12/12/14: This blog was written by Mark River from the Quapaw Canoe Company about our trip down the Apalachicola River last year. I have been given permission to repost the article in full by John Ruskey, founder of the Quapaw Canoe Company. Tomorrow I will post a reflection on where everyone is at a year after our trek down the river. –Nic
As season comes to a end , the Mighty Quapaws had one more expedition. Our friends from sunny California were embarking on a plan on how to document river’s from a camera mounted on one of our voyager canoes. It was a brilliant idea.
This project called ” Riverview” was a concept developed by Kris Gustafson , a oceanography teacher, at Scripp’s Oceanography School of San Diego. The concept was to attach a 360 degree camera onto the Grasshopper canoe and document the Apalachicola River in Florida. When I heard the plan, I instantly found a quiet place to pray. Knowing I might have to stay at base camp, I needed to express my humility to the Creator to corral my selfishness and do whatever to team needs to make this expedition successful.
The team arrives from San Diego after a late night of driving. I wake early to do my normal routine of pull-ups and inclined lunges and notice they have made it safely as a solid piece of metal rested in our lot. I know it hadn’t been there long as our adopted cat” shady cat” is resting underneath the vehicle enjoying the heat from the vehicle. I examine the beast of a vehicle and noticed it was powered by biofuel. I think to myself, “my type of people.”
The sun eventually rises and heats up the delta. I wait patiently to meet the crew as Wolfie and I start planning for the Clarksdale Christmas Parade, which is one of my favorite times of year. Wolfie, a talented writer, is scheduled to be first mate on the expedition, but has deadlines to meet before departure.
He looks at me and says, ” River, you gonna have to take my place on the trip. I have to make these deadlines.”
My heart skips a beat as I look to the heavens and say, ” thanks.”
The crew is set. My bags were already packed because of my unshakeable faith in the Creator and humanity, while Kris, Dan, and Paulie rise from their needed naps from the long trip. Kris, who is known for his work with Below the Surface is a well known water keeper and old friend of Driftwood Johnny. Dan, a navy man and avid diver, and Paulie, our medic for the trip. The “dark chocolate”, Kris’s truck, is loaded with equipment and gear. We unload the truck while Braxton and Dan, former sailors, start coming up with a plan on how to mount the 360 degree camera onto the Grasshopper.
Kris yells,” I heard you going on the trip.”
I yell,” Thanks for having me. It’s and honor.”
He looks at me and says,” River, you’ve earned it.”
The Mighty Quapaw’s are busy preparing for the parade, arranging holiday lights, working with our Griot after school program, and shaving cypress logs for our new awning being designed for our storefront. It gets even more exciting when the crew decides it would be great to do a test run of the camera in the parade.
The plan is to participate in the parade and leave the following evening for the Apalachicola River. The crew is already starting to bond as we trade gifts and gear to assure everyone’s protected and seasoned for the trip. The spirit is in the air. My stomach is already started to feel like the night before Christmas.
Braxton Barden, one of our latest Mighty Quapaw’s, is in full blown work mode, configuring the apparatus upon the canoe and programming the GPS system. Him and Dan come up with a great model. Now it’s ready for the trial run.
Parade day is here as the Mighty Quapaw’s finish up our floats. We will have our york boat the Annie, Butch, Quapaw’s first vehicle, along with Grasshopper, loaded with Griot Art students along with the “Dancing Diva’s” starring one of our own, Emma Lou Ruskey. The Rat King, “Watermelon Slim” and the “Nurkracker” will be dueling in hull of the Annie.
The parade goes on without a hitch, as the town of Clarksdale line the streets
enjoying a special time of year. The crowd woes at our contraption, while the fireman and policemen wonder what we’re doing. The camera mount look’s strong and sturdy, and the team looks solid. We end the parade with hugs and laughter while the firework show lightens up the Sunflower River. I look around and take it all in. I think about the expedition and how this trip could change the way our world look’s at rivers. I think about incorporating this expedition with the http://www.rivergator.com and documenting the entire Mississippi River.I think about all the uncertainties leading up to this point and celebrate our accomplishments. The team has already come together. Now we must take this energy to Florida and make it count!
We cross the bridge , Driftwood says, “River, that’s the Chaatihouchie.On the other side is the Apalachicola.”
We honk the horn with enthusiasm greeting our friends as they wait at the ramp. Introductions with hugs , not handshakes, lets me know that this trip would be special. The Florida Crew consist of Elam Stoltzfus, a producer,director,cinematographer, and editor of Live Oak Production Group,Inc.His partner and son, Nick. Joey, the intern and fellow Florida State best bud, and Jason Riney, a explorer who most recently circumnavigated Pensicola, Fla. Our diverse crew consisted of one Voyager canoe, three kayaks, and one paddle board. Locals gather, talking through their trucks, about us as we mount a 360 degree camera in the Grasshopper canoe. Driftwood and I continue to pack the canoe as if a regular day on the Mississippi River. The crowd grows bigger as the questions start to fly.
