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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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Father & Son Wakulla River Adventure

Having just finished a video and blog post on Wakulla Springs, WFSU Ecology Producer Rob Diaz de Villegas heads down the Wakulla River with a novice EcoAdventurer. As kid's lives become ever more entwined with technology, many have lost a connection with the outdoors that had once been a staple of childhood. With that in mind, Rob brought his son Max, hoping to build a love of water in him.
Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

“Is this the road to the Apalachicola River?” Max asks as we come to the flashing red lights where Highway 98 crosses our path.

“Well, actually, yes,” I tell him.  “But today we’re going to the Wakulla River.”

To Max, all rivers are the Apalachicola.  For five days in 2012, daddy left home and went kayaking to make some videos on that river.  I had left home for conferences and out of town shoots before, but here was something that the then one-year-old Max could understand- daddy was going down a river in a kayak.  At the end of that trip, as we rolled into Apalachicola the town, I could make out the shapes of a toddler and an adult walking down the floating dock by Veteran’s Park.  It was a sight that ranked up there with Alum Bluff, the Dead Lakes, and Sand Mountain in my mind’s Mount Rushmore of RiverTrek 2012 (an annual fundraiser for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper).  I knew then that when he was old enough, I would make the trip with him.  We’re not tackling the 106 mile Apalachicola just yet, though.  Today, we’re traversing a much more manageable six miles of the Wakulla.

Max and I are on our way to San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park to meet RiverTrek coordinator Georgia Ackerman and new ‘Trekker Katie McCormick.  When we get there, a gaggle of blue shirted volunteer types crowd the entrance.

“Are you here for the Coastal Cleanup?” asks a park ranger as we walked up.  Ah yes, Coastal Cleanup Day today.

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The convergence of the Wakulla and St. Marks Rivers at San Marcos de Apalache.

We have a little time to kill before Georgia shows up with the boats, so I take Max to the convergence of the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers, which is just off the southern tip of the park.  We stand there looking at where the rivers flow into productive marshlands, buoys of all colors bobbing over hidden crab traps.  Max sees a way to get down closer to the muddy bank, and I follow him down.  I smile at myself for his wanting to get closer to the water, and closer to the muck.  That’s why I wanted to bring him today.

A couple of days earlier, the organizers of the Sharing Water Conference came by WFSU-FM to appear on Perspectives.  I chatted with them afterwards.  These are mostly retired folks; their childhoods perhaps different than those of kids today.  “When we were kids,” Jack Carswell said, ” our parents would just send us outside and we’d go play in creeks.”  Dr. Anne Holt recalled a recent excursion into Monticello’s new urban forest park, a patch of forest near the center of town.  She was walking behind two high school girls doing volunteer work to get the park ready.

“I’m scared.  Are you scared?” One girl asked.

“Yes.” the other replied.

Dr. Holt is incredulous.  “They’re just a few blocks from the courthouse, and they’re scared.” It’s not news that kids spend too much time on screens, that they don’t exercise enough.  And at a time when issues related to climate, water, and ecological resources are at the center of major legislation, voters are becoming more out of touch with the out of doors.  That’s why Main Street Monticello Florida made registration to the Sharing Water Conference free, and why they want a younger crowd to take interest.

When I decided to take Max on a kayak trip, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about his one day being a well informed voter when it came to water issues.  Not just yet, anyway.  I just wanted him to be out there.

max-in-kayakGeorgia picked our trip route for the day.  At six miles, it would take 2-3 hours depending on our pace.  This would give us a little more time than our previous Lake Bradford canoe jaunts.

On any paddling trip, you have to figure out your shuttling arrangement- whose car is at the put in spot and whose is at the take out, and how do all of the people and boats get back to where they need to go.  Paddling with a three year old presents one additional challenge, which is making sure a car seat is wherever Max is.  This is why we ended up strapping it to the back of the kayak.  My dry bag almost covered it; we had to wrap the rest in garbage bags.  Kayaking with a Fred Sanford chic.

Having figured out the car seat question, packing was simple.  Plenty of water, plenty of snacks, plenty of sunscreen.  And of course a personal flotation device.  We shuttle to our put in spot at the upper Wakulla bridge, where another group of coastal cleanup volunteers looks ready to start.

We head out in a tank of a tandem, a good sturdy boat.  Georgia gave Max a kid’s paddle, which he initially pokes into the water but mostly just holds.  I realize that it had been a year since we had taken Max out on a canoe, before the baby.  Then, Max sat in his pregnant mother’s lap.  I notice him sitting in the front cockpit by himself, and I notice that he isn’t his usual animated self.

“The kayak’s wobbling,” he says.

“It’ll do that a little,” I tell him.  But this kayak really is a big, heavy vessel.  I see a motor boat coming up ahead, and I warn Max so that the wake won’t startle him.  The ripples barely move us.

manatee-signMoving down the river, we see signs posted from people’s docks asking motor boats to slow down for manatees.  I have told Max that seeing them is a possibility, reminding him that we’ve seen them on the Wakulla Springs boat tour and that this is the same river.  But I don’t want to get his hopes up.

After about an hour, we approach the 98 bridge, this time from the water. Georgia tells us that this is a good spot for a bathroom break.  Before the bridge there is a man in what looks like a kid’s kayak, his toes dangling in the water.  He’s smoking a cigarette.  I speed up to get Max past the smoke.

When we get to the other side of the bridge, I park the boat and ask if he has to go.

