It was March of 2002, and the Altamaha River was running high and cold and dark, grumbling at its banks. This was Georgia’s “Little Amazon,” a 137-mile serpent of fresh water that slithered and kinked across the state, delivering the alluvium that helped build the sea islands of the Georgia coast — my birthplace. There were bald eagles here, glaring from their roosts, and alligators sunned themselves along the bars. Old-growth cypress trees stood tall as castle turrets, and the depths were storied for century-old sturgeon, some the size of ships’ cannon.
I was twenty-one years old, an English major at the University of Georgia, and this was my spring break, a 3-day paddle trip down the Altamaha with three of my closest friends. I had no idea that, a decade later, this river would become the subject of my second novel, The River of Kings.
The second afternoon, we stopped to rest at a bend in the river, climbing a small bank in search of shade. There, to our surprise, we found a footpath leading into the woods. At this point, we were miles from any known settlements or residences. The Nature Conservancy has called the Altamaha River one of the world’s 75 “Last Great Places,” and this lack of civilization is the main reason why. The river is undammed, crossed by roads only five times in its entire length, and in the ’90s, the state outlawed the floathouses (“shantyboats”) that once lined the riverbanks. We followed the footpath into the woods. Soon we were crossing the gutted carcasses of alligator gar and passing underneath a makeshift arbor strung with the skulls of small mammals. I don't want to give away too much. But what we found at the end of that trail -- and the mystery of who built it -- led to the novel.
I started writing the book, and so began a number of research trips with men I regard as my brothers. Whit Dawson, Taylor Davis, and the photographer Ben Galland (Island Time and Island Passages and Sapelo). These are friends I have known since elementary school, who were there on those early paddle trips, and whose love of the river is undiminished. We would search the river for landmarks I was writing into the book, visiting Alligator Congress and Rifle Cut and Stud Horse Creek. We would witness what we thought for one surreal moment to be the Altamaha-ha herself — and which, in fact, turned out to be nearly as strange: a large feral hog swimming across the river. We would be trapped far upriver by a grounded boat and have to navigate the night-river with nothing but flashlights, watching the bright jewels of alligator eyes burn along the banks. We would search the river for narrow-gauge rails and ancient logging equipment and thousand-year-old virgin cypress.
This past spring, we were fortunate enough to return to the river with the Georgia Conservancy, as part of their annual paddle and 50th anniversary tent revival. We were fortunate enough to tell our stories of what the river has meant to us, and to stand with an organization that has done so much to preserve this crown jewel of conservation in Georgia — a river as beautiful and wild and savage as anything left on this earth. An organization that stands, truly, between the Georgia we love and the thousand ways we could lose it. I urge you to stand with us, too.
Over the next 12 months we’re raising the bar: conserving more than 30,000 - 35,000 acres of land, educating more than 3,500 people in “Georgia’s outdoor classroom” that we call our trips program, and helping thousands of students and parents breath a little easier with our school siting workshops. But, truthfully, the issue that gives us great concern is maintaining steady handed advocacy on behalf of the gem of Georgia’s coast: Cumberland Island.
With so much to do, we’ve had to expand annual fundraising goals. We’re currently $50,000 behind our expanded funding needs and we need your help.
For our 50th Anniversary, we've asked some of our most important donors and members to share their Georgia story as a Georgia Conservancy Storyteller.
Thank you for supporting our storytellers and the Georgia Conservancy!