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Paddle GA-7 days and 95 miles down the Ogeechee river

Posted in: Spotlight- Jul 09, 2015 No Comments

Greetings from Georgia!

By: Rob Hunt, Watershed Center Coordinator

I am pretty late in putting this all together, but I am happy to be finally wrapping it up. On June 18th I left for Georgia on a trip to paddle the Ogeechee River for seven days. I was afforded this amazing opportunity by The Missouri Stream Team and Watershed Coalition and through a scholarship that paid for my entire trip. I also owe a special thanks to the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks staff and board for allowing me to go on this trip. The goals of the venture were three-fold:

1.       Experience the Paddle Georgia event and fundraiser first-hand
2.       Develop ideas for a similar paddle event in Missouri
3.       Have fun on a wild river

After some serious dashboard time and a few hours of sleep in a hotel, we have made it to our destination. The shuttle is arranged and our boats wait for us by the river. I am writing you from Portal Middle High School in Portal, Georgia, minutes from the Ogeechee River. Tents are pitched under bleachers on the baseball field and our stomachs grumble for the barbecue that will accompany the evening kick-off program tonight. It’s hot outside, but I must say that we are very excited to hit the water tomorrow.

So far, I have seen the tea-brown water of the Ogeechee, Spanish Moss draped Oaks, and a Swallow-Tail Kite! I am very anxious to start paddling and sharing pictures and stories with all of you.

Day One – Setting Forth

I was not quite prepared for this trip.

As we rounded our 10th, 11th, and 12th miles of the day, I realized that when I saw “Paddle Georgia” I thought “Float Georgia”. My dear friends, paddle means paddle. Ozark river float trips are a distant relative of what we are doing here. We covered over 14 miles of river today, mostly flat and nearly motionless. No kicking back and cruising through riffles, no idly watching the current gently carry you downstream. Reality quickly set in that this week will require some endurance and grit.

Aside from this startling revelation, the scenery and conditions were beautiful. It was hot, but a consistent breeze and frequent shade from towering cypress trees made the heat tolerable. Even the act of launching a boat with hundreds of other people was an exciting experience. The Ogeechee is a blackwater river. Transparent sweet-tea water flows over white sand bottoms and beaches and feels so different from our streams. The banks are choked with glorious vegetation including some familiar faces like willows and oaks. However, the saw palmetto and the Spanish moss give it an entirely unique appearance. We saw Great Blue Herons, several Mississippi Kites, and a bunch of bright yellow warblers I did not know. Butted against the blackwater and forests, we saw asphalt, shingle and cinderblock rip-rap and stream stabilization (or stream bank armoring), as well as an  industrial waste water outflow pipe that caused a large fish kill a few years ago, and many of the same issues we face dealing with riparian habitat and private property.

We loaded the bus at about 3:30 in the afternoon to head back to our campsite, which is currently at Portal Middle High School. After a quick refreshing rest and snack, we headed out to a nearby town for a street festival, a visit to a local brewery, and some great live music. I went to my tent exhausted and slept very soundly through the night, dreaming of the day to come. This trip so far is not what I had expected, but I didn’t really have too many expectations to start. I am happy to be here and happy to share the experience with you.

Day Two – Fathers (Day)

Today we paddled 17 miles on some pretty flat water. There were snags, or strainers as they call them here, every mile or so that posed some serious challenges. Some served as exciting zigs and zags throughout the slow day. Others brought the party to a standstill. One such strainer caused a lineup of at least 100 boats waiting to go through a particularly tricky obstacle with the help of great volunteers. I learned to hop my canoe over logs by sitting way in the back and ramming as far onto the log as I could before jumping forward to land in the middle of my boat on my knees. The shift in weight usually gets me over the other side. (If you are thinking that this maneuver sounds too agile for me, you are right. Ask Holly and she would give a much different description I am sure.) The day was very long and very challenging but it was also beautiful and we were promised that it was the hardest day of the trip.

My favorite part of the day came in the cool morning hours just after we had gotten on the water. As I drifted under Spanish Moss laden cypress trees, anticipating the day’s paddle, I called my dad. We talked about the trip so far and the things I had experienced. It was a brief conversation, but as we neared its conclusion, I thanked him for taking me on the river as a boy. Had I not been given these memories of freshly cooked crawdads, blue herons escaping into the early-morning fog, or sleeping to the sounds of gentle riffles, I would likely not be where I find myself today. I may not have been interested in Biology, I may not have developed a passion for environmental education, I may not have started working for a small non-profit in Springfield, and I probably would not be paddling 100 miles in Georgia this week.

If your dad took you outside when you were a kid, I hope you got to call and thank him.

Tomorrow we move camp from Portal Middle-High School to Effingham County High School to find our home for the remainder of the week. We will load up the trucks and then paddle 13 miles before setting up our new camp. I am looking forward to our lightest day yet and for some more great paddling.

