Category Archives: EcoAdventures North Florida

WFSU-TV is hiking, paddling, snorkeling and generally getting dirty and wet in the wild places of North Florida. Living, breathing, fully-functional ecosystems always surprise and delight, especially when you’re the only person for miles. Browse our stories and if you see something lacking, leave a comment and let us know!

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Video: Cycling North Florida’s Capital City to the Sea Trail

Video: Cycling the Capital City to the Sea Trail. Project managers Jon Sewell and Jack Kostrzewa show us the highlights of the planned 120 mile loop between Tallahassee and the coast.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Cyclists round the bend at the Trout Pond Trailhead.  They regard the two mile trail, which terminates at a quiet lake with camping facilities, as a hidden treasure.  Over the next decade, this will be part of a 120 mile network of multi-use trails connecting Tallahassee with the coast.

Cyclists round the bend at the Trout Pond Trailhead. They regard the two mile trail, which terminates at a quiet lake with camping facilities, as a hidden treasure. Over the next decade, it will become part of a 120 mile network of multi-use trails connecting Tallahassee with the coast.

I’ve often described our EcoAdventures as a glimpse of unpaved Florida, so this video is somewhat of an anomaly.  The Capital City to the Sea Trail is a twelve foot wide paved “multi-use” trail that will connect towns and outdoor destinations in Leon and Wakulla County.  Pedestrians can walk or run it, and its width means that slower cyclists (such as children or me when I finally get a bike) can share the space with faster bikes.  As you see in the video above, two cyclists going one way can pass two cyclists going the opposite way.  It’s off of the main road, so it’s a safer way to get to the coast than to ride on the highway.  Or it will be, anyway.  Most of the trail has yet to be built.

Plans for the CC2ST have gone through a process of public meetings, where citizen feedback has directed priorities for segment construction, and in some cases, redirected the trail itself.  Project Managers Jon Sewell and Jack Kostrzewa took us along the planned route.  It takes existing stretches, such as the popular St. Marks Trail (between Tallahassee and St. Marks), the Ochlockonee Bay Trail, and the Trout Pond Trail, and connects them with the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Wakulla Springs (not originally planned but added after citizens requested it), Panacea, Mashes Sands, Sopchoppy, and Capital Cascades Park in Tallahassee.  When it is completed, there will be 120 miles of the CC2ST forming a loop between Tallahassee and the coast.

 The trail is more complex than shown in most of the map graphics in the video.  Here is a current map of the proposed trails.  This plan will be finalized and presented to the public in March of 2014.

Jon hopes to begin construction in the next two to three years, with the trail not likely to be completed for at least a decade.  That’s a lot of waiting.  And it won’t be cheap.  I have a few notes on the potential cost and economic benefits, as well as a few other tidbits about the trail.  I also want to note that I have recently become part of this process as a member of the Florida Greenways and Trails Council.  I’ve been finding the process through which trails get made and connected together interesting.  The goal is to connect as many trails as possible and give people options for both shorter or multi-day outdoor adventures.  Anyhow, my notes on CC2ST:

