Dec. 29-31, April Ingle and I (along with scout dog Oconee) paddled some 22 miles of the Ohoopee and 13 miles of the Altamaha to scout what could be the first three days of Paddle Georgia 2012—if the rain gods cooperate and if we think our Paddle Georgia adventurers won’t mutiny if they have to haul their boats around a few cross-river strainers. OK, maybe more than a few…
The Ohoopee is a blackwater river that rises in East Central Georgia and runs about 120 miles before spilling into the Altamaha River between Baxley and Jesup. When you think “South Georgia river” the Ohoopee is the image that likely comes to mind—cypress, Spanish moss, tupelo, pure-white sandbars. Its swampy bends ooze Old South.
Its bends also hold almost as much deadfall as the pine lumberyards you might pass on the way to this river. And, this makes navigating the Ohoopee a challenge. We traveled 13 miles one day—it took us 9 hours to accomplish the task. We exited our vessel no less than a dozen times to carry over or around deadfall.
Yes, it was frustrating, but the effort paid dividends. As is so often the case with wilderness travel, the most rewarding destinations require the greatest effort. If it were easy, the Ohoopee’s beauty would see as many visitors, as say, Biltmore Estates or Bellingrath Gardens—those iconic Old South destinations for less hardy travelers.
The Ohoopee’s sandbars are so brilliant white they appear like snow (and give light meters in cameras fits). The scenery is all gnarl and root. The shapes tupelo and cypress take to ground themselves in the sandy soil are art—surreal, abstract, beautiful. Their branches hang overhead creating a tunnel to a primordial world.
But on the banks, the primordial gives way to the present. The Ohoopee is also a window to the “fish camp culture” of the South where homes, cabins, shacks and trailers (even an old school bus or two) mark the camps where fish are caught, beer is drunk and yarns are spun. Heck, this old river even flows by the old Georgia State Prison in Reidsville—a facility that dates back to 1937. One almost expects Paul Newman to step out of the shadows; in mood and landscape this is Cool Hand Luke country.
Downstream from the prison the Altamaha has long ago abandoned the Ohoopee. It once met the mouth of the south-flowing Ohoopee at the north end of a long oxbow, but overtime, the Altamaha tired of making that loop to gather the Ohoopee and cut off the oxbow. Today, the Altamaha takes a shorter path through Tattnal County and at its mouth, the Ohoopee spreads out into a labyrinth of narrow channels winding through the Altamaha’s former course.
And when the Ohoopee finally meets the Altamaha, the contrast between the two is striking. The Altamaha dwarfs its tributary and flows with the sediment of its Piedmont sources; the clear, tannin water of the Ohoopee is quickly swallowed.
And, oh the sandbars! After leaving the Ohoopee, we camped at a massive bar overlooking the Altamaha. The spot provided panoramic views—of the river and, at nightfall, the stars arching overhead.
April spotted shooting stars and pulled out her I-phone to help us identify the constellations. Can someone explain to me how it is possible to point this device at a spot in the sky and have it tell us what stars we’re seeing? Its internal GPS “thingy” also provided us with our exact location along the river. I stared at us, unbelieving—a blinking blue dot on the illuminated screen.
Is there anyone else out there that thinks this is just weird?
A device I hold in my hand can tell me where I am and the relative location of stars based on that location. I guess this technology is supposed to make the world feel smaller and a less intimidating. But, lying on that sandbar snuggled by the fire with my dog, I felt small and no less vulnerable. The owls hooted; the coyotes howled, and I was as content as could be. A night like this? It’s worth every deadfall we hauled that canoe around.
My daughter received an I-phone for her 13th birthday this week. May she have wilderness for her 83rd birthday.
Now through Paddle Georgia, we’ll keep an eye on the Ohoopee’s water levels. With its cooperation, Paddle Georgia 2012 will encompass a complete South Georgia tour—from blackwater to the marshes of Glynn.
Paddle Georgia registration is set to open Feb. 14.