A Weekend with Clyde Butcher, Part III: Filming for a Kickstarter and a Harmonica/Guitar Duo

By Nic Stoltzfus

Sunday, March 1st

The Sunday of Presidents’ Day weekend, we began the day by filming the intro to the Kickstarter short video. Brief interlude: What is Kickstarter? And what does it have to do with Clyde?

The reason we had traveled to south Florida in the first place was to start filming video for a documentary on Clyde Butcher. For all of my dad’s previous projects he has had corporate sponsors but, this time around, he wanted to try a new model. Clyde has a large fan base that really believe in him and what he does. Maybe there is way to include his fans in making the film? Turns out this is exactly what Kickstarter is for–gather a large group of people together to fund a project. In this case, it is a documentary on the life of Clyde Butcher. We are starting our campaign on March 3rd (just 2 days away!), and this is the first time our company has tried this model. I, for one, am really excited about this because our team not only gets bigger but exponentially so. We become one large group of people working together to form something larger than ourselves. I must confess that to work on this sort of project with a large team has been a dream of mine since I was a kid. I didn’t dream of being a cowboy or a cop. I dreamed of working for Pixar or Nintendo and sitting down at a table and creating a movie or a video game that people would enjoy, remember, and take with them. So, yes, I the idea of a Kickstarter is exciting to me. I want it to work, and I want to write a documentary on Clyde that people will enjoy. (And here is my shameless plug: we really do need your help to make it happen. If you want to support this check back here on Tuesday evening at 8:30 PM EST–we will have the link for the Kickstarter posted and it will be live from March 3rd-31st. Thank you! Now you can go back to enjoying the article.)


Anyway, back to the swamp: The opening shot for the Kickstarter video is my dad standing knee-deep in the Big Cypress Swamp behind Clyde’s Big Cypress Gallery. Joey was running the camera and I was taking pictures of our set-up. It was then that I stopped for a moment to think about it all. The last time I was here doing swamp walks was as a kid. Little did I know that as an adult I would be back filming with my Dad working on a documentary on Clyde Butcher. I thought it was a really cool way to start things off: Here we are, back at the place where my Dad first met Clyde over 25 years ago (before I was even a twinkle in his eye!), and we are creating a documentary on his life story.

A panoramic of Elam Stoltzfus delivering the intro to the Kickstarter short while Joey Dickinson films. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A panoramic of Elam Stoltzfus delivering the intro to the Kickstarter short while Joey Dickinson films. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.


Nic on a swamp walk with his dad, Elam.

Nic on a swamp walk with his dad, Elam.


Trying to get a photo of baby gators. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.

Trying to get a photo of baby gators. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.

A baby gator. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A baby gator. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.


After this, Joey and I filmed another swamp walk. When we finished cleaning up, our crew left for Everglades City for a late lunch. We stopped at Camellia Street Grill, found a table outside, and waited for our food to arrive. There was a slight breeze and not a cloud in the sky. It was nice to feel the sun on my face—February in north Florida is still cold and cloudy, and the warmth was a welcome precursor to spring. In a way, though, since south Florida is partly tropical, it is eternal spring. Some people like this. I like a bit of cold weather and cloudy days if only because it makes me appreciate sunshine and warmth even more. Plus, as my momma told me, “too much sunshine leaves you burned.”

Nic and Joey with their swamp walk crew.

Nic and Joey with their swamp walk crew.


Once we finished eating, we picked up a quart of ice cream for the swamp crew, and headed back to the gallery. I read a few more short stories from my Flannery O’Conner book before dark and then headed upstairs to meet up with the rest of the swamp crew. Later that evening, Joey got out his guitar and played for us while John, one of the muck-about guides and employee at Big Cypress National Preserve, played harmonica. It was a really good set and they meshed well together even thought they had only known each other for less than two days. The second song in, Joey sang a modified version of Bob Dylan’s ballad “Motorpsycho Nightmare”; he switched the main character to Clyde and changed the setting to Florida. It was amusing and elicited whistles and loud applause after the duo finished the song.


Later in the evening he played one of my favorite songs, “Laundry Room” by the Avett Brothers. I really like the refrain: “I am a breathing time machine.” Since the song is about the ephemerality of love, I thought those words to be quite poignant. Not only is the song beautifully written, but there are some complex chords in the piece and Joey has continued to practice it and has gotten quite good.


After he finished his set, we went to bed, all of us ready to head back to Blountstown the next day. Before I went to sleep, I lay in bed thinking about all the great things we did over the last few days. It was a great trip, and I couldn’t wait to look through all the photos and video from the last few days.


Joey and John playing up a storm. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.

Joey and John playing up a storm. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.


A Weekend with Clyde Butcher, Part II: Valentine’s Day in the Swamp

By Nic Stoltzfus

February 28th, 2015


Swamp Crew Valentine's Day cake

Swamp Crew Valentine’s Day cake


Before I begin this post, let me begin with a preface: I am single. And in my mid-twenties.


This is a period of time when relatives begin to turn up the heat on finding a companion. I have discovered that uncles are particularly zealous in this task. In fact, it is usually the first question they ask me. “Sooooo, Nic, how is your LOVE life?” I have taken to finding creative responses for this question. To one uncle I replied, “Well, I was thinking the same thing—how is your love life with Aunt B.?” To another quizzing uncle at a family dinner, I nodded my head at my likewise unmarried cousin a few years younger than me and replied, “The same as your daughter’s love life: I’m happily single and open to options.” The most fervent attempt to find me a mate was one uncle’s crusade in online dating on my behalf. “Nic, I could sign you up for Christian Mingle or EHarmony. They even have a dating site for guys living in rural areas called ‘Farmers Only.’” I was mortified.