  • Florida DEP’s Office of Greenways and Trails (OGT) estimates that every mile of multi-use trail costs about $550,000 to construct.  There is a cost for the design of a project, as well as for determining environmental impact.  In some cases property needs to be bought.  A lot of the time, the trail is built on public land.
  • Let’s use the two segments that would complete the Ochlockonee Bay Trail as an example.  Two parts of this trail already exist, but two more segments totaling 2.95 miles are needed to form an uninterrupted trail between Mashes Sands and Sopchoppy.  An estimated $368,750 is estimated to be needed to acquire land for the trail, $295,000 for the design (the contour of the land and roadways it crosses need to be traversed), and $1,475,000 for construction.  That’s a rough ratio of one million dollars to 1.5 miles of completed trail.  The good news in this case is that the Florida Department of Transportation is funding these segments.  Which brings me to…
  • The money for the CC2ST will likely come from many sources.  DOT works with the OGT on state trails as they are an alternative form of transportation.  Also, many proposed trails run along roads, so they can be incorporated into road construction projects.  Private donors will be sought, and many might be businesses along the trail.
  • A recent study on Orange County trails by the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council estimated that their trails system accounted for $42.6 million in revenue and 516 jobs for 2010.  The trails studied totaled 35.9 miles (they are in the process of expanding).  The study cites spending by cyclists at businesses such as restaurants, hotels, and bike shops, an increase in real estate revenue around the trails, and cyclists returning to areas they liked to purchase goods.  Jon shared one such example:
  • Jon Shields Marina, St. Marks has worked on some projects with Chuck Shields, longtime mayor of St. Marks and owner of Shields Marina.  Shields has told Jon that many of the marina’s clients learn about it through the St. Marks Trail.  They ride down, see the marina, and when they want to buy a boat, they come back.  In theory, more trail equals more opportunity for businesses to be seen.
  • When completed, this will be Florida’s largest multi-use trail.  The CC2ST team believes that this will make it the top Florida cycling destination.
  • One of my concerns, when I saw that the trail would run along US 98 in Wakulla, is how it would interact with the marshes on the side of the road.  As you head south of Panacea on the way to Ochlockonee Bay, there are considerable marshes on either side of the road.  They’re an attractive feature, and a productive ecosystem.  Jon says that in those places, the trail will run along the land side of the highway on a raised boardwalk.  They are designing it with the view from the road in mind, as they don’t want to block the scenery.
  • Now that the plan for the CC2ST has gone through three public workshops and all feedback has been collected, Kimley-Horn and Associates will finalize it and present it in March of 2014.  We’ll keep you posted on day and time when we know.

A few notes from the recent meeting of the Florida Greenways and Trails Council:

  • Liz Sparks is now the Paddling Trails Coordinator at the OGT.  She had held a similar position with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (during which she took us out on the Apalachicola WEA and Slave Canal).  One of her main projects is finding campsites along the Chipola River to facilitate multi-day kayak camping trips.  We recently wrote a piece on the Apalachicola Blueway Guide; there would likely be a similar resource for this.  And, as the Chipola joins with the Apalachicola, there would be more opportunity for mix-and-match paddle adventures.
  • Her other big project is to close gaps in the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail.  A gap is defined as a stretch of over 20 miles with no campsite.  Locally, there is a stretch of about 30 miles near Tyndall Airforce base where she’s looking to find a site to designate.  As Liz tells us, people are currently having to make arrangements to travel inland to camp, which takes away from the coastal adventure feel. (Watch our video on the FCSPT Forgotten Coast Segment)
  • One mission of the council is to create ecological corridors as well as trail corridors.  Tom Hoctor presented his recommendations for the Florida Ecological Greenway Network.  The idea is to preserve or create corridors of undeveloped land to give animals such as panthers and bears space to roam.  Another interesting goal of the FEGN is to provide a corridor into which coastal habitats can retreat as sea level rises.  Locally, a big priority is the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge area.  They are looking at establishing a corridor along the Wakulla or Aucilla Rivers and in the Red Hills area around Tallahassee.  The idea is to give some space for salt marshes, oyster reefs, and seagrass beds to move along with the receding intertidal zone.  In the Grass, On the Reef, Right In Your Front Lawn.

Well, that’s it for us in 2013.  This has been our busiest year on In the Grass, On the Reef.  I feel we found a nice balance between exploring our natural areas through EcoAdventures and deepening our understanding of our coasts through Randall and David’s research.  While the oyster crisis in Apalachicola Bay seemed to dominate our focus at times, we still hit up oyster reefs and salt marshes from St. Marks to Choctawhatchee Bay.  I’ll be working on a year-in-review post soon.  As for next year, people have already begun coming to us with new EcoAdventure ideas.  And we’ve started editing the second In the Grass, On the Reef documentary, which will air this spring.  I’ll have much more information on that soon.  Until then, have a Happy New Year!

