Story and photos by Bobby L. Hickman
“Where is everyone?” I asked our guide, Scott Taylor.
We’re two hours into a seven-mile paddle down the Altamaha River in south central Georgia on a clear August weekend morning, and we’ve only seen two bass boats.
“Seems a little crowded to me,” Scott finally answers. “Most days I don’t see anyone else but me and my party. And that’s the way I like it.”
Welcome to the Altamaha, one of the last unspoiled river basins in the country. Formed near Lumber City by the confluence of the Ocmulgee and Oconee, the Altamaha (later joined by the Ohoopee) flows freely through woodlands, marshes and preserves. There are no dams on the Altamaha, a few farming communities but no cities or towns. In fact, only two railroad lines and six highways cross 137 miles of river. The longest river within Georgia, the Altamaha winds through 10 counties before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean near Darien.
And the vast majority of the Altamaha is just like this section in Montgomery County – quiet, calm and secluded, giving a rare glimpse of pristine southeastern countryside. Small wonder the Altamaha has been named one of the Nature Conservancy’s “75 Last Great Places on Earth.”
A few years ago, Taylor (a technical writer who creates training documents for the Georgia state government) started his canoe outfitting business, Three Rivers Expeditions. He’s the only outfitter on this stretch of “Georgia’s Little Amazon” near Vidalia in Toombs and Montgomery counties. While he’s worked with hard-core canoeists taking two-week trips down the full length of the river, many of his clients are like our group – beginners to intermediate paddlers who want to spend a few hours relaxing in a peaceful float, enjoying nature. Taylor wants to build his business to bring more nature lovers to the Altamaha, but he’s keenly aware that too much growth would threaten the pristine beauty of the natural surroundings.
The morning’s misty fog has burned off, leaving our group sweating in the uncovered sun. It takes us three hours to cover the course – partly due to low rainfall and a slow river speed, but mostly because our group is in no particular hurry to reach our destination. Mullet are jumping in the brown water; osprey circle overhead; and birds call from the trees along the riverbank. It’s easy to drift back in time when this lazy river was a busy shipping route for goods from plantations, or to the days when the Yemassee Indians hunted this area. But none of those activities left permanent scars here, and the entire river shows few signs of human contact.
Taylor says the river’s looks can be deceiving: there are rapid currents in some places and spots as deep as 100 feet. The Altamaha dumps more than 100,000 gallons into the Atlantic each second, making it the ocean’s third largest source of fresh water in North America. Lives are lost here on occasion, Taylor said – sometimes due to floods but most often caused by carelessness among those who fail to respect the river’s power.
We meet one more fishing boat and a couple of kayakers, but as we near our exit point – Benton Lee’s Steakhouse in Uvalda – I’m once again aware of how few other people are enjoying this pristine river. Taylor reminds me again that’s why our group is here – to experience the Altamaha and to encourage others to do the same.
“Tell all your friends about us,” he says. “But don’t tell everybody – we don’t want to get TOO popular here.”
Three Rivers Expeditions
912.594.8379 (or through www.vidaliaarea.com)
Vidalia Area Convention and Visitors Bureau
100 Vidalia Sweet Onion Drive
Vidalia, Georgia 30474
Top photo: Guide Scott Taylor owns Three Rivers Expeditions and leads a group down the Altamaha River.