With all this being said, when I found out that I was going to be going to the Big Cypress Swamp to film swamp walks on Valentine’s Day, I punched my fists in the air and yelled a heroic, “Heck ya! I got plans for V-Day!” You see, I hadn’t been on a swamp walk since I was a kid. I grew up with a swamp behind the house in north Florida, and I am endlessly fascinated by all the bugs and critters hiding in those murky waters. A date with the swamp was just the thing.


The night before V-Day Dad, Joey, and I drove to the Big Cypress Swamp Gallery from Miami after filming one of Clyde’s new galleries opening in Coconut Grove.


On Valentine’s Day, I woke up early and spent the morning drinking coffee with my Dad, Clyde Butcher, and his wife, Niki. They soon left and went out to get ready for the swamp walks. After everyone left, I got my laptop and plopped down on the big sofa upstairs in the cabin overlooking the swamp. It was quiet. Peaceful. All I could hear was the whirring of overhead fans and the muted ticking of a bird-shaped clock on the wall. I looked out through the large glass panels and witnessed the brilliant and bright-white morning light slashing through cypress limbs and filtering downward, slowed by fern fronds and bromeliad leaves. The sunbeams reached the black surface of swamp water and reflected upward on the cypress trunks and knees, the soft strands of light rippling on the rough bark like a glittering harp.


I took another sip of coffee and thought about what Niki told me this morning. She said that there was a man who was giving a presentation on ecology and, at the beginning, he handed everyone a blue marble. At the end of the presentation he asked everyone to get out their blue marbles and hold it in their right hand with their thumb and forefinger. “Look at it closely. Observe every crack and crevice.” The audience did so. The presenter then put up a slide showing Earth. He said, “You are holding the world in your hands. You have the power to change this planet. Now go out and share what you have learned today.”


If the Earth is a marble, what am I? I am but an atom on its surface—tiny, small, fragile. I thought on this a moment, took another gulp of coffee and closed my laptop, ready to meet up with my group for a swamp walk.


I walked to the gallery and snapped a few photos of people meeting Clyde. A family of tourists from China chatted with Clyde for a bit. An Austrian man gave Clyde a calendar of his photos of birds in the Everglades. A little boy with glasses hid shyly behind his mother as she said, “We came all the way from Miami; my son wanted to meet you today.” They got behind the desk to get a photo with him and the boy hopped onto Clyde’s lap. With a smile covering his face, he waved goodbye to Clyde as they left the gallery. After about half an hour of watching Clyde chat with visitors, I went outside and mingled with some of the gallery workers while I waited for the 1:00 swamp walk. Finally, the tour guide, Trish, assembled everyone on the walk and we started off. There were about 15 of us in the group with Trish leading the train of people and me as the caboose; I wanted to make sure I got plenty of good pictures of people schlepping about the swamp!


A family meeting Clyde Butcher at the Big Cypress Gallery.

A family meeting Clyde Butcher at the Big Cypress Gallery.

Joey and Elam filming Clyde. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

Joey and Elam filming Clyde. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

Elam filming Clyde. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

Elam filming Clyde. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

To keep me company at the back was a young couple from Tampa. The boyfriend informed me that the evening before they had waltzed away the night at a Valentine’s Day soiree held in a ballroom overlooking the Tampa skyline. Today his girlfriend traded a sparkly evening gown for bug spray and old sneakers and he thought it was pretty cool that she was the one who planned the whole thing. “She’s a keeper,” he said to me with a twinkle in his eyes. About a third of the way through a tour guide from another group, Dylann, joined up with us. She knew much about swamp plants and taught us the names for different ones as we walked. There were bladder-wort, cocoplum, wax myrtle, cardinal bromeliads, resurrection ferns…All these different species living together, breathing together, forming one giant system. Cypress trees growing out of the porous coral with a myriad of other plants living on their trunks and limbs. Flora like alveoli in our respiratory tracts transmogrifying carbon dioxide to oxygen. Perhaps this is what it feels like to live in a lung?


A couple enjoying the swamp walk. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A couple enjoying the swamp walk. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.


We finished our walk, sprayed the mud off our muck-soaked sneakers and changed into dry clothes. I said goodbye to the tour group and worked on a few images before supper.


On my way upstairs for supper, I felt my phone buzz and looked at a message from my sister. It was a Valentine’s Day E-card: R4 is red, R2 is blue, if I was the force, I’d be with you! I smiled and went inside.


A Valentine's Day E-Card from Laura

A Valentine’s Day E-Card from Laura


By the time I arrived, all the other volunteers were getting their plates and queuing by the food. Jackie had a large spread set out for us: barbecue, baked beans, rolls, green beans, and even a carrot cake that read “Happy Valentine’s Day to the Swamp Crew.” One of the volunteers handed me a piece of homemade chocolate quinoa cake she had baked. I was a little skeptical at first (quinoa? In a cake? In a chocolate cake? How can you ruin my chocolate with something that sounds that healthy?!), but I have tasted it and have come back with good news: it was the best chocolate cake I have ever eaten in my life, and I was soon recalcitrant for judging the chocolate-quinoa pairing. Yes, quinoa, you can be friends with chocolate. Please go on a date in my mouth anytime you desire.


Although words cannot do such feels justice, I will attempt a paean to this holy pairing:


Excerpt from “An Ode to a Chocolate-Quinoa Cake


O chocolate-quinioa cake! O Cool fudginess!

Be still my sugar-crazed heart! You have

Melted my heart of all other passions.

Unlike the lava cakes they sell at Applebees,

You are not cloying

Nor overly saccharine.

Your taste is like the full-bodied taste of Guinness

Enjoyed after a long day.

