My never-satisfied wanderlust has led me on trips ever since I was old enough to enjoy exploring, even if it were only a few miles around our home. When my son Madison was young, I enjoyed introducing him to adventures. We had taken our kids on lots of trips–from New York to Key West–but when my son was ten years old, I decided to show him a wilder side and leave the concrete behind.
Today, much of the confluence of the rivers and streams that formed the headwaters of the Savannah River are submerged beneath Lake Hartwell, on the borders of the South Carolina and Georgia foothills.
The Savannah River I will be telling you about flows from Augusta, Georgia, to the port city of Savannah, Georgia. It is like a snake–twisting and turning for almost two hundred miles. It is not a wide river. As I remember, the upper reaches were seldom more than a hundred feet wide with high wooded bluffs on both sides as it meanders its way to the ocean. There are no rapids or fast water, and, as it enters the low country, the river spreads out into marsh and no longer tended rice patties. The main channel becomes difficult to follow.
I had an 18-foot outboard fishing/ski boat the family enjoyed on a mountain lake in North Carolina. Madison and I had taken it on a couple of overnight fishing trips, staying in motels with TV and pools. The trip I was planning with Madison would be totally different.
My plan was to trailer our boat to Augusta and navigate the river to Savannah and return–close to four hundred miles round trip. The interesting part is that, in 1998, there was not a single commercial establishment anywhere on the entire length of the river–no gas or ice, not even a Coke for sale.
The only signs of civilization were the occasional hunting and fishing shack and a few boat-launching ramps. Not far south of Augusta, there were signs posted on the north shore warning everyone to not come ashore. This was the Savannah River site of a 310-square-mile Department of Energy top-secret nuclear facility.
By the way, I can remember when I was in high school there were rumors about the controversial project. There were reports of extremely large alligators, animals with deformities and fish from the river that should not be eaten–all blamed on nuclear waste and unreported leaks.
With a couple of locks built during the Depression and almost continuous dredging, the river had been navigable for barge traffic until 1973 when the locks were removed and dredging stopped.
I started planning the trip in the summer for Thanksgiving week, when Madison’s school was out. Cooler weather equaled fewer mosquitoes, and, hopefully, snakes and alligators would be snoozing.
I had found, by using older navigational charts and road maps (before Google Maps,) what looked like a group of houses near the river about halfway to Savannah. I loaded my Jeep with several empty 10-gallon gas containers and headed to the nearest small Georgia town to that site. I found my way to the river and the little settlement I had seen on the charts. It turned out to be a cluster of small houses and mobile homes on sand roads. Every one had at least two dogs, a small boat, satellite dishes and the usual rusted-out truck in the yard.
I found an older man working in his yard who seemed to have control of his dogs. After much explaining and questioning looks from him, we made a deal. He would hold the gas containers for when we came back by boat on “x” date. He would also take us to town to fill our gas containers at the only filling station I had seen. We had, of course, started with boat tanks full and an extra container or two on board. A twenty-dollar bill exchanged hands as a down payment.
We had lots of equipment on board, coolers, groceries, fishing and camping gear including a tent and sleeping bags. No room for more gas, but I was sure that by running with the current, we could make it to our fill- up point.
Madison had invited his friend to go along. Peter was the son of an Episcopal Bishop from Jacksonville and Madison’s age. Madison and I had driven to Augusta from Highlands and spent the night in a hotel. Peter’s mother drove him up from Jacksonville and we met before daylight the next morning.
We had no trouble launching the boat and leaving the Jeep and trailer in the parking lot. It was cold on the water, but soon warmed to a bright sunny day. Lunch was on a sandbar to let the boys run around a bit. The curvy river was fun to run with a fast boat so we moved right along. By the time I found a likely campsite that afternoon, we had not seen another boat or person. The boys went exploring and I set up camp back in the woods. I built a cook-fire on the beach–steaks for supper and eggs and bacon for breakfast. There was lots of “squaw” wood, so l built another fire near the tent that we kept going until bedtime.
The next morning we continued to cruise along on the smooth dark water. There were old red and green channel markers, but they were few and far between. Others were missing entirely, but the channel was still easy to follow.
By mid-morning, I began to play the “what if game” in my head. What if I couldn’t find the community from the river? I had driven there and only walked to the river’s edge. What if the man was not home having decided I was crazy or had forgotten the date. Were the gas containers still sitting in his yard? By noon we should have been getting close to where we were to refuel. By afternoon, I was beginning to think I might have already passed it when I saw a big tree that I remembered, leaning out over the water. We walked to his house, watched by an army of dogs. The man was home and the containers right where I left them. Madison and Peter went to town with him to get the gas. They came back with popsicles and candy bars.
With fuel tanks full, we still had another night of camping and another half- day’s travel to Savannah.
To be continued…
Until next time, keep those masks on and your guard up.