“Flat
water is for Sissies” reads a Saluda Fest sticker on the back
window of my Jeep. I can’t remove it, because that concept is too
deeply rooted in the reptilian center of my brain. As I boogie down a
steep undercut technical creek, try to catch the last micro-eddy
above a big drop, and then (pucker gluing me to the saddle) launch
off the thing, I know I’m alive. However, there’s more to it than
that. You are on your own in with nature and she’s overwhelmingly
spectacular.

For
most GCAers getting out into the woods constitutes at least as
important a reason for paddling as class IV adrenalin. With this in
mind, Barbara and I have begun to explore a new frontier (for us),
southeastern rivers downstream of the Piedmont below the Brevard
Fault.

It
was about 11:00 a.m. Sunday, I was burned-out on the Ocoee, the
Chattooga was about 0.6′, the Hiawassee was just too far from Atlanta,
and the Upper Chattahoochee was barely trickling. So, we loaded the
Chesapeake tandem onto the jeep and drove south to try the Ocmulgee
below Macon. Since we had gotten a late start and there were only 2
of us, we put in at James Dykes Memorial Park, leisurely paddled
about 3 miles downstream through the Ocmulgee Wildlife Management
Area to Big Indian Creek, and then, not quite so leisurely, paddled
back up-river to the car.

We
did it in a tandem sea kayak so returning was no biggie. The return
would be slightly more strenuous in a canoe, but should not present a
major challenge. If you have more time, and are not into attainment
as a diversion, consider going the full 15 miles to Hawkinsville. If
you have an entire weekend, load up some gear, spend Saturday night
camping on one of the sandbars, and take out at Abbeville or the
Oconee. If you’re really interested in something different, pole.

The
Ocmulgee is worth it. It runs through a relatively isolated (we saw
only one john boat) heavily wooded wilderness corridor (miles wide in
places) and the setting is not unimpressive. The Ocmulgee is a
typical alluvial Coastal Plain river that serpentines through a
bottom wetland forest. The river is contained by a dike, or raised
bank. The dike is formed by a combination of continuous silting from
slow moving water at the river’s edge and heavier silting during
periodic flooding as gunky water spills over it. Trapped floodwater
behind the dike creates a shallow body of water, which will become a
marsh.

A
marsh forms because forest vegetation cannot survive in waterlogged
soil, and as the original hardwood trees die, rushes, cattails, and
other sun-loving plants fill in. However, marshes do not last long
because the emergent vegetation allows soil to accumulate from
erosion of the surrounding watershed during subsequent floods.

Marshes
transition into swamps, which support water- tolerant trees such as
cypress, birch, willow, water oak, overcup oak, sweet gum, red maple,
tupelo gum, and swamp black gum. The dike protects both marshes and
swamps from flooding, and as dead plants, deposits from surface
runoff, and flood sediments accumulate, a swamp will evolve to a wet
meadow transition zone. These contain pioneer grasses, coneflowers,
blackberry and trumpet vines. Well-drained transition zone soils,
which are rarely flooded, contain new tree species (sycamore,
persimmon, and tulip poplar). Transition zones require about 150
years to eventually become hardwood forests. All of these zones exist
along the Ocmulgee, and can vary in size from a few feet wide to
several acres across.

The
Ocmulgee corridor also supports a cornucopia of wildlife (we saw
turtles, woodpeckers, egrets, owls, osprey, deer, and pigs) and if
you take the time, you’ll find much more. Many animals depend on the
flood plain’s security for their nurseries because marsh and swamp’s
shallow water and tangled plants limit aquatic predation by larger
fish and turtles.

At
the same time, marshes and swamps provide an ideal hunting
environment for diurnal predators such as great blue and green
herons, kingfishers, and osprey, and nocturnal predators such as
raccoons (look for their human- like footprints in the mud and their
characteristic scat littered with the orange carapaces of digested
crayfish), water snakes (they are not moccasins, are not poisonous,
and should not be killed), mink, and the crayfish- eating barred owl.

Flood
plain amphibians include bullfrogs, green frogs, cricket frogs, and
salamanders. Mammals include beavers (look for their dams, cuttings,
and characteristic trails), marsh rabbits, muskrats, fox, and otters.
There are also many large migratory birds such as Canada geese, wood
ducks, mallards and herons.

The
Ocmulgee has several substantial side streams, and if the river’s
recently flooded you can explore the marshes and swamps from your
boat. Finally, there are several large sandbars for picnicking,
camping, or just hanging out and engaging in extracurricular
activities. If you camp (or even if you don’t), consider hiking off
and seeing just what you encounter. It’s particularly rewarding at
twilight and early evening, when nocturnal activity picks-up.

To
get there take I-75 south for an hour or so to Macon. In Macon, exit
on I-16 east towards Savannah. Follow I-16 for a ways until you reach
SR 96 where you’ll exit and head south. Take a left onto Hwy 23 and
continue through Traversville. Turn right onto Red Dog Farm Rd. (if
you go through the metropolis of Royal, you’ve gone too far and need
to go back).

Stay
on Red Dog until it ends on Magnolia Road and turn left. Magnolia
will cross a railroad and South Shellstone Creek. Then, just past
Magnolia Church (on your left) turn right onto Dykes Park Road (left
goes to Cochran). If you’re going to take out at Hawkinsville,
continue south another 10 miles or so on Magnolia and look for some
sort of access. If you plan on a more extended trip (e.g., to
Abbeville or the Oconee), get a Georgia Gazetteer ’cause you’re on
you own.

by
William C. Reeves (The Hawk)

From
The Eddy Line, January 2003