A natural limestone bridge frames Ramsey Cook as she paddles on the Flint River near Albany.
Another Paddle Georgia is in the books. This year more than 370 people participated, covering 106 miles of the Flint River over seven days, and, as always, having one great time.
I can’t remember when a river left me so astounded. The Paddle Georgia Navy has now covered more than 900 miles of Georgia rivers. In scouting for these various trips, the Georgia River Network staff has logged at least another 2000 miles. With all these miles under our belts, you’d think you’ve seen it all, but on the Flint each day held new surprises–including surprises I have never before experienced on a river–hummingbirds alighting on hands, bats swimming across the river, barred owls posing in broad daylight, bone-numbingly cold blue springs and unparralled boat play never before witnessed at Paddle Georgia.
Someone asked me during this journey if after nine years the routine had gotten stale (you’ve seen one river, you’ve seen them all); I don’t think that is possible. In Georgia, we’re blessed with more than 70,000 miles of river and streams. In nine years, we’ve barely scratched the surface of all there is to explore.
The Flint made that abundantly clear. I was so astounded I shot more than 2700 photos during the week. Below are a few…with comments.
It’s well known that hummingbirds are attracted to all things red. Who’d a thought they would be attracted to red Paddle Georgia food braclets. While standing in my canoe to stretch my legs, one zoomed up to me, found a perch on my wrist and pecked fruitlessly at the rubber wrist band. It let out a gentle “tweak” of complaint, waited longer for the nectar to rise, and then, growing impatient, whisked off to find a perch on Chris Lewis’s life jacket (to inspect an orange whistle) and finally to Gwyneth Moody’s arm for a second try at the wrist bands. The only other wild bird I’ve ever have land on me is a Canada jay–notoriusly bold camp robbers of New England’s mountain peaks. This Flint River hummer left me drop jawed–at its beauty, gracefulness and boldness. Incredbile little creatures, they weigh an eighth of an ounce and fly at speeds of more than 60 miles per hour.
BANDED WATER SNAKE
Every year on Paddle Georgia, someone encounters a water snake chowing down on a fish, and though it is common sight, it never ceases to entertain. It is the wildlife equivalent of our hot dog eating contests. How does such a small animal devour something four times its girth? Ramsey, Jessa Goldman and I had front row seats to the “circle of life.” We watched as the snake pulled the thrashing fish to shore and slowly subdued it, working its mouth from a firm grip in the catfish’s flank around to its face where it slowly ingested it. Only the threat of the sweep boat prevented us from seeing the fish’s complete demise.
The father and daughter team of George Gibson and Kim Bailey spotted it first. Consummate naturalists, the canoeing tandem spotted a mature barred owl perched in a stunted tree on a island at river’s edge. We caught the eddy at the end of the island to take a look, and found not only the mature owl, but a pair of juveniles–and juveniles that seemed not particularly concerned with our presence. We spent the next several minutes moving closer until the owl was perched in a tree right above us. I have heard their calls at night: “Who? Who cooks for you?” but never had such a close encounter during daylight hours.
WILSON BLUE SPRING
During my two previous visits to this well-known swimming hole, the water was either too low or too high. This time is was just right. We paddled up the surging spring run into a blue hole oasis–the water was teeth-chattering cold, clear and reflecting the green leaf canopy that guarded it. A few minutes in that water and my body temperature didn’t rise to normal South Georgia summer time levels until we were well on our way back to camp on the bus. Kim Bailey, Keith Parsons, my daughter Ramsey and I each took turns jumping from the crotch of a spring-side tree into the hole. Life don’t get much better.
Yes, swimming bats. Nearing Goat Island and Georgia Power’s Plant Mitchell, we spotted something scurrying across the surface of the water–a scurry I’d never seen before and will likely never see again. Bats do swim and we have the photographic proof. Our attempts to “help” it across the river, I believe, made its crossing even more harrowing, but eventually it reached the eastern shore and climbed upon a cypress knee. “Google” swimming bats and you’ll get the question: “Do you mean swimming baths?” But, in fact, swimming bats are well documented and they do it surprisingly well–flapping their wings like Michael Phelps doing the butterfly. Those that know bats say that it is not a common behavior and is usually performed under stress, though there are some bats in South America that feed on fish. The take home lesson from this encounter–no matter how long we might spend in the woods or on rivers, we are bound to discover something new on any given journey. There is still so much we don’t know about this world.
