Tag Archives: Fireworks

How I Found the Best Island in the Florida Panhandle

Part one: Getting there

We had the July 4th all planned: a couple of nights at Suwannee River State Park, then spend the holiday weekend camping in Apalachicola National Forest.

We had our reasons, and the main one was that we have a sweet coonhound who can’t handle the sound of something frying, thunderstorms, or fireworks. Calypso, our dachshund, has no such issue – she sleeps through the latter two, and at the sound of something frying she’s in the kitchen by my feet, living her life on the premise that everyone drops food eventually (she’s not wrong) – but does get annoyed when fireworks/thunderstorms sends Banyan scrambling into bed with us, waking her in the process. We have a king-sized bed, but a hysterical coonhound frantically scrabbling to get between us … well, let’s just say it disrupts a peaceful night’s rest.

Coonhound with teddy bear
Meet Banyan and her fireworks support teddy bear.

Every Fourth of July, this causes problems, because in addition to city fireworks, some of our neighbors like to exercise what they view as their god-given right to celebrate the start of the American War of Independence.

Banyan’s more of a loyalist (as was Florida, the forgotten 14th colony that refused to join the other 13) so she’s not so much on the fireworks.

This year, we realized that having a camper meant we didn’t have to torture ourselves (or, more importantly, our dog) and could go camping instead. Where, we asked ourselves, would fireworks be so off-limits that we stood no chance of them happening on July 4? Why, the forest, of course. We already had reservations for the end of June at Suwannee River State Park, so all we had to do was add a few days on to our trip at a nearby forest.

Suwannee River State Park was cool (literally, it was the end of June and we could sleep with the windows open in the camper).

With reservations in hand, we left Suwannee River SP and headed to the Apalachicola National Forest in the panhandle. If you’ve ever camped in a Florida state park but not a national forest, don’t assume they’re even remotely close to the same thing. Unlike state parks, national forests don’t have a robust staff, and in this instance, the only people there to assist us were the campground hosts. We met them when they drove up in their golf car, friendly as can be and smoking like it’s going out of style (which, come to think of it, it may be.)

The smoking made sense of one thing I’d seen when I’d walked down to Camel Lake to take in the splendor of the forest: shredded bits of cigarette wrappers, and cigarette butts. Nothing ruins the majesty of the forest like seeing the remnants of 305’s, the only tobacco product with the distinction of having even poorer grammar than health benefits.

So, OK, that’s not great, but we’re in the forest, and the only other camper in the camping area leaves the next day, our camp hosts tell us. The idea of having part of the forest almost completely to ourselves overrides a little bit of nicotine-littered greenery, right?

But then our camp hosts tell us the forest campground’s sold out for the holiday weekend. Almost as an afterthought, I ask, “There can’t be fireworks, though, right?”

“We won’t say anything,” the woman replies.

This is not the answer we want.

“I thought it wouldn’t be allowed, because, you know…” I gesture at the longleaf pines, in the midst of a massive restoration effort, then try and word the second half of my sentence as gently as one can when talking to someone who throws cigarette butts out in the forest, “the danger of fire.”

“Well, the ranger might come by, and of course, if it goes past quiet time, we’ll have to tell people to quiet down.”

Picture of Camel Pond at Apalachicola National Forest, taken from the shore line. Trees in background. Photo by Cathy Salustri.
The camp hosts also told us we didn’t need to worry about swimming in Camel Pond, because the gators there were small. Pro tip: Where you find baby gators, you will find a ferociously protective mama gator.

Later that night, we talk about our options which, if you’ve tried to get last-minute camping reservations in Florida during the summer during a pandemic, you know it isn’t easy. We fall asleep listening to the sound of nothing but the breeze in the pines.

The next day, I drive north to Torreya State Park. I’m curious to see how the Torreya tree fared since Hurricane Michael decimated its habitat. I also have some research questions about the Gregory House – namely, why the hell did CCC workers move it across the river – wasn’t there another house closer? (No, apparently.)

Torreya tree in Torreya State Park, Florida. Photo by Cathy Salustri.
If you think Torreya taxiflora looks like a teeny, tiny Christmas tree, you’re not alone. That cuteness, coupled with a vicious fungus, contributed to their almost-extinction. I photographed this tree in 2011; it did not survive Hurricane Michael in 2019.

At the park, I chat with Jason Vickery, the amazing park manager, and a park ranger (also amazing) about the Torreya and the forest health, and how copperhead bites are rarely fatal (who knew?) but nevertheless how nice it would be if the Nature Conservancy would send some indigo snakes up their way (indigos, aside from being gorgeous and nonvenomous, feed on venomous snakes, but are scarce because, to make a long story short, humans are pretty much the worst.)

After I’d talk them out (I really do love Florida’s state park rangers), I ask about local campground availability and explain our dilemma. They both suggested I the regional headquarters for the National Forest Service would want to know that the camp hosts were allowing fireworks and throwing cigarette butts on the ground, but I hesitate: Do I want to spend the night in the middle of nothingness with a couple who knew I’d complained about them? Would telling HQ matter?

Fun fact: Most Florida state parks have some campground inventory they hold for manager’s discretion. Typically it’s about 10% of the sites, and those can be for walk-ups or the manager’s discretion (don’t bank on these when camping!) The staff at Torreya offered us one such campsite, but it wouldn’t have worked – I drove and took a look, and it was too small for our trailer (which isn’t large, but the campground at Torreya SP isn’t large… remember, it was built during the Great Depression, when campers slept in tents or their cars, not campers.)

But that gave me an idea. I parked the car and pulled out my treasured Florida Gazetteer, the one I bought in 2008 for grad school (when you get a master’s degree in Florida this is a required textbook). Weak cell service wouldn’t let me peruse the state park website, but I can use an atlas, and soon enough, I’d landed on a park only a couple hours from the forest.

Close-up of map page from Florida Gazetteer, with highlighting on different roads. Photo by Cathy Salustri.
I bought my copy of the Florida Gazetteer in grad school. I mapped the routes from the 1939 “Guide to the Southernmost State” in it (as evidenced by blue highlighting) and even falling apart, I can’t bear to get a new one. It’s an invaluable travel tool if you really want to get on Florida’s backroads, where cell service is a luxury.

I called the park and threw myself on their mercy.

“I’m not supposed to tell you if we have that kind of site available tomorrow,” the man on the phone tells me, “But be here at 8 a.m.”

I ask some more questions and learn that this park has an ADA site available, and if I can get there before the park closes and no one else has claimed it, it’s ours for the night.

We packed the camper and got on the road in record time, pausing only to tell the camp hosts we would not return.

Where did we land? Look to the left of this screen, at the top, and click “subscribe” to never miss a post.

Camper with bikes on the back, set up for camping. Nissan Xterra in background, with two kayaks on top of it. Photo by Cathy Salustri.
It took us all of 30 minutes to pack the camper, disconnect, and head south to a state park, hoping for a last-minute campsite and a reprieve from fireworks.