Music in the piece by Airtone and Tigoolio.
Jon and Jack on the Ocklochonee Bay Trail

Jon Sewell and Jack Kostrzewa on the Ocklochonee Bay Trail. On In the Grass, On the Reef, even videos on bicycling have oysters and marshes.

Kent Mayer squeezes through a narrow space to advance further into Sutton Lake.

(Video) RiverTrek 2: The Apalachicola’s Bluffs and Tupelo Swamps

Video: Kayak adventure in the upper Apalachicola, where we find Florida’s tallest river bluffs face a decades old man made threat.  Also, higher water lets us deeper into Sutton Lake, a back woods swamp where the oldest and largest tupelo and cypress trees of the Apalachicola basin are found.

Plan your own Apalachicola River Adventure.
Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Alex Reed inspects rubble from the Alum Bluff landslide.

Alex Reed inspects rubble from the Alum Bluff landslide.

It’s amazing to see how much can change in one year on the Apalachicola River.  I’ve previously mentioned the smaller sand bars and higher water.  But the most striking visual difference is in the face of Alum Bluff, probably the iconic image of the upper river. In part 1 of this adventure, we approached it from land to be rewarded with possibly the best view of the river and the forest around it.  In part 2, we kayak up to it.  Last year, we camped there and had activities in the evening and following morning that kept me from just being able to hang out and enjoy the bluff from my boat.  As I did so this year, Alex Reed, our co-captain as well as a geologist, was inspecting the rubble from a landslide that occurred earlier in the year.  Some of the rocks unearthed were millions of years old.

A few miles down the river, we explored an area that had been on my mind as RiverTrek approached.  I was hoping that this year’s rain would let us penetrate deeper into Sutton Lake, a place that Dan Tonsmeire calls the “quintessential” backwoods swamp.  That’s my favorite part of the video, as we make our way well past where we did last year.  As you paddle the big, wide Apalachicola, you pass so many creeks, sloughs, and other side channels.  Behind the trees could be an Aspalaga Blue Spring (where we hiked in part 1), any branch off of the river might take you back to a dark, canopied swamp like Sutton Lake.  The more I paddle the river, the more I am aware of how little of the basin I’ve actually seen.

It’s a lot to fit into two videos.  I want to show you the river; that’s why I go.  But we paddled with a lot of interesting people with some interesting stories, many of which I couldn’t fit into the videos without making a full blown program of it (maybe I should do that… would any of you watch it?).  Here are a few interesting bits  about my fellow RiverTrekkers:

George Blakely and Zone 5

Zone 5 in a Personal Floatation DeviceIn several shots, you see a dog running across the mouth of a cave, down a steep path, or sitting calmly in a canoe.  That’s Zone 5, a rescue dog that accompanies George Blakely on his adventures (she even has her own pink personal flotation device).  George explains where he got such a cool name.

“In photography, Ansel Adams, he had his own system for the different tones, zones zero through nine.  Zone five is middle grey.  When she runs really fast, which she does frequently, except when she’s in the canoe, she’s middle grey.”

Todd Engstrom

Todd Engstrom recounts his search for the ivory billed woodpecker along the Apalachicola River.

Todd Engstrom recounts his search for the ivory billed woodpecker along the Apalachicola River.

Todd is an ornithologist with a unique history with the Apalachicola.  He was sent to look for evidence of a bird that was thought to have been extinct for several decades.  The ivory billed woodpecker is one of the largest species of woodpecker in the world, measuring about 20 inches long.  When one was thought to have been sighted in Arkansas (a sighting that is now in doubt), The Cornell Lab of Ornithology sent Todd to scour likely habitat in the Apalachicola River basin.  As opposed to the red cockaded woodpecker, which prefers upland forests, the ivory billed prefers lowland, old growth forests.  Todd spent four months searching, from Lake Seminole to the bottom of the river.

