Johnny Cash might have been thinking about the muddy Mississippi when he wrote Big River, but that's because the Man in Black never got a chance to paddle the mighty Apalachicola.
The river, Florida's largest in terms of water volume, flows south 106 miles from the Georgia border through some of the wildest country the state has to offer before emptying into Apalachicola Bay at Oystertown.
In its heyday, the Apalachicola served as a major thoroughfare for paddle-wheel steamers traveling between the Gulf of Mexico and Columbus, Ga. No one is sure who first recognized the river's strategic importance, but over the years, countless men — British, Seminole, Choctaw, American and escaped black slaves — fought and died for its control.
In modern times, the Apalachicola has been the scene of a different kind of war, one pitting environmentalists against the federal government. Standing at the foot of the Woodruff Lock and Dam at Lake Seminole, I couldn't help but think about the politics and power it took to create such a monstrosity.
But I had come to this river a day's drive north of Tampa to get away from civilization. So I turned around, gazed downstream and took in a view that money can't buy. On this cool December afternoon, it looked as if my friends and I would have the river to ourselves. We needed a shot of wilderness before returning home to the madness and mayhem we knew the holidays would bring.
As rivers go, the Apalachicola moves faster than most. It isn't "white water" and there are no rapids, but there are hundreds of snags and submerged logs that prove deadly to the unaware or ill-prepared.
The main channel is well marked, but the buoys are so large they create their own eddies and whirlpools. Local paddlers like to wager who will be the first to "tag" a buoy on a downstream trip.
Not 100 yards from our put-in, I decided to put my paddling skill to the test by hand-slapping a big, green channel marker and nearly tipped myself over. "Those channel markers have a mind of their own," George Stovall said, observing my folly. "They suck you right in. It would be real easy to hit one and go over."
Far more prudent, I thought, to sit back and enjoy the scenery. There are those who believe the surrounding countryside was the site of the original Garden of Eden. It is said that Noah of ark fame built his vessel of gopher wood, a tree in the yew family that is found only between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Mideast and nearby Torreya State Park.
As darkness fell, the temperature began to drop. Soon, despite a fire, it was too cold to stay awake. So I crawled into my tent, ready for sleep. That's when I realized that I had brought my summer-weight sleeping bag by mistake. Shivering, I lay awake and listened to the sound of the water running. Unable to sleep, I thought about the Man in Black and tried to sing a lullaby.
Now I taught the weeping willow how to cry,
And I showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky.
And the tears that I cried for that woman are gonna flood you Big River.
Then I'm gonna sit right here until I die.
A few hours later, I awoke to see frost on the roof of my tent. Outside, the kayaks and life jackets were covered with ice. "My shorts are frozen," I told my friends. "So are my booties."
We had only paddled 20 of the river's 106 miles, so it was essential that we get an early start if we wanted to finish our trip in three days. But it's hard to put on wet clothes when it's 32 degrees and squeeze into a narrow kayak to begin a 10-hour day after spending a sleepless night shivering in a tent.
"I've got a fire going," Casey LaLomia announced. "It will help warm you up."
LaLomia, our fire man, was usually the last to sleep and first to rise. Wet wood, dry wood, no wood, this Eagle Scout from South Dakota could always be counted on to get some flames going.
And when your hands are frozen, all you need is a couple of small sticks burning to start moving your fingers again. LaLomia, always thinking ahead, saved some timber from the night before knowing we would be thankful in the morning. Soon, five men crowded together over the flames and tried to soak up a tiny bit of warmth before confronting the cold reality of the task at hand.
To get anywhere under your own power — be it by foot, bicycle or small boat — you have to keep moving. A half hour of dawdling first thing in the morning can mean the difference between making camp by daylight or struggling to find a place to stop in the dark. That's why on the river, the day typically starts at 5 a.m. We rise in the darkness, break camp and then down a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal and bitter black coffee.
We take our time packing the kayaks because every piece of gear must be stowed in the right place. If you forget where you put something simple, such as a medical kit, it can turn into a major crisis later on the water.
Despite our plans for an early start, on this frigid December morning the Apalachicola River had something else in mind. The water, 30 degrees warmer than the air, had brewed up a thick batch of fog. With visibility less than 100 feet, navigation could be problematic. Our chief concern was vessel traffic — be it a hunter in a 12-foot jon boat or a freighter loaded with goods — we couldn't afford a collision.
