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.

It’s important for both mommies, daddies and children to be out in nature, but for different reasons.  The mommy/ daddy reason is, often, that we need a break from the day-to-day of work to get out in nature and unwind.  But, when you bring a child, you have to balance that with your parenting duties.  What does that balance look like?  Let’s start with this verdant forest scene taken in Torreya State Park:

Those trees you glimpse behind Max’s bouncing head- that symbolizes the amount of time you spend enjoying nature on your own terms.  Max’s bouncing head- that represents the amount of time you spend parenting.  But that’s okay.  You can still have fun.  If you make it an awesome experience for them, you will enjoy it in ways that you might never have expected.  In the following account, you’ll see that while it’s a bit of work, a four-year-old can be a great adventure buddy.

A Beach Stop at Bald Point State Park

In my previous posts about taking kids into nature, my counsel has been to keep excursions simple.  I’m ignoring this today, as I also have a need for salt water and coastal breeze.  After a recent shoot there, I’ve decided to go to Bald Point.  This is a good, wild beach at the mouth of the Ochlockonee River.

My initial thought was to camp nearby at Ochlockonee River State Park, but my sudden inspiration to go camping plus a couple days of procrastination left me looking at a completely booked campground.  I next tried two other state parks where I could camp even closer to the beach- St. George Island and St. Joseph Peninsula- but I was out of luck there as well.  I had always wanted to camp at Torreya, even if was ninety miles from the coast.  Luckily I snagged the last available campsite.  Our local state parks are in demand.

After Max’s t-ball game and a picnic lunch with my wife and younger son, Xavi, we head out.  We pass through Panacea and its Blue Crab Festival traffic (another festival!).  By the time we get to the beach, it’s already 2:30.

The narrow sliver of high tide beach is crowded but quiet; many of the visitors are lined up fishing by submerged oyster reefs along the river mouth.  I had wanted to show Max the reefs, but I can see that he’s not concerned about exploring coastal ecosystems today.

Instead, he runs onto the sand and starts throwing it up in the air.  He’s loud.  He pours sand over his head.  Behind us, dunes are roped off to protect nesting plovers.  He knows not to run at birds on the beach, but I wonder if he’s agitating some of the little sandpipers by the water’s edge.  After a while he settles down, and I relax as well.  I’ve never been on a beach so full of people and yet so silent.  It makes me a little self conscious.  I have to remind myself why we call it an “outdoor voice.”  I remind myself that I’ve brought him outside to do something with all of his four-year-old energy.  He does, and we settle down to dig moats and inspect shells inhabited by hermit crabs- banded tulips, moon snails, murex, and crown conch.

Crown conch shell with hermit crab inside.

Crown conch shell with hermit crab inside.

We spend a couple of hours here.  He’s really having fun so I have to start preparing him for our departure about thirty minutes before I want to leave.  It takes about 10-15 minutes to get him on board with the idea of leaving.  It takes another 10-15 to get him out of the water (it took about 30 minutes to get him to go in the water).  We get out just after 4:30, which, after Google’s projected hour-and-a-half of driving, puts us in Torreya State Park well before sunset, when the gates close.  Max sleeps soundly the whole way there.

Watch Out for the Copperheads

Copperhead snake by the Alum Bluff sand bar, Apalachicola River.  Taken during RiverTrek 2012.

Copperhead snake by the Alum Bluff sand bar, Apalachicola River. Taken during RiverTrek 2012.

Pulling into the campsite at 6:15 pm, I see a sign that says to check in by 5:00.  The reservation I printed from Reserve America (all State Park camping is booked here) only says to arrive before gates close at sunset.  There is someone in the office, however, and he’s friendly despite my late arrival.

“You’ll want to keep an eye out for copperheads” he says, holding up a photo. “We had two bitings last week.  A man got bit in the yurt and spent the night in the hospital.  Then a dog was bitten and they had to spend $750 at the vet for it.” (A yurt is a kind of tent used by central Asian nomads, of which there is one on the campgrounds)

We get our parking pass and head back to set up our tent.  Max really wants to help, so we take it slow.  Having a four-year-old help usually means you’re just getting them involved, and you may have to work slowly and redo things more than you would normally.  But I need to build on his desire to help, so I gladly accept it.

