Tag Archives: Apalachicola River

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Father and Son Hiking and Camping at Torreya State Park

Thieving raccoons, high water on the Apalachicola, and learning to follow trail blazes make for a memorable camping trip for a WFSU producer and his son.
Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

One Sunday, I was planting seeds with my son Max when I decided that we needed to go camping that next weekend.  We were at the tail end of what I guess is Festival Season in Tallahassee, and it had been fun.  We saw a lot of cool things, got a little wet as nature tested the “rain or shine” claims on festival posters.  But it was an awful lot of spring weekends in town.  It was time to get out. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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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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Hiking in the NorthWest Florida Water Management District land along the Apalachicola River.

Video: Hiking Around the Apalachicola River

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Apalachicola Riverwalk

Dr. Todd Engstrom seeks a path around the many sloughs in our way. On Day 3 of the Apalachicola River Walk, he was taking us to patches of old growth forest where the extinct ivory billed woodpecker might have made a habitat. While north Florida looks largely “untouched,” much of it has been cut for timber at some point in the last couple of hundred years. There are trees that escaped this fate.  They are hundreds of years old and not altogether common.

I fell in love with the idea the first time I heard of it, this walk along the land surrounding the Apalachicola River.  I was standing on a sandbar just north of Alum Bluff.  After a day of kayaking the river, we set up camp and got to socializing.  Doug Alderson told me of this thought of his, a hike taking about seven days, from the top of the river to the bottom.  You can see how the river changes as you paddle, from tall bluffs in the north on down to the marshy delta.   We would be in those systems as opposed to passing by them on the water.

What you see in the video above is the first attempt of what could become an annual event in the RiverTrek mold.  It was a three day hike through some of the most unique ecosystems in the Apalachicola basin.  Torreya State Park and The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve make you work harder than any other trails in Florida.  And Doug & co. didn’t always stick to trails either, bushwhacking through steephead ravines and caves (remember Means Creek from RiverTrek?).

We joined them on the third day.  Luckily I did have previously unused footage of hikes in the afforementioned lands to illustrate the nature of those places.  On the third day, however, we hiked on land owned by the Northwest Florida Water Management District, just across the river from Wewahitchka.  It is flat terrain, crisscrossed with those crucially important veins and capillaries of the river- sloughs.  I had a great time catching up with my RiverTrek friends (including the scene stealing Zone 5), exploring wild land, and going wherever the high water let us go.

The protected lands around the river can be appreciated for their own virtues and beauty, but they also serve to protect the river and bay (and yes, the oysters, assuming that conditions are otherwise normal).  The following is a quick guide to the lands around the Apalachicola, and a little about ecotourism opportunities on each (I listed them from north to south along the main channel):

Torreya State Park

Gregory House, Torreya State Park

The Gregory House, Torreya State Park

The Florida torreya for which the park is named is a critically endangered tree found almost exclusively on the bluffs of the Apalachicola River. The park sports one full camp site with electric and water hookups, restrooms, and a YURT (Year-round Universal Recreational Tent), as well as three primitive camping sites, and two youth camping sites meant for large groups (like Boy Scout troops). The River Walkers were staying at one of the Youth sites. There are also two trail loops, one of which takes you by the Gregory House. The Gregory House is a fully furnished plantation home built in 1849 and which was moved onto a bluff overlooking the river (If the water is low enough, there is a sandbar across the river where paddlers can eat lunch and have a view of the house as well).

The Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve

Todd Engstrom climbs up side of steephead ravineMuch of the Bluffs and Ravines Preserve is not open to the public, being instead dedicated to restoration efforts: restoring sandhill habitat, managing a fire regime on upland pine forests, and restoring the flow of streams into the river channel. The Preserve is also home to a unique ecosystem, the steephead ravine, which forms over years when seeps of water cut into sand or clay hills. Steepheads are, as the name suggests, steep (I know, I was surprised too!), and make for some challenging hiking. The Preserve’s Garden of Eden trail runs through steepheads on the way to Alum Bluff, the highest point above the river and a spectacular view. You can watch us hike the Garden of Eden at the beginning of our RiverTrek 2013 Part 1 video. You can also watch us climb Alum Bluff the hard way on RiverTrek 2012.

