12 in 12 Paddle Number 3: Cathead Creek

Cathead Creek is a tributary of the mighty Altamaha River. It drains part of Buffalo Swamp, a tidal forest containing bald cypress, sweet black gum, and water tupelo.  The put-in is on Cox Road off of Hwy 251, where Liz and I met Gerry, Phil and Jay on a sunny and windy Saturday morning for the paddle to Darien.

We had the outgoing tide as we launched into Cathead Creek, which lead us through an undeveloped section of Mclntosh County.

The area was a center of rice production for more than 100 years. Rice canals are still visible and in some cases still navigable – we took a side trip down one of them.

Spring was in evidence everywhere, with cascading Cherokee Rose (Rosa laevigata, the state flower of Georgia, despite being non-native) peeking out from newly-leafed out trees.

Gerry saw a bald eagle, and then about 30 minutes later, sharp-eyed Liz spotted the nest. We got close enough to see movement inside and hear the calls of hungry fledglings.

There were no places to stop along the way until we found a small campsite near the I-95 crossing. After several hours of paddling against the wind, it was a welcome respite.

Liz gave us a brief history of Darien’s boom and bust cycles. Established in 1735 as a military outpost to protect Savannah, Darien was settled by a group of Highland Scots under the order of General Oglethorpe.

From the early 1800’s through the early 1900’s Darien was a center of commercial strength, handling exports (and banking) for cotton, sugar cane,  and rice. South Georgia was heavily forested and at one point Darien was the leading center of timber exportation on the South Atlantic Coast. (The results of this over-cutting led to the practical extinction of the longleaf pine, the story of which is part of Janisse Ray’s wonderful book Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.)

Darien’s economy remains tied to the water; it was a center for oyster cultivation and continues to supply restaurants across the southeast with Wild Georgia Shrimp. As we paddled into Darien, the first thing we saw was shrimp boat rigging.

After ten miles of windy water, we were glad to see our destination.  Paddle number three!

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12 in 12 Paddle Number Two: Canoochee River

Liz and I were inspired to take this trip by (and with) Georgia river fan Gerry Cowart. Most in Savannah are familiar with the Ogeechee, but how many know it’s cousin, the Canoochee? We were off to find out.

Pre-dawn start Canoochee 12 in 12

The Canoochee River is formed by the merging of Canoochee Creek and Taylor’s Creek near Swainsboro, Ga in Emanuel County. It flows some 85 miles until it meets the Ogeechee River just north of I-95.  The merged rivers continue east to the Atlantic as the Ogeechee. We launched from King’s Ferry (just off Hwy 17)  at the break of dawn on Saturday, Feb 4.  We got an early start in order to take advantage of the incoming tide for our upriver trip, planning to use the outgoing tide on our way home.

Canochee 12 in 12We launched onto the Ogeechee and paddled under Hwy 17 and the thunderous I-95. In about a mile, we came to where Canoochee empties into the Ogeechee. We headed north and soon entered the Fort Stewart Military Reservation, which the river divides.


Liz and I were quickly distracted by the old rice canals and huge grasses beginning to catch the peekaboo morning sun.  The grasses (Zizaniopsis miliacea, Giant Cutgrass or Southern Wild Rice, a dominant grass in the freshwater tidal area) are over 6 feet tall, and line much of the banks.  Gerry wisely advised us to take advantage of the incoming tide and get as much upstream distance as possible – then dawdle/explore on the way back.


Gerry saw a buck swim across the river (mostly tail and antlers visible). We saw kingfishers, osprey, buzzards, a heron, and some wood ducks.  We took advantage of a creek cut-through to get up close and personal with the river banks.  A smell like wet grass and growing things hung in the air – it turned out to be the bank mud, which had a lighter, brighter smell than the pluff mud we paddle by so often on the coast.

Canoochee Creek

We saw sycamore, cypress, river birch, maple, gum, and plenty of Ogeechee-Lime (Nyssa ogeche). As we got further upriver, the water became less tea-colored and clearer, and we saw more stands of pine and palms.

Pine and Palm Canoochee 6

We stopped at a couple of different landings where the signs had been helpfully ventilated.

Landings Canoochee

lunch on the canoochee

Tea on the Canoochee

The main archeological evidence of human occupation along the Canoochee prior to the 1700’s is an important prehistoric Native American site known as the Lewis Mound.  Pottery from the site just east of Fort Stewart – believed to be a burial ground – dates as early as 2200-1700 BC, with extended settlement  from 1000 to 1500 AD.

Canoochee 1740When General Oglethorpe established the city of Savannah in 1733, part of its function was to act as a buffer between the rich Carolinas to the north and the Spanish to the south.  He established Fort Argyle on the West bank of the Ogeechee near the Canoochee.  The fort was abandoned and resurrected several times until 1767 when it was abandoned for the last time.

In modern times, the river became highly polluted due to runoff from the Claxton Poultry plant. In 2001 three sisters from Claxton – Linda Smith, Claudelle Smith Moinar and Sylvia Smith Reynolds – had had enough of the toxic green swamp that the river they grew up on had become. The sisters successfully sued the Claxton Poultry plant under the Clean Water Act, part of the settlement dictating that the company set aside money to establish a riverkeeper organization. Around this same time, four men from Louisville, GA (nicknamed the “sludge brothers”) started fighting to keep the Ogeechee River free of waste that was contaminating ground water. Their organization became known as the Friends of the Ogeechee River.  The two organizations merged in 2005 to form the Ogeechee Riverkeeper Organization.

