Shortly after we started paddling, we came to this train bridge over the Apalchicola. I was kayaking in a touring boat that I borrowed from Georgia Ackerman, one of the organizers of this expedition. I had never been in this boat before. It was a closed kayak with much less storage room than my kayak, and there was very little distance between me and the water. It was impossible to just drop the paddle in the boat to photograph, which made using two hands challenging. I got so excited when I saw the train crossing the bridge, that the first thing I did was drop my lens cap in the water. It was either that or the paddle or miss photographing the train. Georgia kindly brought me a colorful clean pair of socks when she met us the second day and I used one to protect the lens for the duration of the trip. I may switch to a sock full time on the water. Socks are much harder to lose.
We had a drizzly start to the paddle, which disappointed me a bit. A few days later, I was wishing for the cloud cover we had that day. Our first stop was after 5 miles at Means Creek for a visit with the ranger. The photograph above shows Riverkeeper Dan coming in with our support boat. It was great being able to store things that didn't fit on our kayaks and he brought extra water and other supplies that we needed. There was no place to get water until the second day. It was worth it though, since we didn't see another person on the river until the third day. It was such a special experience to disconnect with society and reconnect with nature so completely.
Ranger Mark told us that Native Americans resided here and planted walnut trees as one of their crops. Torreya is also home to the Torreya Pine, one of the oldest and rarest trees in the world that now only grows in the bluffs and ravines along the Apalachicola River. In the 1800s, there were 600,000 of these trees in the Apalachicola Valley. Today there are only about 200 remaining.
Torreya State Park was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The park is critical for protecting water quality for the Apalachicola, as is the Apalachicola National Forest, and also for preserving native plants and animal species. It was such a special treat to be led through this area, which doesn't even have trails yet, and to see what naturally exists here undisturbed by the hand of man.
As the ranger led us deeper into the woods of this yet to be developed section of Torreya State Park, we saw this spider, many purple blazing star wildflowers, and a giant magic mushroom, on the way to the ranger's special surprise, a cave which those of us who weren't claustrophobic ventured through.
As you can see from the photograph below, the cave we hiked through did not have a very large entrance. We had to duck and feel our way through. I had inadvertently kept my life vest on, which proved to be excellent protection from the sharp rocks (although I looked silly).
As I mentioned in a previous blog, The nearby ravines and bluffs area is one purported site for the garden of Eden. This whole area contains such primeval beauty. However, there is one place that we passed on the first day that has affected the health of the river and valley and that is the Sholz Generating Plant. Through the efforts of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, the Waterkeeper Alliance, and Earthjustice, this plant has been shut down and an agreement has been reached to transfer the coal ash that was being contained in unlined ponds that were leaching into the river to an onsite landfill further from the river and out of the flood zone. However, as the image below shows, they are still releasing toxic effluents into the river.
By lunchtime, the grey skies were beginning to give way to patches of blue and fluffy white clouds. We stopped to picnic at this spot along the banks of the Apalachicola. It felt pastoral here and so peaceful.
This was the first of many floating houses we saw along the river. I quickly became enamored with these structures. A fixer upper can probably be acquired for $20,000, I was told. I am assuming this one was more costly. I doubt there is insurance on these things, but owning one might well be worth the gamble. It would definitely allow you to get away from it all and recharge your batteries on a regular basis
Speaking of relaxing, John Moran was the true Master of the Zen of Paddling (or not paddling) on this trip. This amazing young man joined us on the Rivertrek as part of his research phase for his dissertation at Stanford. I should have realized right away just how much smarter he is than I am and I should have been learning from the start. I did immediately detect he was on to something, but it took me until the third day to truly embrace floating and going with the flow. John mediated and frequently stopped paddling so he could really hear the sounds of the forest. I feel a whole lot better knowing there are young people like him studying the connecting with the environment. Be on the lookout for him in the future.
Before we docked for the night, we came upon this section of the riverbank which shows the limestone Karst. You can see how porous and unstable it is, but also beautiful. The thought that immediately came to mind is that fracking in geology like this is way too risky.
Right next to the porous formations above, I saw this tree with all its roots seemingly exposed. It was still living and making such a valiant effort to endure in harsh circumstances without much visible soil. I always champion lifeforms that keep surviving against all odds.
This is the sandbar we camped on the first night. Unfortunately, we could not camp at Alum Bluff, which I would have loved to have done, as the water was too high and the sandbar was underwater. This sandbar was about a mile north and a fine spot to spend the night.
As the sun began to set, we saw these cattle egrets caught by the light. I was surprised to see them in a place without cattle, but I learned they dwell in woodlands too and are also migratory.
If you have never camped on a sandbar along a river, you have truly missed a special experience. Even though we paddled an average of 22 miles a day, everyone looked about this happy all the time.
I have camped and traveled to many pristine wilderness areas around the country, and I can without hesitation say there is truly something special about the Apalachicola River. When I woke up early the next morning and stepped out of my tent, I was met with an incomparable stillness as color found its way into the sky and the mist rose from the river. The delicate grasses by the river's edge were as motionless as I was, and seemed to be waiting for what possibilities would unfurl with the day.
When the sun did finally rise and hit the trees and house on the the bank opposite the sandbar, it seemed magical. In this light, I wondered if this was the floating house of my dreams. I used to live near the White House in Washington, DC, so my next thought was that whoever takes office should be required to spend a week in this white house to make sure their priorities are straight and they truly understand the importance of preserving rivers and wilderness areas–true treasures in this day and age.