Florida River Island |The Northwest Florida Water Management District

Hiking along the Apalachicola RiverThis is not a place you would ever find if you weren’t specifically looking for it. In fact, if you click on the link above they don’t even really tell you where to find their land on the river. Traveling south of Bristol on C379, if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see signs for Forest Road 188 and for a boat ramp. This is the ramp for the Florida River, and where you’ll find the trails we explored in the video above. The spent shell casings testify to someone knowing that this place was there, and also serve as a reminder to wear bright colors if you visit here during hunting seasons.

Apalachicola National Forest

This is Florida’s largest National Forest, ranging from just near Tallahassee to the Apalachicola River. That’s a lot of protected land that buffers six different watersheds. Right near the Apalachicola, a big attraction is wildlife watching. This part of the forest is a stronghold for the near threatened red cockaded woodpecker. As you drive down County Road 65, you’ll see trees with white bands painted around their trunks. Those trees may have holes that drip sap- this deters snakes from climbing up. As the sun sets, the RCW flies back into its hole. Also near the river is Sumatra, where in late spring an incredible array of carnivorous plants will bloom.

Tate’s Hell State Forest

Graham Creek in Tate's Hell

Graham Creek in Tate’s Hell State Forest

Where E.E. Callaway found the Garden of Eden on the bluffs of the north river, Cebe Tate found hell in this forest to the south. I’ll refer you to our EcoAdventure on the lower river to get the full story. The Tate’s Hell Swamp drains into the Apalachicola River and Bay, and the forest also includes 35 miles of paddle trails, including Cash Creek and Graham Creek (which you’ll see in the linked video). There is also camping and hunting in the forest; refer to the link above for information on fees and permits.

Apalachicola Wildlife and Environmental Area

Sand Beach Observation Tower

Sand Beach, overlooking East Bay

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission manages much of the land on the lower river, where creeks and tributary rivers braid the main channel. FWC has maps available for paddlers looking to explore the many waterways on the WEA and in Tate’s Hell.  The Sand Beach observation tower provides a nice view of the East Bay and the many birds and other critters that make use of it. You can get a taste of the recreational opportunities on the WEA on our aforementioned south river EcoAdventure.

St. George Island State Park

Blue Heron on Saint George Island BeachAnd of course, once you’ve made your way down the river, you can keep following the water and enjoy some camping, hiking, and beach time on one of the barrier islands that close the bay and protect the oysters from the side opposite the river.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve explored this watershed from the top of Alum Bluff to the bottom of Apalachicola Bay.    And we’re nowhere near done, either.  But the WFSU viewing area is rich in ecological marvels.  An upcoming focus of ours will be the many watersheds that span from the Big Bend to Choctawhatchee Bay.  I’d like to further highlight the connections between the many terrestrial and freshwater features of our areas and our coasts. And that includes urban settings like Tallahassee, whose lakes and sloughs feed both the Ochlockonee and St. Marks Watersheds.  In some cases, we’ve already covered a few links in the chain through EcoAdventures and In the Grass, On the Reef research pieces.  Now it’s time to fill in the gaps and start looking at the bigger picture, as we’ve been doing on the Apalachicola.

Interested in paddling the Apalachicola?  Check out this post I wrote a few months ago on planning a trip using the Apalachicola Blueway Guide.

Music in the piece by Freeky Cleen and Dickey F.

Follow us on Twitter @wfsuIGOR

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

The Apalachicola 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.

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 being there.

the Sutton Lake Bayou, off of the Apalachicola River on RiverTrek 2013.

(Video) RiverTrek Part 1: Garden of Eden, Apalachicola River

Video: Kayaking in, and hiking around, the Apalachicola River.

