OKALOOSA ISLAND -- What a difference a couple of hurricanes can make.
A long, long time ago, when Crab Island was really an island and U.S. Highway 98 was just two lanes across Okaloosa Island, a monstrous sand dune stood sentry near the old Eglin Officers Beach Club.
Dubbed “The Matterhorn” after the European mountain that it resembled, the giant sand hill was part of an impressive dune system that extended from Wayside Park to the west to the old Eglin NCO (now the all ranks) Beach Club to the east. The dunes blocked the view of the Gulf of Mexico from most points on U.S. 98 in those days.
In 1995, however, the one-two punch of Hurricanes Erin in July and Opal in October flattened the dunes. The magnificent Matterhorn, which at one point measured more than 100 feet above sea level, was nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the sandy beach.
The loss of the Matterhorn was keenly felt by many locals, particularly those who had happy memories of sliding down the hill on pieces of cardboard, skim boards, or “sand skis” in the 1960s and 70s.
Recently, more than 100 people shared their memories of the bygone pastime on the Facebook page "Fort Walton Beach - What We Did."
“We got dropped off at the NCO club, sand skied all day and got picked up at Wayside,” recalled Mark Hagan. “All we took was a ski, wax and a towel.”
While some people converted water skis into sand skis by removing the skeg (the fin on the bottom) and attaching some carpet to the top, others made their skis from scratch.
“Sand skis were a regular item made in wood shop at Bruner (Junior High) back in the day,” Mike Haught added.
Those who didn’t have access to sand skis improvised.
“Sand skis, cardboard, metal trashcan lids, whatever we could get our hands on,” Amanda Coleman Ruiz wrote. “Great memories!!”
Sliding down the Matterhorn could be a thrilling - but sometimes dangerous - experience. “Face planting” was an occupational hazard, but most agreed that the fun was worth the risk.
“I used a longboard ... with the skeg pulled out and parafin wax on bottom,” Howard Lawson remembered. “Sometimes we could get three or four people (on the board) at a time and hit the bump at the bottom and land in the Gulf.”
While some folks admitted to skipping school in order to slide across Okaloosa Island's dunes, other recalled organized events.
"I won the sand skiing contest at the Matterhorn when I was in fifth grade," Robin Wache' added. "The prize was a banana split from the ice cream shop in Fort Walton Square."
Although the Matterhorn was the most popular sand skiing venue, it wasn't the only place to ride the dunes.
"Just outside the Beasley park boundary (going east towards Destin), there was a series of three dunes that formed a nice long curving path for sandskiing," Bill Kelley recalled. "It wasn't as steep as the Matterhorn, but it was a much longer run, and with a good sand ski that was freshly waxed, you could get some good speed going. We often went there when the Matterhorn was crowded, and you were hidden from highway 98. We never told anyone about it, and I never saw anyone else there."
For Laurie Wright, who was raised in Fort Walton Beach, sliding down the Matterhorn was just one of the many activities locals enjoyed before the arrival of commercial attractions.
“Everyone would park along the side of U.S. 98 and would drag their skis up the dunes,” she recalled. “It was hot on your feet walking across that hot sand, but it was something the whole family could enjoy together.”
Wright remembers when the location in the East Pass known as Crab Island was actually an island.
“Back in those days, we’d have progressive dinners out at the island,” she said. “We’d take 12 boats and anchor out there, and we’d go from boat to boat for each different dinner course. Then the kids would camp overnight on the island, while the adults would sleep on their boats.”
These days, just walking - let alone skiing - across the dunes is discouraged by military and local government officials. After Hurricane Opal, dune restoration projects that included building sand fences and planting sea oats achieved some success, but monster dunes like the Matterhorn are a distant memory.
Looking back at the good times spent on the dunes so many years ago, Tony Gallina mused on Facebook that he is surprised that no one has formed a committee to restore the Matterhorn.
“Mother Nature is rebuilding it,” Bill Kelley pointed out. “Slow by human standards, but it is growing. Just a few years ago, you could see the gulf water from the road almost all the way from Beasley Park to the Destin bridge. Now the sand has risen almost all the way.”
Commenter Scott Prah seemed to sum up the feelings of many of the Facebook group members who were nostalgic for the good old days.
“Lets face it,” he wrote. “Anyone who’s never sand skied, they just plumb don’t know.”