“As a consequence of that, I was camping out, boating on the river, going to field sites.  Just really enjoyed it.  Fell in love with it.”

Su Ecenia & Jill Lingard

In the video, Georgia mentions that this year’s group smashed the fundraising record for RiverTrek (after last year’s group raised more than any other group combined).  Su raised the most money, over $5,500.  Jill, despite living out of the area in Gainesville, had the most individual donors with over 40.  That provides much needed funds for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper.  Jill was one of three paddlers from outside of Tallahassee or the surrounding area.  Scott Keyes is from Naples, and Mim Duncan is from Sebastian.

Chris Robertson

Chris is a returnee from RiverTrek 2012, and one of our co-captains.  For him, a highlight of the trip came on the third morning.

“It was the time of the trip when you could finally let go of everything that goes on back in the quote-unquote real world, and just kind of immerse yourself in the river and what you’re doing.  When you reach that point, it’s very emotionally and spiritually recharging.”

Just me and the river on RiverTrek 2012, somewhere between Estiffinulga and Wewahitchka.  The Apalachicola River

Just me and the river on RiverTrek 2012, somewhere between Estiffinulga and Wewahitchka.

I get was Chris is saying.  After a couple of days, the trip starts to feel like your reality.  You’ve woken up a for couple of mornings where you stick your head out of your tent and see the river.  Last year, I had a similar experience on the third day.  I spent some time paddling alone, where the only visible signs of civilization were within my kayak.  One of my favorite things about the trip is the people, but I treasured my one-on-one time with the river.

Who knows what my next adventure on the Apachicola River Basin will be.  RiverTrekker Mike Mendez has talked about an extended trip starting on the Flint or Chattahoochee.  Doug Alderson is mulling a hiking trip in the many protected lands around the river.  I’ll be planning other EcoAdventures around the area, all the while knowing that there is some corner of the river basin that needs to be further explored.

Next on In the Grass, On the Reef

The Gulf Specimen Marine Lab takes their critters on the road.  Meanwhile, back at their aquarium, tentacles are a-flailing over a tasty treat and marine megafauna try to eat our GoPro camera.  Also, I begin a new adventure as a member of the Florida Greenways and Trails Council.  I’ll give you the lowdown as the Council looks for ways to connect existing trail systems and create more opportunities for the kind of multi-day EcoAdventure featured in our RiverTrek videos.

Kent Mayer squeezes through a narrow space to advance further into Sutton Lake.

Kent Mayer squeezes through a narrow space to advance further into Sutton Lake.

RiverStyx

Planning Your Own Apalachicola River Kayak Camping Adventure

Explore the Apalachicola Blueway Paddling Trail through photos.  The Blueway is managed by the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, and the trail was mapped and the Blueway Guide created by Florida DEP’s Office of Greenways and Trails. Zoom in closer to see specific photo locations.  The photos depict different seasons and water levels.

Part 2 of the RiverTrek 2013 Adventure is now online. Witness some of the long term damage done to the river, and tag along as we take advantage of this year’s higher water to paddle into one of our area’s “quintessential” swamps. If you missed Part 1, catch it here.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

After having partaken in the last couple of RiverTrek paddles down the Apalachicola River, I have to commend Georgia Ackerman and Doug Alderson for the work they put in to planning the trips.  A dozen paddlers of multiple experience levels paddle 107 + miles (once you factor in side trips) over five days, camping along the way.  Even a relative newbie like me can tag along and find myself alive in Apalachicola five days later.

You’re in good hands having expert paddlers like Doug and Georgia in charge.  But, thanks to a lot of hard work by Doug, any moderately experienced paddler has the tools to plan their own RiverTrek.  Where do you camp?  Where can you refill your water?  On what sand bar can you have a Jetboil tea party?  All of those questions are made clearer with the Apalachicola Blueway Paddling Trail guide.