Deliciousness is truth, deliciousness beauty,” – Earth is

The only planet with chocolate. That is all ye need to know.


The crew sat around chatting late into the night and I had a realization: Valentine’s Day needn’t be just for dates. It is about love—and love can be found in many different ways. Love can be found in a hot cup of coffee, or in a chat with old friends. Love can be found in nature, love can be found in the corniness of lampooned poem. These moments are just as real, and just as life-sustaining. There are many avenues to love. So, there is no reason for single people to fret on Valentine’s Day. Love really is all around you—you just have to look for it.


A group of volunteers at the Big Cypress Gallery. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A group of volunteers at the Big Cypress Gallery. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.


Tomorrow’s blog: A Weekend with Clyde Butcher, Part III: A Harmonica/Guitar Duo





A Weekend with Clyde Butcher, Part I: Getting to Miami and the Coconut Grove Gallery Opening

By Nic Stoltzfus

February 27th, 2015


The Thursday before President’s Day weekend Dad, Joey, and I left Blountstown driving to south Florida to meet with Clyde Butcher and film some events for him. A new gallery in Coconut Grove in Miami was opening to the public on Friday and then the Big Cypress Gallery was hosting swamp walks Saturday and Sunday. We are currently working on a documentary on Clyde Butcher and these were key events that we want to include in the film.


On our way south we spent the night with Joey’s grandparents, Richard and Donna, in the small town of Citra near Ocala. We met them for dinner at Blue Highway Pizza in Micanopy. We all love pizza and Blue Highway also has some of the best wings this side of the Apalachicola River. Joey’s grandparents ordered a small pepperoni pizza and we ordered Joey’s favorite, buffalo chicken pizza; between the three of us, we finished off the whole pie. After supper we went back to Joey’s grandparents’ house in the backwoods of Ocala. We chatted for a while, drank hot chocolate, and ate delicious homemade cookies courtesy of Donna. I went to bed early in anticipation of the long drive to Miami.

Eating Blue Highway Pizza! Image by Elam Stoltzfus.

Eating Blue Highway Pizza! Image by Elam Stoltzfus.


On Friday morning we had bagels and hot coffee for breakfast. We said our goodbyes to Richard and Donna and began the drive to Miami. About halfway in, we stopped at the Canoe Creek Service Plaza right outside of Yeehaw Junction on the Florida Turnpike. It was interesting watching all the people at the plaza walking all over the place namby pamby; Tourists wore t-shirts featuring sports teams from Detroit, Ontario, New York, Boston.


We finished our lunch and began driving towards Coconut Grove. It took us about an hour to get through the traffic in Coconut Grove as vendors set up for the Presidents’ Day weekend art show, but, despite the heavy traffic, we found a parking spot.


Dad and Joey were both videoing the event, and I took pictures with my Nikon D800. I had my zoom lens on the camera and captured some great close-up shots of people looking at Clyde’s art in the gallery. I was impressed with the gallery. The white walls and honey-colored wood floors create a modern-style minimalism that is filled with Clyde’s chaotic and rugged images. The contrast is alluring and attractive to the eye.

The front of the Clyde Butcher gallery. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.

The front of the Clyde Butcher gallery. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.

The front of the Clyde Butcher Coconut Grove Gallery. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

The front of the Clyde Butcher Coconut Grove Gallery. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A visitor viewing one of Clyde's photos. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A visitor viewing one of Clyde’s photos. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

Soon after dark we left, headed towards the Big Cypress Swamp gallery for the Presidents’ Day weekend swamp walks. Clyde’s daughter, Jackie, caught a ride back with us because she had to wake up early the following day to drive back to Coconut Grove for the art show.


On our way out of Miami we stopped at the last Publix before civilization ends and turns to swampland. Joey and I ran inside to get supplies for the weekend. We arrived at the Big Cypress Gallery soon after 9. Jackie said goodnight and went upstairs to the cabin the gallery rents out to guests. Joey, Dad, and I were staying downstairs in the “Man Cave”, a room with a full sized bed and a bunk bed we would call home for the next three nights. After reading a few short stories by Flannery O’Conner, I was about to go to sleep when I heard a knock on the door and a hullo. Clyde came to our room, pulled up a chair, and chatted with us. He told us several stories, including things I had never heard before. I learned that he and Niki wanted to move to Florida from California, not because of the photography, but because of the sailing. He said his vision of Florida was all dolphins—based on the movie “Flipper.” He talked about growing up, his family, and the future. Dad, Joey, and I all listened, fascinated by these bed-time stories. After a spell, he yawned, put the chair back, and headed to his camper to go to bed. Dad clicked off the light and I soon fell asleep.


Stick around for tomorrow’s blog, A Weekend with Clyde Butcher, Part II: Valentine’s Day in the Swamp

The Story of How “The Mighty Quapaws” Got Accepted Into the Clarksdale Film Festival

By Joey Dickinson

Wednesday, January 28th


As some followers of this blog may recall, on December 5th, 2013, the Live Oak Production team banded together with a crew of six other men, whom we would soon know as fellow “river rats,” in order to launch the first ever test of Google’s “Riverview” concept on the Apalachicola River. The crew was a diverse one: the project itself was spearheaded by Kristian Gustavson of Below the Surface, a research group out of San Diego, California; we were joined by explorer Justin Riney, who was on the verge of finishing his year-long Expedition Florida 500 project (in which he paddle boarded completely around and throughout Florida); the vessel which was to carry the Google camera was crafted by John Ruskey and Mark “River” Peoples from Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale, Mississippi; Daniel Veshinski accompanied Kristian all the way from the West Coast rounding out the crew was Paul Veselack, Kristian’s stepfather, who traveled from Illinois to serve as the team medic and designated comedian.

