In 2012, WFSU-TV began participating in Apalachicola Riverkeeper’s RiverTrek fundraiser. RiverTrek is a five day kayak adventure down the length of the Apalachicola River. Participants camp on sandbars and explore the floodplain around the river. Along the way, experts provide insights into the inner workings of the river, its wetlands, and Apalachicola Bay.
The bay had traditionally been one of the most productive estuaries in the country. However, in 2012, low flows on the river crippled Apalachicola’s oyster fishery. This fishery had once produced 90% of Florida’s oyster harvest. 2012, coincidentally, was the first year that WFSU producer Rob Diaz de Villegas kayaked the river for RiverTrek. It was also the first year of WFSU’s National Science Foundation funded In the Grass, On the Reef project, which focused heavily on oyster research. In the years following, the WFSU Ecology Blog has examined the causes of the fishery crash and the recovery of the bay. We’ve also sought to increase the public’s understanding of the Apalachicola River and Bay system.
After kayaking the length of the river in 2012, we’ve returned for shorter stints in subsequent years to further explore the river basin.
Apalachicola Riverkeeper is a member driven organization that negotiates with officials and organizations with a stake in the Apalachicola/ Chattachootchee/ Flint basin. Their goal is to ensure adequate water flow to the many ecologically and economically sensitive habitats dependent on the river basin.
A harsh dry spell enacts the Army Corps on Engineers’ drought protocol for the Apalachicola/ Chattahoochee/ Flint basin. This keeps more water in the two Georgia rivers; the Flint and Chattahoochee are the source of the Apalachicola. The Corps manages the river’s flow through the Jim Woodruff Dam and a network of reservoirs. During a ten month span starting in May of 2012, the Corps restricts water flows to 5000 cubic feet per second. It is the driest recorded period in the history of the Apalachicola, with dire consequences for bay.
RiverTrek Part 1
On days 1 and 2, the trekkers paddled the upper Apalachicola, camping and resting on wide sandbars overlooked by tall river bluffs. They explored the area around the river as well, where a hike in Torreya State Park led to impromptu spelunking. Also, the trekkers climb Alum Bluff, the tallest river bluff in Florida.
RiverTrek Part 2
Record low water flow’s on the Apalachicola River crashed Florida’s leading oyster producer. Trekkers, oystermen, and the Riverkeeper himself reflected on the state of the river and bay. On Days 3 through 5, the paddlers left behind tall bluffs and scale the largest testament to Army Corps of Engineers dredging of the river- Sand Mountain.
In February of 2013, the river basin starts receiving much needed rain. This changes the look of the river for the 2013 RiverTrek, swallowing sand bars and allowing us access deeper into surrounding wetlands.
RiverTrek 2013, Part 1: Garden of Eden, Apalachicola River
Before the kayak trip is set to begin, we hike the Garden of Eden Trail to arrive at Alum Bluff. It is the tallest river bluff in Florida and the best view of the Apalach. Once on the water, we find the river higher and faster than in 2012.
RiverTrek 2013, Part 2: The Apalachicola’s Bluffs & Tupelo Swamps
RiverTrekkers arrive at Alum Bluff to see it has a new facial scar. And, taking advantage of this year’s higher water, we kayak deeper into a “quintessential” tupelo swamp- Sutton Lake.
WFSU did not participate in RiverTrek 2014. However, WFSU Ecology producer Rob Diaz de Villegas did camp with the Trekkers on the final night of their adventure. And, he brought along his three-year-old son Max. When Max was one, Daddy left for five days to explore a place that became to Max a land of endless adventure- the Apalachicola River basin. Read Rob’s account of Max’s first exposure to the Apalachicola, camping at Owl Creek and kayaking out of the creek with the Trekkers as they joined the main river channel and completed their adventure. It was a prelude to what would become the greatest adventure of Max’s young life:
One year later, Max got a RiverTrek adventure of his own. WFSU Ecology Producer Rob Diaz de Villegas took his four-year-old son along for two days of the RiverTrek 2015 adventure. The literal high point was when Max scaled Sand Mountain- a dream of his since his dad did it in 2012. We also joined the Apalachicola River riders on their inaugural bike trek along the river.
The first day of RiverTrek takes us through a region of the river known as the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines. It’s a uniquely un-Florida geology, and one that offers clues to our area’s ancient past. Geologist Harley Means finds dugong bones in Means Creek and, at Alum Bluff, has found teeth belonging to the largest shark species ever known. It’s a story over 20,000,000 years in the making.