Tropical
Storm Bill hit Georgia over Fourth of July weekend and the Ohoopee was
running about 2K (10′) so we gave it a try. We were lucky to canoe the river
at flood stage because it was over-bank and percolating
through the forest at each major bend and ox bow. Or better said, the
black water Ohoopee at flood stage was up to half a mile wide and
resembled Tolkien’s deep dark Mirkwood Forest. Even in the widest
portions, towering bald cypress and willows shaded us. We were also
lucky, because the Ohoopee drops about a foot per mile so flood stage
on this river ain’t like flood on Chattooga.

We
probably would have gone even if it hadn’t rained like stink, because
the Ohoopee can be run as low as 200 cfs. At low levels, it will be
very constricted and you will have to portage deadfalls. On the other
hand, you’ll be meandering through numerous gigantic sandbars, which
provide outstanding locations for camping and picnicking. In other
words, the Ohoopee can be run for most of the year, is in many ways
as unique as the Okefenokee, and constitutes a mandatory trip for
southeastern paddlers.

The
Ohoopee can be experienced any way you like it, from a five-day
expedition starting at the top and taking out at the Altamaha or as
multiple day trips. Barb and the Hawk went on our own and did it our
traditional way, paddling upstream and floating back to the put-in.
We paddled three quite different sections. A local outfitter
(Ronnie@canoecanoe.com) (912.526.8222) will run shuttle and will
guide multi-day trips. Seriously consider contacting him because he
is one of the most knowledgeable naturalists I have paddled with. On
this trip, we based out of Vidalia and all the accesses we used were
reached by driving east on 280 to Lyon and then taking either 152,
292, or 280 east to where they crossed the river.

Fourth
of July — Hwy 152 bridge north to the intersection of Emanuel,
Candler, Toombs, and Tattnall counties. This is considered close to
the upper section and this intimate small meandering river running
through a canopied tunnel of bald cypress, willow, pond cypress,
swamp black gum, Ogeechee lime, ash, red maple, water oak and sweet
bay immediately enchanted us. Numerous sandbars lined the banks even
at flood and I can only imagine what this part must be like at low
water. Civilization and people were rare for the first couple of
miles, but as we neared the County Road 255 Bridge and Hwy 1, we
began to encounter houses and people.

Getting
to this part of the river is easy if you are based in South Georgia. From Vidalia, just
head east toward Lyon. Take 152 east out of Lyon and drive for 10
minutes or so until you cross the river. You’ll find put-ins at
either end of the bridge. Both allow you to drive right to the
shore.

July
5 — GA 292 bridge north to Sand Hill Creek. This part of the river
is considerably more settled but supports long undeveloped stretches.
The river is wider and lacks the intimate quality of the upper
sections. However, about two miles upstream from the Hwy 292 bridge
you encounter some major meanders and a large beach on river left
that on weekends is densely inhabited by the last remnants of
Georgia’s pioneering Crackers (AKA rednecks).

We
encountered lots of local boaters on this section and had a great
time visiting with them. Some were in canoes, kayaks and johnboats. They were all friendly, courteous, helpful, and truly loved the river
and outdoors. In addition to its size, this section had the most
sandbars with beaucoup areas for camping. It also had numerous
sloughs, which were readily accessible because the river was at
flood. We made it all the way to Sand Hill Creek and navigated half a
mile or so up towards Sand Hill Lake.

Getting
to this put-in is just as easy as the previous section. Drive east to
Lyon and, rather than taking 152 east, take Georgia 292 until you
cross the river. We were encouraged when we saw a paved access road
just before the bridge, but it is blocked (as is an equally good
paved access road at the other end of the bridge). Apparently, the
county has decided that locals (AKA the resident taxpayers) shouldn’t
use the river and reasoned that if the roads were blocked their
constituents couldn’t get to the river.

However,
being typical unimaginative bureaucrats, they did not anticipate
local ingenuity and resident boaters have constructed a dirt road at
the north east end of the bridge that cuts back to the river. It
requires four-wheel drive, leads right to the bank, and allows
parking under the bridge. If you don’t have a jeep, just park on the
roadside and carry down to the river on one of the paved access
roads.

July
6 — US 280 bridge north to Pendleton Creek. Many feeder creeks have
joined the Ohoopee by this point and it’s 60 to 80 feet wide. This
was the most scenic and interesting part of the river for us. This
portion is sparsely inhabited and at flood it was over the top of the
dike, which made all of the bordering sloughs and hardwood swamps
accessible. Even better, as the river percolated over and through the
banks it provided shortcuts directly through the many oxbows. It
actually became slightly difficult to figure out the true location of
the main channel. I don’t have a clue what it would be like at normal
or low flows. We made it to the intersection of Pendelton Creek, a
must do experience. At least it’s must-do at flood, but Pendelton
would be really tight at the usual July levels.

The
dunes. The Ohoopee is one of the most exotic and beautiful rivers we
have paddled in Georgia, in part because it’s a black water river
that runs through an ancient system of sand dune ridges that were
laid down during the Pleistocene when the area was coast. These
aren’t your usual coastal sand dunes but rather reflect what happens
to dunes when they sit around for 20,000 years and the coast moves 80
miles out. Erosion of the dunes accounts for the numerous large
sandbars (AKA campsites) found in all sections of the river. The
major and best-known Ohoopee dune ridge ecosystem surrounds the
Little Ohoopee, north of I-16. However, the sand hill ecosystem
intermittently borders the Ohoopee for most of its length and
periodically pokes through the dense oak/cypress forest on the parts
we paddled.

Interestingly,
sand ridges only occur on the northeastern borders of the river
(because that’s were the coast was). Dunes soil lacks nutrients and
moisture, so it provides a desert-like environment with relatively
stunted vegetation interspersed in the more dense vegetation that
borders most of the river. Dunes vegetation is primarily dwarf
oak/evergreen/shrub forest. The most common trees are dwarf live
oaks, turkey oak and impressive longleaf pine. Shrubbery includes
sand hill rosemary, red basil, shrub goldenrod, and joint weed. If
you look carefully and are lucky, you may find Ohoopee Dunes Savory,
a shrub that smells like basil and is found only in the Ohoopee
dunes.

If
you get into the dunes, look carefully for sand hilladapted animals
(i.e., burrowers). Several endangered or threatened species live in
the dunes. The most famous resident is the endangered gopher
tortoise. However, the threatened huge black Eastern Indigo snake is
found only in the dunes and if you’re lucky, you may sight the
endangered red cockaded woodpecker.

How
to get there. First, since you’re going to spend about four hours
driving to Vidalia or its environs and a successful run on the
Ohoopee is dependent on rainfall, check the gauge (Ohoopee River near
Reidsville). Then depending on whether you’re going to do multiple
day trips or mount a multi-day expedition, either drive to Vidalia
and get a hotel or just go to the put-in and start paddling. This
article describes day trips based out of Vidalia so get a road map,
drive to Vidalia and check in. Then drive on the only road east out
of Vidalia to Lyon and take the appropriate highway to the
appropriate put-in/take-out and paddle.

by William “The Hawk” Reeves
From The Eddy Line, September 2003