January 9th, 2014
By Nic Stoltzfus
Morning mist by the old and new Highway 90 bridges at Chattahoochee (Photo: Nic Stoltzfus)
Front row left to right: Joey Dickinson, Justin Riney, Paul Veselack, John Ruskey, Elam Stoltzfus, Daniel Veshinski, Nic Stoltzfus.
Back row left to right: Mark “River” Peoples and Kristian Gustavson (Photo: Dan Yoder)
Thursday, December 5th: Day 1
The plan was to meet at the Chattahoochee Landing at Clyde Hopkins Park right behind Jim Woodruff Dam where the Apalachicola River begins (the dam holds back the water from Lake Seminole, the terminus of the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers). Dad, Joey, and I prepped our kayaks. Justin showed up and began to assemble his paddleboard. The last to arrive was the crew from Below the Surface. And out of the truck stepped two…three…four…five guys! There was Kristian Gustavson and Danny Veshinski from Below the Surface. The other three were Paul Veselack, Kristian’s stepdad and crew medic; John Ruskey, founder of Quapaw Canoe Company in Mississippi and builder of the canoe the guys would be paddling; and Mark “River” Peoples, assistant and fellow river guide with John at Quapaw. I was surprised—our crew was larger, but, as they say, the more the merrier!
Justin tightening the screws on his paddle board (Photo: Nic Stoltzfus)
On my way to take a final nervous leak before heading out, a local stopped me and asked me a few questions. He sat in his faded jean-hued Chevy pick-up, some model from the ‘70s with a confederate flag plate on the front. He was wearing an old ‘Bama red shirt, blue jeans, and an air of sour discontent. “Son, just what the heck is going on here?” He asked me. I told him, “Well, we are headed down the Apalachicola River down to the bay.” He pointed at the canoe. “What the heck is that thing?” “It’s a handmade canoe from Missisippi; those five guys loading it now are going to paddle it down the river.” “Huh,” he gruffed, “I don’t understand. They got all this crap in their ca-new rait there and these five guys—that’s a lotta weight! How they gonna float down the river in that? It’s gonna sink. It’s gonna sink.” He pointed a gnarled finger at the camera resting on top. “And that cam-ra? It’s gonna flip right over. Buncha dum-asses.” At the time I was also rather skeptical as to how this canoe was going to float those hundreds of pounds of gear and five big guys but, hey, I had my kayak so I didn’t have to worry. I said goodbye, finished my business, and prepped the rest of my gear for the upcoming trip.
Checking out the canoe (Photo: Nic Stoltzfus)
We took a group photo and started off. A few local onlookers, skeptics, friends, and relatives waved us off. Here we go! 109 miles in 9 days! My stomach still turned a few flops, but as soon as I hit the water—yep, this was the right thing to do. It’ll be okay.
The maiden launch of the “Grasshopper” (Photo: Nic Stoltzfus)
The first day we kayaked around 11 miles. It was a beautiful day out; cool and sunny— perfect paddling. We passed under the I-10 bridge. All the cars and trucks zoomed by overhead as we lazily dripped by below; bay-bound on river-time. Our first night we stopped at a sandbar on the east side of the river. We were all still getting to know each other and our gear, so it was a time to stretch our muscles out and prep for the longer days ahead. A bit of a campfire chat, and then we all headed to bed.
Friday, December 6th: Day 2
Today I woke to a spooky foggy morning on the Apalachicola. 10,000 ghosts had descended on the river; one translucent white congregation. I felt great that morning and hurriedly ate my oatmeal and slurped down my coffee, eager to get out on the misty river. I packed my tent and got on my kayak and was the first to head downstream. It took the guys in the canoe longer, so I had about 2 hours by myself before they caught up to me. I passed the Torreya house on my left and was headed around Ocheeseee Landing (close to where I grew up) and there were some folks out on a houseboat and I talked to them for a bit. “Mornin’!” I yelled over at them. The husband and wife pair stared at me a bit trying to figure out just what in tarnation this figure was. “Mor-nin’,” they greeted me. “Where ya headed?” they asked me. I chirped, “the bay!” The old man grinned a toothy smile and chuckled, “boy, you watch out for them gators, ya hear? You’re a one-bite snack on that rig!” “Yessir!”
As the morning waned on the fog-ghosts lifted back to the heavens and the day cleared. Gorgeous. Just gorgeous. I told the guys when they arrived that they couldn’t have picked a better time to be on the river. I have lived in the Apalachicola river valley my whole life, and this was the most beautiful fall that I have ever witnessed here—I guess it must have been because we had a cold snap early in the fall but, whatever the reason, the leaves were magnificent this year. The red maples were a violent crimson, the sycamore a brilliant yellow, and the cypress a deep ruddy red. By now most of the leaves had fallen, but one could still witness the shadows of a stunning fall.
Red maple overlooking the river (Photo: Nic Stoltzfus)
The Grasshopper and Her Merry Crew (Photo: Nic Stoltzfus)
Around lunchtime the rest of the crew caught up to me. We stopped at the base of Torreya State Park and hiked up to the top of the bluff. We chatted some and looked over the river perched up high; a sunny winter day. We crawled back down and headed onward. In the afternoon for a few hours the wind pushed us back but soon, out of breath, subsided. Late afternoon we arrived at our campsite for the night: Alum Bluffs. Out of the whole expedition, this was one of my favorite spots to camp.
(From Left to Right) “River”, Paul, Kristian, Danny, John, and Justin in front of the bluffs (Photo: Elam Stoltzfus)
Sure, the mosquitoes and bugs are a little annoying, but the view is great. The sandbar is on the west side of the river facing the bluffs on the east side of the river. It is a view that most wouldn’t expect to occur in Florida—but there it is. A yellowish-white sheer cliff, a smaller and yellower version of the famed Cliffs of Dover, juts out into the river.
John Ruskey climbed to the top of the cliffs and howled a deep river-man howl. I grinned as I snapped a photo of him at the top—this guy is truly a river-rat. That evening we made our campfire and sat around, drank a few jiggers of whiskey, and listened to John play the guitar. With a glass slide on one finger he seduced the guitar into singing in ways I had never heard—a twangy bluesy-folksy sound that was new to my ear. A riverman’s lullaby. I wanted to join in so I began to softly clap my hands. Danny tapped his right foot in the sand. All nine of us sat around the fire mesmerized by the music, warmth of the fire, and companionship. Crickets joined in the chorus and the occasional owl screeched. River music.
A bluesman and his guitar (Photo: Elam Stoltzfus)