Category Archives: Apalachicola River and Bay

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Jim McClellan’s “Life Along the Apalachicola River”

Video: We accompany Jim McClellan, author of Life Along the Apalachicola River, as he scouts turkey hunting locations and fishes in Iamonia Lake, an oxbow of the Apalachicola.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

We met Jim McClellan at 5:00 am in the parking lot of a Blountstown McDonalds.  He took us to the Iamonia Lake Hunting and Fishing Club, from where we departed for Iamonia Island (surrounded by Iamonia Lake on one side and the Apalachicola River on the other).  We sat in the darkness, backs against a tree, unseen mosquitos conducting a blood drive from any skin we left exposed.  Turkey season began the following day; on this day we sat and listened, communicating by whisper.  I wondered, would Jim’s potential prey see the little red light on the side of my camera battery?

This is how Jim McClellan grew up.  This is the kind of thing Jim writes about in his book, Life Along the Apalachicola River.  His family has lived in Calhoun county for seven generations; Jim himself is fifth generation.  Sitting here with his back to a tree in the forested flood plain of the Apalachicola River, he is continuing a familial relationship with this land and water that goes back over 150 years.  Within Jim’s own lifetime, however, he has seen Iamonia Lake change.

This row of willows took root in Iamonia Lake during a low water event.  Now firmly established in the channel, the trees are accumulating silt.  The Apalachicola River system relies upon its many sloughs and streams. During high water, the banks of these waterways provide important foraging grounds for the rivers fish.  Channels like this provide nutrients to the Apalachicola Bay estuary.  What happens when the channels become altered?

This row of willows took root in Iamonia Lake during a low water event. Now firmly established in the channel, the trees are accumulating silt. The Apalachicola River system relies upon its many sloughs and streams. The banks of these waterways provide important foraging grounds for the river’s fish. Channels like this provide nutrients to the Apalachicola Bay estuary. What happens when the channels are narrowed or become blocked?

“I’ve talked to people in their sixties, people in their seventies, people in their eighties,” Jim said as he guided us to the main river channel later in the morning.  “The periods of low water that we’re seeing now are things that those folks haven’t seen in their life.”

We slowed down now and then to squeeze between willow trees that took root in Iamonia Lake’s stream bed when water was low.  “In my lifetime, this has been an easily navigable waterway from where we are now all the way out to the river.”  In his lifetime, he has seen Iamonia Lake, an oxbow which had once been part of the main Apalachicola River channel, cut off from the river on both ends.  This was just a couple of years ago, he said; I imagine this was during the record low flows of 2012.  That year, fish didn’t bite and he couldn’t find frogs.

As we returned from the fogged out Apalachicola, he set bush hooks on low branches.  I’ve been seeing those since I started paddling out here in 2012.  These fishing hooks are baited and hung to be retrieved later in the day or early the next.  They are usually marked by bright tape- all except the one that caught my shirt on the last day of RiverTrek 2012.  On that trip, I saw plenty of the river, but only superficially experienced the river culture Jim writes about in his book.  I saw bush hooks.  On the Estiffanulga sand bar, I awoke to the sounds of barking dogs and boats departing the ramp across the river in the early morning.  I saw hunting dogs in a  floating kennel south of Wewahitchka.  Through Jim’s book, I get a better sense of that world.

  • Jim didn’t catch any turkeys that weekend.  We went out with him on a Friday; Turkey season started that Saturday.  He did hear some turkeys on Sunday, and caught “a boatload of fish.”
  • This is Jim’s first book, but he is a writer by trade.  He was a speechwriter for Governor Lawton Chiles, Press Secretary for Lt. Governor Buddy MacKay, and Communications Director for the Florida Department of Commerce.  He currently does marketing for an e-mail and web security firm in Pensacola.
  • Jim gave us more stories than we could fit into a single video.  You can watch those, which paraphrase stories in his book, here.
Jim calls a turkey.  As he explains in the video, turkey hunters go against nature by doing this.  Males are the ones that are hunted, but they are also the ones who call females to them.  Jim is imitating a female calling a male.

Jim calls a turkey. As he explains in the video, turkey hunters go against nature by doing this. Males are the ones that are hunted, but they are also the ones who call females to them. Jim is imitating a female calling a male.

Hunting Along the Apalachicola River

P1080444-smallJim and his family hunt on private land.  But, as we’ve covered in the past, there is plenty of public land along the Apalachicola River.  If you’re  interested in hunting along the river, check out the Apalachicola National Forest, Tate’s Hell State Forest, and The Apalachicola Wildlife and Environmental Area.  The Northwest Florida Water Management District manages two sites where you can hunt along the river: Florida River Island and Beaverdam.  The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a hunting page on their website that’s full of resources and information.

What will the Apalachicola River look like in seven generations?

