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Writer Jess Graves grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, with constant visits to her grandmother’s place near the tiny seafood town of Carrabelle. But it took an oyster education in landlocked Atlanta to send her home and back to her roots. Join her on a journey along Highway 98 as she considers the old ways and changing practices in the oyster beds of Apalachicola Bay.

 

Story by Jess Graves

Photographs by Matt Christison & Caroline Fontenot

 
 

Mom made the drive often. My sister and I would clamber into the back seat, and off we’d go from Tallahassee. We knew not to pester Mom with “Are we there yet?,” so I would stare out the window and use the passing landscape as my clock. I marked time by the approach of familiar sights. St. Mark’s Trail Head: 45 minutes away. Lindy’s Chicken: half an hour. The roadside stands selling “P-Nuts” and watermelon: getting close. When I saw that old orange marker ball strung on a single power line, we were there. We would pull past the dilapidated nine-hole golf course and turn in on the second road, marked by a painted sign announcing an old retirement community: “Lanark Village.”

That was where my Gra’ma Freda lived.

She made the best of it, her little house. Once ’50s-era Army camp quarters, it was run down, but she’d fixed it up to her liking. Inside was a busy, violet-splashed riot of ’60s Florida furnishings with louvered, crank windows and no central air. Her dog bit and the whole place stank of cigarettes, but I liked it. Her coffee table was shaped like a seashell, she had no less than 30 bottles of perfume to try, and Coca-Cola and Crisco were essential food groups. She loved my sister and me terrifically; her piles of gold bangles would jangle on her wrists when she scooped us up. She’d fall asleep after her soap operas, and I would watch little green tree frogs cling to her windows and catch lightning bugs.

 
 
 
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Familiar greetings: the covered picnic tables at Carrabelle Beach and the welcome sign for Lanark Village. [Photos by Caroline Fontenot]

 
 
 

Carrabelle Beach was a quick ride down Highway 98 (some still call it Tallahassee Road) in Gra’ma Freda’s Camaro. We would unpack our lunches on the sloped cement picnic tables, painted a faded turquoise that made them iconic in Carrabelle. We screamed with delight when the fat seagulls stole bits of our sandwiches. On the beach, we’d make drip castles and plunge our hands into the wet muck for periwinkles.

After, we’d ride the shoreline of what people call the “Forgotten Coast” — for its propensity to stay suspended in time — into sleepy Carrabelle and shop at the IGA for dinner fixings. Sometimes, we went further, into downtown Apalachicola, where we wandered in and out of the waterfront shops. I listened to the faint sound of wind chimes fashioned from oyster shells. I ate my first oyster in Apalach, although at that age I much preferred big scoops of Mayfield’s ice cream at the old-fashioned drugstore.

Then, I started to loathe Lanark. Around 12 or 13, I realized everything about it was neglected, from its abandoned houses with their cloudy, glass-block walls to the cracked sidewalks sprouting with dandelions. Lanark was a forgotten place on the Forgotten Coast. It embarrassed me as much as my parents, whom I made walk 10 feet behind me, terrified anyone would think we were together. I avoided visiting, and when my mom and dad split around the time I started high school, it became even easier to disavow myself of the place entirely.

My parents’ divorce was protracted, public, and ugly. My stiff upper lip might have convinced my friends, but the looks of pity their parents gave me were a tell. By the time I finished high school, I wanted to flee Tallahassee. I went to college away, determined to be at the helm of my life. For years, I visited home only when necessary. My parents lured me back a handful of times, hosting my friends on the piney shores of St. Teresa beach or by bribing us with boat trips. They kept a Grady-White boat dry-docked at Shields Marina, just at the mouth of the St. Marks River. When I was in college, my boyfriend and I would ride up from Gainesville, and my stepdad would point the boat toward the bay. We’d putter past the old lighthouse, then pick up speed out into the Gulf, where we’d dive for scallops, hunting for their little blue eyes. I knew my parents were edging me toward home, but I mostly resisted. There was a five-year stretch when I didn’t visit at all.

