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Rare, fragile and mysterious describe Florida's Panhandle East Coastal Dune Lakes. These unusual natural phenomena are found in few places throughout the world-Australia's Queensland, Madagascar, and New Zealand's Northland. Those along North Florida's Gulf Coast are likely best known, but their ecology is so unusual that even they have escaped in-depth study until recently. A total of 15 lakes lie just behind the coastal dunes lining the immensely popular beaches of Walton County.
The Coastal Dune Lakes are primarily fresh water, although with varying levels of salinity. All at one time connected to the ocean, their regular outlets now cut off by growing dunes and shifting sand. A regular feature of them all is that they connect intermittently to the Gulf of Mexico on occasion when their levels become high enough to break through the sand barriers, or when extreme low water levels allow the sea to rush in to fill the void. Usually less than five feet in depth, they hold a varying mixture of both fresh water and salt water species and act as nursery waters for several species that require brackish water to spawn.
The 15 named Coastal Dune Lakes include from east to west: Lake Powell, Camp Creek Lake, Deer Lake, Eastern Lake, Western Lake, Alligator Lake, Little Redfish Lake, Big Redfish Lake, Draper Lake, Oyster Lake, Allen Lake, Stallworth Lake, Campbell Lake, Morris Lake and Fuller Lake. Western Lake and Eastern Lake are the largest, although most of the lakes are under 20 acres. In addition, several small unnamed ponds nearby could also be included in the category. Other small lakes near the beach were undoubtedly the same type of lake but have had their outflows permanently closed off from the ocean by development. Those that remain have a small inflowing creek as a water source which adds to ground water seepage, precipitation and run-off. Their water levels are prone to wide fluctuations, and some researchers believe they were once bayous. Some lakes are bordered by wetlands which protected them from development, although the largest lakes have beach houses built right up to the lakefront on some sides.
Easternmost Lake Powell extends into adjoining Bay County, but the rest of the lakes lie in Walton County which has mobilized forces of concerned citizens to protect the Coastal Dune Lakes from further danger. New county-wide zoning requirements in Walton County work to keep new developments from encroaching too near the shorelines and protect both outflow and inflow areas. One of the problems that scientists face in dealing with preservation of the lakes is that each lake has its own patterns of outflow and appears to 'evolve' regardless of human intervention, making their continued existence over long periods questionable. Only years of observation have made these long-term patterns visible.
The little Coastal Dune Lakes are noted for their serene beauty and the diversity of wildlife and plants found along their shores. Most have water stained dark by natural tannin produced by decaying organic matter, alarming those who see the rare 'out-fall' of water to the Gulf. It is not pollution, however; the lakes' waters are very clean. As the lakes' rare ecology becomes better known, thriving local businesses in the form of ecology tours have sprung up in the area. Usually these tours use kayaks or occasionally stand-up paddleboards called Yolos to tour the waters silently to appreciate the many birds along the shore and small fish seen beneath the dark surface. Archeological studies show these lakes have seen human visitation for hundreds of years, as they left behind traces of their shellfish meals. Today's visitors more often arrive by taking a path through the coastal dunes from one of the nearby resort hotels or beaches. The environment here is very different than the sun-drenched, sugar-sand beaches along the Gulf a few hundred feet away.
Most of the Coastal Dune Lakes now have a public access point where the water can be reached, and fishermen are often seen trying their luck for bass, bream, pan fish, speckled trout , catfish, mullet, red fish or flounder. Motors are allowed on some of the lakes, but most use canoes or electric trolling motors; disturbing the serenity somehow just seems unnatural. Due to the brackish nature of the water, both a freshwater fishing license and one for saltwater fish are required. The stretch along Highway 30A near the Gulf coast is a mecca for walkers and bicyclists, and many of the lakes can be seen or accessed from the road. Parking is allowed on the road shoulder unless marked. Multiple local businesses rent bikes, kayaks and paddleboards to visitors wishing to tour the lakes and surrounding countryside. Many vacationers plan a few days of their vacation away from the beach to explore father inland and quickly fall in love with the coastal dune lakes.
Four of Florida's state parks encompass or border some of the Coastal Dune Lakes: Camp Helen, Grayton Beach, Topsail Hill Preserve and Deer Lake State Parks all have dune walkways and woodland trails for exploring the lakes, along with beautiful beaches on the Gulf. The lakes within Topsail Hill Preserve do not allow any motorized boat traffic and only permit the kayaks that they rent to paddle the waters of Campbell Lake. Topsail Hill includes a former commercial RV park that has been kept available to RV campers and offers full campground facilities to all visitors. Reservations are highly recommended as the camping spaces are popular and often full. Because the coastal dune lakes are in danger from natural erosion from wind and particularly hurricanes, Topsail Hill Preserve has attempted to stabilize some of the barrier dunes by planting sea oats on the narrow strip of dunes shielding the lakes from the ocean.
Other lodgings are available, from the many resort hotels, rental condos, private guest cottages and bed & breakfasts. Although the warm summer months are most popular, winter temperatures seldom drop below 40 degrees at night, and sunny days are still pleasant for walking the beach and exploring the Coastal Dune Lakes. The Florida Panhandle attractions are often available year-round, with Destin, Panama City, Fort Walton Beach, Santa Rosa Beach and the Choctawhatchee Bay often open for business year round. Come, try out a Yolo board...after all, it means "You Only Live Once"!
*There are unfortunately no statistics for the Coastal Dune Lakes.
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