As Apalachicola Riverkeeper’s 2017 RiverTrek prepares for its October launch, former board member Earl Morrogh talks about the how he conceived and executed the very first such trip.
Although October mornings in northwest Florida are typically cool and dry, this particular mid-October day in 2009 had dawned warm and moist. Heavy fog obscured the opposite bank of the Apalachicola River as I slipped into the cockpit of my kayak a few hundred feet downstream from the old Victory Bridge in Chattahoochee. My wife, Judye McCalman, the sole witness to this launching, wished me “Bon voyage!” and I back-paddled away from shore, reversed direction, and turned southward into the main channel of the river. I had embarked on “RiverTrek,” a solo journey to raise funds for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper.
I had just turned 60. For decades, I have paddled kayaks to escape the soul-numbing drone of modern life and immerse myself in natural environments. Early-age forays into the bayous, bald-cypress swamps, and marshes of Louisiana’s vast Atchafalaya Basin nurtured in me a sense of humanity’s niche in the great scheme of life. I came to understand that, in the natural world, I was no more or less significant than any other creature, plant, or rock. This overwhelmingly impersonal fact of nature helped me realize my place. But it is easy to forget those early lessons, so I return to the wild periodically to refresh my memory and restore my spirit.
This was the third time I had paddled the length of the Apalachicola. The first two trips were in October 2007 and 2008, when I participated in seven-day group kayaking trips sponsored by the Apalachicola Riverkeeper. Those leisurely journeys were attended by a powerboat to carry food and gear, and featured daily educational presentations by experts and stakeholders in the Apalachicola River Basin: scientists, activists, commercial fisherman, and timber men.
Learning about the uniqueness and richness of the Apalachicola River Basin and the growing threat to its ecological stability made a deep impression on me. However, it was getting to know the river one stroke at a time that ultimately moved me to become more involved in the Riverkeeper’s mission to provide stewardship and advocacy for the protection of the Apalachicola River and Bay. The group trips down the Apalachicola that Riverkeeper sponsored were based on the premise that to know the river is to love the river, and loving the river leads to wanting to preserve its treasure. I am proof that their premise is valid.
Earlier in 2008 I was elected to the board of directors of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper and became actively involved in promoting the organization and its mission. It was during my second trip that I considered the challenge of paddling it alone. By the end of the trip, I was confident I could do it. By year’s end I had conceived of the paddle-a-thon idea for seeking fundraising sponsors for my 2009 solo trip, and called it “RiverTrek.”
RiverTrek logically linked my advocacy for protecting the river and my personal ambition to experience it solo. A promotional website featured a video advocating the benefits and pleasures of paddling the Apalachicola River. I invited my family members, friends, and colleagues to sponsor me on a per-mile, per-day, or five-day basis, in support of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper’s mission.
A tracking map allowed anyone to follow my progress down the river. My GPS coordinates were updated every 10-to-15 minutes on the Google map by a SPOT tracking device strapped to my kayak, and two green LCD lights blinking in unison assured me that the tracker was successfully signaling my location.
I not only had never paddled the river solo before, but neither had I completed the trip in five days. Based on my average still-water paddling speed of three miles per hour and a calculated one–mile-per-hour boost from the river, I estimated that each 21-mile leg of the trip would take six-to-eight hours, including rest stops, lunch breaks, and time to explore tributaries and observe wildlife.
As a fundraising event for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, RiverTrek was a success and a replicable model for the future. On a personal level, the journey satisfied my desire to break out of the habitual work and social patterns of day-to-day life and reconnect to the natural world. I feel fortunate that my decision to paddle alone at age 60 down a major American river was rewarded by a trip without incident or injury, a victory in my own little battle for the Apalachicola River Basin. Many battles remain, however, to protect and preserve this spectacular natural resource, this great American treasure.