Category Archives: Apalachicola River

Musings on Film-Making

By Elam Stoltzfus

5/20/14

If the pithy saying  “a picture is worth a thousand words” is true, then how much is a video clip worth?

Most broadcast video clips have 30 frames a second. That is 30 pictures a second. That one second of video is worth 30,000 words. Multiply that by a minute. A minute of video is worth 180,000 words.

And this is if we are just talking about silent video! We haven’t even added music, audio, or natural sound. How much is a video clip worth? It is one of the richest mediums humans have to tell stories: pictures, words, music, audio all come together in one place. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an hour of video is worth the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.

 

Elam with a broadcast video camera in 1984, his start in the industry.
Elam with a broadcast video camera in 1984, his start in the industry.

 

This year has been thirty years since I picked up a video camera. During that time I have shot both professional broadcast video and film.  Having a career in broadcast has been a thrill, a great opportunity to meet wonderful people, a ticket to travel the country , and the chance to document a collection of fascinating stories.  Each story has an emotional connection revealing heartaches, celebrated victories, exciting thrills, human interest, animal behaviors and much more.

Putting a camera on my shoulder (especially a heavy broadcast camera) was a free ticket to concerts and sports event with a front row seat—and sometimes a back stage pass (literally).

Elam with Joe Wasilewski and an invasive python in South Florida.
Elam with Joe Wasilewski and an invasive python in South Florida.
Elam filming a gator being pulled out of the Apalachicola river.
Elam filming a gator being pulled out of the Apalachicola River.
Elam Stoltzfus filming Joe Browder and Clyde Butcher in the Big Cypress Swamp.
Elam Stoltzfus filming Joe Browder and Clyde Butcher in the Big Cypress National Preserve.

When I picked the first video camera up in 1984, it was a game-changer for me. Before I had documented the world around me with a still camera. Video is no longer just images—it is synthesizing many things into one. With video you put together music, sound, photography, and stories into one unified piece. I soon realized that it is a medium that influences millions and millions of people. Film media has a long history, it is very influential. Film production is a challenging art form because of the multiple disciplines used to create a story.

With film-making you have to know a little bit of something about many things. In my role as an independent producer and film-maker I have to be a jack-of-all-trades.

From the visual side I have to know the composition. Not just static compositions, but moving images. When does an image start, when does the image end? And then not just one image, but multiple images because you have to edit it together the collection of compositions. How are you going to tell your story to your audience? One of the theories of good composition is clues you give to your audience and if you adhere to this structure, this is one of the first things you want to share with your audience.

An example would be to feature a homestead in the film. First, give the audience the setting of the place. Where are we? What does the house look like? Is it in the country? Is it in the city? Decide what composition best tells that story: Is it a wide shot? Giving your audience a wide shot first establishes the setting, but you really can’t engage in the conversation if the scene has people. You would want to do a medium shot, get the audience closer and then do some close-ups. Perhaps you have an argument. You would want to do some quick-cuts, you want to do some close-ups.  It is taking the audience, engaging them in the conversation, pushing the viewer forward and keep pushing them and, in a way, you are pushing someone into somebody else’s face and forcing them to experience this emotion. Compositions that captures emotions.

Then you have music. Music is what allows your emotions to ebb and flow. The ups and the downs. The sweetness, the sour. The love scenes, the anger. Music is that bed that flows and ties it all together. You have natural ambient sounds, you have voices. What kind of voices are you using? Low bass voices, the sound of God, versus sweet-sounding female voices that are enticing and nurturing.

Then you have a script—that is the words. Who is writing this? How are these words woven together to tie in with the emotions and what do you want people to know? What don’t you want them to know? What age group is your audience? What is your target? Who are you trying to reach? You have many, many elements, structures and mediums all coming together. Then on top of all that you put this piece together and then you have an opportunity to broadcast the story to the world. Think about this…. here is the story you worked on and it is being shared with millions and millions of people!  Sometimes they are all watching this piece of art all at the same time. Now is that amazing or what?

Here we are in 2014 with so many new opportunities with the media. We have social media, cable, distribution in ways that we never imagined 10 and 20 years ago. Many new stories and more opportunities are available to educate our world.The world is more intense, and it is going faster and faster and it is becoming smaller and smaller. And we need more material, we need more visual content and we have it everywhere!

But where do all these ideas start? The idea starts in your brain.  It’s those lightbulb moments; emotionally-charged memories that inspire us to create.  We have so many media tools and methods and opportunities to birth these ideas. That’s why the art of film-making is so important.