Who built that boat?
How much weight can it hold?
Where you guys from?
What are you’ ll doing?
We continue on answering all question with grace.
I take a second to reflect, ” I’m in Florida.”
I smile and take it all in. I look around and see palmettos and cypress trees. Spanish moss hanging from the trees.
A sign that says, “No swimming, alligators frequent these waters.” As Driftwood dives of the dock.
We set off up the middle of the channel. Buoys and anchors from the pass when barges frequented the river. Fishermen fish out their boats targeting structure created by man. A lonely alligator suns on the bank. Great blue herons and egrets fish from the low lining tree limbs aware of the danger under the surface. A bald eagle feeds on the gravel bar.The water’s a jasmine green as clear as a mountain stream. The trees are turning beautiful colors. It feels like a fall day on the Mississippi River.
We paddle 15 miles and find a sandbar to camp. The stars fill the sky as if they followed me from home. Great horned owls sing their song throughout the night as I ponder,” this is the same sky I see at home-just from a different angle.” I wait for the coyotes, but they never sing.
I rise with sun to be welcomed by a bald eagle flying across the river channel and lands in a large sycamore tree.
Driftwood and I greet each other thanking the creator for looking after us. It’s a welcoming sighting and assures us that we are one with nature.
We pack the boat with great anticipation as another immature bald eagle hovers over the canopy of hardwoods landing on the highest limb. The presence moves us to get the drum out and celebrate another glorious day, while we bless the canoe and each other. The sage feels my lungs and leaves me to believe this would be a special day.
The river meanders slightly as houseboats start to appear around every bend. Large pillars of oak reach out into the channel like the wing-dikes on the Mississippi River. The structure is the old way of dredging and straitening this waterway.
Beautiful bluffs of limestone remind me of the family property in southeast Missouri. Unique colors of orange,pink, and sulfur stacked in sedimentary layers.
Sitting around the campfire that evening while listening to Driftwood and Joey strum the guitar while the fire winds us down slowly. Joey had the voice of a young Bob Dylan. That night staring at constellations as they move throughout the sky, I coined Nick-The Big Lewboski because of his affectious laugh and big personality. News that Nelson Mandela died yesterday sent the eagles to show us the way and to let us know everything will be alright, but never the same.
When I laid my head to rest last night, I had finally got the feeling I get on natural rivers as I hear the sounds of skipjack herring chasing shad while being chased by aggressive territorial fish like large and smallmouth bass. I was deeply worried about the reservoir like setting at the start of the Apalachicola River. There were no signs of fish feeding , just many boats zipping through river being impatient and fishing only man-made structures. That let me know that big catfish existed in this river. Catfish seem to turn up when dams are built. Most of them get planted in these settings from waterfowl and other water birds transporting catfish eggs on their feet from the previous bodies of water.
I take a walk along the beach gazing across the river as I hear and see a great horned owl perch way up the tree on the bluff opposite of our campsite. He sings his song as if he has all the time in the world. The clouds are teasing us with small gust of precipitation so everyone pulling out their rain gear preparing for a rainy day.
The camera is put away for the time being as we launch the grasshopper and head downstream. We stop at the Bluntstown boat ramp to meet Elam’s wife, Ester, and resupply while we greet the people who heard about the expedition waiting to see our canoe and camera. One women with a very sketchy john boat says,” that ain’t no boat , thats just sticks in the water” we all give each other the look and smile. It was the highlight of a rainy day.
I start to feel at home as willow trees welcome us around the bend. The sandbars are getting steeper and horizontal, like the islands of the Mississippi River. The river is back to it’s natural self and so am I .
A bald eagle statues in the tree across the sanbar letting me know this is where we would camp for the night. We are now 63 miles from our destiny. The relationships have bonded and we have become a tribe of nomads clinging to each other for the sake of humanity. Their are no bad attitudes and we laugh like we known each other for years. This expedition was meant to happen.
We wake with a haze in the air. In the nigth I could hear huge gars feeding in the shallows. As we get further from the dam, the willows started to show up on the sandbars, letting me know it’s getting back to it’s natural state. Old cypress trunks stratal the banks , while the sandbars grow vertically and back channels appear. The trees in Florida in the winter look like fall in the delta. Their colors are spectacular.