I was sitting here, editing this video, when I heard Jim say that his family had been in Calhoun County for seven generations.  It reminded me of something in the EcoShakespeare show, which I had finished days earlier.  Towards the end of that program, Madeleine Carr says that, in caring for Wakulla Springs, we must think seven generations ahead.  She is invoking the Great Law of Peace, the constitution of the five nations of the Iroquois.  Of the leaders of the five nations, referred to as mentors, it says “The thickness of their skin shall be seven spans — which is to say that they shall be proof against anger, offensive actions and criticism.”  As it is often interpreted, the Great Law is asking that we think beyond whatever conflicts and pettiness would distract us in the moment, to think of future generations.  You don’t have to squint too hard to see in it a message for the mentors of Florida, Alabama, and Georgia.  To Madeleine, and many other environmentalists, it’s a message for all of us.

When we got to the Apalachicola River, it was covered in thick fog.  With so many forces tugging at it, the different interests and concerns vying for its water, and so many possible outcomes, the river's future resembles this image.

The Apalachicola River.

It’s interesting to think of seven generations of environmental stewardship when, for so many Floridians, our families have only been in the state for one or two “spans”.  Our last EcoAdventure subject, Susan Cerulean (born in New Jersey), wrote about this in her 2005 book, Tracking Desire.  In the chapter called Restorying, she laments not only our population’s lack of roots in our natural landscape, but the lack of old stories to connect us to the land.  She had been looking for stories of swallow-tailed kites from Florida’s original inhabitants, but realized that any that might have existed were likely lost when the state’s native peoples were driven out or killed by Europeans.  “With the genocide of the original peoples, we lost a profound opportunity to understand the landscape.”

Jim McCellan wrote his book in part to preserve a culture nourished by the Apalachicola River.  It may not represent thousands of years of native wisdom, but it’s as deep as Florida roots go.  Susan’s stories, on the other hand, combine research and personal stories.  Research and experience; people differ on which carries more weight.  Research can teach us quite a lot about the natural world; it’s what this blog was originally founded on.  But there’s something to be said about the experience of Jim and his family, who can look back at this land for as many generations as the Great Law requires we look forward.

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Bird Watching & Nature Writing: Susan Cerulean at Bald Point

Video: bird watching, nature writing, and possibly the best sunrise spot on the Forgotten Coast. Author Susan Cerulean joins us at Bald Point State Park.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Susan Cerulean and I are watching a bufflehead duck dive for food by an oyster reef.  We’re at Bald Point State Park, and Susan is putting me in tune with nature’s cycles.  “You can’t know when that last one’s left,” she says of the duck, which should soon be departing for the north.  This is the seasonal cycle, warming and cooling that spurs many of the birds we’re seeing to start continental and intercontinental flights.

We’re here to see as many shorebirds as possible, so we arrive at low tide.  Today, that happens to coincide with sunrise.  Lunar and solar cycles.  In fact, the full moon has exposed quite the sand flat, an epic low tide that we enjoy throughout the morning, as do foraging dunlin and ruddy turnstones.  Further off, pelicans and least terns sit at the water’s edge.  Through the simple act of scheduling our shoot when we did, I’ve already gotten quite a lesson in the cycles of the natural world.

sunriseBald Point provides a sunrise vista that’s uncommon on our Forgotten Coast.  Here, the coast faces straight east into Apalachee Bay, meaning you get to see the sun rise out of the water.  While the park doesn’t open until 8 am, there is sunrise beach access along Bald Point Road (Consult this brochure for a map).  It’s an hour away from Tallahassee, but I need to come out and start my day here more often.

Once you do get past that gate, you can walk on the beach or up onto observation platforms at the mouth of the Ochlockonee River.  Today, the extra-low tide exposes something of an oyster reef maze.  I should have guessed from where I was going that there would be reefs; instead I’m kicking myself for not bringing my “oyster shoes.”  That’s my nickname for the old shoes I would save from the trash for my shoots with David Kimbro and Randall Hughes.  Many of those took place on the other side of this park in the oyster reefs of Alligator Harbor, where I started following their research for the In the Grass, On the Reef project.  Oysters are sharp and are unkind to feet and footwear; it’s best not to bring your favorite pair of shoes.  Oyster reefs are a great place to see birds, as they shelter so many invertebrates.  Walking on a reef, if you really look, you’ll see stone crabs, mud crabs, and various predatory snails.  Birds love to eat these and the many small fish and shrimp that hide in the crags of submerged oyster clumps.  It was no surprise to see, as you may have noted in the video above, fishermen and shrimp boats reaping the bounty of the estuary systems at the mouth of the river.

Oyster reefs also line the edges of Chaires Creek, a couple of miles of winding marshy stream leading to Lake Tucker.  I’ve not paddled it, but I have accompanied fishermen retrieving traps full of blue crabs here.  There is a boat launch at Lake Tucker, so you can put in kayaks or a boat and maybe go after some of the big fish that forage in intertidal systems.

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Oyster reefs will cut up your shoes. They can have a strong smell. And the mud around them can be treacherous. I will always love walking on and around them.

Coming To Pass

Susan Cerulean's newest book, Coming to Pass.  Cover art by David Moynahan.

Susan Cerulean’s newest book, Coming to Pass. Cover art by David Moynahan.

