This weekend I returned to the Ogeechee for another look at the river before we embark on Paddle Georgia 2015 in June. I came home enchanted by its beauty and its power. If you are lucky enough to be participating in Paddle Georgia 2015, you are in for a treat.
Veteran Paddle Georgia participants will find it unlike any other river we’ve paddled. First-timers will encounter a wild, primordial, quintessentially Deep South river.
The purpose of the three-day, 95-mile trip with volunteer lead boaters Mike Worley and Cary Baxter was to identify take outs, launch sites and the ever-important pit stops–those oases where weary, bladder-swollen paddlers find a porta-toilet. We also planned to identify locations where deadfall and strainers might block our path (and need judicious trimming with saws and clippers to speed the passage of 200-plus boats).
But, since first venturing on this river in 2012, I’ve learned it is not particularly cooperative. River levels for this journey were at least four feet higher than we expect in June. The strainers and deadfall were buried deep beneath us and none forced us from our boats for arduous portages. I think we will not be so lucky in late June.
This weekend the river spilled out of its banks and covered acres of its floodplain where the swollen trunks of cypress, tupelo and water oak cling to the earth futily fighting the power of the water as the flood carved new channels between the river’s oxbows.
“Floodplain” conjures visions of placid water spilling into calm pastures, but the sound of water through the Ogeechee’s riverside forests is violent–not unlike the roar of a Piedmont river’s shoals. Indeed, there’s a difference betweeen the “floodplain” and the “floodway.” When the Ogeechee rises and becomes unbounded by its banks, it is an unstoppable force, knowing only one direction–down gradient to the sea. On more than one occasion, I stopped battling the current to stay in the channel and simply went with the flow, shooting through the flooded forests on short cuts to the next bend.
That said, even at high water levels, the Ogeechee has many a narrow channel where single file paddling is necessary. Expect plenty of that on our seven-day adventure. The Ogeechee is not the interstate–it’s a two lane country road with one-lane bridges, and paddlers are wise who consider themselves Sunday drivers out to see the sights.
And, despite the high water, this much maligned river (remember, it was the site of the state’s largest fish kill in 2011–the consequences of a toxic discharge from a local textile plant) was alive with people and critters. At Ga. 119, a landing known locally as Steel Bridge, children played in the water while parents sunbathed and fished. Anglers patrolled limb lines from their johnboats, and closer to the coast where the blackwater widens, water skiers, jet skiers and pleasure boaters enjoyed a warm Sunday afternoon. Alas, there was no activity at “Nude Beach” as that particular sandbar was underwater. Nevertheless, on this sunny weekend, the fortunes of the Ogeechee, now the subject of an extenisve water quality study, seemed to be rising along with its floodwater.
More than anything, though, the Ogeechee showed off its spring beauty. Swallow-tailed kites soared above the blindingly green leaves of tupelo trees; heavy-bodied, but non-venomous brown water snakes found perches on ever-present and fragrant riverside willows; wild hogs and deer scampered through the wet forests; even one alligator made a brief appearance at the water’s surface.
Unlike other rivers where the boundary between water and land is usually well defined, on this lowland, blackwater river that line is blurred. Cypress knees and swamp lilies are just a couple of the beautiful results of this mingling of the elements in this primeval land.
We’re a little more than a month out from the big adventure, and at this point I cannot tell you where every strainer and deadfall in 95 miles are to be found (though I’ve got a good idea), but I can tell you that beyond every strainer you encounter, you’ll find another bend of the river waiting to enchant you. It’s as if its blackwater has some black magic in it. The Ogeechee is an enchantress.
Don’t worry, we’ve got a plan for her strainers.
May 4, 2015
And, a couple of final takes from the scouting trip…