One of my favorite stories from my river travels was told to me by Joanne Steele, a resident of the Nacoochee Valley along the Chattahoochee River in North Georgia.
She and her young son Jesse were sitting on the banks of the river, taking in the scene–the flowing water and the Appalachian’s rising peaks in the distance–when her boy observed, “Mom, mountains look like tits.” Joanne, a lover of nature and not one to be fazed by the crude—but very keen—description, simply replied: “Yes, that’s true and the river is like mother’s milk flowing out of the mountains.”
I thought of that story during our four days of Fall Float on the Flint. There are no mountains on the Dougherty Plain of southwest Georgia, but what the region lacks in peaks, it makes up for in founts—they lined the river and called to us. We responded like newborns to our mother’s breast.
Radium, Wilson Blue Hole, Riverbend, The Wall, Culpepper, The Shaft, Bovine, Hog Parlor—each pushing 68-degree water into the Flint—invited us to jump in and we did.
Harold Harbert, Bob Bourne, Ted Pearson, John Gugino, Steve Blackburn and others that submersed themselves in the cool water on near 90-degree days swore that the waters had restorative powers. Similar claims made Radium Springs, one of Georgia’s Seven Natural Wonders, a thriving resort during the 1920s.
A decidedly modern scene unfolded at the mouth of Radium Springs during Fall Float as Kathy Vaughn, Stacey Dounias and Kim Piper posed for “selfies” in front of a waterproof i-phone, shoulder deep in the clear blue water.
The Radium Springs Casino, a meeting place for generations of Albany residents, may be long gone (demolished after being extensively damaged in floods) but the call of the spring’s clear aqua-marine water is timeless.
And, as we learned from Flint Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers, that water is, indeed, the milk of Mother Nature that nourishes and grows southwest Georgia, irrigating some two million acres of crops and making the region Georgia’s bread basket. Unfortunately, those demands on the Flint and the Floridan aquifer have dramatically reduced flows on the Flint and during times of drought leave Radium Springs dry.
Someone asked me during our journey why the Flint had such “squirrelly” currents. It’s true. While other rivers have their share of eddies and waves, the Flint’s flow as it rolls over shoals often seems unpredictable, pocked with whirlpools and unexpected eddies.
I can only guess this is a product of the limestone that underlays the river. Unlike other rivers that flow over smooth beds of rock, the Flint’s limestone comes in shelves and looks like Swiss cheese. Those irregular surfaces undoubtedly churn the water in erratic directions—a sharp contrast to the peaceful, clear pools of the springs and blue holes and a fitting metaphor for the forces shaping the Flint’s future. That future seems as uncertain as a canoe ride through Hell’s Gate Shoals.
Rogers showed us Flint River flow statistics covering the past 50 years that paint a bleak and frightening picture of a river literally being sucked dry. Can farms survive if water supplies in the area continue downward trends? Can we change the way we use and return water to the Flint to restore its flows?
Our visit to the Jones Center offered hope. There, Director Lindsay Boring talked of long-leaf pines–the once dominant tree of the region that covered some 90 million acres from North Carolina to Texas. Today, less than four percent of these majestic forests remain. The Jones Center, and many others, are leading the way in restoring this important ecosystem. And as a result, the critters that call the long-leafs home are also returning–namely the red cockaded woodpecker that relies on the trees for nesting cavities. In 1997, the Jones Center documented just one of the birds; by 2007, they had recorded 60 individuals, and they predict that by 2050, the federally endangered bird may be eligible for delisting–a success story not unlike the bald eagle and American alligator–both of which paddlers spotted on our four-day journey.
Saving a river is not much different from saving endangered species. We have the capacity; we just need the commitment.
Still, the star of Fall Float on the Flint was the river itself. In 10 years of Paddle Georgia events, covering 1,000-plus miles of Georgia rivers and 70 days on the water, I have never had the opportunity to paddle through and photograph more beautiful light and scenery.
Some of that was a function of the time of year: we found ourselves arriving at the river closer to sunrise when light is most spectacular; and partly it was a function of camping on the river as we did for two nights at Rocky Bend Flint River Retreat.
That said, in any light, the Flint is a spectacularly scenic path. At one bend, sycamore roots break through ancient limestone, inexplicably holding fast to rock shelves overhanging the water. At another turn, a carpet of lush green southern maidenhair ferns blankets a bluff. The next bend holds ancient cypress trees, their knees lining the banks like a brood of children crowding about their mother’s feet.
As scenery goes, the Flint is hard to beat. Put 175 people on it for four days, and you’ve got a recipe for one great time…and so it was.
We expect to return to the Flint again next year for another Fall Float on the Flint. Oct. 9-12. Mark your calendars and plan on floating.
–Joe Cook, Paddle Georgia Coordinator
A few parting shots…