Category Archives: Nature education

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

Apalachicola Riverview Project, Part I: The Unwilling Member (Me)

January 8th, 2014

By Nic Stoltzfus

December 5th-14th, 2013. What is significant about those dates? For many, those 9 days are just part of the string of days preceding Christmas; putting up the Christmas tree, lighting the second advent candle, and generally getting ready for the holidays. But, for me, during those nine days something extraordinary happened. I was part of something mythical, like sighting Halley’s comet: something rare that only happens once or twice in a lifetime.

After I returned from Japan, one thing that my Dad said he wanted to do with me was go on a paddling expedition on the Apalachicola River. Why the Apalachicola? I grew up in a small hamlet a few miles north of Blountstown about three miles from Ocheesee Landing and the river was my playground. Also, it would be an opportunity for us to spend some father-son time together.

Unbeknownst to us at the same time Justin Riney of Expedition Florida 500 was planning on paddling the Apalachicola River in mid-December as one of his final paddles in Florida.

In October Dad, Joey Dickinson (our great intern and editor extraordinaire), and I were filming the World Paddle for the Planet event in Walton County. There, we met Justin Riney and, over the course of the weekend, Dad mentioned he and I were planning to paddle the length of the river as a father-son adventure. Justin said that he was also planning to go and Dad, being the welcoming feller that he is, suggested the three of us do it as a joint venture. Justin agreed and this started the dialogue of our December project.

As we continued our conversations, Dad mentioned to Justin how cool it would be if Google would come down and document the river with their cameras. After a pause Justin said he would make a phone call. And thus entered Kristian Gustavson of Below the Surface. His company is subcontracted with Google to work from time to time on projects such as this one.

I counted the members of the team: Justin, Dad, Joey, myself, and two members from Below the Surface. 6. Okay. A good number for an expedition.

Thanksgiving came and went. December jingled forth. I started to get restless at nights with my mind ever repeating the same doubt: Could I do this?  I had only gone on six kayak trips—and four of them were in the past month. I was still a little shaky on entry getting into the water. Each trip was less than two hours apiece—how was I going to do 109 miles over nine days? Two of those days were going to be looooong twenty-mile days paddling from sunup to sundown. My mind was playing tricks on me and I was being torn down by negative mental models. “You can’t do this.” “You are an amateur.” “You’re not in shape.” I would wake up in the mornings and my stomach would be flipped, and I would take three Tums and a glass of water before eating breakfast. Gulp.

Tomorrow’s blog: The Apalachicola Riverview Project, Part II: Getting to Know the Guys

Florida’s First World Paddle for the Planet

10/25/13

By Nic Stoltzfus

World Paddle for the Planet video. Produced by Elam Stoltzfus. Edited by Joey Dickinson. Script by Nic Stoltzfus.

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Parked Paddleboards (photo by Nic Stoltzfus)

On Friday, October 9th, Dad, Joey, and I loaded up our gear in our Toyota Sequoia and hooked up our boat (a custom built Scandy White) and prepared to head to Panama City Beach. We were headed to the World Paddle for the Planet event held on Lake Powell and stationed out of Camp Helen State Park. Part of a larger 4-day eco-fest, the main event was a 24-hour paddling event with paddlers from all over welcome to join. The mission of World Paddle for the Planet is “to educate and raise awareness for restoring and preserving the health of our oceans and waterways worldwide.” The funds from this year’s event went to Mother Ocean’s Expedition Florida 500. This is the first year that the World Paddle for the Planet has been held in the United States. According to the website there were going to be some special guests in attendance: Bob Purdy, the founder of Paddle for the Planet, traveled from British Columbia to boost spirits; and Justin Riney, the founder of Mother Ocean and Expedition Florida 500, also planned to paddle the full 24 hours.

