Graham Creek: A Nonbinary Paddle
By Chris Watkins
Graham Creek is a mystical place, running through a tupelo-cypress swamp, lined on all sides by wide-based, twisting and knobby trees that remind one of long, warty witches’ noses. The black, tannic tupelo tea of the stream has almost no perceptible current, so the paddle strokes of myself and my fellow kayakers disturbed what seemed like centuries of silence. Should you go where we went, you will quite literally be floating on life and death, as if you were paddling into the land of faery.
I’d been meaning to paddle Graham creek for about a year before scouting and helping to lead Apalachicola Riverkeeper’s Eco Outing there. I’d first noticed the creek after driving over the put-in, just off of Highway 65 while on my way to St. George Island. So I was incredibly excited when Dani Davis, Riverkeeper’s outreach director, asked me if I might come along and scout the next eco outing trip. Our mission was simple: find out where the creek stopped being a creek and turned into the floodplain (so as to not take less-experienced paddlers too deep into the swamp on our official trip).
We had no predetermined turn-around point, we just paddled until it felt natural to stop, ducking under fallen branches and sometimes under whole trees, still living, their roots bobbing in the water. We squeezed our kayaks through narrow passages, at some points abandoning the use of our paddles altogether in favor of using nearby tree trunks to push and pull ourselves through the watery maze. I could see how Cebe Tate, the namesake of Tate’s Hell—which Graham Creek runs through—had become lost on his now-infamous panther chase through the swamp. Luckily, we had the experience and guidance of Riverkeeper Cameron Baxley and didn’t fear ending up like Tate who, legend says, became lost in the swamp, was bit by a snake, and after several days, stumbled out of the wilderness in just enough time to speak, with dying breath, the words, “My name is Tate, and I’ve been through hell.” To be quite honest, as exciting as the legend is, I’ve always hated the name Tate’s Hell—the place seems more a heaven to me. I think the others who paddled there would agree. Ten paddlers went out to Graham on October’s Eco-Outing, and for a while, I didn’t know how I could give a worthwhile account of our experience—Graham, like all of the Apalachicola watershed, is such a special place and I think each of us got something unique out of being there. In the end, I thought the best thing I could do was to share my perspective of that place as a queer person, the way the creek flowed for me that day.
I’m a nonbinary individual; I go by they/them pronouns, and I don’t think of myself as a man or a woman, purely masculine or feminine, but somewhere in-between. Nonbinary people are part of the trans spectrum, and trans people, especially lately, have had a horrible time in Florida. Still, I love this state, and I think of places like Graham Creek as fundamentally nonbinary, queer places. Not quite land or water, but somewhere in between. A creek, but also a floodplain. Fresh water, but tidally influenced. I see most of Florida (the places left undeveloped) as fundamentally queer spaces. Even the way many people are uncomfortable with wetlands (like Tate’s Hell) reminds me of the way so many cis people are uncomfortable with nonbinary and trans people like me; I think it has to do with the fact that we are both not easily defined, not easily categorizable within society’s acceptable parameters. The borders of a wild river and its floodplain/wetlands aren’t definite; this makes development difficult and housing all but impossible. That’s why we dam rivers (I’ve always thought it more than coincidental that dam and damn are homonyms); that’s why we dredge them (a problem still seriously effecting the Apalachicola). We want to make them predictable, straight (again, a homonym not lost on my queer mind). We want our rivers and our people to fit neatly into predetermined, acceptable categories. But that’s not how nature works.
As a queer storyteller, I felt a responsibility to tell the story of Graham as a queer place. I also have a more obvious responsibility to Graham Creek as a paddler. When I go there, I need to keep it clean, leave no trace, pick up any trash I find. And with that responsibility comes a responsibility to the wider watershed. If I want Graham Creek clean and lively, I need the Apalachicola clean and lively. I need the river to be flooded with the glorious, life-giving water so often blocked up by the Jim Woodruff Dam. I have a responsibility to interact with my local government, to vote, and to support organizations like the Apalachicola Riverkeeper. And if I want to keep the Apalachicola system clean, I also have a responsibility as a national/global citizen. If I want to protect this river, I need to protect the climate. I need to interact with my national government; I need to vote there, too, and to think about who will do good for my river at all levels. Paddling Graham Creek, I began to really understand what I’d been told by Riverkeeper staff about how the Apalachicola is not just a river. It is an entire floodplain, and the bay connected to it. The Apalachicola River system is by no means a binary place, and while that can be difficult to understand at first, I promise it’s worth it to try. The best way to begin that process is to go out and see the water, in your own kayak or on an Eco-Outing with the Riverkeeper. I hope to see you out there!
Chris Watkins grew up on the banks of Illinois’s largest dam-built lake and has been in search of clearer, wilder waterways since. Chris moved to Tallahassee in 2020 to complete a Ph.D. in poetry at Florida State University. While there, they fell in love with Florida water and have written extensively about the state’s rivers and springs, sinks and aquifers, the marshes and swamps, sloughs, coastlands, and tides. Chris joined the 2023 RiverTrek team.