I had come to South Walton for the rare lakes and the good beer. The plan was to experience them separately. But plans aren’t of much use in a place like South Walton. And liquid travels the path of one who can’t resist, (or something like that).
After finishing up a few beers at the newly opened Craft Bar, I pulled up to Western Lake, second largest of the sixteen coastal dune lakes in the area. Other than South Walton, Florida, coastal dune lakes can only be found in Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar, and Oregon. As the name implies, they are coastal lakes, separated from saltwater by tenuous dunes. During the right conditions—heavy rains or high tides, for instance—the dunes are breached and the two bodies of water combine.
Western Lake was its own separate body on the day that I arrived. The only breaching taking place was the beer in my belly crossing that brain barrier.
Is the water really red? I wanted to ask, but didn’t because that sounded ridiculous and I didn’t need my guide for the day, the East Coast’s paddleboard pioneer, Jeff Archer, to know that I was tipsy on strong beer and sweet meads.
I pulled off my sunglasses, cupped my forehead, and shook a good drink or two out of my brain. I don’t know if it was the headshake or the sign that warned of gators, but I was no longer worried about hallucinations of red water, (even though the water still looked red).
“Gators?” I asked, but tried to sound disconcerted.
Archer said it was no big deal.
We grabbed a pair of boards. His company name—YOLO (for You Only Live Once)—was printed on each deck. (For those readers up on their hip hop culture, Archer’s YOLO came before Drake’s, which is why Drake’s YOLO-wear doesn’t exist. Archer owns all rights.)
Paddleboarding the Coastal Dune Lakes
We launched from the shores into the great lake, paddling under bridges and wondering about the vastness of the lowland forest where scrub oaks and palmetto trees grew in abundance.
“Scoop up some water,” Archer said.
I did. I couldn’t keep the hallucination to myself any more. “The water’s red?”
“The tannins from the long leaf pines dye the lake.”
Thank goodness, I thought, and paddled Western Lake, a setting that felt like one I had dreamed up in my Hebrew school days, whenever the story of Moses parting the Red Sea was presented. But here, in South Walton, the water was actually red. And, as Archer explained, it was beautiful whenever the lakes breached the dunes and combined with the emerald green gulf. I imagined this yin-yang of water: two bodies cupping one another like tadpoles in embrace.
But when we reached the dune—that narrow strip no wider than five feet across—the waters were segregated. I stepped off the nose of my board, set one foot in the white sand, and lunged into the green gulf. We were that close.
Archer stood there retelling of the beauty of merger, when the breach brought bull sharks into the lake. But there was no need to worry about sharks, or even gators for that matter; and there was no reason to be disappointed that the lake had not met the gulf. Time on the white isthmus felt on pause between the green and the red. And the beer was gone from my head. We paddled to the other side of the lake.