Bald Point nicely encapsulates much of what we love about the Forgotten Coast.  Susan has spent the last eight years writing a book that captures the very heart of this region; appreciating what we have while we still have it.  “Like those buffleheads- you can’t know when the last one’s left,” She says.  “And that’s sort of how I feel about our coast.”

Specifically, she’s writing about the barrier islands of the Forgotten Coast: Dog Island, St. George Island, and St. Vincent Island.  These islands were created by sediments carried from the Appalachian Mountains via the Apalachicola River.  They physically contain the river’s fresh water, creating what had been, until a couple of years ago, one of the nation’s most productive estuaries.  We often think of the peril faced by that estuary as it struggles to receive freshwater in the quantity and with the consistency that it needs.  However, the islands themselves are in trouble, being slowly swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico.

Coming to Pass is the result of a journey that started with Susan interviewing her husband, FSU oceanographer Dr. Jeff Chanton.  Over eight years, she researched, she visited the people who live and make their living from the coast, she walked from one end of St. Vincent Island to the other.  The book is about more than sea level rise.  But that is the focus.

In the linked pdf produced by Gulf of Mexico Coastal Training, you can see that it projects to be a slow process.  In the 2100 map, St. George looks to lose a little bit of coastline but St. Vincent looks like it’s falling apart.  Aside from helping to create the estuary, the islands are a key stop for already diminishing flocks of migratory birds.

Susan Cerulean at Bald Point State Park.

Susan Cerulean at Bald Point State Park.

Over decades of shorebird counts, Susan has seen big declines in the abundances of each species.  “We’re not really set up to see these changes with eyes and senses so much.”  She still sees all of the types of birds, but the quantities of each have been shrinking.  During those decades, more and more coastline has been developed and habitat lost.  Sea level rise threatens to claim more of that habitat.

Luckily, that process is slow.  For Susan, it means that we can still do something about it.  “I’m grounded in knowing what’s at stake and what’s been lost” Susan says. “But I feel if you only go that far, it’s a dead end.  ‘Well, okay then, let’s just have a party.’  But where does that leave the children?”  Judging by the passages she read in the video (and the one we didn’t use), this is not a depressing book about our destruction of the planet.  It’s as much about the islands themselves, and the bay, and all those things we love.  In a way, it feels like a wake up call.  Here’s the thing we love; now please don’t let it go away.

Word of South

Susan’s friend, Velma Frye, provided us with two tracks to use in the video.  The two of them will be collaborating for a performance piece in the upcoming Word of South Festival that’s hitting Tallahassee’s Cascades Park on April 11 and 12 (it says rain or shine, which is brave for a location that’s designed to flood).  They’re still working on the specifics of combining Susan’s words with Velma’s music, but Velma described it to me like this: “I’ll begin an instrumental introduction to deepen the response as Sue is still reading and later she will resume reading after I have finished singing the song and am playing a long coda, like wind and water interacting.”

Two of Word of South’s organizers, Mark Mustian and Mandy Stringer, joined Julz Graham on Dimensions this week.  Watch the interview to learn more about the festival.

There are Other Nature Blogs on the Internet

Yes, it’s true, this isn’t the only one.  I normally try to shelter readers from this fact, but I would like to mention that Susan Cerulean has a blog that she started after completing Coming to Pass.  I had been reading it, and throughly enjoying it, when one day I thought to myself “I bet a day with Susan on the coast would make a good video.” I’ll leave that for you to decide; regardless, I enjoyed the process.

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Raising a Kid with Nature Takes Creativity, Persistence

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

This past Saturday, my son Max and I returned to Owl Creek to join a few dozen paddlers for a special event.  The Apalachicola Riverkeeper welcomed the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition as they continue to make their way from the headwaters of the Everglades to Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola.  While on the water, I could see that people liked the image of a father and son in a kayak.  Other paddlers would occasionally say things like “That’s the right way to raise a kid.”   Max and I made a little game of picking up trash along the creek, which garnered more positive comments.  It feels nice to hear those things because, honestly, sometimes it feels like I’m just making things up as I go with this kid and his outdoor experiences.

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Max uses a duck whistle (every kid in the duck calling contest got to keep theirs) to call an Operation Migration member in a whooping crane feeding suit during the 2015 WHO Festival.

At times, raising your kid to have nature in their lives can be more “rewarding” than “fun.” On other occasions, you battle lack of interest at best, total three-to-four-year-old meltdown at worst.  He has never, for instance, shared my love of exploring the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  What kid wouldn’t love to strike out and see a bunch of wildlife?  Instead, a couple of hundred yards around Headquarters Pond, I hear “I’m tired Daddy, pick me up.”  I thought he’d like to see fiddler crabs in the beach and marsh behind the lighthouse.  Instead, I can’t pull him away from the map kiosk (he does love the big maps).  He did like the excellent children’s activities at the Wildlife and Heritage Outdoor Festival, however.  And he loves petting the stuffed otter at the visitor center.

