Apalachicola Riverview Project, Part V: Baptism

January 12th, 2014

By Nic Stoltzfus

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Houseboat on the river (Photo: Joey Dickinson)

Tuesday, December 10th: Day 6

I woke up sore and tired. Slowly we got ready and headed down the river. It was cloudy today with a chance of rain, and it was supposed to get cold tonight and colder the following night. As of yet, we had been pretty lucky weather-wise. For December, the temperature was mild and we didn’t get much rain. We had a mix of cloudy days and sunny days with a few days being so warm that I had to put on sunscreen and attained a slight tan.

Our first stop today was at Sand Mountain. The mound of dirt is at a sharp bend on the river and for many years the Army Corps of Engineers dredged sand out of the river to allow for barges to slip through the hard curve. We climbed to the top and took a few pics and filmed a few sound bites. Thunderclouds rolled in and it began to sprinkle. Nervous about being on a high place with an approaching storm, I shimmied down the sand and hopped on my kayak, headed towards Ft. Gadsden.

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Joey, Nic, and Elam on the top of Sand Mountain

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Storm Clouds and Sand Mountain (Photo: Elam Stoltzfus)

We paddled the day and stopped at Ft. Gadsden that evening. We arrived in the early afternoon and had time to let our gear dry out in the afternoon light and charged up some of our electronics on the solar panels.

That evening we sat around the campfire, relaxed after a lighter paddle, and told ghost stories. A few stayed up later to roast leftover donuts that Mom had dropped off (Joey declared that, “this is the best way to eat donuts! They are warm and crispy on the outside but still moist and fluffy on the inside”).

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Sunset over Fort Gadsden (Photo: Elam Stoltzfus)

That evening I bundled up tight in my sleeping bag and put wool socks on my feet and hands and a beanie on my head to keep from getting too cold. It dipped down into the low 40s that evening (yeah, I’m sure some of you folks from up North are chuckling at this Florida boy’s reaction to such “cold” weather). Glad I bundled up!

Wednesday, December 11th: Day 7

BRRRR! It was cooooold out! Shivering worse than a hairless cat outside on a windy day, I headed over to Dad’s tent to start making my coffee. That was the first thing I wanted—warm oatmeal and hot coffee. Dad, the seasoned expeditioner, had tried a lot of gear the previous year from his expedition traveling the peninsula of Florida from the Everglades to the Okefenookee Swamp. One of his favorite finds was the JetBoil. It is a canister with gas in it that you connect a line to that heats up your food really fast. It has all kinds of attachments—a metal cup to heat up liquids and a pan with lightweight grills attached underneath to quickly heat up food. Yep—here is my unpaid plug for a gadget that actually works. Check it out.

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Mad Hat Hair (Photo: Nic Stoltzfus)

After breakfast we had a little paddle of fewer than 10 miles where we stopped at a spacious sandbar early afternoon. With the day stretching ahead of us I hung out wet clothes to dry, aired out my tent, and cleaned up. I left a bar of soap on the back of my kayak (a trick Dad taught me—if you take a bar of soap, after you are done using it, it will stick to your kayak after it dries. Neat, huh?) and peeled it off to take a river bath. The water was crisp and the air cool. I stripped down to my skivvies and stood waist deep in the water. It was a clear winter day and as I slowly scrubbed clean I thought to myself: tomorrow was our last day on the water—I had paddled almost 100 miles in 7 days with a few last miles to churn out tomorrow. I was proud of myself. I had started off in the beginning afraid and nervous—could I do it? Did I have the gumption, the “grit in my crawl” to complete such a journey? I started off not knowing most the crew—and now I can call them friends. I learned more about the river I grew up on—in an intimate way. To do it all in one stretch, that is the definition of integrity. It is in one integer, one unit: whole. I continued to scrub my body and soul clean. Dead flakes of skin and negative thoughts floated down the river, washed pure, baptized in the muddy water. I sank down on my knees and rinsed off my face and head—purified. With a smile on my face I returned to the crew, back to the group. I can do this.

That evening we sat around the campfire and chatted. We swapped stories and shared thoughts about the trip. All of the guys agreed that this was a really special experience. We are each very different from each other, but we overcame our differences and worked together as a team to accomplish our mission. And just what is that? What was our mission over these nine days? I think everyone had something a bit different. Sure, the main goal for all of us was to paddle down the Apalachicola. But, each of us had a unique individual goal. For me it was to conquer my fears and follow a dream, even though it appeared big and insurmountable.

E. Pluribus Unum. Despite our differences, despite the age spread from 20 to 57, we all came together and worked as one unit, one team. And for this to happen, for such a time to take place where everyone works together with no one holding back—this is quite rare. And valuable. I think we all knew this and, as our last night together out on the river, we wanted to savor this moment.

The nine of us were gathered around the fire. I looked at the other eight faces and the firelight shining in their eyes and the flames forming shadows licking back and forth. The warm glow spread outward and inward, baptism by fire.

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Baptism by Fire (Photo: John Ruskey)

Thursday, December 12th: Day 8

We took our time this morning waking up. Two cups of coffee drunk slowly in small sips. We shared breakfast—bountiful leftovers courtesy of John’s crew.

Last day on the water—beautiful, clear, and only half a day away from a hot shower and a warm bed! That morning I talked with Justin, the two of us ambled along letting our conversation drift with the river. We talked about life, our future, and what was next for both of us. This was a pivotal moment for him as he was finishing one project, Expedition Florida 500, and was about to begin another, Riney Ranch. It was good to speak with someone who desires to impact this world through art and positive change.

After a break we began to paddle into the bay. Because the water was choppy and the current not as strong, paddling was difficult. I soon fell behind the others. Not wanting to be the last one to finish, I yelled at Dad to slow down. He waited until I caught up and we paddled the last bit into Battery Park. I did it! We did it!

We arrived, and I was cranky and exhausted. I faked a smile amongst the whoops of happiness…my butt was cold and wet from water splashing up in my kayak, and I wanted to change into dry clothes and pee. I thought to myself, “Aren’t you supposed to feel glorious and ecstatic when you finish an expedition?” After about a half hour Mom and my cousin, Ashley, arrived to pick us up. We loaded up the gear and headed back to Blountstown, home. Paddle, paddle. Fin.

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The guys loading up the Grasshopper at Battery Park (Photo: Esther Stoltzfus)

Tomorrow’s blog: The Apalachicola Riverview Project, Part VI: The Aftermath

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