Tag Archives: hiking

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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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Video: Bradwell Bay Wilderness Hike- Night and Day

Watch and listen: what does a Wilderness sound like at night?

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

P1060490-SmallerIt seems like a good premise for a movie: Under a full moon, on Friday the thirteenth, a group of people wander in the Wilderness. You could be a part of this movie on Friday, June 13 (8 pm), as Haven Cook of the U.S. Forest Service leads a hike into the Bradwell Bay Wilderness. It’s one of a series of events being held in the Apalachicola National Forest to celebrate 50 years of the Wilderness Act. Passed in 1964, the act designated certain protected areas as Wilderness.

So how is a Wilderness any different than any other protected land? We are surrounded by the Apalachicola National Forest, St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, Wildlife Management Areas, state parks, and large greenways. There are some waterways near here where you could spend hours and not see many signs of civilization. It’s already plenty wild around here, right?

A Wilderness area restricts the use of motorized or mechanical equipment. Not even a bicycle or, as the sign at the trailhead states, a hang glider (the WFSU hang glider was sadly left behind in our vehicle). No structures can be placed on the grounds, though any that were historically found there can remain. It has to, as the act states, retain “its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation.” Section 2(c) of the 1964 Wilderness Act. The primary force affecting the Wilderness must be nature, not man. The idea is that you can go there and experience total solitude in nature, and that means freedom from the buzz of a chainsaw or seeing that glider over your head.

The primary man made feature of the Bradwell Bay Wilderness is the unpaved trail that runs through it. In the pine flatwood area leading up to the swamp, it was an old road that Haven believes might have led to an homestead, likely belonging to the Bradwell family. It has a ditch running along either side of it, where you can occasionally see pitcher plants growing (as we learned a few weeks ago in another part of the Apalachicola National Forest, carnivorous plants love ditches and their found-in-nature equivalents). There is an old bridge that takes you over a small creek that drains into the Sopchoppy River. While they won’t put any forest roads through the Wilderness (its boundaries are formed by forest roads), the trail is maintained as a part of the Florida National Scenic Trail. In places, that doesn’t mean much more than an orange blaze on a tree.

Some Wilderness areas don’t even have that level of human footprint. The Mud Swamp/ New River Wilderness, also in the National Forest, is one. In general, Wilderness areas in the Eastern United States tend to be smaller and less isolated than in the less populous Western half of the country. In 1975, congress passed the Eastern Wilderness Act, which created the Bradwell Bay Wilderness. This act acknowledges that “additional areas of wilderness in the more populous eastern half of the United States are increasingly threatened by the pressure of a growing and more mobile population, large-scale industrial and economic growth, and development and uses inconsistent with the protection, maintenance, and enhancement of the areas’ wilderness character.” Section 2(a)(3) of the Eastern Wilderness Act.

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Often in the Forest, you’ll see these burnt woody shrubs among the palmettos between the pines. Longleaf and slash pine can tolerate fire and palmettos grow back, but hardwood trees do not fare well in this ecosystem.

It should also be noted that, though the area is intended to be as much as possible like it was when this country was founded, the pine flatwood area is a second growth forest where you can still see rows of planted slash pine. Like many of the places that we consider wild around here, it had been cut at some point. It is, like the rest of the forest, maintained by prescribed fire. This is to replicate the fire regime that occurred naturally before the area was settled by Americans. Since the Wilderness won’t burn every three to four years without assistance, The Forest Service keeps the “primeval” character of the area by simulating the regime that had occurred there.

We didn’t make it to the swamp, as we were previewing the full moon hike, though a little earlier to get more shots in the light. We’ll have to save that for another EcoAdventure. If you’re going on June 13, the sun will set within the first hour of the hike, and there will be mosquitos. And also ticks. This isn’t out of the ordinary for a hike at this time of the year. But when the moon comes out, you’ll see the Wilderness entirely differently. More strikingly, it will sound different. And, you know, there’ll be that slasher movie plot thing happening.

Coming Up

One value of the Bradwell Bay Wilderness is that, without motorized vehicles or human made structures, the stormwater runoff flowing from it to the Sopchoppy River is clean. We spend a lot of time on our EcoAdventures visiting well preserved, healthy land and water resources. On our last EcoAdventure of the season, we’re going to visit some places where you don’t want to touch the water or eat fish from it. We’re talking drinking water (which is clean) and stormwater. Wait until you see the bodies of water that collect our runoff.

