Category Archives: Florida Nature Films

Escape To Create – Part 1

logo_e2c_wx2tJanuary 28th, 2014  –  By Elam Stoltzfus

I’m sitting inside on a comfy brown sofa on a gray windy day. The forecast is for ice pellets at the quaint Seaside cottage, Savannah Sands, owned by Bill and Heavenly Dawson.  The Dawson’s have generously provided a home for the two weeks of my Escape To Create experience. The question my family and others had when I stated that I will be here at Seaside for four weeks in January and February was, “What is Escape to Create?”

http://www.escape2create.org

Escape To Create is an artist program that, for almost thirty years, invites artists from around the world to stay as guests for a month in Seaside, Florida. It is an invitation for artists to “escape” to a small gulf coastal town for peace and quiet from a maddening crowd to create art.

Back in 2008 I had an interest to produce a full length documentary showcasing the dune lakes of Walton County.  With some support funds from Walton County Tourist Development Council I was able to create a short demo video for the TDC and use this to support the idea of pursuing potential funding for full length documentary. About the same time the economy began to tank, and it was difficult to find funding for sponsorship. So, I moved on to other projects.

During this time I was able to produce two documentaries for public television in south Florida:  The Kissimmee Basin: the Northern Everglades documentary followed by the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition: Everglades to Okefenokee project.  After the completion of these programs, I began looking for my next project  The dune lakes have always piqued my interest and, since I had already begun this project a few years earlier, I wanted to complete this story.

To gauge the interest of the area here in Walton County, I decided to attend the Coastal Dune Lakes Advisory Board meeting in October of 2012.  During the past 4 years I had monitored the local interest of the dune lakes through the TDC, newspapers, social media and few friends that kept me up to speed with events dealing with the lakes.  Upon arriving at the CDLAB meeting I looked upon familiar faces. Their eyes lit up, and I could almost see the wheels spinning in their heads, “Is Elam going to make the dune lakes film?”

Among the eager group was Lynn Nesmith, her first meeting as board member of the Coastal Dune Lakes Advisory Board. As we talked after the meeting she mentioned that she is a board member of Escape To Create, a program that she emphasized emphatically, “Elam, you would be perfect for.”  The cutoff date was the next day, she explained, so I had to apply today.  I looked at the website when I arrived back in the office.  I filled out the forms and submitted the application.  The following week I was informed that I was being considered as a 2014 artist. A few days later it was confirmed that I was accepted into the Escape To Create 2014 line up of artists.

For my four weeks as artist in residence at Seaside I will document, with HD video and still photography, the coastal dune lakes of Walton County. Several of the lakes are within walking distance, which makes it the perfect location. I have been here two week and the outpouring of the community to the arts, film production, and support has been amazing.

But it is not just the local community support that is amazing, it is also the fellow artists. The first two weeks of being here fellow artists, include Tommy Womack, Jenny Krasner, Jennette Andrews, Mark Lowry and a few days with Cynthia Barnett. Tommy is an author/songwriter who is working on a book that has been bouncing around his grey matter and sketched out on journals for over 10 years, Jenny has a collection of over 10,000 images from her travels around the world that she is editing and cataloguing, Jennette is creating a new magic show, Mark is a musician working on creating new songs and Cynthia is writing a book about the history of rain.

Having time together as artists to share ideas, listen to each other perform, watch our work being developed and share input into our content has been very satisfying.

Several of these special moments happened while sitting around the table, eating and sharing stories.  We shared ideas, philosophical understanding, personal experiences and quizzed each other about our work style in creating art.

With a group of diverse artists, I learned something from each of these wonderful talented and gifted people.  It could be argued that an artist starts with an empty space.  An empty sheet of music, a page with no text, a stage with no sound or objects, a camera with no images, a script with no dialogue.  But here at E2C, we all had an allotted time to fill these empty spaces, be disciplined in our time, be supportive to each other and have an environment that is very conducive in creating art.

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E2C’s leadership with Marsha Dowler and Karen Holland, along with many other supportive people have created an advantageous atmosphere of community, support, family, friendship and art.

Here is a sample from two days journal excerpts on what happened during my stay at E2C.

