A Journey Down the Apalachicola

Floridian celebrates 60th birthday on solo paddle for riverkeeper organization



Although October mornings in northwest Florida are typically cool and dry, this day 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.

Formed by the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers, the Apalachicola is the largest river in Florida as measured in volumetric flow. From the Georgia-Florida border, it charges through the high bluffs of the Grand Ridge and the Cody Scarp, meanders to the Gulf Coastal Lowlands and discharges into Apalachicola Bay. My destination was the historic port town of Apalachicola, Florida, situated at the mouth of the river—five days and 107 miles downstream.

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 was in October 2007, when I participated in a seven-day group kayaking trip sponsored by the Apalachicola Riverkeeper. That leisurely journey was 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.

The presentations emphasized that the relatively undeveloped Apalachicola River Basin plays a major supporting role in a billion-dollar offshore seafood industry in the Gulf of Mexico. It produces over 90 percent of Florida’s oyster harvest and 13 percent of the nation’s. The river and its surrounding forests, prairies and coastal habitats are recognized by the Nature Conservancy as one of six “biodiversity hotspots” in the United States, supporting more than 1,500 species of native plants and animals, many of which exist only in that region. This system has the highest species diversity of reptiles and amphibians in the United States and Canada, with more than 40 species of amphibians and 80 species of reptiles. In addition, the Apalachicola National Forest, which borders the river, is one of the largest contiguous blocks of public land east of the Mississippi River. I had often heard the Apalachicola River characterized as “a great American treasure,” but, until that paddling trip, I hadn’t fully understood why.

The Apalachicola Bay, moreover, is recognized as an exceptionally valuable and rare estuarine system and has received numerous protective designations (among them, an Outstanding Florida Water and a Florida Aquatic Preserve by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, a National Estuarine Research Reserve by NOAA and a Man in the Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO). I was alarmed, however, to learn about the degradation of the river basin. Over the past 50 years, erosion of the river channel and decreased flow from upstream have caused significant declines in river water levels, which in turn have led to drier conditions in wetland habitats of the adjacent river floodplain. Far less water now moves into the hundreds of miles of floodplain streams, sloughs and lakes that are essential to maintaining healthy populations of fish, mussels and other aquatic life.

The River’s Record

In a well-regarded 2006 report on water-level decline in the Apalachicola River, Helen Light, a scientist who has worked at the U.S. Geological Survey office in Tallahassee since 1979, observed, “Unfortunately, the largest drop in water levels has occurred during spring and summer, which is the most critical time of year for fish reproduction, wetland tree growth and many other important biological processes.” Light pointed out that although previous studies posited that declines caused by channel widening and deepening were limited primarily to the upper 30 miles of the river, “we now know that nearly the entire 86 miles of the non-tidal Apalachicola River and floodplain have been substantially altered by water-level declines caused by channel erosion.”

Although channel erosion caused by the Jim Woodruff Dam’s construction in 1957 stabilized after the 1970s, spring and summer water levels have continued to decline in recent decades because of decreased flow from the upstream watershed. According to Light, the likely causes are climatic changes, reservoir evaporation and a variety of human activities in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, including agricultural irrigation, municipal water use and flow regulation. A series of droughts in the 1980s combined with the growing water demands of large-scale agribusiness and metropolitan Atlanta made it obvious to all stakeholders that the river basin’s limits were being tested.

A water-rights dispute soon erupted. Holding water in reservoirs to quench Atlanta’s thirst would mean less water for hydropower generation downstream and an interruption of the natural flow regime that is essential to the Apalachicola River and Bay ecosystems. Withdrawing more groundwater for agricultural irrigation in the Flint basin would exacerbate the problem. By the late 1980s, the states of Florida and Alabama and the Army Corps of Engineers had become embroiled in litigation challenging Georgia’s efforts to impound and divert more water, and this “water war” remains unresolved. The Apalachicola Riverkeeper has been a strong and persistent voice in this dispute, advocating for ecologically and economically equitable allocation of the freshwater in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint system.

Learning about the Apalachicola River Basin’s uniqueness and richness 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 Apalachicola Riverkeeper’s board of directors and became involved in promoting the organization and its mission. During my second, seven-day, group trip down the river in October of that year, 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, we had conceived the idea of seeking fundraising sponsors for my trip, and called it “RiverTrek.”


In Rhythm with the River

RiverTrek logically linked my advocacy for protecting the river and my personal ambition to experience it solo. A promotional Web site featured a video advocating the benefits and pleasures of paddling the Apalachicola River. We 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 as I paddled downriver and into the thick mist.

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.

What I had not anticipated were the record-breaking heat and humidity levels that were my constant companions on my journey. Heat indexes above 100 degrees each day determined when I would paddle and at what pace. To avoid the most oppressive heat of the day, I arose at 6 a.m. and, after a quick breakfast, broke camp, packed my gear and, as soon as I was able to discern the far bank of the river, began a “sprint” of five to five-and-a-half hours, arriving at my destination between 1 and 1:30 p.m. Fortunately, I had conditioned my upper body well and endured the physical exertion without too much discomfort. Unfortunately, my plans for a more leisurely excursion were derailed.

Paddling at daybreak offered unexpected benefits. As the morning sky brightened, the abundant wildlife began to stir, and I became a quiet and grateful witness to their morning rituals—kingfisher, bald eagle and osprey swooping down on unsuspecting fish near the river’s surface; buck, doe and fawn drinking at the river’s edge; mullet leaping; bass loudly feeding on minnows and aquatic insects under low-lying bushes extending from the river’s banks, while a vigilant mother alligator guarded her brood. In spite of my compressed schedule, I often laid my paddle across the cockpit to watch and listen.

As I continued to paddle, the peace and pace of the natural world gradually displaced the incessant bang and buzz of modern life. As during previous multi-day journeys, my relationship to the river slowly changed from a superficial to a deeply intimate level. By the third day, my breath, heartbeat and paddle-stroke felt completely synchronized with the rhythms of the river.

Hour after fluid hour, I steadily powered my little craft toward each day’s destination and finally into the safe harbor of the town of Apalachicola. In my clear and calm state of mind, I thought of all the people who had sponsored me and hoped they, too, would take the time to learn about the cause and organization their donations supported. I hoped they would value the Apalachicola River Basin as I did and also have the opportunity to learn about the basin more intimately someday.

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.

In addition to serving on the board of directors of Apalachicola Riverkeeper, Earl Morrogh is a writer, photographer, activist and instructional designer.

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