Archive for January, 2011

Peter Morgan paddles through the fog on the Oconee below Milledgeville.

It’s 66 miles from Sinclair Dam to Dublin/East Dublin on the Oconee River, and over the course of January, we’ve scouted every mile–and then some. The following are some stories from four days of winter paddling…

It has become my tradition to begin the new year with a paddle trip–it is a way of starting the year right so forecasts of strong winds and rain did not deter me. Had I the chance to paddle in the winds before making my decision, I’d have been home watching football games (the old tradition).

Oconee surveys the Oconee from the bow.

The winds were fierce and they  greeted Peter Morgan, Doug Oetter, Oconee (the dog)  and me with a vengeance. Oconee took her post at the bow. The winds were so strong they pinned up her droopy collie ears such that she looked almost shepherd-like from my vantage point in the stern. Within two miles of leaving the boat ramp, we abandoned our original plans of 44 miles in two days.

Sinclair Dam was constructed in 1953 by the Georgia Power Co.

But, that did give us time to explore the river’s relics around Milledgeville. Just upstream from the Ga. 24 bridge, a early 1900s wood and rock dam diverts the river’s flow around Buzzard Island for the purpose of funneling it through a powerhouse–a facility that before Sinclair Dam was built in 1953 must have served Milledgeville with electricity. The dam and powerhouse structure create a treacherous rapid that is portaged with some effort (we’re currently working on making it easier before Paddle Georgia).

Portaging the dam at Buzzard Island at Milledgeville

Below the Ga. 24, another “relic” blocks the river–the old Ga. 24 bridge. When the new one was built, Georgia DOT, in its infinite wisdom, chose to blast the bridge and let it fall in the river. The result is an island of concrete and re bar–an inviting but ultimately dangerous swimming hole.

From there, the Oconee takes its last breath in the Piedmont and jumps the fall line to the wild Coastal Plain. From Ga. 24 to Dublin, its about 60 miles. In those 60 miles there are two bridges–a railroad bridge and Ga. 57.

It’s been three years since Paddle Georgia ventured below the fall line, and it was good to be back in the land where rivers lie like spaghetti on maps and change their course with each flood.

A lone tree marks the site of a "cut-through" where the Oconee carved a new path through an oxbow.

From Milledgeville to our final destination some 20 miles downstream, there were four locations where my USGS topo map no longer matched the present river reality. At these spots, the river had carved a straighter path to the sea, eliminating loops and bends.

These new “cut-throughs”  mean oxbow lakes and lots of woody debris in the river–a fact that Paddle Georgia naturalist and ichthyologist Mary Freeman would be quick note. With few rock and shoal structure, Coastal Plain rivers need that wood to shelter fish and other aquatic critters.

Of course, the woody structure also creates some navigational hazards, and in keeping with the New Year’s paddle tradition, Peter tangled with one strainer and lost. This marks the fourth year in a row that the new year’s paddle has sent someone swimming–thankfully, this time it was not me (as it has been the previous three years!).

We ended the two day paddle at Avant mine, a kaolin mine. Kaolin is considered one of Georgia’s largest natural resources. Some eight million metric tons is mined in the state each year with a value of $1 billion–and its all found at the edge of the fall line in the Coastal Plain. That’s because millions of years ago this spot was once the edge of the sea. Ancestral rivers of the Oconee brought millions of tons of sediment down from the Piedmont and Blue Ridge and deposited it here in deltas and coastal marshes. And…100 million years later we’re digging it up and using it to coat paper, make toilets, paint and even drugs.  Who’d-a-thunk it? For the purposes of Paddle Georgia, the white clay is most often used as “war paint.”

The kaolin industry trade group, the China Clay Producers Association, is a

An abandoned kaolin pit at the Avant Mine

Paddle Georgia sponsor and will host a tour of the Thiele Kaolin Mine at the end of Day 5. They’ve also been kind enough to help us with an alternative take out. The public boat ramp here is a slippery slope of kaolin–perhaps fun to play in, but not much fun for hauling boats out of the water.

Our two-day New Year’s paddle, full of rain and wind, ended in the sunshine with a walk through abandoned kaolin mines–the old pits filled with surreal turquoise blue water–a product of the minerals found in the water.

In an era of fears over global warming and rising sea levels, it’s an odd place to sit and ponder 100 million years–past and future. But, as Oconee and I waited at the mine for Doug and Peter to return from the shuttle, that is what we did. 100 million years ago, I likely would have had my feet planted in the sand, waves lapping at my toes. 100 million years forward, might I experience the same?