Choose your adventure

The River Styx. Incorporating creeks and tributaries into your Apalachicola River adventure can give you a more intimate feel for the river.

Every year for RiverTrek, paddlers have to find a way to extricate themselves from work and family obligations for five days to paddle the entirety of the Apalachicola River.  But not every trip has to eat your whole week.  Consulting the handy dandy Apalachicola Blueway Trail Guide, you’ll see that there are multiple locations to put in and take out along the river.

Last year for a RiverTrek warm up paddle, I accompanied some of my fellow trekkers on a trip from the River Styx to Owl Creek.  This was an 18 mile day trip that let us see a couple of side channels as well as the river itself.  This year on the Trek, I was extracted at Estiffinulga after two days of paddling and one night of camping.  You have a lot of options, especially if you factor in the many creeks and tributaries in the lower river, in the Apalachicola Wildlife and Environmental Area (Watch our EcoAdventure in the Apalachicola WEA).

Once you know how many days you’ll be able to spend on your trip, decide how many miles you’re able to do a day.  This year, we averaged just over 20 miles a day at about 5 – 6 miles an hour, and we did 4 miles an hour with last year’s record low flows.  Of course, you’ll want to make sure that there’s a place for you to sleep at the end of the day…

Camping

Estiffinulga Breakfast

Breakfast on the Estiffinulga sand bar on RiverTrek 2012. Look at how big it is! The Apalachicola is full of high, wide sand bars...

In Part 1 of our video, our trip leaders found the Alum Bluff sand bar too small for sixteen campers.  No problem.  There was another high, wide sand bar just a mile to the north, and it wasn’t even on the trail map as a campsite.  The upper Apalachicola has numerous such sand bars, which gives you flexibility in planning your trip.  Once you get past Wewahitchka at mile 42 (mile markers start at 106 at the Woodruff Dam and work their way down to 0 at Apalachicola), there are less options directly on the main channel.

This year, we had some rain and the Army Corps of Engineers had more water to release from the Woodruff Dam.  That means that the river rose a little overnight, and so we had to pull our kayaks a little further up on the bar.  Which brings me to…

Staying high and dry

Estiffinulga Sand Bar Camp Site

...Estiffinulga sand bar on RiverTrek 2013. For all I know, the spot where the breakfast table is in the picture above is under my kayak here. Checking the U.S. Geological Survey's river gauges can give you an idea about how big some of these sand bars might be.

RiverTrek occurs in October every year, during the river’s low water season.  The high water season begins in late February and continues through May.  It’s usually lowest in the fall.  This means that, typically, there are more sand bars exposed for camping then.  Typically.  Whereas last year, drought conditions kept the sand bars as exposed as they’ve ever been, this year’s rain has left them much smaller.  That’s the beauty of the outdoors.  I went on the same trip two years in a row, and things looked different in a lot of places.  But how can you know what to expect when you plan your trip?

For best camping conditions, the Blueway Guide recommends that the US Geological Survey gauge at Chattahoochee remains below 44 feet, and below 5.5 feet at the USGS Sumatra gauge.  Looking at the gauge info at the link above, I see that Chattahoochee was around 42.5 with a spike to 43.5 (when water is released from the dam) for the first day of RiverTrek.  At that height, Alum Bluff was too small for our group and Estiffinulga sand bar (the day 2 camp site) looked nice and cozy.  Within a couple of days, the gauge readings swelled to near 44 feet.

Bring all the gear you will need

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Greenways and Trails (where Doug works) has compiled some helpful checklists to make sure you bring everything you need for kayak camping trip.  The bar on the right side of their Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail web site has links to safety tips and a recommended gear list.  You could also watch this short video we did with Georgia and her husband and RiverTrek alum Rick Zelznak, on packing for kayak camping.  In about five minutes, they give you a quick rundown of what to bring, how to organize it in your dry bags, and how to fit it all into your kayak (this was based on Georgia’s RiverTrek 2011 experience).