 
 
Photo by Caroline Fontenot

Photo by Caroline Fontenot

 
 

My inner conflicts about home reminded me of summers there, when the enchanting monarch butterflies would flirt and flutter while the horseflies bit the tar out of you. I felt a little twinge of longing, but I typically worked hard to put emotional and physical distance between me and the Florida Panhandle. All it did was remind me of the shame of my broken family.

But in my mid-20s, when I moved to landlocked Atlanta, I began yearning for it. Never had I lived somewhere that wasn’t a short drive to the coast. I had taken for granted the smell of salt water in the air and the comfort of the ocean’s proximity.

I had also taken for granted the abundance of cheap seafood. It didn’t matter where I looked in Atlanta, I couldn’t find the 25-cent Gulf oysters of my childhood, full of sand and grit, accompanied by a red plastic basket of shrink-wrapped saltine crackers.

 
 
 
 
 

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The first time I sat down at the bar at the Kimball House restaurant in Decatur, Georgia, I was about 28, and I quickly realized I was out of my league. The oyster menu was as long as my forearm and full of tasting notes that said things like, “honeydew and lomo,” or “fermented yuzu, flinty finish!” (Over the years, I kept many of the menus, taking notes in the tiny margins. “Self-important foodies?” I asked myself on that first 2014 menu.) Even half-price at happy hour, oysters were a solid $1.50 each. And there was nary a saltine or Club cracker in sight! Where was the Crystal hot sauce? Why couldn’t I order a Coors Light? What in the holy hell was mignonette sauce?

I was cross-eyed and intimidated, but I dutifully ticked off a heavy-handed run of boxes on the oyster menu and sat there waiting, like I knew what I was doing. Not much time passed before a shiny, two-tiered tray appeared, presented with ceremony, like a little gift from the sea gods.

“Have you dined with us before?”

I blinked.

“Just go by the order receipt, starting clockwise from the top. First two oysters are Caper’s Blades, then the Kumamotos. See?” Perched atop a bed of fresh ice were some of the prettiest, cleanest oysters I had ever laid eyes on. I tasted one, then two, then around the clock I went, taking the rest of those suckers down my gullet like it was my last meal as a free woman. I was home. I went back, and then I went back again, and got a rolling education in bivalves. I also developed a real friendship with the brains behind Kimball House’s entire oyster situation, Bryan Rackley.

 
 
 
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Bryan Rackley, Valdosta, Georgia, native and partner in Atlanta’s acclaimed Kimball House & Watchman’s restaurants. [Photo by Matt Christison]

 
 
 

The four partners behind Kimball House last year opened their second venture, a restaurant called Watchman’s Seafood & Spirits, which focuses on sustainably caught Southern seafood. Bryan grew up in Valdosta, Georgia, near me, and his family spent time on the beaches of St. Teresa. He has fond memories of his own early oysters, consumed in the dives of the Forgotten Coast. Watchman’s vibe comes from Bryan’s nostalgia for the area. He wants to see its waterways stay healthy and intact.

“Anyone who's telling you the story of oysters, whether it be happy or sad, is always sure to list the ecological advantages they offer their surroundings.” Bryan says. “And any oyster dork will gladly tell you about the many gallons of water an oyster will filter each day.”

Over the years, Bryan and I have swapped a lot of notes about that little run of pavement along Highway 98 that so few still know. I sensed a creeping nostalgia, and I felt something for the area I never thought I would: homesick.

Oyster by oyster, I’d started an accidental reconciliation with my roots.

 
 
Photo by Matt Christison

Photo by Matt Christison

 
 

It was at Watchman’s in August 2018, sitting across from Bryan at the oyster bar, when the idea for a homecoming came about. He’d shucked me a half-dozen raw, and I skillfully distributed mignonette onto the open half-shells.

“I like the dropper better,” I said, referring to the eye-dropper bottle of the vinegar-shallot mix Kimball House sends out with a plate of oysters. Watchman’s, by contrast, serves mignonette in a tiny bottle you have to tip into a tinier spoon. Bryan rolled his eyes with a smile.

“Jess. I already told you. You don’t get the tiny bits of shallot with the dropper. This way, with the spoon, you do.”

I had come a long way from that first visit to Kimball House. Now, I was a seasoned raw-bar regular – and a bona fide pain in the ass.