Our navigation lights, mounted on life jackets and the decks of our boats, would prove useless. But we headed out anyway, vowing to stay together and hug the shoreline. "Do you see anybody else?" I asked LaLomia. "No," he replied. "But they must be here somewhere."
One by one, we sounded off in the dark. I listened carefully for the sound of a ship's fog horn, but all I could hear was the distant drone of a small outboard motor. Paddling along through the mist, my mind wandered back in time.
The Apalachicola has been a highway for humans for 14,000 years. The first inhabitants settled along its banks and feasted on the seemingly endless supply of oysters and clams. Creek Indians from Georgia came in the early 1700s, hoping to escape the white man who had invaded their territories to the north.
"Apalachicola" is an Indian word for "people on the other side." But today, the only thing the fast-moving waterway separates is the Central and Eastern time zones.
By the 1830s, steamboats crowded the river as they carried cotton from the interior to the Gulf of Mexico. During the Civil War, Union troops blocked this commerce and put an end to the cotton trade. After the war, timber became the river's top commodity.
In 1946, the U.S. Congress authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge a 9-foot deep, 100-foot wide channel from the mouth of the Apalachicola through the Flint and Chattahoochee river systems to Columbus, Ga. The spoil from the construction process was dumped along the river banks, destroying critical wildlife habitat and causing sportfish populations to plummet.
In 2002, the advocacy group American Rivers designated the Apalachicola as one of America's most endangered rivers. According to its report, commercial traffic had dropped to just one or two barges a day. The $20-million annual cost of maintaining the deep-draft waterway returned an investment of 40 cents on the dollar. Even the government concluded that its efforts were not "economically justified or environmentally defensible."
One of the biggest concerns for sportsmen and environmentalists was the periodic "flooding" of the river basin. On a regular basis, the Corps increased the river flow upstream to make "navigation windows" for barges traveling upstream. This influx of fresh water destroyed the normal spawning cycles of many species and stranded millions of hatchlings on the flood plain after the water receded.
Thankfully, in April 2005, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection denied a Corps request to continue the dredging. Today, the biggest thing you'll see on the river is a homemade, floating houseboat, and when the fog finally burned off, we began to see our share.
At noon, it was time for a break, so we pulled over near the "town" of Estiffanulga to eat lunch at a boat ramp. "They call this place Stiff & Ugly," explained George Stovall, our unofficial historian. "I'd love to find one of the locals and find out why."
But the only residents we could find were a pair of pit bulls guarding a mobile home. They kept their distance, as long as we kept ours, which seems to be the way things go on the Apalachicola River.
Later that afternoon, just north of the Chipola River cutoff, I spotted a sandy bluff rising out of the swamp and beached my kayak. My friends, riding the swift current, nearly passed me by. We gathered a big pile of wood and started a roaring campfire. Soon our wet gear was dry and we settled down to admire the night sky and listen to animals calling in the distance.
"That's Mars," Stovall said. "And over there, that is Venus. What a treat — two planets in the same sky." With darkness, the temperature fell, but not like the numbing cold of the night before. Still, just to be safe, I broke open two chemical hand-warming pockets and stuck them underneath my armpits.
I knew that if I kept my core temperature up, I would be able to sleep, no matter how cold it got. So I snuggled in my summer-weight sleeping bag and listened to the barred owls caterwauling in the distance. In the stillness between their hoots, I could hear the sound of the water rushing past a channel marker 100 feet away. I thought about the next day's journey and started singing that Johnny Cash tune that was stuck in my head ... and I followed you, Big River, when you called.
Cold and hungry
Everybody wanted to get an early start on the final day of our 106-mile kayak trip. But what constituted early was a matter of debate.
"What time is it?" Casey LaLomia asked from the warmth of his tent. "Five a.m.," Darry Jackson replied.
"No way," I said. "It's only four. Go back to sleep."
"It is 5 a.m.," Jackson reiterated. "Time to get up."
The Apalachicola separates the eastern and central time zones. On our first day out, resting on the western shore, I switched my watch to Central Time, and ever since, our kayaking crew had been arguing over the correct time.
At night, when I want to sit up and smoke cigars around the campfire, I am on Eastern Time. But in the morning, when I want to grab an extra hour of sleep I am on Central Time. There was some method to my madness.