Two weeks later, I returned to the mine with April Ingle, Thompson Brock and Ben Emanuel–our destination–43 miles downstream and the town of Dublin.

The Coastal Plain and its fall line “swamps” are perhaps misunderstood and under-appreciated. Look on a map and you will see on either side of the river vast swaths of land designated as “swamps.” On the Oconee these swamps host oxbow lakes with names like Steel Trap and Stob. The swamps themselves are aptly named–Beaverdam and Cow Hell. But they are not “swamps” in the traditional sense of the word.


A view from the slough. Creeks and sloughs connected to the mainstem of the Oconee provide passage into the river's "swamps."

When Georgians think swamps, they think quaking earth and the fabled Okefenokee. I remember my disappointment during my first venture into these fall line swamps on the Ocmulgee. The map said “swamps” and I wanted the Okefenokee. What I got was high river banks and expansive lowland forests. These “swamps” only take on that character during floods.

Ben Emanuel paddles into an Oconee slough.

Nevertheless, they are incredibly productive and beautiful places–home to an array of critters. With Ben in the stern steering our vessel, we didn’t pass up many chances to explore the oxbows and creeks that grant passage into these swamps. An avid birder who has traveled more Coastal Plain rivers than anyone I know, Ben is a loves these  swamps.

After a little time with him exploring their depths, I understand why. The “action” in the Coastal Plain is not on the mainstem of the river, it’s back in these dark, shady sloughs. It’s here that the alligators hide, the herons hunt and the songbirds flitter. Ben pointed them out–kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, common yellow throats, phoebes, wood ducks and on and on.

Hopefully, when Paddle Georgia rolls around there will be enough water in the tributaries to venture into these lowland forests. They are not the Okefenokee, but they have a magic of their own.

Of course, the sandbars are at every bend, providing places to lounge, lunch, swim and hunt for ancient relics (some locals told us they’ve found many potsherds on these bars). Unfortunately, many of the bars, especially those just downstream from Milledgeville are littered with aluminum drink cans (expect a clean up contest during Paddle Georgia).

Morning at our sandbar camp.

For us, the bars were a place to camp. Sandbar camping is among the best camping to be had. A soft bed, a fine view, plentiful firewood…and you don’t have to haul your gear up a steep bank.

After dinner we stretched our on the sand, nestled in by the fire and stared at the sky–clear, bright, beautiful and filled with those unfathomable stars. We woke to frost-covered tents and I was glad Oconee was in the tent to lay across the sleeping bag and warm my feet.

Near Balls Ferry Bridge (our take out for Day 6 of Paddle Georgia), the character of the river abruptly changes. The twisting, turning Oconee gives way to the straight and purposeful Oconee. Cypress and spanish moss appear and the river seems to have found its way.

Cypress and Spanish moss dominate the landscape as the river approaches Dublin.

It shoots past Cow Hell and Beaverdam swamps and bangs unexpectedly into some high, wooded bluffs. It is a decidedly different river than the one that looped and folded upon itself just downstream of Milledgeville. Like our trips on the Flint and Ocmulgee, Paddle Georgia 2011 will not dwell on the same scenery for too long.

Our trip ended at Buckeye Park in East Dublin. Paddle Georgia’s final day will be a long 22-mile journey, but the reward is finishing the trip with our River’s End Celebration at the home of the “Redneck Games.” And, yes, as part of the River’s End Celebration, we’ll have the opportunity to play some of the games, including redneck horseshoes (played with toilet seats) and the mud pit belly flop. Questions? Check out the Redneck Games website: http://summerredneckgames.com/

Safe to say, this will be a River’s End Celebration you will not want to miss.

An Oconee river straightaway above Dublin.

Off the river, Paddle Georgia 2011 is shaping up nicely. We’ll spend three days in Athens, three days in Milledgeville and two days in Dublin. We’ll have the opportunity to see the State Botanical Gardens in Athens, and in Milledgeville we will tour the old Governor’s mansion and state house along with Flannery O’Conner’s home, Andalusia. We’ll even dine on the banks of Lake Sinclair and celebrate with canoe and kayak tug-o-wars. Dublin is also rolling out the red carpet, hosting our talent show in the city’s restored historic downtown theater.

Registration opens soon!

Joe Cook

Jan. 30, 2011

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