just east of me a family has arrived. The little boy ran to the water with his mask and has already called for a net so he can catch fish he is seeing. I don’t understand the need to capture and control nature. Isn’t it enough to be a quiet observer? This has been a struggle throughout my life…why must we dissect, catch, control all the beauty surrounding us? Why can’t we appreciate beauty for its own sake without destroying it?

Ten feet from my foot the sanderling rests on a mound of sand preening in this early morning sun. Running brown and white speckled feathers through her beak she glances over at me occasionally and then she is done and scurries off to peck among the seaweed for tasty breakfast morsels.

The sand is still cool from the night’s respite. Starlight is still embedded in the crystalline sand. It lingers as the heat of our golden sun star warms it and imbues it with wild, hot solar energy.

An osprey is gliding overhead, freshly caught fish tucked streamline under her white belly feathers.”

And onward to Gulf Islands National Seashore.

I stopped for water and then visited this narrow strip of sand that is surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the bay on the other. Nine a.m. and I still had two hours before my appointment back at Alabama Point so I meandered through blue sky, blue-green water and white sand beauty that continued to expand from my sunrise walk. It felt as if the amount of salt water-induced bliss was getting out of hand. It was glorious and wonderful and the best was yet to come. I still had to meet Freddie.

One final stop at the National Seashore to breathe in a nearly perfect water and sky-scape and it was time to leave for the meeting.

Many of us had been summoned to this gathering at 11am. A special guest was arriving and we wanted to be there to see her off.

Freddie had been in rehab a few months, rescued from the pass at Alabama Point. She (or he…the sex was unknown) had been found floating, unable to submerge due to an intestinal blockage and other issues. After being assisted medically, this loggerhead sea turtle was ready to be returned to the Gulf, not far from where she had been found ailing.

Once our volunteers and the NFWS had gathered and the media had arrived, the walk to the water began. It’s probably the most exciting steps I’ve ever walked. Not just because Freddie was returning back to the Gulf but because so many humans cared and were there to cheer her on. Beauty…it was indeed expanding and not only in the outer scenery but in the hearts I saw wide-open surrounding this precious ocean friend.

Freddie crawled from the place her bearers placed her. She got to the water’s edge and stopped. The sand was moist and wet with surf but she just stopped. People formed two lines on either side of her and left the pathway to the water open. Even as I write this tonight, hours after the release, I have to pause and catch my breath. Tears come again as I reflect on the beautiful souls there to welcome her home.

She waited and watched, looking at children and adults cheering her on and finally a wave washed over her. She lifted her head in recognition of the glorious saltwater and who knows what else….for sea turtles don’t share their innermost thoughts. As I knelt on the sand taking photographs I saw in her eye a spark, a light that ignited as the wave called her home. And then….she scurried into the water.

I know what it feels like to come home, to have been away healing, learning….and to find myself back on my home beach watching a sea turtle crawl back into her home….there are no words. There truly are no words. All I know is this–I, too, am home.

Standing Up to a Big Blow–Lesson in Life from My SUP Board

Standing Up to a Big Blow–Lesson in Life from My SUP Board

Yesterday morning started with a visit to Gulf State Park before the sun peeked above the horizon. I arrived early for my first sea turtle volunteer patrol walk because I wanted to take a few photographs before meeting my walking partners. It was serene and lovely and the Gulf of Mexico was gently rolling like it sometimes does. No shore birds were out yet so the only sound I heard was the shuuusshing of sand and water and shells tumbling together.

I met my walking partners and we headed out for our walk to the Gulf Shores Public Beach. We immediately met a group of giggly young folks drinking beer and smoking….yes….before sunrise. We had been warned that we might see left-over partiers from the pre-Hangout Music Festival day. And it only got worse as we neared the music festival staging area. Never mind sea turtle crawls…we were busy dodging condoms floating in the tidal pools, beer cans, liquor bottles, articles of clothing, half-burned cigarettes…not the usual sight on these white sand beaches.

The once ‘public beach’ was fenced off so as to not allow the public inside. Or sea turtles that might not have received the press package about the festival and thus altered their egg-laying plans. We carefully watched for sea turtle tracks as we tiptoed through all manner of human nastiness. Almost two years ago I was tiptoeing through volatile crude oil on the beach but today I felt volatile. A few days earlier the City of Gulf Shores bulldozed sand dunes with sea oats growing on them to make way for this parade of the worst of humanity. If you or I had picked a sea oat on our own property we’d be ticketed. If we had bulldozed a dune full of sea oats we might be in jail. I guess it just depends on who you are and who you know and how much you pay the right people. I don’t know what to think after witnessing this and hearing loud diesel generators and buses running non-stop. Talk about your green festivals!