P1080643-smallerDue to my strange ideas about scheduling, we’re here a little late but I know that the sun will set after 8:00.  We explore the trail that heads from the campgrounds.  I point out the blue trail blazes on the trees.  “That’s how we know we’re on the path.”  Looking at the map, I see that Torreya State Park has two loop trails marked in orange; we’re on one of the blue blazed trails that connect places in the park to these main trails.

Characteristically, Max first says that he’s scared of the trail; but by the time I’m ready to head back, he doesn’t want to leave.  He keeps meandering off of the trail and I keep reminding him about snakes.  I’m on a constant lookout.  To Max, now, the trail is a train track on the Island of Sodor, and we have to dodge Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends.  I look at my watch and decide that we need to get back to our campsite.  We don’t want to start dinner late.

A Text Message Sent to my Wife at 9:20 pm:

“A raccoon just stole our hot dog buns.”

I am not a woodsman.  I am not a master of fire.

There were some nice flames for a while there.  It took a little while to cook our hot dogs, maybe because I kept fiddling with the fire.  Anyhow, it got a little late.

Also, I can be something of a minimalist.  For those moments I had the fire kind of going, it was our light.  As it died down, I used my headlamp.  Max would loudly note how brightly lit out neighbor’s campsite was.  Next to their RV they had hung lanterns and had a nice table set up.  The husband had nicely given me the wood I was using (Torreya prohibits you from gathering wood; it is instead provided by the Friends of Torreya State Park).

Meanwhile, I’m hunched over the fire; our only light emanating from my forehead onto our hot dogs.

Then, I hear a rustling over in the darkness by the picnic table.  Whipping my head around, I see something furry run off with a bag.  The hot dog buns!  I chase after the creature, thinking that the pursuit of a large mammal will frighten it into dropping the buns.  I stop and look up, and instead of being angry, I wish I had a camera.  A raccoon is standing on its hind legs, holding up our hot dog buns.  It’s looking right at me.  I could chase it all night, but for what?  What would I do with a raccoon if I managed to get my hands on it?

When I get back, Max is distraught. “I don’t like hot dogs with no buns.”  Eventually he eats them.  “Eating hot dogs without buns is my favorite way to eat them.”  I love this kid.  I stick some marshmallows close into the red glowing spot where the logs meet.  I don’t have to worry about burning them.

I read bedtime stories by headlamp.  I sleep better than I usually do while camping, thanks to all the extra bedding I packed.  Two times I wake up, and I can hear that raccoon and his/ her buddies running around.  All the food is in here with us, you little monsters!

When I wake up for good, a little after 7 am, all I hear is birds.  A whole forest full of birds.  I must be awake before most of the other campers; I don’t hear a single person.

Yesterday was fun, but I had us rushing around.  By the time we actually got to just sit at our campsite, it had gotten late and I had to contend with our fire and ill-mannered wildlife.  Now begins the best part of the trip.

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Breakfast is easy; Clif bars and oranges.  We move our chairs to the back of our campsite, which slopes for a couple dozen yards before a network of logs cuts you off from the steeper part of a ravine.  We eat.  Max scampers down and climbs up on the log behind our site.  He says he wants to climb down.  I can’t tell if he’s serious.

P1080691-smallerWhile I’m down here, I see a plastic bag behind one of our neighbor’s sites.  I go and get it.  I’m glad that I haven’t contributed to polluting this place, even indirectly via raccoon.

It’s tough to get Max to break camp.  He thinks we should stay a few days.

“Max,” I say, “Do you want to see the Apalachicola River?”

“Yes I do!”

“Then let’s go!”

It still takes a while, but we have a purpose, and that gets us moving.

A Trek to the Apalachicola River

In previous posts about my outdoor excursions with Max, his love of the Apalachicola has been prominent.  I’ve spent some time working on river and bay segments, and the photos and videos I’ve shown him have given him the idea that this is a place where adventure happens.  I’ve worked to nurture this feeling within him.  It has led to a love of kayaking and camping; and I want to fill these early years with positive outdoor experiences that stay with him.

After bushwhacking through the Aspalaga Unit of Torreya State Park, 2012's RiverTrekkers ate lunch on this sandbar (R) opposite the Gregory House (L).

After bushwhacking through the Aspalaga Unit of Torreya State Park, 2012’s RiverTrekkers ate lunch on this sandbar (R) opposite the Gregory House (L).

