100,000 Paddle Strokes on the Apalachicola River

by: Doug Alderson, Outdoor & Nature Expert

The first day of River Trek 2012 on the Apalachicola River near Tallahassee, FloridaThick fog. Whiteness. A blank slate. I paddled this same Apalachicola River two years before, 106 miles from Jim Woodruff Dam to Apalachicola in five days as part of the annual Apalachicola RiverTrek. And like the previous trip, I had joined a group raising money for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, and raising awareness about the river's plight. But the thick fog at the launch had already made it different.

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.

This RiverTrek was different in other ways. We had a Tallahassee Democrat reporter with us, Jennifer Portman. Her front-page article about the trip had already helped to raise its visibility. Donations poured in to the tune of almost $18,000. In addition, Rob Diaz 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.

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. In recent years, 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.

Trip highlights included a tour with a state park biologist of a remote section of Torreya State Park that included a small cave. Once a hiking trail is put in place, the area will be open to the public.

Biologist Helen Light gave a lecture about the importance of the river floodplain and normal freshwater flows. According to Helen's decades-long field research, it is not just Apalachicola Bay that the river feeds. During high flows, the river sends water through the many sloughs which, in turn, spreads water into the wide floodplain. That helps to nourish a myriad of fish, invertebrates and other life forms. The river's floodplain, the largest in Florida, is what feeds Apalachicola Bay with vital nutrients. Stop or diminish this cycle and the bay and the system's incredible biodiversity suffers.

We also toured the Nature Conservancy's Alum Bluff area with a highly enthusiastic field biologist named Annie Schmidt. The Conservancy is doing an impressive job of restoring upland areas to the native longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem and their results should give hope to other restoration efforts throughout the South.

Speaking of biodiversity, Bryan Desloge found two impressive venomous snakes by almost stepping or sitting on them: a brightly colored copperhead across from Alum Bluff and a large cottonmouth moccasin that was stained a tan-orange color by river mud. The Apalachicola is one of the only places in Florida where copperheads can be found and Bryan found it while changing clothes near our campsite. "My political career is over," he joked after being interviewed on camera by Rob. "I described how I pulled down my pants and jumped back from a snake!" He scared up the cottonmouth by sitting on a rotten log during a lunch break. Both snakes showed no signs of aggression, fortunately. Copperheads, especially, are known for striking out immediately when threatened, although they often inject little venom for these warning bites.

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. We took frequent swims on sandbars during hot afternoons and we climbed the four-story Sand Mountain, created by the Army Corps of Engineers during their multi-year dredging operations. The practice ceased in 2002 because it wasn't cost-effective, especially in light of the environmental harm it was causing.

"In my mind this river will always be here," concluded participant Micheal Taber at trip's end in Apalachicola. "Nothing I learned on this trip seems to deny that fact. But I am so proud I got to participate in an event to help keep LIFE on the Apalachicola."
On the way home, my body felt like it had been through a washing machine and spit out. Participant Rick Zelznak, spouse of trip organizer Georgia Ackerman, estimated that we had done 100,000 paddle strokes. I wondered how much longer I could do these marathon type trips, where every day is twenty-plus miles, and paddling into a headwind against the tide on the last day made it seem like forty. I turned to participant Alex Reed, who was preparing for an Iron Man competition in Panama City Beach where she will run a 26-mile marathon, bike more than a hundred miles, and swim two-and-a-half miles-all within 17 hours! "How do you feel?" I asked.

She shook her head. "I'm whooped." Then, she added, "But it's a good type of tired."

That made me feel better. I knew the soreness and stiffness would soon be replaced by memories of glinting kayaks, soaring eagles, and warm camaraderie. A moment in time that can never be re-created again, not exactly, for every trip has elements and conditions that make it unique. 

Looking for more?