St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Riding a river of lore

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
Published December 22, 2005

CHATTAHOOCHEE - 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 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

One side wants the Apalachicola dredged so barges can make the journey upriver through the Jim Woodruff Lock and Dam at Lake Seminole. The other side wants the river left alone so it will return to its natural state and feed the oyster beds downstream that have made this region famous for more than 100 years.

Standing at the foot of the towering dam, I couldn't help but think about politics and power. Completed in 1957 at a cost of $46.5-million, the dam and hydroelectric powerplant are a testament to man's mastery over his environment.

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 a cold 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.

"We'll need to keep an eye out for barges," I told my friend, Doug Clifford. "They can kick up quite a wake, and if you aren't careful you might end up going in for a swim."

The 34-year-old photographer was a little nervous. It was his first major paddling trip and the 48-pound kayak he was paddling was notoriously tippy. I had promised my colleague he would not be killed while under my tutelage, stressing, however, that paddling a wilderness river in the winter had inherent dangers. For example, hypothermia and drowning are constant concerns, and on the Apalachicola one must deal with another potential hazard: collision with a large ship.

"The last thing you want to do is get run over," I said. "I hate to go back to the newspaper and tell them that we lost $8,000 in camera gear."

But Clifford was a seasoned photojournalist, a veteran of more than a half-dozen major hurricanes (including Katrina) and obviously a survivor. He should be fine, I told myself, as long as he didn't lean the wrong way, let the current catch his stern and roll him like a cheap bathtub toy.

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 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.

The park, named after the rare Torrey tree, sits high on a bluff. While this Florida state park does have a full-service campground, we pass by and press deeper downriver, hoping to find some sheltered sand bar upon which to make camp.

Setting up my tent at dusk, I watched the branch of a tree scream by on the current and remembered some advice from a local paddler.

"Don't camp too close to the water," he said. "If they let water out of the dam in the middle of the night, you might only have a couple of minutes' warning."

If I heard waves breaking, he said, climb out of my tent, grab my kayak and kiss our camping gear goodbye.

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 for the sound of waves crashing. 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.

But it was no use. I couldn't sleep. I would just have to lay there and suffer till dawn. Tomorrow: Fire, ice and fog.
© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.