On day six of the journey a band of teenage explorers and I stopped on an island adjacent to some shoals in seach of the illusive and federally protected purple bankclimber mussel. I’d been told this might be a place to look, and being a lover of mussels, I was determined to find one of these thick-shelled behemoths of the mussel world. We found no purple bankclimbers, but turn a passel of inquistive youth loose on a wild island and you’ll turn up something. A thorough exploration of the spit of land turned up three turtle eggs, a cold-water spring, a crayfish, sandshell mussels and a mother lode of fossils. Charlie White found the first one, and before we were done, we all had souvenirs and reminders that our lives on this planet are but a blink of an eye in geological time. The fossilized remains that we held in our hands were remnants of a time when present day South Georgia was covered by the sea…a time tens of millions of years ago. On this day, the Flint made me feel very small….and very blessed.
In preparation for each Paddle Georgia, I pour over maps, local histories, previously published guides, internet references and even pick the brains of locals familiar with the river. These collected notes go on the daily maps. When I’m done, I like to think I’ve captured everything worth seeing along the river. Westrick Spring escaped me. I’d noted it on my planning maps, but never bothered to paddle up the spring run and explore it. Thankfully, the Georgia Adopt-A-Stream team and others found it and pointed others up its path. At the end of that path was perhaps the biggest surprise of the trip–a massive, crystal clear blue hole, teaming with fish and reminiscent of a tropical paradise. Paddle Georgia participants have traversed more than 900 miles of this state’s watery trails, and never had we witnessed water this pristime and breathtakingly beautfiul.
Sometimes its not nature that surprises you; its our natural capacity for play. GRN Development Director Davin Welter and his band of youth (including Hayden Lanzilotta) took boat play to new heights. Borrowing from the phone booth stuffing stunts of the 1950s, this group took it upon themselves to see how many people could fit on a kayak before sinking the vessel. When that fun wore old, they turned the boats into balance beams and paddle-powered water skis.
The Mitchell County-CamillaChamber of Commerce rolled out the red carpet for us with a great street party behind the historic Mitchell County Courthouse. During Reconstruction, this town was the site of the “Camilla Masacre” in which 13 “freedmen” were killed by the county sheriff and a posse of angry whites. But when Paddle Georgia descended on Camilla, blacks and whites ate, drank, danced and reveled together. The Flint runs essentially the same course as it did in 1868 at the time of the masacre; the course of Flint River communities has changed siginificantly.
TAKING THE PLUNGE
No Paddle Georgia would be complete without a leap from a high place into the river. The Flint, lined with limestone bluffs, offered up appropriate plunge holes in abundance. I hazard a guess that there is little else that can make parents feel like kids again better than a jump from a cliff. Daniela Dilorio and her sons Evan and Marco Newman took the plunge together.
LIGHTS OUT: NEVER
The GRN staff goes to great lengths to insure that every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed when it comes to campsite accomodations. But this attention to details is no match for “state-of-the-art” school buildings with computer-programmed lighting systems. Even a late night visit by the school’s facility manager could not dim the lights in the home of the Bearcats. For this we apologize.
THE GRAND FINALE
The Bainbridge Boat Basin was our final destination for the week. There we celebrated what is arguably our best Paddle Georgia ever–the largest with more than 370 people participating and the most successful with more than $40,000 raised through the Canoe-a-thon. After a fish fry feast provided by Flint Riverkeeper, we said our goodbyes. The end is always bittersweet; it is hard to say good bye to a river and the companionship and comaraderie that forms during the week. Our hope is that each participant will carry a love for rivers back home and start a love affair with a stream in their backyard. Thus, the journey never ends. Dee Stone, Mike McCarthy, Bonny Putney and Dan Jones celebrate at river’s end.
106 miles, 7 days, 1 great time…and lots of exhausted paddlers and GRN staff–including Mary Alexander, Jesslyn Shields, Chris Manganiello, Debra Tate and Dana Skelton. THANKS FOR MAKING PADDLE GEORGIA 2013 A JOURNEY TO REMEMBER!
Click here to see some additional photos from Paddle Georgia on my Flicker site.
June 26, 2013