I’m always trying to find that sweet spot between kid friendly activity and the kind of excursion that I would enjoy regardless of whether the family was along.  Luckily, we share two favorite outdoor activities: camping and paddling.  I could probably go up to Max at any point on any day and say “Drop what you’re doing, we’re going camping,” and have his absolute attention.  Even so, it can take a bit of doggedness and creativity to make these adventures work.  Saturday was no different.

Managing Expectations

Originally, we were going to camp at one of Owl Creek’s Hickory Landing sites the night before the paddle.  Then, the forecast went from a low in the upper 40s to a low of 35.  Max was recovering from something heavy earlier in the week; he was still coughing a bit by Friday even if he had regained his characteristic young energy.  Still, I hesitated canceling that part of the fun.  Why not expose him to some slightly rough conditions and do some character building?  Another parent might have chosen to tough it out, but it didn’t feel right to me.

Indoor campfire.

Indoor campfire.

The problem was that I had already brought up that possibility to him.  There are no maybes to a four year old.  So I decided to camp out right in his room.  My wife, Amy, made an indoor “campfire” utilizing a flashlight in a jar surrounded by red and yellow gift bag tissue.  When I got home from work, Max was scribbling brown marker on spent paper towel rolls to make logs.  We ate hot dogs and s’mores baked right in our oven and slept on the floor in our sleeping bags.  We left the lights off and used headlamps and “campfire” for illumination.  Max had received some glow-in-the-dark stars for Christmas; I affixed them to his ceiling and we slept under a fluorescent green starscape.

Was it a lot of effort just to keep from disappointing a child?  Well, Daddy wanted to go camping, too.  And now, Mommy and little brother Xavi got to sit around the campfire as well (Xavi will go camping for the first time in the next few months).  Sometimes, we do these things for ourselves as much as for them.

Containing Excitement

The problem with not camping at Hickory Landing, right where the kayaks were launching, is that we had to wake up in Tallahassee, get ourselves ready, and drive for an hour-and-a-half into the Apalachicola National Forest, where Owl Creek runs.  And be there by 9 am.  We woke up just after 6 am and Max got up out of his sleeping bag a little faster than he normally does when he wakes up for school.  But only a little.

“Max, if you don’t get up we’ll be late for kayaking!”

As we drove down State Road 65, flocks of robins and other colorful birds would fly across the interruption in pine flatwood habitat where we drove.  In a couple of months, the disturbed, artificially created fringe habitat on the shoulder of this road will burst with a greater diversity of carnivorous plants than you’ll find almost anywhere else.

We pulled into Hickory Landing with a few minutes to spare.  Some of my fellow Rivertrekkers were on safety duty for the paddle, and Max and I made our way around saying “Hi,” or in his case “Ooh- ah ah.”

The day's paddlers gather to listen to the Florida Wildlife Corridor expeditioners.

The day’s paddlers gather to listen to the Florida Wildlife Corridor expeditioners.

“On Georgia’s packing list, it actually said ‘bring monkey’s paddle,'” said Rick Zelznak.  I paddled the river with Rick in 2012.  He and his wife, Georgia Ackerman, brought several kayaks and kayaking gear for the day’s trip.  Georgia coordinates the Apalachicola Riverkeeper’s RiverTrek fundraiser, a five day paddle trip down the entirety of the Apalachicola.  She coordinated today’s affair as well.  The monkey paddle to which Rick referred is a child’s paddle Max has borrowed on his other kayaking trips, with smiley faces to let little ones know if they’re holding it right side-up.

We saw other ‘trekkers Max has paddled with recently, such as Doug Alderson and Katie McCormick, who we joined here on Owl Creek for a sliver of the 2014 ‘trek.  Others, like Micheal Taber, hadn’t seen Max since that day he toddled down onto the floating dock in Apalachicola to watch us complete RiverTrek 2012.  Jill Lingard, with whom I paddled in 2013, had followed his adventures on the blog, but met him for the first time on Saturday (while on the water, no less).

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition’s Mallory Dimmitt addressed the group.  Max was bouncing a little, and I worried that at any moment I’d have to put my hand over his mouth and carry him away.  But he managed to stay mostly quiet during her address and that of Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire.  Dan pointed out the gnarly, leafless trees around the creek.  Right around the time that those carnivorous plants along 65 bloom, so too will the ogeechee tupelo.  This region is a mecca for tupelo honey, which relies on the waters of the Apalach and it creeks, sloughs, and swamps.  Max may be too young to appreciate the biologically special nature of where we are, but he likes tupelo honey.

And he likes kayaking.  Whereas in October we paddled out to where the creek meets the Apalachicola River, this time we paddled up the creek for a longer trip.  He’d never seen so many people in the water at once; it was exciting, overstimulating.  He grabbed his paddle from behind him and hacked at the water for a few seconds, then gave it back to me.  “I’m hungry.”  His snacks for the trip were a banana and a granola bar.  After eating the granola bar, I carefully received the wrapper from him, nervous that we’d pollute the creek in our first ten minutes on the water.  He then grabbed his orange dip net, dragging it on the surface of the water.  He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands.