Last year’s RiverTrek kicked off a year where we made the Apalachicola River and Bay a focus of the In the Grass, On the Reef (IGOR) project.  As with this year’s video, last year’s was a two-parter.  Watch Part 1, Days 1 and 2, here.  Watch Part 2, Days 3 through 5, here.  In Part 2, we looked at how low river flows last year precipitated the crash of the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery.  Shortly after, IGOR team member Dr. David Kimbro began investigating the oyster stocks more closely.  You can follow that research here.

This video focuses on a 5-day kayak and canoe adventure down Florida’s longest river.  RiverTrek is a fundraiser for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper.  Riverkeeper staff and volunteers have been an immense help in producing our Apalachicola videos and in getting them seen.  Thank you to Dan, Shannon, Tom, Georgia, Doug, and everyone else for allowing us to be part of the adventure.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Sunset on the northern Apalachicola River, from our day one camp site.

Getting back on the Apalachicola River for RiverTrek 2013 felt a little bit like rekindling a fling that was cut short. Last year we had a couple of good dates.  On the first one, we got coffee- kayaking from the River Styx to Owl Creek for 18 miles of getting-to-know-you.  Then the second date, RiverTrek 2012, was a crazy all night- all week- affair where we did just about everything.  Spelunking at Means Creek, climbing the tallest river bluff in Florida (Alum Bluff), climbing Sand Mountain- all while getting to experience the entire river channel.  How do I follow up on that amazing date?  By spending a lot of the next year in Apalachicola Bay following oyster research.  Is that like dating someone’s sister?

I swear I was thinking about you the whole time I was with her.  I can’t help but to think about you when I’m with her, especially with all that has happened over the last year.  The truth is, I’ve thought about you quite a bit since I last saw you.

Aspalaga Blue Spring

Aspalaga Blue Spring lies just a mile off of the Apalachicola River, at mile marker 98. From a sand bar on the west side, one would bushwhack a mile into the woods to find it.

And then, finally, there I was again for RiverTrek 2013.  The Apalachicola seemed familiar, yet different, like a friend you haven’t seen for a little while.  The face is the same, but a little older.  The hair is different; they have gained or lost weight.  After last year’s drought and record low flows, higher water this year made for a slightly different feel.  As you can see in the video, we had choices to make about where we would sleep the first night, as the Alum Bluff sand bar was much more submerged than it was last year.

You’re looking good this year.  You’re looking fuller, faster.

More water is flowing in the creeks and sloughs.

No, I didn’t think your sand bars looked too big last year.  I like your sand bars.  I always think you look good.

Coming out of a cave on Means Creek

My fellow RiverTrekkers wait for me as I prepare to climb out of a cave on Means Creek. This group paddled to raise money for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, an organization that advocates for Florida’s share of water in the Apalachicola/ Chattahoochee/ Flint basin. Over the last few decades, many have fought for the Apalachicola, which is downstream of the other two rivers.

It’s not an exclusive relationship.  Just as I explore and make videos on Slave Canal or Lake Lafayette, many others have a relationship with the Apalachicola River.  Many people have a much deeper connection with her than I do; I know my place.

The thing is, you worry us sometimes.  I mean, you’re amazing.  You’ve put up with a lot, and you’ve been mistreated.  You’ve been starved and scarred with dykes.  Yet you do so much for so many people.  

A lot of the time, we don’t appreciate something until we’re in danger of losing it.  The crash of the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery was an eye opener for a lot of people as to how reliant the Bay is on the river flow.  But this is a fight that has been waged for decades, between Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, and against the Army Corps of Engineers’ policies in managing the river and its flow.  In this video, Part 1 of 2, we explore the area around the river, bushwhacking through the woods to clear, cool springs and climbing in the bluffs above the river for a better vantage point.  Next week, in Part 2, we take a quick look at the decades long struggle with the Corps, and see that oyster beds aren’t the only habitat that need fresh water.  And we kayak into the “quintessential” cypress/ tupelo swamp- Sutton Lake.