So, if you want to make a movie—go and make a movie! Capture your ideas, share your story with the world. The world will be a better place with your story.  Tell a story using video worth millions and billions of words. The world will be richer for it.

 

Teachers and Art

April 18th, 2014

by Elam Stoltzfus

John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck

 

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.””

John Steinbeck – American Author

 

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein

 

It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.

Albert Einstein – Theoretical Physicist

 

 

My parents didn’t necessarily encourage me in the art world, but they didn’t discourage me. The first step that was really important for me in the arts was my first-grade teacher, Mr. Jere Brady. I still vividly remember sitting in a small wooden desk watching him take a blank piece of paper and pencil and sketch the schoolhouse building. I thought, “Man, how cool is that?! He made something out of nothing!” I wanted to be able to do that, one day I wanted to be able to fill space. At that point I said I want to be an artist and that really never left me since first grade. I knew one day I was going to be an artist. During that year Mr. Brady taught us primary colors, how to use crayons, how to paint, and how to do pencil sketching. He was my only art teacher for three years; first, second, and third grade. Mr. Brady was a mentor at a very early age.

Just as an aside, I still consider Jere a mentor, Jere and his family live in Morgantown, Pennsylvania where he has a art gallery, involved in the community and I still keep in touch with him—we e-mail back and forth at least three or four times a year, share Christmas cards, and EVERY time I finish a new film he gets one of the first copies.

Meeting with Jere Brady in Morgantown, PA
First Grade Art Teacher – Jere Brady

There are several simple comments of advice that I have about creating art and being an artist:

One thing is that practice makes perfect. You have to do it over and over again. It’s like learning to play music, how do you get good at music? You practice and practice. You sing it, you play it over and over and over and over again. Same thing with photography and film-making. How do you take good pictures? You take lots of them and then you do it over and over again. In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes about ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in as an artist. There is not necessarily any right or wrong way of doing things. Photography, film-making, music are all interpretations of art. And so that connects into your own emotions. What are you feeling? What are you seeing? What are you trying to put together? What is the story you are trying to tell? These are your experiences and you are trying to put your emotions, your feelings, your insight, your understanding into this film and wrapping it, tying it into a story and putting it out there for the general public to experience. You hope in the end that it is something that this piece of art has been helpful to someone. It really starts from what you feel inside you. My advice is just do it! Like the Nike slogan, “Just do it”.  If you have a formal art education or if you are able to work under a mentor all that is great. Some people give you rules and laws and say do it this way, well that is great to work in that function, or in that structure for awhile, but eventually don’t be afraid to explore and break some of the rules. There really are no rules in art. But if some people want to call them rules or this is the only way to do it, then do it for a little bit, but eventually explore. You know, it is like the little kid with the coloring book: they are told to only draw inside the lines…no, no, no, no, no! Don’t be afraid to go outside the lines!

 

Elam and Clyde with Broward County art students in Big Cypress Swamp
Elam and Clyde Butcher with a group of Broward County students in Big Cypress National Preserve.

 

Elam with a kid teaching him camera skills
Putting the film camera in the hands of a young boy along the Apalachicola River while stopping at a local house boat.

There is always somebody that you can mentor, somebody that you can influence. And art can do that. So, when you have opportunities to point somebody in a direction or hold their hand for awhile, or give them an experience in the arts, or an opportunity in a career, be bold and invest in a student. These all become legacy moments because you take a little bit of your time to make a change in somebody else’s life. Or give them an opportunity that they never thought they would have. That is what happened to me. When there are opportunities to give back, I want to invest in students and will do this.

Author with a group of FSU students at Tall Timbers. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.
Author with a group of FSU students at Tall Timbers. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.
The author teaching a group of students how to film outdoors. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.
The author teaching a group of students about outdoor filming techniques. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

Several weeks ago – April 12, 2014, my son Nic and I held an outdoor video workshop in partnership with the Florida State University College of Communication & Information at Tall Timbers Research Station.  We had 8 students from FSU attend along with 3 employees from Tall Timbers.  Most of the students had not experienced film-making outdoors.  We spend most of the two hours talking about storytelling. What are the pieces of the puzzle to tell an engaging story?  It begins with a plan, a concept of the objectives of the story, moves on to filming a series of interviews, collecting natural sound and footage of the environment, scoring music, preliminary editing, post-editing—all these steps until a final polished nature documentary is created. Most folks have not thought about all the elements of images, sounds, text, and information that need to be brought together to make an engaging media documentary story.

