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Fl Wildlife Corridor Expedition Braves the Icy Apalachicola

Feb 24, 2015

WUSF is following the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition as they bike, hike and kayak from Central Florida through the Panhandle to the Alabama state line. The three conservationists recently kayaked down the Apalachicola River. It's at the heart of a water war pitting three states that has reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. We met up with the group and paddled 50 miles downstream, where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico. Their trip started on the coldest day of the year.
 

Onward, through the cold...
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News

I unzip my tent and walk down to the river. It's 6:00 in the morning. On the other side, it's 5:00 in the morning. This is the dividing line between the Eastern and Central time zones. I'm wearing a scarf, gloves and a wooly hat. Yesterday when we woke up, it was 29 degrees. Not the kind of weather you typically expect camping in Florida. This is more like icicles on the Apalachicola.

The camp is beginning to stir, fire's getting ready... and breakfast is being made.

"I think we have some oatmeal, some granola, some cheese grits and more coffee. That's it," one of the expedition's support crew says over the banging of pans.

Expedition leader Mallory Lykes Dimmitt warms her hands by the fire.

Expedition members gather round the campfire
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News

"It took me a while to warm up. My paddling pants were by the fire, and it was a marked difference," she said. "I had my summer-weight bag over my other one the past couple of nights, and I didn't find it last night to pull it over my head. It was like, where is that one? Why is it not blocking that part of the cold? Then of course you get hot, and undo."

We started the day before in the Dead Lakes, in the middle of the Panhandle. It got the name from a time when the Chipola River was blocked up by sediment, causing the water level to rise - killing even the hardy cypress trees.

"And there are a lot of stumps of former cypress trees, or live cypress trees we go through," says Dimmitt. "You'll see ospreys nesting in the tops of some of them, and it's really kind of a eerie, interesting landscape that has become a favorite of fishermen and other recreationists who come here."

This place is littered with names that would make a graveyard shiver. Dead Lakes. Bloody Bluff. The River Styx. And it's next to a state forest called Tate's Hell.

David Morse of Apalachicola Riverkeeper, a nonprofit conservation group,  says Tate was a farmer who got stuck in this swamp chasing a panther that had killed some of his livestock.

"And while he was in that swamp, tracking that panther, he got himself in a lot of trouble," he says. "He lost his shoe, got bit by a water moccasin, and got himself thoroughly lost. And stumbled around in there for about five days or so, completely lost. And when he came out, he was around Carabelle, and collapsed. And people asked him, 'Well, Mr. Tate, where have you been?' And he said I have been in hell!"

Bald eagle watches over the river
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News

'We have 24 miles to go today, so we've got to soak up as much heat and comfort as possible, before we get to the more open water," says expedition photographer and founder Carlton Ward Jr. He paddles a little quicker to keep warm.

"The first day on the Apalachicola, I saw a bald eagle, I saw a female white-tailed deer right down on the sandbar, I saw a bunch of wild hogs off in the bushes, and besides that we're seeing quite a bit of bird life," he says. "Here in the Dead Lakes, there's a beautiful osprey nest we'll pass in a little bit, where they're actively building a nest and seem to have some fledgling-age chicks in there."

This place is so isolated, we passed under only one bridge in 50 miles.

We ended our trip in a ferocious headwind crossing the miles-wide Apalachicola floodplain as it drains into the Gulf of Mexico.

Apalachicola has the feel of one of those end-of-the-earth towns you still can run across in Florida. After all, they call this "The Forgotten Coast."

It prospered in the 1800's on cypress logged in the vast Apalachicola River floodplain and cotton shipped down from Georgia. It's claim to fame was one John Gorrie, who invented the first artificial cooling system. That eventually led to the first air conditioner. So in a way, this little port city pretty much invented modern Florida.

Gorrie died penniless, and pretty soon the cypresses were logged out. A railroad built to Savannah took care of the cotton. Pretty much, all that was left in Apalachicola were the oysters. And with its weatherbeaten wharves of shucking houses and mounds of discarded shells, it still feels that way.

The Apalachicola is different that the rest of Florida's rivers - it starts in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Georgia, where it's called the Chatahoochee. It merges with the Flint River where Alabama, Georgia and Florida meet. And all those people upstream have created somewhat of a crisis hundreds of miles to the south.

So much water was withdrawn from the river system that there were mass killing of oysters - in 2007 and 2012.

Expedition leader Mallory Lykes Dimmitt
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News

"The salinity in the bay was so high for so long that the oyster population essentially crashed. It wasn't just the oysters. The shrimp harvest, the flounder, crabs, everything was just devastated," says Dan Tonsmeire with Apalachicola Riverkeeper.

He says the fisheries have somewhat recovered since then. But there are only going to be more straws in the water - upstream, metropolitan Atlanta keeps growing. And Tonsmeire says agriculture uses two-  to three-times the water that's used in Atlanta.

"And during the droughts, those dry periods, those are the critical times that we need to share the pain," he says. "So that all the burden of the drought doesn't wind up being put on the fishermen and the species of the Apalachicola floodplain."

Lawyers and judges have been hashing this out for decades - reaching all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But attorneys for Georgia said in a motion last week the case should be dismissed, because the federal government controls water flowing through the Jim Woodruff dam on the state line.

So even this isolated wilderness can't escape the ravages of man.

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This Saturday, the expedition will host a group paddle on Coastal Dune Lakes, at Grayton Beach State Park, west of Panama City Beach,  open to the public.

  • The expedition members  recently were in the WUSF studios for a taping of Florida Matters. You can listen to it here.
  • And you can revisit our coverage of the original 2012 expedition in our archives.

Sunset over Apalachicola Bay
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News