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Red Hills Lakes | Kayak, Hike, & SUP Where Aquifer Recharges

The name Red Hills is perhaps underused by those of us who actually live here. That’s why the folks at Tall Timbers set out to reintroduce us to the area between the Ochlockonee and Aucilla Rivers, from Thomasville to Tallahassee to Monticello. In defining this eco-region and the benefits we receive from living here, I gained a new perspective on our longer running exploration of the Forgotten Coast and its own gifts and uniqueness. I’ve often written about miles of unspoiled coastline and how that benefits our seafood industry. But any large healthy tree has an equally large root system that we don’t see, and for our estuaries these are miles of unspoiled river banks, sloughs, springs, and lakes. In our last EcoAdventure we hiked along sloughs in the backlands of the Apalachicola River floodplain, little fingers reaching into the nutrient rich muck to send it on its way to the bay. In the video above, we visit the lakes of north Leon County, through which water enters the Floridan Aquifer. This is our water, the water I’m drinking as I write this. It’s the water that feeds our springs, such as those that in turn feed the Wacissa River. That water emerges from Wakulla Springs, which flows into the Wakulla River and down to Apalachee Bay.

Michael Hill took me for a spin on Lake Iamonia.

Michael Hill took me for a spin on Lake Iamonia.

This adventure was about more than just the lakes, which were great to kayak and SUP. These lakes are protected by forested land that filters storm water runoff and buffers them from pollution. That’s an ecosystem service the land provides. That’s a value that we receive, as consumers of the water. We also receive the benefit of having the land to visit as parkland or, for the hunters who own private forested lands north of Tallahassee, to hunt animals sheltered in the habitat.

There is often this tension between ecology and economy, a perception that land has more value if it can be sold as real estate or built upon with stores and offices. That’s why there has been a push in recent years to put a dollar amount on ecosystem services. In our collaboration with Randall Hughes and David Kimbro, we’ve cited a study that determined the value of a salt marsh. Tall Timbers has been promoting a similar study conducted at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry an Natural Resources on the services provided by the Red Hills. For a detailed look at how Dr. Rebecca Moore determined the value of services, click here.

The total value of Red Hills ecosystem services determined by the study are $1.136 billion per year.  We focus on groundwater recharge ($229 million) and water supply protection ($615 million) in the video. Another service is pollination, at a value of $60 million. That means that the forested land around town supports pollinating species like bees and butterflies to the advantage of both farmers and us amateur gardeners. Aesthetic value is listed as $163 million.

The one thing that has surprised me the most since I started talking to Tall Timbers about this piece is that much of the forested land providing these services is privately owned. Tall Timbers estimates that there are 445,000 acres of forested land in the greater Red Hills Region. Over 300,000 acres are privately held on largely contiguous quail hunting properties. Many of these properties were purchased in the 1800s and early 1900s, sparing them from logging and preserving old growth coastal plain forest. These forests, and the bobwhite quail that live there, are what drew people here.

The Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy

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Henry L. Beadle on Lake Iamonia, 1924. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

One of the people drawn to the Red Hills was Henry L. Beadle. His hunting plantation on Lake Iamonia is where, in 1958, Tall Timbers was established. It was his desire to have a place to conduct research on fire ecology and its effect on “quail, turkey and other wildlife, as well as on vegetation of value as cover and food for wildlife.” While hunters in the area had made use of fire to manage the longleaf/ wiregrass ecosystems on their property, it wasn’t until fairly recently that it became a mainstream practice (get two land managers together and see if they don’t start trading fire stories). Tall Timbers mission is to “foster exemplary land stewardship” while also “respecting the rights and recognizing the responsibilities of private property ownership.” They are advocates of “smart growth,” development with a broader view of economic feasibility. That means factoring in the value of ecosystem services when planning new development.

Lake Iamonia

It seemed like the appropriate place to begin the adventure. It’s Leon County’s largest natural lake, and it has an interesting hydrology. Michael Hill from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission met us on the lake to talk about the work he and FWC have done to restore the lake. I met Michael for the first time last fall on Lake Lafayette. Like Lakes Iamonia, Jackson, and Miccosukee, Lake Lafayette has a sinkhole that connects to the Floridan Aquifer. All of these lakes had natural dry down cycles, where the lake would cyclically empty and refill. In the early twentieth century, people viewed this draining as an ecological catastrophe.  They set out to “save the lakes.” They built earthen dams to isolate the sinkholes from their lakes. This kept the lakes full, but disrupted much of their ecology. On Lake Lafayette, Michael showed us the effects of a lake not being able to go through its normal drought/ rain cycles. Muck builds up on the bottoms of these lakes, and floating islands of vegetation called tussocks form. This alters the habitat for fish and other species. And removing tussocks is an expensive process involving herbicides and heavy machinery.