I’m grateful for the many hours that mentors have invested into my life and allowed me to succeed in my career as a film producer. I hope to share my experiences with others, to share with today’s young minds and enable them to succeed in their future careers.

Brad Henry
Brad Henry

 

A good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination, and instill a love of learning.

Brad Henry – Former Governor of Oklahoma

 

Apalachicola Riverview Project Documentary Short

By Nic Stoltzfus

January 15th, 2014

Here is the short 10-minute documentary made by the crew at Live Oak Production Group about the Apalachicola Riverview Project.

Principal filming by Elam Stoltzfus and Joey Dickinson, Script by Nic Stoltzfus, Editing and Post-Production by Elam Stoltzfus and Joey Dickinson.

For more information on the Apalachicola Riverview Project and Below the Surface click here: http://belowthesurface.org/the-river-view-project/

For more information on Quapaw Canoe Company and the “Grasshopper” click here: http://www.island63.com

For more information on Expedition Florida 500 click here: http://www.motherocean.org/xf500.html

For more information on Live Oak Production Group click here: http://www.liveoakproductiongroup.com

To read the blog by Nic Stoltzfus about the expedition click here: https://stoltzfusmedia.wordpress.com/2014/01/08/apalachicola-riverview-project-part-i-the-unwilling-member-me/

Here is a link to some candid interviews with the team in Apalachicola: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7cjRJctN5E&feature=youtu.be

The Apalachicola Riverview Project, Part VI: The Aftermath

January 13th, 2014

By Nic Stoltzfus

10-minute video by the crew at Live Oak Production Group featuring the Apalachicola Riverview Project

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The crew and support team. Left to right: Cynthia Trone, Justin Riney, Danny Veshinski, Kristian Gustavson, Joey Dickinson, Elam Stoltzfus, Nic Stoltzfus, John Ruskey, Paul Veselack, Esther Stoltzfus, and Mark “River” Peoples. (Photo: Laura Stoltzfus)

One week on the river and finally finished. The following morning after our expedition, the guys relaxed at my parents’ house in Blountstown. Dad and Kristian ran the river again from top to bottom. John and Paul drove the truck down to Apalachicola to meet the boat crew there and spent the day museum-hopping and bay-diving. In the meanwhile, I stayed at home and hung out with the guys left: Danny, River, Justin, and Joey. My sister came home from FSU Thursday night and so she joined us. On a quest to grab a local burger, the six of us headed to El Jalisco’s in Blountstown. We sat around for an hour or so and swapped stories and River shared with us more about what they do at Quapaw Canoe Company. The more I listened to him, the more impressed I was. Here is this company that is working with underprivileged youth along the Lower Mississippi river valley teaching them skills that they can use to get a job after high school. But, according to River, it is more than that. It is also teaching self-confidence, motivation, and discipline. These are the life skills that everyone needs in order to become become better people, better humans. Joey listened all-ears. This talk excited him—he hoped to go out to visit the Quapaw Canoe Company next March over spring break to do a project with them. I could see that he believed in what they were doing, and he wanted to help spread the good news to others.

After our talk Laura and I took the guys around town for a tour: We showed them the old M&B (Marianna & Blountstown) steam engine located on Hwy 71 downtown, the landside view of Neal Landing, and the Panhandle Pioneer Settlement. The settlement is a collection of old houses collected from around the panhandle; many of them are “cracker” houses or pioneer cabins. A Florida history buff, Justin was in his element and enjoyed looking through all of these. At one point the manager of the Pioneer Settlement, Willard Smith, showed up and introduced himself. Seeing that Justin had an interest in local history, he took him over to the blacksmith barn and showed him various tools used throughout the decades to form metalwork.

After this, we came back to our place and relaxed for a while. Early that evening we headed to my Aunt Mary Lou’s house to watch her milk her cows. The co-owner and operator of Ocheessee Creamery, she has around 100 Jersey cows she milks twice a day as part of a small-time dairy operation. One of the best tour guides I’ve ever seen, my aunt took the guys through a serious nuts and bolts tour covering the barn, the cows, and the Florida dairy industry. The guys asked thoughtful questions and thanked her several times for the “incredible” chocolate milk we got on the trip. Justin even got to milk a cow. Many pictures were taken and lots of cow puns were made, but I’m sure these jokes are in udderly poor taste for such a highbrow readership. Any more and it may be tit for tat. I guess we should mooo-ve on to the next paragraph.