Occupying Busy Hands

And then, floating there in the water was a vintage Pepsi bottle.

“Max, get your net ready.  There’s garbage ahead.”

P1080190-smallOnce the bottle was aboard, I heard someone say “Did they just pick up trash?”  People were smiling at us.  I was on the lookout now, scanning the banks for bottles that washed up into the cypress and tupelo.  Soon, we also had a couple of plastic bottles, a rusty can, and a Clorox spray bottle.

Picking up garbage gave us a little bit of a mission, a focus to occupy my child’s energy.  When we went too long without seeing any, he’d start playing with the trash, dipping it back in the water as we propelled forward.  To avoid having his boredom inadvertently return the trash to the creek, I’d look for more.  Owl Creek is a pretty clean creek, overall.  Eventually we ran out of visible garbage.

The garbage in his cockpit served another purpose.  With a lot of strangers talking to him, he’d get shy and respond with nothing more than an impish grin.  When I’d see him getting shy, I’d say “Show them what you’ve caught.”  And he’d pick up every piece of garbage, one by one.  A plus is that people would compliment him for picking up trash, which reinforces that behavior.

Building Skill

At 10:45, Doug Alderson in the lead kayak turned around, and we headed back down the creek.

Having run out of trash to pick up, Max got restless again.  He’d pick up his paddle and rest it across the cockpit, hands free.  “Max!  Don’t let the paddle fall in the water!”  Another time, he had the paddle out and the net resting on it, hands free.  My instinctual reaction was a panicked plea to just get his hands on something and keep it from falling in the water.  I became self conscious of how I sounded to surrounding paddlers.

I also became exasperated when he played with his paddle.  He’d drag it behind him, in the area where my paddle had to go to move the kayak forward.  He’d carelessly twist it in the water.  It was annoying sometimes.

"Their faces are happiest when they're wet."

“The smiley faces are happiest when they’re wet.”

But it’s understandable.  The trip lasted almost three hours.  An adult can enjoy natural splendor and conversation for three hours without much else.  For many of us, this is an escape from the noise of our daily worlds.  Kids, however, crave more stimulation.  On long drives and flights, we have a bag full of books and toys.  That day on Owl Creek, I had a paddle, a net, and some garbage for him to play with.

So I worked on developing his paddle skills.

At first, I relied heavily on repeatedly telling him that he had to see the smiley faces.  And to move his arms to the middle of the paddle.  Sometimes he listened.  Sometimes he laughed and twisted the paddle in the water some more.

Passing paddlers were a help.  Sometimes kids just respond to advice from adults other than their parents.  Mike in the blue kayak, whose last name I didn’t catch, showed him how to hold the paddle.  Rick came by and showed him how to scoop the water with his paddle.  He was receptive.

But, in the end, what worked best was silly voices and turning the smiley faces into characters.

“Use my face to push the water!” I’d say in a high pitched voice.  Then I’d tap the other side of his paddle with mine and say “Now use my face to push the water!”  And so on and so forth.  Soon, he was able to do this a couple of times:

Once on land again, his little legs were finally unleashed and he was zipping about.  As we took a RiverTrek reunion photo, Max was a blur in front of us until Georgia scooped him up.  We ate lunch, got in the car, and he was asleep before we were off the forest roads.

As I took the scenic coastal route home, I reflected on the trip.  He can be exhausting, this kid.  Each trip with him has presented a different set of challenges.  When I took him on the Wakulla River, he was sleepy and I wondered whether he might be bored.  On our first Owl Creek trip, he was disappointed that the other paddlers continued down the river without us; though eventually we had a fantastic time on our own.  Most of our nature outings have been great, even if sometimes it feels like I’m making things up as I go along to keep him engaged.  But that’s why I write these posts.  I’m no expert, but I’m figuring it out.  It’s doable, and I hope parents see that.  More kids should be exposed to nature, even if it’s going to your neighborhood pond to see tadpoles in various states of limb growth and turtles basking in the sun (one of my personal favorite activities).

Anyhow, it’s starting to warm up, and the wheels are turning to plan the next adventure.  Where should we go next…

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Father & Son Apalachicola River Kayak Adventure

Over the last two years, WFSU’s Rob Diaz de Villegas has documented the RiverTrek kayak journeys down the Apalachicola River.  While he didn’t participate in this year’s paddle, he was able to tag along for a small stretch.   He took with him the biggest fan of the work he produced on those trips- his son Max.  Camping and kayaking with a three-year-old has its challenges, but can be rewarding in many ways.
Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Pulling into the Hickory Landing campsite on Owl Creek, I’m happy to see so many familiar faces.  It’s the final night of RiverTrek 2014, and the paddlers’ families have been invited to camp out and see their loved ones off as they make the final approach towards Apalachicola.  Some of us are here as part of the extended RiverTrek family, such as fellow ’12 paddlers Jennifer Portman and Chris Robertson, who were nice enough to bring a tandem kayak that I could use to explore Owl Creek with my son Max.  If my participation in RiverTrek has reached one person, gotten just one person interested in the Apalachicola River, or in paddle sports, it’s this kid.  And I couldn’t be happier to have him get a taste of the RiverTrek experience.  But first I have to wake him up.