Music in the video by pitx and Cross(o)ver.

Learn more about the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, and the Garden of Eden Trail, here.

Learn more about the Apalachicole Blueway paddling trail here.

Cypress and Tupelo swamp, Sutton lake off of the Apalachicola River.

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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.

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The Apalachicola Bay Situation Report: A Quick Take

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
The leaders of SMARRT look on as Dr. Karl Havens presents the Apalachicola Bay Oyster Task Force's report.

The leaders of SMARRT look on as Dr. Karl Havens presents the Oyster Task Force’s report.

This past Wednesday researchers from the University of Florida Oyster Recovery Team presented their report on the state of Apalachicola Bay to a public audience at the Apalachicola Community Center.  In the months since a Fishery Disaster was declared in the bay, this task force was formed by researchers from the University of Florida and our collaborator, Dr. David Kimbro (who was at Florida State University and is now at Northeastern).  They collected and analyzed historical sets of data and collected new data from the field to look at current conditions, their causes, and potential future actions aimed at restoration.  Here is a quick look at what was discussed:

  • In his introductory presentation, Dr. Karl Havens (Director of Florida Sea Grant) included an image in his PowerPoint depicting how the Apalachicola/ Chattahoochee/ Flint Basin was affected by recent drought conditions.  He called attention to an area of extreme red, approximately over the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers in Georgia, stating that “in 2011, and 2012, it was the driest place in the entire United States.”  Those rivers feed the Apalachicola.
  • Landings data (oyster harvest reported) show a sharp decline in oysters between August and September of 2012.  The suddenness of the decline, said Dr. Havens, is not consistent with overfishing, which results in a gradual drop. (Page 12 of the report)
  • Dr. Steve Otwell cautioned that the reputation of Apalachicola oysters is being tainted by undersized oysters making it to restaurants.  It was acknowledged by representatives of SMARRT that certain individuals do harvest sub-legal oysters, and that a goal of SMARRT is to educate seafood workers about the legal catch sizes and the reasons behind them. When it comes to sub-legal oysters reaching consumers, Franklin County Seafood Workers President Shannon Hartsfield said, “It takes two.”  Someone has to harvest and bring a sub-legal oyster to the dock, and someone has to buy and sell it to restaurants.  SMARRT is the Seafood Management Assistance Resource and Recovery Team, an organization made up of seafood workers and buyers.
  • The report finds that the three inch legal size is effective in preventing “size overfishing,” if it is properly enforced. (Pages 12-13)
  • Concern was raised over out-of-state oysters replacing Apalachicola oysters in restaurants, and whether Apalachicola could regain the market.  Dr. Otwell pointed to Chesapeake Bay, which had its fishery collapse only to rebound as a premium product.
  • Using their ECOSPACE modeling tool, they projected the recovery of the bay under several scenarios.  The worst case scenario has the bay recovering in 2020.  That’s with no shelling or reduction in harvesting.  Reducing effort in 2013 and 2014 would bring it back a couple of years faster, but the best scenario is a harvesting reduction and an increase in shelling (200 acres a year for 5 years).  That scenario predicts recovery by 2015. (Page 17)
  • Three years after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, people are still concerned about the possibility of oil contaminated seafood.  Tests of oysters, blue crabs, shrimp and fish species showed little or no trace of chemicals associated with crude oil or dispersants. (Page 19)
  • Hanna Garland installs a rebar cage on the floor of the Apalachicola Bay, in which her and David's experiments will be safe from oyster tongs and boat props.

    Hanna Garland installs a rebar cage on the floor of the bay, in which her and David’s experiments will be safe from oyster tongs and boat props.  We will have videos explaining the experiment in the coming weeks.

