LOUISVILLE, Ga. — There is a call that some men feel in their marrow, an aching pull that lures them away from other men and into the unknown. Bill Allen has been following it off-trail most of his life, deep into the woods where all paths are swallowed by vine and bramble to a place where time is measured out in paddle strokes and daylight melts like a lozenge, long before the sun kisses the horizon.
This time it was the Ogeechee, one of Georgia’s few remaining free-flowing rivers that slithers through some of the most secluded hardwood bottom lands and cypress swamps in Glascock and Jefferson counties on its way to the sea.
Allen, 57, a lifelong hunter and outdoorsman from Acworth, Ga., said it was the river’s remoteness that first attracted him.
“I was looking for something out of the way, something that wasn’t done as much,” he said. “I found out that nobody does the upper Ogeechee as far as a canoe trip. Then I found out about the famous, impassable Chalker Swamp. The more I read ‘impassable,’ the more curious I got.”
The swamp, he said, stretches from Highway 102 down to Highway 24. Allen said he started looking online for any information he could find about the river and he found a blog where a kayaker had posted on a river trip website.
“He said he had put in at 102 and went about 10 miles before he had to call DNR to come and get him out of there,” Allen said. “That was the only entry I could find about anyone paddling that area. So I did my own searches, looked at maps and Google Earth and I thought, you know, I think I can do that.”
Allen said he spent about a year preparing for the trip, scouting the river from its headwaters all the way down to U.S. Highway 1, scanning Google Earth satellite maps, monitoring water levels online through the Geologic Survey’s hydrologic station at Highway 88 and even spending the night at one of the boat ramps. He saw that there were big kayaking groups that paddle the southern end of the river, but the more he read, the more eager he grew to explore the upper Ogeechee.
“I loved that you have over a 40-mile stretch of river with only one bridge in the middle of it. You’ve got two 20-mile sections. That’s cool, that’s secluded,” Allen said.
He said it is hard to explain exactly what it is about being deep in the woods, away from all signs of other men, that is so intoxicating and addictive.
For him, it started when he was 15 and his brother took him on a five-day canoe trip through Algonquin Provincial Park in Canada.
“It was very wild. That’s when I first learned how to read a map and find my way through the wilderness. My brother is just like me – he likes to get off-trail and go exploring and that kind of thing,” he said.
Since then he and his brother, Doug, have gone on multi-day trips through the Okefenokee, down the Flint and Chattahoochee and other rivers.
An avid hunter, he said that he hunts feral hogs on the Savannah River and so he is used to crossing logs and negotiating around potentially deadly strainers where logs, branches and other debris pile up. He did not foresee any obstacles on this trip that he had not encountered many times before.
“It’s not the place to go to learn how to do this or learn how to do that. You might get in trouble then,” Allen said. “I wanted the water levels at just over 10 feet. I scrutinized all the data I could. I actually counted the number of strainers I could find on Google Earth and tried to calculate if it delays you so many minutes at each strainer, what kind of progress can you make. What I came up with was worst-case scenario would be 3 miles per day is all you can make. So I gave myself seven days and I knew that if I had to bail out at Highway 88 I could.”
Originally, his older brother had planned to accompany him, but later decided that he did not feel up to the potential strainers they might encounter. Allen said he would never recommend anyone run such a remote stretch completely alone, but he was not going to miss it. So they arranged for Doug to camp at Hamburg State Park and remain in cell phone contact in case something went wrong.
On March 26, around 3 p.m., with his 15-foot Grumman canoe loaded with gear, he waved goodbye to his brother and pushed off from the Highway 102 bridge.
Allen said his biggest concerns were the problems had by the previous kayaker who had posted about the river. He did not want to get stuck somewhere that really was impassable. But he had contingencies for that.
Monitoring the water levels in the river is key to anyone looking to make a run down such a narrow, remote area.
“Do not do that trip at all if the water level drops below 10 feet at the 88 bridge,” he said. “At 12 feet the trip would have been just fine, but around 14 feet, maybe it starts getting a little crazy. I’ve noticed that after a rainstorm the Ogeechee comes up quick and it drops quick.
“There were tons of logs that I could slide over because there was just enough water. If had dropped another 6 inches then my pull over number might have been double.”
Allen said he ran into some type of shrubbery that grows out into the river that nearly pinched off his progress in several locations.
“I don’t know what it is,” Allen said. “My brother is a horticulturist and he doesn’t know what it is, and it grows thick and tangled and in some places almost all the way across the river so that you think you’re not going to be able to get through. It’s impenetrable. It’s like a mangrove or a privet, but it’s not a privet.”
It appeared to be growing in the water in places where a paddle could not reach the bottom. It worried him.
“I had to hack through it,” he said. “And it would go for 100 yards down the river, and there was just a canoe-sized trail between it and the bank where you could just barely get through.”
Despite what some might think, river trips are seldom as simple as keeping your bow pointed downstream. Rivers like the Ogeechee that spread out in cypress swamps and turn back on themselves like a hooked eel are notorious for playing tricks.
“There are all these places where the river splits into different channels and you have to make decisions of which way do we go, and that’s a tough one,” Allen said. “Most of the time I went with whichever one looked like it had the fastest running water, but occasionally I’d look at my maps and see that the little channel leading off to the right was just cutting off an oxbow, and then that’s good because it’s a short run until you hit the river again.
“What was strange was that there were quite a few places where the river, the majority of the water appeared to be going off in a direction where there is no river there according to the map, and it might go and wander around for hundreds of yards, enough to think I’m just going in the wrong direction before it straightens back out. It can make you very nervous. It can really rattle your brain if you constantly don’t know if you’re going the right way or not.”
