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Down To The Sea In Canoes
Friends Learn A Lot About Georgia On Its Rivers

Passing under the old railroad drawbridge at Lumber City on the Ocmulgee.

One morning in June of last year, my friend Bryan and I found ourselves engaged in the somewhat hilarious task of examining the right bank of the Flint River on the edge of town in Albany. A young guy was fishing nearby (his t-shirt read "The good. The bad. The grad. 2002."), and two little boys splashed in the shallows with their mother. Fifty yards away, a cataract poured from the open gates of the Lake Worth dam. Big wooden signs with block lettering cautioned, "No Swimming" and "Danger: Water Subject to Rapid Rise and Violent Turbulence."

The two of us were attempting a riparian vegetation survey and a bird point count, as we'd been doing every 10 river miles for the past three weeks. A task that typically immersed us in riverbank fauna and flora seemed silly as we stood on the barren concrete boat ramp with the roar of the artificial waterfall in our ears.

Before long, though, Rick and the two friends we'd conned into going with us returned from a grocery run, and it was out again into the verdant riverbank forests of southwest Georgia.

The Survey
At camp on the Ocmulgee, a day above Hawkinsville.

This was a part of a project we call the Georgia River Survey. We were near the end of 26 days spent on the Flint, traveling by canoe and doing a generalized ecological survey of the river corridor on the way. The crew: a party of fairly recent Georgia grads with a decent bit of fieldwork experience in the life sciences, and with degrees ranging from biology and ecology to English, who thought we might stick around town a little longer and do some self-educating on the natural history of our home state. To this end, we came up with the river project.

The survey involved frequently gathering water-quality data: pH, dissolved oxygen, specific conductivity, temperature and turbidity. Plus, we stopped every five river miles for point counts, listening for 10 minutes to all the birds we could hear and identify. We noted all the birds heard from the boat on the way downstream as well. We collected insects and a few fish for the Georgia Museum of Natural History. Using a GPS, we stopped every 10 miles to record the plants growing on the bank, in the floodplain, and 200 meters away from the river. The idea was to try to get a snapshot of the river as it stood in June of the third year of the twenty-first century, and as it changed in its course to the sea.
A pair of Saturday afternoon fishermen near Abbeville on the Ocmulgee, with a largemouth bass. The younger man was still drying off after an escape from a swarm of hornets earlier in the day.

We did similar trips last summer on the Satilla and on the Etowah. In September, Dean (the fourth of our core membership) and I did a hundred-mile pleasure cruise on the Ogeechee and towed the water quality device we'd used on the other, more intensive trips. In May and June of this year, the whole crew and a few friends spent six weeks on the Ocmulgee and Altamaha rivers, traveling to the coast on the largest river whose drainage is entirely within Georgia. This 370-mile paddle occasioned a view of much of the state, from the Piedmont south of Atlanta into the Coastal Plain at Macon, around the Great Bend up to Lumber City, past the confluence with the Oconee, and down to Darien on the Altamaha.

In addition to the protocol described above, we pay a lot of attention to the general appearance of the river, making continuous notes about the size and behavior of the stream, the wildlife, and both the vegetation and the land use on the banks. This last task sometimes means listing all the houses whose decks jut out over the water or whose manicured lawns extend just to the top of the riverbank. Sometimes it means trying to quantify the steepness and shape of the bank below a dam or adjacent to a clear-cut, where the river, sadly, has become severely channelized. And sometimes it means estimating the height and describing the splendor of a magnificent cypress or a sycamore or an elm as we pass it by.

We also do a good bit of talking to local residents - especially fishermen - for they know things that we would never notice about the river, plus a little history oftentimes, like where the baptisms were held before they got running water in the churches in Ware County. Down around Nahunta, Rick got a lecture on the ills of alcohol and the virtues of God's Nature from a drunken carpenter at the Satilla Club, a smoke-filled bar overlooking the river with Creedence on the jukebox. Some guys working for the Jenkins County road crew had a good time telling me about all the critters that were gonna come and get me down in the swamp on the Ogeechee - including the elusive hog-bear. And when you come around a bend and an old man fishing from the bank proclaims that, "This here is a river you could easily fall in love with," it's hard not to agree.

The past two years' river trips have taken us to all kinds of places, not just to boat landings like the one in Albany. Once, two of us were in an impenetrable thicket of greenbrier and blackberry brambles, swatting mosquitoes and wondering what in God's name we were doing in that cow-hell swamp. We finished the Flint with our GPS directing us straight to a survey point in someone's backyard in Bainbridge. We paddled through Georgia towns like Albany, Waycross, Macon, Cartersville and Rome. We also got to paddle some beautiful stretches in the blackwater swamps on the Satilla, in the Blue Ridge on the Etowah, and through Pine Mountain on the Flint. We explored some glorious spots like Magnolia Bluff in Camden County, the woods and slopes of the Dawson Forest and a handful of clear, cool springs in the floodplains of the Flint and the Ocmulgee. The Altamaha and the Satilla brought us to the edge of the salt marsh, where the river changes dramatically and journey's end brings your canoe to a dock where you tie up beside a shrimp boat.

Why We Did It
Our flagship nears the mouth of the Altamaha.

A lot of our motivation involves really seeing the country where we all grew up, and where we live. Most every town has a river either in it or nearby, and every river flows downstream and eventually out to sea. A couple of years ago, some of our members did a trip down the Oconee and the Altamaha, from Milledgeville to Darien, and the time had on that trip created much of the impetus for this project. Part of the idea behind that original trip was that it's really neat to put in a boat on the river in your town and take it down to the coast. The reservoirs downstream of Athens made that option incompatible with folks' schedules, so Milledgeville was the put-in. But the idea was a good one.

Later, the experience of that Oconee-Altamaha trip combined with an interest in William Bartram (the Quaker botanist who tromped all around here late in the 18th Century) formed the plan to observe the land as naturalists while traveling by canoe. Bartram made a historical record of our regional landscape that has become incredibly valuable in the aftermath of the near-total alteration of that landscape through farming and timbering. If we can make a record of the river corridors in the state of Georgia in the years 2003 and 2004 and perhaps create a model for others to use in the future so as to have a group of documents that offer comparison of the land over time, then we will consider our project to have been worthwhile.
Making notes in the woods below Macon on the Ocmulgee.

One such record already exists from the 20th century. It's a book published in the 70s by the DNR: The Natural Environments of Georgia, by the late Charles Wharton. Anyone familiar with Dr. Wharton's book can easily see why we have gained a good deal of insight and inspiration from it. Folks who've looked through Bartram's Travels might remember the account of one of his boat trips on the Altamaha, in which he refers to the river's "pellucid floods." "Pellucid" is a fancy word for "clear," and anyone who has boated on the Altamaha recently knows that it is anything but clear, as it now carries a great deal more sediment than it did in Bartram's day. That contrast alone speaks volumes about the changes this country called Georgia, and its rivers, have undergone in the past couple hundred years. Bartram never encountered dams or reservoirs either, and never stood on a paved boat landing looking around for plants. But we figure maybe that's the point: whatever we see is part of the ecology of the river today, so we'll record it.

For now, thanks to all the folks in town, on campus and elsewhere who've helped us out thus far. We're off the water now, and are beginning the process of collating all the information we've gathered. We'll be sure to let folks in Athens know when we've got something to show for all the time we've spent on Georgia's rivers. Until then, there are lots of photos on our web site: www.georgiariversurvey.org.

Ben Emanuel

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