From our campsite at Sebastian Inlet State Park, I watched the early evening story unfolding on our pilgrimage to here. Two boys ran by on their way to the inlet, fishing poles over their shoulders. They had been liberated from adult supervision and gleefully got ready to cast one more time under the disappearing part of the day for that silvery and illusive trophy, a fish.
The pervasive theme at Sebastian Inlet State Park is just that – fishing. We came here lured by the rumor of wondrous stretches of beaches along the Atlantic (true), and knowing we had a straight shot over the expanse of ocean directly east where we imagined my ancestral homeland, Sao Miguel in the Azores. Along the way, we discovered this other obsession.
There have been humans fishing here, alongside the birds, for thousands of years and when the Spanish came through in the early 1500s, they discovered indigenous people living along the Indian River Lagoon, a nursery for shellfish and marine life where fresh water and salt water mix beneath mangrove swamps and marshes and seagrass.
Until the devastating freeze of 1895, the local economy here in central Florida (we are just south of Cape Canaveral) depended on pineapple and citrus crops. With the arrival of Henry Flagler and his east coast Florida railroad, the huge northern markets became accessible. Fishing became the new cash crop.
Three families developed the fishing market here in Sebastian. The longest lasting of those fishing enterprises was run by a family named Sembler which entered into a partnership with an already going concern in 1901 and by the mid-1970s was shipping over two million pounds of fish north each year.
The lagoon was not open to the ocean at Sebastian Inlet originally and in the late days of the nineteenth century and early days of the twentieth, multiple attempts were made to cut a canal across the narrowest stretch of the barrier island, connecting the lagoon to the Atlantic Ocean at what is now known as the Inlet.
After about half a century of trying, the canal was finally established and by the 1960s, a bridge had been built over the inlet, creating a link along the barrier island making it accessible from the mainland by the ubiquitous automobile.
Sebastian Inlet State Park straddles both sides of the barrier island for three miles and 1,000 acres, and faces the Atlantic to the east, the lagoon to the west. From the brown pelicans, to the egrets, to the humans, the focus has been on fishing since the early days of the twentieth century. In addition to fishing, the park is known for surfing, boating and for the McLarty Treasure Museum which features artifacts and displays of the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet which was returning to Spain when a hurricane hit and sank the fleet. To this day, the treasure of gold, silver and jewels is still being salvaged. Part of the bounty is occasionally found on the beaches, tossed up at random intervals by the mercurial Atlantic.
The rain and wind of the past weekend produced impressive waves at the ocean and as we explored the beach we noticed the red and purple flags warning of high surf and “dangerous marine life”. What, I asked, constitutes dangerous marine life? The answer: jellyfish, specifically Man-of-War, and sea lice. What, I asked, are sea lice? The answer: larva of jellyfish which burrow under your skin. Really? Another reason for Peter to NEVER go in the ocean.
But not everyone had the same reaction to the warnings. On Sunday, as we walked along North Beach, we watched a couple of intrepid surfers, without wet suits, paddle and dive and paddle some more for the fleeting glory of a 15-second ride down the face of 7 to 9 foot waves. Glory days.
And in the time it has taken to write this post, the young fishermen have crossed back from the Inlet to their campsite, with no trophy. Imagining their youthful optimism, I’m guessing that after a night of dreams casting for fish of monumental proportions, they will awake in the morning, undaunted and refreshed and ready for the renewed promise of soaking a line in the Inlet.
Like our young friends, I urge you to dream big and fall in love with what you dream.
Peter and Liz continue their pilgrimage to here, occasionally observing the people and birds who fish, as they cross the U.S. in their Airstream.