The trip was like a dream. We got along swimmingly, something remarkable considering we didn’t know each other before the trip. Putting a huge amount of physical energy forth every day, setting up camp and cooking every night, breaking down camp and doing it all over again for almost a week straight can put pressure on anyone. However, it seemed that the further we went down the river, the more we got along. And the further we went down the river, the more we got to know each other. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I heard countless stories from Justin’s adventure around the state of Florida, from Danny’s service in the Navy, and even from Paul’s experience in medicine. Everyone had a phenomenal attitude: a vigorous love for adventure, an incessant need to be closer to nature, a tireless teamwork perspective, a lust for life. My interest was particularly piqued when River began to tell me about his adventures with the Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Considered to be one of the origins of the Delta Blues, Clarksdale is a small old southern town where the blues still reigns, and a river mightier than the Apalachicola runs through the backs of the residents’ minds constantly. This has been the home of Quapaw Canoe Company since John, better known as “Driftwood,” started the operation in 1998 with the sole purpose of sharing the beauty of the greatest river in North America. River continued to tell me that not only is this canoe company the only way for folks to experience the river motor-free for at least a hundred miles, but it is also the only way to experience the river the way that early explorers did: paddling the river on traditional, hand-made canoes. Just as I thought to myself, “What could top that?” River explained that the canoe company also offers an after school program for youth in Clarksdale, called the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program, in which they instill environmentalism, teamwork, leadership and personal perseverance by way of teaching “canoe ethics.”


Joey on the Apalachicola River on the expedition where he met John Ruskey and River Peoples. Photo by Elam Stoltzfus.

Joey on the Apalachicola River on the expedition where he met John Ruskey and River Peoples. Photo by Elam Stoltzfus.


I was intrigued by what was going on in Clarksdale and wanted to see it for myself. After we finished paddling the Apalachicola River, I asked John Ruskey if I could come to Clarksdale to create a documentary on the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program as senior project in Media Production before I graduated from Florida State University and, to my delight, he agreed.


I headed to Clarksdale for spring break, along with Nic to give me an extra hand, which would be much needed, with no real ‘plan’ other than to film everything I could, and to develop a story as I went along. Thankfully, my now employer, Elam Stoltzfus, whom I was just interning for at the time, agreed to produce the film, and granted me use of his professional equipment for the project, of which I am extremely thankful. I knew that at the very least, I would come back with a decent film about an after-school program, but after filming for five very full days, the story, and the trip itself, had developed into much more than I’d ever imagined possible. The folks at Quapaw Canoe Company are simply incomparable to any other organization I can think of, and the more learned about them, and the more I learned from them, the better the story got. This wasn’t as simple as I’d thought. This wasn’t merely one man’s attempt to help out his community while simultaneously promoting the preservation of the big river, it was the story of generations of innovators, willing to pass on their wisdom to the next generation and preserve what they’d learn. It was the story of a different way of life as one big family, with no traces of “no,” or “can’t” in the family tree. It was a passing on of principles and purpose; whether it be through the emotion-evoking, storytelling art of playing the blues, or through the eye-opening art of canoe building. How on earth could these things possibly be connected? Well, I suppose you’ll have to watch the film to find out.


John Ruskey with a group of students from Mississippi State University.

John Ruskey with a group of students from Mississippi State University.


Over five days in Clarksdale, Nic and I had filmed from sunrise to sunset; we’d paddled upstream on the mammoth Mississippi to stop at one of the river’s many islands; we observed the Mighty Quapaws learning canoe building skills; the two of us visited various “juke joints” to listen to true, unspoiled, “I-believe-God’s-lookin-down-crosseyed-on-me,” blues; and we spoke to some of the most genuine, life-loving, honest-to-goodness people I’ve ever come across. It was an adventure of a lifetime, and I was confident that I’d captured a heck of a story—I only wish I could have stayed longer!


As Nic and I departed, we carried with us a few souvenirs: Over 10 hours of footage containing interviews that I would later transcribe to over 25 pages of text, a few CDs purchased from Watermelon Slim and Razor E. Blade (two grizzled and aged Vietnam vets turned blues singers), a few books given to us as gifts from Driftwood, and two hats. The hats were given to us by our loyal host, Mark River. The hats, although different colors, both said the same thing: “Live Simply.” This is the overall attitude I took away from the entire experience, and I have to say it has fundamentally altered the way I go about living my life. Upon coming home to Florida I had one goal in mind: to do justice to what I had just experienced by making a documentary that not only explained what the apprenticeship program is currently doing for Clarksdale’s community, but also told the story of how it all came to be – how it all dated back to music.

Watermelon Slim singing at Bluesberry Cafe.

Watermelon Slim singing at Bluesberry Cafe.


Watermelon Slim lookin' sideways at the camera

Watermelon Slim lookin’ sideways at the camera

Seven months later, I am honored to say that my documentary, The Mighty Quapaws, has been accepted for screening in the Clarksdale Film Festival. For those who will be attending the festival, here is the blurb about it that the festival planners put in the schedule of events:

 Friday, January 30th

4:30 PM, UPSTAIRS THEATER: Delta Cinema

The Mighty Quapaws

(17 min.) New documentary tells the story of the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Founded by John “Riverman” Ruskey of Quapaw Canoe Company, the young program teaches “canoe ethics” — using the “Mr. Johnnie method” — to brighten the lives of his students and the future of the river itself. Directed by Joseph Dickinson.


My hope is that those attending the festival will get a taste of the incredible story and lifestyle of the Quapaw family. As I tell my friends and family, “I really just wanted a reason to go back!” I can’t wait to represent my film in person, and to be reunited with my river-rat brothers. If you’d like to read more about the behind-the-scenes of filming in Clarksdale, you can read Nic’s blog series HERE, and you can watch The Mighty Quapaws below.


