The three of us, along with my mom, aka Mimi, made our first attempt to reach the Alabama and Mississippi Remote Spots during the last weekend in December. The two Remote Spot locations are on islands in the Gulf of Mexico and only 5 miles apart from each other. However, the closest one is almost 8 miles from the nearest road, over 15 miles from the nearest boat ramp, and 10 miles from the mainland.
Winter boat travel on the Gulf of Mexico is dictated by the passing of weather fronts. Especially for small crafts. Cold fronts usually are quite frequent so all you can do is wait for a break to get out in a boat and do what you need to do. A break is in the forecast for this weekend, the last weekend in December, so we decide to make a boating run for the Alabama and Mississippi Remote Spots. As luck would have it, both states’ barrier island Remote Spots are only about 5 miles apart so we have planned to visit both spots in the same trip.
We do a last minute weather check Friday morning and find that the forecast has changed a bit. Winds are higher with gusts of up to 30 mph - not good travel weather for our 18-ft john boat. We decide to postpone the trip until Saturday. It looks like we will have a 2-day break between fronts with sunny skies and winds predicted to be near 10 mph from the NW. The predicted temperatures for our trip are unusually low - mid 40′s for the high and 30 degrees for the low. That’s awfully cold when traveling at high speed exposed on the water. So we throw in our Arctic expedition gear. We keep our cooler and all our bags packed in the truck. Ready to move out at a moment’s notice.
After a weather confirmation check Saturday morning, it doesn’t take us long to get out the door because we are already packed. We just get up, have breakfast, and are on our way. We have today and tomorrow to accomplish our goal of reaching both Remote Spots. Another front is moving in on Monday and the weather will be steadily worsening as Monday progresses.
Ideally, we would like to spend the night on each of the Remote Spots so we can really get a feel for the place and also to record nighttime light pollution and other factors. The Alabama and Mississippi spots are both on islands and separated from each other only by water so we know they will have similar characteristics. We have to go with openings when we have them so off we go.
It takes us almost 6 hours to get to our boat launch on the Gulf of Mexico. We ask around to get some local knowledge of the area and the best route to reach our destination. We had spent the last few weeks making phone calls to various people including the Dauphin Island town mayor and a professor that works in the area, but nothing beats face-to-face communication with locals on the spot. We believe our best bet is to head out from Dauphin Island’s east end public boat ramp northward to intercept the Intracoastal Waterway, then cruise westward in the channel for approximately 25 miles to be poised to make our approach to the Mississippi Remote Spot located on Petit Bois Island. After making a few observations and spending some time at the MS R-spot, we would then turn around and cross a 5-mile open water stretch between Petit Bois and Dauphin Islands, and land on the far western tip of Dauphin Island to spend the night on the Alabama Remote Spot. This plan would keep us in “protected” waters for most of the double Remote Spot jaunt, and would presumably be easier to travel by small craft.
By the time we get ready to embark in our 18-ft aluminum boat, the sun is rather low on the horizon. Glancing out on the water, we see what looks like a glassy Gulf. So we figure that once we get up on a plane, we will be near at least the Alabama Remote Spot in less than one hour. Oh, the best laid plans of mice and men…
All around us are oil rig platforms and they appear to stretch as far as the eye can see. Its been a long time since I was on a coast surrounded by oil industry. Over 10 years ago I spent time on the Texas coast and it was a similar situation. So far, Florida has kept offshore drilling at bay and the beaches have unbroken blue water horizons. Even if you discount the environmental dangers of having oil rigs in the Gulf (an issue that has hit home this year), the damage to the aesthetics of a coastline are obvious. Being Floridians, we find ourselves turning up our noses at the sight of so many platforms out on the water. The irony does not escape me. Here we are, dependent upon the very fossil fuels these rigs produce. And we are thankful for that. We still hope that the people of Florida will remain vigilant in keeping Florida shores empty of oil rigs…and we look forward to the launch of affordable eco-friendly boat motors, even semi-affordable ones would be cool, really.
As a conservationist and biologist, I am constantly aware of human impacts on the natural environment. All of us use natural resources. But in so doing, it is our responsibility to lessen impacts where possible and to learn when to draw a line in the sand and never spoil sacred areas. It is the continual, seemingly unstoppable expansion of man-made structures and impacts to the natural world that is most bothersome to me.
We put the boat in and head north. But where are the channel markers that lead safely to the Intracoastal? Ryan is nervous about getting the boat up on a plane in such shallow, unfamiliar waters-and its low tide to boot. So we set a course due northward and hope that the channel markers for the Intracoastal Waterway actually will appear. Skyla sits on Mimi’s lap while we idle out to the Intracoastal and we are all in good spirits anticipating an amazing adventure and campout. The markers finally appear but it takes far longer to reach the Waterway than expected because of having to go at a low speed for so long.
Near the Waterway, I collect Skyla from Mimi. Skyla and I sit in the bottom of the boat to get out of the wind. We go planar, turn westward, and head literally into the sunset. The requests for food begin. I attempt to feed her as we speed through the water at 30 mph. Comical really. O’s are flying everywhere (reading this might be the first time Ryan finds out about this — food all over your boat, sorry babe but I gotta do what I gotta do). Skyla is cheerful and happy as long as the food keeps coming. The picture above is what happens when you tell her no more food (I’m not kidding, that is truly what happened, pitiful isn’t she?). I write more about food and raising a healthy child on the road in my blog if you want more details…
We are all feeling a little nervous about it being so late, but Ryan declares that camping on the boat itself is a “heckofalotta fun!” Ryan and I fondly remember our Florida Mainland Remote Spot adventure where we camped the first night in the boat under the amazing starlit sky. Mimi, having never camped on land or water, is game for anything. Or at least she has a great poker face. She appears willing to do anything. What a great Remote Spotting companion she is!
