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  1. Opinion

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition: Scramble for a loose kayak

Fire warms the expedition team and colors a canopy of pines above a riverside campsite in Apalachicola National Forest, which at three times the size of Pinellas County is the largest national forest in Florida and an essential hub for the statewide wildlife corridor. The team paddled the Apalachicola River system for five days downstream to Apalachicola Bay, which has been deprived of freshwater taken by Georgia in recent decades as Atlanta has grown. Temperatures dropped into the mid 20s leaving ice on tents and kayaks for three straight nights. Clear skies and a new moon allowed the stars to shine brightly.

 [Carlton Ward Jr
CarltonWard.com]
Published Apr. 8, 2015

Editor's note: The three members of the second Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition are filing weekly dispatches of their 1,000-mile, 10-week journey to highlight the value of keeping an open pathway through the state for wildlife. Here is the story of the seventh week (published March 1, 2015).

Hard weather came down on our expedition as we made our way down the Apalachicola. On our third night on the big river we pulled out of the current and beached our kayaks on a windswept sandbar. The sun disappeared from view across the river, but pink fingers of light rippled across the horizon, shining for a few moments off a bank of clouds. This was the first color in the sky in three days. We built a fire between some willows and arranged our tents to block the northwest wind.

The Apalachicola in winter is difficult to put into words, but every day on the river revealed something interesting. One day I took a side channel into the mouth of a creek lined with huge cypress and Ogeechee tupelo trees, bulging, moss-coated trunks anchored in the narrow backwater. Nearing the town of Wewahitchka, we turned west into the Dead Lakes, drifting among thousands of cypress snags.

The wind whipped across the lake, but the sky had cleared behind the earlier front. As the sun again sank, distinct wedges of gray, blue and pink lay behind the silhouetted trunks of the dead cypress, and the dusk took on a kind of rawboned elegance.

Despite the beauty in each day, our exposure to the elements means we have to be always aware of the risks. Scrambling around on muddy river banks I was certain that the wind and current and my awkwardness getting in and out of my kayak would rob me of a camera or my GPS or send me sliding into the frigid water. I was nearly proved right one day.

Trailing far behind the group, I stopped to photograph derelict wooden barge pilings near the river's west bank. Pulling into an eddy, I wedged my boat into a driftwood tree just off the bank and climbed out onto the fallen trunk. As I was arranging my camera a sudden crosswind sliced across the river. I watched in horror as my boat with every bit of my gear was blown off the tree and upstream, against the current. In my haste I'd forgotten to tie it off.

The water was too deep to step off in, and I was afraid of being swept off if I tried to swim. Gripping the strap of my camera in my teeth to keep it from flopping, I scrambled desperately along the trunk of the large tree, paralleling my drifting kayak, still out of reach. As I neared the base of the tree trunk the kayak came just within an arm's length and I was able to snatch it before another wind gust could send it out into the channel and away to the Gulf of Mexico. Such a careless error could've left me marooned and at Mother Nature's mercy.

Our trip culminated in the town of Apalachicola, paddling the final 3 miles hard into a southeast wind blowing off the gulf. Looking over St. Vincent Sound, we sensed the confluence of the river and the gulf. We'd paddled and hiked for 16 days to arrive there, connecting state (Tate's Hell) and national forests (Apalachicola), two significant Gulf Coast federal wildlife refuges (St. Marks and St. Vincent) and Florida's largest (by volume) river. The existence and scale of the reserves that protect these waterways is impressive, especially once they're experienced on foot or through days of paddling. Each of these places are bound to the next, and the rivers tie everything together.

Follow their progress here in Perspective, at FloridaWildlifeCorridor.org, wusfnews.wusf.usf.edu/term/florida-wildlife-corridor-expedition and on social media: Facebook.com/FloridaWildlifeCorridor; Instagram: @FL_WildCorridor; Twitter: @FL_WildCorridor. Follow Ward's photography at Instagram.com/CarltonWard and Facebook.com/CarltonWardPhotography.

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