Portrait of a River Project - Success!

December 01, 2013  •  18 Comments


106 miles from Chattahoochee near the Georgia line to the Gulf of Mexico, the mighty Apalachicola River flows wide and proud.  Earl Morrogh, Chris Smith, and I launched Yok-che - Earl's electric-powered mini-barge - just below the Jim Woodruff Dam at the headwater, and had a 5 day voyage, finally gliding beneath the bridge into Apalachicola Bay just ahead of a major winter storm. Bay_BridgeBay_Bridge


We had successfully gathered the series of wide-angle photographs about every 100 feet along the whole river which Earl had envisioned.  He has assembled them into a documentary 12 minute timelapse video, and is also creating a more viewer-friendly shorter video interspersed with other photos I made along the way, and music.  Our Portrait of a River Project objectives, along with the videos can be found at the Apalachicola River Blueway site. So my purpose in this post is to give you a bit of the behind-the-scenes adventure story.    Crew_PortraitCrew_Portrait

Earl, our intrepid captain, who dreamt up this expedition, knows the river intimately and did an amazing job of planning and organizing. Chris, a fine craftsman and our Imagineer, helped Earl build our vessel, Yok-che (Seminole for Turtle) and troubleshoot along the way.  He also cooked (and we ate well!)


I had the luxury of being the project photographer, so after figuring out and setting up the rig that automatically shot the main channel series, I was free to photograph the beauty along the way from our deck, my kayak, and shore.  


That's the "automatic photographer" rig above, set to shoot every 25 or 30 seconds, depending on our speed.  And below, a few shots from along the way.





We camped 4 of 5 nights, though I opted to sleep on the deck of Yok-che for peace of mind about our gear.  However, that got me rained on the first night, eaten up by skeeters the 2nd, awakened by nearby human voices late the third ... but it also gave me the opportunity to see the trains cross the trestle in the moonlight (first night) and shoot night photos from shore whenever inspired.

First Night. Train crossing trestle under the moon. First Night. Jim Woodruff Dam in distance. Estiffanulga Landing    Second Night. Yok-che by weir at Alum Bluff.

The river is remarkably undeveloped, owing partly to its wide floodplain.  But that is deceptive.  For one, the Army Corp of Engineers, in an attempt to maintain the channel for cargo barges of the past, had installed sets of weirs - rows of heavy pilings sticking out from shore to catch and hold sand and silt - at many bends along the river.

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Even more striking was the floating community that also lines the river's banks; literally hundreds of mostly home-crafted shelters one might loosely group under "houseboats" that serve as hunting cabins, fishing camps, and getaways.  Some are even floating dog kennels.  Architecturally, these are as creative as they are funky.  In many ways, Yok-che fit right into the "neighborhood."


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Friends were essential to our project. Starting with all the Kickstarter Portrait of a River Project patrons (thank you!), followed by the stream of planned and unplanned supporters along the journey.  We are grateful to all.  I mention several in the story below, but should also mention and thank others. George Floyd - owner of the Apalachicola Maritime Museum will soon be starting a full river tour in a restored paddlewheeler.  He opened his Chattahoochee property to us the first night. Elam and Nic Stotzfus of Live Oak Productions met us on the river and camped with us at a sandbar near Alum Bluff.  They, along with Katie McFarland, and WFSU Radio's, Ryan Benk interviewed us for media pieces about the project.  The Stoltzfus's followed up with more videography on the fourth evening - then took us to dinner! Mike Plummer of WFSU-TV interviewed us for a PBS Dimensions piece after the trip.  Judye and Susan, Earl and Chris's lovely wives, brought us a dinner feast at Estiffanulga Landing.  Yum! Others were there along the way too, saving our butts, as you'll see.  


This interview by the Stoltzfus duo and WFSU happened on this beach where we all camped near Alum Bluff (2nd night).  At this spot, the river forms a hard oxbow turn, approaching from the right and leaving toward the left.


Alum Bluff, accessible at the end of the amazing Garden of Eden Trail in the Nature Conservancy's Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve towers 135 feet over the river -- a spectacular vista from top and bottom!  With sunset approaching, I immediately paddled over to get some more intimate shots of the Bluff, first from the water... and then - of course, I couldn't help myself - I had to climb it.

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We did encounter some challenges. We suspected and then confirmed - as starboard stern gradually sank - that one corner flotation barrel was filling with water. Karma was on our side and Ray Womble, a neighbor at Estiffanulga Landing gifted us with a new flotation barrel he was planning to use to make his sour corn for hog hunting.  Ray also recharged our batteries and let us moor and camp on his  property (3rd night).


