Kayakers arise to ice, fog on historic river of change

Published December 23, 2005

APALACHICOLA RIVER - The tail end of a cold front dropped the temperature below freezing during the night so in the morning 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.

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 Corp 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 Corps 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 there are dozens of them.

By noon, the fog had burned off and we stopped 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.

Tomorrow: A journey back in time.