An Afterword, by Bob Dylan

November 29, 2009

This has been in my head for the last month. Now I think it might have been the river singing to itself...


Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves.
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me…


Thanks for listening with me.


November 29, 2009

I woke up at dawn on an empty beach that curves east for miles, disappearing around a point and continuing for another few miles to the end of the island. I walked the road that cuts down the center of the island. Two white-sand tracks split the forest of slash pines, oak, palm, cabbage palmetto, wiregrass, wax myrtle. The road follows an old dune, now forested. The whole island is striped with alternating ridges (old dunes) and lowland wetlands.

The island’s former owner hosted a world of exotic animals brought over from distant continents. The zebras are gone, but the Sambar, a 600-pound, elk-like deer from southeast Asia still inhabit the island, preferring the wetlands. A red wolf program hosts a family prior to their release in a North Carolina re-introduction zone. Then there are the usual suspects: coyote, white-tail deer, raccoon (smaller and more tan in color), gator, snakes, fox, wild hog, and a crazy amount of birds, especially during migration.

So I wandered down the whole thing. Hit the east end and “Tahiti Beach.” Emtpy, too. The ranger cabin on that side: empty. The sandy, palm-and-pine-fringed Little St. George Island 300 yards across West Pass: empty. I ate my lunch on a driftwood log and jumped in the glass-calm bay water.

Walked back on the beach. Took hours. Other than that ocean to my left and its offering of shells, I could have been in the Sahara, it felt so open and remote. The place is wild.

At sunset, I paddled across Indian Pass to the campground, eyes open for my last bit of randomness, what I’ve come to call, “Live Action.” Bob and Ruth were walking their dog at sunset and drinking wine barefoot. They saw me leaning against the piling eating a carrot, Morpheus floating nearby. They asked had I been gone long. I told them yes, two months. They stopped in their tracks. Bob’s eyes lit up and they wanted to know everything.

The turkey was in the oven in their RV, though. So we continued the conversation over Thanksgiving dinner. Bob and Ruth are in their fifties and met, following their “previous lives,” over a dozen years ago. They’ve been married 11 years. Before we met, I watched them walk the beach and hold hands and stop to kiss and take couple-photos and they are very much in love. They live in Michigan, but Bob is a tradesman with a union and there’s so little work in that state now that he’s been in Mobile on a contract for ten months. Ruth comes down to visit for a few weeks – she can work remotely from her computer. They stay in the RV. They will sell their dream house they built in the Michigan woods. It will be hard to leave but they’ll gain freedom. Bob has an itch to explore and will be able to retire from the union in three years. Then they can take off. He just climbed his first mountain in upstate New York and loved it. He’s got the adventure bug. We explore the island the next day.


There’s no river left to pull me away this time, but there’s that island across the pass. I return to it for my last night. I’ve been a fly on the wall for two months. It’s an extreme existence – from total immersion with complete strangers to total solitude. And the water always there like an indifferent companion or a moat.

I guess I have to leave with something: Since we’re all nuttier’n squirrel turd, I’ll take curiosity over judgment and I’ll try not to get shot. And river is a magical thing.


One mo’ post, the vital Afterword, on the way…

Hopefully the images and the stories of this place and people will find homes in other venues, perhaps even real publications. I will be working on that over the coming months.

13 Mile Oyster

November 25, 2009

Paddled down the south side of Apalachicola Bay to the west end at Indian Pass. My blade hit sand 200 yards off shore in this shallow bay. As I got nearer to 11 mile and 12 mile and 13 mile, I saw a few oystermen still tonging in the steely late afternoon.

It’s a handmade industry – the boats, the tongs, the rakes, all hand-made and welded in backyard shops. The men and some women fill burlap bags and bring them into an oyster house. The bags are weighed and the tongers paid. The oysters – some raw, some shucked and canned – go into boxes and onto a truck for restaurants and markets.

A few of the men this morning, as they headed out for pre-Thanksgiving tonging…

Pictures Pages, Apalachicola River

November 24, 2009

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.

Geography Awareness Week blog

November 20, 2009

Get ready for Blog-a-Thon!