Plan your route.  Check the river gauges.  Make sure you have all the gear you need, and that you can fit it into your kayak or canoe.  Experience one of Florida’s great rivers.

We work hard on these videos, but it’s never the same as bring there.

Kayaks parked at Piney Z. Lake in the Lafayette Heritage Trail Park.

Bike and Kayak EcoAdventure on Tallahassee’s Lake Lafayette

Video: Mountain biking, kayaking, and nature watching at the Lafayette Heritage Trail Park in Tallahassee, Florida.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Sunrise at Piney Z. LakeAs you can see in the video, a sunrise is always worth getting up for.  All the better if a sunrise that beautiful is a mere fifteen minutes from my house.  Moments before the sun peaked over the tree line to gaze at its reflection in Piney Z. Lake, we heard a ruckus of birds as they flew overhead.  We came to the Lafayette Heritage Trail Park for kayaking, mountain biking, and an airboat ride, but the reason you schedule a shoot at that time is for lighting and wildlife.  Florida Fish and Wildlife biologist Michael Hill told us that they’re getting the park onto the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.  My favorite critter of the day was the juvenile green heron you see at 0:32, but it was also fun to see anhinga, gators, and the occasional osprey.  The park also has gallinules, wood ducks (you can see a couple of wood duck boxes in the video), and over three hundred wood stork nests (located on Lower Lake Lafayette).

Tussocks on Lower Lake Lafayette

The Lower Lake Lafayette portion of the paddling trail is currently clogged with tussocks. When the water gets low, dead plant material accumulates and traps seeds. The seeds grow in these mats, which become floating islands when the water gets higher. The dead vegetation you see in this photo is a result of herbicides, the first step in clearing the trail.

My wife and I have been hiking the multi-use trails in the park pretty much since it opened a few short years ago.  We usually start in Tom Brown Park, make our way along Upper Lake Lafayette and then to Piney Z. Lake.  If we have the time, we head along the dam separating Piney Z. and Lower Lake Lafayette, and across the train tracks into the J.R. Alford Greenway.  Walking all that way, you get to wondering about the dams separating the lakes and the “fishing fingers” on Piney Z.  Those are remnants of the Piney Z. Plantation, which added the earthen dams and dykes in the 1940′s.  The fingers are an interesting feature, letting you walk towards the center of the lake and offering some nice views of the dykes that the City of Tallahassee turned into small islands when they made the park.  All of that damming has altered the hydrology of what was once a singular Lake Lafayette.  This is why the paddling trail on Lower Laffayette has been closed for the last year, as our recent big bad drought lowered the lake and caused it to become choked with vegetation.  The trail will soon be cleared and will open by Thanksgiving 2013.  Thanks to Michael and his airboat (and to Liz Sparks for setting us up with him), we were able to get a unique look at the lake and its floating islands of vegetation, called tussocks.  The dams prevent the Lake’s normal drought cycles, and so the trails require some extra maintenance.

Ardisia crenata

Ardisia crenata, and invasive plant found in the Lafayette Heritage Trail Park.

On land, the multi-use trails need maintenance as well, and there is one thing that any of us who use the park can help with.  Chuck Goodheart, who manages the trails, is looking for help with invasive plant species, in particular, Ardisia crenata.  This plant threatens to overtake native plants within the park.  The city had spent thousands of dollars to try and eradicate it, only to have it return.  Now they’re turning to people who use the trail.  People have learned to carry bags when they walk their dogs; we can likewise bag and remove the plants and their berries when we see them in the park.  In fact, there are bags for dog waste near the Piney Z. parking area.  If people buy into it, it should be a cost effective approach.