The one thing I have notice is the lack of beavers. Driftwood and I hold the alligators responsible for that. The team’s getting stronger and more efficient daily. We are spending more time together around the fire listening to Nick and Joey entertain us with endless portfolios of material. As we get further south the mosquitoes get thicker , but I’m use to it. We had a beautiful day and the crew is incredible.
We spent the night on a sandbar that reminded me of the bank channel of island 64. The willows buried high on their trunks, while the leaves fall with every wind gust. If you never heard a willow leaves land on the fly of your tent, it’s like thin potato chips falling from the air.
We paddle to our resupply point where we are greeted by Ester with donuts and chocolate milk from the Ocheesee Creamery, a traditional Mininite farm, which happened to be owned by her sister. The town is called Wewahichta , Fl. It’s a beautiful community of houseboats and lake houses located on the main channel of the Apalachicola River. An oxbow chute that leads to the Dead Lakes, which has a old cypress forest like I’ve never seen before. Old trunks that could be anywhere from one hundred to five hundred years old. It was worth the beauty, but upstream paddle to get out was difficult. As always we faced and embraced the paddle and we was rewarded by a north wind pushing us down river as we ate lunch in the canoe.
We paddle to a protected bay with cypress and tupelo trees intertwined in great numbers. When we pulled in my natural instincts set in and I feel a mysterious aura as we paddle slowly through. I could hear no sounds or animals. It was surreal and had sign that read,Camp Swampbooger. I think to myself,”something happened here.” Later that evening around the fire, I hear that a large amounts slaves had been hung there. I felt it.
We past by various houseboats at every bend. This river had the highest concentration of houseboats I’ve ever seen. We past one that had a separate dog kennel floating with hunting dogs. We also pasted many abandon boats landlocked and in need of repairs.
We make to camp and a hour later one of the damaged houseboats came floating around the bend. We all got footage.
We start our day in the rain, but it was more like a warm shower as we rush to pack the boat. We do a wet pack and get on our way to make sure we allow time for any inconveniences along the way. The day is felled with scattered showers and sunshine alternating around every bend. We are curious about what happened to the runaway houseboat we witnessed floating down the river the day before. We paddle around every bend taking guesses on where it may land. Houseboats appear around every bend and we wonder how these boats avoided disaster. Eventually we come around a tight bend where the houseboat had collided with a submerge tree. We sign of relief glad no ones home had been destroyed or hurt, but the owner lost something special.
Our last camp was Fort Gadsen. This fort was very active during the War of 1812 and later became a haven for runaway slaves and relocated indians. They thrived being less resistant to malaria and became a force to be recon with when slaves from all over converged to join forces with the indians. When we made the landing, again I could feel the mystic spirits of the fort and embraced it without fear. In our tents that night, I could see all types of shadows and silhouettes, but never felt fear. I could hear dogs occasionally sounding as if approaching only to fade away. I think to my self, ” the slaves and indians are running from the dogs.”
We rise with big smiles and sun. We all had encounters with spirits and someone watch something hovering around our campfire late into the night. We are all looking forward to seeing the Gulf of Mexico today as well as the beautiful oyster town of Apalachicola.
The landscape starts to flatten as brackus swamps and marshes look as if sunken into the land. Schools of mullet work the shallow banks pushing shad upon the shores. The peripheral landscape widens as we get closer to the bay.
The beautiful town of Apalachicola, caught between new development and old establishment is a site to see. Large brown pelicans soar the bay feasting on the bays bountiful givings. Big yachts, shrimp boats, and oyster boats line the cities downtown area. People from these million dollar yachts smile and take pictures. One woman comes out of her spectacular yacht and says, ” nice canoe, can I take a picture?” That made my day. Grasshopper fitting in well with yachts!
We finish the day and head back to Blountstown to celebrate our journey. Ester treats us all like we were her own as we eat around the dinner table telling stories and processing data from the trip. We finish two days earlier giving us ample time to get our wits and prepare for the journey home as Christmas creeps upon us.
The following day, I get the tour of Blountstown from Laura, the daughter of Elam and Ester, and Communications teacher at Florida State. Laura, a striking woman with porcelain skin and truthful, piercing eyes, explained the social economic checks and balances of the town and its deep history of Mininite farms and football. We all went out for cheeseburgers and had a glorious time. We went down to the Blountstown ramp and the water had risen 10 ft. Thank goodness we finish when we did or our camp spots would have been submerged.
The Apalachicola River is a beautiful, mystic river with tons history . Its crystal clear water and bountiful wildlife support thousands of houseboats and still had beautiful water and trees. The expedition was one the best I’ve been apart of and the relationships that were formed are forever. Our chemistry was so natural, it felt like we all knew each other for a very long time. The next time I go back, I’m checking into a houseboat! Mark River