As riverkeeper of the Apalachicola watershed, Georgia Ackerman’s job is to protect one of Florida’s largest rivers and most expansive floodplains. That means speaking up for the natural environment and its inhabitants, but her work is also personal. For Georgia and many others, the Apalachicola offers peace, tranquility and a kindred energy that unites those who have felt pulled by their love for a river.
Editor’s Note: Dispatches from a Sinking State is a contributor series from The Marjorie featuring first-person accounts of the environmental changes Florida women are witnessing across the state. This essay was funded by the Society of Environmental Journalists.
I am a riverkeeper. I once explained this job to my kids as being like Dr. Seuss’s character, the Lorax, who urged people to care for the trees.
Apalachicola Riverkeeper gives voice to the ecological needs of the Apalachicola River and Bay. As Florida’s largest river in volume of flow, the Apalachicola pulses southward over 100 miles through Florida’s most expansive forested floodplain to mix with the Gulf of Mexico’s saltwater.
Apalachicola Riverkeeper was founded in 1998 around a kitchen table by a group of community members alarmed by the growing threats to the Apalachicola watershed. Fourteen waterkeeper organizations around the state fight for the protection of Florida’s waters. Waterkeepers speak up for their rivers, lakes, creeks, floodplains and bays—which include millions of trees, plants and animals.
One of the many reasons I love the Apalachicola River is because it is vast and remote. The watershed is recognized as a biodiversity hotspot with some species found nowhere else on Earth. You can spend a full day or several days on the water and be the only human out there. The river’s restorative powers offer peace and tranquility. When you do meet people on the river, it’s nearly always a warm, earnest exchange. There’s a kindred energy of appreciation for the water that seems to connect people.
Like many wild places, the health of the Apalachicola has been deteriorating for years. River flow is the lifeblood of the swamps, streams and estuaries of the Apalachicola ecosystem. Over the years, mismanagement of river flows has deprived fish, invertebrates and plants of freshwater during the hot summer months when they most need it. This has led to devastating ecological consequences, like the severe decline in oysters, which have been at the center of a suite of legal battles between Florida, Georgia and Alabama for three decades. The legal challenge ended earlier this year with no relief for the Apalachicola Bay.
The Apalachicola Bay estuary once provided 90% of Florida’s commercial oysters and 10% of the nation’s oyster harvest. The bay is now closed to wild oyster harvesting and will continue to be for up to five years. Intensive restoration efforts are underway to stave off a total collapse of the wild oyster population.
My personal journey of profound gratitude for Florida’s Apalachicola River began with a kayaking trip along the 107-mile river over the course of five days.
Fumbling from a tent in the pitch dark on a cold morning, I was rewarded with the eventual break of sunlight and a view of undulating mist rising from tea-stained tannic water. To experience a dose of river awe, one need only spend an afternoon walking the wooded ravines along the upper river or a morning sitting along a quiet bank spotting kingfishers, egrets and bald eagles.
For me, coastal kayaking has been a recreational pastime for a quarter-century. It helps me feel infinitesimal, a piece of stardust floating over saltwater in an unfathomably big galaxy. From the view of my long kayak as I move quietly through the water, it’s impossible to recall life’s stressors. A pod of dolphins collaboratively circles me, then rush their fish prey. An herbivorous manatee and calf munch their way through expanses of aquatic grass. The sounds alone are captivating. The rhythms of water, distant landscape and sky become my only reference points. Offshore fishermen similarly describe days at sea.
Many of the fiercest advocates for protecting and restoring the Apalachicola watershed are those whose family histories are woven richly into the fabric of the region. When I speak with a local fisherman that grew up casting from a boat here, I expect to be pulled by an undercurrent theme of love for a river.
Tommy Ward of 13 Mile Seafood once employed about 50 people in his family’s business, which harvested oysters, shrimp and fish from Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico as early as the 1950’s. “It’s a shame to see what’s happening to this estuary,” said Tommy, whose business has suffered because of the oyster collapse.
Shannon Hartsfield has been a commercial fisherman most of his life like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He quit oystering in 2013 following the bay’s decline. Shannon still smiles when he talks about boat trips from Eastpoint upstream to the Woodruff Dam. “Growing up, we used to work the bay, enjoy the bay, go up the river on weekends to Lake Seminole with a group of five or six oyster boats.” Now he advocates to protect the bay: “You’ve got to respect what you have.”
The Apalachicola watershed deserves long-term protection and restoration. The people who love and understand this astounding ecosystem will continue to give voice to its ecological needs. As we bear witness to the natural flow of the river to the ocean, we understand that the mighty Apalachicola River is a remarkable waterway carrying life-giving nutrients to the Apalachicola Bay.
Connecting with the natural world fosters the protection of wild places. People will protect what they love and understand.
I was one of those lucky kids that grew up on the same street as my grandparents and cousins. I ran wild much of the summer under the loose, seasoned supervision of my maternal grandmother. Grandma Gregory’s childcare motto was, “you kids get outside and play.” Indeed, we did. We rode bikes until tires flattened, climbed trees to build forts of scrap wood and wandered acres of thick woods digging for earthworms, frogs and snakes.
As a mother decades later, the wisdom of outdoor play nourished my own children’s curiosity and consideration for the natural world. They understand that our environment is not separate from us.
Georgia Ackerman is Riverkeeper at Apalachicola Riverkeeper. Her favorite past times are kayaking, bike riding and camping with her family and friends. More information about Apalachicola Riverkeeper can be found at www.apalachicolarivekeeper.org
Thank you to the Society of Environmental Journalists for contributing support to The Marjorie’s Dispatches from a Sinking State series.
Credits: Photos courtesy Georgia Ackerman, E. P. Churchill & Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center