Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Captain Ed’s Eco-Tour

While we were in Apalachicola, I met up with Captain Ed Daniel who operates a small tour operation out of the Scipio Creek Marina that he calls the “Eco-Explorer” and he was kind enough to invite me on his boat for an afternoon cruise. Captain Ed is not only an expert on the history of the area, he knows the swamps like the back of his hand, and gives an excellent non-stop narrative as he takes you first along the towns old waterfront, out to the mouth of the harbor, up the Apalachicola River and finally into the swamp and marsh areas nearby. For over two hours Captain Ed treated us to dolphins as they played in the waters at the mouth of the bay, the nesting places of a number of birds, and my personal favorite two huge alligators nestled in the reeds and basking in the sun by the side of the channel.

In the process, he gave us a detailed account of the area from the viewpoint of a man who clearly loves nature. The history of this river and the massive wetlands it supports is full of the misguided efforts of man to change it. In nearby Tate’s Hell National Forest, (named for an early settler who was lost there for ten days before stumbling out and exclaiming “I’ve just been through hell” just before he died), the loggers who had cut down all the Cypress trees which grow well in a swamp were left with just a swamp. Their disastrous attempts to drain it so that they could cultivate the faster growing Pine trees included building miles and miles of drainage ditches that today continue to hamper the efforts of naturalist to restore the swamp to its original state. In the middle of the swamp, Captain Ed pointed out a “cut” between two channels that some lazy fisherman had made a number of years earlier so that they could pull their boat between the channels. Although the channels run side by side only a few yards apart, they are at slightly different levels, and to this day, water flows from the higher channel into the lower one, disrupting the natural flow. A little deeper in the swamp we came across a couple of “hunting camps” that consisted of small floating barges with a shanty shack perched upon them. While not technically illegal, these hunting shacks push the limits in this protected area and local conservationists are pushing hard for their removal.

Captain Ed is not really an “environmentalist” in the traditional sense of the word, but more of a conservationist. Like many who have spent their lives on the water, his concern for the environment comes from his understanding that to continue to enjoy this natural beauty, we must protect it. I can only imagine his horror as the oil from this spill approaches. Having met Captain Ed, and the wonderful people of Apalach makes this disaster even more personal for me, and I wish them and all the residents of the Gulf Coast my best. If you find yourself in Apalachicola, look Captain Ed up and take one of his Eco-Tours, you will truly enjoy it.

For more info visit Captain Ed's website at:

For more photos of the Forgotten Coast visit our website at:

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Apalachicola, or “Apalach” as the locals call it, lies at the end of the Apalachicola River where it gently meets the Gulf of Mexico. Although visited for hundreds of years by the Spanish and other explorers, the area was sparsely populated. Founded in 1831, the town was established to receive the huge shipments of cotton that would come down the river by barge and then be loaded on ships that would take this valuable cargo to points around the world. By the 1850’s, the town was bustling with activity, and three story brick warehouses lined the waterfront. The town continued to prosper, and was able to survive the Civil War when Federal troops blockaded the harbor to prevent the South from shipping out one of its few precious revenue producing crops and receiving goods from the British in exchange. However, with the advent of the railroad the business of shipping cotton by barge began to decline, and by the late 1800’s had all but disappeared.

Luckily for the town, but later on disastrous to the environment, the logging barons of the Northeast, having depleted the great forests of the North, then turned their eyes on the huge Cypress forests that graced the land. The town reinvented itself, and the cotton warehouses gave way to lumber mills, and soon the lumber barons were building the magnificent Victorian homes that still give this town its Southern charm and beauty. Logging continued for many years, but all too soon, the slow growing Cypress were also depleted, and the logging business moved on to plunder the newly opened virgin forests of the West.

Once again the town was struggling to survive, but by the end of the 19th century, the harvesting of seafood had rebuilt the waterfront with processing houses and the burgeoning oyster business brought much needed revenue to the area. The county now harvests more than 90% of Florida’s oysters, and about 10% of all the oysters consumed in the U.S. Known for their mild briny flavor, they are favored by chefs around the country. Shrimp, blue crab, and a variety of fish are also caught and processed here.

Today, the town retains the flavor of a small fishing village, and is still pretty sleepy for a tourist town. The people who come here come for the local flavor, not for the miniature golf courses, shopping malls, and big chain restaurants, as they are nowhere to be found. The wide tree-lined streets and the meticulously maintained homes reflect the pride and the spirit of the people who live here. Many of the old buildings have been preserved and the downtown is an eclectic blend of unassuming shops and unique restaurants where the chefs sometimes wander from their kitchen to the neighbors to get a taste what’s going on over there.

