My first-ever canoe excursion on the Savannah was at 26,000 cfs–about four times its normal flow for this time of year. The 12-mile trip with Paddle Georgia veteran and Aiken, South Carolina resident Tom Cofer and Savannah Riverkeeper Frank Carl was a quick one. Pushed down river by the releases from Clarks Hill Dam, we made the trip–including a short portage around Stevens Creek Dam–in less than five hours.
The Savannah has its charms, and during Paddle Georgia we will venture for two days on this river that separates Georgia and South Carolina, beginning below Clarks Hill Dam on Day 6 of the trip and finishing in Augusta on Paddle Georgia’s final day. The route will take us through the dammed and diverted Savannah as it tumbles over the fall line in its rush to the Atlantic.
From its headwaters (formed by South Carolina’s Seneca River and the Tugaloo River), the Savannah winds some 313 miles to the town that shares its name.
The section we paddled is part river, part lake, part industrial history museum, starting with Clarks Hill Dam–a massive Corps of Engineers project that backs up 71,535 acres of water in Strom Thurmond Lake (yes, named after the legendary South Carolina Senator).
Tom told us that as a boy his school went on a field trip to the dam shortly after it was completed in 1954. “It was about the largest thing we’d ever seen,” he said. Construction of the dam helped electrify the South, and coincided with the construction of the U.S. Government’s nuclear facility down river where the tritium and plutonium were processed for nuclear bombs.
Clarks Hill releases push you past Germain Island, a massive island uninhabitated except for three holes of the Champion’s Retreat Golf Course. Frank, the Riverkeeper, explained that houses were planned for the island along with the course, but the water table was too high for both septic systems and sanitary sewer lines. On this day, floodwaters had much of the island under water. Good call to leave the island mostly untouched!
The railroad bridge at Woodlawn Station marks more civilization and as the river becomes lake-like again behind Stevens Creek Dam, riverfront homes and their docks line up on both sides of the river.
Stevens Creek Dam, built between 1912 and 1914, includes a lock for navigational purposes, but has not been operational since the 1950s, meaning that canoes and kayaks will be toted. Don’t worry it’s a short, relatively painless portage around the historic structure.
Below Stevens Creek, it’s a short mile to yet another historic dam structure–this one at the mouth of the Augusta Canal system–a feat of engineering dating back to the 1840s. The Augusta Canal diversion dam sends water into the manmade canal which parrallels the Savannah for about seven miles to downtown Augusta. Constructed primarily to harness the power of the river to turn mills, it helped turn Augusta into an industrial complex to be envied in the late 1800s.
Our biggest adventure of the day occured just below Stevens Creek Dam along a mid-river strip of river bottom known as Stallings Island–a piece of land owned by The Archaeological Conservancy and protected because of its tremendous historic and archaelogical significance. The site is home to the oldest documented pottery in North America, and visitors are prohibited on the island.
For reasons I still need to investigate, the Conservancy maintains several donkeys and goats on the island, and those critters created our excitment.
Midway down the island’s flank, we heard a blood-curdling scream come from the thickets of greenbrier and cane that crowded the river bank. We spotted a donkey first and assumed it was his braying, but then the call came again, desperate and distraught. As we neared the commotion we spotted a small black goat at the feet of the donkey, bleating and struggling to right itself amongst the underbrush.
It had become fatally tangled in greenbrier–one vine wrapped around its neck, another cutting into a foreleg. We ventured to shore and cut the goat loose only to have the panicked and exhausted animal charge right back into the greenbrier’s trap. We pulled the nanny out again and ultimately lifted and carried her to more friendly terrain further inland where she rested and finally came to her senses.
Perhaps she might have ultimately freed herself or perhaps the donkey, who seemed very concerned about the goat, might have freed her, but I like to think Tom, Frank and I saved a goat that day.
While many may cringe at the idea of portaging around the Savannah’s fall line dams in Augusta, paddling this section of river provides a window to our past and shows us the critical role our rivers played in both ancient and modern history.
I, for one, am excited about learning more about the rich culture shaped by the Savannah.
Nov. 23, 2009