Don’t I know any better?  Before bed, before school, or before a car trip, I don’t ask.  I tell him that it’s time to go.  But this time, I ask, and he says “No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

The man in the small green kayak comes up.  “I’ve been out here since four,” he says.

“See any manatees?” We ask him.

“I saw five, a family of five.”

“Nice!”

“Do you have a personal flotation device?” Georgia asks.

“I’m an adamant swimmer,” The man says.

“By law you’re required to wear one when you’re on the water.  FWC is patrolling, and you’ll get fined.  I’m not trying to bust your chops, I just want you to know.”

The man is unfazed by Georgia’s warning.  As we paddle away, she says “Being an ‘adamant’ swimmer doesn’t do you any good if you get knocked unconscious.”

We paddle another half-an-hour and Max says. “I have to go to the bathroom.”  This was entirely predictable.  We find a spot for him and I try to get him to go, but he won’t.  He holds it, and doesn’t mention it again.

There’s not too much for him to do in the kayak.  We have little chats.  I mention birds I see- a cormorant swimming, a kingfisher attacking the water.  He doesn’t say anything.  He starts looking a little drowsy.  His little brother has been waking up in the night, crying.  First tooth. None of us has slept well.

max-pucks-upThen he sees Katie pickup a Natural Light can, and he’s filled with purpose.  Georgia has given him a pick-up tool, a pole with a claw, for Coastal Cleanup Day.  I steer us close to the riverbanks to look for trash.  We don’t see any.  “When the river gets high, the trash gets pushed off the shorelines,” I tell him.  When I see a styrofoam cup in some tall grasses, it’s a small relief.

The cup is really in there though, and the little grabber keeps catching grass.  I worry that we’ll do more damage than good getting it out, but I also know how upset he’ll be if we leave it there.  I knock the cup closer to Max with my paddle, and he grabs it.  He’s done a tiny something to clean up the river.  All that’s left is to see a manatee.

And we do.  Sort of.  Katie spots a mother and a calf right by her kayak, under the water.  We all start to paddle backwards against the current to see if we can spot them again, and we do see them surface briefly upriver.   They’re much faster than you would expect.  And then, a little closer to St. Marks, as we start seeing buoys again, a small dolphin pops up ever so briefly.  The dolphin senses that it’s surrounded by food, but the food is stuck in a most inconvenient package.

These are our encounters with the marquee sightseeing animals.  That’s often how it goes; we see these brief flashes of the “cool” animals.  Sometimes we get more.  The trip is not about manatees or dolphins.  We can go to an aquarium for that.  We’re here to experience a river.

When we get back to San Marcos de Apalache, Max is back to running around.  He seems more awake.  His trip has amounted to picking up a styrofoam cup, falling asleep, holding his pee, and not quite seeing the cool animals the adults are talking about.  It’s hard to gauge how much he really enjoyed the day.  I leave a little disappointed.  For two years, he’s had this mythical idea about the amazing adventures you can have while kayaking a river.  I felt like I had burst that myth.

But then later, he’s talking about wanting to go kayaking again,  and camping.  He wants to go to the Apalachicola.

I remember him as a baby on walks, staring at trees.  Max, like his brother is now, was an interactive baby.  He paid very close attention to adults, and was always responsive when we talked to him.  Except on walks.  Reclined in his stroller, he’d stare up at the canopy of trees overhanging the sidewalk, barely noticing us.  He had long stretches of stillness on the river as well, and I’d wonder, “Is he bored?”  But he has a way of taking things in, this kid.  At one point he called a cypress tree “beauty-ful.”

Like it or not, this kid has years of kayak, hiking, and camping trips ahead of him.  I accept that he may not grow into a person who loves nature like I do.  But if he doesn’t, it won’t be because his parents didn’t expose it to him.

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A few things I learned about paddling with a small child:

  1. Pick a stress free trip.  Pick a river/ lake you know (or in my case, go with a person who knows it really well, or plan a trip with an outfitter).  You want to be able to focus on your child’s comfort and enjoyment.  The goal, at least my goal, is to give them a taste of these activities.
  2. Pick a shorter trip with opportunities to stop.  Before this trip, I had taken Max to Lake Bradford a couple of times, renting a canoe cheaply for an hour and taking him past the panther enclosure at the Tallahassee Museum.  Today’s trip was longer but there was an opportunity to stop (even if I didn’t properly take advantage).
  3. Bring water & snacks, and keep them accessible.  I packed the snacks far up in Max’s cockpit, and when he wanted his banana, he had to reach the snack bag with his feet and kick it to himself.  Bad Daddy!
  4. Personal flotation device.  This is obvious for a child, and as Georgia mentioned, is required of everyone.
  5. Shuttling with a car seat.  If you have an extra, that’s best.  Or you can take a round trip.  Or, you know, what I did.
  6. Toys/ activities.  This is one I struggled with, as I didn’t want to bring anything that would get dropped.  Georgia brought the pick up tool and a water squirter.  I have some different ideas for the next trip, which is hopefully next week.  What other kinds of toys have any of you brought for kids on longer trips?
  7. Have fun.  I wanted Max to try using his paddle a little more, but I wasn’t going to push him.  The last thing I need to do is turn him off of paddling.

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Wewahitchka: Dead Lakes Kayaking and Tupelo Adventure

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

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The Dead Lakes: October 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bee hives in Wewahitchka

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

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

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

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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.