Walton County is home to 15 to 18 natural dune lakes, such as Deer Lake pictured above — more than any other location on Earth. Only Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. Northern Pacific Coast offer similar ecosystems. Photo by Scott Holstein
Water PortraitsCinematographer Elam Stoltzfus focuses the world’s eye on Florida’s unique and elegant coastal dune lakes By Joyce Owen | Photos by Scott Holstein
Tourists and locals alike are guilty of misunderstanding the coastal dune lakes they see while driving along the beach road in South Walton. After all, aren’t they just like any other lake?
Well, not really.
Few places in the world can lay claim to these exotic biological ecosystems. New Zealand’s Northland, Australia’s Queensland, Madagascar and Northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast are the only homes to these natural wonders, but Walton County has the highest concentration of these incredibly rare lakes.
In addition to Northwest Florida’s coastal dune lakes, the area’s swamps are some of cinematographer Elam Stoltzfus’ favorite subjects to film, such as the one pictured here in his hometown of Blountstown. Photo by Scott Holstein
According to one definition, a coastal dune lake is a lake within 2 miles of the coast. Marsha Anderson, chairwoman of Walton County’s Coastal Dune Lake Advisory Board, says there is an additional qualifier the county applies: “The lake must have an outfall, at least an intermittent connection to another body of water.”
In our area, there are between 15 and 18 lakes that have, or once had, a connection to the Gulf of Mexico. Beyond the debate over the exact number of coastal dune lakes, there are questions about how and when they were formed, and more importantly, how they can be protected and preserved.
But first you have to learn as much as you can about them.
Fortunately, filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus, who has years of experience documenting Florida’s waterways, saw the beauty of the coastal dune lakes and wanted to document them.
“As a filmmaker, I believe my job is to educate, entertain and inform,” he says.
Stoltzfus first discovered the area in the late 1980s or early ’90s when he worked on assignment as part of a film crew in Seaside. His work provided many opportunities to return with film crews for commercials in South Walton.
Although he continued to create videos for many uses, Stoltzfus’ focus turned to filming Florida’s great outdoors — including lakes, rivers and swamps.
Stoltzfus lives in Blountstown, Fla., and travels throughout the state documenting many of Florida’s most distinctive bodies of water. He has produced the documentaries “Big Cypress Swamp: Western Everglades,” “Living Waters: Aquatic Preserves of Florida” and “Apalachicola River: An American Treasure.”
Each of these nature documentaries gives viewers an armchair tour of places that Stoltzfus thought they might never visit, but something wonderful happened, he says.
While completing the Big Cypress Swamp video, there was discussion over whether to include the swamp walk, as Stoltzfus wasn’t sure it was an activity many people might want to do.
Once the documentary aired, viewers contacted him for more information.
One woman wrote that she never thought she’d want to go to a swamp, but after seeing the video, she wanted information on how to get there.
“‘Whom do I talk to about doing the swamp walk?’ she asked, and soon a guide was offering the tour,” he says.
Once viewers learn about the coastal dune lakes, Stoltzfus believes they might want to visit the area.
Tourism officials are already preparing for those visitors, certifying eco-tourism guides that have firsthand experience on coastal dune lakes.
Stoltzfus’ Australian Shepherd, Buddy, whom he rescued recently from Alaqua Animal Refuge in Freeport, is his companion when filming scenes near his Blountstown home. Photo by Scott Holstein
One of Walton County’s nature-based certified guides, Snookie Parrish, leads interpretative hiking, biking and walking tours of state parks and forests and has lived on two coastal dune lakes. Five years ago, while living on Western Lake, she witnessed the natural opening or pop-off at the lake’s outfall.
She hopes Stoltzfus can capture what she experienced.
“At first there was just a tiny trickle of water that grew to an inch wide,” Parrish says. “As the water pushed toward the Gulf, it looked like a river, then like white water rapids as it forced itself out and the waves from the Gulf came rushing in.”
Stoltzfus plans to bring that kind of experience to the coastal dune-lake video to help viewers make their own connections to the lakes.
