Paddle Georgia has never ventured on a river quite like this.
It is blackwater.
It is narrow.
It is strainer choked.
It is flanked in most places by acres and acres of bottomland swamp.
It is fickle: a long, beautiful, easy-paddling run of river will suddenly devolve into a braided maze of narrow channels…that are likely filled with deadfall.
It is, unlike the Altamaha with its football field-sized sandbars, a river with small and sparsely-spaced sandbars.
It is home to alligators: Fulton Love of Love’s Seafood told me the tragic and harrowing tale of his prized labrador being eaten by one of the river’s top predators (from 1980 to 2001 there were only 8 reported alligator attacks on humans in Georgia…none were fatal).
It is, like all of South Georgia during the summer time, home to perhaps a gazillion-trillion swarming gnats (there have been millions of reported gnat attacks on humans in Georgia…none were fatal, but all were highly annoying).
It is home to the largest reported fish kill in Georgia history. In 2011, some 38,000 fish died. The tragedy was linked to discharges from a local textile mill (more on this later).
And, finally, last summer an angler who got in the Ogeechee contracted necrotizing fasciitis, the flesh-eating bacteria (more on this later, as well).
If, at this point, you are thinking, “Why, in heaven’s name, would I want to spend seven days on this river?” I urge you not to jump to hasty conclusions.
The Ogeechee is, above all else, beautiful, enchanting and primoridal to its core. Wild and black, it will take you back in time–closer to that millennium when the first land dwellers emerged from the wet goo of creation.
The river’s blackwater acts like a mirror, reflecting with perfection the swollen trunks of cypress, tupelo and oak. The riverside forests are dressed in Spanish moss. It drapes over the river catching golden light in the morning. The bright green leaves of palmetto carpet the forest floor. Regimented stands of river birch, with their bleached white, flaking bark along the riverbanks, are the ivory to the river’s ebony. And, as you near the coast, spartina, the iconic marsh grass of the Georgia coast, begins waving on the river’s edge.
As paddling paths go, the Ogeechee has a hyper-abundance of beauty.
And it welcomes paddlers, anglers and swimmers…one bend we passed during scouting trips had a sandbar labeled with a bold wood sign: “Nude Beach”
Now, back to fish kills and flesh-eating bacteria.
This week, I traveled some 40 miles of the river and criss-crossed it visiting campsites, historic sites and downtown Statesboro (where we’ve planned a street party and Canoe Tug-O-War!). And, it seemed everyone I met had something to say about the fish kill.
That event rocked Ogeechee River communites. For all its wildness, the Ogeechee is a people’s river. Everyhwere that the land allows it, there are fish camps, cabins, trailers and homes. When belly-up fish started floating by these backwoods retreats, river users were enraged. Three years after the tragedy, some still say the river has not recovered.
Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, Watershed Outreach Coordinator with Ogeechee Riverkeeper (ORK) who accompanied me on the river, is among those keeping an eye on it and making sure another tragedy doesn’t occur.
It seems unlikely. Thanks to a legal settlement initiated by ORK, the textile plant responsible for causing the fish kill has invested around $3 million in upgrades to its wastewater treatment and portions of another $2.5 million are being spent on a comprehensive river monitoring prorgam.
The state pollution permit under which the plant now must operate is among the most restrictive permits ever issued.
From kayak-eye-level, everything on the river seems as it should, and water testing shows that things are well.
Then last summer, the flesh-eating bacteria scare hit. A Bryan County angler was infected after getting in the water during a fishing trip. Family members told the media that there was “a disease in the Ogeechee River” and the panic quickly spread.
In fact, the “disease” is found everywhere–not in any specific body of water. According to the Centers for Disease Control, necrotizing fasciitis is very rare and can be caused by a number of bacteria, some of which can be present in Georgia rivers. However, having a wound come in contact with one of these bacteria while swimming in a river, very rarely results in the infection.
Says the CDC: “Most people who get necrotizing fasciitis have other health problems that may lower their body’s ability to fight infection. Some of these conditions include diabetes, kidney disease, cancer, or other chronic health conditions that weaken the body’s immune system. If you’re healthy, have a strong immune system, and practice good hygiene and proper wound care, your chances of getting necrotizing fasciitis are extremely low.”
In other words, jumping in the Ogeechee will not result in your skin falling off–either from the flesh-eating bacteria or toxic discharges from a textile plant.
And, perhaps that is one message that Paddle Georgia will send to our state’s citizens this year. Despite recent tragedies, the Ogeechee is still alive, still beautiful and still very much worth exploring…and sliding into for relief from the summer’s heat.
Paddle Georgia priority registration begins Jan. 27. Two open registrations will occur: one on Feb. 10 and another on Feb. 19. Registration will be first-come, first-serve. THERE WILL BE NO LOTTERY. So read the registration instructions carefully at http://www.garivers.org/paddle_georgia/pgregister.html and plan to be at your computer on those dates. We hope we will see you on the Ogeechee June 20-26.
Paddle Georgia Coordinator