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Elam Stoltzfus filming at Camp Helen State Park (photo by Nic Stoltzfus)

After arrival, we checked into the apartment so graciously provided to us by Richard and Marilue Maris, and headed down to the public boat launch at Lake Powell. The weather outside was lovely––Autumn in Florida is my favorite season––and October in particular is spectacular. When we set out, it was nearing 4 o’clock and we wanted plenty of time to shoot a colorful sunset. A heron was resting on a pine branch as the sun faded in the sky, and the air cooled as a few stars started to appear.

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Elam pointing to head back to shore as Joey runs the trolling motor (photo by Nic Stoltzfus)

Saturday morning we put the boat back in to Lake Powell and headed to Camp Helen State Park where the 24 hour paddling event was set to start at noon. Before we started, the local Native American tribe, the Maskoke (Muskogee), blessed the event. Marcus Cloud offered up a blessing and also an admonition that this is sacred land—and we are charged with protecting it. After Marcus was finished with his speech two men dressed in traditional Maskoke garb passed around a turtle shell with incense wafting from it; a sweet rosemary scent filled the air. Each person waved the smoke toward his or her face, taking part in this sacred purification ritual. It felt like a holy communion; all present now bound together by this beautiful ceremony.

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The Maskoke paddle by with Elam filming (photo by Nic Stoltzfus)

The Maskoke started the 24-hour paddle for the planet in a two-person canoe and the paddlers, around 30, followed behind. The first lap around the lake was silent—SUP Radio host Leslie Kolovich encouraged paddlers to use this first lap to meditate on why they were paddling today.

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Joey Dickinson, Elam Stoltzfus, Justin Riney, and Bob Purdy discuss today’s event (photo by Nic Stoltzfus)

Most of the paddlers who attended the event were paddling in groups, so they would rotate off every few hours and paddle for 24 hours as a team. But a few hardcore paddlers, such as Bob Purdy and Justin Riney, would brave the entire duration.

Evening approached. We parked our boat on a sand spit by the outfall of Lake Powell and walked out to the Gulf of Mexico with our camera equipment to get some “b-roll” (supplemental film footage) of people walking the beach.

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(Left to Right) Cynthia Trone, Gabriel Gray, Elam Stoltzfus, Bob Purdy, Nic Stoltzfus, and Leslie Kolovich (photo by Joey Dickinson)

After this we moved back lakeside and the paddleboarders were headed to the outfall for a group shot before sunset. It was the “magic hour” as we say in filmmaking slang, that hour right before sunset when everything turns golden. I half-wished that I wasn’t going to bed that night. It was a beautiful evening—not too cold—and the crickets, frogs, and nocturnal birds would be out in throes chattering and providing the music for the night.

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The Legacy Continues (photo by Nic Stoltzfus)

Sunday morning we arrived at Camp Helen around 10 in the morning, two hours before the paddleboarders would finish. To start we took some aerial shots with the remote-controlled helicopter.

About 20 minutes before noon Dad, Joey, and I set up on the Camp Helen shoreline preparing for the paddlers’ arrival. I got into the lake with water up to my chest and Joey was stationed about twenty-foot away at the opposite side of the shoreline knee-deep in the water.

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Justin “Florida” Riney and Cynthia Trone look on as Bob paddles his last lap (photo by Nic Stoltzfus)

Noon. 24 hours was over and everyone paddling was smiling for the home stretch. The exhausted paddlers began hugging friends and family, and feelings of joy buzzed in the air. It was at this point that Bob Purdy announced he was going to paddle around one last lap.

Bob went around and as he came back everyone rose their paddles in the air to form the paddleboarders’ salute, a covered crossing for the warrior to pass under.

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The Paddleboarders’ Salute (photo by Nic Stoltzfus)

The first ever Paddle for the Planet at Panama City Beach was a success, and I plan to attend next year and paddle for the full 24 hours with camera in tow!

To sign up for next year’s World Paddle for the Planet visit: worldpaddlefortheplanet.com.

For more information on Lake Powell and other dune lakes in Florida visit: www.coastaldunelakes.org.