RiverTrek 2014 paddlers getting ready to complete the final leg of their journey, from Owl Creek to Apalachicola.

RiverTrek 2014 paddlers getting ready to complete the final leg of their journey, from Owl Creek to Apalachicola.

We made a two-hour drive down highway 20 and then through the Apalachicola National Forest on State Road 65.  Max misses all of this.  He wakes up hungry, so I give him what is now my go to camping and kayaking snack for him, a conveniently self-packaged banana.

“Is monkey eating his banana?” RiverTrek coordinator Georgia Ackerman says to Max, still drowsy in his car seat.

“Ooh-ah-ah,” he says.  This is his greeting of choice as I take him through the camp. We see other ‘Trekkers I’ve had the pleasure of paddling with over the last couple of years, such as Doug Alderson, Josh Bolick, and Tom Herzog (whom I initially met while interviewing about his beer can canoe).  Max remembers Katie McCormick from our Wakulla River trip, and even the host of WFSU-TV’s Dimensions, Julz Graham, is part of this year’s adventure.  RiverTrek founder Earl Murrogh is visiting the group, witnessing his vision continue to evolve and raise awareness of the river he loves.

RiverTrek is a five day paddle benefiting the Apalachicola Riverkeeper.  Participants (except for Jennifer and I, who cover the event as media) get pledges from friends and neighbors and then paddle 107 miles down the river.   Three of those miles are the trip into and out of Owl Creek, to a campsite in the National Forest.  For the first three days of the trip, ‘Trekkers camp on sand bars directly on the river.  These are abundant between the Woodruff Dam, where the river starts, and Wewahitchka.  South of Wewa, sandbars start to disappear and more creeks, small rivers, and other channels join the Apalach as it flows into Apalachicola Bay.  This is why paddlers go 1.5 miles off of the river to sleep on that last night.  Those 1.5 miles would be Max’s taste of RiverTrek.

I struggle to set up our tent while keeping my three-year-old from running off to join all of the action.  As it was when I was last here, everyone is in high spirits from having paddled 80+ miles together so far.  They’ve shared experiences that will become the stories told by those who repeat the trip in years to come.  Add those of us who’ve been here before and are equally stoked to be back, and things are bound to get a little festive.

Chris walks by in the forest just beyond our campsite, looking for firewood.  Like any three-year-old would, Max sees someone picking up big sticks and decides that’s what he should be doing, too.  So off we go.  We’re not on any trail, so I have to pick Max up once or twice as he runs and gets his foot caught on a vine.  He’s unfazed.

Hickory Landing campsite on RiverTrek 2012.  On the last night of the trip, paddlers get a good hot meal and enjoy themselves before heading back to thee real world the next day.

Hickory Landing campsite on RiverTrek 2012. On the last night of the trip, paddlers get a good hot meal and enjoy themselves before heading back to the real world.

For dinner, we eat some delicious chili and vegetable lasagne made by Riverkeeper board members Joyce Estes and John Inzetta.  Captain Gill Autrey then takes us out on the Lily, the river cruise boat he volunteers every year as a support vessel.  We sit in the upper deck, from which many of the paddlers dive into Owl Creek for a little swim.  Then, back to the campsite for some stories.

Georgia roasts a marshmallow for Max to make a s’more, which Max calls a “marshmallow swammich.”  Thank goodness for wet wipes.

Doug tells a couple of ghost stories based on his outdoor Florida adventures.  I don’t think Max fully understands the scary part of Doug’s tales, but someone is standing by a fire telling stories, so he enjoys it.  After the stories is the typical fireside banter.  “There is a three-year-old present,” Georgia reminds people.

Then Max starts rubbing his eyes and I feel it is time to get him back to the tent.  But first, a bathroom break that turns out to be something of a mini-epic.

Hickory Landing does not have any running water.  There is however, a composting toilet, which is slightly more luxurious than just going out in the woods.  If you’re able to ignore what you see in the deep chasm beneath the bowl, and tolerate the smell, it’s not bad.  But Max sees a big smelly hole he might fall in.  And he doesn’t want to stand to pee because he doesn’t really like what he sees.

So we take to the woods.

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The Apalachicola National Forest by our campsite at Hickory Landing. The fog dissipates before we disembark.

I have in previous months prepared him for the fact that camping means having to pee on trees sometimes.  We walk out into the woods and I shine my headlamp on several candidates.

“That tree is beauty-ful.  I don’t want to pee on a tree that is beauty-ful.”  Evidently every tree in the Apalachicola National Forest is “Beauty-ful.”  I keep looking for trees with drooping leaves, or even broken branches lying on the ground.  I see what looks like a dead tree, and am reminded of his sympathy for dead trees (he once tried to get me to buy a dead cactus at Home Depot so that we could bring it home and water it back to life).