“I’ve been thinking about this idea for a while. Tell me what you think,” I said to Bryan. “A lot of things have been written about oyster farming, about Apalach. But nobody’s ever really tackled 98. It’s a good day-long drive, especially when you stop at all the seafood and oyster joints along the way. Plus, all the new oyster farms are really renewing the spirit of the fishing industry down there.” I had barely finished the sentence when Bryan volunteered: “I’d be down for that. Oyster road trip!”  

A few months later, in October, Hurricane Michael hit. After my parents, Bryan was the first person I texted.

“You hear of anyone in the Gulf losing their ass?” I asked.

“No one is sure yet,” he replied.

I wondered if the upbeat story of revival I planned to tell would now be one of loss and despair.

We would just have to see for ourselves.

 
 
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Photos by Caroline Fontenot

 
 

Now here we were, accompanied by Bryan’s business partner Matt Christison, adults in our 30s on the same road we had both ridden along as kids. Like Gra’ma Freda, I have a lead foot and a fast car, but washed-out pavement — storm surge damage courtesy of Hurricane Michael — thwarted my driving. It was February 2019. I slowly navigated around workers from the county, making a steady repair path up Highway 98 five months after the storm.

We had it in our heads we would start in St. Marks and take the Forgotten Coast drive through Panacea, Carrabelle, and Eastpoint, all the way to Apalachicola. If you were to drive it in one shot, that’s only about an hour and 15 minutes of scenic single-lane moseying. But we had many sentimental stops to make.

Along the road, my childhood landmarks came into focus. The trailhead. Lindy’s. The signs for hot boiled peanuts and Tupelo honey. Even salty old Lanark Village was still standing, dogged, on a wobbly peg leg. Michael had left his mark. Vast swaths of pine trees and vegetation laid in waste, and some iconic old homes on the coastal highway had given way to the sea.

But even after hurricanes, an oil spill, and 20 years of my life, the area stands sturdy as ever, by and large unchanged.

 
 
 
 
 

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“Well, you know the first Ouzts’ burned down. Arson. It was just a little more down that way,” Dorothy White tells me. She gestures towards the Newport Bridge. “That’s why this one is Ouzts’ Too.”

White, Outzs’ owner, is behind the bar, shucking oysters and hollering orders at the kitchen. Years of signed $1 bills paper the walls, and there’s a whiteboard advertising Sunday’s live music, a band called Lick My Frog. We’re sitting inside the beloved St. Marks oyster joint, the de facto starting point of our crawl down Highway 98. We’re in Wakulla County, the gateway to the coast. Matt keeps pronouncing it “Wee-COOL-yah,” and I keep correcting him: “Wah-CULL-ah.”

Dorothy’s knife makes quick work of the shells in front of her.

Dorothy White, Outzs too’s owner. [photo by matt Christison]

Dorothy White, Outzs too’s owner. [photo by matt Christison]

“They never did get the guy who did it, you know, the fire. He lives right around here,” she says. Bryan perks up. “So you know who did it?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Dorothy says, unfazed. She shrugs. “That’s just how it is around here. Things happen. I could tell you much weirder stories than that.”

Her white hair is looped into a carefree bun, and she wears the restaurant’s uniform: a T-shirt that says “EAT MO MULLET.” She is quick to clarify that she's not an Ouzts.

“Bought this place from the family,” she says, “but we’ve been open for over 50 years.”

Our smoked-mullet dip comes out. We ask her if the oysters she’s giving us are farmed or wild. She shares a look with our waitress and shrugs. For some around these parts, the rise of oyster-farming operations is a point of contention.

“Wild. Crystal River,” she says, no nonsense, then pauses. “The farmed stuff is just too expensive, you know?”

 
 
 
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Not to be confused with the original, the sign for Ouzts’ Too. [Photo by Matt Christison]

 
 
 

In the broadest sense, the new is often met with trepidation. Thus, in an area so notorious for standing still in time it’s earned the nickname “Forgotten,” resistance to change isn’t surprising. Appalachicola oystermen built the business the old-fashioned way — using tongs to pull the oysters from their natural beds. But oysters, traditionally an inexpensive food source in the area, are nearly triple the price when farmed, thanks to higher costs for gear and labor. Still, as with many sustainable farming practices, the costs are high in the beginning, but the dividends are far richer over time.

