Hell my name is Gabriel Gray, I’m an expedition paddleboarder based out of North Florida. Along with my wife Natalie we started GrayOutdoors.com and a project called Fight to SOAR (Save Our American Rivers) to help raise awareness for our Nations Rivers through social media, classes, film, and physical involvement for our viewers. This was the last expedition of 2014 for Gray Outdoors and the Fight to SOAR (Save Our American Rivers) project and would also be the first expedition where I would open it up for other paddlers to join in on the whole trip. In doing so, I welcomed Boardworks Surf teammate Jessica Cichra and Professional photographer Desiree Gardner with open arms. This would also be my second time down this river, choosing it for its rich history, beauty, and mystery. Many people are unaware of the Apalachicola River, it essentially cuts the Florida Panhandle in half and along with the Great Smokey Mountains, has the highest bio diversity east of the Mississippi, it also is the dividing line for central and eastern time zones in Florida. The starting point for through paddlers on the river is in Chattahoochee, Fl. next to the remnants of the Historic Victory Bridge, built in 1922. Throughout the days of endless paddling the three of us paddled past bluffs and ravines to reach the flood plains and salt marshes of Apalachicola Bay. One of the things I most enjoyed was seeing my teammates experience and take in this adventure.
To describe the feeling of the first 10 seconds on the water, with a week away from civilization while paddling into the wilderness is impossible, it’s like a gut twisting endorphin rush with a feeling of overwhelming calmness in your brain. The weeks of anticipatory planning, constantly changing gear, always wondering whether I’m under-packing or over packing plagues my mind prior to my expedition trips as I’m always aiming to get away with packing less and less. At that point within the first few minutes and no option to turn back, I always wonder what it is that I will learn, face, accept, and how will I change when these trips come to an end. The Apalachicola River expedition was no different.
The first ay of paddling this river was everything I remembered, the resident juvenile raccoons watching us on the banks, while ospreys flew overhead. That night, the three of us sat around the fire and took in the night’s beauty with the moon reflecting off Alum Bluff while we talked and laughed about our long day, knowing this would be a moment we would never forget. The next few days we would make are way down into the lower section of the river and run into a breath-taking place called the Dead Lakes. The expansive 6,700 acre cypress lake, located on the Chipola River is a tributary that flows into the Apalachicola River. It was said to be formed from a natural sandbar created by the Apalachicola and it flooded the area creating a massive lake killing off many of the trees, leaving their skeletons to guard its beauty and provide even more mystery, making it one of the most fascinating areas on the Gulf Coast. I think we all agreed this 6 mile side trip from the main river was well worth the soreness we endured. That night in the Dead Lakes we decided to experience it in all its glory while sleeping in a cluster of cypress trees, strapping our hammocks over the water for the night. Lying in our hammocks, we absorbed the sounds of wood ducks whistling overhead, barred owls chattering, and the surface water being breached by fish activity. Leaving the Dead Lakes was somewhat emotionally difficult, but the brutal paddle back up to the main river was by far tougher. We spent two more nights on the river, the idea of going back to civilization plagued all of us so we soaked up every minute the best we could. The last 2 days we saw old military forts from 1812 and explored the river banks. We were also graced by some local friends who we shot rifles with and enjoyed a great night around a fire. We completed the journey by tapping the bridge to officially end our adventure while the blaring horn of a boat cheered us on giving us the idea whoever was on that boat understood what we just experienced over our 118 miles and estimated 200,000 memorable strokes. Spending these 7 days on the river and taking in the elements, you tend to fall in love with nature all over again on a whole different level, regaining such admiration and respect that everyone tends to forget in their everyday life. This is the sense of mental calmness I am always awaiting when I get out on these trips, and I’m grateful Jessica and Desire got to experience the same.
The Apalachicola River has seen its fair share of war, from the war of 1812, Seminole war, civil war, and now the water ‘wars'. This battle between Alabama, Georgia, and Florida over water rights of the ACF water basin is unrelenting with each state needing water for their own interests. Atlanta needing water to support its fast growing population, Alabama needing its supply for agriculture and industry, and Florida needing fresh water to feed Apalachicola Bay to support marine life that has always depended on it, not to mention the thousands of jobs it is responsible for. As every year passes the population steadily grows, slowly outgrowing our natural resources. I can only hope that by getting people re-connected through my journeys, I can spread more awareness on preserving what we have. In my opinion, I feel Mother Nature is demanding more respect than ever before and it is our time to step up to the plate and do our job to spread stewardship to our future generations.
I hope y'all enjoyed my trip recap and would appreciate nothing more than for you to follow along on the upcoming exciting 2015 expeditions through our Instagram and Facebook pages for behind the scenes stories and post while out on the expeditions. To learn more about classes, gear, and social media please check out www.grayoutdoors.com. If you get a chance and would like to help out the Apalachicola please go by the Apalachicola River Keepers website (apalachicolariverkeepers.org) and donate, these are the paddlers that fight for the river on a daily bases. If you've never been to Apalachicola, FL, it’s a town with an abundance of paddling trails, fishing history, southern character and perfect for paddlers and travelers alike. Thank you for following along and see ya around the bend.
~Gabriel Gray Photos: Desiree Gardner