National Geographic’s Geography Awareness Week posted the Apalach post from last week. Check it out and others (including that of my friend Lindsay, right below mine) at…

Bristol, Florida

November 19, 2009

Because of Sara Almy and Johnny and Linda Worthington, I have been able to be a fly on the wall in Bristol, Florida this weekend.


I met both Sara and the Worthingtons at the Bristol Landing with Morpheus and Michael, at the time. They heard of the journey and offered to let me stay at their homes, especially since the river is at flood stage and all the sandbar campsites are under 10 feet of water.


So, I’ve hit golf balls in Sara’s backyard – she insisted we tee one up before leaving Saturday morning. I picked the driver and aimed over the hickory tree and into the field beyond. Sara says it’s fine, the farmer picks up her balls and brings them back to her. She handed me a tee out of the flower pot by the tree/tee box. I launched one almost straight up. Michael shanked it sideways. Sara took out the 7-iron and lofted one into the far corner of her yard.

Sara lives alone but she’s been seeing Chester for twelve years. Chester lives 45 minutes away in Marianna and they see each other on the weekends. It’s perfect, says Sara, because she can just leave and go home if she gets tired of him. Sara has many dolls in her house but she does not collect them. Her grown children just started giving them to her for gifts and they haven’t stopped. So they live all around the house.

I wandered the streets of Bristol many times. Attended the service at the Pentacostal church, met Aaron and his small gathering of children and family at the Miracle of God Baptist Church. I got my hair cut at Duggar’s Barber Shop. Mr. Duggars makes cane syrup and his son makes tupelo honey.



I stayed in the Worthington’s RV, in their backyard between its lake season on Seminole and its upcoming hunting season in the woods. We ate chili and watched football and talked about the outdoor life. We walked over the Apalachicola bridge at sunset for photos.


Johnny drove trucks for years – Florida to New York, hauling seafood much of the time, dropped it off at the port in downtown NYC, a dangerous place in the 80s. The trucking life nearly wrecked him – 96 hours straight of driving, aided by coffee, pills, and a constant flow of nicotine. He now has trouble breathing and can no longer drive. But he gets outside and he knows the swamps like a gator. Winter’s the best time of year because the clean, cool air doesn’t disturb his lungs.


Earl, Duke of Ocheesee Landing

November 15, 2009

Brother Hanson and I waited out Hurricane Ida beneath the eaves of Sneads Pavillion. This landing is known as “The Lake” by Sneads High School students. We met Kyle and Tyler and Tyler here because it’s where they spend much of their free time. They drive big trucks with tinted windows and they smoke cigarettes and sometimes drink Budweiser here. We had to stay two nights on account of the ferocious wind whipping across Lake Seminole, sending flotillas of green leafy plants down from their beds in Seminole’s northern wetlands.


We finally got on the water Tuesday and spent a night on the only bit of high ground for miles, a grassy sand bar at the edge of river and swamp. The water’s rising everyday since the latest deluge swept across the watershed, this one in the form of Ida, briefly a hurricane.



This river carries a lot of weight on its shoulders. I understood this watershed better after watching it rise from seven feet last week to twenty-one today. It is intimidating to sleep beside it, knowing that it could swell into your tent with no warning. It floods out of its banks and the water moves up tributaries, the current pushing against cypress trees so that the flatness seems to be tilted away from me. As the river rises down here, it takes a few days to fill the thousands of acres of swamp and lowlands. We float halfway up trees. Then we run into a village of nine houseboats, their anchor lines strained against the flow.


Three families live at Ocheesee Landing full-time: Earl and his wife, Scott and his people, and John and Patricia Wallace. It is an independent thing to live in a house that floats on styrofoam and shifts with the currents, an aluminum jon boat the only connection to land and the rest of us non-houseboat creatures.



John and Patricia Wallace sat on their two-person porch when we floated by. They offered us iced tea. Ice comes from the cooler on the back porch. Between the porches, cypress siding encloses a room big enough for a double bed, a few chairs, and a table. The stove is on the front porch. They mainly fry catfish, catch around 20 fish a day. John wants to build an extended porch and barbecue on the back – can’t eat fried food all the time.