Day 5:

Up early before daybreak to a cool morning and headed to Deer Lake.  Filmed a few pan sequences and time lapse of the sunrise.   Came back to the house, cleaned up and went to the CDLAB meeting at 9:00am to meet and listen to current issues concerning the lakes.  It was good to hear and see what was happening around the lakes.  Oyster Lake is currently having a new bridge installed.  Need to document this.  Went to the Seaside REP to set up and present a talk to a house full of 7th and 8th graders from the Seaside Neighborhood School.  Came back to the house to edit a segment of images and video together to present at the screening in the evening.  Hustled around to get the 4 minute segment complete before attending a supper with E2C at Great Southern Cafe.  Evening screening at the REP at 7:00.  The place was packed. Had to turn people away.  E2C added an encore additional screening for Friday evening at 7:00pm. People wanted to talk after the presentation.  Had a lively Q&A.  Great questions and dialogue. Came home, tired, emotional exhausted, but very satisfied with the outpouring of support for the Dune Lake film project.  This is a moment where so many ideas, strategies, and presentations all come together.  Much like the stars lining up for a great event.  Feeling very blessed and honored today.

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Day 12:

Began at daybreak by documenting the ice covered water way at the outfall at Western Lake in Grayton. OMG it was soooo cold.  26 degrees is cold on the beach. It was the Grayton tundra.  I had a pair of ski gloves, a heavy Carhartt coat, but I was not able to stay warm. The batteries of the camera died due to the cold weather.  Not sure how photographers and film makers work in the sub zero weather to capture those amazing images we see.  Later in the day, at sunset, there was an amazing show across Western Lake. The wind died down, a perfect reflection and the clouds and light kept displaying the color and beauty for a long time. Also, a good opportunity to chat with other folks who came by to observe the view and take picture. A prime location along 30A. The evening was spent at the Seaside REP hearing Tommy Womack preform his collection of songs and a reading, fresh off the press. This was our final event together, what an amazing group of artists and community.

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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

The Apalachicola Riverview Project, Part II: Getting to Know the Guys

January 9th, 2014

By Nic Stoltzfus

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Morning mist by the old and new Highway 90 bridges at Chattahoochee (Photo: Nic Stoltzfus)

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The Crew 

Front row left to right: Joey Dickinson, Justin Riney, Paul Veselack, John Ruskey, Elam Stoltzfus, Daniel Veshinski, Nic Stoltzfus.

Back row left to right: Mark “River” Peoples and Kristian Gustavson (Photo: Dan Yoder)

Thursday, December 5th: Day 1

The plan was to meet at the Chattahoochee Landing at Clyde Hopkins Park right behind Jim Woodruff Dam where the Apalachicola River begins (the dam holds back the water from Lake Seminole, the terminus of the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers). Dad, Joey, and I prepped our kayaks. Justin showed up and began to assemble his paddleboard. The last to arrive was the crew from Below the Surface. And out of the truck stepped two…three…four…five guys! There was Kristian Gustavson and Danny Veshinski from Below the Surface. The other three were Paul Veselack, Kristian’s stepdad and crew medic; John Ruskey, founder of Quapaw Canoe Company in Mississippi and builder of the canoe the guys would be paddling; and Mark “River” Peoples, assistant and fellow river guide with John at Quapaw. I was surprised—our crew was larger, but, as they say, the more the merrier!

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Justin tightening the screws on his paddle board (Photo: Nic Stoltzfus)

On my way to take a final nervous leak before heading out, a local stopped me and asked me a few questions. He sat in his faded jean-hued Chevy pick-up, some model from the ‘70s with a confederate flag plate on the front. He was wearing an old ‘Bama red shirt, blue jeans, and an air of sour discontent. “Son, just what the hell is going on here?” He asked me. I told him, “Well, we are headed down the Apalachicola River down to the bay.” He pointed at the canoe. “What the hell is that thing?” “It’s a handmade canoe from Missisippi; those five guys loading it now are going to paddle it down the river.” “Huh,” he gruffed, “I don’t understand. They got all this shit in their ca-new rait there and these five guys—that’s a lotta weight! How they gonna float down the river in that? It’s gonna sink. It’s gonna sink.” He pointed a gnarled finger at the camera resting on top. “And that cam-ra? It’s gonna flip right over. Buncha dum-asses.” At the time I was also rather skeptical as to how this canoe was going to float those hundreds of pounds of gear and five big guys but, hey, I had my kayak so I didn’t have to worry. I said goodbye, finished my business, and prepped the rest of my gear for the upcoming trip.

