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Day four down the Altamaha was predictably terrific. We swam, we laughed, we lounged, we paddled, we ambushed trip leader Joe Cook’s canoe with a perfectly planned and executed water cannon sneak attack. We look at the daily map less and less, no longer so concerned with how far it is to the take-out.

But we go to bed tonight with a bit of worry about tomorrow. For starters, the daily mileage takes a big jump upward—we’re looking at a 22 mile day. That in itself isn’t a big deal (today’s fifteen miles was almost casual), but sadly we won’t be paddling the same river: two miles below tomorrow’s put-in, this beautiful river becomes a sewer, accepting 50 million gallons a day of wastewater from the Rayonier Pulp Mill in Jesup.

According to Joe and others who have run this stretch before, this effluent has to be seen (and smelled) to be believed—”it will seriously make you gag” is the common refrain—and the river doesn’t start to feel clean again for some twenty miles or so downstream. Last year, the Georgia Water Coalition ranked the Altamaha as #2 on its Dirty Dozen list of the most polluted or impacted Georgia rivers (topped only by 33,000 fish being killed after a spill last May on the nearby Ogeechee.). Take a look at these aerial photos from Riverkeeper James Holland to get a visual sense of just how bad the problem is:

I’m struck most by the “two miles upstream” and “two miles downstream” images right around the 2:00 mark. I don’t expect anyone will be swimming or engaging in water cannon wars tomorrow.

But then again, we’re not sure what to expect. Paddle Georgia’s route down the Altamaha has predictably turned up the pressure on this issue, and I imagine the folks at Rayonier are a little nervous to have some 350 river lovers getting a first-hand experience of their waste stream. Evidently we may have some television cameras coming with us tomorrow, and the general expectation is that Rayonier will find a way to take a one-day hiatus from fouling the river. What will we find? Will we still be able to see this river the same way in the days to come?

I have to mention that the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce has been wonderfully welcoming to all of the Paddle Georgia participants. Here at base camp they’ve got a hospitality tent set up, along with a big inflatable water slide/plunge pool combo that the boys have absolutely worn out.  At the last two take-outs, volunteers have helped us haul our boats away from the water, and today they gave out snacks and ice-cold water in reusable commemorative bottles as we came off the river. Rayonier, they have made sure to tell us, has been the chief sponsor of their hospitality efforts. It has made for an interesting dynamic. Will has really been wowed by these efforts, but Andrew evidently has a more cynical bent: “They’re trying to make us feel better about this smell,” he said this afternoon (we took out only about a mile from the mill). I guess I agree with both of them.

Joe Cook reminded us all after dinner tonight that the raison d’être for Paddle Georgia—beyond just having a good time—is to educate us about our rivers. Tomorrow will certainly be educational.

Flatwater paddling a river like the Altamaha is a quiet, reflective endeavor. There’s zero adrenaline involved, the scenery changes slowly, and the physical action is mostly mindless and repetitive. Occasionally I’ll get a little antsy, especially when I’m feeling saddle sore after a few hours of sitting. So I’ll admit that I’m surprised the boys handle the routine so well. Put them in the backseat of a car together for an hours’ drive and they’re either begging to play with my iPhone or bickering with each other. But we’ve been in the same small boat together for something like fifteen hours over the past three days, and I have yet to hear either of them complain about being bored. Bickering has been at a blissful minimum.

So we were talking about it today, and we started to come up with a list of reasons why, a list of things that never get old. Here’s what we have so far:

  • Drifting up silently on wading birds and watching them do their thing from close range.
  • Floating effortlessly downstream to the end of a sandbar with the extra buoyancy of a PFD, then getting up, walking to the upstream end, and doing it again.
  • Sitting in the water and feeling tiny fish nibble at your toes. (What are they hoping for, anyway?)
  • Water cannon attacks, preferably by surprise or misdirection.
  • Cypress trees and cypress knees.
  • Fish jumping (of any size)
  • The way the sweet-tea-colored water of tributary streams runs side by side with the muddy main flow of the Altamaha for a hundred yards or so before blending in.
  • Hearing the abusing-a-squeaky-toy cry of a Red-Shouldered hawk (a lot of them today).
  • Feeling around on the clean, sandy river bottom and coming up with a baseball-sized Elephant-Ear Mussel.