“It’s an area known for one way of doing things for a long time,” Bryan says. “I think it’s natural that people are dubious of new ways.”

But the controversy over the new wave of oyster farming goes deeper than simple skepticism about a new method of putting oysters on the table.

The Wakulla Environmental Institute (WEI) is a division of Tallahassee Community College built in 2014 on the premise of stimulating Wakulla County's economy. The WEI promised to create new career paths — offering certificate programs for agricultural drone photography, eco-tourism, and aquaculture chief, among others — and hundreds of new jobs. WEI’s aquaculture certificate program in particular offered students an education in oyster farming. For $15,000, students would receive qualified training, the gear to start, and a patch of water in Panacea’s Oyster Bay, leased from the state.

Wakulla County is not affluent, and a new industry promising a premium seafood product – one that would sell for more money than most – might change lives. All kinds of locals made the $15,000 investment, from area fishermen to people simply looking for a way to afford to stay in the area.

Students were told whatever they raised was, essentially, already sold, if they wanted it to be. A private organization, the Panacea Oyster Co-op, convinced most of the farmers in the WEI program to enter sales contracts: buy the seed and gear from the co-op, raise your crop, then sell it back, and the co-op would handle the rest. The co-op would bag and sell those oysters, taking them to market as “Panacea Pearls,” thus removing the supposed burden of selling and distributing oysters, a task they presented as extremely difficult for a green and eager group of aspiring farmers.

A lot of locals don’t like this setup, saying the Panacea Oyster Co-op positions itself to monopolize the area’s crop by funneling it through one distributor, and that the co-op uses a state-funded facility for its training programs.

These days, half of those water leases sit empty, many because early graduates couldn't get their farms to thrive. Some students say WEI didn’t prepare them with a real education, and that the presumed credibility of both TCC and the WEI made it easy for both to take advantage of an economically vulnerable, rural community.

John Taylor, a resident of nearby Sopchoppy, was one of those first 10 students in 2015, and today he feels he was set up to fail. He is a fifth-generation fisherman in Wakulla County and the head of the nonprofit Florida Shellfish Aquaculture Organization, dedicated to advancing the aquaculture industry. Taylor sued the WEI and TCC, citing breach of contract and negligence when the program failed to produce credentialed instructors, timely permitting, or proper equipment. He also alleged fraud, claiming he was told to expect in excess of $150,000 in revenue from his first harvest. Taylor later won a $30,000 settlement out of court.

“I stood up for the displaced oystermen in this county,” he told the Tallahassee Democrat in 2016.

The episode left a bad taste in some locals mouths, further feeding the undercurrent of skepticism already in place.

But not every graduate of the program has a story of failure. Oyster Bay is still thick with operable farms, many of the leases growing commercially successful crops. And while many are still selling their product through the co-op, some farmers have built their own relationships with chefs and distributors, bypassing the co-op altogether.

 
 
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Bob Brugner of Palmetto Island Oysters tends to his Oyster Bay lease near Panacea, Florida. [Photos by Matt Christison]

 
 
 
 

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That morning, we’d risen early to meet Cainnon Gregg at a dock near Shell Point, just southwest of St. Marks. He’s already got the boat in the water, and he pops open a worn white cooler for us.

“Breakfast beers,” he says.

Gregg is the animated force behind Pelican Oyster Company. He is relentlessly energetic and notably younger than most of the other farmers in the Panacea area. A graduate of the WEI, he opted out of the co-op contract and struck out on his own.

“The bad boy of bivalves!” he declares with a grin.

It’s a densely foggy morning. The heavy gray is stubborn, refusing to burn off vapor, and we hum quietly through the hazy maze of Oyster Bay, where Gregg has three leases, totaling about four and a half acres. The tide is out, and wild oyster bars peek above the surface, living in harmony among caged cohorts.

“Did I tell you guys about that time I saw an alligator eating a pelican?” Gregg asks, then laughs. “It’s wild out here!”

 
 
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Pelican Oyster Company's Cainnon Gregg takes in a foggy morning on Oyster Bay. [Photo by Matt Christison]

 
 

Oyster leases, Bryan explains, “are a little bit like subdivisions.” The Florida Department of Agriculture has 26 use zones where it's permissible to get a lease (a water parcel, each a modest 1.5 acres, give or take) and use the water column beneath the surface for farming purposes.

