An expansive, deep fog hangs just above the dark waters of the Satilla River at Burnt Fort Landing, the watery divide between Charlton and Camden counties. Just below the bridge that crosses the river, paddlers carry their kayaks and canoes to the water’s edge, ready to launch into the mist. After a few strokes, they disappear, and soon, the ripples from their paddle strokes are all that remain.
It’s just past sunrise and folks are anxious to set off for the last leg of the 4th annual Spring on the Satilla paddle adventure. By the end of this two-day journey, the 100 or so participants will have traveled more than 20 miles down this blackwater gem in South Georgia. But before they can celebrate, they need to traverse the final seven miles from Burnt Fort Landing — where they ended the previous day’s 14-mile paddle — and make it back to the Satilla Lodge, base camp for the weekend.
The main concern on most minds this morning: the river’s direction. The Satilla is partially tidal, and the charts for today indicate the shift in direction will occur mid-morning. Early-risers will find less resistance once the massive waters begin to reverse course, but for those in the group who want to seine, collect water samples, or observe blooming azaleas along the riverbank, the tide promises to make the end of our journey an arduous one.
“The tide has a lot of people out on the river early this morning,” says Rena Peck Stricker, executive director of Georgia River Network, which organized the paddle with the Satilla Riverkeeper. Stricker stands at the launch site with a clipboard in hand, checking in each group of paddlers before they head into the mystic. This is her first event as executive director, taking the helm of the river conservation network a month prior to the April paddle. Her work along Georgia’s waterways is nothing new, though. She spent 17 years as a contract ecologist with Coca-Cola and nine years as a restoration ecologist for The Nature Conservancy; and served as director of Science and Development for the Georgia Land Trust, too.
Stricker is one of several conservationists taking part in Spring on the Satilla; another is Laura Early, executive director of Satilla Riverkeeper. “Partnering with Georgia River Network for this weekend trip introduces people from across Georgia and the Southeast to a wonderful natural resource: the Satilla River,” Early says. “Our mission is to protect, restore, and educate about the ecologically unique Satilla River, her tributaries, and the terrestrial watershed. We cannot do that without the support of people who love the river. Paddle trips are just one of the ways that we connect with the people that care about protecting the Satilla.”
Alongside the environmentalists are adventure seekers and outdoor enthusiasts that come from five neighboring states to join the trip this year. Dads and daughters share canoes; grandparents kayak alongside generations of their families. Julie Parsons, a student mentor with Camden County High School, brings along four high-school students, who shared a natural history presentation on Friday evening.
The age range of participants showcases one of the important aspects of the paddle weekend for Joe Cook, Paddle Georgia coordinator who has been navigating the waterways across the state for decades. “It’s for everyone,” he says as he guides his canoe into an eddy on the river’s edge as the tide begins to shift inland. “Some like to stop and seine. Some like to watch for birds. Some like the azaleas. It’s about enjoying the river and getting out and interacting with it.”
The Creek Nation first traversed the tannin-rich waters, using the 200 miles of the Satilla as a transportation route. Colonial settlers used the river, too. Burnt Fort Landing gets its name from a pre-Revolutionary fort believed to have been located on the site.
Nowadays, homes sit on bluffs above with trails that descend to docks allowing access to the darkened waters. Folks bring their kayaks, canoes, and small boats to the waterway; some setting up fish camps bank-side as the Satilla continues to be a popular river for catching redbreast sunfish. “Many people travel from all over to experience the beautiful blackwater, cypress and tupelo swamps, and the sugar sand bars,” Early says. As Satilla Riverkeeper, she will monitor bacteria levels at popular river and swimming access points in the summer, posting results to swimguide.org. Additional paddling resources are available at satillariverwatertrail.com.
Still, there are large stretches of the Satilla where human existence fades away, and nature takes over the wild landscape. Tannins — which contribute to the sweet-tea look of the water — stain the roots of tupelo and cypress forests that emerge from the water’s edge, revealing the range of depth that this tidal portion undergoes throughout the day.
As the fog lifts and the sun continues to rise, the river reveals its splendor. Native azaleas, cinnamon ferns, and coral honeysuckle dot the riverbank in a palette of pinks, reds, and oranges. Wisteria breaks through the lush palmetto fronds that recede into the tree canopy. Beneath the canoes and kayaks, 52 species of fish — including redbreast sunfish, catfish, and the rare banded topminnow — call the Satilla River basin home.