The Indian phrase Apalachicola means "the people on the other side," and I explained that I was from the side of the river where people get to sleep an extra hour in the morning. "It doesn't work that way," Jackson said. "If we want to make it to Apalachicola in time for dinner, we have to get going."
After two days on the river, I was ready for some real food — a fried oyster Po' Boy sandwich — and an ice cold beer or two. Just the thought of those epicurean delights was enough to get me out of bed.
Comfort of civilization
Forty-eight hours in the woods is all it takes to make me forget about everything but the bare necessities: food, warmth, shelter, did I say food? Man cannot live off energy bars and freeze-dried dinners forever. I needed nourishment, and in this part of Florida, that means one thing: oysters.
Apalachicola Bay produces 90 percent of the state's oysters, which is why the locals have named their fair city Oystertown. I've always been a fan of the tasty little mollusks and can eat several dozen in one sitting — fried, baked, broiled, steamed or hand-picked out of the sea.
Prior to starting this 106-mile paddling trip down the famous Apalachicola, I did a fair share of research. I studied the flora, fauna, geography, geology, hydrology and local history, in order to be prepared for any eventuality. "I've made a startling discovery," I told Stovall, my paddling companion, who shares my enthusiasm for not-necessarily insignificant trivia. "Apalachicola has one of the top 10 oyster bars in the United States."
The Boss Oyster, located next to the Apalachicola River Inn, made Coastal Living's top 10 list in 2004, and I took it upon myself to memorize the menu. "We can try Oyster Rockerfella with sauteed spinach, onion, garlic and Parmesan cheese, or Oyster Bienville with chopped shrimp, mushrooms, garlic and cheddar cheese," I explained. "Or of course, we could try the Oyster Captain Jack with bacon, jalapeno peppers, colby cheese and hot sauce, or the Oyster St. George with asparagus, garlic, shallots and colby cheese."
Seminoles and soldiers
Four hours later, still dreamin' about oysters, we found a high bluff to stop for lunch and quickly learned that we weren't the first people to find the spot to our liking.
In the late 1700s, escaped slaves found their way to this area and lived among the Seminoles. The former slaves grew crops and gave the Indians one third of the harvest in return for the right to live on their land.
In 1814, the British led an expedition down the Apalachicola in order to recruit Seminoles and former slaves in their fight against the Americans. On a place called Prospect Bluff, they built a fort with earthen walls. A year later, the British went home, but left most of their supplies and weapons to the blacks and Indians who had taken over the fort.
In 1816, Gen. Andrew Jackson sent troops to destroy what had became known as Negro Fort. In the battle that followed, a piece of American "hot shot" hit the fort's magazine, which contained 700 kegs of gunpowder, blowing everything in the vicinity to smithereens.
Nearly 270 people died in the blast. Garcon, the leader of escaped slaves, was among the survivors. The Americans turned him over to a rival tribe, who had him killed. The other survivors were sent to plantations in Georgia.
In 1818, Jackson ordered one of his officers, James Gadsden, to rebuild the fort. The young lieutenant did such a good job, Jackson renamed the fort in his honor. During the Civil War, the fort was occupied by Confederate troops, until a malaria outbreak in the summer of '63 forced its abandonment.
Today, you can still see the outline of the earthworks on the site of the old fort. Standing on the bluff overlooking the river, I understand why the British chose this spot. With a commanding view both north and south, a boat captain would have been a fool to try to pass unchallenged.
We studied the map while we gobbled down our lunch, and the names of the creeks and tributaries that fed into the river told a different history of the following years . The names Whiskey George Creek and Cash Bayou suggested a time when bootleggers and moonshiners ruled the nearby swamps.
"I wonder why they named this one Thank You Ma'am Creek," I asked my friends. Nobody had a respectable answer, so we packed up our boats and headed downriver.
With Apalachicola a few miles ahead, I could almost taste the oysters. The commercial docks, badly damaged by a string of hurricanes, offered no place to land. So we paddled out beneath the bridge that spans the Intracoastal Waterway. We rounded the city fishing pier and a couple of anglers asked where we were coming from.
"Chattahoochee," I told them.
"You must be crazy," one of them replied.
"Yes a little," I confessed.
After all, we paddled 106 miles, through current and cold, in just two and a half days. It felt good to be back on dry land where a hot shower and cold beer awaited. Now, the only thing separating me from my oyster feast was a 3-minute car ride to the hotel.
"Where did I put my car keys?" Stovall said. "They have to be here somewhere."