“Access to the column where you can float gear is still a relatively new thing,” Bryan says. “The leaseholders have to use it or lose it, too, and I think that makes a lot of sense. They want people to actually use those leases, so each person has a time frame to get equipment and oyster seed on the lease, or the DOA will revoke it. Obviously, they're in the slack-cutting business this year, after Michael dropped in.”

The gear he’s referring to are the lines of floating bags where oysters are raised. This above-bottom engineering enables the farmer to monitor the temperature and salinity of the water their crop is exposed to, and ultimately influence the oyster’s shape, shell, meat and flavor.

“If you took care of the shell, you did your job, and whatever is inside is the fruit of your labor – a flavor unique to that process and location.” Gregg says.

It’s a significantly different approach than traditional methods, especially for Apalachicola, where old-school tongers harvest directly from wild oyster beds. They pull their catch onto their boats in great heaps, breaking up the giant clumps up with a culling iron, which looks like a big metal pick. This method offers nearly no control over shell shape, a high-value trait for chefs and restaurateurs like Bryan, who value consistency between crops when choosing where to buy.

Pelican Oyster Company had most of its crop – small, sweet-finishing oysters called “Salty Birds” – pre-sold to chefs and restaurateurs before ever pulling oysters out of the water, and as demand grew, so did Gregg’s need for spat (that’s industry-speak for baby oysters) from commercial nurseries. It required full-time attention, so he left his job in Atlanta and moved his family to the area, so he could focus on his farm.

“Did you guys see that TV bit?” Gregg asks. “I came out here with a lady from NBC. It was the first time I’d been out since Michael hit and realized I’d lost everything, right there on camera. I almost started crying. I went out the day after the storm to assess the damage, and what was once straight lines of equipment looked like a plate of spaghetti. The storm eroded the ocean floor and sent my anchors loose. Thousands of fully grown oysters dried up on private property, sandbars, and in the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. The turbidity of the water disintegrated 150,000 of my baby oysters, and the change in salinity killed thousands of oysters that remained.”

On our way back to the boat slip, we come across Bob Brugner from Palmetto Island Oysters, streaked with sunscreen and tending to his cages.

“We lost 40 percent of our crop in Michael,” he says.

 
 
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Gregg's crop is flourishing now, but just a few months before, he'd lost everything in Hurricane Michael. [Photo by Matt Christison]

 
 

Despite the storm and the natives who remain dubious of farming, the primary feeling is optimism. Much of the community has rallied around the oyster farms, and the spirit of neighbor supporting neighbor is palpable. There’s even a new oyster festival on the Panacea waterfront, an event for everyone to get together and share their crop with hungry fans.

“I get the hesitance to accept a new way of doing things.” Gregg says. “But I hope people here start to see that what we’re doing is good for the community long-term. In the past [by fishing wild oysters] we have just taken advantage of a natural resource, but never replenished it. But now, our farms are putting back in what we’re taking out, which is more sustainable. We’re only reaping what we sow.”

A few months after our trip, Bryan Rackley told me: “There’s plenty of room for both industries, both wild tongers and culture-harvested oysters from farmers. I tend to think the advantages of farming as more restorative than conservational at this point. In their mindless acceptance of plankton for survival, oysters can filter and metabolize stuff like nitrogen. Inland farms tend to send a lot of nitrogen downriver into coastal waters due to the fertilizers they use. Removing nitrogen improves the quality and clarity of that water. Clarity can improve opacity to the point where sunlight can reach the seafloor and thus improve the potential for vegetation. Vegetation removes CO2 and also provides a nice place for loads of other species to inhabit. Shall I continue?”

I say yes, and he does.

“You could – although I'm not sure I would – argue that farmed oysters have replaced wild oysters in most markets. Your point would be that abstaining from wild oysters in favor of cultured product is how you conserve their necessary existence in the wild. You could argue (and also make some folks real mad) that Apalach would be better off if its existing wild population was left alone to reproduce naturally for some period of time. But the stewardship of watermen tending to wild oyster beds has had the tendency to help those beds grow. My buddy Adam James at Hama Hama is constantly repeating that ‘you have to save some for the next guy.’ I think that's especially true in wild beds where the next guy could be you next season. You gotta be somewhat selective with your approach, so that the spawn have a nice landing strip. Newly formed oysters want to land on other oysters, so wild harvests in some areas can tend to be more like grooming than exploitation.”