I want to thank Chuck for riding his bike on camera after recently having surgery on his foot.  And I want to thank Georgia Ackerman for once again lending me a kayak.  Todd Engstrom and I both got to try out the kayaks we’re taking on RiverTrek 2013, which is- oh my! – two weeks away.  Todd, Georgia, and Liz are a great group to paddle with.  RiverTrek gets me thinking about the connection between the Apalachicola River and Bay, and the bay’s ever important estuarine ecosystems.  This dynamic is at play on Lower Lake Lafayette, which flows into the St. Marks River, which itself flows into the St. Marks Refuge with its vast marshes.  Upper Lafayette has a sinkhole that drains into the Floridan aquifer, the source of water for most of north Florida and parts of South Georgia.  The aquifer also feeds springs that feed rivers that ultimately feed the Gulf.  Nature has this “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” thing going on, especially when it comes to the way water moves.  That includes rain and everything it carries with it from the roadways and lawns in the developed areas around Lake Lafayette. (Watch as David Kimbro explains the natural- and unnatural- nitrogen cycle, and how oysters can help). In all the years I’ve been coming here, I had no idea about this, or the why the dams were there or what their effect on the lake is.  I’m glad I had this “closer to home” EcoAdventure to get to know a familiar place a little better.

For more information on the Lafayette Heritage Trail Park, visit their web site.
You can watch a video I produced on greenways and trails in Tallahassee by visiting the new and improved Dimensions web site.
Music in the video by pitx and airtone.

Kayaks parked at Piney Z. Lake in the Lafayette Heritage Trail Park.

rivertrek2013previewbanner

RiverTrek 2013 Preview: A Year in the Apalachicola River and Bay

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

RiverTrek paddlers are raising funds for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, an organization whose mission is to “provide stewardship and advocacy for the protection of the Apalachicola River and Bay, its tributaries and watersheds…” (participating media members do not raise funds).  At the end of the paddle, on October 12, there will be a reception in Battery Park in Apalachicola.  There, people can greet the paddlers and bring non-perishable food items in benefit of Franklin’s Promise.  Franklin’s Promise aids the families affected by the failure of the Apalachicola Bay oyster reefs.

IGOR chip- gastronomy 150“The Good Lord giveth, and Georgia and the Corps taketh away.” Those words were spoken by Jon Steverson, Executive Director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District.  He was testifying before Florida senators Bill Nelson (D) and Marco Rubio (R) during a special field hearing to address the collapse of the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery.  The high-profile event, held two weeks ago in Apalachicola, marked almost one year into a particularly turbulent era for this region.  Just one year ago, I was preparing to kayak the Apalachicola River for RiverTrek 2012.  The winter bars in the bay were just days away from opening.  When they did, a lot changed, including the nature of the RiverTrek videos we were to make, and the In the Grass, On the Reef project as a whole.

U.S. Senators Bill Nelson (D) and Marco Rubio (R) at the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation field hearing Apalachicola on August 13.

As I prepare to cover RiverTrek 2013 (October 8-12), the answers to the Apalachicola’s water flow problems remain elusive, and frustration remains high.  Much of that frustration is aimed, as one might gather from the first sentence of this piece, at the state of Georgia and the Army Corps of Engineers.  Thirteen days into the job as Mobile District Commander, Colonel Jon Chytka absorbed decades of displeasure at the Corps’ management of the ACF basin.  “I’m going to try to find out why they sent you,” said Senator Nelson, “Why didn’t they send the generals that I’ve been talking to?”  Part of the frustration stems from the rigidity with which the Corps follows the ACF Water Control Manual, and their interpretation of the authority granted them by congress.  The economic impact of fresh water on Florida’s seafood industry is not given as much weight as its economic impact on Georgia agriculture.   The Endangered Species Act of 1973 is the only guarantor that the river flow is not set below 5,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), which is how low it stayed for 10 months starting May 1, 2012.  That qualifies as the lowest river flow in recorded history, and only endangered mussels and gulf sturgeon kept it from being lower.  Senator Rubio asked whether the Apalachicola oyster would qualify for such protection.  Crassostrea virginica, the common oyster, is the main oyster species found on the east coast of this country and in the Gulf of Mexico.  The oysters you see on the fringe of the coast are the same species as the larger ones harvested from the floor of the bay.  Apalachicola oysters are the same species as Chesapeake oysters.  To the letter of the law, and despite massive decline in oyster reefs worldwide, it is not an endangered species.

