Florida’s Panhandle: Down in the dunes

You can’t build a sand dune. Not a real one.

You can try, says our guide, Snookie Parrish. “You can pile the sand, but when a big storm hits – whoosh,” she says, motioning with her hands. “Gone.”

Parrish is guiding us through Grayton Beach State Park, just a stone’s throw from the master-planned, New Urbanist communities of Seaside and Watercolor, where people might be inclined to try such things.

Grayton is home to what is believed to be one of the only naturally occurring networks of dune lakes in the United States, and perhaps the world. And in understanding how the dunes and dune lakes are formed, you also understand why it’s impossible to create them.

A sand dune is made when plants like sea oats take root near the beach. The sand collects around them, and the roots of the living plants and the dead ones allow the dune to form slowly, over time.

Up and down the Northeast Florida Gulf Coast, communities that bulldozed the fragile sand dunes when they were developed are having second thoughts about these natural barriers.

But bringing in dump trucks filled with sand and piling it up in mounds on the shore doesn’t work. Not in the long term. A direct hit by a hurricane levels the ersatz dunes and washes all the sand back out to sea.

A look around Grayton Beach on a cool, late December day illustrates why these dunes, and others like it, are worth preserving. The lake is a hatchery for all manner of fish and fowl, which lay their eggs in the protective sea grass around the water. Without it, the wildlife would effectively disappear.

The fish swim into this brackish water by way of a mouth that opens and closes with a combination of tide and rain. When the rain-filled lake reaches capacity, it spontaneously bursts into the ocean. Then tidal forces close the barrier again. Efforts to contain the process by digging trenches have met with limited success, according to Parrish.

So why set a family of five loose on this delicate preserve?

Well, the dunes may be part of a relatively fragile ecosystem, but they aren’t wallflowers. Signs in the park warn guests from walking on the parts that are sensitive. Besides, the dunes are meant to be seen – if not, then we’d never fully understand the importance of preserving them.

Where else can you find ancient pine trees, shooting straight into a perfectly blue sky? Parrish showed us one tree with an old wound, where turpentine had been harvested, probably in the 1930s. The tree survived and the cut grew with it into an enormous vertical gash that closed on itself.

The closer you get to the ocean, the more compelling the vegetation becomes. Old, slow-growing oak trees create enormous canopies like caves that can be walked through. We see plants that grow only a quarter of an inch a year, and look as if they should exist underwater instead of on dry land.

The kids have heard about this part of Florida in the news. It was this summer, when the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sent millions of gallons of crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. Our oldest son, Aren, might have been left with the impression we would be touring an oil refinery. But there was no evidence of any kind of oil, anywhere.

“When we had the spill last summer, it didn’t affect us,” says Parrish. “Mainly, it kept people from visiting.”

That’s too bad, because Northwest’s Florida’s still-pristine beaches – and Grayton State Park, in particular – need to be seen.

They offer a glimpse of the real Florida.