In today’s economy, who doesn’t have a high pressure job? What was considered exceptional performance in good times and the wows of last year do not guarantee job security for today. Everyone needs the occasional escape from the pressure cooker. Some find it on the golf course, some in the gym and others in some not-so-wholesome activities. My decompression comes from canoeing down a secluded stretch of South Georgia River.
Arriving at the boat ramp, I step out of my pickup and immediately I am engulfed by a suffocating blanket of heat and humidity. On most days, relief can be expected in the form of a late afternoon or evening thunderstorm. Today seems to be an exception. Sweat darkens the Columbia shirt where it touches and clings to my body as I slide the canoe out of the back of the truck and load fishing gear and an ice chest.
The water level is low. This means I’ll most certainly have the river to myself. When the water is up, boaters are able to motor the entire length of the river. But now, even I will have to get out and pull the canoe through the shallow water of some of the shoals.
The river’s tannin-stained water runs slow and brooding as I launch my canoe. I start paddling down-river and the anxiety of everyday life begins to lift. It’s like dew burning off a summer morning or maybe I’m sweating my worries away. I know by the time I reach the take-out point tonight, I’ll have a brighter outlook on life.
Lining the river are majestic bald cypress trees with their broad trunks and fortress-like knees along with Ogeechee Lime trees whose gnarled and knotted roots misshapen by injuries from flood borne debris look like something a hobbit might live in. The Ogeechee Lime, a cousin of the Tupelo tree, have fruit on them that remind me of bread and butter pickles. Nothing I know of eats them and in the late fall it will look like a pickle truck lost its load in the river. Live oak, water oak, and birch also line the banks. It is not unusual to see the earth washed away from tree roots and it appears some of them are standing on their tippy toes, just a matter of time before they topple into the river.
I hear the plaintive calls of a red shouldered hawk as it glides across the river. It is so hot nothing much stirs, but still I hear several species of birds in the forest. I recognize the clear “what cheer, whoit, whoit, whoit” of a cardinal and the “pretty day, pretty day, pretty day” of a Carolina wren. Standing sentinel on a log that leans into the river is a great blue heron. As I come around a bend several white ibis fly up, startling me with a nasal “quah, quah!”. Before the day is out I’ll see wood ducks, turkeys, little blue herons, great egrets and a pair of swallowed tailed kites. I will also see mourning doves, turkey vultures, blue jays, white-eyed vireos and a pileated woodpecker.
I don’t begin to fish until I reach the shoals. I cast a beetle spin hard against roots and trees that have been washed into the river. Small bream tap at the lure and larger ones half-heartedly bump it. I catch the occasional small bluegill, nothing big enough to keep. My plan is to fish until I have an evening meal.
When the water is down like it is today, limestone outcroppings and rocks that line the river’s bottom are clearly visible. Some of the rocks are chert, which original inhabitants of the region used to make arrowheads and other implements. A few years back I met a couple of geologists on the river collecting samples of fossilized sea fans. They told me the area was once a shallow sea covered with coral. At some point a volcano covered the sea with ash and the hollowed out areas left by the sea fans were filled with silica that formed the chert the Indians used to make arrowheads. Some of the sea fans did not fill up completely and there are hollowed out otoliths inside them. When a close friend’s brother-in-law, who is an avid flint knapper, found out about the chert on the Withlacoochee, he had to check it out. Twenty minutes after putting the canoe in the water we had collected enough chert to sink it.
It’s an hour before I catch a keeper-size bream. It’s too hot for fish to bite much. About 4 o’clock I see cumulous clouds to the west begin to pile up and billow toward the stratosphere. But there is too much of a breeze and the sky is too blue. It doesn’t feel right for a thunderstorm regardless of the heat and humidity.
I don’t know if the fish sense the struggling storm to be or if it’s just the deep pocket of water tucked in the shoals, but I begin to catch fish. In a 50-yard stretch of water I catch several platter-size redbreast and bluegills along with three, pound-and-a-half Suwannee bass.
There are long, slow stretches of water where long-nose gar break the surface of the water to gulp air. Some are better than a yard long. They will readily take a dead bait, but are notoriously hard to hook and their scales form an armor coating that make them almost impossible to skin. Because of this, hardly anyone knows how good they are to eat. The first time I attempted to clean one I didn’t think it could possibly be worthwhile until I tasted the flaky, delectable flesh. However, regardless of how good they taste, skinning a gar is like being in boot camp. It’s worth it once, but you don’t want to do it again.
The fish don’t bite well in the long, slow pools. They seem congregated in the shoals. There are a lot of minnows in the swift, shallow water and I think that is what they must be feeding on. I begin to paddle past many fishy-looking areas in the big pools to concentrate on the faster moving water. It pays off. As the shadows begin to lengthen I have enough fish for two meals. I have miles yet to go so I quit fishing and just paddle. A big buck in velvet comes to the edge of the water for a drink. Some of the biggest racks from South Georgia come from this area because of the limestone in the soil. The other reason is that the original deer of the area were hunted out and the area restocked with a larger northern strain from Wisconsin. Twice I flush flocks of turkeys from their roosts overhanging the river. Perhaps because I am moving I am not bothered by mosquitoes. As light fades and the water becomes harder to read, I scrape rocks and limbs just below the surface. I hear a huge splash and see a wake and trail of bubbles from a startled alligator. There is just enough mystery in the fading light to add ambience to the day.
I smile as I think about the gators and snakes that help keep the river secluded. I’ve seen very few gators along this stretch of river and never one over five feet long. If they are here, they stay hidden. Snakes are another matter. Today I’ve seen several snakes slide off piled-up brush. Most of them are banded water snakes, brown water snakes or green water snakes. Earlier, while retrieving my beetle spin I came within several feet of a big snake coiled between the limbs. I wasn’t curious enough to spend the time to see if he was a harmless variety or a big fat moccasin. You hear stories all the time of how aggressive water moccasins are. The truth is, they are not aggressive at all but will stand their ground displaying a gaping white mouth (hence the nickname cotton mouth) as a deterrent to predators. Believe me, it works.
I reach the take-out point and drag my canoe, with all its contents, 75 yards and then up a steep incline to where my wife will pick me up. By the time I reach the road, I’m so drenched with sweat my wife thinks I had taken a swim. I’m exhausted, but exhilarated.
The trouble and anxiety of life seem far away. It’s almost as if they belong to someone I read about in a book. Life is good again. And even though it was hot and my shoulders ache from so much paddling, I feel good about the day. I didn’t just catch dinner; after 10 miles on the river, I earned it. And though I’m dead tired and think I have had enough of the river to get it out of my system for a while, I know by week’s end, I’ll have an irresistible urge to be on the river again.