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Checking out the canoe (Photo: Nic Stoltzfus)

We took a group photo and started off. A few local onlookers, skeptics, friends, and relatives waved us off. Here we go! 109 miles in 9 days! My stomach still turned a few flops, but as soon as I hit the water—yep, this was the right thing to do. It’ll be okay.

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The maiden launch of the “Grasshopper” (Photo: Nic Stoltzfus)

The first day we kayaked around 11 miles. It was a beautiful day out; cool and sunny— perfect paddling. We passed under the I-10 bridge. All the cars and trucks zoomed by overhead as we lazily dripped by below; bay-bound on river-time. Our first night we stopped at a sandbar on the east side of the river. We were all still getting to know each other and our gear, so it was a time to stretch our muscles out and prep for the longer days ahead. A bit of a campfire chat, and then we all headed to bed.

Friday, December 6th: Day 2

Today I woke to a spooky foggy morning on the Apalachicola. 10,000 ghosts had descended on the river; one translucent white congregation. I felt great that morning and hurriedly ate my oatmeal and slurped down my coffee, eager to get out on the misty river. I packed my tent and got on my kayak and was the first to head downstream. It took the guys in the canoe longer, so I had about 2 hours by myself before they caught up to me. I passed the Torreya house on my left and was headed around Ocheeseee Landing (close to where I grew up) and there were some folks out on a houseboat and I talked to them for a bit. “Mornin’!” I yelled over at them. The husband and wife pair stared at me a bit trying to figure out just what in tarnation this figure was. “Mor-nin’,” they greeted me. “Where ya headed?” they asked me. I chirped, “the bay!” The old man grinned a toothy smile and chuckled, “boy, you watch out for them gators, ya hear? You’re a one-bite snack on that rig!” “Yessir!”

As the morning waned on the fog-ghosts lifted back to the heavens and the day cleared. Gorgeous. Just gorgeous. I told the guys when they arrived that they couldn’t have picked a better time to be on the river. I have lived in the Apalachicola river valley my whole life, and this was the most beautiful fall that I have ever witnessed here—I guess it must have been because we had a cold snap early in the fall but, whatever the reason, the leaves were magnificent this year. The red maples were a violent crimson, the sycamore a brilliant yellow, and the cypress a deep ruddy red. By now most of the leaves had fallen, but one could still witness the shadows of a stunning fall.

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Red maple overlooking the river (Photo: Nic Stoltzfus)

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The Grasshopper and Her Merry Crew (Photo: Nic Stoltzfus)

Around lunchtime the rest of the crew caught up to me. We stopped at the base of Torreya State Park and hiked up to the top of the bluff. We chatted some and looked over the river perched up high; a sunny winter day. We crawled back down and headed onward. In the afternoon for a few hours the wind pushed us back but soon, out of breath, subsided. Late afternoon we arrived at our campsite for the night: Alum Bluffs. Out of the whole expedition, this was one of my favorite spots to camp.

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(From Left to Right) “River”, Paul, Kristian, Danny, John, and Justin in front of the bluffs (Photo: Elam Stoltzfus)

Sure, the mosquitoes and bugs are a little annoying, but the view is great. The sandbar is on the west side of the river facing the bluffs on the east side of the river. It is a view that most wouldn’t expect to occur in Florida—but there it is. A yellowish-white sheer cliff, a smaller and yellower version of the famed Cliffs of Dover, juts out into the river.

John Ruskey climbed to the top of the cliffs and howled a deep river-man howl. I grinned as I snapped a photo of him at the top—this guy is truly a river-rat. That evening we made our campfire and sat around, drank a few jiggers of whiskey, and listened to John play the guitar. With a glass slide on one finger he seduced the guitar into singing in ways I had never heard—a twangy bluesy-folksy sound that was new to my ear. A riverman’s lullaby. I wanted to join in so I began to softly clap my hands. Danny tapped his right foot in the sand. All nine of us sat around the fire mesmerized by the music, warmth of the fire, and companionship. Crickets joined in the chorus and the occasional owl screeched. River music.

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A bluesman and his guitar (Photo: Elam Stoltzfus)

Tomorrow’s blog: The Apalachicola Riverview Project, Part III: Adjusting to River-Time