We ride past another farmer, the seasoned Captain Don Porter of Porter’s Island Oysters, who offers to shuck us a few. Gregg grabs his boat and pulls ours alongside. “I have a lot of admiration for all the hard work these guys put in,” he says.

Panacea is also home to Tropical Trader, one of the area’s favorite seafood dives and one of the few local spots to put farmed oysters on the menu board. It has earned institution status on its own merits, but any local will be quick to tell you it’s owned by “Angelo’s boy.” Thomas Petrandis is the son of the renowned Angelo Petrandis. Angelo’s Restaurant next door is the area’s legendary waterfront crown jewel and longest standing fine-dining establishment.

We order a dozen Outlaw oysters, farm-raised in nearby Alligator Harbor. They come out looking like childhood: plastic basket, cocktail sauce, saltines, and lemon slices. We order cheap beers, and the four of us grin. There’s a little seafood market inside, selling oysters and fresh catch to locals, perks of the Petrandis men owning their own fishing boats. For sale inside the fish case are a fresh delivery of wild-caught oysters, proving under this roof, at least, there’s room for both.

 
 
 
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Smoked mullet dip at Outzs’ Too. [Photo by Matt Christison]

 
 
 
 
 

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As you leave Panacea and head toward the neighboring village of Eastpoint, it’s likely you’ll notice a big, purple-hulled boat parked on the side of the road, emblazoned with a sign advertising “Oyster Radio, WYOS: the voice of the Forgotten Coast.” As soon as 100.5 crackles into range somewhere around Crawfordville, you must blast it from your car windows. Oyster Radio is a station tailor-made for coastal highway driving and listless days on the water. The mix is classic rock peppered with Florida Trop-Rock, a genre defined by Jimmy Buffett-esque beach music that sounds like a steel drum player after approximately two beers. Commercials for local bars and regular updates on tides, news, and fishing conditions break up the music.

“I handpick all the playlists, all the best classic rock. But we always do Trop-Rock ’round cocktail hour; we call that the ‘Beach Blast.’” Robert Allen is the owner, proprietor, and sole DJ of the 30-year-old station. “I started out working here in the ’80s. Eventually bought it. When it came up for sale, I didn’t want to risk what new owners might do with it.” He proudly sports a well-worn, tie-dyed T-shirt that reads The Best Shuckin’ Station on Radio.

“Turn it on after 8,” he says, as Bryan thumbs through records. “That’s ‘Oyster Radio After Dark,’ when I play the really good stuff.” He waves us out the door as we leave. “Y’all check out Lynn’s? That’s a good one!” Lynn’s Quality Oysters is at the heart of Eastpoint, a town that employs mostly packers, pickers, and harvesters in the oyster trade.

 
 
 
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Oyster Radio spins the soundtrack of the Forgotten Coast. [Photo by Matt Christison]

 
 
 

Lynn’s is a more family-friendly establishment than say, Fathom’s Steam Room and Raw Bar in Carrabelle. Fathom’s is a rowdy local spot, nestled in the heart of the historic fishing village on Avenue A, sandwiched between the highway and the waterfront. On the back deck, locals watch the net-draped shrimp boats come and go over steamed oysters and fried grouper sandwiches. It is renowned for its no-bullshit stance on customer service. The walls abound with bumper stickers and signs that say things like Your proctologist called, he found your head. As we climb out of the car, I see one that says Weekend Forecast: Mostly Drunk With a Chance of Fishing. We’re in Franklin County now.

We take Carrabelle on foot. Matt snaps a picture of the town’s infamous “World’s Smallest Police Station,” which is, more precisely, a telephone booth with no telephone. We wander into Harry’s Bar, greeted by the sounds of Def Leppard and more cold beer. Among the patrons we befriend is a young man who works at Fathom’s, still sporting a cotton T-shirt in the same baby blue of the restaurant’s familiar sign. He’s off today, and, over Budweisers, he tells us about the huge tips he makes when sport fishers pull their big boats into the marinas.