John built the house in the front yard of their old house in Altha. When the last daughter moved out, so did John and Patricia, straight to Ocheesee. Their porch faces the sunset and they can fish out of the living room. Patricia didn’t mind living on land but she’s never been happier than with life on the water.

The Duke of Ocheesee, the Godfather, is Earl. He and his wife have been on a houseboat down here for fifteen years, since before the road from town was paved. (Earl had it paved when he was county commissioner.) They have two pontoon boats and a jon boat and the house measures 1700 sf, 900 indoors and 800 worth of porches. It is wheel-chair accessible because Earl’s two brothers are both paralyzed, one from a swimming accident as a boy, the other from a freak tree-fall accident – he was a lumberjack.


We meet Earl at sunrise. He steps onto his porch the moment the sun pokes out from above the tree tops across the river where the bluffs of Torreya State Park rise over one-hundred feet off the river. Earl wears his mechanics jump suit and holds a tall white coffee mug with two round breasts on it. He owns his mechanic shop in town and his wife is a nurse, working nights now so she’s on her way home.


Michael and I camped under one of the oldest oak trees in Florida. We had a campfire and listened to the hum of the gas generators powering the Christmas lights on Earl’s porch. The houseboats glowed through the submerged trees eerily enough to make me wonder why all spaceships sightings happen in deserts.


Sunday Brunch

November 15, 2009

What’ll’ya have?


Maps Update

November 14, 2009

Nick Silverman, Chief of Cartography and Stream Science for the expedition, has updated the Maps page.

He has highlighted the sections of river that could become designated recreational canoe trails in the future. From Helen to Valley, AL, to Columbus, GA and beyond, many river enthusiasts are planning ways to bring people to the river and make it more accessible for small-craft exploration.

There’s nothing more important than encouraging more and more people to see, use, and enjoy the river, if you ask Nick and me.

Go to “Maps” section and enlarge each map for details.

An Apalachicola canoe trail is also in the works…

Sunny Blues in Apalach

November 14, 2009

GAWeek09_Blog-a-thon_badgeNote: The following post will be a bit repetitive for my loyal bloggies. It is being posted on the National Geographic Blog-a-Thon Geography Awareness site on Thursday, November 19th…

See the Sunny Blues video here.

The Chattahoochee-Apalachicola River flows over 500 miles through three states. The Chattahoochee becomes the Apalachicola River in Florida and weaves its blackwater way through cypress, long-leaf pine, sawgrass, oak, and tupelo forests and through the filters of Apalachicola Bay oysters.

I’m eating those oysters today since I have left Morpheus and the river at Lake Seminole and have joined my brother at the Apalachicola Seafood Festival, the oldest seafood fest in Florida. The ‘Hooch and Apalachicola River end here and they have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Apalachicola Bay, one of the most productive marine sanctuaries in the country.



Apalach’s oysters thrive on the Hooch’s influx of freshwater, but the relationship sours with the foul water brought down from discharge, sewer overflows, and industrial and individual-citizen run-off along its course: through Atlanta, Columbus, Eufaula, and other towns. Recent flooding around Atlanta sent untreated wastewater down the Hooch at an alarming rate.

festival grid

But the party must go on. This is Florida, it’s 70 degrees and sunny, the bugs are gone, the beer is cold, and the deep friers are bubbling with fresh seafood. On Friday afternoon Miss Florida Seafood Queen had her silver heels on and the breeze filled King Retsyo’s red cape like a sail on the bow of Buddy Ward and Sons’ shrimping boat. There was a fishing fleet waiting to be blessed and a crowd lined Apalach’s downtown waterfront waving into the sun.

Friday night we stumbled upon a blues shindig in the courtyard of a store that sells natural sponges, once a thriving industry in the bay. Mary belts out the tunes and stomps around the dance floor. The mic passes through the crowd and I sing for the first time in front of a live audience: “Rock me baby like I ain’t got no bones.”


Two blocks behind me, through the darkness, the Apalachicola River slides under the waning moon and rusty shrimping boats and through marsh grasses on its grand entrance to the bay. The same water I floated upon, swam in, pulled on with my paddle, and slept beside 500 miles and six weeks ago in the foothills of north Georgia’s Apalachian mountains moves there, a constant downward motion that connects everything in its path, for better or worse, in sickness and in health.