Coastal Dune Lakes Documentary – Yolo And Walco Eco Tours

courtesy of

Our latest segment highlighting coastal dune lakes in SoWal  features YOLO (stand uppaddle boarding) and Walco Eco Tours on Western Lake.

Production by Elam Stoltzfus of Live Oak Production Group continues on a full-length documentary about coastal dune lakes for an international PBS audience.

Explore The Natural Wonders Of Sowal With Walco Eco Tours

by Dwight Williams (

He looks like he just stepped off the pages of an outdoor-life magazine. Murray Balkcom is tall, athletic and always smiling. When he speaks about the natural wonders of our area, his enthusiasm becomes infectious. Add in a deep knowledge of the SoWal landscape, and you understand why folks are lining up for his guided tours on local trails and lakes.

“The first thing I bought when I moved here in 2002 was a house,” says Murray Balkcom.  “The second thing I bought was a kayak.”

Eight years later, the house and kayak encompass Balkcom’s personal and professional interests.  He’s a Realtor and now the head of Walco Eco Tours, a kayak/nature guide service based out of the WaterColor BoatHouse on Western Lake.

The guided tours mark an interesting time for SoWal.  Initiated last winter, they became a popular summer activity for visitors looking to explore the area beyond the beach.  They also serve as the latest effort to diversify the area’s “menu” of things to do in presenting SoWal as an eco tourism destination.

“We’re known for our sugar-white sand,” says Tracy Louthain, director of communications for the Tourist Development Council. “But 40% of the area has been set aside as state parks and state forests.  We’re not just beaches.  There’s a richness to this area, and it needs to be offered to the public.  Murray is out there showing it to them.”

“The tours make for a great introduction to the lakes and the ecosystems of the area,” Balkcom says.  “About half the tour is paddling on the water, and the remainder is on land, learning about the dune systems and exploring the area surrounding the lake.”

Although Balkcom has been kayaking on the Gulf and the dune lakes for years now, starting a guide service required some research.  As a guide he’s also a Master Naturalist, a local historian and a kayaking instructor.

“The eco tourist is looking for a certain kind of fun,” Balkcom says.  They want to know about the dynamics of the dune systems, the exchange of fresh and salt water between the Gulf and the lakes, and the diversity of wildlife in these rare ecosystems.

The tours offer visitors a privileged view of an environment that visitors would otherwise not see.  At water-level, kayakers can interact more intimately with the flora and fauna: water lilies are right there, just off the tip of the paddle; bald eagles often hunt fish from trees directly overhead.   The alternative is to catch a glimpse from land through a pair of binoculars.

Balkcom is a native of the Southeastern U.S.  Raised on a farm in southwest Georgia, he went on to college at the University of Georgia at Athens.  After an Outward Bound experience in Colorado, he hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2000.

“That changed my perspective,” he says.  “From that moment on I wanted to be out-of-doors as much as possible.”

Afterward he moved to Asheville, North Carolina before finally moving to SoWal in 2002.  “I was feeling the need to be near the water,” he says.  “It’s magnetic for me.”  Three years ago he began guiding for a local outfit, and just last winter started his own company based on Western Lake.

“Western Lake is the perfect dune lake to explore,” he says.  “St. Joe and WaterColor did it right, investing a lot of money to protect the ecosystem.  The homes are set back further than required, and they built floating community docks, which has decreased the potential impact on the lake.  The docks also make the lake unusually accessible.”

Grayton Beach State Park surrounds the western end of the lake, which serves as a useful buffer between the lake and local traffic.  An interesting fact: Western Lake extends to the east nearly to County Road 395.  “It’s too shallow to paddle all the way back there,” Balkcom says, “but the lake is a bigger than most people think.”

For more information visit, or call 850.534.4343.

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