The Apalachicola River issues forth from the Jim Woodruff Dam, at the Florida/ Georgia border. Where the Chattahoochee and Flint once convened without impediment, its waters are now regulated by a system of dams and reservoirs controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers.
That any water would be restricted from entering the Apalachicola is a cause for concern in Florida. And for good reason. The river basin is one of the nation’s greatest biodiversity hotspots. Likewise, Apalachicola Bay was, historically, one of our nation’s most productive estuaries. There’s a lot at stake.
Over the last few years, WFSU has explored this remarkable system through our EcoAdventures and in our National Science Foundation funded In the Grass, On the Reef series. These have been tumultuous years, during which the river basin has suffered record low flows and the collapse of its once great oyster fishery.
The fight for water between Florida, Georgia, and Alabama is well documented. A lot of attention gets paid to the courtroom battles and political grandstanding surrounding this system. Leave all of that (mostly) behind, and join us as we get to know one of Florida’s great ecological treasures.
In 2012, WFSU joined a five day, 107 journey down the Apalachicola with a team of concerned kayakers. RiverTrek is a fundraiser for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, as well as a life changing adventure for its participants. RiverTrekkers do more than paddle the river. They explore tupelo swamps, climb river bluffs, and camp on sandbars by the water.
That year, 2012, just happened to be the year that the Apalachicola oyster fishery crashed after record low flows on the river. When we returned in 2013, the river had been transformed by months of rain. Two years later, in 2015, WFSU producer Rob Diaz de Villegas experienced the river for the first time again- through the eyes of a four year old. Rob’s son, Max, experienced the river and climbed it largest sand spoil: Sand Mountain.
Until 2012, Apalachicola Bay provided 90% of Florida’s oyster harvest. After months of record low flows on the Apalachicola River, the bay saw its oyster fishery come crashing to a halt. Saltier water in the bay led to an explosion of oyster predators. WFSU collaborator Dr. David Kimbro has been researching oyster predators since graduate school. We followed David and his crew as they tested oyster growth and mortality in the bay. They and their collaborators from the University of Florida also sought to create a monitoring system to better predict how river flows affect oyster health.
Exploring the Floodplain and Surrounding Wetlands
The most visible components of the Apalachicola watershed are the river and bay. However, the system feeds a network of wetlands and waterways around the river. Many of these swamps and sloughs spend part of the year disconnected from the river. When the river floods, its total shoreline increases from 106 miles to over 400.
In 2014, Doug Alderson organized a three day hiking trip in protected lands around the river. We joined a team of RiverTrekkers as they explored a floodplain forest. Our adventure was blocked at every turned by flooded sloughs. This made it a great opportunity to talk about sloughs, and their importance to the Apalachicola estuary.
The following year, we joined Jim McClellan for some fishing and hunting on Iamonia Lake, an oxbow of the Apalachicola. This gave us a chance to experience the river with someone who grew up by its waters. Jim is a fifth generation Floridian, and his family’s connection to the river goes back to before the Civil War. In his lifetime, he has seen low river flows affect the river in ways not seen during his family’s time in Calhoun County.
In 2016, we explored the connection between the river delta and the bay with the RiverTrek team. Tate’s Hell is an area full of tupelo swamps, dwarf cypress forests, and other wetlands within the Apalachicola River basin. We kayak Graham Creek and zip through the creeks and distributaries of the delta with the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, gaining a deeper understanding of its importance to the Apalachicola Bay estuary.
The Chipola River
The Chipola River is the primary tributary of the Apalachicola, contributing 15% of the water in the basin. Kayaking the river, one can explore springs, and watch the river disappear into and reappear from the aquifer. The most remarkable section of the river is the Dead Lakes, which we explored in 2014.
One of the headwaters of the Chipola River is Merritt’s Mill Pond. The Mill Pond is fed by seven or so springs, including the first magnitude Jackson Blue Spring. We spent a picturesque fall day here kayaking and peeking into springs.
Further south, we visited one of our area’s most visually remarkable places. In the 1800s, the Apalachicola River flooded and pushed a sandbar across the mouth of the Chipola. This backed up the Chipola, expanding its shoreline and drowning thousands of trees. Many of the trunks remain, creating an erie atmosphere for a day on the water. It even has cool name: the Dead Lakes.
Wewahitchka sits between the Dead Lakes and the Apalachicola, as do a network of tupelo swamps. This makes Wewa, as the locals call it, the tupelo honey capital of the world. Tupelo honey is considered some of the highest quality honey in the world. It has a distinct flavor, and never crystalizes. We kayaked the Dead Lakes, and visited apiaries alongside it.