    One goal of the Task Force is to set up ongoing sampling of the bay.  The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) has surveyed oysters living on the most harvested reefs in the bay, and that data was used in the computer modeling.  But where that work looked at number of oysters (legal and sub-legal), a more thorough look at conditions on the reef was deemed necessary.  That’s what David Kimbro and Hanna Garland have been working on.  They have already completed their survey of the bay and presented a snapshot of predator distribution, reef structure, oyster size, and of oyster mortality (Many of the oysters on the floor of the bay are “gapers.”  When they die, their shells open permanently).  You can read a brief summary of his results here.  Hanna is currently deploying an experiment featuring live oysters and spat tiles (watch a video on the Kimbro/ Hughes lab’s use of spat tiles here).  Through this, they will learn how spat (the next generation of oysters) and adults are surviving conditions in the bay, how well spat are growing, and how many are being eaten by predators.

  • Dr. Otwell had an interesting solution to two problems: harvesting crown conchs.  Those who have followed this blog (or harvest oysters) know that crown conchs can become a real nuisance on oyster reefs (though a potential benefactor of the equally productive salt marsh system).  A crown conch fishery would provide some income for seafood workers while relaxing the effects of a predator that can get out of hand when the water gets saltier (like in recent drought conditions). (Page 28)
crown conch meat

The queen conch (Strombus gigas) is a popular delicacy, but it is under current consideration as an endangered species. Interest is growing in using the related crown conch (Melongena corona, shown above) as a substitute meat.

The hope is that some of the partnerships and research work can continue despite a lack of funding, and even after the fishery recovers.  “I’ve said it over and over and over again, most of our information comes from the really extreme low events,” said Dr. Bill Pine.  “And we don’t know how these systems look during normal flow or high events.”  As he pointed out, research doesn’t always get done when the system is healthy, and that leaves gaping holes in the data.  Likewise, this unprecedented collaboration between seafood workers, the state agencies that manage the fishery, and the research community was created in crisis.  Will it survive as the fishery recovers?

Download a PDF of the full report here.

Coming up

The meeting on Wednesday was part of one of our busiest months of production for In the Grass, On the Reef.  This week alone, we went from one end of our viewing area to another, starting with an EcoAdventure on Slave Canal (towards the eastern end of our range) to Choctowhatchee Bay for a look at a different kind of oyster restoration project (that’s as far west as we air).  We tagged along on an oystering trip and got footage for videos dealing with another coastal ecosystem susceptible to drought: the salt marsh.  We’ve logged a lot of miles, and I have a lot of footage to put together.  Here is a preview:

David’s Apalachicola Bay research is funded by Florida Sea Grant.

In the Grass, on the Reef is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

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What’s the deal with nutrients and oysters?

As David & co. start their new research on the Apalachicola oyster fishery crisis, He and Randall (and their colleagues in Georgia and North Carolina) are starting to wrap up the NSF funded oyster study that we have been following over the last couple of years.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look back at that research through a series of videos.  We’ll cover some oyster basics (how does an animal with no brain behave?), explore David and Randall’s ideas on the role of fear on the oyster reef (what makes a mud crab too afraid to eat an oyster?), and see the day-to-day problem solving and ingenuity it takes to complete a major study.  As these videos are released, we’ll also keep tabs on the work being done in Apalachicola Bay, in which many of the same methods will be used.
Dr. David Kimbro FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

After all, nutrients are basically plant food and oysters are animals.  And how could too few nutrients coming down with the trickling flow of the Apalachicola River possibly explain the record low number of Apalachicola oysters?

This is the perfect time to use the favorite idiom of my former mentor Dr. Ted, “The long and the short of it is….”

The short of it: Plants love nutrients and sunlight as much as I like pizza and beer. But unlike my favorite foods, these plant goodies make plants grow fast and strong. This works out well for us because we all need nutrients for basic body functioning, and because we get them by eating plants and/or by the eating animals that previously consumed plants.

For our filter-feeding bivalve brethren, they get nutrients and energy by eating plant-like cells (phytoplankton) that float in the water. So, it is possible that the trickling flow of the Apalachicola River is bringing too few nutrients to support the size of the pizza buffet to which the Apalachicola oysters are accustomed. But this idea has yet to be tested.

