“Apalacha-where?” a friend asked me when I shared my pre-trip plans last fall. “It sounds very…mmm…rural. Besides, you don’t even like Florida.”
She was sort of right. That’s because the Florida I knew mainly consisted of suburbs around Fort Lauderdale, where I lived for a few years while working in a corporate cubicle. I wore suits, clacked around in bunion-inducing heels and spent too much time in frigid buildings whose windows didn’t open.
Thankfully for me, times have changed and, thankfully for everyone else, there’s a lot more to Florida.
It was my mother who turned me on to “Apalach,” a city of 3,000 that sits on a delta in the panhandle, after she spent a few days there herself. She was taken by meals of just-caught, sweet shrimp and the laid-back vibe. The place sounded interesting, unusual.
On my first day in town last fall, I’m lucky enough to be invited on a few-hour cruise through the delta’s marshlands and bayous with “Captain Gill” Autrey. Autrey owns a tour company but is leading a family outing so his wife Lane and their friend Susan–both professional photographers–can shoot in the late afternoon, autumn light.
“Be ready at 3:30. No need to bring anything. The ladies will pick you up and bring you to the boat,” he says on the phone. Aye, aye, Captain.
We start out in Scipio Creek, a tributary of the Apalachicola River, which flows some 100 miles south from the Georgia-Florida state line. Autrey, too, moved south and started giving boat tours after a career as a tomato farmer and mayor of Valdosta, Georgia. Today he steers his 28-foot riverboat, Lily, through narrow channels bounded by tall sawgrass.
“It’s like a corn maze,” says Susan, as we cruise low in the water looking up at the stalks surrounding us. (This was shortly before Halloween.)
“You hardly ever see any tourists,” says Autrey in agreement. It isn’t hard to see how, if you don’t know each bend and turn, the depths and invisible obstacles, you could find yourself unceremoniously beached among the sharp-blades.
Visitors on the previous day’s excursions claim to have spotted 14 alligators, Autrey says. As he recounts this, I notice a rough patch in the water, not far from two round optical protrusions. The gator takes its time turning back toward the shore and submerging, seemingly unafraid.
That makes one of us.
Autrey not only takes us up the creek, but into the Apalachicola River and the Little St. Marks and St. Marks rivers too. At one bend, a stop sign hangs on an old tree surrounded by nothing but water and cypress knees. Soon after I catch a glimpse of a yellow-diamond traffic sign hidden in the sawgrass.
“Very Apalach,” Susan says when she sees what I’m smiling at. “And have you seen the recliner on the dock in town?”
I haven’t yet, but now I’m hoping.
Autrey points out the handful of houseboats along the St. Marks River that locals use as rustic weekend cabins. Also “very Apalach,” Susan adds.
We tie up at one boat, owned by friends of the captain, to have a look around. Birds chirp and tweet, but otherwise the air is quiet. Inside there’s a large flat-screen TV and full kitchen. Rumor has it that the boat was professionally decorated–picture whimsical LL Bean and camo–but creature comforts only go so far, I think. Looking toward the water I recall the gator. Peering into the woods on shore, I envision the bear warning signs posted along the road from the airport. For the first time in my otherwise pacifist life, I’m somewhat relieved to see a shotgun propped against a wall.
“Some real Huck Finn stuff out here,” Autrey says, before spotting an osprey flying overhead.
From the boat’s wraparound dock, he points out a tupelo tree hanging over the water. Each spring beekeepers bring their hives to the banks of the river here so the bees can gather pollen from the short-lived blossoms. The combs are replaced before and afterward, so that the honey inside is pure tupelo. Autrey and Lane use it to make their own mead.
Back onboard, after snacking on salty, homemade boiled peanuts, we approach the downtown Apalach riverfront. His phone rings. It’s another friend, having a beer on the deck of a raw bar, who sees the boat go by.
We get to talking about what it’s like living here. Lane, who also moved south from Georgia, says she feels like Apalach is a true community.
During hard times residents help each other out. Last winter after cold weather and overworked oyster bars led to a smaller harvest, the Salvation Army distributed hundreds of boxes of food. The hospital provided free medical care. Gardeners with beds in the two-year-old community garden have given a lot of their veggies to the local food pantry. Susan was involved in a “Calendar Girls”-style effort that raised money for the county’s first mammography machine.
Soon the early evening light shifts from golden to pink, and we motor back to the dock and say our goodbyes.
A few days later, on my last walk along the riverfront before flying home, I spot it through some bamboo leaves: the blue recliner at the end of the dock.
It makes me laugh even though I don’t know the backstory. And that feeling befits the place. It’s hard to make sense right away of all the contrasts here: style and wildness; quirk and conservatism; sophistication with a little down-home scruff. A place where complete strangers call you “love” and “darlin,’” that still unfolds and reveals itself slowly. Warm, eclectic, unpretentious, wry.
The waterways around Apalachicola play a huge role in the life, culture and economy of the area, it makes sense to get out onto them. Autrey customizes similar tours for visitors through his company, Captain Gill’s River Cruises. Other tour operators that local residents mentioned to me include Journeys of St. George Island and Eco Explorer Cruises.
You can find a full list through the Chamber of Commerce. Several, including Captain Gill, allow pets on board.
Full disclosure: Autrey invited me to join him, Lane and Susan on their photography outing at no charge.