After completing the turtle nest patrol I walked in the opposite direction, into Gulf State Park. Shores mostly untouched by development called to me as I walked in the soft, cool sand. I reflected back to when I worked in the park as naturalist–over 30 years ago–and the frustration I felt by the encroaching development and the political demands placed on the resources within the park. I remembered something I wrote in my first book, Sharks On My Fin Tips: “I left the Gulf Coast many years ago feeling hopeless in my efforts to help the land amid hungry developers yet on that day (a visit after Hurricane Ivan) I felt a renewed sense of commitment. I could use a tool that might truly make a difference–my words.” (p. 11).

Another quote from the book also haunted me as I walked back to my car, “Did I abandon this land when I left it many years ago? Had I left home, in the truest sense of the word?”

This morning I needed to be on salt water, away from the crowds and connected with the elements to ponder the questions that were raised within me yesterday. I am not a grouchy, un-musical person. I love music and play piano, guitar, flute, drums….it’s part of me. But profit at any cost? Had I left 21 years ago and returned to find that profit and money–greed–were still the determining factors along the coast? The dune is in the way….just bulldoze it. Never mind that it’s against the law! And fence off the public beach and don’t allow people to visit it unless they pay the $150+ to attend the festival. Does anyone else feel frustrated at this kind of behavior? These double-standards? This profit-at-any-cost mentality?

So…..I drove to Johnson Beach, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. After showing my annual pass and I.D. I drove to a boardwalk and couldn’t help noticing that both the Gulf and Sound were very much affected by the strong and steady ESE winds. Oops…so much for a calm, contemplative morning.

After unloading my board and gear, I walked to the Sound and was nearly knocked off my SUP board as soon as I stood up. The wind was really kicking. Rather than paddle against it with no warm-up, I decided to just do a downwind paddle and then deal with the paddle back after my body was ready for the assault of wind against woman.

The downwind run was screaming. I was flying and my thoughts were far from the anger and frustration of the previous day. Concentrating on staying balanced with a wicked back and cross-wind was my only focus. In 15 minutes I covered an amazing distance. How awesome that I’d get to paddle against that crazy blow to get back to my take-out point. Honestly, that’s not what I was thinking.

As soon as I came out of the calm canal I had drifted into and faced the wind, it caught my body and tried to push me back into the serene water. Who wouldn’t like that? But I really wanted to get back to my car. The breeze (ha…breeze) was so strong that I dropped to my knees. That helped but I was still making little progress. Finally, I sat back on my heels and finally my blade starting generating forward motion.

Being in this prayer position, I decided to say a prayer to gain understanding about the struggles I was having emotionally from yesterday’s experiences. I started thinking about the land and water and wildlife still being exploited for human greed. I felt weary of the entire human-dumb-ass behaviors which was exacerbated by the weariness I began to feel as I paddled into the wind. As I struggled to paddle, I thought how 30 years ago I struggled to make a difference along the coast. How I’d given up and let the ‘human wind of development’ push me away and relinquish my dream to help people appreciate and care for this beautiful place. It was relatively easy to just let go and forget the developers and others who always put wildlife and the Earth last–dead last. I let myself go into ecological numbness. I didn’t know how to deal with the grief about the planet so I just shut down.

But that oil spill…remember THAT oil spill? It’s what called me home.

It’s not easy standing up against strong forces that want to push over everything in their path to make a buck. It’s sometimes almost impossible to stand and fight greedy humans. So maybe I can alter my approach and drop lower and catch less ‘wind’ but still keep going, keep going forward. Or maybe I might have to crawl a while and make seemingly little progress like I did at Johnson Beach when I sat on the back of my board in shallow water and used my toes to crawl along the bottom as I rested my arms and shoulders. The key is to keep moving and keep working to spread the beauty of this place and speak up against those who truly do not care for anything but money and power. They will fall…eventually. Nature is more powerful. Ask Hurricane Ivan. Or Katrina. Humans have no power compared to the power of nature. Okay….I understand, I thought.

I got back to my take-out point and sat on my board for a long time contemplating life….watching the endangered Least Tern feeding just a few feet from my board, wondering if they knew they were endangered (no…of course not) and thinking how they go on regardless and continue to live and enjoy life. I watched families playing along the water’s edge and Great Blue Herons waiting for fishermen and women to reel in their breakfast. I realized, in those long, blissful moments spent bobbing up and down on my board, that I don’t have to stand up to power and money-hungry humans alone. Many of us feel the same way. We can proceed little by little to speak out, write, work…whatever we have to do…to save this amazing place from annihilation at the hands of those who fail to understand and appreciate the treasure it is…just for the beauty and life it contains. Not because it can generate a profit.

Stand Up 4 The Gulf…something you might find interesting and might like to help build!