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Mary Lou Wesselhoeft showing Justin and River the dairy (Photo: Nic Stoltzfus)

After the tour we met up with Dad, John, Kristian, and Paul who had just arrived back from driving the boat back from Apalachicola. We were all in for quite a treat this evening: Our neighbors the Duetts had offered to cook for us. And they made one of my most favorite meals on earth—southern-fried catfish with hushpuppies, cheese grits, and black-eyed peas. You wanna talk about winning over the heart of a southern man? Here’s your sign. There was lots of laughing, fun, and fellowship that evening.

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Sweet tea, fried catfish, hushpuppies, mashed taters, nlack-eyed peas, and cheese grits. Hongry? (Photo: The lucky guy who ate it) 

Saturday morning we woke up and headed back to Apalachicola for a reception hosted by the Apalachicola Chamber of Commerce and Mother Ocean (the organization that Expedition Florida 500 is housed under and founded by Justin Riney). One of the local politicians handed us a recognition of our efforts to bring attention to the river.

I chatted with one local woman who is interested in cartography (an interest of mine since a young age) and she talked about how important it is that we did what we did. She said that by taking so many pictures and by using such data-rich photo-capture as Kristian used with Below the Surface, we were creating a baseline. This baseline is important because it is data that can be used later down the line. For example, say that there is a drought year ten years from now, in 2023, and cities upstream would like to pull more water out of the river. With these pictures, it can be used as photographic evidence in making an argument not to pull out more water past a certain point based on historical levels—information we provided through photographs taken in 2013.

After the reception the crew, friends, and family headed over to Hole in the Wall—a local seafood restaurant in Apalachicola. We tried all kinds of oysters harvested in the bay—raw, Rockefeller, garlic parmesan, and jalapeno cheddar. My favorite way to eat an oyster is resting on a saltine cracker with a dab of Crystal’s hot sauce. Simple and flavorful. I guess just don’t think too hard about what exactly it is you are eating—they are a filter for the river. Maybe that’s why dogs like drinking from the toilet? By same logic, would they like oysters? A doggie delicacy, for sure!

After lunch the guys loaded up. Joey headed back to south Florida to see his family for the holidays, Justin and Danny went with Cynthia Trone to south Florida to be with family, and the remaining four Kristian, John, Paul, and River loaded up in their rig to head back westward to Mississippi.

It was raining outside and the guys pulled away waving us goodbye as they left this town, this river, this region until next time. Before River left he looked me in the eyes and said, “Nic, there is no goodbye. There is only ‘I’ll see you next time.’” Let it be so.

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Barefoot on the banks (Photo: Elam Stoltzfus)

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View of the Apalachicola River Valley from Alum Bluffs (Photo: John Ruskey)

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On the banks of the Apalach (Photo: Nic Stoltzfus)

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Dead Lakes (Photo: Joey Dickinson)

Additional Resources

For the first time ever, Apalachicola River: An American Treasure film is available online for free. This documentary was made in 2006 by Elam Stoltzfus and Live Oak Production group and you can find more information here: http://www.apalachicolaamericantreasure.com/index.html

Click here to watch the film on Vimeo: http://vimeo.com/user15709098/review/83819639/abaab4b564

For more information about Below the Surface, the group that captured 360 degree pictures for the Riverview Project, click here: http://belowthesurface.org

For more information on Justin Riney and Expedition Florida 500 click here: http://www.motherocean.org/xf500.html

For more information on the Quapaw Canoe Company and perhaps snagging a tour of the lower half of the Mississippi click here: http://www.island63.com

If you are interested in kayaking the Apalachicola river, I recommend doing a thorough search through the Apalachicola Blueway website. Earl Murrogh, has made several trips down the river and maintains the site. Click here: http://apalachicolablueway.com

If you want to take a look at another group who has made a venture down the river, I would recommend looking at David Moynahan’s blog. His photos are stunning (I think he is one of Florida’s best nature photographers), and the story of his expedition traveling on a partially solar-powered barge called the “Yok-che” is engrossing. Check it out here: http://www.davidmoynahan.com/blog/2013/12/portrait-of-a-river-project—success

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

Apalachicola Riverview Project, Part IV: The Hump

January 11th, 2014

By Nic Stoltzfus

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Cypress stump on the Dead Lakes (Photo: Joey Dickinson)

Monday, December 9th: Day 5

I still felt like crap. The last two days were hard, slugging days of 20 miles apiece. By now I was tired, grumpy, and desperately wishing for hot food, a hot shower, and hot ladies. Preferably perfumed ladies. Low on morale and cologne, I smelled, the guys smelled, and I wanted to see clean faces for once. I talked to Dad that morning and he promised today was going to be a light paddle. Good—a light paddle. Expectation set. I can do this.