This morning, we packed our gear and loaded it on a truck before heading to the river and said goodbye to Tatnall County High School. This afternoon’s shuttle reunited us with our bags at Wayne County High School in Jesup, home for the next three nights (and a really nice school building, I must say). As promised, here’s some (mostly) raw video shot over the past couple of days:

Great day today. I will confess that I grimaced inwardly when Will said “80 more miles to go” as we got into the boat this morning. But as with last year’s trip, day three is the day when the shoulders suddenly seem less sore, the sun less intense, the miles shorter. The distance still to run no longer seems a chore but an opportunity.

hitting the wall

I did not have fun today. Or rather, I had a lot of fun until about 2:00 this afternoon when I suddenly got a real clanger of a debilitating headache to deal with for the last three miles of our day’s paddle. One minute I’m lounging around in the water, watching the boys swim and engage in their 51st epic water cannon battle of the day, and the next I’m standing up and striding over to the canoe to pull it off the sandbar and wondering seriously if I’m going to make it before my skull implodes. Too much sun? Too little water? Possibly, except that I drank nearly a gallon today and almost as much yesterday. At any rate, after a spectacular most-of-the-day on the water, the last ninety minutes to the take-out were agony; I would have gladly traded my sunglasses for a welder’s helmet to cut down on the glare, and I tried paddling as much as possible with my eyes closed. The boys very graciously agreed not to engage our boat in any pirate action, even as we passed richly deserving targets (we still have scores to settle going back to last year’s trip).

I understand that a lot of participants struggle during the first days of Paddle Georgia; the simple fact is that most of us don’t live lifestyles that prepare us for the kind of prolonged exertion and exposure this trip deals out. Last year I was absolutely shattered after the first two days, and in fact the family who had been our “buddy boat” up until that point packed it in and went home.  This time around I’ve felt much more psychologically prepared—and have been enjoying myself a lot more—but I seem to have hit a physical wall anyway. Bummer.

The good news is—and I know this from last year’s experience—that it gets easier. Not easy, but a lot easier. The long mileage days at the end of the trip that I was dreading after two days on the water last year turned out to be no big deal at all. This year I’m confident of the same, though for starters I’m making darn sure I remember to put the ibuprofen in my dry bag before we head out tomorrow morning.

We’re moving basecamp tomorrow to another local high school further down river. Hopefully they’ll have internet access and I can keep posting over the next couple of days. And if YouTube isn’t blocked I’ll download and embed some video from the past two days, including some masterful pirate action from earlier today.

I know this river story has already been written. Over and over it has been told: an assemblage of people, usually men, load boats with food and fishing equipment and booze, and they step unsteadily into those boats and point their prows downstream. People see them off, and people are waiting for them at their destinations, and the people waiting will hear stories of what happened and witness the emotions on the faces of the adventurers, but those who were not transported by water will never know what really transpired.

—Janisse Ray, Drifting into Darien: A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River

I’ve been well out of the blogging habit for months now (as is my habit during the high school soccer season), but I made the 11th hour decision to drag the laptop along again this year as the boys and I participate in the 2012 iteration of Paddle Georgia. Maybe this time I’ll do a better job of posting along the way. (At this point last year, the end of first day of Paddle Georgia 2011, I was so completely worn out that I climbed right into my sleeping bag after dinner, so I’m already ahead of the curve.)

Anyway, we’ve had a great first day, settling into the flow of this trip like we had never reached the 2011 takeout and were still heading downstream. Literally within minutes of arriving last night at base camp, the boys had already reconnected with some of last summer’s river friends.

Geographically speaking, we are, in essence, picking up where we left off. A short way below last year’s take-out in Dublin, the Oconee merges with the Ocmulgee to form the Altamaha River, also known as the “Little Amazon” for its sizeable flow, its largely undeveloped corridor of swampland forests, and its surpassing biodiversity. We’ll be paddling most of the length of the Altamaha, starting just below the Oconee/Ocmulgee confluence and ending in the salt marshes at the head of the estuary in Darien—105 miles over the course of seven days.

Quick hits from Day One:

  • The Altamaha is much bigger river than what we paddled last year (blindingly obvious given that we’re further downstream). Wider, stronger (even at relatively low flow), majestic rather than intimate. At times very windy—for a short while before lunch, we had to plow through ripples that were uniting into small swells. Surely at some time in my life, somewhere, I have paddled with the wind at my back, but I can’t think of when that might have been.
  • Don’t get me wrong, I am not in any way complaining about the weather. I was prepared for late June in South Georgia to make the average sauna feel tepid by comparison, but we’ve had real Chamber of Commerce weather—a high in the mid 80’s relatively low humidity, a nice breeze. That said . . .
  • Gnats are gnot gnice. Thankfully, they’re nonexistent on the water, and they’re far more tolerable than mosquitoes, but still.
  • How can you tell a South Georgian from someone from metro Atlanta? Stand at the boat landing and look for people waving their arms around in annoyance as they wait for a shuttle bus . . . those are the Atlantans. A South Georgian will merely stick his bottom lip out slightly and blow a little puff of air upward on occasion to clear away those gnasty gnats, even in mid sentence, and not miss a beat (hat tip to April Ingle for this observation).
  • There is nothing more relaxing than floating on your back in a warm, slow moving river while wearing a PFD. I could nap like that. Effortless. I’m tempted to take my PFD and look like a total dork next time I have to take the boys to the pool.
  • Will and Andrew are actually paddling this year, contributing to forward progress. Will likes to attack the water and try to beat it senseless with his paddle and actually creates more steering and steadying work for me in the back, but I applaud this development.
  • Good day for birds, particularly Mississippi Kite circling and soaring overhead by the dozens. But I wish I could identify insect sounds like I can bird song, as a fascinatingly varied and interesting wall of insect noise emanates from the forest on both banks at all times. Surely somewhere in this crowd there must be a naturalist with this skill set.