We start at the Gregory House.  Originally built in the 1840s, the Civilian Conservation Corps moved the house from across the river when the park was created in 1935.  I’ve only ever seen it from the river.  In fact, I remember having lunch on a sand bar across the river, looking up at the house on its perch high atop a bluff.  Looking down from that bluff now, I don’t see the sand bar.  There’s a reason the Apalachicola Blueway Paddling Guide doesn’t recommend camping on sandbars in the spring wet season; your tent would get awfully wet under all that water.

The view from the Gregory House, May 2015.

The view from the Gregory House, May 2015.

One of those blue blazed trails leaves from behind the Gregory House.  When we get to the main orange blazed trail, there is a sign pointing to the left that indicates the way to the Rock Bluff Primitive Camp sites.  What it doesn’t say is that to the right is the Apalachicola River.

Max is funny when it comes to walking and hiking.  I’ve often heard “I’m tired of walking.  Pick me up.”  I sometimes hear this after only a few steps.  For such an energetic kid, he can get “tired” after minimal exertion.  It’s heavily tied to his motivation and excitement level; in that way he is not unlike his father.  Luckily, he wants to see the river.

P1080703-smallAnd that’s good, because this is more challenging than any trail I’ve taken him on to date.  But he knows how to follow a trail now.  “The blue paint on the tree means we’re on the trail.”

I’m impressed.  “That’s good, son.  Now see how this tree has two blazes?  That means the trail turns.”  The trail zig-zags down the river bluff, often at tight turns.  Sometimes we walk into an apparent dead end, and I look back and see the double blaze.  We missed a turn.  But the trail is well marked, so we keep moving in the right direction.

We’re in a dense forest, and fallen trees cross the path at multiple points.  The Friends of Torreya State Park maintain the trail, and while the logs stay in place as nature intended, a section of each is chain-sawed out to keep the trail clear. As we get closer to the river, though, we get to some recently fallen trees that lie intact.  One has just the slightest nick from a chainsaw in it, a job to be finished another day by dedicated volunteers.  I’m glad that a couple of logs temporarily remain as impediments; Max happily climbs over them.  They add to the adventure.

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At some point, a little bridge crosses over the smallest of streams.  He walks around the bridge to splash in the water.  That stream then runs alongside the trail, so that he walks in water as often as not.  Soon, the stream drains into a creek, and the creek into the river itself.

I try to get a photo of him by the river, but he won’t stay still.  And why should he?

"Max, can you stay still for a second while I get a picture?"

“Max, can you stay still for a second while I get a picture?”

Trees stick out of the water, and fish forage on the higher ground made available to them during the rainy season.  Water flows by on its way to tupelo swamps and oyster beds.  It’s an El Niño year, I’ve been told, and rain and high water have led to the cancelation of shoots I’ve scheduled on other rivers.  But having been on this river during a dry La Niña year, the driest on record, I’m happy to see high water.  The Apalachicola grew up with these cycles, but changing climate has made them more extreme, while upstream manipulation of flows further knocks the river off its ancient rhythms.  But that’s not what I think about when I’m here with Max.  I just want him to see it.  If he stops jumping around for a second he just might.

P1080702-smallWe make the trek back up, which going up hill should be more work.  But I’m never asked to pick him up.  We eat watermelon on the benches behind the Gregory House, and I’m grateful to have had both the close-up and and the high-up perspective of the Apalachicola River today.  After a quick stop at the park’s playground, we head home.

When we get there, Amy meets us in the driveway and quickly diverts us to the back yard.  Xavi is napping.  Max and I are put to work planting flowers in pots.  I take one out and start squeezing the root ball beneath it.

“I want to break up the root ball!” Max says.  I’m surprised that he knew to say this, and am pleased with how well he loosens all of the little strands of root.

Amy tells me that with us out of the house last night, Xavi slept through the night.  In fact, starting later in the week, he’ll soon start sleeping through almost nightly.  This makes me feel a little better about taking him camping.  Family trips are on the horizon.  I wonder if I’ll ever get the same one-on-one outdoor adventures with Xavi that I’ve had with Max.  It only seems fair.  But would Max ever let us go camping without him?  I have plenty of time to think about this.  For now, I’m just happy with how this last trip went.  We came back plenty dirty from out trip, and we’re getting dirtier still in the garden.  It has been a good weekend.

  • As always, remember to pack plenty of water and sunscreen.  It is tick season, so check for those and be thorough.  The map I picked up at the office implored us to “Leave only footprints and take only pictures.”  Familiarize yourself with the rules at any outdoor place you visit.  And, as always with children, be patient.  You want them to enjoy nature and want to return.

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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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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.