We met up with my mom at Gaskin Park in Wewahitchka—she came with bountiful goods—fresh chocolate milk from my aunt’s dairy (I call it “chocolate crack.” It’s just that good), homemade Christmas candy, and frosted doughnuts. A sugar lover’s wet dream.

I did finally get to use a bathroom here. I walked into the bathroom happy for a pleasant experience other than using the woods and…oh no…this was terrible. The bathroom was dirty and had remnants of Sunday night excess splattered over the toilet seat. I gagged in my mouth. But I wanted to use the toilet. So bad. So, I pulled out my wet wipes and cleaned off stranger’s vomit and took care of business. Ahh. Nice. I went to flush and…nope. After being spat on and shit in, the toilet was being uncooperative. It rebelled and refused to flush anything down. I slowly backed away, a criminal. “What have I done?” I screamed existentially. Embarrased, I left the toilet in shame and headed back to the group heavy in heart and light in bowels.

Mom was dressed in her work clothes ready to head to the E.R. after leaving us. I was happy to see her again and visiting with her boosted my spirits. I was ready to get out on the water and, restless, I grabbed Joey and the two of us began kayaking Justin wanted to see the Dead Lakes today, so we were going to take a detour off of the Apalachicola into the Dead Lakes via the Chipola Cutoff.

A bit on the Dead Lakes: The Chipola river flows through the Dead Lakes on its way toward the Apalachicola river (Locals call the Chipola the “little river” and the Apalachicola the “big river”). You know the scene from “The Lion King” where Simba and Nala visit an elephant graveyard? This is a cypress graveyard with tons of dead cypress trees all throughout the lake. It is haunting and majestic—a hidden treasure of the Florida panhandle. Also, it is a great fishing spot and locals guard their spots jealously.

Joey and I were the first to begin the trek into the Dead Lakes. It was an easy paddle and a welcome diversion from the last two grueling days. Sun out and light paddle—now that is my kind of kayaking! We made it to the Dead Lakes and the others caught up with us there. I looked around: Rippled bark whispered stories of old and Spanish moss swayed in the breeze. The fading afternoon light caught in the crevices and corners of tattered tree-skin. Branches arced heavenward and trunks flared downward deep into the murky depths. Hard to describe in a word. “Ancient” is a good start.

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Wind through Spanish Moss (Photo: Nic Stoltzfus)

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Exaltation (Photo: Elam Stoltzfus)

From here we turned back around towards the “big river” through the cutoff. As soon as we hit the cutoff, though, I knew we had a problem. Uh-oh. The current. The current! That is why it was such an easy paddle into the Dead Lakes—the current from the main channel that was funneled through the cutoff was pushing us in. Now, to get out, we had to push against it.

For five days I had been paddling with the current—this was the first time I had to paddle against it. Two miles against the current. I hadn’t prepared mentally for this challenge, so I was caught off guard. I would paddle for about five minutes and stop. I’d drift back about half of what I had paddled. Oh no—this wouldn’t do. I grabbed on to a branch and gathered my thoughts and mustered courage—damn it! I had gotten myself in here, I will get myself OUT! I began to paddle, deep strokes twisting my lower back with each one for increased torque and power. Usually the last, I passed Joey and my Dad. I stopped once to eat a Slim Jim and half a Clif bar and continued. I was upset because I had been promised a slow day today—how could it be?! Today was the hardest day yet! I paddled and paddled—for ages. I would make a bend, thinking it was the last, only to see another after it. Finally I saw the last bend and made it out into the main channel. I laid my oars on the kayak and drifted for a bit—I spotted Justin on the side of the bank waiting for us. The five guys on the canoe powered through it, so they were long gone. I pulled over and stopped next to him. We waited until Dad and Joey made it out. Tired and whupped, we ate lunch in silence. Later we caught up with the guys at our campsite.

That evening Dad and I chatted a bit. He said Justin, Kristian, and him had been talking and there was going to be a change of plans. Originally, we had planned to go for 9 days. However, Dad had bracketed for one day that was only four miles and a few other “light” days. Kristian wanted to run the river again on Dad’s powerboat to get a smooth shot of the river in one stretch for better photo quality. They agreed to lop off two days and end the expedition on Thursday, December 12th, instead of the 14th. Dad informed me that on Friday, He and Kristian would head down the river. Someone would come pick him up in Apalachicola and they would come back Friday night. Saturday morning everyone would head down to Apalachicola for a “end of the expedition celebration” and from there we would go our separate ways. I thought that sounded good. I said goodnight to the crew, went to my tent, and fell asleep immediately.