Australia’s Great Lakes Part VI: Mungo Brush and the Aftermath

By Nic Stoltzfus

Day Six: Tuesday, August 26th & Summary 

*(Short video included below)


On Tuesday we grabbed lunch at a local café in Bulahdelah and then drove down to Bombah Point, a jut of land that divides Boolambayte Lake and Bombah Broadwater. Here we explored a small museum across from the Myall Lakes Holiday Park info-center that offered information about the surrounding region. After we looked around for a few minutes we drove onto the ferry, which took us across the channel until we could begin driving in Mungo Brush.


We soon stopped and hiked out onto the beach and got some great shots of the sand dunes. After documenting this area we got back in our car to drive south to Tea Gardens. We ate dinner here and then drove back to the farmhouse for the night.

Approaching thunderclouds over Mungo Brush.

Approaching thunderclouds over Mungo Brush.


More clouds over the dunes at Mungo Brush.

More clouds over the dunes at Mungo Brush.

Over the next two days Dad and I had time to reflect on our trip and also plan for the next year. It was cold and rainy outside, so it was a great time to hole up and work inside. I made soup one evening and, at Dr. Stock’s recommendation, used vegemite as a base. For those unfamiliar with vegemite—it is a dark brown Australian food paste made from leftover brewers’ yeast extract. It smells like salty shoe leather and tastes somewhat similar. Despite my consternation about using the paste I figured “what the heck” and scooped a hefty dollop in the soup. It actually turned out pretty good!

Vegemite. Men At Work sing about it in their song "Land Down Under."  Picture from Wikimedia Commons.

Vegemite. Men At Work sing about it in their song “Land Down Under.”
Picture from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday we drove back to Brisbane and stayed the night with Dr. Stock and his family. We woke up a little before six the following morning to catch our flight back home. On the airplane, I thought about our time in Australia. Dad and I pitched the idea to our sponsor to go to Australia to do a comparison of the coastal dune lakes there and the ones we have in Florida. One of the reasons Dad was emphatic about going was because of a knowledge gap in Walton County: People there talked about the existence of dune lakes in other places such as Australia, New Zealand, and Madagascar, but not much was known about them. He wanted this documentary to present a comparison study between lakes found in New Zealand and Australia with those found in Florida. With the clock ticking, we didn’t have time to visit New Zealand this time around, but the idea of documenting the lakes there looms large.


Dad and I chatted on the way back and we agreed that this is only the beginning. There are so many more places we could have seen, so many other things we could have documented! The one place that I wanted to visit but didn’t get a chance was Broughton Island. The aborigines of the area, the Worimi people, inhabited the island for at least 2,000 years. Little Penguins, the world’s smallest penguins, still call this island home. In Australia, they are typically called “fairy penguins.” I glanced out the window wistfully as our plane descended into the darkened landscape of Panama City. That’s it: Some people wish upon a star. I’ll make a wish upon a fairy penguin—and I’ll wish to return to the Land Down Under.



A Fairy Penguin! Picture by JJ Harrison; uploaded from Wikimedia Commons.

A Fairy Penguin! Picture by JJ Harrison from Wikimedia Commons.



Read the series from the beginning at Australia’s Great Lakes Part I: Getting There.

Australia’s Great Lakes Part V: Myall Lake National Park and Smiths Lake Sandbar


By Nic Stoltzfus

Monday morning we woke up, packed our gear, and set out for the Tasman Sea. We drove out on Lakes Way and turned right at the little village of Bungwhal, onto Seal Rocks Road.


Our first stop was Sugarloaf Bay. I glanced skyward—it was a clear morning and the warm sun felt good on my face. I was happy to have a day that began without fog obscuring the sunlight. However, the fog was forecast to return later in the week, bringing rain and chill. But today was a welcome respite from the damp cold; families and surfers dotted the beach in equal enjoyment of a sunny day.

A surfer getting ready to head out and catch some waves.

A surfer getting ready to head out and catch some waves.


Sugarloaf Bay with Statis Rock off to the right.

Sugarloaf Bay with Statis Rock off to the right.

I took off my boots, rolled up my jeans, and waded across a thin strip of water-covered sand so I could climb up Statis Rock. From here I focused my lens to the north and got some great shots of the Smiths Lake outfall off in the distance. I stood on the rocks for a while and watched the surfers bobbing in communion with the waves, and the waves rushing forward towards the rocky coast and booming upward like watery fireworks.


Rush, beat, BOOM! Rush, beat, BOOM! Rush, beat, BOOM!


Compared to the dynamo and loud pulsing push-pull of the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico seems relatively mild and laconic. Calm waters quietly petting the sand and receding back with a gentle goodbye. Hushed greetings, a soothing whisper.


Waves crashing on Statis Rock--you can almost make out the sandbar from Smiths Lake out in the distance.

Waves crashing on Statis Rock–you can almost make out the sandbar from Smiths Lake out in the distance.

BOOM! A crash of waves.

BOOM! A crash of waves.

After my few minutes of meditation, I grappled the rock back downward to the sandy shoreline and Dad and I drove to nearby Myall Lakes National Park. Here, we walked out to Trespass Point and got some nice pictures of the sand dunes. Unlike the dunes in Florida, people here are able to walk and even drive over parts of them. This may be due in part to the massive size of these dunes, and the large amount of land they occupy.