Above the waterline, the species of wild birds and animals are equally as abundant. Elaborate spiderwebs hang down from tree branches, catching the morning mist and some insects, too. A barn owl hoots just out of sight. “This time of year on the Satilla River is incredibly beautiful. It’s just as the weather is starting to warm; the trees are starting to leaf out in vibrant green; wildflowers are in bloom; and the swallow-tailed kites are returning to the area to nest,” Early says.
Halfway through the last day’s paddle, Anna Laws, executive director of the St. Marys Riverkeeper, points out a cormorant perched on a semi-submerged log in a bend in the river. Laws, who has studied the avians extensively, launches into a few descriptors about the aquatic fowl for nearby paddlers. For instance, cormorants are often mistaken as anhingas, but an easy way to tell the difference is by looking at the bill. If it’s hook-like or blunted, it’s a cormorant; anhingas have a sharp bill they use to stab fish.
It’s one of many science lessons that take place from the kayaks and canoes on the Satilla during the weekend. On the first day, Ed Zmarzly from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division talks with participants about an ongoing flathead catfish removal program. “Flathead catfish are an invasive species on the Satilla River, and they prey upon the prized redbreast sunfish and other pan fish. The Satilla Riverkeeper helped advocate for funding for DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division Fisheries team from Waycross to put significant resources toward limiting the flathead catfish’s expansion in the Satilla,” explains Early.
Georgia Adopt-A-Stream’s state coordinator Seira Baker hosts a training session during the paddle for eight participants, including the four high schoolers, who are now citizen scientists capable of monitoring chemical and bacterial water quality parameters on their own waterways across the state when they return home from the paddle weekend. Many paddlers pass Baker as she pauses her canoe in different sections of the Satilla, collecting water samples and recording data. “These yearly data sets help give us a picture of the water quality in the Satilla, and we are actually able to use the data to support the work we do,” Early explains. “For example, we are currently requesting that Environmental Protection Division [of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources] upgrade the designated use of the Satilla River in order to protect water quality for recreational activities including kayaking, canoeing, and swimming. This data helps support the fact that the water quality supports these recreational uses.”
Recreation doesn’t simply describe how the Satilla is used; it’s a technical classification that could change how much protection of the river can be done. “Currently, we are working to upgrade the designated use of the Satilla River to recreation in order to protect the Satilla River for its actual uses including swimming, wading, and kayaking. Much of the Satilla River is designated as fishing, which is less protective than recreation,” Early explains.
Paddle adventures like this annual Spring on the Satilla showcase to Georgians why the work is necessary, Early says. “Our vision is for a Satilla River, its tributaries, and its terrestrial watershed that support healthy fisheries, safe swimming, diverse wildlife populations, superb recreational opportunities, a stable water supply, and sustainable human economic activity throughout the basin,” she says. “In the environmental community, collaborations are key. Rarely do you achieve positive impacts without working together and sharing strengths and expertise.”
The watchdog group will host an annual riverwide cleanup on September 21, something they have been doing since 2014. So far, the cleanups have led to the removal of more than 16,000 pounds of trash from the river. Last year alone, the 70 volunteers involved pulled 1,132 plastic beverage bottles from the Satilla. “Essentially, we are the eyes and ears of the watershed. We look out for pollution issues on the river, and when we find concerns, we work to correct the issues. At the same time, we are building a strong network of river advocates that can stand up and speak up for the protection of the river they love,” Early says.
As a group of paddlers near the take-out point at Satilla Lodge towards the end of the second day, Early spots a swallow-tailed kite fly out of the tree, pointing it out to those nearby. Another kite flies to it, and they soar around each other. Then, a third joins, followed by a fourth. “They dipped, dodged, and circled each other keeping an air of grace and ease, and after a few minutes, they went their separate ways,” she says.
It’s an apt metaphor for the beauty and connection sought by the paddlers throughout the weekend before they return home.
By the end of their journey, they know each other — and many plant and animal species that populate the Satilla — by name. There is a feeling of accomplishment as folks finish the route, pulling their kayaks and canoes out of the brownish waters past the banks of the Satilla Lodge. They laugh, take pictures, and promise to keep in touch with each other as they pack up their tents and camping gear and load up their trucks and SUVs. While those who had to fight the tide may be a bit sore in the following days, the memories of seeing cormorants eating, swallow-tailed kites soaring, and bright azaleas blooming will last far longer.