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Justin and Elam talking (Photo: Nic Stoltzfus)

Tomorrow’s blog: Apalachicola Riverview Project, Part V: Baptism

The Apalachicola Riverview Project, Part III: Adjusting to River-Time

January 10th, 2014

By Nic Stoltzfus

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Danny spearfishing by the posts (Photo: Joey Dickinson)

Saturday, December 7th: Day 3

12 miles today. I woke up this morning, unzipped my tent, and looked out. Another foggy morning, this time the 10,000 ghosts concealing the cliffs from view. We ate breakfast around a smoldering fire and, as I drank my coffee and watched the fog lift, a motorboat pulled into the sandbar. It was my Uncle Dan Yoder and his friend, Rick Wise. Best friends, the two of them were out on the river for a cruise and stopped by to see us. They supplied us with water and friendly conversation. As we loaded up and headed out together I quipped, “Uncle Dan, how ‘bout I throw you a rope and you can tow me today?” He laughed and then sped up and headed out of sight. It was cloudy today with promise of rain. With the Highway 20 bridges in sight, droplets began to spit and spatter on our jackets. Oh dear. Winter rain can be cold—and you can’t simply go indoors when you’re on an expedition. I enjoyed watching the rainfall and listen to it patter and plop into the river, the age-old cycle of water joining water. After 7 miles of paddling we stopped at Neal Landing in Blountstown where my mom, Esther, met us for resupply. We stretched our legs, used the bathroom, and refilled our water.

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Dan Yoder (far left) chatting with the guys (Photo: Nic Stoltzfus)

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Our “river angel” (Esther Stoltzfus) meeting us at Neal Landing (Photo: Elam Stoltzfus)

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Esther and Paul chatting (Photo: Nic Stoltzfus)

I think here would be a good time to make a quick note about facilities along the river. In short: they are sparse. This is a beautiful river to travel, but for kayaking and slow-moving rivercraft, there aren’t many points to stop and camp or resupply. Take Neal Landing in Blountstown—it is a great site, but there isn’t a campsite nor restrooms nearby. Boaters don’t need such amenities. But for people wanting to kayak down the river with access to some modern amenities like toilets or showers, these would be a welcome respite. Also, camping sites are sparse. Sure, you have the primitive camping site at Torreya or the site at Ft. Gadsden, but you must make reservations. I’m not complaining, because I was quite content with how things turned out, but some kayakers may not be interested in such a rough schedule. Just a thought.

At Neal Landing my mom came bearing gifts—Peanut M&Ms, beer, jerky, and love. After three days with guys, it was great to see a lady with a smile and no B.O. We chatted for awhile and one of my cousins brought his family out to see us and chat for a bit. Locals were out headed down the river as today was Saturday and prime fishin’ time. One of my middle school lunch ladies was heading down the river and she asked where we were headed. “The bay? You serious? Nic, I knew your dad did crazy stuff, but not you! You be careful, hon!” I smiled and waved.

By the time we were loaded up on gear and warm conversation the rain had stopped. We paddled some more and stopped at a sandbar for the night. After the long paddle and the rain I was tired and headed to bed as soon as I set up my tent and ate dinner.

Sunday, December 8th: Day 4

Okay. Today was our second very long day. We had two twenty mile days. Yesterday was one, today was the other. The plan was to go far enough down to stop at the sandbar closest to Gaskin Park in Wewahitchka as my mom was going to resupply us the following morning. The weather was fair, cloudy off and on; my mood was likewise. Cold from yesterday’s rain and tired from the long paddle, I was grumpy. Furthermore, everyone else was paddling faster than me, and I soon was the caboose. Already insecure as the least experienced paddler, I complained to dad when we arrived at our campsite that he had left me behind and, rather dramatically, I explained that, “I could have died of exhaustion. These things happen, you know.” I was pissy and wanted to go home. I didn’t spend much time around the campfire that evening, not interested in being around a bunch of happy, laughing guys and soon went to bed. I turned over to sleep and trusted that I would feel better in the morning.

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Kristian with a smile and a cup of Joe (Photo: Elam Stoltzfus)

Tomorrow’s blog: Apalachicola Riverview Project, Part IV: The Hump