My
wife and I recently paddled the Alapaha river. And ever since, I’ve
been meaning to look up the native American meaning of the name. But
as far as we’re concerned, its name means
river
that has it backwards
. The typical
river understands the accepted tradition of having its water in the
middle and trees on either side. The Alapaha, on the other hand,
seems content with reversing the natural order of things.

We
set out in late November, wishing to add the Alapaha to the list of
southeast Georgia rivers we’ve navigated. Along with other facts
about the river, our guide book noted that the Alapaha contained
“occasional deadfalls with some vegetation in river, no portages
required.” That’s a little like a tour book for New York City
telling you to expect occasional tall buildings with some cabs in
streets, no tipping required.

The
Alapaha flows south from its origins in Dooly County to its
rendezvous with the Suwannee River in north Florida. Our plan was to
cover about 25 miles of its length over two days, putting in at the
U.S. 82 bridge, between the towns of Alapaha and Willacoochee, some
two hours drive from our home on the Georgia coast.

We
arrived at the bridge in a pelting rain made tolerable by the
unseasonably mild temperatures. We found the Alapaha sleek and black
as crude oil and, at a level well above flood stage, moving at three
to four times the normal, languid pace of waterways in our part of
the state. This was a river in a hurry.

We
loaded our Mohawk canoe and set out. My wife, a skilled paddler with
an experience log that ranges from sea kayaking to solo white water
canoeing, was in the stern. She can paddle all day, deftly coax
nimbleness from our sixteen-foot barge, and hold a line like a razor.
My place is in the bow; a blunt instrument providing power on
command and draws and sweeps when needed.

Entering
our first bend, we were struck by the astonishing beauty of the
Alapaha. A wet mist clung closely to the ebony sheen of the river as
it elbowed it way past banks of thick vegetation. However, another
couple of severe bends and the Alapaha ‘fessed up. Ahead, the river
ran smack into and through a tangle of trees and vegetation that one
generally finds somewhere besides the middle of a channel. Surprised
at this apparent anomaly, we slowed, back paddled, selected a line
and entered the mess, river left.

For
a hundred yards or more, we scrambled through tight turn after tight
turn, mindful of the dangers of a forced swim in 54 degree log-choked
water if we broached against a tree or strainer. We exited the
section, shaking our heads at the unexpected turn of events, to find
a somewhat more normal looking river; narrow, but clear of debris.

Alas,
a hard right turn brought us to an even more densely obstructed
section of river. Oaks, sweet gum and cypress — some dead, some
dying, some standing, some fallen — cluttered the channel requiring
a pinball-like route, often forcing us to eddy out or double-back in
search of runnable passages.

Curtains
of low-hanging branches continually swept down the length of the
canoe like a squeegee. A solid hour of this and we knew our trip was
going to be far different than we had anticipated. The Alapaha had
gotten technical.

And
a little playful. Each lengthy, nearly unnavigable section was
followed by a mostly clear stretch leading us to believe that
normalcy reigned. Then, the river would gather itself like a coiled
black snake and race hissing into another dense stand of trees,
cypress knees and brambles. Often, we slipped between trees on runs
scarcely wider than our canoe, all the while hoping that the local
reptile population could read a calendar and had turned in for the
winter.

No
portages required? Not on this river, and not just once. The first
occurred when we discovered a huge longleaf pine had fallen,
completing blocking the channel. A short, (and given the weight of
our canoe and swampy terrain) difficult portage ensued.

A
second became necessary after — bear with me here — we lost the
river. In dozens of places, the swollen waters had simply gotten out
of the river business altogether, flooded into the surrounding
lowlands, slowed and spread out through the trees, doing a devilishly
accurate imitation of a directionless swamp.

With
no discernible current and in poor visibility, we simply wandered
away from the real river. Within a short distance, we realized our
error. Not wanting to back track through the dense trees, we got
out, found the Alapaha waiting impatiently for us about thirty-yards
to our right, muscled the Mohawk through the muck, and resumed our
trip.

By
late afternoon, after making less than ten serpentine miles, we were
weary and ready for camp. Before turning in, I knotted a length of
cord to the trunk of a tree at water level, hopeful that the
continuing heavy rains would not cause the river to rise into our
camp site.

The
next morning brought clearing skies above us and more of the
backwards side of the Alapaha ahead us. The day’s first five or so
miles of paddling remained challenging, taking us through section
after tangled section of this river with a forest growing in the
middle of it. In fact, our combined progress for the two days was
such that we were forced to end our trip at the GA 135 bridge, some
seven river miles from where we had optimistically left a vehicle.
After a hitched ride with a friendly local, we were on our way back
home.

From
U.S. 82 to GA 135, the Alapaha is virtually unnavigable. Yet, for
the experienced canoeist who likes on-your-toes paddling and having
water and woods all in one place, it’s quite a river, technically
speaking.

by Lawrence Certain
From The Eddy Line, February
1998

Also see Alapaha-Withalocoochee