Soon, Dad did a timelapse of the clouds forming over the dunes, and when finished, we packed up and drove north to Smiths Lake. We followed the contour of Smiths Lake and got out at Sandbar & Bushland Caravan Park. From here we walked south to the Smiths Lake sandbar. Dad set up his tripod again and got some great timelapse video of more clouds forming over the sandbar––huge clouds growing darker with the signs of an approaching storm­­––and we soon knew it was time to leave. It was about a 2.5 mile hike to the sandbar and back, with heavy gear trudging through soft sand—and after a long day already filled with hiking. By the time I reached the car I was cold, hungry, tired, and a bit dehydrated. Dad felt about the same, so we stopped at the bowling club in the community of Smiths Lake and sat down for a spell to enjoy some hot chocolate.


Click here to read the last blog in the series, Australia’s Great Lakes Part VI: Mungo Brush and the Aftermath, and also watch the short video we made about the lakes.

Australia’s Great Lakes Part IV: An Aerial View and Interviewing Dr. Stock

By Nic Stoltzfus

Day Four: Sunday, August 24th


Newcastle Helicopter's Robinson R44 Helicopter.

Newcastle Helicopter’s Robinson R44 Helicopter.

Sunday we headed back to Nelson Bay for a final attempt to fly the helicopter over the lake. When we arrived that morning it was still too cloudy, but John the pilot told us that in several hours it was forecast to be clear and sunny. During the wait, Dad, Errol, and I drove down to the bayside of Nelson Bay and sat down on a park bench overlooking the fog-shrouded sea. Elam and I set up our camera equipment to interview Dr. Errol Stock.


As soon as the camera began rolling, Dr. Stock’s eyes lit up and I knew it was going to be a fun interview. He was so descriptive about the dune lakes and he found a way to make geology sound poetic:


“What we’ve just seen here at the Myall Lakes, some of these lakes have a history going back to 120,000 years. You have the potential for prevailing wind directions moving the sediment along the shore, shaping little moon-shaped bays, maybe even cementing lakes. And the potential then for wonderful complexity is right on your doorstep.”


He reminded me of a blend between a wizened Zen monk and an old-school college professor. A twinkle in his eye, he didn’t spout inscrutable koans but, rather, lucid explanations about the Earth and its geology. An astute man with a researcher’s thoroughness, he answered every question with thoughtful deliberation—and a poet’s flourish.


“When you do research you usually have to write it up and record it and share it with students or with colleagues or whatever. That is an important part of it. We’ve already established that. But there is this emotional experience, “Ah, yes, lovely. Sand, water, weather, rain.” And it’s essentially part of the reward of being alive and enjoying it all at the same time. But because of my scientific interest it enhances what I see and do. I can ask the kind of questions that other people might not ask and that’s okay, but it’s good for me. Excitement. Pleasure.”


His words corroborated with what I learned from Dr. Kjerfve: sometimes coastal dune lakes around the world are also called coastal lagoons, and that “the scientific fraternity would probably put them all under the term “lagoons” simply because of the way that the study has developed from different parts of the world.”


He talked about the Ramsar designation (the name comes from Ramsar, Iran—where the designation was approved by the United Nations); the full title is “The Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.” Dr. Stock gave us more information on this demarcation and its meaning.


“Ramsar is essentially a worldwide registration of wetlands of importance and it’s an inventory which has some management implications to the states and to the national organizations concerned to protect them.”


There are over 2,000 Ramsar Sites worldwide and the UK claims the most with 170 sites.


In Australia, Myall Lake is designated as a wetland of international importance. In Florida, sites listed under the Ramsar designation include Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Everglades National Park, and Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. It seems to me that the coastal dune lakes in Florida would fit well as a Ramsar Site, right?


By the time we finished the interview with Dr. Stock, the sky had cleared and the day turned into a beautiful winter afternoon. We drove back to the helipad, John prepped the Robinson 44 helicopter, removed the doors in order for Dad and me to take pictures, and buzzed off.


It was amazing seeing it from the air—the scale is much larger, vaster than the lakes in Florida. About a month prior, I did an aerial of the dune lakes in Florida and the whole area is flat. As we chopped over, I fully recognized the difference in landscape. Large piles of dunes, heroic mountains; the lakes seemed to disappear on the horizon.

The town of Tea Gardens along the Myall River and Port Stephens.

The town of Tea Gardens along the Myall River and Port Stephens.


An aerial view of Myall Lake.

An aerial view of Myall Lake.

After we flew over Smiths Lake, we turned back to Nelson Bay. We landed, thanked John, and began the drive to Boolambayte. Dad and I dropped Errol off at the bus station as he was going to Brisbane. We would meet back up with him in five days to stay the night before flying home. After dropping him off, we made our way home through the dark.

Read what happens next at Australia’s Great Lakes Part V: Myall Lake National Park and Smiths Lake Sandbar.

Australia’s Great Lakes Part III: Myall River and the Broadwater

By Nic Stoltzfus

Day Three: Saturday, August 23rd


Gan-Gan Lookout with gymea lilies in the foreground.

Gan-Gan Lookout with gymea lilies in the foreground.


Saturday we headed back to Neslon Bay for a second attempt to fly over the area with a helicopter. We talked to the pilot, John Herrick, and he said the weather was looking a bit dodgy, but we could have a look at the rest of the area by going up to Gan Gan Lookout, an overview at the top of Gan Gan Hill near the helipad. We drove up the steep road and walked to the overlook. It was a near 360 degree lookout with only a few trees blocking a portion to our southeast. Port Stephens, where the Myall River flows into, was shrouded in fog and I watched a lone boat disappear into the pillowy blanket of water vapor. Clustered around the lookout were these beautiful lilies with little birds hopping from flower to flower, drawing nectar from the blood-red blooms. Dr. Stock told me these are gymea lilies and the little birds are called silver eyes. I peered through my zoom lens at the birds and, sure enough, their eyes were like little crescents of shining silver dollars. I captured some pictures and we drove back to the helipad. Alas, the fog didn’t lift so we rescheduled the helicopter fly-over for a third and final try on Sunday. We really needed these aerial shots to tell the story of the lakes, and I hoped that it would work out tomorrow!


