Category Archives: Nature education

Escape to Create Part II

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Fog and Dunes at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park (Image: Elam Stoltzfus)

March 25th, 2014

By Elam Stoltzfus

After a two short weeks at home and a trip to south Florida, I arrived back at Seaside on February 16th to work on the Coastal Dune Lakes documentary along with interacting with a new group of Escape to Create artists (click here for my first blog with more info about the Escape to Create program).

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Moss Below an Oak Tree at Camp Helen State Park (Image: Elam Stoltzfus)

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Moon over Grayton Beach (Image: Nic Stoltzfus)

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Unconnected Outfall at Western Lake, Late January (Image: Elam Stoltzfus)

During the first part of my time with the program in January there was cold, cold weather—so much that many bridges in the Florida Panhandle were closed for a few days.  The area came to standstill.  I made good use of my time by having coffee with folks and taking time to discuss the dune lakes project.

This lull in production created a full schedule of on-camera interviews for the project during my second visit with Escape To Create.  Having the opportunity to interview a group of experts is such an honor, and every time I interview people it is a chance for me to listen and learn from other peoples’ experiences.  Interviews are partly investigative journalism and partly about building relationships. The interviews I did in February are the foundation for the documentary story. Here is the list of people who we interviewed, a bit about who they are, and a quote from their interviews:

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The lakes are kind of like children. You can’t really have your favorites. I love them all so much and they all have such a special appearance and special emotion. I like Western Lake over at Grayton Beach State Park. Just because the peace and quiet and all the wildlife that live there. I have some special memories of that. One morning it was a Sunday morning really early and I got up to shoot photographs a couple of years ago as I was working on the book, and I was on my bike with the camera and I heard a singing voice. The park was totally empty, and I heard a voice and it sounded like a monk doing some sort of vocalization. So, sure enough, in that building that is out there at Western Lake at Grayton Beach State Park there was a man doing his vocal practices on a Sunday morning, and it felt like such the sanctuary because here I was out there totally peaceful and quiet with just the birds, the herons, and then I heard this man’s voice on a Sunday morning. And I was not at church, but I felt like I was at church just for being out there. So little events like that really give you a great connection.

–Ginger Sinton,  photographer/journalist and author of Rare Coastal Dune Lakes: Biodiversity and a Sense of Home on 30A

 

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My first trip out of town with my now-husband Kenny was to Destin, Florida. And while we were there someone said, “You really want to see something beautiful? Drive east from here.” We drove down 98, we got to 30A, and we turned down 30A and I just couldn’t believe it. Grew up in New Jersey, near the shore, took a look at the beaches—it is just easy to love what you see down here because it is so beautiful. And as we drove down we started to see these lakes. And I thought, “Wow, isn’t that cool. I have never seen anything like that. Never seen lakes so close to the water.” And then as time went on we ended up buying property down here, built down here, and I got involved with community work. And that is when I first learned—I knew that they were beautiful, I knew they had this interesting thing that happened with the outfalls, but it wasn’t until I got involved with the community work that I realized, “Wow, these are really special.”

–Jacquee Markel, a local civic-minded citizen and environmental activist

 

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The Emerald Coast in general is a treasure, it is a beauty and each section of the Emerald Coast has something that makes it special… we have a lot of folks who come because of the things that the coastal dune lakes provide. Birdwatching, natural trails, things like that that are around the lakes…

–Jim Bagby, Executive Director of the South Walton Tourist Development Council

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 …I describe them as 15 jewels. One is a diamond, one is a ruby, one is a sapphire. They are all different. And they all have their different qualities and they all are set in a different setting. In other words, they are almost like delicately set in [the dunes]; almost like a ring would be. High white-white, the highest white on the Munsell Scale is the color of the sand here. So white-white dunes…the sky is just this great big sky that is…as blue-blue as you can see. 

And the water is emerald green. So it is almost like you are looking at a field of jewels. And the further you go down 30A, you know, you might see a pearl and then the sun glistens off of the diamonds. It is really one of the more spectacular things that you will ever see. Especially if you drive down here and you are driving down 30A and you come to the curve where Western Lake is and it just opens up and most people pull off the side of the road. Their mouth drops and the sun is going down and the colors are purples and greens and blues and lavenders–it is one of the most spectacular places that you will really ever see.

