Altamaha Adventure: Kayaking On Georgia’s Little Amazon

Great Egret On the Altamaha River, painting by Ann Litrel

 

Alligators and six foot long sturgeon reputedly swim in the depths of the murky river under our boat. My friend Ginger sits behind me, steering the kayak while I periodically break to click a quick photo. We are deep in south Georgia, navigating the wildest unbroken stretch of river east of the Mississippi: the Altamaha, which flows freely for 137 miles with no dam to break its course to the sea.

The river is known as Georgia’s “Little Amazon.”

We’re here on a weekend stewardship trip with the Georgia Conservancy, joined by 70 fellow paddlers from all over the Southeast. Our bright boats and life vests form a colorful parade gliding atop the water. On either side of us the wide fingers of the Altamaha reach far inland, spreading quietly between the trunks of cypress and tupelo.

The silence is eerie. Small drips and splashes follow our paddles through the water – but there is no motor noise anywhere to be heard.

So far, so good. I briefly recall the warning in bold print on our registration form: “Intermediate Paddlers only.” I blithely ignored it.

It’s been two days since Ginger and I pulled into the Altamaha River Campground, tossing together a two person tent that appeared designed for a single small child with a pillow.  A night in the tent produced dents in my back and frozen fingers at dawn, but multiple pots of coffee and hot eggs resuscitated all of us, and by 9 a.m. we were fortified for the all-day paddle from camp to sea.

The river surged with spring rains and a slow tidal breath from the sea. But the miles of wild banks were peaceful, and even as we drew near the small town of Darien, our take-out point, no signs of humans marred the landscape. Swamp trees gave way to rustling marsh grasses. Bald eagles soared high in the blue, alighting from time to time in the few lonely trees standing in the marsh.

The wilderness made its imprint on us in silence and ancient wildness.

Today, our second day, is another gift. We have ventured into the deep swamp creeks surrounding the campground – the “best part of the weekend,” say returning paddlers. With each stroke we penetrate further into the prehistoric forest. Trunks of trees loom large in our path. Ginger and I suddenly notice water inside our kayak, sloshing over our seats. Maybe a slow leak. We look up. The spaces between the trees have narrowed.

Perhaps an intermediate paddler would know what to do.

One of the guides paddles up behind us. “This is where is gets a little tough for a tandem kayak, “ he says laconically. “Y’all have much experience?”

No.

Experience would be handy right about now – say, when you’re paddling a leaky 18 foot kayak into a thicket of trees and you need to execute a sudden 90 degree turn to avoid crashing into a snag of fallen logs.

We weren’t the only ones having problems. Kayaks running into kayaks. Canoes stuck between trees. One boat taking on water and getting close to capsizing. Within three minutes, our group was a floating traffic jam. Forget about enjoying the wilderness. Ginger and I wanted only to get out of the swamp without swimming with the gators.

As it turned out, we finally did get untangled, and after a couple more hours made it back to base camp. As a matter of fact, we became “intermediate” paddlers.

Lying in the tent that night, we heard the barred owl call. The stars shone like maybe they have since the beginning of the world. And at dawn we watched a great white egret hunt along the shoreline in the mist.

Worth a couple of cold nights and wet bottoms.

Kayaking the Altamaha River with the Georgia Conservancy

 

Resources for Georgia Nature Excursions:

The Georgia Conservancy 

The Nature Conservancy

 

Dance of the Darters

Dance of the Darters

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Dance of the Darters

Acrylic paint, 12” x 18”
Private collection

This painting pays homage to the native species of the Etowah River – the large-flowered skullcap, the small-whorled pogonia, and the small freshwater clams; but most of all the darters, the tiny fish that make their home in the shallows of the Etowah.
Four species of darter are found in the Etowah and nowhere else – the Etowah Darter, the Cherokee Darter, and two species of Holiday Darter. In the dance of the Darters,” these diminutive fish arch out of the water toward the heavens, larger than life, so we can see the pure fancy in their markings – flahes of color spangled on scale and fin as thought the Creator painted them for joy itself.

The creatures who emerge from the background hills are the animals indigenous to the Eastern deciduous forest, some familiar, some scarce. Their half-hidden outlines hint at the Creation which is ongoing – the emergence of new species through the eons, and the possibilities of life to come.

The “Dance of the Darters” is a part of the dance of Life itself, a dance which began in the dawn of time. We are a part of that movement, slowly learning our steps, trying to create a more beautiful Dance – for all of the creatures dancing with us on Earth.

Earthly Attachments

Earthly Attachments

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Earthly Attachments

Watercolor, 20” x 16”
Private collection

In Asian art, the water lily is a symbol of contemplation. As the Christian Church has made inroads into Asia, the flower has been incorporated into Christian symbolism as well.