Here we are first trying to pump the barrel, to no avail... then, early the third morning, we replaced the leaker with Ray's blue barrel (below).

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Our second problem arose when we traveled an extra 3 miles down the Chipola Cutoff to stay in a fishing cabin near Dead Lakes on the fourth night (all for the luxury of a hot shower).  Not knowing what we were in for come morning, I loved the opportunity to make some shots of nearby Dead Lakes (part of the Chipola River which feeds water to the Apalachicola a bit further south).  I only had time after dusk and before dawn.  Here are a few shots. Oh, and I loved my hot shower too.

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The next morning we found that neither our electric motor nor our backup 5 HP gas motor was any match for the swift current of the Cutoff. The 3 miles back upstream to the river was taking precious hours moving at 0.5 mph.  (Here's a shot from our slow crawl upstream.)


Bob Sutton - one of Earl's local Wewahitchka friends - came to our rescue. He and his buddy provided a much needed tow up the last part of the channel.  Whew!

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We were a couple hours behind schedule but made up some of that time with help from our gas motor and arrived at our intended destination, Hickory Landing at Owl Creek (5th night). One of my favorite paddling spots!  I jumped right in my kayak to take advantage of the late day light among the cypress trees.  

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I returned to find David Harbaugh and Beth Appleton enjoying a beer with Earl and Chris on Yok-che. They took us to Roger McKenzie's Family Coastal Restaurant in Sumatra for a fine dinner.  


Sunset was almost over when we returned. 


By morning, clouds dominated the sky.  Roger brought us our batteries, coffee, and a delicious cake his wife had made us. That's what you call fine volunteer work! A storm front was brewing so we left Owl Creek early hoping to make Apalachicola ahead of the bad weather.

 As the sun peeked over the horizon, golden light blasted through the crack of sky beneath the cloud cover.

Headwinds and cloudy skies had actually dogged us progressively after the first day - eating up our electric outboard's battery power and often rendering our solar panel ineffective at boosting our charge.  Luckily Earl had brought along the gas kicker.  This saved us, though we found we needed to add a second motor mount (transom) to save the time, trouble, and risk of switching engines midstream, depending on conditions.  Chris had the tools and after a trial with a piece of 2x4, we lucked into flotsam - a riverside plank - from which we cut a sturdy new transom with our campsaw. Oh, and that's Chris's "sail" in the frame below, which did help push us along whenever we had tailwinds.



On the final day, we had learned a storm was bearing down on us.  In fact, we felt it.  By afternoon, strong gusty headwinds, choppy waters breaking over the bow, and low angry clouds looming ever darker kept us busy streamlining and trimming Yok-che.  By then we also knew we had another barrel full of water as Yok-che listed to starboard.  My Eastpoint friend, Ted Ruffner, provided us the confidence and safety we needed to finish the trip.  He escorted us from the Apalachicola railroad trestle - past an ominous newly sunk shrimp boat - the last several miles to our landing under the bridge.

  RR_Bridge_ApalachicolaRR_Bridge_Apalachicola Ted_EscortTed_Escort Final_Leg_Yok-cheFinal_Leg_Yok-che Welcom_CommitteeWelcom_Committee

We all felt pretty good about it as we disembarked and promptly had a celebratory dinner in Apalachicola.  Sadly, Crystal was not among the welcome party as she was out of town during the voyage.  Yok-che has retired from river adventuring, back to her relaxed life on Lake Talquin.  I feel so lucky and honored to have been part of this expedition.  The bonds we three shared grew ever stronger.  We all wonder, what's next?


Madeleine Carr(non-registered)
Just took another trip with you through this blog after Palmer and I returned from a day trip over to Fort Gadsden and Estiffanulga. That bluff is crumbling and one wonders how many fishermen have slid into the waters. Doing research for a book. Thanks for these beautiful pictures.
Bob Sutton(non-registered)
Such a wonderful undertaking and great photos of a true national treasure. I was happy to be involved in it.
A lovely adventure, beautiful pics of a beautiful river...I can't wait to hear, see and read more of your adventures from an area of the world that I've fallen in love with.
Absolutely wonderful photos!!!
roger mckenzie(non-registered)
Guys glad u had a great trip and made it safely, the photographs of the river are excellent. Thanks for sharing this trip.
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