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Rayonier was indeed discharging their wastewater into the Altamaha today, but those who know the river well or have paddled it before say that the conditions were far better than what is usually encountered. Presumably the mill was releasing at a much lower volume; in fact the upstream discharge pipe (there are two) didn’t seem to be releasing at all. Nonetheless, what we found was bad enough:

What the video can’t capture, of course, is the acrid smell. Just downstream from the release point, the acrid odor was enough to make your eyes water. And for fifteen miles or more, the smell stayed with us; it was particularly noticeable in the sour breezes blowing across the water or after a passing motorboat had churned the river in its wake.

As expected, we had no interest in swimming or water fights today; I was reluctant even to soak my hat in the river to cool off. Made for a tough day, but I think we’re also better for the experience. It’s too easy for debates about environmental policy to be made in the abstract. Paddling twenty-plus miles on a polluted river brings it all home in a very concrete way.

We have only two days left on our odyssey, and we’re excited to be heading back into cleaner stretches of this great river. I won’t have internet access again until after we finish in Darien, so it will be Saturday at the earliest before I can post again.

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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.

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