A silver-eye on a gymea lily.

A silver-eye on a gymea lily.


A close-up of a silver-eye on a gymea lily.

A close-up of a silver-eye on a gymea lily.


From Nelson Bay we drove around the port to the north side of the Bay at Tea Gardens. Although we could make out the outline of Tea Gardens and nearby Hawk’s Nest from across the bay, there is no bridge spanning Port Stephens, so we had to make a 45-minute drive around to get to the other side.


We arrived at Tea Gardens a little after one. It is a small town and a working seafood port with a mix of tourism, shops and local community. Here we met up with Ross Fidden at his restaurant, Mumm’s on the Myall, located on the western banks of the Myall River. Along with owning the restaurant, Ross is an active fisherman and is also the Chairman of the Commercial Fishermen’s Co-Operative, Ltd. Errol, Dad, and I hopped onto Ross’ construction yellow fishing boat and began heading up the Myall River towards the first lake in the Myall River system—the Broadwater. By now the fog was saturated with water and it began drizzling a steady light rain. We zipped up our waterproof jackets and slid the cameras back into the Pelican cases. With the wind rushing past us as we coursed up the Myall, this Florida boy was cold! After half an hour Ross slowed down and pulled up to a fishing cabin. When we stopped he told us that this is his campsite when fishing prawns along the Myall.


“Prawns here will start about October and normally run from about October which, in Australia, is the spring. Start of the summer. Summer starts in December. And they will run through about ‘til April, May and even sometimes June, which is winter. The water is still cooling down then. And it normally happens around the time of the full moon. So, we start prawning here from about full moon and will go on for about two weeks after that and then the prawns tend to go away with the new moon and come back on with the full moon.”


Ross' fishing boat.

Ross’ fishing boat.


Ross' fishing camp along the Myall River.

Ross’ fishing camp along the Myall River.


He also offered a clear definition about how each of the different Great Lakes work,


“…They’re totally different lakes. And even thought they’re very, very close together, Wallis Lake opens directly into the ocean and Wallis Lake has only got a channel that is about a kilometer long from the ocean to the actual lakes itself. Smiths Lake then has another set-up where it’s what I call a closed lake and it only opens to the ocean. And generally when it has been opened up by man, so it is a lake like a dam a few hundred meters from the ocean. Sometimes when it reaches a certain level they will dig a channel and let it go out into the ocean and the ocean comes in and flushes it. Or, if it is a big flood, it might open itself through pressure across the beach into the ocean. So, that makes Smiths Lake a very unique situation. And then we have the Myall Lakes. And the very top lake [Myall Lake] in the Myall is very, very clear water. It is a big lake. It is a whole different lake than what the bottom lake [The Broadwater] is because the bottom lake can be brackish whereas the top lake is fairly fresh because of the distance to get there and there is no rivers that run into it. It’s just run-off from the rainfall.”


After taking a break we followed the Myall River upstream until we reached the aptly named Broadwater. The lake is expansive with the distant shoreline appearing small in the distance, especially when compared to the rolling mountains rimming the lake.


Ross Fidden.

Ross Fidden.


A view of the Broadwater from the back of Ross' boat.

A view of the Broadwater from the back of Ross’ boat.


We looped around the southern half of the Broadwater and made our way back to Ross’ restaurant. By the time we arrived I was wet, cold, tired, and hungry. So, we went inside the restaurant and Errol, Dad, and I each ordered the same thing: seafood chowder. It arrived piping hot and chockfull of several different types of local seafood, including fresh prawns. I spooned out a chunk of the chowder with a piece of brown bread and took a bite—I could feel the heat moving outward from my stomach and warming my frozen bones. I smiled and looked across the table at Errol and Dad. Not much was said that meal, surely a good sign of three hungry guys enjoying their food. Looking back, it was the best meal I had in Australia. What a way to end the day!


Nic and Errol Stock packing up the gear at the end of the day.

Nic and Errol Stock packing up the gear at the end of the day.


Next week’s blog: Australia’s Great Lakes Part IV: An Aerial View and Interviewing Dr. Stock.


Australia’s Great Lakes Part II: Smiths Lake

By Nic Stoltzfus

Day Two: Friday, August 22nd

Les Cheers contemplating a rainbow overlooking Smiths Lake.

Les Cheers contemplating a rainbow overlooking Smiths Lake.

The next day we woke up around six in the morning and headed down to Nelson Bay, roughly a 45-minute drive south from the farmhouse. Here we planned to take a helicopter and fly over the lakes to get some aerial shots. Dad told the pilot he wanted to film the Myall Lakes system and Smiths Lake.

The Myall Lakes system is a collection of three interconnected lakes that eventually flow into Port Stephens. Myall Lake is the northernmost and freshest of the three lakes; they get more and more estuarine/salty as the water heads further south into the Port. Boolambayte Lake is saltier than Myall Lake and Boombah Broadwater is the saltiest of the three.

Think of the Myall Lakes system as a snake that has swallowed two big eggs and a horseshoe. Beginning with the snake’s tail, Myall Lake is the first egg that narrowly connects to the swallowed horseshoe, Boolambayte Lake, which connects to the last egg, Boombah Broadwater. After this, the Myall River snakes around a bit before the river mouth opens into a delta at Port Stephens.

Smiths Lake is a smallish egg-shaped lake nestled between the Myall Lakes system to the south and Wallis Lake to the north.