“That’s when you really want to be here,” he says. “This place is crazy in the summer.”

 
 
 
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Fathom's Raw Bar and Steam Room is a Carrabelle, Florida, institution. [Photo by Matt Christison]

 
 
 

In 1935, the original John Gorrie Bridge connected Eastpoint to Apalachicola. (Dr. John Gorrie is important to sweat-soaked Floridians because he invented the first ice-making machine. He should have a bridge in his honor, at the very least.) That bridge is a ruin now, replaced in the 1980s by a newer one of the same name. Coming over the Gorrie Bridge marks the end of your haul down 98 from St. Marks, and the view of the grassy water and the town below is its own reward.

On the other side, the grand Gibson Inn is there to greet you, dressed for the occasion in her wraparound porch. Sitting at the bar before dinner one night, I asked our bartender to put the group’s tab on room 128.

“Oh,” she deadpanned as she moseyed over to her register. “You’re staying in the haunted room.”

Stricken, I took to Google and found dozens of accounts of encounters with the ghost of Captain Wood. This sea captain who passed away from pneumonia inside the room apparently gets a kick out of taking people’s blankets off their beds and moving their shoes around.

 
 
 
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Collected buoys on display in downtown Apalachicola, Florida. [Photo by Caroline Fontenot]

 
 
 

Apalachicola became widely known for its oysters, and it was once responsible for 90 percent of the state’s supply. The health of the wild oyster population relies heavily on the water flow from the Apalachicola River, which keeps the infamous bay brackish. That fresh-and-salty mix makes native oyster populations taste great, but the fresh water also keeps predators at bay. If the river gets too low, the water gets too salty, and that allows predators to swim in and feast on an underwater raw bar of their own.

These days, the river is often low, which means the wild-oyster population is seriously waning. Florida and Georgia have waged a decades-long water war, with Florida arguing that Georgia’s water usage should be capped. The Atlanta metropolis draws much of its water from Lake Lanier, which is fed by the Chattahoochee River and which, in turn, feeds Lake Seminole in southern Georgia. And Lake Seminole is the head of the Apalachicola River, which flows 106 miles southward into the bay. Georgia’s Flint River, which also feeds Lake Seminole and the Apalachicola, emerges just south of Atlanta.

The whole network is part of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, and the two states — along with Alabama, at certain junctures — have fought over the basin’s water supply since the early 1990s. The fighting continues, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, last June that before a final ruling is made, Florida will have another chance to demonstrate that Georgia’s water consumption should be capped.

The water war. Overharvesting. Disasters both natural and man-made. All have played a part in the Apalachicola oyster industry’s decline. But you don’t feel decline in the air as you walk around downtown. The raw bars nearly outnumber the locals.

 
 
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Up the Creek Raw Bar offers waterfront dining from a screen porch out back. [Photos by Caroline Fontenot]

 

Each spot has its merits (Boss Oyster, Hole in the Wall, and Red Pirate are all fiercely beloved), but my favorite is Up the Creek, a short walk from the heart of downtown along the waterfront. It sits on high stilts, and if you dine on the screened porch out back, you can look out over the water, watching the blue herons hunt for dinner as you enjoy your own. The oysters are clean, fat, and fresh, and a single order of peel-and-eat shrimp is enough for three people to share.

The liveliest spot is Oyster City Brewing, a relatively new addition that thrives as if it’s been there all along. The open-air layout and central location make it a watering hole that attracts all kinds. In the afternoon, folks throw their dog in their golf buggies and ride over to drink beer and socialize. In this part of the state, pretense is low, and asking for a cocktail fancier than Jack and Coke might raise an eyebrow. Beer is the beverage of choice. We guzzled our fair share of the brewery’s Hooter Brown, an easy-drinking brew kissed by tupelo honey.

After a subsequent seafood dinner upstairs on the white tablecloths of Owl City and some live music at Bowery Station, we tuckered out. I suddenly understood why the whole town is dead asleep by 9 p.m. We were at the end of the road. Belly full, I climbed into bed in my haunted, but air-conditioned, hotel room.

Captain Wood had left my blanket and shoes just where I’d put them.