Hanna Garland and Stephanie Buhler harvest oysters from sample reefs in Apalachicola Bay.

The long of it: Long before the flow of the Apalachicola River slowed to a trickle, there weren’t a lot of nutrients. That’s why the numbers of humans used to be so low: too few nutrients meant too few plants and other animals for us to eat.

How could this possibly be the case given that 78% of the air we breathe is made up of a very important plant nutrient, nitrogen? And there is a lot of air out there!

Well, only a precious few plants exist that can deal with the nitrogen in our air and these are called nitrogen-fixers. Think of these as single-lane, windy, and bumpy dirt roads. In order to help create a plant buffet for all of us animals, a lot of atmospheric nitrogen (bio-unavailable) has to travel down this very slow road that the n-fixers maintain. As a result, it naturally takes a long time for the land to become fertile enough for a large buffet. And, it only takes a couple of crop plantings to wipe out this whole supply of bio-available nitrogen that took so long to accumulate.

guano island

Sea birds on a guano island off the coast of Peru. (zand.net)

Turns out that the ancient Inca civilization around Peru was not only lucky, but they were also pretty darn smart. Lucky, because they lived next to coastal islands that were basically big piles of bird poop, which is very rich in bio-available nitrogen. I’m talking thousands of years of pooping on the same spot! Smart, because they somehow figured out that spreading this on their fields by-passed that slow n-fixing road and allowed them to grow lots of food. Once Columbus tied the world together, lots of bird poop was shipped back to European farms for the same reason. That’s when the European population of humans sky-rocketed.

Turns out that humans in general are pretty smart. Through time, some chemists figured out how to create artificial bird poop, which we now cheaply dump a lot of on our farming land. So, in these modern days, we are very, very rich in bio-available nutrients.

Where am I going with the long of it? Well, on the one hand, these nutrients wash off into rivers and then float down into estuaries. This is how the phytoplankton that oysters eat can benefit from our solution to the slow n-fixing road. In turn, oysters thrive on this big phytoplankton buffet.

Slide by Ashley R. Smyth, Piehler Lab, UNC Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences.

But, on the other hand, too much of these nutrients flowing down into our estuaries can create big problems. Every year, tons of nutrient-rich water makes it way down the Mississippi and into the shallow Gulf of Mexico waters. There, this stuff fuels one big time buffet of phytoplankton, which goes unconsumed. Once these guys live their short lives, they sink to the bottom and are broken down by bacteria. All this bacterial activity decreases the oxygen of water and in turn gives us the infamous dead zone. Because nutrient-rich run-off continues to increase every year, so too does the dead zone.

I’ll close with the thought that oysters themselves may help keep the phytoplankton buffet from getting out of control by acting like anti-nitrogen fixers. In other words, they may help convert an excess of useable nitrogen back into bio-unavailable nitrogen. While this might not have been a great thing to have in low nutrient situations, we currently live in a nutrient-rich era. What’s even cooler is that it all has to do with poop again! But this time, we are talking oyster poop.

Oyster Summit 6

Dr. Mike Piehler, presenting to his collaborators Dr. Jeb Byers (Right), Dr. Jon Grabowski (reclined on couch), Dr. Randall Hughes and Dr. David Kimbro (out of frame). These five researchers have worked on oyster reef ecology since their time at the University of North Carolina. Three years ago, the National Science Foundation funded research into their ideas about predators and fear on oyster reefs.

So does this really happen? Yes. Check out an earlier post for the details. But we don’t fully understand it and that’s why it is a major focus of our research. Our collaborator, Dr. Michael Piehler of UNC-Chapel Hill, is leading this portion of our research project. Read more of Dr. Piehler’s work on this topic here.

So, hopefully this post explains why the relationship between nutrients and oysters is not so simple. But it sure is interesting and a worthy thing to keep studying!

Cheers,
David

In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by the National Science Foundation.

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