We land on the broad, deserted white beach of St. Vincent Island under blue skies and popcorn clouds. There’s not much to say; Michael and my combined and separate journeys are best left in our own heads for now. We toast each other with cheap whiskey and run into the Gulf of Mexico, letting the sea absorb us as it does the river. And that’s it. No more single direction to follow. No more gravitational pull. The river flows, bullheaded, into the ocean, as indifferent to us now as it was on Day One. Anyone who claims to own that water has obviously never spent much time moving with the stubborn, old-man river.
We spend our last night camped beside a two-story-high pile of oyster shells at Buddy Ward Seafood’s 13 Mile oyster house. We wake before dawn and meet Kendall Schoelles at a small dock shrouded in marsh grasses. Schoelles grew up less than a mile from here, in a small house under the arrow-straight pines. His family has leased the same oyster beds since the late 1800s. We sit on the shell fragments and oyster patina of Schoelles’s long wooden skiff. He steers from the stern, inside a handmade wood box that acts as cockpit within reach of the outboard motor. I can barely make out Schoelles’s face through the box’s small rectangular opening. He looks past me into a gauzy darkness as he weaves between shallow oyster beds he knows by heart.
Schoelles is one of the last oystermen still working the Bay for Buddy Ward Seafood. These days, he packs a pistol. After years of reduced freshwater from the river, the oyster beds have been dying, preyed upon by saltwater-loving conch and bacteria that thrive without regular freshwater flushing. The oyster business has grown desperate in this federally designated fishery disaster area. Kendall occasionally interrupts poachers scraping bivalves, often the baby ones, from his leases. Schoelles is a soft-spoken, mild-mannered guy who just wants to make a living from the water. The gun gives him a voice that matters out in the darkness of Apalachicola Bay.
Oysters don’t lie. They can only sit there and take what comes to them. Schoelles used to pull in 12 to 15 60-pound bags of oysters a day. Now he gets 10 or 11. Many of the few remaining oystermen on the Bay rake only three or four bags. This far downriver, there are few more honest indicators of a river system’s health than how many bags of oysters come out of the Bay. With all the dams and intake stations and perfectly manicured lawns upstream, we’ve all wrestled the river out of the ebb and flow of nature. For better or worse, we now own the water.
The Flint and Chattahoochee run parallel to one another, and they end up together, beneath Schoelles’s boat. Their water drips off the oyster tongs, soaking into the splintered wood floor beneath our feet. We rock on an easterly chop. “Nature does a pretty good job of keeping it balanced,” Schoelles says. It’s hard to tell if he really believes that anymore, sitting on the bow of his boat, culling oysters and tossing the small ones back into the water, hoping the upstream owners will let the freshwater reach them.
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