Next time try winter camping

Listen, when better to take about winter camping then in the dead of a Florida summer?

How cool is winter camping on Little Talbot Island?

Don’t ask me. Ask the arctic snowy owl.

There have only been a few recorded Florida sightings of that largest species of North American owl, which rarely ventures south of Canada. But a few winters ago one inexplicably came to earth amid the sandy dunes and salt marshes of one of Florida’s last remaining relatively unspoiled barrier islands.

Magically appearing, as though a refugee from a Harry Potter movie.

And thereby provoking a stamped of birders brandishing binoculars, rushing in from miles around hoping to catch a glimpse of a very rare bird in paradise indeed.

“I never dreamed it would get into Florida, which is really, really rare,” Duval Audubon Society member Carolyn Wyatt told the Florida Times Union at the time. “It is very striking and has a bowling ball head.”

For the record, I never did catch sight of the aforementioned bowling ball head. But all the fuss over just another snowbird was enough to disrupt the normally splendid isolation of my favorite Florida winter camp ground.

Every February I book a couple of campsites for a cold weekend at LIttle Talbot Island State Park. It is an annual winter retreat for a select group of Gainesville guys (we used to go backpacking in the mountains but we got old, OK?). We arrive with prodigious amounts of firewood, a year’s worth of exaggerated stories and outrageous lies, warm sleeping bags, assorted tents, inflatable mattresses, bicycles, bottles, braggadocio and bluster.

You know, guy stuff.

Because here’s the thing about camping on Little Talbot Island.

If you do it in August you’re a masochist. Mosquitos and no-see-ums and biting flies oh my. If you go in December, January or February – well the only thing liable to bite is that sharp wind sweeping in off the Atlantic ocean.

Little Talbot – just a short ferry hop from metro Jacksonville across the St. Johns River – is a winter paradise. You can stroll along its five miles of unspoiled beach and hardly see a sole. Or wander the marsh grasses and mud flats that surround the camp on three sides. Or kayak the narrow, corkscrew path of Myrtle Creek. Or hike for miles amid ancient sand dunes and Spanish moss-draped oaks with only your thoughts to keep you company.

All without benefit of bug spray.

And if walking’s not your thing, jump on a bike and try out the new rail-trail that runs nearly all the way to the long George Crady Bridge connecting to Amelia Island. On a sunny day it is a spectacular ride over glistening blue water.

Do all of that and you will begin to understand what possessed French explorer Jean Ribaut, in April, 1563, when he arrived on this shore and promptly declared it “the fairest, fruitfullest and pleasantest of all the worlde.”

There are 40 camp sites on Little Talbot Island. With water, electrical hookups, picnic tables and that all important fire ring. The rest rooms/shower facilities are modern and clean. The campground is separated from the ocean side of the island by a narrow strip of U.S. A1A. But a clustering of dunes and dense tree cover maintains a sense of isolation between the campsites and the highway.

The other thing that makes Little Talbot a great place to camp is that there is no shortage of interesting places to visit in the vast Timucuan Preserve that surrounds the island on three sides. The area is rich in history, culture and breathtaking scenery. Small wonder the Timucuans lived here for thousands of years before being pushed out by the forces of “civilization.”

A half hour bike ride will get you to the Kingsley Plantation, a relic of the days when Sea Island Cotton was king; and the Ribault Club, a fully restored pre-Depression haunt of the rich and famous; and Hugoenot Memorial Park, northeast Florida’s premier birding area; and more. Or if you are really ambitious, take the 17-mile bike ride to Fernandina Beach (or drive if you must) and have lunch at one of the many restaurants in its historic waterfront downtown. And don’t forget to stop at Ft. Clinch State Park on the way and visit its red brick Civil War-era fortifications.

But really, if you go winter camping on Little Talbot Island, you are not going to want to stray too far from the fire circle. Especially after dark when temperatures fall and the cold begins to seep into your bones. There is something about staring into flickering fire and glowing embers on a cold night that stimulates the flow of conversation and facilitates easy camaraderie.

That’s how story telling began, after all. Companions huddled around a fire against the chill of the night and spinning fantastical tales to pass the time.

Some of which may even be true.

(Originally published in the Gainesville Sun in Oct. 2015)

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