By Doug Alderson
Perhaps fog is the perfect symbol for adventure. You can’t see far ahead. Obstacles come into view quickly—shoals, islands, rocks, bridges, rusted heaps of steam ships along the opposite shore. Stop for a moment and your companions are lost in the mist. Only their excited voices carry. Swallowing fog. Engulfing.
That’s how the 2012 Apalachicola RiverTrek started—in thick fog. Eleven participants embarked from Chattahoochee for a five-day kayaking trip to Apalachicola, wondering what lay ahead.
Included in our group that year was a Tallahassee Democrat reporter, Jennifer Portman. Her front-page article about the trip had already helped to raise its visibility. Donations poured in. In addition, Rob Diaz de Villegas with WFSU television was documenting the entire trip and a WFSU camera man was aboard a boat with Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire. Another paddler, Leon County Commissioner and Florida Association of Counties president Bryan Desloge, also helped to raise the trip’s profile.
As the fog began to clear, turtles slid quietly off logs. Great blue herons lumbered away. Gar and other fish kissed the moving plane of water. Crows—a murder of them—called raucously.
If you’ve been following the Apalachicola saga, you know the river has been starved of freshwater by Alabama and Georgia, causing fish populations and other organisms to decline and bringing about the near collapse of Apalachicola Bay’s oyster fishery. Yet, it is still beautiful and dynamic, and it has the strongest flow of any Florida river. And part of the Apalachicola’s wonder lies beyond its immediate shores. We explored narrow side creeks that had carved deep paths through limestone bedrock, gazed in wonder at a small Torreya tree—the rarest and most endangered conifer in the world—and climbed the immense Alum Bluff to tromp through restored longleaf uplands with an enthusiastic field biologist.
During the long days of paddling, we watched numerous bald eagles, including two adults with a juvenile eagle. I assumed fishing lessons were occurring. I also paddled into a headwind alongside a migrating monarch butterfly. Once the wind died, the monarch flew faster than I could paddle.
Floating, paddling, floating, paddling, it takes hours to make a twenty-plus mile day, and so the river was the moving canvas of expression and life. Even with a group of eleven paddlers, you can find yourself alone on a long day. You may have paused to observe a bird or to take a pit stop, and the others have suddenly become distant specks. Thoughts, songs, and memories come more readily. Soaring bald eagles seem to have added relevance.
But there are inherent risks in paddling the Apalachicola River for five days. Simply, you begin to care. Deeply. And a certain level of frustration emerges. It’s like falling in love with a person who has a life-threatening illness, a disease that is curable but with remedies that seem just out of reach. For solutions to become accessible, it means moving a collective mountain of attitudes that borders on ignorance and uncaring. The upriver masses of people may have heard something about oysters dying, but what does that have to do with lush green lawns in Atlanta? Or golf courses, water parks, swimming pools, fountains, and artificial waterfalls? And what about south Georgia farmers who water and water and water without employing readily available techniques that use precious water in the most efficient manner? To save the Apalachicola River and Bay, it takes education and political will. And maybe more people who will carve out five days from their lives to paddle the entire river.
Doug Alderson is co-coordinator of Apalachicola RiverTrek. He is also an award-winning author of several published books, including Waters Less Traveled, Wild Florida Adventures, and The Great Florida Seminole Trail. In the spring of 2015, he was awarded the first ever Environmental Leadership Award by Paddle Florida.