As often happens when raising a three-year-old, I’m stuck.  He’ll tell me he can hold it, and then we’ll go back to the tent and sleep in the same open sleeping bag.  I know how that story ends.

Then I see a double tree, two trunks growing from the same base.

“Max, look at that.  A double tree.”

“It is a double tree!”

“Double trees are what monkeys pee on.  They pee between the two trees.”

And that’s the story of how I woke up in a dry sleeping bag the next morning.

We get back to the tent and I read him a story by headlamp.  When that is done, he’s too excited and doesn’t seem like he’ll settle down.  Again I’m stuck, but luckily we’re in a place called Owl Creek.

“Max, do you hear that?”

We stop and hear a nearby hoot.

“It’s an owl!”

It lets out one long hoot, and then another, and then utters what Max knows to be the catch phrase of the barred owl.

“Who cooks for you!” He giggles.

“Let’s listen and see if we can hear another owl.”  He’s listening, lying still.  Soon we’re asleep.

This is only his second time camping, and again he sleeps like a rock.  I know this because as usual, I wake up twenty times in the night and see him sleeping like a rock.  I hear all manner of animal movement in our campsite.  I can only imagine there are raccoons and possum, and something larger that is likely a deer (maybe a bear?).  I wake up, find a new position to sleep in, fall asleep again, and wake up with a different arm numb.  I couldn’t find my sleeping pad in the shed when I got home from work earlier.  Max looks comfortable, anyway.

When we wake up, Georgia and her husband (and fellow 2012 ‘Trekker) Rick Zelznak are making coffee and arranging gear on a picnic table in the adjacent site.  Max sees a double tree right by our tent and loudly tells me he wants to pee on it.  “That’s where monkeys pee!”

“We don’t pee right next to our campsites, son.” I say in a low voice.  I look around to see if anyone has heard this exchange.  I lead him into the woods and we find the tree from last night.

P1070552-owlcreek-paddle-smallOver a breakfast of pancakes and Bradley’s sausage graciously prepared by RiverTrek husband Warren Jones, I ask Max if he’s ready to go kayaking today.

“Where are we going?”

“We’re going to the Apalachicola River with everyone, and then they’re going to Apalachicola.” I tell him.

“Can we kayak to Apalachicola?”

“No Max, they’re going to have a hard day.  This is the hardest day of the trip.”

Steve Seibert, a first time ‘Trekker, overhears me saying this. “I didn’t need to hear that.”

It can get windy in the river delta, and they may be facing an incoming tide.  And it is the longest day from a mileage standpoint.  Nevertheless, Max is disappointed that we’re not going the distance.

We get out on the water, and already he’s working the paddle more than on our previous Wakulla River trip.

“Remember, you want to see the smiley face on the paddle.”  Georgia has provided him a kid’s paddle.  I take time to work with him on his paddling, and then take it from him when he’s tired of it, give it back when he wants to try again, and so on.  And like any parent of our times, I take a multitude of photos.  We’re at the back of the pack, just as I was on the last two RiverTreks, where I kept shooting video and finding myself working to catch back up.

Soon, we get to the part of the trip that worries me most.

“Bye Max!”

As always when he doesn’t want to say goodbye, he says nothing.

The paddlers head down the Apalach, and I circle around by the entrance to Owl Creek by mile marker 22.2.  He always talks about wanting to see the Apalachicola River, but he barely acknowledges it when I tell him that we’re finally here.  Max hangs his head.  These are good people that just left us, many with children older than Max and that seemed to like playing with a three-year-old again.  I can see where he’d miss their company.

He thoughtlessly sticks his hand in the water and lets it drag.

“Max, you have your hand in the Apalachicola River.”

P1070569-handinwater-small“I do?” He perks up.  Now he realizes where he is.  Ever since I took this trip two years ago, this has been the magical River of all Rivers, and a Place Where Adventure Happens.  He remembers this.  And now that he’s getting into it, I do too.  I remember where I am, and what a pleasure it has been to paddle these waters.  And of course everything I’ve seen in or read about Apalachicola Bay deepens my appreciation and concern for this waterway.

Max and I have the river to ourselves.

We paddle in circles, and he does some of his own paddling.  And then we head back up Owl Creek for some lazy exploring.  I show him fish hooks hanging from cypress trees.  A 2012 photo of a hook that snagged my shirt has previously captured his imagination.  We cross through cypress islands.  “These trees are where the good honey comes from,” I tell him as I notice how many of the trees are ogeche tupelo.

The highlight of this whole experience starts when we turn into Devin Creek.  This canopied side channel was too low for me to properly enjoy during the record low flows of 2012.  Today, we paddle under fallen and sideways growing trees, maneuvering from one side of the creek to the other to follow the most navigable path.  A johnboat is wedged between trees on the bank.  I wonder where its occupant has gone wandering in these dense woods.  I could spend all day finding out how far back this creek goes.  Eventually, though, I decide to turn us around so that Chris and Jennifer can enjoy some on the water time.

