Day 5 started off great. We said goodbye to our new friends at the dock, but before we left we got the two younger kids on the paddleboards to let them have some fun on the water. They were so excited about our journey and had a blast using our gear; it felt really nice to return the favor after they hosted us the prior evening. We had no idea that we were about to experience the toughest day of the journey on Day 5, but we paddled southbound towards our next few stops: Sand Mountain and a place called River Styx that’s supposedly haunted from the Civil War era.
Sand Mountain was just a massive pile of sand along the shoreline created by the US Army Corp. during their dredging efforts. We scaled the mound, took some pictures of the view, and moved on. River Styx was definitely a little creepy. With all of the slave canals and history from the Civil War, the river is loaded with myths and stories about what actually occurred in some parts. Gabe and I had a blast exploring the area, but we definitely got an eerie feeling of being watched the whole time. It was without a doubt the quietest portion of our trip.
The second half of the day was where we ran into trouble, though. Summer afternoons in Florida are known for thunderstorms, but they typically pass fairly quickly and are relatively harmless – this one wasn’t. We suddenly had bolts of lightning on top of us, hitting trees within our line of vision less than a mile away. We pushed it as far as we could, but we were forced to take shelter in an old boathouse on the side of the river. For nearly two hours, Gabe and I waited out the storm and fought off the bugs under the awnings of this place. We were running low on fresh water, our camp was still a good five miles away, and we were quickly losing daylight. We decided to make a dash for it once things started to calm down, but we didn’t arrive at our campsite until it was nearly dark.
The location was a real challenge, though, because it was in the remote portion of the Apalachicola National Forest just north of an area called Tate’s Hell. Potable water was a time-consuming 1.5 miles away, but we hitched a ride up to the facilities just as it was getting dark outside. I wound up bringing my headlamp and bowie knife with me because I needed to charge the batteries on our electronics since it was most likely our last chance. Gabe returned to camp with our ride back so he could watch our goods and set up camp. In hindsight, my decision to stay probably wasn’t the best one because I wound up running into an uncomfortable situation with a local, and then I had a sketchy hike through the forest back to camp in the darkest of nights through an area known for black bears. It worked out thankfully, but we got very little sleep that night as it rained on us all throughout. What an adventure, though, and we were stoked to have weathered the storm successfully with some fun stories to tell.
The rain continued on Day 6. In fact, we paddled the first half of the day in somewhat of a downpour and the winds were in our face the entire way. We covered a distance of about two miles the first half of the day, and it felt like 20. Gabe and I stopped for breaks often at this point – we were maxed out on little sleep and had been battered by the elements for two days straight. Everything we had was soaking wet, despite our dry bags, and we weren’t making any progress down the river. The weather just seemed like it didn’t want us to finish, but we pushed through it, stopping at some docks along the way to regroup. Spirits were somewhat low at this point, but we knew how close we were getting and that kept us moving.
We finally arrived at our campsite, a sandbar about 14 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico, and there was an unspoken sense of pride that evening knowing we’d gotten over that hump. Although we were exhausted from the last two days, we spent every chance we got at camp that night just soaking it all in and enjoying the evening. The sky opened up and turned a deep shade of blue, the bugs seemed to back off for a bit, and I actually did some laundry! We knew this was our last few hours of solitude before hitting civilization again, so we just enjoyed every minute of it.
The Department of State was organizing a welcoming party for us the following day at 3:00 in partnership with the City of Apalachicola, so we were excited about the long and rewarding day ahead. We slept well that night. – Justin Riney