Snakes were another concern.
“Five or six times a day I had a snake drop out of a tree or off a limb into the water right next to me or right in front of me,” he said. “It kept reminding me that … yep, snakes are a problem. You never know when the next one is going to be a big old fat cottonmouth and he’s going to drop a little late.”
As for adventure and seclusion, Allen said the Ogeechee delivered on every promise. Especially in that first section, he said, there were no cabins, no chairs where people had fishing holes, no visible hunting stands.
“It was amazing,” he said. “You could tell that people just don’t come in here.”
While he has felt the call into these wild, lonesome places most of his life, he says he is often at a loss when asked why he feels it so strongly.
“It’s a tough thing to describe,” Allen said. “My poor dad doesn’t understand. Both of his sons love the wilderness and he thinks, ‘Y’all are nuts. Something’s wrong with you.’ And I think that’s the normal response. Why would you want to put yourself through these hardships just to see a bunch of big old trees? I don’t know what the allure of wilderness, remoteness and seclusion is, but there is something that I can’t get away from. It’s just there. I wasn’t raised with that, I think I was born with that. And I almost think that if you have to explain it then you won’t be able to, because the person will never understand what you’re talking about.”
Bend after bend, Allen said he found exactly what he was looking for on this trip.
“One of the cool things I noticed about the Ogeechee is the dramatic changes to the character and nature of the river,” he said. “Some places it’s a wide, slow, lazy river. Then other places it’s narrow, the current is swift. It’s the same with the terrain around it. In some places it is almost like a upland Piedmont woodland river, where you have 4-foot banks and it’s high and dry on either side with big oaks and hickories. Then you go around a bend and it goes down to where the banks are about 6 inches and it’s nothing but mud and muck and tupelo trees. Then you go around a few more bends and it changes again. It was pretty stunning, really, and quite, quite beautiful.”
Allen said he saw a dozen or so deer, some of which were bedded down on the bank.
“I got quite close to a few before they poked their heads up. Honestly, I had numerous deer look at me and pause for a minute like they were saying, ‘What is that?’ I realized those deer don’t run into people very often.”
There was also a beaver that hovered around his camps on two different nights. Long after he had bunked down, it would slap its tail hard on the water right by his camp.
“This would go on for 30 minutes or more,” he said. “It’s the beaver way of flipping me off, showing his great displeasure at my presence.”
He never saw a wild hog, but he says he heard a bunch of them squealing and grunting and carrying on. There were tons of rooting signs.
During the days, as he paddled, he saw all kinds of birds.
“I saw this whole rookery of what I think were night herons,” Allen said. “There must have been 20 or 30 of them. They weren’t scared of me. They were fluttering around but they didn’t fly off because I was there.”
A big part of the adventure is certainly in what you see, the simple majesty of the bobcat you catch drinking at the stream’s edge, the way the dappled sunlight skips and plays on the surface of the water, the tangle of exposed tree roots disappearing into moss and mud.
But it is also about the experience itself and what it requires of you.
Hidden in the beauty is very real danger. Not only are there snakes and biting insects, hornet nests and alligators, but the most dangerous thing of all is the river itself. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10 people die every day from accidental drowning.
More important than shelter, than fire, than any store-bought gear, is the outdoorsman’s ability to focus, to be completely present in the moment that they are in. There is clarity and a calm there where everything else falls away.
“That’s exactly what I enjoy,” Allen said. “One of the things I’ve read is that you have to learn to be here, now. We don’t live that way in our modern world. We’re always thinking schedules and what are you doing tomorrow or next week or what happened last week. You’re never here, now. But when you’re out there that’s all you’ve got. Whatever happened around the last bend, that’s gone. You’ve got this bend in the river to worry about now.”
And in rivers like the Ogeechee, that can narrow when you least expect it, the paddler cannot afford to be distracted.
“Some of those bends, it’s hard to maneuver the canoe through them,” Allen said. “I don’t see how the current is turning that swift because I can’t turn that swift. It’s crazy. It makes it a big adventure. Everything’s new and you have to deal with it minute by minute. Reality is right there in front of you and you have to deal with it. I love all that.”
Allen feels his year of preparation for the trip paid off. The weather, the water level, everything was perfect. The mosquitoes were not even out much.
He had planned for a possible seven-day trip, but he made it in three.
“I got to the U.S. 1 bridge in Louisville at 3 o’clock on Tuesday,” Allen said. “That adds up to three nine-hour days on the water. The GPS said I went 49 miles, so actually, that’s not bad progress, about 16 miles per day.”
He does not recommend the trip to anyone who is not vastly experienced on the water.
“Don’t do this to improve any of your skills or learn a new skill of navigation. You do this if you have already proven all of your skills. And then use them here,” Allen said. “I can see someone really getting messed up and not knowing what to do in there. That worries me, that someone will read this and think, ‘Oh, that sounds fun, let’s try that.’”
For paddlers who think they are up for a challenge of more obstacles, Allen recommends they try the Ogeechee from Highway 24 to U.S. Highway 1.
“I think I had seven or eight pullovers on that run and there a lot more snags you can maneuver through, but for the most part, it’s not very bad. And it’s only 5 or 6 river miles if someone wants to try it,” Allen said. “But as for the upper part of this run, I almost think that if you need help to plan and execute this trip, then you’re not ready for it.”
Now, Allen is resting up and waiting for that familiar pull to lure him back out to wherever the compass points.
“One thing I did learn on this last trip,” Allen said. “Going around a bend and seeing 200 yards of open water, that is happiness, my friend.”