Tag Archives: camping

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

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

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

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

Alex Reed inspects rubble from the Alum Bluff landslide.

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

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

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

George Blakely and Zone 5

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

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

Todd Engstrom

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

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

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

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

Su Ecenia & Jill Lingard

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

Chris Robertson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next on In the Grass, On the Reef

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

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

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

RiverStyx

Planning Your Own Apalachicola River Kayak Camping Adventure

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

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

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

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

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

Choose your adventure

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

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

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

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

Camping

Estiffinulga Breakfast

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

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

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

Staying high and dry

Estiffinulga Sand Bar Camp Site

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

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

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

Bring all the gear you will need

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

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

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

20121013-200617.jpg

RiverTrek 2012: A Quick Look Back

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

On every RiverTrek Day wrap-up post I wrote about what I heard while I lay in my sleeping bag that morning.  This morning it was the buzzing of my alarm, and then I strained to hear anything else.  Walls do a much better job keeping sound out than the thin fabric of a tent.  Eventually I hear that gentle hum of cars and trucks.  Today’s trash day, so I know garbage and recycling trucks are coming.

Back to a more technologically civilized existence.  That means I can upload all the posts that wouldn’t make it from the tablet while using Rick’s or Micheal’s phones as hotspots.  And I can add a lot more photos.  The blog software lets you fudge the dates, so everything can show up in order and you can start at the beginning and look at what we saw along the way.  The best way to see it all would be to go back to what is currently page 3 and keep scrolling over the posts (every new post will push them down, so this won’t be true for more than a few weeks).  Or you can just jump to the beginning and go post by post.

I am fortunate and honored that I was invited to participate in this year’s event.  I hope we do it justice in these posts and in the two video segments set to air on WFSU’s dimensions program (and which I’ll post here).  There may be other bits and pieces to post as well.  We saw and learned a lot.

And I do want to thank everyone who helped me with the production side of things.  Georgia already thanked the support team, and I want to reiterate that.  Thanks Eddie, Mitch, Fred, Dawn and Rick.  Thanks as well to Captain Gill on the support boat, and a big thanks to Dan Tonsmeire for taking a videographer for two days and showing him the river (and for so many other things as well).

Thanks to WFSU videographer Dan Peeri and In the Grass, On the Reef Associate Producer Rebecca Wilkerson for your assistance on the production side of things.

Thanks to the paddlers for putting up with the cameras, my lagging behind when I went to get a shot, and the occasional bump from my boat.  And for making me feel welcome in this group.  Thanks to Rick and Micheal for the use of your phones as WiFi hotspots.  A big thanks to Georgia for posting diligently and keeping the outside world up to date when technology failed me.  Georgia and Doug Alderson did a fantastic job coordinating the trip and picking participants.  I can’t say enough about the experience of RiverTrek, and how much there was for us to shoot and write about.

Lastly, I want to thank my wife Amy for letting me go for five days and staying home with an increasingly active toddler.

I’m probably forgetting someone.  If I am, these posts are editable.

rivertrekday5banner

Rivertrek Day 5: Owl Creek to Apalachicola

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Every morning starts with interesting noises that hear from my sleeping bag.  I’ve been spending a lot of time listening, and I always hear other people up coughing, walking around.  Camping doesn’t always mean great sleep.  This morning, what I heard most was a constant ocean-like noise.  I know we were by mile marker 22, still pretty far from the Gulf.  I wondered if I could hear the tide, as tidal influence was to be felt not too much further up the river.  I asked about that, and was told that perhaps I was hearing the river current.

The one turtle on the Apalachicola that let me get close to it, on the last day.

A few miles into our paddle, we stopped by Fort Gadsden and Doug talked about the historical significance of the place.  Built during the War of 1812 by the British, they abandoned it at the conclusion of the war to a group of free blacks, escaped slaves, and various native groups.  Negro Fort, as it was then called, was a haven for escaped slaves until US troops fired a cannon ball heated in a stove into the fort’s gunpowder stores.  The explosion killed hundreds.  Doug had provided us the chapter about Fort Gadsden from his upcoming book on the Seminole Wars.  We stopped again at the site of another battle, at Bloody Bluff.

We were to stay closer together today, and keep someone with a map nearby (Doug, Rick, and Chris).  Rivers and creeks join and split off from the river in the lower twenty miles, and it would be a lot easier to get lost.  The plan was to take one last break at a small beach after the railroad bridge, at mile marker 3 more or less.  We would stick close together and paddle in line into the city for the people waiting for us.

The day’s paddling seemed a little slower, as we had an incoming tide and some head wind.  We also passed larger boats (including a shrimp boat) that kicked a lot of wake our way.  Sometimes it felt like I was paddling in oatmeal.  When it came time to get into formation, my lens started fogging up and I had to change cameras and switch my last good battery into the camera I had stashed behind my seat.  Georgia is yelling “come on Rob!” but I know I can’t not have this shot.  And it’s either video or stills, so I took video.

We were to come out of the main river and turn into the channel that runs alongside the oyster restaurants and Veteran’s Park, where people were waiting for us.  As we turned the corner to head to the park, I could see an adult form holding hands with a toddler- it was my wife Amy and my son Max.  I told Georgia I saw them and she told everyone, “On the count of three, everyone yell ‘Hi Max!'”  As much a I’ve enjoyed this trip, I couldn’t have been any happier to see them.

We got to the park, waved to our friends, family, and well wishers, and all that was left was the race.  And these guys don’t play fairly.  There was supposed to be a race for anyone who wanted to go touch the Gorrie Bridge.  As Georgia was trying to get them organized to start, Rick, Micheal, Josh, and Bryan just took off.  I wanted to tape this, but by the time I got my camera recording and turned around to get after them, they were pretty far ahead.  It got pretty close, with Rick closer to a beam on the left and Bryan closer to one on the right.  Competitive in both paddling and finding venomous snakes, Bryan Desloge took this one.

Commissioner Desloge (L) and Josh Bolick (R) paddle back after the race.

We all gathered at Up the Creek Raw Bar and ate together with each other and our loved ones.  We will all be sleeping in beds tonight.  We started in the thickest fog and emerged into tall bluffs and wide sandbars, climbing one of the tallest and sleeping on a couple of the sandbars (Estiffanulga sand is still on a lot of my stuff).  The bluffs got lower again and creeks and cypress swamps offered interesting side adventures.  Men fished and hunted, fishhooks hung from trees, houseboats and floating kennels lined the shores.  Herons evaded us, eagles circled overhead, and fish never stopped jumping (I wish I would have been rolling when that pinfish bounced off my bow).  Woods give way to marshes and the bay just opened up in front of us.  It’s been ten years since I first visited Apalachicola, for WFSU’s Our Town program.  I never thought I would enter it this way.  As we drove home over the bridge, in the last light of the day, I thought to myself “I can’t believe I just paddled that river.”

For more information on Rivertrek, visit the official page.  This page is on the Riverkeeper web site, and you can further explore what they do for the river.  (They’re also on Facebook).

The Franklin County Promise Coalition is coordinating aide efforts for families that are being affected in Franklin County through their Bay Aid program.   As Dan told us in his original interview, over half of the residents of Franklin County depend on the river for their livelihoods.  Learn more about volunteering and other Bay Aid opportunities here.