Although the pollution is gone and the wildlife plentiful, there is a great deal of evidence of current human occupation. We picked up lots of trash, Gerry filling his entire day hatch with what we charitably called jetsam. (Look it up. We did.)

Canoochee trash

We paddled back on an outgoing tide, but the wind had picked up enough to make it hard work. We stopped to document a few more unknown plants, which were again kindly identified by John Crawford of UGA.

This bamboo-like plant is Arundinaria gigantea which John calls “‘switch cane’, a name well deserved from my coastal Georgia childhood.” It is sometimes called ‘giant cane’ or ‘wild cane.’

Canoochee cane

We kept seeing a bright green hanging plant that was not Spanish moss. John identified it for us as a hanging lichen in the Genus Usnea, called ‘Old Man’s Beard’.

Canoochee beard

We spent 7 hours on the river, covering 14-15 miles of Georgia river.

Canoochee two

Mary and Liz

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12 in 12 Paddle Number One: Ebenezer Creek

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

Liz and I were joined on this adventure by Dan, Gerry, and Jay.  We had planned to put in at Long Bridge landing and shuttle to a take-out where the creek feeds into the Savannah River. Gerry was first at the put in, he let us all know that Ebenezer was too low to paddle at that point. The level of the creek varies according to drought conditions (which are severe at this time).  High water periodically flows into the creek from the Savannah River if upriver dams have opened to release water.  Periods of rain will cause the creek level to rise accordingly.

Ebenezer put in

We readjusted and met up at the Ebenezer boat landing on the Savannah River.  The day had been forecast to warm to 70 degrees after morning fog and drizzle, but the temp hovered in the mid-50’s with a strong enough breeze toencourage us to wear all the layers we had.

We paddled upriver (with the tide) into grey, mysterious, and otherworldly surroundings. The river is a habitat for cypress trees (Taxodium distichum), as well as large stands of water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica). Partly due to this rare natural environment, Ebenezer is one of only 4 waterways designated as a Georgia scenic river and is a National Natural Landmark.

The cypress turn the water to a deep tea brown (also known as blackwater). With the historically low water levels, giant cypress “knees” were visible all along the creek.


We saw beaver sign and pileated woodpecker sign (below).

Ebenezer paddle

We paddled up into a side creek, encountering a thick mat of a floating aquatic plant which we later learned (courtesy John Crawford of UGA) was mosquito fern (Azolla caroliniana). It is sometimes called ‘water velvet’, and it was certainly like paddling over a soft, floating blanket.

Ebenezer 12 in 12

The area was home to the Creek Indians before the German Salzburgers developed their first settlement in 1733, seeking freedom to live according to their religious beliefs. After several years of disease and struggle, the Salzburgers moved down creek to establish New Ebenezer on higher ground at the Savannah River confluence.

The new community prospered until the Revolutionary war, when it was mostly destroyed.  The only building left standing was their church, which is now noted as being the oldest public building still standing in the state of Georgia.  This area  is now a historical landmark and open for visitation.

A hundred years later, the creek was the site of a tragic civil war incident when freed slaves seeking protection followed the army of Union General Jefferson C. Davis to the creek. When the Confederate cavalry closed in on the opposite bank, panic set in and hundreds (or possibly thousands) of the freed slaves became trapped between the opposing armies and perished. Now all that is visible from the civil war history are railroad pilings that still stand in the swamp.


We stopped at a public boat ramp for lunch and to admire Liz’s singular parking ability (top).


We went through several stands of swamp tupelo, which Gerry helped us identify by the twisted trunk.


The palette of grey and brown was broken up by brilliant pink, identified for us by Steve Braden of Savannah Canoe and Kayak as red maple, Acer rubrum.

red maple, Acer rubrum

We estimated that we paddled 8-10 miles in our up and back trip. The section of the river from Long Bridge Landing (Long Bridge Road off of Hwy 275) to the Savannah River is just a little over 10 miles. There is parking available for a nominal fee ($10.00 at present) at the Ebenezer Boat Landing at the Savannah River. You will have to arrange for your own shuttle if you plan on a one-way trip. If the water level is too low to put in from this launch site, there are 2 other sites available to launch from off of Wylly Road and Highbluff Road.


A tip of the hat to A Canoeing and Kayaking Guide to Georgia, a great resource for Georgia paddlers that provided us with ramp locations, history, and other background information for our trip. See you next time!

Mary and Liz

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12 Georgia Rivers in 2012

Greetings from two friends who have decided to accept the challenge from the Georgia River Network to paddle 12 Georgia Rivers in 2012.  We are both avid sea kayakers, but have not spent a lot of time on fresh water. This blog will document our explorations this year.

We have planned our first paddle for Sunday, January 22nd on Ebenezer Creek.  The water level is very low, but should be passable. We should have a group of about 6 intrepid paddlers on this trip – more to follow soon!

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