Mid afternoon Monday Morpheus and I eased up to the dock, between the crusty old shrimping boats at Apalachicola, FL. I swear to the heavens-above that a dolphin surfaced once about 40 yards off and about two paddle strokes from the dock. And that was it. One welcome exhale then no more, just lots of river water slowing down to meet marsh grass and ocean.
The oystermen and shrimpers were returning with hauls and loading them into the processing buildings that line the downtown waterfront. The mix of real-deal fishing life and industry and a functioning downtown bright with creative people and their businesses gives this place its magic.
Now I’ll have to retrace the last few days on the Apalachicola River. They are some of the richest and most stimulating of the whole trip. Heavy, too. The weight of all that water, that land, all those people behind me felt good but heavy coming down through the lower half of the Apalachicola. I could smell and taste the time and the geology and the biology, the erosion and the culture – the gravity of it all – in a plume of artesian well water that shoots out of a steel pipe at the Hickory Landing campsite, a few miles from the Apalach River, up the still, black water of Owl Creek.
I camped there, slept through a torrential downpour and awoke to find a man skinning a still-warm deer he killed with a musket that morning. He gave me a few pounds of shoulder and I cooked it over an oak fire, ate it less than six hours after the buck had run through the saw palmetto and wiregrass of the pine flatlands.
Before that, I took the Chipola Cut, a winding passage through houses on one side and Chipola Island backwater on the other. I hung out with the boys at the Sportsman’s Lodge, aka The Front Porch, or Phillip Gaskin’s. They drink beer at the bait and tackle shop in the evenings and they talk stories and trash. I listened and ate a ribeye, then put my tent up out back.
Woke in the dark to get into the Dead Lakes before dawn. Their black, glassy water hit land a few feet from my tent behind the store so I threw Morpheus in right there. We glided out into the open water, past towers of cypress snags, dead and stone gray like skeletons or ancient, carved statues. The branches and fine needles of the living cypress fanned out against the brightening sky and then the Dead Lakes lit up and all was black water, blue sky, and pale, twisted tree.
Ben Lanier came by The Front Porch that night. Not to drink beer, just to see what the ole boys were up to. Ben is the third generation in the LL Lanier Tupelo Honey business out of Wewa. His descendants came from France and have been making the purest honey on earth from bees and tupelo trees since 1898. The next day Ben caught me just before I left and took me to one of his bee hives. Ben’s worried about his bees – mites and beetles are seriously threatening this year’s hives. He doesn’t know what he’ll do if he loses the bees. He knows only bee-keeping and he loves it, even if it breaks his back.
And even before that, I met a father and a son hunting hog in the swamp. I paddled into the backwaters that oozed everywhere, the whole world seemingly flooded, at least from my perspective. I camped on muddy patches of dry ground 10 inches above the water and the size of a garage. Screech owls screamed, sometimes directly overhead and maybe at me. Wild hogs rooted around in the dark. A bobcat sat on the wood launch pad of an empty hunting camp’s rope swing. Things watched me.
I met two brothers on a houseboat. They were in their 60s and bachelors, both. The older brother said he and his wife would have been together 50 years this past August. But a few months before that she told him one day that he was “a mean, hateful old man and she didn’t want to live with him any longer.” They had been together since 7th grade. It’s surely not that simple. He said himself that he “ran around on her.” He moved out the day she told him that, leaving her everything and moving in with his brother in Wewahichka. A decade before he had sold the same brother a house to live in following his divorce. Now he says, “Other than that, it’s me and my brother… and the world.” The parade of southern bachelors continues…
This river ends beautifully, saving the best for last. No bridges, no dams, and a people increasingly in tune with river life, almost indigenous in that respect. Stubbornly careless in some ways – not ideal stewards – but full of native knowledge.
I passed an old bee apiary with the state permit still tacked to a tree. The forest was creeping into everything – the cracks of the raised wooden plank, the collapsing tin shed, the floorboards and windows of the sleeping cabin – and the river pulled on the foundation.
I finally got a sandbar to sleep on for my last night on the river. And it had a beach lounge chair, too.
Not finished yet. Paddle along shore of Apalachicola Bay toward Indian Pass. Want to see the breaking waves and empty horizon of the Gulf. The end.