Surf Shacks 060

Walter Coker
St. Augustine, Florida

Matt Titone

When you hear the phrase, “local legend” who comes to mind? If you live in St. Augustine, Florida then odds are Walter Coker is the first person you think of. On the surface, he is that old salt with a Herculean, weathered surfer’s build who took over Genung’s Fish Camp (the bait & tackle shop in Crescent Beach) and lives on the premises. But there is far more to Walter than meets the eye and if you’re willing to listen, you just might learn a thing or two. He is a local Encyclopedia of sorts, recalling political and climate events from decades past with poetic attention to detail and humble authority in casual conversation. A quintessential Floridian, Walter loves where he is from and seeks to preserve and celebrate the true history of the region — with the good and the bad. His colorful Crescent Beach home on the intercoastal is littered with evidence of these interests along with beautiful artifacts collected on his numerous trips to the Carribbean and Bali. As a mutual friend once said of him, “Simply put, Walter is a treasure.”

Walter in front of his colorful home behind Genung's Fish Camp Matt Titone

Who are you? Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m just a guy from Florida with a couple of cameras and a couple of surfboards. I’d say those two objects have largely shaped my life, formed my life experience, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Where are you from?

I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, but have lived in Florida for all but three years of my life, so I consider myself a by-default Floridian, since it’s all I’ve ever really known. My dad was in the Air Force and got stationed at Patrick Air Force Base in Satellite Beach in 1963, so that’s where I grew up, attended school, community college, and started surfing. We lived just a few blocks from the ocean, and I never realized how lucky I was until much later.

How long have you lived here in Saint Augustine and what drew you to the area in the first place?

I first visited St. Aug in 1974 on an unplanned and uncharted road trip looking for waves. We somehow stumbled onto Blowhole purely by accident, and it was doing what it used to do, turning a tiny groundswell into super-fun shoulder-high a-frames. I attended college at the University of Florida in Gainesville a few years later, and St. Aug was the closest beach, and therefore became our go-to spot to surf. In 1990 I figured I should just move here and save some gas money!

St. Augustine has always had this sort of underground hippy movement, especially back in the 70’s and 80’s, which was a relief to find in conservative northeast Florida! There’s a history of crazy, colorful characters here, sort of a northern version of Key West if you will.

What are your favorite parts about St. A and the area in which you live?

St. Augustine still has a vibrant cultural scene, especially for such a small town. And lots of history (good and bad) of course, since it’s been around since 1565. The arts community is wonderful, and the music scene here with the amphitheater, the Ponte Vedra concert hall and the small clubs is stellar, especially for such a small town. There’s still some great little neighborhoods and eateries as well.

I live in Crescent Beach these days, about 10 miles south of downtown St. Aug. I can walk across A1A and surf, and the spectacular Matanzas River is right at my doorstep (sometimes literally, but more on that later). Way less hustle and bustle (and traffic) than in town, which is nice.

How did you come to live in your current home and take over managing the fish camp here?

It was a confluence of events, some good, some not. My marriage came to an end, and at about the same time, I heard through a close friend, Neil Armingeon, who at the time was the Matanzas Riverkeeper, that Genung’s was in need of a proprietor. The property was bought by a group of people (a couple of whom were acquaintances) several years ago, not as an investment so much as an attempt to preserve a piece of old Florida, which I certainly appreciated. Anyway, Neil was hoping to move his office to the property, so we came here together. It was definitely an experiment, and after a couple years (and two hurricanes) I decided running the place wasn’t really for me. There’s a new proprietor now, but I was able to stay on and keep living here for now, which is great!

Matt Titone
Matt Titone

The St. Augustine community has been through a lot the past two years with hurricanes Matthew and Irma. What was your personal experience with those two storms in particular and how were they different from hurricane seasons in previous years?

Well, the big difference between previous hurricane seasons and Matthew/Irma is we took near-direct hits by those two, and they occurred within eleven months of each other. St. Aug hadn’t been truly hit prior to that since Dora in 1964, more than half a century earlier. Fifty-plus years of ingrained complacency, in other words, and a whole bunch of transplants that don’t have a clue about hurricanes to boot.

As for my experiences, wow! They sucked! I evacuated to Gainesville for Matthew, and I went to my friend Jacob’s house just a couple of miles from Crescent Beach, but off the island, for Irma. Irma was coming up west of us, so it didn’t make much sense to go very far west. Prior to those two, I had never evacuated for a storm in my life, but there’s just a different feel to things now. (I wrote a story for ESM about Matthew, which I’ll attach and perhaps you can pull stuff from that?) Irma wasn’t quite as bad, but still much worse than I was expecting!