We saw a Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue Herron, chain pickerel, blue gill, a darter, shiners, and heard a yellow-billed cuckoo and a pileated woodpecker.

Day 3 – Flow

It was everything I dreamed. The water was…perfect. A stark contrast to yesterday’s slow water paddling, today’s stretch had a wonderful current as it wound gently through twists and bends and full turns around little river islands. The river was beautifully amber-tinted and transparent. Thick vegetation hung along the banks, shading us for a good part of the day. Interesting sections of white sand bends made shallow beaches that bordered deep pools and provided excellent swimming stops.  And, other than one strainer that slowed the group down, everything was easy going today with highly navigable obstacles. I even got to practice my over-the-log technique a few more times, and I was complemented on it.

While the first two days were spent adapting to a long day in the canoe and the 90+ temps, today was the transition into realizing exactly what we were doing. It is finally settling in that we are spending seven straight days and about 100 miles on the river. Yesterday I was worrying about the rest of the week dragging on too long. Today, as I looked at my sandy feet in the bottom of the canoe in which I have spent the better part of three days, I worried that it will go too fast. I am so happy to share this with all of you who are reading. Thanks being a part of this trip with me.

In addition to what we saw and heard yesterday, we saw egrets, red-bellied woodpeckers, anhinga, turkey vultures, and a swallow- tailed kite.

Day 4 – Rolling with the thunder

Ten miles is about the farthest I had ever floated in a day before this trip. However, today it felt a miniscule task. After a bit of rain yesterday evening, and a soggy sleep in a high school yard, I was pleased as a Georgia peach to wake up to cool overcast skies and a relaxed morning. Right away, we stopped and got in the water a bit. We bounced between a few different swimming holes, trying to stretch out our time on the river. No camp to pack up, no rush, no long miles to cover, no blazing sun beating down on us. A beautiful blanket of clouds protected us and gentle distant rumbles of thunder accompanied our morning stretch. Everything went smoothly from launch to take out and everyone seemed perfectly content drifting with the current rather than paddling like madmen down the river. Bird dogs and Labradors greeted us around a few river bends, and we continued to see our familiar anhinga, woodpeckers, the mystery warbler ( I am thinking prothonotary), and I heard parulas, red-eyed vireo, and a Carolina wren.

Also, I finally tipped today. While trying to let an anxious canoe behind me get past before we got jammed in the snag, I got sideways to a surprise submerged stump and dumped. The canoe never flipped and all of my gear stayed put, so I emptied her out, gathered my scraps of pride, and paddled the remaining 200 yards or so to the takeout.

The bus ride was short, but a bit buggy, and I have had the afternoon to dry out my gear, shower, and write up this post! I hope you all are enjoying these posts and I look forward to sharing stories with you when I get back. Thanks for reading.

Day 5 -Connections

Blue Lake Slough was the name given to a small and tempting detour in our float today. As I turned toward river right and the sandy mouth of the backwater, I saw two paddlers exiting. I began to paddle with determination when the two men confirmed that sight was worth the extra paddling. I quickly found myself paddling my heart out, used to the pace of the week so far and I had to slow myself down. Towering cypress trees crowded the closed end of the slough with buttressed trunks protected by countless topiary sentinels that rose from the mud into toothy projections from the water’s edge. I could not resist and paddled nearer to lay a hand on this stunning timber architecture. As I did, I noticed a few shed shells of emerging dragonflies. Holly soon caught up and as she pulled her boat up, we heard a strange screech from the trees. Unable to track down the source, we continued to talk, but I kept an eye on the trees. In an instant, a dark shadow whisked across the branches and my eyes were met by the curious gaze of a young barred owl. We stared at one another, both equally curious and cautious, for quite some time. As people caught up to us and noticed our feathery friend, I began to leave so others could see when someone spotted another owl. Based on the size difference between the two and the behavior of the first (curious and awkward) compared to the second (asleep and disinterested) I estimated our first owl to be the fledgling of the second. We lingered in this wildness for a while before paddling on down the river, unable to shake the feeling of wide and vast connectedness.

I have been making many valuable connections this week, to nature, to other people, to my canoe. Today especially, several astonishing bridges were gapped. After sixty-some miles, and a lot of observation of other paddlers, I am really changing the way I handle the single-bladed cane paddle. My paddle in particular (which Mike Kromrey skillfully made for me) started to feel like a living thing in my hands today as I honed the subtle flicks and twists of my J-stroke. Today we encountered more beautiful white sand bars than any day so far. In fact, it took us 9 hours to paddle 13 miles due to the bountiful fluvial beaches. We stopped and swam every chance we got and took way too long to get to the takeout. However, all said and done, we finished our 67th mile (and change) today. That leaves just 27 miles for the next two days, then the takeout party and the journey home. In the meantime, there is still much to do and see and learn.

Part of that learning occurs off river. I had a wonderful conversation with a retired nurse that ended up revolving around sense of place. Both of us felt equally bound and committed to our home environments: the Ozarks for me, Central Georgia for her. We concluded that it would be great if more people felt that strong connection to where they live and spend their time. The connections surround us, and we only need to look to see them.

