I
conducted an exploratory canoe and kayak trip on the Oconee River, near Watkinsville,
for the purpose of determining possibilities for canoe camping as
well as flatwater day trips. Joining me in this endeavor were David
Brytowski and Lee Hurd. The section is described in the 1980 edition
of Sehlinger & Otey’s ‘Northern Georgia Canoeing’ pp. 144-145,
from point A to point B. Previously, I had scouted the land on both
sides of the river, with only limited success due to poor or no
roads. S&O lists the river mileage as 12.2 miles. The put-in is
on Barnett Shoals Rd., east of Watkinsville and the take-out just
before the Hwy 15 bridge, southeast of Watkinsville, in Greene
County, on river left at a decent parking area, complete with boat
ramp, camping options, and a $3/car parking fee, part of the Oconee
National Forest facilities.

After
the put-in, the slow moving water passes some residential areas, and
in about 20 minutes brings you to a spectacular hazard: Wallace Dam
at Barnett Shoals. This is a working “free crest spillway”
dam, maybe 75 yards wide, and about 50′ tall. Approaching it sounds
like Niagara, and there is a river-wide series of warning buoys, so
you can’t mistake what you are approaching. A portage around this
requires an exit on river left at or just beyond the buoys!

There
is a modest climb up some rip-rap to a road, which bypasses the
powerhouse, and then proceeds back to riverside and, eventually, to a
small passage back to the river for an easy put-in. The presence of a
big mud hole in the road alerts you to the location. The road is
mostly dirt, so we dragged our boats, but with a heavy load of
camping gear, two trips might be needed. The total distance is about
300 yards.

The
view of what is left of Barnett Shoals, below the dam, is pretty
spectacular, and I would love to have seen them before the dam was
built. From the just mentioned put-in, it is possible to paddle back
up towards the shoals, and I would guess some pretty serious play
opportunities exist, though we did not explore that as our focus was
looking for camping sites.

This
road originates at Barnett Shoals Rd, and so it would allow coming to
a put-in below the dam, except that it is gated and sometimes locked.
More information about access may be had from the dam: 706.316.1459.
If I were doing this trip again, that would be my preference. Below
the dam, the river becomes more secluded, though frequent pastures
and occasional dwellings are seen. At 1.5 hrs into the trip, a
hairpin turn in the river gives you a landmark: there is a dwelling,
and a sign stating ‘Marable Bend’. Just beyond the bend, river left,
is a long sandbar beach where we had lunch.

After
lunch, our search for camping options began in earnest. The options
will all be on river left, once the WMA/Oconee National Forest areas
are reached. Of course, there are no signs posted at river’s edge to
tell you where you are, but there are some distinct landmarks. On
river left, there is a tree house built on metal posts — probably a
deer stand, but it is unique, and just beyond this, perhaps 20
minutes of paddling, the WMA begins.

The
current was quite brisk, and when we paddled on top of that, we
estimate we could do 4-5 mph. The next recognizable landmark is a
rock bridge pier on river left, which you will almost pass before you
see it, and it might be covered with vegetation in summer.

The
camping problem is that with high banks, the only practical exit from
the river is at sand beaches, of which there were few. Entering
creeks did not look useful. Further, above the bank, the flood plain
extends several hundred feet and is densely covered with privet and
other growth; we found no typical cleared camping sites at all,
however, one could be created if a small lopper were included in the
equipment.

There
was only one sand beach that would be campable, for a few tents, but
it was spectacular because a few hundred feet inland we actually
found an Indian mound, one of the goals of the trip. This was a
discovery of serendipity, because there is no path or sign, but the
map describes ‘Indian mounds archeological site’, and a careful
reading of the map shows the river makes a serpentine turn at that
point, and as it resumes heading south this wonderful sandbar is
river left.

Finding
the mound was quite exciting — about 40′ tall, all overgrown with
trees, but clearly out of place on a flood plain. There are warning
signs posted on the perimeter to discourage disturbing the site.
After returning home, I was able to investigate the area on
Terraserver.com, and found the URL that shows this area:

http://www.terraserver.com/imagery/image_gx.asp?cpx=-83.27902742&cpy=33.75306257&res=8&provider_id=305&t=pan

The
next area of interest, also river left, is the Scull Shoals Historic
Site. This is the only cleared area on river left, with obvious ruins
visible from the river. Scull Shoals was settled before 1800, and was
at one time a prosperous town, with barge traffic coming up the
Oconee River all the way to Barnett Shoals. Georgia’s first paper
mill, cotton gin, and textile factory were located at Scull Shoals.
This area is reachable by road or by a 1 mile hiking trail that
follows the river back to what was our take-out.

After
spending some time at the historic site, we headed on to the
take-out. The whole trip, with all our side trips, was about 5 hours.
One negative is the presence of fishing boats, plus one very annoying
airboat, but other than the noise, they all slowed down to reduce
wake, so it is no worse than parts of the metro Chattahoochee.

Other
than the Indian mound sand bar, the one solid camping option is at
the take-out, with a put-in the next day to continue down to the next
take-out at Dyar Pasture, which is about 6 more miles. This begins to
get into the headwaters of Lake Oconee. But that is another trip. I
will be doing this trip again, so stay tuned.

By
Dick Hurd
From The Eddy Line, March 19, 2005