The sky is clear and the late afternoon light is rich and warm. We are bundled against the wind and dropping temperatures. The waters off the northeast end of the island were smooth and calm near the boat ramp, but as we approach the Dauphin Island bridge, a marked increase in wave height and water depth occurs.
As we go under the bridge that leads to the island from the mainland, we see Coast Guard boats working the water. BP personnel and others are still out in the area cleaning up after the oil spill. Funny you don’t hear much about it these days, like the problem is all taken care of. I guess putting the dispersant on the oil and causing it to sink out of sight will do that to a problem. Out of sight, out of mind…at least for the rest of the country. Folks down here are still feeling the effects.
We emerge on the west side of the bridge, still heading west. Conditions worsen almost instantly. The boat begins to slam front end into larger waves and we must significantly lower our speed. I instinctively keep Skyla sheltered in my arms while sitting in the boat bottom. We sing songs and entertain ourselves pretending there is no craziness in the world.
The wind and waves increase. We are staring westward into a ten-mile long fetch where the 10-plus mph NW winds have had time to build larger waves. The bridge apparently is an effective wind and wave breaker. Now that we are on the windward side of the bridge, we are getting pounded by steady 2-3 foot waves. Salt sprays the deck on nearly every wave. The boat pounds. People shuffle to hold on. Captain Ryan brings the speed way down. We all discuss options.
Our only option at this point is to turn southward and get closer to the island in hopes of finding shallower water and less wave height. We don’t want to be caught out here all soaked with the temperature dropping to below freezing. When we attempt to head south out of the Intracoastal, we discover extremely shallow water and the prop hits something. Ryan points us back into the channel. We can’t simply sit there and get turned sideways by wind and waves while discussing options. So we head back to the bridge and beyond to the leeward side where conditions are more suitable for sitting idle and discussing.
Our options are now very limited. We cannot head into the big waves with our little boat, nor can we get closer to the island because of extremely shallow unpredictable waters. The only option left now is to consider traveling along the south, open-Gulf shores of Dauphin Island to reach our destinations. So we get on it.
This all takes time, and now the sun dips below the horizon. We find ourselves near the ramp again. We realize we cannot make it very far along the 15-miles stretch of island with so little daylight left. The island is populated along the first half of its length and we don’t know if we can reach a deserted stretch on which to camp before night fall. Even if we find an appropriate camping site, we would have to visit the Alabama and Mississippi Remote Spots then head back to the boat ramp all in one day (remember that the weather is forecast to worsen the day after tomorrow). Not only would that put us in a potentially dangerous position, rushing through a Remote Spot is not our objective. We want to have enough time at each spot to soak in its character. Our goal isn’t necessarily to reach the Remote Spots, but to actually experience them.
It gradually dawns on us that we have been thumped on our first attempt to travel to and document the AL and MS Remote Spots. Just like that. We sit idle out on the water about a mile off of the east end boat ramp to take a few pictures and reflect on what just happened. Sheltered by the island, the waters are calm and placid again. We sit in the boat, bobbing up in down in the water trying to make a decision. None of us, including Skyla, want to give up on the Remote Spot. The whole way here she sang, “This is the way we go remote, go remote, go remote; this is the way we go remote, and we’re going to have an adventure!” We don’t want to admit that we drove all this way for nothing. The wasted gas money, the wasted time. But safety comes first and there really wasn’t anything else we could do.
In going Remote-Spotting, you don’t want to get thumped. Not only is it financially costly, but it brings home the reality that traveling to the remotest location in an entire state isn’t simply a cake walk. Especially with a 2-year old in tow. We consider returning back to the boat ramp and camping out nearby to be poised to make a run at it tomorrow morning. But a quick mental calculation of times and distances tells us that we simply wouldn’t have enough time to make the double R-spot trip before the next cold frontal passage. The trip will have to be postponed. We take solace in that we can learn from this situation and share this experience with others anyway (admittedly, we take solace later cause at the moment we are a bit ‘put out’).
Skyla decides all this sitting around means it’s time for milk. I have on 5 layers of clothes and it’s pretty darn cold so my first thought is, “you’ve got to be kidding!” But heck, its been a rough ride for her, too. Why not give her a little comfort? I was up for the challenge. Sometimes it amazes me the places this child thinks about nursing - in a boat going 30 mph, while hiking, at the grocery store, and my personal most challenging, in a Catholic church during my Aunt’s memorial service (I ended up stalling and nursing her toy turtles instead).
We are quiet as we trailer the boat and pack the truck back up. The sunset light is beautiful, though, and even the oil rigs look pretty dressed in the pink and oranges of the setting sun. Mimi calls her brother who lives in Gulf Breeze and asks if we can camp out in their yard since its too long of a drive back home at this hour. Uncle Pete says, “I’ll get the backstrap thawing.” That was all I needed to brighten my mood!
After a two hour drive from Dauphin Island, AL to Gulf Breeze, FL, we have an impromptu family reunion with Aunt Pat and Uncle Pete, dining at 11pm on venison and our planned Remote Spot meal of quesidillas. We camp out on guest beds, couches, and floors. In the morning we visit some more, have a delicious breakfast, and say our goodbyes. We depart with a “see you on our next attempt!”