A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to visit Apalachicola again and Dan Tonsmiere, the wonderful Riverkeeper there took me for a boat trip. Before we went out, I went to the bridge to watch the sunrise. What an amazing treat . The colors and reflections were simply amazing. This river and area are filled with such beauty and are still relatively pristine by standards of other waterways. Being located along the Forgotten Coast and being somewhere that you never would pass through and only come to because that is the only place you planned on visiting, they do not have a population problem. They are still very much able to keep a small town appeal and have balanced tourism with a working class community, so that the unique individuality of this charming town has not been lost. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the oyster industry. I will be posting a separate blog about that.
As we set out towards the mouth of the river in the Apalachicola Bay, we passed by the riverfront which still looks very much like it always has. The sunlight hitting the buildings made these dilapidating buildings look beautiful. as they cast gold and rust shadows onto the water.
There were so many brown pelicans and shorebirds on Bird Island, crammed shoulder to shoulder along the beach and in the water. I saw immediately that this island and entire estuary are critical to their health and survival.
Next Dan took me to the Delta. On the way there, we passed an intersection with a stop sign. This is what constitutes a high traffic area in Apalchicola. No wonder I want to move there. Dan says they welcome tourists but to stay there, you have to be approved. I think he was kidding, but if he wasn't I hope I'm on the list! I did just get approved to kayak the entire river in October, as part of an Apalchicola Riverkeeper Fundraiser.
We took the boat into East Bay, which was a prolific area for catching oysters until the industry collapsed. On the one hand, I was so happy looking at the water. It seemed so clean. The grasses were green and healthy and floated freely in the water, instead of being weighed down by the algae and green slime I have seen in other rivers. Yes, I kept thinking, this is what water should look like. It felt good and healthy to be on the water there. I wanted to eat seafood that came from this bay and all the others in the basin. And yet, the oysters industry has been in a decline for the past five years from not enough fresh water. Dan told m it was not the excess salt water itself that harmed the oysters. The problem is that too much salt water allows in predators that previously would have been restricted to the Gulf. Besides contributing to the seafood industry, (according to one statistic Apalachicola once supplied over 90 percent of Florida oysters and 10 percent of the oysters nationwide), oysters also serve another very important function. They filter the water, so the health of the ecosystem comes down to the health of the oysters.
The image above shows just how many oysters have been found in this area in an industry that is more than a century old. Four and five generations of families were oyster fisherman. After the BP spill in 2010, the area was over-harvested. Then they suffered a drought and in 2012 the industry collapsed. They got Federal funding to re-shell, so that the spat would have somewhere to live. This is one of the last areas in the country where oysters are hand-harvested with tongs. It is both an industry and a way of life. It has been hard for the Bay to bounce back because the Apalachicola River has been involved in legal disputes over the diversion of water to Georgia and Alabama.
The people who live and fish here do not want to leave. They love the pristine natural conditions of this area and living with the land. In every direction we looked, there was so much natural beauty. Though there were water hyacinths here, they did seem to be contained and had not overrun the sawgrass. Alligators, like the one below, made there home in nests they carved out along the water's edge.
Dan took me to many other beautiful locations upriver a bit. This was one of my favorites. We went through this gorgeous tunnel of trees to a hidden lake. I believe this is when I told him I wished I had his job, though I know it involves a lot of hard work and dedication. At least he never has any doubts about the value of what he is trying to save.
When we came through the tunnel of trees and out to the other side, this was the small island we encountered. It was all so lush and healthy-looking and inviting. Such places deserve to continue to flourish.
Another reason the Apalchicola River is so important is that it is one of the few rivers where Tupelo trees exist, the others being the Chipola and the Oclocknee Rivers. The strand along the Apalachicola River is the largest in the world. Tupelo trees produce a delicious honey that is unparalleled in my opinion.
There were a few more must sees on Dan's list including this osprey nest, which he considers the most picturesque along the Apalachicola River. I certainly couldn't argue with him.
Dan told me there were chicks in the nest that the osprey was watching over.
With the oyster industry in decline, though hopefully rebounding if more fresh water makes its way into the river, Dan recognizes that the area needs tourists to visit. He would like them to come and go by train, to make less of an impact on the fragile and incredibly diverse ecosystem here. He took me to see an old train bridge spanning the river as our last stop. I would love to make Apalchicola my last stop, though I am still waiting to hear if I pass the test or will be sent back by train.
Here are a couple of photos of Dan Donsmiere, the Riverkeeper for the Apalachicola River, who works tirelessly on behalf of this river and so graciously showed me around. I am so grateful to him and all the river and waterkeepers who understand the importance of drinkable, swimmable, fishable water to our health and the health of the planet.
Before I left, I saw an very interesting sunset along Scipio Creek. Right before it went down, the sun was only visible in the water and not in the sky. It's reflection must have been made possible because of the small crack in the clouds.
As the last rays of light disappeared, I prayed that climate change and disputes over water usage would not lead to the waning health of this beautiful river and bay and the lifestyle that it has made possible for generations.
My last morning, I woke up and sat on the deck and watched this beautiful sailboat heading out at dawn. Though it was not an oyster boat, and those mostly remained on shore, I was still filled with hope seeing this sight. The beauty of this area, the richness of its ecosystem, and its importance to the entire Gulf of Mexico are being recognized by more and more people who will fight to save this river and this way of life...