Aside from the owls, we saw two osprey, I had a dragonfly ride with me for an hour, and we had a close fly-over from an anhinga.

Day 6 – Making Tracks

Overcast skies accompanied us on a 12 mile day today, providing much appreciated shade and cooler temperatures. Right away, we had a close fly-over from an Osprey and saw a swallow-tailed kite. I have to say that the swallow-tailed kite is fast becoming my favorite bird to see (sorry Cedar Waxwing). So, to my utter amusement, I got to see six swallow-tailed kites flying around one another screaming and whistling near the takeout. I have begun to develop a special relationship with the forested blackwater of the American Southeast. Massive dragonflies continue to hitch rides on my canoe, leading me to name her The Snake Doctor. Yellow-billed cuckoos call from secret hiding places among the highest of the willows, just out of sight. Mysterious mud clouds erupt as we pass over shallow backwaters and the occasional school of young gar dart along the surface before diving to hidden depths. As white sand bars become more abundant, so do easily spotted animal tracks. This morning we followed a strange set of tracks that seemed to swirl and flatten the sand beneath the creature. After several guesses we agreed that turtles were a likely culprit. With this new information, I began to follow the tracks from river to tree line searching for the disturbed earth betraying a carefully buried nest. However, I was late to the punch. Torn leathery egg shells littered the sandy bank around the uncovered treasure. No tracks were spotted around the nest, but we did see dog tracks around the sand bar and a pile of raccoon or opossum scat. Later in the day, I found myself alone on a sand bar wandering barefoot when I stumbled upon a new and exciting track. Prehistoric foot prints bordered a gently swerving line in the sand and my heart raced at my first set of alligator tracks. I looked around but did not see any of these living fossils around me, feeling at once relived and a bit disappointed.

Tomorrow is our last day on the water and I wonder what tracks have been left on me. Will I reconsider how hot is too hot for a float trip? Will I be tempted to take on longer mileages? Will I be forever missing white sand beaches when I am laying on a chert gravel bar? Seriously though, I am pretty positive white sand bars on the river have ruined me for life. The people I have met will likely leave tracks as well. I am learning more about what motivates people to get on the river and what keeps them there. I am learning more about what a dozen inner-city middle school girls are capable of (they have been amazing and they are sooo tough!)* I am even learning more about what the river does for me. Wilderness is an important component to human health. I have been learning that, in small doses, wilderness is very helpful. However, when you begin to string together hours and days away from streets and lights and air conditioning, something more begins to happen. On day three, the river began to get a hold of me and I started to feel at home on the water. As we wrap up, I am trying to figure out how to incorporate more time on the water into my life back home. I hope I can share some of those wilderness excursions with some of you. I am hoping we can make some tracks of our own.

Tomorrow is day seven of Paddle Georgia. We will cover 15 miles before scrambling back to the car and loading up to leave Georgia and the trip behind. We hope to catch some reputable seafood at the end of float party and get a good start on our trip home.

Today we saw an osprey, several swallow-tailed kites, cardinals, warblers, egrets, and herons. As we close in on the coast tomorrow, I hope to see some cool new animals as well.

Day 7 – Tides roll in

We were fast and furious on the final paddle. We covered 15 miles in 6 hours and about 8,000 paddle strokes. We made it onto the first bus after loading all of our gear and hit the river before 8. I was anxious. Although I prefer the sounds of nature, I knew I had a task ahead of me pounding out miles, so I put in my headphones to take my mind off of the dreadfully inefficient movement into the wind and hidden sand bars that left me beached on several occasions. As we rounded the last bend, the journey along spectacularly flat and wide water kept the landing site within view for nearly an hour before it could be reached. Due to days of paddling, my endurance had increased and I was still able to thoroughly enjoy the paddle as I passed marsh grasses and herons and saw great silvery fish leaping into the air.

The Snake Doctor scraped up the concrete ramp and I checked in with the Paddle Georgia staff for the last time.** Shortly after pulling up into the shade, Holly drove around with the car and we quickly dried off, loaded up, and hit the pavement with cold slushies in hand.

As we said our goodbyes, we dreamed of what Missouri’s paddle will look like. Countless options float around us as Holly begins to discern the best line to follow into the deeper water. There are many potential sandbars ahead and obstacles that could jam us up, but if there is any example to follow, it is Paddle Georgia, They have set a high bar for a group float like this and they do amazing work educating teachers, legislators, and impassioned paddlers about caring for precious water resources.

Thanks so much to everyone we paddled with and all of the people that showed us endless hospitality and kindness. The people really made this trip exceptional. And thanks to you who have been reading and commenting. It’s not been easy writing each night, but your encouragement made it worthwhile. As I type this last post out on a cell phone with my thumbs, we are about three hours from Springfield and happy to return to clear streams and moving water! Thanks for reading.