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“Let’s stay in here,” he says as we look out from the canopy to Owl Creek.  Like on all of these other trips, we do have to leave the river at some point.

When we get back, Max and I sit on the boat ramp as Chris, Jennifer, and her son paddle and swim around the big cypress island by Hickory Landing.  Earl comes in on his boat.  “This is the creek I where bring out of town visitors,” he tells us.  “It’s great for first time paddlers.”  I can see spending family days here when Max’s brother is older, the four of us taking turns on a tandem and exploring trails in the forest.  We’ll work our way up to that family RiverTrek; it’ll likely take years.  We’ll train nice and slowly, like we have today, and we’ll enjoy every bit of the road there.

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deadlakesfog

Wewahitchka: Dead Lakes Kayaking and Tupelo Adventure

Video: We explore Wewahitchka’s famous tupelo honey, from the ogeechee trees in the Dead Lakes, to the bees who make it, to the apiaries that bring it to us.

Dead Lakes

The Dead Lakes: October 2012.

I have been wanting to do a video on the Dead Lakes and Wewa Tupelo honey for a couple of years now.  I caught the briefest glimpse of the Dead Lakes on the next to last day of RiverTrek 2012, as we were shuttled from our campsite in Wewahitchka back to Gaskin Park on the Apalachicola River.  The water was low then, during the dry part of a dry year, and so the cypress knees and pine trunks were well exposed.  Revisiting the same spot via kayak a couple of weeks ago, I passed over submerged and unseen knees.  For this video, we needed to visit just as the rainy season was ending.  I wanted to to see tupelo blooming and bees working.  Matt Godwin from Off the Map Expeditions set me up to do just that.

The Ogeechee tupelo (Nyssa ogeche) is a sensitive plant.  We learned on RiverTrek how reduced water flows on the Apalachicola over the last 30+ years have led to a 40% loss of tupelo in the forested floodplain.  It likes the water, but, as beekeeper Donnie Harcus of Donnie’s Bees tells us in the video, rain will knock tupelo flowers onto the ground where bees won’t pollinate them.  So it has to be wet, but it can’t rain too much, and it has to be fairly hot.  I guess flowers that produce premium honey have the right to be a little demanding.

Bees making tupelo honey for Donnie's Bees in Wewahitchka.

Bees making tupelo honey for Donnie’s Bees in Wewahitchka.

The other part of the honey equation is the animal that makes it: the honey bee.  “You can talk a week on bees,” Donnie told me.  “They’re just an amazing creature”  His job as a beekeeper has him racing to keep up with the bees and the blooms of the area.

When you visit the bee yard, you’ll see stacks of boxes in long rows.  Each box is a hive, and when the bees finish filling one box with honey, Donnie and his crew have to lay another one above it or the bees will swarm.  His most efficient bees have stacks that are five boxes high.

The bees we visited were busy making tupelo honey.  Donnie hadn’t yet touched it, as the hives weren’t filled.

He has to move the hives to the flowers he wants them to pollinate.  Before the tupelo bloomed, the hives were closer to where titi, maple, and highbush gall berry trees were flowering.  The bees create from a combination of these flowers something called red honey.  When the tupelo bloom ends, the boxes go to California not to make honey, but to help with almond harvest.  Bees do much more to feed us than make honey, aiding in the production of $20 to 30 billion of produce in the United States alone (which makes their rapid decline all the more concerning).

Back where Donnie extracts the honey from the honeycomb, his crew was still working on red honey.  This is bakery grade honey, Donnie says, meant to be processed and used in cereal, bread, and shampoo.  The tupelo is table grade; you are meant to drizzle it on your biscuits and taste it.  The red honey wasn’t bad though.  When they offered us some honeycomb to chew on, I felt sad that, as Donnie says, this honey will be “run through a whole line of filters.  It probably won’t have any pollen when they get done.”  It was a rare treat to eat honey right out of a container built for it by bees.

Bee hives in Wewahitchka

Beekeepers can’t control where bees will fly, so they will never produce 100% tupelo honey. Apiaries get their honey tested, and that which has at least 51% tupelo pollen grains can be called tupelo honey.

At Smiley Apiaries, we sampled some more varieties.  I’ve always been partial to wildflower honey and its particular tang.  Every year, different flowers bloom in different quantities, and so the character is different from one year to the next.  The fall bloom is different than the spring bloom.  We tasted very different wildflower vintages from this year and last, as well as orange blossom (with a subtle hint of orange flavor), highbush gall berry, and of course tupelo.

Tupelo is prized for its flavor and its reputed resistance to crystallization.  It’s a fitting product for so unique a location.  Many of the bees are positioned around protected lands that sit along the Apalachicola and Chipola Rivers, lands that shelter tupelo swamps.  We drove through the Apalachicola Wildlife and Environmental Area to get to Donnie’s Bees. As long as enough water keeps flowing into these swamps, there will be enough ogeechee to sustain the industry in Wewahitchka. Nestled between the mighty Apalach and that place where the Chipola turns into the Dead Lakes, Wewa is a river town that makes the most of its water.

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