A less fortunate history accompanies the frog, who has come to symbolize earthly attachments. Since playing its part in the Plagues of Egypt, the frog has never really made a comeback. Perhaps its meaning makes reference to the Pharaoh’s stubbornness, clinging to his Jewish slaves and his way of life.

The frog and the water lily are in opposition. Earthly attachments cannot exist in a life of contemplation. When we live the contemplative life, we gain true perspective, abandon material things, and experience a rebirth of the spirit. We forsake, in the end, our earthly attachments.

Miracles

Miracles

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Miracles

Watercolor, 19 1/2” x 14 1/2”
Private collection

In spring the butterfly emerges transformed from the tomb of his cocoon. The magnificent lily rises up from a lowly bulb. These are miracles of the everyday sort.
In the book of John we are told the story of a miracle: Lazarus, a man whom Jesus raises from the dead. It is a miracle because it is not a daily occurrence. It is outside our realm of experience.

Every day we are surrounded by a myriad of miracles which we do not recognize, because they are “commonplace.” But if we look at the world anew, we may see Signs everywhere in the ways of His earthly Creation. The specific events – the emergence of the butterfly, or the lily in the spring, are simply echoes of the larger plan God has for mankind – Resurrection, and life everlasting.

The Passion

The Passion
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The Passion

Watercolor, 16” x 20”
Private collection

In the language of the Christian church, “the Passion” refers to the sufferings of Christ following the Last Supper, through His Crucifixion. In Christian tradition, the goldfinch came to represent the Passion, because people believed the bird to live entirely upon thorny plants such as the thistle.

The physical suffering of Christ in the last hours of His life is unfathomable. Indeed, the life of the average person in Jesus’ time was full of suffering and physical hardships. This remains true for the majority of the world’s people today. Despite inevitable losses and pain, our lives, by comparison, are easy. Most of us would not want that to change.

Nevertheless, while we may not seek out a diet of thorns, we may welcome the unavoidable lessons of pain in one way: It is only in knowing pain that we grow. The lessons of our trials are not in vain. In the end, they may transform us, moving us to the action of love, so that we work to make a better life for others.

Like the goldfinch, having found nourishment among the thorns, our spirit then flies to greater heights.

Redemption

Redemption

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Redemption

Watercolor, 9” x 12”
Private collection

I am the vine, you are the branches.

John 15:5

In the language of Christian symbolism, grapes have come to stand for redemption. The butterfly, poised to take flight to the heavens, signifies the soul.

Many of us live the “life unexamined.” That is, we do not see how we have fallen short of glory. For some of us that moment never comes. For some of us it comes on gradually; and for some it arrives in a sudden shattering of delusions, in the supreme pain of self-recognition. Afterward, life’s struggles may appear meaningless. We may succumb to cynicism, or at the other extreme, to the pleasures of self-indulgence.

Jesus proclaimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” If we search, we find the grace that is offered us. We make peace with our imperfect natures, and we come to know we have a place in God’s eternal Creation.

Temptation

Temptation

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Temptation

Watercolor, 9” x 12”
Private collection

In Christian tradition, the apple stands for the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. It is the symbol of Temptation. The serpent is Satan, the Great Tempter.

The story of man’s fall, related in the book of Genesis, shares similar elements with the stories told by many cultures in that part of the world in that time. The stories were an answer to the big questions about man’s beginnings and the origin of evil, questions with which every thinking people has wrestled.

Four thousand years later, the truth remains: To be born into this world is to inevitably lose one’s innocence. Along with its joy and wonder, life brings temptation, pain, and evil. But from this suffering is born our great hope, the hope of our redemption.

Following the Light

Following the Light

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Following the Light

Watercolor, 21 1/2” x 28 1/2”
Private collection

Giant sunflowers are phototropic – that is, they always bloom facing the light. An entire field of sunflowers in bloom is an unforgettable sight. The individual plants raise their faces in concert to the light, like a congregation of sun worshippers.
For Christians, worshippers of the only Son, the associations of light with the Lord are inescapable.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
On those living in the land of the shadow of death
A light is dawned.

Isaiah 9:2

Standing Alone

Standing Alone

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Standing Alone

Watercolor, 21 1/2” x 28 1/2”
Private collection

Many flowers are associated with the Virgin Mary, the iris among them. It is known as “the sword lily” and is a reference to Mary’s suffering, as well as a symbol of the Immaculate Conception.
This spring in my garden a single iris appeared. It emerged from a bed of iris leaves that had not borne flowers during the entire four years they had stood outside my window. Standing alone, the flower seemed more beautiful because of its singularity.

Sometimes it is painful to be alone. But God sanctifies our moments of solitude, shaping our soul into something more beautiful than if we stood, surrounded by a crowd.

Peace

Peace

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Peace

Watercolor, 8” x 10”
Private collection