Saturday, April 16, 2011

Apalachicola Trip Report


For a Good Time, Call Barb at
1 (800) SOPCHOPPY
The Trip
Nine of us joined Barb Decker’s Apalachicola paddling trip in April, meeting at the city park in Sopchoppy, Florida. Sopchoppy, for those unfamiliar with Florida geography is located in the panhandle of Florida, sort of between Pensacola and Tallahassee and a little south of them. The beauty of Sopchoppy is its’ proximity to the Apalachicola National Forest. The National Forest contains a dozen or more rivers that meander through forest and swampland eventually making their way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Barb meticulously planned the routes along the rivers, making sure that we had a variety of paddling experiences. Shuttle planning alone was no mean feat. One of the shuttles was 35 miles one way along some of the many dirt roads in the forest. She presented us with many paddling options each day that no one was disappointed with.
The Food
If the East Coast Paddlers aren’t among the best paddlers ever to hit Florida, we are among the best fed paddling groups to ever visit the Sunshine State. Everyone seemed to bring their specialty food suitable for hungry paddler. We enjoyed excellent spaghetti dishes, fresh salads, stuffed fajitas, Bob Slade’s bacon and eggs for breakfasts, gourmet oatmeal, Joe’s Camp Coffee, and some surprises you’d never expect to see while camping. There were no freeze-dried meals here. In addition to Patty Pape’s fresh Florida strawberry shortcake, Joe Skornia outdid himself with his Dutch oven. Somehow his chunk of cast iron magically produced delicious pineapple upside down cake and a taste tempting peach/blackberry/blueberry cobbler, the likes of which Sopchoppy may never see again. John Neal always seemed to be up to his elbows in ground beef, onions, and sliced peppers. The wonderful smell alone was worth the price of admission.
The Rivers
Just the names of the rivers conjured up adventure; there was the Lost River, Sopchoppy, Ochlockonee, Wakulla, St. Marks, Wacilla and a few more. It seems like the natives like a lot of syllables in their place names. In four or five more Florida trips Barb might even learn to pronounce Ochlockonee (Ock-lock-nee). Most of the rivers are winding with the exception of the Wacilla which is a pretty straight shot after leaving the springs that feed the river. The water is crystal clear and the springs must pump out millions of gallons of water a day. Nestle wants to put a bottling plant there but, as in most other locales, is facing stiff opposition from kayakers and other extremist keepers of the earth. Much of the river is edged with cypress trees, some of which are impressively large with many “knees” extending out for acres. There is quite a bit of swampland too, which makes for excellent alligator, snake and bird habitat. Some of the rivers had a mysterious red tinge, probably coming from nutrients in the underground springs. Patty asked a biologist about the increased weeds that seem to be choking parts of some rivers. She was told that the suspected culprit is Tallahassee and its’ water treatment methods, or lack thereof. We saw the most alligators on the Wacilla, and quite a few snakes on the St. Marks River. The Lost River was notable for its’ difficulty. After only 100 yards, Roger Stanley and I opted to pull out and go sightseeing instead. While we were lounging along the Gulf Coast beaches, the rest of the crew was fighting their way through a twisting, cypress-laden watershed, taking an hour to slog through each mile. When they returned to camp, poor Jim Janowicz looked like he had been through 5 consecutive episodes of Survivor and got voted off. Just mention “Lost River” to Jim, Joe Skornia, or Bob Slade and they’ll tell you a story, I’m sure.
The Town
The town's name is a corruption of "Lockchoppe." Which was derived from the Muskogee lokchapi. Lokcha means acorn and api means stem. This was the old Indian name of the nearby river.
Sopchoppy came into existence in 1894. After the CT&G Railroad Company had built a railway through the area, they platted the town on property they already owned in the area, across the river from Greenough. To encourage people to settle there, the railroad engaged in a significant advertising campaign, exaggerating the quality of the soil and climate. Sopchoppy’s current population is 426 wonderful people, with 111 families residing in the city.
The town itself is a throwback to simpler times. The IGA is straight from the 50’s, and you don’t need to worry about traffic on Main Street. Sometimes it seemed like the dogs ran the town. The mutts were friendly, and let us know that leash laws are for Yankees. The town has a recording studio and it was apparent that music is a big part of local life. We attended two concerts at Posh Java, a fair trade coffee house. One night a couple of musicians visited us at our campsite, played some music, and invited us to a concert. We were made to feel welcome. You can keep Tampa, we’ll take Sopchoppy.
The Weather
The weather was great each day with temperatures ranging from the mid-50’s to the mid-80’s. We had no rain except for the one night when we had a helluva wind, lightning and rain storm rip through the area. It lasted for a couple of hours and limbs crashed all around our tent sites. Unfortunately for Patty, a sizeable limb crashed onto her tent ripping a large hole in the fly and a smaller on through the tent itself. But by noon the next day, the sun was out again and life was good.
Worm Gruntin
You can look it up. Worm Gruntin’ is an actual phenomenon, and the center of the Worm Gruntin’ universe is Sopchoppy, Florida. Their annual festival just happened to occur the last weekend of our trip. As with any festival you need to have music and food. But not just any chicken dinner will do in Sopchoppy. There were mullet sandwiches and deep-fried catfish. Bill was hoping for deep fried night crawlers (90% protein) but that was not to be.
Fact: Most worm grunting methods involve vibrating the soil, which encourages the worms to the surface. In 2008 researchers from Vanderbilt University demonstrated that the worms surface because the vibrations are similar to those produced by digging moles, which prey on earthworms. The same technique is used by many species of bird, which devour the worms as they appear above ground.
The activity is known by several different names and the apparatus and techniques vary significantly. "Worm grunting" generally refers to the use of a "stob", a wooden stake that is driven into the ground, and a "rooping iron" which is used to rub the stob. "Worm fiddling" also uses a wooden stake but utilises a dulled saw which is dragged along its top.
Techniques vary from sprinkling the turf with water, tea and beer to acupuncture, music or just "twanging" with a garden fork. (source: Wikipedia). If you want to seen some actual Worm Gruntin’, just Google YouTube Worm Gruntin’ for some real action.
Salted Oysters

The last day of the trip was spent in salt marshes looking for ‘gators, and many were seen. The tide made all of the difference in the ease of paddling. Going out, the group floated obliviously over the oyster beds, but heading back to the car the tide was going out and the oyster beds were exposed. The BP gulf oil spill hasn’t seemed to have endangered these oysters as they were everywhere, and their shells are razor sharp. Cut yourself on one of these bad boys and you may be in for a long and serious infection. But the worst that happened to us was some shredded plastic on the hulls. This is no place for fiberglass, Kevlar or wooden boats.

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