The Altamaha River is a river of superlatives.
Though just 135 miles long, the Altamaha is Georgia’s biggest river (in terms of volume).
Some called it Georgia’s Amazon—as much for the abundance of wildlife as for its impressive flow.
The Nature Conservancy has deemed it one of the 75 last great places on Earth.
Last week, April Ingle and I spent four days paddling some 70 miles of the river. In one 15-mile stretch into Darien, we were visited by an otter, countless alligators and a pair of dolphins—not to mention perhaps a zillion fiddler crabs in the marshes that flank the river as it nears the coast. And, we saw not another human. There are not many rivers in Georgia where you can experience such in a day of paddling.
To top it off…when we finished in Darien, we dined with our Altamaha Riverkeeper friends at Skipper’s—a riverfront eatery with views of the town’s shrimp boat fleet. Shrimp and grits were a delight after four days of trail mix and beef jerky.
Indeed, the Altamaha is deserving of its superlatives. What began as a journey laced with trepidation—just how miserably hot could a summer time excursion on a Deep South river be?—ended with confidence that Paddle Georgia 2012 might just be our biggest treat since we began these week-long excursions eight years ago.
Was it hot? Hell yes! but that’s what sandbars and water are made for. When the temperature rose, we sunk beneath the water and cooled off—just like the alligators we drifted by each day. Even Conee the Dog, not one to relish the water, quickly learned that the best place for a dog during the dog days of summer is half-submerged in flowing water.
Were we eaten alive by bugs? Not hardly. The river keeps the worst of them away, but slip into the woods off the river’s edge and you should prepare for attack. An oxbow lake along the river corridor didn’t earn the name Bug Suck Lake for nothing.
Were we eaten by alligators? The gators—and we saw about two dozen over the course of the four days—politely swam away when we paddled near. I cannot say what they did as we soaked in the water off sandbars—licked their lips, perhaps–but they are hunted in Georgia. They fear humans, and gator attacks in Georgia are rare.
From satellite images (and these days we explore everything via Google Earth long before we ever set foot in a land), this domain of the gator cuts a wide, green swath from Lumber City to Darien. From outer space, it looks wild and untamed. It is.
Intrusions of the human kind are few, but given the river’s accessibility to motorboats, the river landings have amenities uncommon on North Georgia rivers. At Jaycees Landing in Jesup, we stopped to find a bait shop stocked with food and drink to lure anglers. We sat in the shade of the front porch and enjoyed our Coca-Colas while an industrial-strength fan kept the bugs off.
Further downstream, we landed at “Paradise”—a mobile home park and boat launch on the banks of Penholloway Creek. Floathouses line the banks there; some employing elaborate elevators to reach the high bluff above the creek.
And, at Altamaha River Park, we camped amongst RVs, cooled off in the camp store with drinks and ice cream, and—get this—took a shower in perhaps the nicest campground bathhouse I’ve ever set foot in. As the campground manager told us…” We wanted a husband and wife to be able to go in there together. The man could read a book while his wife puts on her make up.”
The Park will host us for our last evening on the river before we enter Darien. It will mark the first time we have camped on the river since Paddle Georgia 2006 on the Etowah.
Yet, despite these amenities, the overwhelming feel of the Altamaha is one of wildness coupled with a strong sense that people have long since struggled, sojourned and settled in this wild place. A shell midden on a short bluff near Darien hinted of Native Americans and the frequent, but futile, dikes constructed to aid long ago navigation on the river tell the story of steamboats and log rafts headed for Darien.
Read a map of this place and you know that it has been a path for many before you. Unlike the un-navigable rivers of the Blue Ridge and Piedmont for which river features on maps go unnamed, the names inking maps of the Altamaha speak of rich stories: Beard’s Bluff, Marrowbone Round, Yankee Reach, Dicks Swift, Steamboat Eddy, Old Hell Bight, The Sweatbox, Alligator Congress, Stud Horse Creek.
For all its wildness, the Altamaha is regrettably fouled like no other river I have ever seen in Georgia. At Jesup, a paper plant operated by Rayonier devastates it. The plant’s blackwater discharge filled with suspended solids and the stench of the paper manufacturing process transforms an inviting stream into a cesspool of industrial waste.
It doesn’t really recover until about 20 miles downstream from the plant.
In 2008, Rayonier entered into a consent order with state environmental regulators, agreeing to spend $75 million over eight years to fix the discharge. The company claims to have made progress, but if what we saw was an improvement over previous conditions, I would have hated to see (and smell it) in 2008.
Anglers say fish caught from this section of the river smell like the mill. They won’t eat them. The abundance of freshwater mussels that we found upstream of the plant on the first day of our journey disappeared below the discharge. Biologists suspect the 50 million gallons of poorly treated industrial waste that Rayonier spews to the river daily has played a part in the mussels demise.
There are few places left in Georgia where the sights and smells at the end of a municipal or industrial discharge pipe leave you fighting mad. This is one of them. I hope somewhere out there, a Rayonier stockholder reads this. What is happening on the Altamaha in Jesup is shameful—a tragedy in a land of immense beauty.
The ugliness of Rayonier, however, is why we do Paddle Georgia. Paddle a day on a Georgia river and you can avert these sad places. Paddle a week on a Georgia river and you’ll run headlong into the river’s ugly underbelly—you’ll witness the toll we place on our rivers to enjoy the pleasures of flatscreen TVs, air & oil filters and disposable diapers (the stuff made at Rayonier’s Jesup plant finds its way into such products).
And if you have a soul, it’ll make you fighting mad.
The scouting of the Altamaha, and perhaps the Ohoopee, will continue this fall. Check back for more news on Paddle Georgia 2012
Aug. 13, 2011