Paddle Georgia 2023 offers relaxing trip through state history

Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

Remember in summer camp when you were finally old enough to go on the overnight canoe trip? It was the adventure you and your friends looked forward to because it meant you were big enough, responsible enough, not only to look after your supplies for three full nights and four days on the river, but it also meant you were ready to be part of a shared agreement in which you and your peers were sworn to triumph over any and all life imperiling circumstances.

Hours of paddling under scorching sun, late afternoon thunderstorms, ghost-storied campfires and early morning marauding raccoons all presented soul-searing challenges, that, if survived without whining or crying, signified a whispered-about rite of passage that only a few could knowingly nod to when school came about again in the fall.

If this takes you back to your 11-year-old self and you’re reeling to reconnect, or if you’re interested in learning hands-on more about the history and ecology of the lower Savannah River watershed, then Georgia River Network has a special summer odyssey just for you.

Paddle Georgia 2023 is a seven-day, 84-mile paddling trip on parts of the Savannah River, Brier Creek, Ebenezer Creek and Abercorn Creek that takes place the last full week of June. And though you can do traditional, on-the-ground tent camping, you can also choose from platform tents, RV spots and some indoor accommodations.

Plus, this adventure is set up so you can have a hot shower every evening at the end of a long day on the river as well as catered breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

Since 2005, Georgia River Network has been getting people out on the state’s waterways multiple times per year. The largest and most beloved opportunity is the annual Paddle Georgia, in which paddlers from across the country and around the world get together for one week in June to explore portions of one of Georgia’s 14 unique river systems. It’s the largest adventure like it in the United States, some years drawing as many as 400 participants. After a two-year hiatus, this well loved, affordable and family-friendly excursion returns in full-force beginning Saturday, June 24.

Day six of the trip features six miles on Ebenezer Creek, a blackwater tributary of the Savannah River home to some of the oldest living bald cypress trees in Georgia as well as the site of a particularly terrifying event during the Civil War.

I got a chance to do some reconnaissance on the creek with Paddle Georgia coordinator, Joe Cook. He’s been with Georgia River Network since 2005 when he took the lead in establishing the weeklong tour. A consummate river rat, Cook authors a series of popular guidebooks and keeps his paddling gear nearby for whenever the call of the river rises above the din of the day-to-day.

On this crisp March morning he’d driven from Rome, Georgia, to dial in a few lingering accommodation details at Black Creek Scout Camp and New Ebenezer Retreat Center where this year’s adventurers will spend their nights.

The day is quiet on Ebenezer Creek and not yet warm enough to awaken any of its snakes or alligators. The still water is so black from leaf tannin it mirrors flawless upside down duplicates of cypress, live oak, box elder and tupelo trees lightly clothed in their freshest spring greens.

It’s a lot like the Okefenokee Swamp and how once your eyes and brain adjust to the reflections, you feel as if you’re floating, suspended in time and space somewhere between reverence and reality.

Cook knows this creek and maneuvers the canoe to a pond-like area where an impressive stand of cypress and tupelo approaching a thousand years old have anchored in for the long haul. Their presence is dramatic, and it’s as if we have paddled upon them in mid-conversation, like we’ve interrupted something ancient and growing against a millennium of human history.

Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

Now, sitting in a canoe almost 160 years later, in a chilly early spring forest with a noticeable lack of bird song, Ebenezer’s blackwater reflections hint at the insights this cypress council of elders holds. With wisdom beyond our human years these trees stand sentry, a continent away having endured the Crusades, Bubonic plague, Christopher Columbus, Industrial Revolution and both World Wars. The cypress and tupelo testify to a darkness within our humanity, cautioning never to forget what transpired here.

We paddle on and my mind shifts to the bright beauty of the day and how this ecosystem 20 miles northwest of Savannah continues to play a role in the city’s drinking water. The cypress and tupelo are efficient filters absorbing storm runoff before it flows from Ebenezer into the Savannah River.

For thousands of years, trees in this tributary have been silently refining water quality in the lower Savannah River basin.

Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

Credit: Josephine Johnson / For Savannah Morning News

At the end of the three-hour paddle, I’m ready to stay another couple hours looking for giant trees and their mammoth bases. Cook jokes that I have been initiated and that my mind-blown reaction is exactly what he hopes each person experiences the first time they visit Ebenezer Creek.

As we load the canoe, Cook intones, “It’s about having a relationship with our Georgia rivers. Just like you, once people get out here and experience the power and beauty of these trees, water, they want to come back. They want to take care of these places. Because once you have a positive relationship with something, it becomes important. And that’s what we want. Paddle Georgia is a way for people to have a great experience and begin a lifelong relationship with our rivers, to love and conserve them.”

If you're ready for your Georgia rivers rite of passage, visit the Paddle Georgia 2023 website and sign up for this summer's adventure on the lower Savannah River watershed. Family discounts are available.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: One tank trip: Paddle Georgia 2023 offers relaxing trip through state history


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