A Festival of Firsts at St. Marks Wildlife Refuge

Gratitude abounds on any visit to St. Marks Wildlife Refuge but on the first Saturday in Festival Crowd St Marks 0214February, the Wildlife Heritage and Outdoors Festival is a celebration that is a refuge for all. The festival is one of many firsts that signal spring.

The afternoon is overcast but warm, almost balmy. Snow, ice, and road closures of the previous week are a mere matter of record. The joy and gratitude of being alive is in the music that is in the air. Hot Tamale is playing.

Hot Tamale 0214Every time I hear Adrian and Craig perform, the music of another century returns–folk, easy listening, country, rock and roll—all songs to which I still know almost all the words.

I sway to the nuance Hot Tamale brings to each cover for Craig and Adrian are also songwriters, sensitive to the music in words. Not surprisingly, their own music is layered in story. Sometimes, it is pure poetry.

The “natural stage” for Hot Tamale overlooks mini pools of clear water covering golden leaves and amber needles. That is also a festival first as pine and oak trees signal islands of spongy, black dirt tufted like frosting on a cake.

Here and there, boardwalks become bridges to provide passage to and from these “temporary Festival islands 0214 St Marksislands” that offer picnic table seating. Strangers share space, music, and a bit of themselves.

Adrian’s rendition of  “Somebody to Love” echoes Grace Slick and 1971, a year Adrian and I shared similarly, although completely unknown to each other and physically, thousands of miles apart.

In another century, Adrian first sang that song in a gymnasium somewhere on the East Coast, and I, in the Rocky Mountain West, was also singing Grace Slick in a building very like a gymnasium. It is entirely improbable that Adrian and I were singing the same song on the same day for the first time but it is not completely impossible.

The memory moment passes as Hot Tamale turns to calypso–“Day-O…D-a-a-y-O”–there is mention of “The Lion King” and Harry Belafonte but it is the movie that most seem to remember as occupied picnic tables sway in rhythmic response.

A young girl with sunshine blonde, kinky hair whispers to me she has not seen the movie. That is a first. I have never met anyone else who has not seen the movie. I do not ask her about Harry Belafonte. It is enough that we sing along as if we were born to it.

After the performance, Adrian comes over and we hug, saying how good it is to see one another. The young girl wonders whether Adrian and I are sisters, definitely a first. We smile at one another as Adrian responds, “we’re just good friends.”

And then we all talk for a while as friends, new and old, before leaving the picnic table, the makeshift island and the music. I drive on to the St. Marks Lighthouse on Apalachee Bay.

All along the roadside, cars pull over and stop, a wildlife event, as cameras of every size and shape point and shoot, lenses looking East as well as West.

Gator on Festival Day 0214

It is late afternoon now and the warm sun has diminished the clouds, an event welcomed by alligators. In less than three miles, I spot four gators but there are a lot more if the sea of cameras is to be believed.  Waterfowl, mostly cormorants, form a crowd away from the banks of basking gators.

I park near St. Marks River and walk to a point on the bay. It is high tide, a first for me in all the years I have walked the refuge so there is no balancing on old oyster beds. I am content to watch the bay waters lick the sanded shore.

Firsts at the Refuge are a constant whether one visits day by day, year by year, or month by month. The turn of time and tide, the changer and the changed.

High Tide St Marks 0214

Refuge in Winter

Yesterday was not the day I anticipated—it was so much more–always is, no matter the day. Anticipation is never present and always future, sometimes tinged with memory. In these days of living life without Cooper, the memories are abundant, like driving to St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge to purchase our annual pass.

Often, our February trek coincided with the fairly recent but also annual event, the Wildlife Heritage and Outdoors Festival. The luxury of living so close to the Gulf of Mexico, less than a thirty minute drive, has never been taken for granted. It is a beauty still wild.

KMHuberImage; Gulf of Mexico, FL; St. Mark's Wildlife RefugeLow humidity, low 50s in a slow breeze, warm by any Nordic standards, it is a winter’s day in Florida. The crisp air is a refuge in itself, an annual visitor to a subtropical climate.

Not a wisp of cloud can be found in the blue sea that is the sky, yet in the shade of a towering Ponderosa pine, it’s not uncomfortable for me to wear two hoodies—a fleece from Seattle over basic black cotton from Florida—cushy winter vests are popular, too. Gloves of any kind are welcome.

Hot Tamale, a favorite musical group of mine, braves the briskness of February to entertain festival goers, breaking only for the turkey calling contest. For all afternoon, the music of Hot Tamale wafts through and around outdoor grills of sausages with grilled onions, down the single lane of exhibits and over the heads of children not always running with twigs in hands.

I marvel that Craig, Hot Tamale’s guitar player, manages to keep his guitar in tune, song after song, as he and Adrian sing us through Motown, Jefferson Airplane, Brooks & Dunn, and my all-time favorites, Hot Tamale originals. For two hours, I immerse myself in this winter’s day’s music, a refuge medley.

The shade from the Ponderosa pine broadens as the sun moves closer to 3 o’clock. It is time to begin the drive KmHuberImage; St. Mark's, Florida Gulf of Mexico between the festival site and the shores of the Gulf. Memories of past trips are quickly displaced by every image that is. It happens every time in this place primeval. The refuge diminishes all human presence for it is raw with life.

As I drive, Cooper is with me as much as he is not: heart-centered is a term I remember someone giving me. I liked it so much I wanted to discover its meaning on my own. And in that moment, I do: it is joy absorbing physical absence, fleeting but nonetheless felt.

I park the car, and the tide of memory rolls in: I am taking a photograph of the lighthouse, believing it to be a view I did not have. Cooper is content to remain in the car; perhaps, he knew it was just another picture of a lighthouse with trees. Cooper was tired is what I remember as the image of our last trip to the refuge fades.

The sun is now lower than three in the sky but not yet four as I walk down a path Cooper and I never did walk. It is a shortcut to the path he and I always walked, a new way to the path’s end where we always rested.  I realize path’s end has been my destination the entire day.

For a moment, I am awash in memory again: I am missing Cooper’s curiosity, his constant enthusiasm for the present, no matter where we were. No matter where we were…the realization of what that means jolts me.  I had been clinging to the memory of Cooper’s curiosity rather than rediscovering my own, as he had shown me time after time.

Just as Cooper found joy and enthusiasm in recognizing and rediscovering the scents of the refuge, I started taking photographs of the point, the palm tree, the “island” that is only another point of land, all images I seem to record every February’s  first trip to the refuge in winter.

They are the same and not the same, as Cooper is heart-centered, new and familiar with the scent of life ongoing.

KMHuberImage; St. Mark's Wildlife Refuge; Florida; Gulf of Mexico