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

 

35 Natural Wonders in Georgia To See Before You Die

Painting of Cumberland Island beach by artist and writer-naturalist Ann Litrel

[A list authored by CHARLES SEABROOK
for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
Published on: 02/03/08]

Inspiration for this new series of paintings comes from Author and Naturalist Charles Seabrook. Since beginning my studies with the Georgia Naturalist Program, I’ve been paying more attention to the huge diversity of ecosystems right in our home state. This list by Mr. Seabrook, first published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, inspired my latest art-making trip, to Cumberland Island.

Here’s what Charles Seabrook had to say about Georgia’s Natural Wonders:

“Bookstores are filled now with such titles as “1000 Places You Must See Before You Die” and “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
Everywhere you turn, in fact, there are lists suggesting things you should do, see, read, taste or listen to before you die. So, I’ve come up with my own list — 35 Natural Wonders in Georgia You Must See Before You Die. You might have candidates of your own, but here are mine:

1.
Okefenokee Swamp. World-famous wetland.
2.
Marshes of Glynn. Far-as-the-eye-can-see coastal salt marshes that inspired poet Sydney Lanier to write his famous poem.
3. Cumberland Island National Seashore. Former President Jimmy Carter called it one of his most favorite places on Earth.
4. Ossabaw Island. Unspoiled barrier isle; amazing natural beauty.
5. Cabretta Beach, Sapelo Island. One of Atlantic coast’s most beautiful undeveloped beaches.
6. Woody Pond, Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge (McIntosh County). In spring, thousands of egrets, herons and endangered wood storks form spectacular nesting colonies.
7. Ebenezer Creek (Effingham County). National Natural Landmark; harbors 1,000 year-old bald cypress trees with huge buttresses eight to twelve feet wide.
8. Altamaha River. Lower Altamaha called “Georgia’s Amazon” for the lush, jungle-like growth along its banks; river’s entire 137 miles unfettered by dams.
9. Broxton Rocks Ecological Preserve (Coffee County). Rugged sandstone rock outcrop deep in South Georgia; sculpted over centuries by water into fissures and shallow ravines that are now havens for many rare plants.
10. Ohoopee Dunes State Natural Area (Emanuel County). Sometimes called “Georgia’s Desert” because of its dry, sandy soil and scrubby vegetation. Biologists call it an “enchanting environment.”
11. Wade Tract Preserve (Thomas County). Privately-owned 200-acre swath of old-growth long leaf pine and wire grass; one of few remaining examples of great long leaf forest that once covered Coastal Plains region.
12. Providence Canyon State Park (Stewart County). Eroded land that transformed into a place of great beauty; sometimes called Georgia’s “Little Grand Canyon.”
13. Doe Run Pitcher Plant Bog Natural Area (Colquitt County). Lush growths of carnivorous pitcher plants in spring.
14. Pine Mountain (Harris County). Spectacular view from Dowdell’s Knob of valley below; President Franklin D. Roosevelt often came here to picnic and meditate.
15. Warm Springs (Meriwether County). Naturally warm, soothing water bubbling from Earth; FDR came here for treatment of polio.
16. Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area (Houston County). See for yourself why conservationists are intent on saving from development this place of roaming black bears and rare wildflower habitats.
17. George L. Smith State Park (Emanuel County). Bald cypresses growing in pond are magnificent in fall when they take on their orangish-bonze tints.
18. Sprewell Bluff State Park (Upson/Talbot counties). Little known gem on Flint River, which is one of South’s most beautiful and interesting streams; 3-mile trail offers superb views of river and rocky cliffs.
19. Palisades unit, Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Spectacular greenspace in midst of sprawling, bustling metro Atlanta.
20. Graves Mountain (Lincoln County). Rockhounds from all over world come here for amazing array of rocks and minerals.
21. Stone Mountain/Arabia-Davidson Mountain/Panola Mountain. Huge geological wonders that sport some of Georgia’s most colorful arrays of wildlflowers in spring and fall.
22. Tallulah Gorge (Rabun County). Hard granite walls fall perpendicular to land above, forming steep cliffs.
23. Amicalola Falls State Park (Dawson County). Falls plunge 729 feet in seven cascades; highest waterfall east of Mississippi River.
24. Richard Russell Scenic Highway. 14-mile-long road is not natural, but it winds through some of the most splendid mountain scenery in the Southeast. Along the way are trailheads to waterfalls and scenic spots.
25. Cloudland Canyon (Dade County). One of Georgia’s most scenic state parks; rugged geology and beautiful vistas.
26. Brasstown Bald (Chattahoochee National Forest). At 4,784 feet above sea level, it’s Georgia’s highest mountain; four states can be seen from top.
27. Rabun Bald (Chattahoochee National Forest). Rivals Brasstown Bald in elevation and spectacular views.
28. The Pocket, Pigeon Mountain. (Walker County). Lush growths of colorful spring and fall wildflowers in a beautiful setting.
29. Rocktown, Pigeon Mountain. Stunning, house-size boulders make it a rival of its famous cousin, Rock City near Chattanooga.
30. McLemore Cove (Walker County). One of Southeast’s most picturesque mountain valleys.
31. Chattooga River (along Georgia-South Carolina border). Untamed and unimpeded; wild and rugged.
32. Sosebee Cove (Chattahoochee National Forest). High elevation, north-facing cove forest; rich diversity of shade tolerant trees, shrubs and wildflowers.
33. Cooper Creek Scenic Area (Chattahoochee National Forest). Harbors large hemlocks and white pines, some with bases as big as four feet in diameter.
34. Raven Cliffs Falls (Raven Cliffs Wilderness Area). Splendid waterfalls; trail to them almost equally stunning.
35. Anna Ruby Falls (Unicoi State Park, White County). A must-see for visitors.”