Chan West stopped and half turned to cock an eye on the big old twisted oak tree in the parking lot of the Pine Beach Trail.
The Gulf fritillary is the same color as the monarch, but arrives earlier in the season and stays longer. Staff photo by John Mullen.
A member of her butterfly tour inquired as to how old it might be.
“Well,” West said, “I’m 81 years old, and when I was a child it looked that big to me.”
West is a volunteer for the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge on the Fort Morgan Peninsula and has lived in the area for most of her life. She grew up there and after traveling around the country while her husband was in the military, moved back when he retired.
She is a fountain of information on the area, its animals and especially the plant life.
“I’m a self-taught botanist,” she said, driving down Fort Morgan Road. “I was born in 1930 and this road wasn’t paved until 1936.”
She’s also an indefatigable tour guide.
At the trailhead, West was preparing to lead a group of about a dozen hearty souls on a butterfly tour. The refuge is a stopover spot for migrating butterflies on the way to northern Mexico.
While the butterflies were few and far between West all at once charmed, entertained and educated the group with her expertise and delightful stories.
“It doesn’t look like we are going to see many butterflies,” West said.
The 81-year-old easily led the way on about a mile walk down to where the trail bisects two bodies of water, Little Lagoon on the east and Gator Lake on the west.
“We’re going to have to move along if we’re going to get to a spot where we might see some butterflies,” she admonished good naturedly. “It’s a mile to the water.”
Along the way a few Gulf fritillaries made their presence known, but mostly it was just a pleasant walk and a few lessons about plants and beautiful wildflowers now in bloom on the refuge.
“We had a brief flurry of monarchs about a month ago and I haven’t seen one since,” West said. “The Gulf fritillary is basically almost the same color orange as the monarch and it has black spots. Many people will tell you they’ve been seeing monarchs, but the Gulf fritillaries get here earlier and stay longer.
“They’re a little brighter orange. One of the distinctive things is when they are at rest, they rest with their wings up and you can see the back of the wings with the silvery tops and the monarch does not have that.”
Soon one of the fritillaries made an appearance during a walk up a power line road.
“Here we go!” West exclaimed. “Here’s the fritillary. Did you see the silvery spots on the other side of the wings when it went overhead?”
It was one of about half a dozen seen during the hour-and-a-half walk. A few yellow “sulfur” butterflies also went by during the tour.
The lack of butterflies didn’t bother West a bit. Nor did it affect the quality of the tour.
“If we don’t have many butterflies, I can talk about a lot of things,” she said.
Especially flowers. red basils, widow’s tears goldenrods, jointweed and many others.
“The red flower (basil) — we will see a lot of those walking along the trail,” she said.
Along the way she told stories from her childhood. Like having to retrieve trotline hooks from the mouths of turtles because they couldn’t afford new ones. Once a severed turtle head clamped on her brother’s finger and it took quite a while to get it to release him, she recalled.
“See this over here?” she asked. “It’s called a ‘nilla’ plant. You can use the leaves for flavoring if you don’t have vanilla. For me, it’s one of those very nostalgic things. When the leaves are dried, my mother used them as sashay in the linens. She used them in sheets and towels.”
As a bog appeared on either side of the trail, another story came to mind. After World War II her father’s 1946 Dodge got stuck as he insisted on trying to get through the mire.
“I call this Green Dodge Swamp,” she said with a grin. “When we opened the doors, the water came all the way up to the bottom of the seats.”
Soon something else caught her eye.
“This is one of my very favorite flowers,” West said. “It’s a jointweed. A large-leafed joint weed.”
And like she did throughout the tour, West gave the scientific name: “polygonella macrophylla.”
And the most pleasant walk and lessons from a life well-lived continued.