Wind and Water
Paddling on the Ocmulgee River

 

The wind was never at our backs the whole weekend and the river was at its lowest level in years. Both presented challenges that taxed shoulders and sharpened our vision for objects just below the surface. But oh what fun we had!

 

Ocmulgee means bubbling waters – indeed this weekend offered plenty of opportunities to read isolated areas of bubbling swirling water in midstream – large boulders of pockmarked brown flint lurking just beneath the surface.

 

A newly renovated spruced up Mile Branch Park, with amenities as good as or better than most state parks, provided great sites for tents and RVs – also an up-to-date kid’s playground. The park is just a short distance to downtown Hawkinsville. A number to paddlers took off to town where they discovered nice, reasonably priced restaurants. Forget the cooking outdoors, head for town!

 

The landing was just a two minute walk from the grounds. The take out points at 14 and 7 miles were easy to get to. Shuttling went like clockwork, even with late starts and laggards.

 

For a novice like me the Ocmulgee River is like a beautifully painted scene. Giant cypress, water oaks, sycamores and river willows line the banks with Spanish moss draped on limbs as if arranged by a Hollywood set decorator. Steep banks and occasional outcroppings of ancient stone such as brown flint and limestone served to balance the whole scene. Paddling and drifting along, I thought of the men and women, long ago, who manned flat bottom boats laden commodities bound for the Coast. I imagined the small stern wheelers that plied these waters carrying passengers to and from towns up and down the Ocmulgee, Altamaha and Oconee.  At least a thousand plus years before the settlers came, Creek Indians plied these waters to trade with the Seminole further south.

Friday’s 14 mile run began at Dykes Landing to Mile Branch Park. . Saturday was a 14 mile trip with a stop for lunch, and a chance to “explore” a privacy bush for that necessary. Some of us looked for flint chips (called “chert”) scattered on the sandbar, a sure sign of arrowheads having been made along these banks.

 

On Sunday, the seven mile trip from up-river passed an old cotton mill that is about to begin a new life with apartments and “mixed use” accoutrements, meaning perhaps casual eateries, etc. I didn’t paddle on Sunday so as to relieve my over anxious grandson from having to tell his Mom on Monday that he had couldn’t go to school due to a painful shoulder, or back, etc. He did the fourteen mile with me against that ever present headwind, cadged a young man to let him try his paddle board in exchange for the kayak. My grandson reluctantly gave it back to the young man after having bested that thing for two miles. First time he has ever been on one. He’s hooked on paddling!

 

Youth has its unique abandon and thrill of the absurd’ at least it seems that way to us older folks. Wow, riding a rectangle “surfboard” and a long handled paddle with 20mph wind gusts in your face!

 

Saturday night most of us attended presentations and talks given by people representing Hawkinsville, the River Keepers, Georgia Canoeing Association, the DNR and a young man who has spearheaded successful efforts to draw attention to what’s going on along the Altamaha River. He perked my interest and I intend to put the Altamaha on my list of places to paddle. One local was introduced as one of two men in the area who has paddled from Hawkinsville to Darien, GA. Now wouldn’t that be an adventure. But, as was discussed by the group, the challenge now along the Ocmulgee is to develop “legal and sustainable” camp sites and landings. As I recall hearing, south of Hawkinsville there are only two public landings and the distance between them makes stopovers very difficult. The man who is spearheading work on the Altamaha is involved in getting landing and stopover sites between the upper river and where it connects with the Ocmulgee. “If not us, who then will join the challenge and make it happen?”

 

These people obviously put a lot of time and effort into improving the environment along the river banks and the waters we paddle inspire us to support this vital work by whatever means and resources we have.

 

Today’s economic picture portends that there will likely be major cuts in Federal and State’s funding for future environmental and beautification projects in lieu of cutting other more “more important necessities.” We already see evidence of shifting the focus more toward prioritization at all levels of government – recreation sites will not be high on the priority list, infrastructure yes – cleaner rivers not high on the priority list when bridges and roads need fixing. Once this trend gets traction it will take a supreme and costly effort to bring the political structure back to funding environmentally related projects

 

So, I truly appreciated these people coming to speak at our camp/paddle weekend! I trust that all of us who love the rivers share these concerns and do appreciate the work of these dedicated people. I also want to thank Karen Bailey and Karen Hunt, Advisory Council, of the Hawkinsville –Pulaski County Riverfront Park project for their warm welcome and for helping make this outstanding park available for all who love our rivers. I want to personally thank a fellow GCA member, Marie Short, for all she did to make this an outstanding event. Well done Marie.

 

The town of Hawkinsville has certainly got it right. Nice restaurants and inexpensive eateries, interesting shops and obviously a genuine appreciation for the tourists and day trippers like us who like to paddle. It’s a historical county seat that each spring hosts the harness races. Those folks who sit on a tiny seat over two bicycle type wheels behind a fast trotting horse that’s been trained to out run its fellow equines by trying to get away from the person on board holding a nasty little whip and a determination to be first!

 

I’m told these horse racing folks come to Hawkinsville from all over to tune up for the major events held in the midwest and Canada. No wonder there are great places to eat and shop in this lovely little town located just over two hours from Atlanta.

 

Hawkinsville, I’ll be back next year – wind and water whatever the conditions.

 

Sam Galloway
October 7-9, 2011