The connections that Stoltzfus depends on were apparent nearly two years ago when he arrived in Walton County to show his “Living Waters” film and drum up support for a full-length video on coastal dune lakes at the Chautauqua Assembly in DeFuniak Springs, Fla.
County officials were impressed with his work and encouraged him to contact the Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council, where he received a pleasant surprise: The council was looking for a 10-minute feature on the coastal dune lakes and was willing to fund the project. Stoltzfus realized it was a good opportunity to create a demo for the longer version he had in mind.
A 13-minute video, “Coastal Dune Lakes,” was produced. For the first six or seven months, he says the video didn’t do much. Then, for whatever reason, it went viral, finding its way to Web sites and spreading to viewers across the world.
At about that same time, Stoltzfus’ Big Cypress Swamp video was picked up by public television, which brought him national recognition.
“I got sidetracked doing events, premiere screenings, which was all wonderful, but it ate up all my time,” he says. “To even consider doing the coastal dune lake project, I needed to start fundraising, but I had lost momentum and needed help.”
He contacted Teresa Baum, owner of ‘grow,’ a local marketing company, to help him make connections to the community.
Much as Stoltzfus’ goal with each new project was to learn about the subject and then share it with viewers, he realized he must educate business owners, civic organizations and government leaders on the importance of promoting the coastal dune lakes so they would be eager to get involved.
To get someone to sponsor the project, Stoltzfus knew they would have to understand how it could benefit them.
“I’ve seen how viewing the other videos affects people,” he says. “Politicians have said they can’t make the same decisions they used to make. Others say they relived their whole childhood.
“All it is, is pictures with music and words, but it makes a powerful and emotional connection for viewers. It’s like a little taste of something delicious on your tongue.”
Stoltzfus relates that “I told Teresa (Baum), ‘I need help to educate folks on what I want to do.’”
In his post-production studio, Stoltzfus does the editing and adds graphics, music and narration to his documentaries. Photo by Scott Holstein
Baum thought he had a good project, but she believed he needed to take it to a new level and go international. She suggested he compare the local lakes with others around the world that are also identified as coastal dune lakes, which would attract international audiences. The project is now planned as “Coastal Dune Lakes of the World.”
Stoltzfus hopes to go to Australia and New Zealand to see how their lakes are similar to and different from Florida’s. From talking to researchers there, he already knows that those lakes are farther from the coast, which is definitely different from the ones in Florida. Because they are more difficult to access, roads have been constructed and buses are used to take tourists to visit the lakes. Sediment washing from the new roads has washed into the lakes, creating new issues, he says.
One of Stoltzfus’ goals is to share experiences and learn best practices to keep the lakes healthy. Whether there is an issue of invasive plants or fish, he wants to compare ways to protect the lakes.
As part of his focus, he plans to involve researchers and scientists in Walton County, Australia and New Zealand to come up with approaches that can be used to maintain all of the lakes.
It is that goal that encourages him to distribute the documentary internationally.
“There is a need for this,” he says.
“Today you’ve got to show, not just tell the story,” he says. “People need the visual aspects.”
For more information on the Coastal Dune Lakes of the World documentary, visit coastaldunelakes.org.
Q & A: Florida’s Coastal Dune Lakes What is an outlet/outfall?
One of the most interesting features of Walton County’s coastal dune lakes is their intermittent connection to the Gulf of Mexico. When a coastal dune lake reaches a relatively high water level, it actually breaks through the dune system and the beach sand and empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The channel that is formed between the lake and the Gulf is known as the lake’s outlet or outfall. Depending on tides and weather conditions (particularly wind), saltwater from the Gulf may enter the lake, along with saltwater plants and animals. The drainage of the lake and potential exchange with the Gulf continues until equilibrium is reached and the opening closes.
How important are the coastal dune lakes?
According to the Florida Natural Areas Inventory, coastal dune lakes are imperiled globally because of their rarity and critically imperiled in the state of Florida because of their extreme rarity. They are also indispensable to our coastline as wetland systems that filter and store water, provide habitat for a wide variety of unique flora and fauna, and exist as a natural estuarine transition between the Gulf and upland areas. From BasinAlliance.org