Most would assume these are the heights of growing children marked on the front door, instead they are the water levels from recent hurricanes: Matthew and Irma. Matt Titone

The first thing I noticed coming to your place was the water line markers on the front and side doors. I found it interesting because most people would probably expect those to be your kids’ heights or something, not the names of recent hurricanes. It’s kind of a subtle, but heavy red flag to see those water heights recorded in that way. What are some other big warning signs are you seeing in recent years that climate change is having an immediate impact on the area?

There are tropical species of plants and animals making their way north, things we used to rarely see in this area. I’ve always loved the tropics, and always wanted to live in them, but climate change probably isn’t the best way to accomplish that. I’m most fascinated with the mangroves we’re seeing more and more of. The black variety is more cold tolerant and have been proliferating in the area for some time, but the red ones are really taking hold over the last few years as well. They are the ones with the classic, arcing roots that are more common in the Everglades and the Florida Keys. They are beautiful, and I always have a few rooting in jars around the yard and house. (you took photos of some of them in jars of water on the table outside) They are taking root and growing all around here these days, literally changing the ecosystem before our eyes. There are also snook and grouper showing up in area waters, something you wouldn’t historically expect to see this far north.

We are experiencing higher tides on a more regular basis, so much so there’s even new language for them. They’re now known as “king tides” and they cause “sunny day flooding.” All the while, Florida governor Rick Scott has banned references to and even the utterance of the phrase “climate change” by state officials. Scott is like our own mini-Trump. Talk about denial…

And don’t get me started on beachfront development. It’s a topic I’ve been passionate about and documenting with my camera for decades. Houses that should’ve never been permitted are teetering on the edge or falling into the sea, and they’re simultaneously building new ones a short distance away, to this day. Complete insanity! The new mantra for government officials and oceanfront homeowners is “build a wall” (as if that will hold back the ocean), and at the rate they’re armoring St. Johns County beaches, there won’t be much sand left for sea turtle and bird nesting, much less humans. But by God, those lucky few will still be able stare at the ocean from their living rooms!

Matt Titone
Matt Titone

Having been around and seen many negative changes (and perhaps not enough positive changes) what are some things that give you hope these days?

There always has to be hope, for without it, what is there? There are some wonderful young people doing great things here locally, both environmentally and socially. Peter Tosh wrote a song called “You Can’t Blame The Youth,” and it contains the lyric “Jah, Jah, call upon the youth, ’cause he know the youth is strong.” Most of my hope these days lies with the youth. And they are going to need strength, as there’s much to do, unfortunately.

On a different note, when I lived in St. A, I used to see your name everywhere as a photo credit — in local periodicals and on pictures on the wall at Surf Station. You seemed to be the unofficial / official photographer of the community here. How did you get into photography and photojournalism in the first place?

My dad was a hobbyist photographer, so I was around cameras a bit as a child. We would have slide shows of family vacations and his travels to exotic locales with the Air Force. I started surfing in 1969, and I got interested in shooting surfing not long after. My dad was traveling to Guam with the Air Force pretty regularly in those days, tracking space shots, and the base exchange there had great deals on Japanese cameras. He got me a Topcon Unirex and a 200mm telephoto lens, and that’s where it all began. A little later he got me a Nikonos ll amphibious camera, which was designed to shoot underwater, but I started swimming and shooting surfing with it.

My mom was a high school English teacher, so I was kind of predisposed to be good with spelling, grammar and language. When it came time to decide on a college major, photojournalism seemed like a good way to meld the two and make a go of it.

What about writing?

I can write, but I much prefer photography, mostly because I feel I’m much better at it. Writing is tortuous, and I’m rarely happy with what I’ve written. That said, I have managed to be published a few times with my stories and photos combined. I’m most proud of having made the pages of The Surfer’s Journal, a magazine I hold in high esteem, on three occasions.

As the photo editor of Folio Weekly you documented much of this area’s unique character. What were some of your favorite local St. A stories over the years?

Wow, that’s a tough one, so many! My career with Folio lasted 21 years, which seems crazy looking back on it. The stories I remember most were often the ones involving injustice, being a voice for the voiceless, be it a human being or a wild place. As an alternative weekly, we were the only publication digging up that kind of stuff. Alt-weeklies did journalism with a point of view, something this area wasn’t real used to. No one was untouchable to us, and we slayed a few dragons.

My co-worker Anne Schindler’s first story in 1995 exposed the migrant worker abuse going on in the agricultural areas around Hastings, just 20 miles from downtown St. Augustine. My portrait of a migrant worker named Chicago accompanied that story, and I saw that piece as kind of a turning point of my photography and Foiio’s coming of age, with hard-hitting journalism that demanded attention.

