The Great Apalachicola River

Apalachicola River
Paddling amidst cypress knees on the Apalachicola River. Photo: Doug Alderson

By Conor Mihell

Take a closer look at a map of Florida and you’ll appreciate there’s a lot more to the Sunshine State than theme parks and condos. Florida is a paddler’s mecca, with an impressive 1,500-mile circumnavigational water trail encompassing its entire perimeter and countless rivers feeding into the Gulf of Mexico. Of those waterways, perhaps none are as wild, pretty or biologically significant as the Apalachicola River. The river is recognized as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO and holds numerous state-level designations for its unique and fragile environment. It marked the final leg of Atlanta brothers David and Michael Hanson’s 30-day canoe trip on the Chattahoochee, Flint and Apalachicola river system from the North Georgia Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico, featured in the current issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine.

Like most wild and scenic rivers, the Apalachicola is imperiled, primarily due to drought and unchecked water use. In October, outdoor writer and photographer Doug Alderson teamed up with Apalachicola Riverkeeper vice president Georgia Ackerman to lead a five-day paddling trip on the Apalachicola to raise awareness of the river’s significance, called the RiverTrek.

We caught up with Alderson, Ackerman and Apalachicola Riverkeeper director Dan Tonsmeire to learn more about the trip. What was the impetus for the Apalachicola RiverTrek?
Doug Alderson: The inspiration came from a longer 2007 educational paddling trip on the river. The current five-day Apalachicola RiverTrek was created by river advocate Earl Morrogh in 2009 with the idea that to know the river is to love and protect the river. The RiverTrek also raises awareness about the river’s plight in the media and each paddler solicits monetary pledges for the Apalachicola Riverkeeper. I first participated in the trek in 2010 and was moved to help create the Apalachicola River Blueway so that other paddlers could enjoy the experience on their own. Georgia and I began co-coordinating the RiverTrek in 2012 and we have been very proud of the results thus far. The 2012 group raised $18,000 for the Riverkeeper while the 2013 group raised over $27,000!

Georgia Ackerman: I paddled RiverTrek 2011 and 2012. I can think of no better way to explore and understand a river than to paddle its entirety with a small group of concerned adventurers.

What was it like traveling downriver as a group of 12 paddlers? You must’ve had some pretty high-mileage days to cover the distance.
Doug: We covered 107 miles in five days from the river’s beginning to the Gulf, so each day is more than 20 miles. That’s not bad given the current, but the last day to the town of Apalachicola is often the most difficult because the tides and coastal winds can be against you. I’ve been on two complete RiverTreks and part of a third and all have been with outstanding people. The camaraderie helps to round out the experience. Sometimes, my face hurts from laughing so much at the jokes and stories. At other times, usually when I veer off alone, I feel an overwhelming sense of peace and serenity.

Georgia: By RiverTrek design, the paddlers selected vary in paddling and backcountry experience. Over five days, they grow as a micro-community on the river. Evening campfires seem to fast-forward friendships—and are nature’s salve for aching shoulders and lower backs. For me, the wilderness and full days of paddling made me stronger and yearning for more. I didn’t want to get off the water on the last day! Civilization came too quickly. Serenity on the water, indeed!

You say the Apalachicola features some of the most diverse habitats in North America. Can you describe the river’s ecological significance?
Doug: The Nature Conservancy has designated the Apalachicola watershed as one of the nation’s six “biodiversity hotspots,” and for good reason. Being the only Florida river with origins in the Appalachian Mountains, the basin is home to 60 tree species, 1,300 different plants, 131 fish, species, 33 different mussels, 308 types of birds and 57 mammal species. It also has the highest density of reptiles and amphibians on the North American continent north of Mexico. Some of these species are rare, threatened or endangered. The torreya tree, for example, grows nowhere else in the world. Plus, the river feeds Apalachicola Bay which, in turn, supplies 90 percent of Florida’s oysters, so it is vital economically as well.

Click here to learn more about the Apalachicola watershed

Apalachicola River
A quiet evening on the river. Photo: Doug Alderson

What makes it such a great river to paddle?
Georgia: Long stretches of the Apalachicola River and her tributaries are truly remote. You can paddle for hours or days without seeing another person. The landscape is spectacular. Much of the river is bordered by state parks, national forest, private conservation lands, state wildlife protection areas and state forest. Public lands abound; hiking trails are plentiful; and swimming in the river, streams and springs along the way is refreshing physically and spiritually.

Doug: For a big river, the Apalachicola’s shores are almost completely undeveloped (much of it in public ownership) and it has the largest bluffs of any Florida river (over 200 feet tall). The current is swift, bald eagles soar overhead and spacious sandbars are numerous at the right water levels. The more you paddle the Apalachicola, the more she grows on you and you begin to understand—you begin to feel—that this river is a lifeblood for the region. That inspires me to share this experience with others and to work for the river’s protection.

What threats does the Apalachicola face?
Georgia: Low freshwater flows are the greatest threat to the river and Apalachicola Bay at present. The river has been at a historic low due to both drought and low flow released from upstream dams. Farmers and the city of Atlanta take a significant share of water from both the Flint and Chattahoochee, rivers that form the Apalachicola. This has threatened plant and wildlife habitat and imperiled the Bay, a critically important estuary of the Gulf Coast.

How can we best restore natural flows in the river? What are the benefits of doing so?
Dan Tonsmeire: The greatest impacts occur during dry periods and droughts, which are naturally occurring events in nature. We must achieve reductions in upstream water use through conservation during these extreme periods so that the sacrifice is shared by all stakeholders in the basin. In Florida we need to commit to that same conservation ethic and begin to improve and restore the ecosystem functions on the Apalachicola River that we can control within our state. River and bay management plans will help outline, coordinate and prioritize those efforts.

Doug: Cynthia Barnett’s book Blue Revolution outlines the water conservation steps we can all take to alleviate problems such as this. Water wars and water scarcity are found throughout the world, and some have been successfully resolved. The Riverkeeper is meeting with all of the parties throughout the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin to work out a solution.

Apalachicola River
Georgia Ackerman and Doug Alderson, pre-RiverTrek launch. Photo: Rob Diaz de Villegas

Is there anything else we should know?
Doug: I’d encourage paddlers to check out the Apalachicola Blueway and please support the Apalachicola Riverkeeper. For having just two paid employees, they are advocating for the river and bay at all of the key meetings and functions. And just so Georgia and I don’t become inundated with people wanting to join the 2014 RiverTrek, the group is limited to 12-15 people so as to minimize environmental impacts since we are primitive camping nearly every night. Georgia and I are volunteers, not outfitters. Prospective paddlers fill out a questionnaire that gauges their experience and ability to raise funds for Apalachicola Riverkeeper.

Watch scenes from the 2012 Apalachicola RiverTrek:

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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