It was an overcast and misty morning as we drove down, and I was unsure whether we would be able to do a fly-over. By the time we arrived at the helipad the fog had cleared and what began as a foggy Friday had become a crisp winter day. Our pilot, John Herrick, checked with the Australian Royal Air Force to see if we were cleared for a fly-over, but they told John they were doing military training over the lakes and we wouldn’t be able to go up today.

We rescheduled for tomorrow and headed back north to Smiths Lake to meet up with the Cheers family. We arrived a little after one in the afternoon and were greeted by Kath, the matriarch and family historian. She introduced us to her husband, Les (pronounced Lars, like Owen Lars from Star Wars), her son Mike, and his wife and daughter. Les is a fourth generation fisherman in this area and Mike is following in his footsteps.

Kath invited us into her home and showed us around. On her walls hung pictures by a photographer who came in and shot Mike and Les working, one Urs Buhlman. We then joined her at the dining room table and she offered us tea and vickies (cookies).

Les grabbed a beer from the fridge, popped it open, and began telling us stories.

He told us a story about Wallis Lake, famous for Sydney Rock oysters. In the late ‘90s there was a Hepatitis A outbreak from pollution in the lake, which caused a tainted-oyster related death and resulted in national news coverage. Because of this, there is now more regulation of the lakes.

He told us how he once got $10,000 (Australian) for a yellowfin tuna. When the purchasers came to pick up the tuna they treated it like a fragile handcrafted vase. The fish was gently wrapped, iced down, and shipped to Tokyo to be sliced and served at the finest sushi restaurants in Japan.

He talked about what they are doing to improve their business: Most commercially sold fish in Australia now have a QR code on them that, when scanned, shows where the fish was caught and who caught it. So, for Les’ yellowfin tuna it would show that it was caught in the Great Lakes Region of New South Wales and beside that would be a picture of Les describing him as a fourth generation fishermen.

Les told us that Smiths Lake is manually opened and that the reason people dig out the sandbar between the lake and the Tasman Sea is to keep fish populations in the lake healthy.

“Nearly everything that goes to sea has got to spawn. If the lake doesn’t open the spawn is wasted. Got a couple of species that actually spawns on the lake here. And the area is always full of fish. Grandfather caught a ton of fish and we’re still catching a ton of fish…”

He shared with us stories about how they have been opening this lake for decades and how, when he was a boy, he remembered going to the sandbar with his grandfather on a Sunday afternoon, meeting up with a group of other fishermen, and, with their church clothes on, shoveling out a ditch from the lake to the sea—a distance of about 20-30 yards. Les told us that the water slowly trickled through the small canal at first, but by Monday morning it had become a wide stream about a hundred meters across, flowing to the ocean.

After he finished his drink we drove down to the boat landing and headed out on the Cheers’ fishing boat, puttering towards the sandbar. Dad set up to film a timelapse and a winter storm formed east of us, pouring rain over the Tasman Sea as it rolled our way. A rainbow appeared overhead and we snapped some shots as we turned back to the boat landing to avoid the approaching downpour.

Mike and Les Cheers' fishing boat; they are putting in at Smiths Lake.

Mike and Les Cheers’ fishing boat; they are putting in at Smiths Lake.

I looked around the lakes and began to make mental comparisons of the lakes here and the ones we have in Florida.

The lakes in Australia are much larger. Smiths Lake, the one we were currently motoring through, has a surface area of roughly 4 square miles—compare this to Lake Powell, the largest coastal dune lake in Florida, which has a surface area of less than half a square mile. All the other coastal dune lakes in Florida are considerably smaller. Wallis Lake, just to the north of Smiths Lake is the heavyweight—when full it is around 40 square miles. In the the Myall Lakes system, Myall Lake rings in at around 22 square miles, Boolambayte Lake is close in size to Smiths Lake at around 4 square miles, and Boombah Broadwater stretches to around 9 square miles.

And the colors are different. Here, there are more earth tones, muted. The sand wasn’t as electric bright as ours is in Florida, but blends in with the rocky shoreline.

With the large scale and earthy colors, the lakes feel ancient and weatherworn—like the wizened tree-spirits from the Lord of the Rings, the ents. Rocky coastline, rolling mountains and deep-green forests call into the word often associated with landscapes of such grandeur: majestic.

An aerial view of Smiths Lake.

An aerial view of Smiths Lake.

Les Cheers looking out at Smiths Lake while standing at the sandbar.

Les Cheers looking out at Smiths Lake while standing at the sandbar.

Our lakes in Florida are small and brightly colored, fresh and puckered up like cherubs wrapped in a pastel paisley blanket, sparkling with youth.

The rumble of the motor clicked off and I snapped out of my daydream; we loaded our gear back into our SUV, said goodbye to the Cheers, and traveled back to Boolambayte.

Continue reading at Australia’s Great Lakes Part III: Myall River and the Broadwater.

Team Apalachicola by Guest Writer Mark River

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

Team Apalachicola—-

Photo by John RuskeyPhoto by John Ruskey

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.”

_JAR1314Photo by John Ruskey

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.

_JAR0480Photo by John Ruskey

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.

_JAR1280Photo by John Ruskey


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.

Photo by John RuskeyPhoto by John Ruskey

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.

Photo by John RuskeyPhoto by John Ruskey

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.

Photo by John RuskeyPhoto by John Ruskey

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.

Photo by John RuskeyPhoto by John Ruskey

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.

Photo by John RuskeyPhoto by John Ruskey

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.

Photo by John RuskeyPhoto by John Ruskey

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.

Photo by John RuskeyPhoto by John Ruskey

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.

Photo by John RuskeyPhoto by John Ruskey

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