–Cindy Meadows, Walton County Commissioner, District 5

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 I feel calm usually when I am there. I feel peaceful and I think that is what really is special about them being right there on the beach. You know the ocean is always moving, the gulf is just moving, moving, moving and you can watch that from a body of water that is completely still. It is not always still, but often. And I think that leads to a very introspective, contemplative kind of space. 

–Sarah Schindele, Ph.D, Grant Coordinator for the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance

 

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A dune lake, for me, is a place of peace. I like to go out there in the mornings before the fog lifts off the ground and just be there next to the lake and take in the quiet and just see what happens. You never know what is going to happen. Sometimes an alligator comes up, sometimes an osprey or an eagle flies over. You know if it is in the spring migration you get migratory birds coming through and it is always different. The lake has its own character. And each one has its own character.

–Jeff Talbert, Park Service Specialist, Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

 

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It is a very delicate system and I am amazed at how just the lake being closed up to any saltwater influx has changed the organisms of the fish in the lake. When that lake is on a routine basis of opening and closing you can catch the primary saltwater/brackish water fish are, you know, the redfish, trout, and speckled trout, and flounder. But then it gets highly freshwater. Now we have a creek coming into our cove so it can really freshen up quickly, but you can then catch bass and brim, but there are alligators in the lake. I have caught bonita, barracuda, and octopus in the lakes after storms. It is just amazing the variety of fish, it is just fascinating the ecosystem, and I have never seen that anywhere else I have ever lived. 

–Edmond Alexander,  Medical Illustrator and resident along Western Lake

 

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We need to protect the lakes, we need to protect them from motorized vehicles, we need to protect the bike trail from motorized vehicles. We are in a protection mode and we need all of the support that we can get to keep the beauty, the cleanliness, and the overall charm, ambience, whatever your word is, to keep the enhancement of this community going. One of the points of the scenic highway designation is that is a scenic highway enhances a traveler’s journey. So, if you are going to enhance a traveler’s journey you need to keep it prisitine and clean and agreeable. And no billboards and lots of beauty to absorb and look at and share. 

–Claire Bannerman,  30A Scenic Highway Chairperson and advocate

 

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We typically see sand dunes from the beach side. And over on the other side of the sand dunes, at least in this area, in some parts, are these lakes. Some small, some medium-sized; dark in color, tea-color or coffee-color. Brackish water.

What I like about them is that if you are paddling on the lake you get to see the backside of the sand dune and it is a different perspective. And, of course, on the other side of that sand dune is the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes you can catch a glimpse of it, sometimes you don’t see it at all. But you know it is on the other side.

–Jack Davis, Ph.D,  University of Florida professor of environmental history

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[When I go out on the lakes] I feel a sense of peace and a sense of freedom. I love to get out on my paddleboard particularly in the late afternoon as the light is changing and it is just so beautiful and nature is so restorative. I love to get out there and to think and reflect and just to enjoy the incredible beauty. 

–Susan Paladini,  Manager for the Coffeen Nature Preserve and Four Mile Village

 

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[A coastal dune lake] is near the coast and it has sand dunes all around it and I’ve learned this in the last 20 years or so that some of them have a great deal of saltwater in them and others are literally like Fuller Lake is and almost free of salt. And so they are all different and, as far as I know, they are only fed only by the weather. No springs or anything like that that I know of. And now I know how rare they are. I kinda figured all of Florida was like that until I got around all of Florida and it is not so. 

–Ed Coffeen,  Nephew of John and Dorothy Coffeen (founders of the Coffeen Nature Preserve)

 

Currently all the interviews have been transcribed.  Now we begin writing a series of short video segments and start editing these stories together.  We will be posting these stories bi-monthly on the Coastal Dune Lakes website, Facebook, and the CDL YouTube channel.  Stay tuned.

https://www.coastaldunelakes.org

https://www.facebook.com/coastaldunelakes

https://www.youtube.com/user/CoastalDuneLakes

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