This oyster was retrieved from Dr. David Kimbro’s oyster experiment in Apalachicola Bay. They found it dead, with its meat having been eaten. Like many of the dead oysters they’ve found, it has oyster drill egg sacs growing on it. Each of the sacs (here growing on the “chin” of the oyster) contains 10-20 drills.  Low freshwater input to the bay increases its salinity, making the bay hospitable to oyster predators such as drills, crown conchs, and stone crabs.

A further source of frustration with the Corps is the speed with which the Manual is being updated.  As Col. Chytka pointed out, the process began in 2008 and was complicated by lawsuits, the amount of input from stakeholders in the affected states (over 3,000 comments), and the “technical complexities” of the system.  He projected that a draft of an Environmental Impact Statement would be ready in the Summer of 2015, after which they’d reopen it to comments and then finalize by 2016.  The oyster industry may not have that kind of time.  “I don’t see any hope for the near future,” said Shannon Hartsfield, President of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association. “We don’t have a near future.”

The best-case scenario for the bay, as determined by the University of Florida’s Oyster Recovery Team, is full recovery within a couple of years.  That’s dependent on being able to place a significant amount of oyster shell at the bottom of the bay.  So far, Hartsfield estimates that they’ve covered 35-40% of Cat Point, historically one of Apalachicola’s most productive bars.  By the end of the current shelling project, he believes that they’ll have covered 50% of another of the bay’s main bars, East Hole.  So, in addition to fresh water, oysters will still be lacking adequate substrate where spat could settle.  Additional funding will be needed to cover the bars fully.  There is, though, a glimmer of hope.

While frustration has remained high, so too has passion for the ecosystem and compassion for the people affected.  Says Hartsfield, “This is the first time, ever, out of all this disaster that Franklin County has experienced in the commercial (seafood) industry, that we’ve had any recognition.  And we appreciate it greatly.”  That recognition drew dozens to the steps of the Franklin County Courthouse that day to show support.  It has drawn researchers willing to work with oystermen to find solutions.  It has drawn a steady stream of regional and national media.  And it drew the United States Senate to a fishing town on Florida’s Forgotten Coast.  At the very least, lot of people are invested in finding a solution.

RiverTrek paddlers make their way to Sutton Lake, off of the Apalachicola River.  Last year, the water was too low to paddle to where the largest cypress trees in the Apalachicola watershed are found.  With a year of healthy rainfall, this year's paddlers will have better opportunities to explore the creeks and sloughs branching off of the river.

RiverTrek paddlers make their way to Sutton Lake, off of the Apalachicola River. Last year, the water was too low to paddle further into the lake, where the largest cypress trees in the Apalachicola watershed are found. With a year of healthy rainfall, this year’s paddlers will have better opportunities to explore the creeks and sloughs branching off of the river.

I’m one of the media members who have found themselves returning to cover the crisis, and it started with 105 miles of paddling.  Last year at this time, RiverTrek was to be a different perspective on our local ecology than our marsh, oyster reef, and seagrass videos.  A change of pace.  Instead, it kicked off a year of content that connected the river with the coast, and with the people who care for and rely on these resources.  I now find myself getting ready for this year’s journey with a better knowledge and feel for the story, but with much less certainty about the outcome.  RiverTrek will end after five days.  For this other, much larger Apalachicola adventure, we’ll all just have to keep on paddling.

For more information on RiverTrek 2013, visit the Apalachicola Riverkeeper web site.  To watch videos from last year’s Trek, click here.

Music in the video by airtone.  “Salt in the Blood” was written and performed by Brian Bowen.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1161194.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.