30A is more than perfect beaches - it is a land of adventure...
“Life is an adventure” says Mike Ferguson.
We’re sat in the shade of a comfortable pergola, near where Scenic Highway 30A curves away from the beach and its million-dollar luxury homes, and cuts through the 15,000 acres of Point Washington State Forest and the biking and hiking trails of Deer Lake State Park.
“I’m a kid from the bayous of South Louisiana. Like many from Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, or Alabama we spent our vacations here – Fort Walton, Destin, Panama City Beach – so I knew it was beautiful.
“But after my divorce, I thought maybe I can move to Florida? I had a friend who took me to Bud and Alley’s in Seaside, and I was like – “Where am I?” – I just thought ‘I want to live here’ – but my pal, who I’d known since third grade, was like – ‘Man, I don’t really think you can afford to live on 30A!’”
But, with the financial crisis of 2008 temporarily resetting local property prices, Mike saw his chance:
“I took advantage of the lower prices – started a new adventure and realised my dream of moving here. They couldn’t keep the riff-raff out!” he jokes.
And Mike has taken well to his new home.
“This life was my dream. As a kid, I was always that one out exploring. Whether it was in the woods or swamps and ditches, I was always in there exploring, looking to see what I could find. So, when I first moved here, and I had the beach as my front yard and my backyard is the State Forest – WOW! – it’s a dream come true.
“Like everyone, I was initially drawn to the Gulf. I do free-diving, and snorkelling, and that’s some experience when I go underwater. It’s almost like a spiritual feeling – I get chill’s thinking about it now – it gets quiet, it’s dead quiet when you go beneath the surface, I get weightless and you can twist and move in ways you can’t on land.
“And then the interactions I have had out there are unbelievable. Sea Turtles, out on the artificial reefs, will come right up to me and want me to scratch their back. Manatees – out here in the Gulf – people will be surprised but every year I see them as they pass three or four feet away. Amazing. What an experience – for me it’s almost akin to an interaction with an entirely different culture – breaking down barriers – you’re not alone, there’s something other than you.
“And every time I go out, I’m asking ‘What am I going to find today?’ – how many pairs of sunglasses, snorkel masks – iphones! It’s just the discovery, like a little kid, the excitement of finding things. I just found a 5-dollar bill – I’m not getting rich, but I love these adventures!”
And Mike’s adventures seem good for the body as well as the soul.
“Our community is getting more health-oriented. I’m noticing more people using the trails, I used to feel like I had them all to myself and now I have to share… but, for example, Deer Lake State Park has a mile and a half loop trail which is just amazing”
About the time Mike moved to 30A, another member of our local community, Jeff Archer, was launching ‘Yolo’ and reintroducing stand up paddle-boarding to people.
“I was a kayak freak – but once I started paddle-boarding, your core strength and the way your body feels, you don’t need to belong to a gym. I was an athlete when I was younger, and I thought to myself how did I stay in good shape? – I never really worked out, and it’s because I played, that’s my mentality on 30A – I play.”
Mike’s adventures have also been informative and educational.
“I found these pots recently in the woods. First, I was finding shards, bits of broken pots which I wondered if maybe they were Indian relics. Then one day I met this photographer and he told me these weird markings which I’d been seeing on trees – they’re called ‘Cat Faces’ – was where these pots had been hung for collecting resin for the turpentine industry. “
In the early 1900’s, long before tourism began, turpentine harvested from the Long Leaf Pines native to this part of Northwest Florida was a vital commodity used in shipbuilding and naval supplies. Hogtown Bayou, north of Santa Rosa Beach, was the center of this activity with timber mills and turpentine stills.
“I’m an explorer so I wanted to know more – ‘Who touched this pot?’, ‘What was their life like living here in the summer?’ – My mind works this way. I think about their stories. So, while I’m out in the woods now I’m looking for evidence of the human story as well as the natural one.”
Increasingly, adventures and experiences are now a big part of our visitor economy. How did Mike turn his passion into his business?
“One day, my pal who works in real estate said to me – ‘Mike, you epitomize the real 30A’. I was like, ‘What does that mean? People have been here a whole lot longer than I have!”. But I guess, for me, the ‘real 30A’ is the whole package; the woods, the dune lakes and the wildlife just as much as the architecture, the towns and the beaches – I love that too – it is all part of our culture.
“Friends started calling me Adventure Mike and I was taking them and their families out on trips. I was loaning them my kayaks and showing them what they could expect to see and discover. Before too long, I started guiding them, taking people out for these experiences.
“I always worried about ‘selling’ these trips – it’s nature, I can’t guarantee what we will or won’t see. Some days we’ve seen bears leap into the water in front of us, other days I’ve found wildflowers and plants unique to this area. But what I got to realize was people loved that. They understand there are no guarantees, it’s not a zoo or a theme park – but if they are from some congested town or suburb – they soon realize even being out there, they are on a real adventure.
“We’re going on a hunt – we don’t kill stuff – but we’re going out there to find what we can – that’s the adventure!”
Martin Liptrot is British but has lived along 30A since 2004. After a global career in advertising he has now made Northwest Florida his home and runs local PR and Marketing Agency www.98RepublicPR.com. Martin’s passions include Soccer, Cricket, Rugby, Formula One and Horse Racing. He is a fan of craft beers and fine wines and enjoys good company and long lazy lunches in any of the spectacular restaurants on 30A.