By Doc Lawrence –
MARIANNA, FLORIDA–Howling without a moon is one of the exercises at Seacrest, the largest wolf preserve in Southeast. Florida’s home to Gray, Arctic, and British Columbia wolves allows visitors to get close and personal with these remarkably friendly canines. If you howl, the wolves will respond in kind.
The encounter was part of a journey organized by RiverWay South-Apalachicola Choctawhatchee, a promising rural tourism organization of eight riparian counties in northwest Florida centered in the Apalachicola and Choctawhatchee river basins. It was an introduction to one of America’s treasures, natural Florida.
Founded by Cynthia and Wayne Watkins, the Seacrest Wolf Preserve provides a safe and humane habitat for wolves needing placement and rescue. Located in Washington County, the 400-acre haven is dotted with spring-fed ponds and lakes, a perfect environment for the incredible animals.
A very passionate Cynthia Watkins says that beyond providing a safe, humane habitat for displaced wolves, she wants to educate visitors, especially children, about their beauty, intelligence, and importance. By teaching tolerance and respect for the wolves, it will be possible to demonstrate the vital role they have in nature and cultivate a passion to protect them. A visit here is transformational. You leave loving wolves.
The region offers terrific fishing with an abundance of varieties ranging from largemouth bass to flathead catfish, mullet and crappie. Few fish are as tasty as fried Florida bream particularly served with hush puppies, the fried cornmeal delight that may have originated in the area.
Only 45 minutes from Tallahassee, Lake Talquin has top quality trophy fishing, holding the record for Florida’s state record black crappie. Picturesque lakeside dining is mandatory here and Jeff Dubree’s waterside restaurant, The Whip features everything from shrimp and grits to the spectacular Margarita Grouper served with a tequila and lime juice pan sauce.
Liberty County is home to Erma Jean’s Antiques & Gifts, headquartered in a century old home that magnetically attracts customers. The displays sparkle with the warmth and enthusiasm of the owners and the baked breads and sweets turned out to be a perfect sendoff for an amazing journey into Florida’s wilderness.
Chuck Hess and Billy Boothe conducted an outdoor seminar on northwest Florida flowers, rare plants and the importance of fire for the continuing health of the forest. “There’s a cypress tree in the Apalachicola National Forest,” revealed Hess, “that is at least 3,000 years old.” Now “retired” but a doctoral candidate at FSU, Chuck is an expert on the endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker.
Ebullient and enthusiastic, Billy Boothe is a renowned Photo Naturalist who can walk through a savannah and identify countless plants and flowers with a cheerful narrative. His photographic collections capture the mysterious beauty of the plants of the Florida forests and are stunning.
During a stop along the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, Hess pointed to a wooded area in the Apalachicola National Forest declaring that “this is Florida,” a reference to the rich blend of ancient trees and plants representing a diverse concentration making it an acknowledged biological hotspot harboring exotic insectivorous Pitcher Plants and Sundews plus orchids and varieties of wildflowers. The byway is also ecologically important as a showcase for one of the largest remaining blocks of natural longleaf pine and wiregrass in existence.
Listed as one of the South’s most scenic places, Torreya State Park sits on high bluffs overlooking the Apalachicola River, featuring receding ridges of reds and golds, the hallmark of Florida’s best fall foliage. The Gregory House, a beautiful circa 1849 mansion was relocated here by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and the grounds include the rare Torreya Tree which only grows here and in the Middle East. The wood, also known as Gopher, is described in the Old Testament as used by Noah for his Ark.
Holmes County is headquarters for Jeep Sullivan’s Outdoor Adventures. Jeep, a high-spirited local legend was joined by Stephen Herrington the Mayor Westville acting as guides on the waters of the Choctawhatchee River Both are advanced raconteurs providing non-stop humor and folklore on a day of pure water, moonshining stories, fish sighting followed by some great country cooking at French’s Restaurant in nearby Caryville.
Florida Caverns State Park in Jackson County features the grandeur of stalactites and stalagmites and other stunning subterranean formations. The guided tour combines visuals with history. The Bellamy Bridge Heritage Trail is a short drive away and the historic Bellamy Bridge, the oldest of its type in Florida, is and the source of Florida’s best-known ghost story about a young woman named Elizabeth Jane Bellamy whose “sighting” has drawn visitors for more than 120 years.
With the charm of the Old South, Marianna, the county seat of Jackson County, is a modern thriving city of friendly people and progressive leadership with a mission of spreading the word to travelers. Noted historian Dale Cox revealed plans for the Civil War Sesquicentennial commemoration of the Battle of Marianna in September of 2014, and Homer
Hirt, Jr. shared his vision for the area, its history and the tourism potential of the waterways.
As Chairman of RiverWay South Apalachicola/Choctawhatchee, Hirt foresees an expansion that would become a multi-state organization with a North-South corridor destination following the flow of the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, and Flint River systems and include a promotion of agri-tourism throughout the region.
This is Florida’s unspoiled green paradise. It’s a higher life: rural land with running rivers where birds sing, fish jump and the food is farm fresh. If you howl in the right place, the wolves will howl back.