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Tasting the finish line

After lunch by post-Colonial fort ruins, visions of oysters make time fly on the home stretch.

By TERRY TOMALIN
Published December 24, 2005


APALACHICOLA RIVER - 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 River, Florida's largest in terms of water volume, runs from the town of Chattahoochee on Georgia border to Oystertown on the Gulf of Mexico, separating 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. Which was a good thing, for sometime during the night a lock was opened upriver and the water level rose several feet.

"Good thing our kayaks were pulled up high on the beach," George Stovall said. "I would have hated to have gotten up and found them gone."

That would have been a real party pooper, I agreed. "No oysters," I said. "No beer."

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 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."

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 ... "