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Big River: the Apalachicola

Two weeks ago the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition paddled the lower Apalachicola River system downstream for five days to Apalachicola Bay at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. Winter has been chilly and wet in north Florida, and Week 6 of the Expedition was the coldest we’ve yet experienced, with rain, wind and sub-freezing temperatures across the region. The budding branch-ends teased of the coming spring, but the windchill while paddling and the ice layer frozen to our tents and boats each morning asserted that we were still weeks away from the warmth that people usually associate with Florida.

Carlton Ward photographs the night sky from camp, a sandbar on the Apalachicola River in Florida. (Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.)
Carlton Ward photographs the night sky from camp on a sandbar along the Apalachicola River in Florida. (Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.)

We sought temporary shelter from the wind as we left the big river to cut over to the Dead Lakes, a part of the Chipola River that is cloaked in mystery. The lakes are full of relic cypress stumps and skeleton tree trunks, several of which have osprey nests where there were once branching tree tops. Spanish moss drapes the living cypress and dances wildly in the wind, adding cartoonish character the spooky landscape.

Cypress trees in the Dead Lakes. (Photo by Mallory Dimmitt)
Cypress trees in the Dead Lakes. (Photo by Mallory Dimmitt)

When we returned to the mainstem of the Apalachicola, wider now, I focused in on the impressive mix of species lining the banks. The trees, bare of their leaves, allow a view from our kayaks into the floodplain forest that is mostly impenetrable the rest of the year. The famed lushness of the region supports the local lore that the Garden of Eden was located somewhere on the Apalachicola River. Several local places names contain Eden references, and you get a sense that people are still able to support themselves here from nature’s bounty. I gawk at the tupelo trees that local beekeepers rely on for tupelo honey, a delicacy of this region, and I see signs of hunting, fishing, and timber harvesting.

Eden, a poem by Kathleen Raine from the collection The Oracle In The Heart.
Eden, a poem by Kathleen Raine from the collection The Oracle In The Heart.

You have a lot of time to think when you’re paddling thirty miles in one day, and I passed some of it by pondering all of the many factors that contribute to the species richness of this region. The Apalachicola basin is one of the nation’s six biodiversity hotspots, it’s fertile floodplains and waters supporting supporting hundreds of species of plants, birds, mammals, and more reptile and amphibian species than anywhere else in the U.S. and Canada. Most of these animals are hidden from view in the cold weather, but I have visited the point of origin of this river system in the heat and humidity that cloaks the green ridges of the north Georgia mountains in late August. I conjured up images of the spring at the top of the watershed, just a few hundred feet down the from Appalachian Trail at Chattahoochee Gap. I imagined the water’s journey as it erodes the southern end of the ancient mountains and carries their life sustaining sediments to flood these forests, where it then picks up and transport additional nutrients to ultimately feed the Bay and the Gulf beyond.

Third generation oysterman Kendall Schoelles tongs for oysters in the dawn light in St. Vincent Sound, the western edge of Apalachicola Bay. (Photo by Mallory Dimmitt)
Third generation oysterman Kendall Schoelles tongs for oysters at dawn in St. Vincent Sound, part of Apalachicola Bay. (Photo by Mallory Dimmitt)

The shaping forces of these waters and the livelihoods that they support are awe-inspiring, and I’m grateful to get to experience the very top and the very bottom of this river basin. Yet I can’t help but worry that this Eden is in trouble, the vital freshwaters flows reduced by a growing human population’s thirst for water. Apalachicola Bay, the downstream most point in the system, has been in a state of decline that is roughly inversely proportionate to Atlanta’s growth. Florida is in a 20-plus year legal battle with Georgia and Alabama, a fight over water where nature continues to suffer while the court deliberates. The once-thriving oyster industry in the Bay has shriveled, fueling a ripple effect of hardships for the community. We spend the morning with an oysterman working his lease, tonging for hours to come up with a bag and half of the once abundant bivalves. We’re rewarded with raw oysters and roasted ones over a fire on the beach, a salty-sweet ending to our Apalachicola River journey.