Of course St. Augustine has an ugly history of racism, and sadly, there are still vestiges of it around. We covered that in many ways, including a photo essay I did on West Augustine in 2001, a largely African-American community that didn’t then, and still doesn’t, receive nearly the infrastructure funding or services of the affluent white communities that surround it.

There was a time when the iconic Bridge of Lions was a hot topic. There was a movement to tear it down and build something bigger that would carry more vehicles, visual aesthetics be damned. We gave a strong voice to the  preservationists, and they won that battle. Today, when I drive over that majestic bridge, I still get a sense of satisfaction knowing we played a small part in saving it.

Matt Titone

On a similar note, you have been around civil rights activists, famous college athletes, pro surfers, immigrant workers, town politicians, and many other interesting people through your work. What are a couple quotes that have stuck with you over the years?

I can’t say I have any quotes that really stuck with me. I was usually too busy shooting to write anything down!

But along those lines, celebrity was always dwarfed by the common people that I met along the way. I photographed millionaires, developers, politicians, sheriffs, attorneys, and all manner of movers and shakers, but their personalities and causes always paled when compared to those of the less fortunate, like the homeless alcoholic that lived under the San Sebastian River bridge, or the crack-addicted prostitute, both of whom I interviewed and photographed for different stories in West Augustine. There’s just something about the human condition, when life can literally hang in the balance, that is compelling to me, and their stories beg to be told.

Florida has a lot of stereotypes for those who don’t live there or who have never been before. What do you want people to know about Florida?

Google “Florida Man” before deciding to move here, or even to visit for an extended period of time!

What do you not want people to know about Florida?

Nothing! I want full disclosure about the state of the state. That alone should help keep folks away.

Living in one of the most bio-diverse areas of north Florida, what is an encounter with wildlife that you have been inspired by?

There have been quite a few. I’ve been so close to mating manatees while photographing them that I nearly got splashed. For such slow, lumbering animals, they get fairly vigorous when mating in late spring. When I lived in Vilano I started stand-up paddling, mainly as exercise and a diversion when there’s no surf. I would paddle across St. Augustine inlet and one summer I started seeing some pretty large sharks on the shallow shoals at the north end of Anastasia State Park. I never identified them for sure but I think they were bulls, and they were in the 5-8 foot range. It was pretty exhilarating paddling over the top of creatures that size in 3-4 feet of really clear water. I went back again and again, just for the adrenaline rush.

Matt Titone

What’s a day in the life of Walter like these days?

Fortunately, my days remain largely flexible, and unpredictable. The first thing I do is look out the big window at the river. That tells me a lot about the weather, and the day’s surf potential with regard to wind. If the wind is right and there’s swell, I’ll ride my bike up and have a look, and decide from there.

My career as a photojournalist ended a few years ago, as print journalism, and newspapers in particular, are unfortunately in rapid decline. I now own a retail store featuring imports from Indonesia, so much of my day centers on that. I do warehouse work, deliveries, and sometimes run the store itself.

I volunteer with Learn To Read, an organization that arranges tutors for students and adults in need of such things, so there might be an hour of that in there.

I like to end the day sitting around the legendary fire pit at the fish camp, watching the sun go down over the Matanzas River. It’s a special place, and one of the few remaining healthy river systems in the state, so I like to soak it in every chance I get.

If you were able to have a dinner with a few people (alive or dead), who would you like to dine with and what would you eat?

How many can I invite?

Bob Marley, for his music of course, but also for his deeper message.

Duke Kahanamoku, so much more than just a surfing legend.

William Finnegan, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning surfing book “Barbarian Days,” because he’s an intellectual surfer, and surfing sorely needs those!

Benjamin Lay, an 18th century Quaker dwarf who was an abolitionist, vegetarian, pacifist, gender-conscious environmentalist. Look him up and be prepared to be amazed.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the famous Florida author.

Helmut Newton, the German portrait/fashion photographer, I’m sure he’s got some great stories.

We would have an Indonesian vegetarian feast!

Any parting thoughts, words of wisdom, or sage advice?

The happiest people I’ve met in my travels, both around the globe and right here at home, are often the ones that have the least. I think we can all learn from that. Enjoy every day you have on this beautiful planet, it’s a short ride…

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Matt Titone

A goofy-footed designer who hails from the first state, Delaware. After attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida then graduating from SCAD in Savannah, GA with a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration, Matt moved to NYC and found work as a freelance designer and art director before moving west to Venice Beach, California in 2006 where he ended up co-founding ITAL/C Studio and tries very hard to avoid crowds & traffic. While not in the studio, he enjoys surfing as much as possible, snowboarding, paddle tennis, hiking, camping, and watching the Eagles play at Sports Harbor.

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