Water overflows from the Ochlockonee River on February 27, 2013.

Water flows under the twin bridges on Meridian Road, from the Ochlockonee River into Lake Iamonia.  February 27, 2013.  Photo by Michael Hill, FWC.

Lake Iamonia’s dam failed, however, and the gates were removed. This allowed the lake to dry down again, and for FWC to come in and scrape the muck off of the bottom. “We’d seen that there were two to four feet of Muck,” Michael told a gathered group of Tall Timbers employees. “Muck is aquatic plants. It’s at advanced stages of decomposition.” When the lake dries down naturally, the sun dries the bottom. When it doesn’t, muck accumulates. Seeds start growing in it, and it starts to float on the surface of the water as islands. The fish that spawn on the lake bottom prefer a sandier surface, so muck inhibits them. During Iamonia’s last dry down, FWC removed 23 acres of muck. Last year, they removed 25 more. But just as the lake was full for 40 years, Michael thinks it might take another 40 or 50 more for the muck to completely disappear.

The other interesting feature of the lake is its relationship with the Ochlockonee River. While the river does not flow directly into Lake Iamonia, it does feed the lake by overflowing into it. Michael shared some photos of this flooding, which mainly passes under Meridian Road at the twin bridges that run alongside the lake. Iamonia dries down every seven years, and it is filled by rain and by the flooding Ochlockonee.

Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park

Forested wetlands in Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park

Forested wetlands in Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park.

After we left Michael, we went not to Leon County’s other major lake, but to land adjacent to it. It was a cooperative purchase between the City of Tallahassee and the Northwest Florida Water Management District (NFWMD). “Their interest was the activity centers; the ball fields and the soccer complex,” Said NFWMD’s Tyler Macmillan. “Our interest was a passive recreation area that protected Lake Jackson.” Hiking through when we did, during the rainy season, we saw a variety of water features at Klapp-Phipps Park. The were small creeks and swamps as well as places where stormwater runoff ran alongside or directly on the path. One number I found interesting in the Ecosystem services report was the value of urban/ suburban forested wetlands. Rural forested wetlands are valued around $4,600 an acre annually; those in urban/ suburban areas are valued at $8,200. The reason for the disparity is that urban wetlands are less common and, in a sense, work harder to abate pollution and filter runoff.

For Tallahasseeans who like to hit park trails, these are great. There are miles of trails in this network; it’s not hard to get lost. After years of walking greenways and trails in Tallahassee parks (we have quite a few), I’m surprised it took me so long to find this one.

Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park

After lugging me around Lake Iamonia in a tandem kayak, taking my son Max out on a paddleboard must have been a breeze.

After lugging me around Lake Iamonia in a tandem kayak, taking my son Max out on a paddleboard must have been a breeze for Georgia.

When I think of this park, I think of flowers. And pollen. Years ago when I produced WFSU’s music show, outloud, we brought local zheng player Haiqiong Deng to the gardens to record a few pieces. Spring had just sprung, and after every piece we stopped to wipe a layer of yellow dust off of her instrument and our gear. The combination of music and setting made it one of my favorite episodes of the show, which ran for almost ten years.

The park has much more than these gardens, with miles of trails and Lake Hall, which I managed to not fall into while learning to stand up paddleboard (I do come close, as you can see). It’s a place where you can take your kayak, canoe, SUP, or sailboat and not worry about motorboats. Lake Hall is considered to have some of the best water quality in Leon County. Park manager Elizabeth Weidner told us that in recent years they have installed collection ponds adjacent to the roadways around the park to collect stormwater runoff.

I had a great time exploring these places, and gaining a larger perspective on how water moves through a watershed and beneath us in the aquifer.  We’ll be further expanding upon this theme while we continue to look for great places to spend a day (or more).  I don’t like to jinx myself by saying what we’ll be shooting in the coming weeks, as the weather can be uncooperative (we got the video above on our third try).  Let’s just say we’ve planned a hike in a place with a reputation for being difficult and are heading back to the Apalachicola basin for a seasonal treat.

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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.

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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.