Okay, enough for now. I thought I’d share some raw video from today, but evidently Tatnall County High School (our home for the first three nights on this trip) has blocked YouTube access on its network. Bummer.

In my RSS reader this week, I got this uplifting story about current research in Antarctica: Sea Levels May Rise Faster Than Expected. Much of the story speculates on rather scary possibilities down the road and should be taken with a certain amount of skepticism, the degree of warming we might expect in the future being a question rife with uncertainties. Climatologists rely on computer modeling to predict future conditions, and, as skeptics like to assert, perhaps the climate change models are wrong.

But here’s the thing—as long as I’ve been following the climate change issue, scientists DO seem to consistently have gotten their predictions wrong, just not in ways that Fox News will be in a rush to tell you. Over the last several years, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read scientist comments like the one from NASA’s Robert Bindschlader in this particular article:

“It’s caught us all very much off guard,” says Bindschadler. “These are not the ice sheets that I was being taught when I was in graduate school. They are changing at magnitudes and at rates that were thought impossible just 15 years ago.”

Particularly where the poles are concerned, reports of current observable climate change routinely include words like “unexpected” and “unprecedented” and “underestimated.”

I dunno. I’ve written before about the difficulty, as a non-scientist, of separating signal from noise when it comes to a complex, contentious issue like climate change. I think the tendency among many people, myself included, is to assume “the truth is somewhere in the middle” when faced with competing narratives about a given issue. When we hear about uncertainties in climate predictions, it’s comforting (and easier) to think that maybe things won’t be as bad as climate scientists project. The scientists could be wrong.

But it’s important to remember that underestimation could be just as likely as overestimation when it comes to future climate change predictions. Yes, the models might be wrong, so scientists test them by documenting observable changes over time. What’s happening now matters, and we need to pay attention.

For that matter, what has happened in the past matters, too. This detail from the PRI article was news to me:

Scientists like Wanless are studying sediments from past warming periods to find clues as to how quickly sea levels changed. And what they’ve found is the stuff of Hollywood movies—rapid pulses in the 20-foot range, and on a time scale that could be not centuries, but decades.

I honestly don’t know what to do with this information. Am I being alarmist for highlighting it? What do we do when the science is alarming? I’ve always liked the analogy about humankind and the climate that we’re poking a sleeping tiger with a stick, unsure of exactly what it will do. Well, I’m a wee bit alarmed to find what this tiger has done upon waking in the past.

I’ll be in New Orleans this weekend, trying hard not to think about these things (especially there).

For the past year and a half, my oldest son has kept two African Dwarf Frogs as pets in a water-filled plastic cube about the size of a softball perched on his bedside table. I hadn’t paid them much notice at all, each being about the size of my thumbnail and only marginally more interesting, given their habit of sitting motionless for hours at a time. But this morning “Charlie” was alternating between floating listlessly on his back and making feeble attempts to get to the surface for air. While my son sobbed inconsolably, I lifted the frog to the surface with a fingertip where he gulped in a breath before sinking back down to lie around on his back some more. Clearly the end was nigh.

I hope that I was sufficiently comforting to my son in his moment of distress, but my first thought was “This better not make me late for school.” I ignored the question “Should we take it to the vet?” I’m typically too preoccupied over worldwide biodiversity loss to get worked up about the fate of an inconsequential pet smaller than a cockroach.

Or so I thought.

In fact, wrapping that tiny, beautiful frog from in toilet paper and going through the “crush and flush” routine has lingered with me all day. My son’s grief was palpable and genuine. I felt guilty. It’s a healthy reminder, I suppose. It’s just too easy to ignore your ecological footprint when it lands half a planet away.

_____________________

Clark Meyer (@clarkbeast) teaches Junior High English. Good with ideas, not good at follow-through, works best in teams for that reason.

[This post was created and posted originally for edu180atl (http://edu180atl.org/), on Nov. 14, 2011. I didn’t think to cross post it to Postcards at the time, but today I noticed my principal, Bo Adams, do so, and it’s generally a good move to emulate his practices (but not retell his jokes). So here goes.]

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