For the News-Leader
When Bucko and I moved back to Fernandina Beach in 2001 after a couple of years working in Africa, I had few friends here.
But soon, with my membership in the Newcomers Club of Amelia Island, this was not a problem. In short order, I teamed up with another member, and we started the Newcomers Hiking Group.
For years, we led five-mile hikes on Amelia Island, the Talbot Islands, Fort George Island and even yearly in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Car pool, walk five miles, carry your own lunch – the rules were simple but fun. There’s nothing like a long walk in the woods together to create and sustain friendships.
But 20 years ago is not now. Most of these original Hiking Group members were my age or older, and now those of us who remain on Amelia Island are older still. For many of us, a five-mile hike is no longer feasible. But we can still walk and talk together in a mode I call “bench walking.”
Fernandina Beach Main Street has overseen the placement of a number of benches along Centre Street and adjacent pocket parks. The city of Fernandina’s Parks and Recreation Department has likewise provided benches along the marina, at Main Beach and other beach accesses and the Egans Creek Greenway. With these and other benches in place, the opportunities for bench walking here are amazing.
Some people meet at the Main Beach benches at dawn, where a view of the rising sun can easily be had from a parked car or a nearby bench that hardly needs walking to. In these COVID-19 times, there is nothing much safer than sitting outside six feet apart on a bench.
On a recent full moon rise, bench sitters and car parkers even had a view of the moon rising above the ocean at dusk. And for those of us still walking, it is easier to sit for a while on one bench than to walk down the full Main Beach boardwalk, resting if need be, on other benches along the way.
Another popular bench view is sunset, where the many benches placed along the marina afford photo ops of one amazing sunset after another.
Someone could watch the sunset from the comfort and safety of one’s car or sit on a nearby bench to take in the show. These benches are the perfect place to start a bench walk through town any time of day. All along Centre Street there are well-placed benches and sitting areas.
A downtown bench walk can go for many blocks with benches nearby if anyone needs to rest or needs a place to sit while devouring an ice cream cone that is readily available here, too. Or, in another direction, a bench walk from the marina can go along the shoreline to the pétanque courts and back, with other views to savor.
If the woods are more to your liking, Fort Clinch State Park can help you bench walk there, too. The entrance to Willow Pond has well-placed benches, and a few more are conveniently placed along the trail to allow you to rest as you walk through the forest of pines and magnolias and live oaks, and across streams and past swamps that contain alligators you may even be lucky enough to see.
Or maybe it is the salt marsh and sloughs that inspire you to take a bench walk. The Egans Creek Greenway, managed by the city, has plenty of benches along the trail. Here, you can walk a bit, sit on a bench overlooking an alligator pond, then continue a bit further to an area where otters are sometimes seen and relax on another bench.
And the best news is that, here on our island, there are many places to view either sunrise over the ocean or sunset over the river without even leaving your car. Main Beach, the Plaza San Carlos in Old Town and the parking lots at the marina all offer exquisite views without moving a muscle outside the car. As my friends get older still, this is another valuable option.
Getting older is not fun. Although our physical abilities may decline, our needs for scenery, nature and friendships are still strong. I never before thought of benches as recreation, but now I understand.
Here’s to bench walking with old friends, and the city and state planners who have made this possible!
Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.