Despite all the challenges, the town is determined to stay alive no matter what gets thrown at it. When we were there however, the relentless volcano of oil that is now gushing from the sea floor hundreds of miles away was just another oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, and the name Deepwater Horizon had not yet spelled potential disaster. The last two hurricanes that came through here did a lot of damage, and there are still dozens of boarded up buildings and abandoned piers along the water. One gets the sense that it wouldn’t take much more to push this area over the edge and make another recovery damn near impossible, but these people are tough and resilient. Let’s just hope the chorus “Drill Baby Drill” is not their final swan song.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Forgotten Coast

After we left Texas, we decided to head back along the Gulf Coast and spend a little time relaxing along Florida’s Gulf Coast. With the recent oil spill disaster that is unfolding there, we are not only glad we did, but also painfully aware of the potential for massive ecological damage to an area that has already seen more than its share of both manmade and natural disasters. The Gulf Coast is already an enigma of pristine eco-systems and manmade trash. The oil industry is everywhere, and the sights and smells of its business are strewn across the land. The fishing industry, that has more to lose than anyone, has also made its footprint visible here. While virtually all of the small private fishermen cherish the waters from which they draw their livelihood, many of the larger commercial operations have poorly maintained facilities that can be an eyesore along the waters.

While we were there however, before the foul stench of crude oil and the heartbreaking sight of dead and dying birds, fish, and other wildlife began to become an almost inevitable certainty, the Gulf Coast was basking in the beautiful spring sun and the glistening white sand beaches were nearly devoid of the tourists that would soon come to enjoy the fine weather. But even then, before the spill, everywhere we went the double whammy of back to back hurricanes combined with an economy that has been pummeled not only by nature but by the winds of change in America, has left empty shells of businesses, vacation and retirement homes, and shattered dreams scattered along the coast like so many broken seashells.

As we left the populated areas around New Orleans and headed east along the coast, we decided to visit an area that has been dubbed “The Forgotten Coast”. Legend has it that the nickname came about as a result of a tourism brochure printed many years ago that extolled the virtues of Florida but completely neglected to mention this area that stretches for over a hundred miles from Panama City to just south of Tallahassee. With miles of sugar sand beaches, barrier islands, wildlife refuges, marshes, swamps, and teeming with wildlife, this area should probably consider itself lucky to have been forgotten. While there is certainly plenty of development, the economy managed to bring most of it to a screeching halt before the endless rows of condos and beachfront developments that plague much of the rest of Florida’s coast could completely envelope the area. This has left an area that with the exception of a few pockets where the ubiquitous beachwear and t-shirt shops, factory outlet stores, and scooter rentals have managed to take hold is still fairly quiet and holds a few treasures like the little town of Apalachicola, that we made the center of our visit there. Over the next few days, we would learn more about the people, the history, and the future of this paradise teetering at the tipping point.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Spill Baby Spill

Having recently spent several weeks along the Gulf Coast stretching from New Orleans and through Pensacola, and then along the “Forgotten Coast” of the Florida Panhandle near Apalachicola, we are acutely aware of not only the natural beauty of the area, but also the fragile nature of the ecosystems there. Already damaged by the cumulative effects of mankind and the back to back damage from a series of devastating hurricanes, this area is now faced with a challenge beyond our imagination. Having experienced first hand the effects of an oil spill in an area not nearly as fragile or teeming with wildlife, I can only imagine what the long-term effects of this disaster are going to be.

With that said, I want to apologize for this disaster because it is entirely my fault. Yes, BP and Transocean are responsible for the failure of the equipment, and yes, our Government is responsible for the failure to regulate those responsible for the equipment, but in the end I am responsible for my insatiable appetite for oil that caused all this to begin with. I am not a big oil user by any means, so even more responsible, and soon to be crying for help are the fishing fleets that rely on big diesel motors to ply the waters and harvest the fish that will soon be dying by the millions. The day they stop using oil to power their boats is the day I will feel that they should be compensated for the losses they will suffer from this. The truth is none of us are innocent, and once again I include myself with my solar powered home and all my good intentions in this statement. I still drive a truck, I still have more products than I care to think of that are made from oil and I am still a major part of the problem.

So we can cry, and we can point fingers, but in the end there is only one culprit. You, me, and the horse (power) we rode in on. I don’t care how “green" you tell me you are, and I spend a great deal of time telling others how “green” I am. MEA CULPA. I am guilty, you are guilty, and now we will collectively pay the price. The government has said that BP will be responsible for all the costs associated with this spill. I know the birds and fish and turtles and all the other wildlife that teems along these shores are looking forward to receiving their first check from them.

I am not an oil spill expert, but I am smart enough to read between the lines of what our government and the scientists are telling us to realize that this is a disaster of epic proportions, and one that will hasten the tipping point for total global ecological disaster by a magnitude that will not be understood for years or even generations to come. President Obama, bowing to pressure from the Republicans, and desperate to find any other solution to our addiction to oil than actually kicking the habit recently proposed (much to my absolute shock and horror) an increase in offshore drilling to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

There is only one dependence that can be reduced that will help in the end, and that is the dependence on oil and a high carbon footprint lifestyle. Drill Baby Drill only invites Spill Baby Spill, no matter who is in charge. Developing carbon free, renewable sources of energy on a scale equal to or surpassing the nuclear arms or race to the moon may be the only answer that will actually produce any results. So from the car we drive, to the lights in our house, to the plastic bags for our groceries, and a thousand other products we use everyday that we don’t even know are made from oil, like our food, we must all change our ways.