River rescue

From my earliest days as a rookie features writer at The Macon Telegraph in 1992, I heard reporters talk about canoeing the Ocmulgee River and writing about it for the paper.

I was young and foolish enough to attempt it.

In the late summer of 1993 I began the ambitious project of paddling the entire 255 miles of the Ocmulgee River from its origin at the base of Lloyd Shoals Dam at Lake Jackson to the confluence with the Oconee River forming the Altamaha River near Lumber City.

The grand adventure would have been to canoe it from start to finish in one multi-day trip, camping along the route. If you figure the average person can cover 10-15 miles of river a day, you can quickly see how impractical that was. I could not put my life on hold nor would my editors at The Telegraph let me out of my other duties for three weeks.

As I puzzled over the logistics, the Central Georgia River Runners canoeing and kayaking club learned about my ambitious project and one of its members, Joe Beall, took an interest. A former naval aviator and graduate of the Citadel, Joe was single, in his early 40s, and had a lot of time on his hands. He loved kayaking and history, and his unquenchable curiosity provided the impetus and skills I needed to make the journey a reality.

Lance Wallace holds up a Central Georgia River Runners T-shirt beside an aluminum canoe at the shore of the Altamaha River in Lumber City, Georgia, with the Uvalda Bridge in the background.
I earned my Central Georgia River Runners bumper sticker and T-shirt when I finished paddling the Ocmulgee River here at the bridge in Lumber City just below the confluence of the Ocmulgee and Oconee rivers, but I did need rescuing a time or two along the way.

Joe became my unofficial guide. We spent hours together pouring over topographical maps and looking at ways to break the trip into segments. Being a young, single guy myself, I was willing to give weekends and occasional weekday trips to the journey so as not to interfere with my regular workload. We divided the entire project into 10-15 mile excursions, invited the River Runners to join us when they could, and began the quest.

The Ocmulgee River, which derives its name from the Hichti words “oki” (water) and “molki” (bubbling or boiling), acts like two different rivers. The upper Ocmulgee above the Fall Line, which runs just north of Macon, is bubbling like the mountain rivers and streams in north Georgia and Tennessee. There are shoals and rapids through which the water moves quickly and can prove challenging for inexperienced paddlers like I was. Truth be told, I had to be rescued several times after falling in when my canoe was toppled by a small rapid. The River Runners called the shameful act “swimming,” and even devoted a column in their monthly newsletter called “Seen Swimming” to call out those who turned over during an outing.

“Seen Swimming” included my name several times the first few trips because I was so inexperienced. I made the beginner’s mistake of sitting up too high and grabbing the gunnels when I started to lose my balance. I had to learn to fight those instincts, get low in a canoe, and keep paddling to maintain my balance. I think the River Runners drew straws to see who would take me in their canoe those first few trips because they didn’t want to be “seen swimming” along with me.

South of the Fall Line as Georgia’s Piedmont region gives way to the Coastal Plain, the Ocmulgee spreads out, slows down and becomes a wide, meandering river, like a smaller version of the Mississippi. We did several of the southern segments in multi-day, overnight trips camping on the shoreline or on sandbars. Particularly near the end, we tried to cover as much of the river as we could with each trip.

North of Macon, the river ran fairly straight, but south of town, there were stretches where the Ocmulgee was winding and serpentine. Even with Joe’s navigational skills, it was sometimes hard to calculate the distance of a trip from a topographical map.

Such was the case on an early spring day when Joe and I had hoped to paddle a section south of Macon originating near Bond Swamp that would end up at the Bullard Landing public boat ramp near Dry Branch in Twiggs County.

It’s those twists and turns that can make estimating the time and distance tricky on the river.

There were several factors that freighted the day with stress. First, we needed to have The Telegraph’s photographer with us on more of the trips to capture some good imagery to accompany my story. Maryann Bates and I had worked well together on multiple projects, and she had expressed interest. Our plan was to go back after the story was outlined and get photos from the bank, but we did need her to join us on a couple of the trips. We didn’t want to risk her equipment, so picking an easier segment without rapids or shoals seemed ideal.

Maryann was like a big sister to me. Older and wiser, she had taken me under her wing at the paper, dispensing good natured teasing and wisdom in equal measure. She and her husband, Larry, were good friends, and at times I felt like I was part of their family, which back then included three kids. Maryann had commitments that I didn’t, so finding a day to be on the river proved challenging.

When we paddled a section of the river, we had to start the day by setting the shuttle, which meant leaving the canoes and kayaks at the put-in point, driving to the take-out with two vehicles so you could leave one to get you back to your other vehicle at the end of the day, and driving back to the boats at the put-in. Maryann drove a Nissan Pathfinder, so we left the canoe and kayak at the put-in and planned to leave her truck at the take-out. The last half mile of the road to Bullard Landing was red clay, and recent rains left it slick. Maryann handled it well, but we were both tense from the slipping and sliding to get to the takeout.

Once we put in and found our pace, and the trip became pleasant. I could hear Maryann’s camera clicking away, and the warming sunshine eased our minds. That section was somewhat remote, but there was ample evidence we were south of an urban area. We found pockets along the route where fallen trees created eddies that held captive all manner of detritus, including basketballs, styrofoam ice chests, and other garbage that washed into the river from the streets of Macon.

After a full eight hours of paddling, Maryann began to grow anxious about the time. She had a family commitment that evening and needed to be home by 7 p.m. Based on Joe’s calculations, we were doing a 13-mile stretch and should have been off the river well before nightfall. The Ocmulgee’s twists and turns proved deceptive, though, and the sunset, though beautiful, fueled our nervousness about the time.

Finding a takeout, even a well-marked public boat ramp, can be challenging if you’ve never before approached it from the water. It’s easy to miss landmarks because it all looks so different from the river. In the dark, it’s impossible to find your take out. Missing it compounds the aggravation. You eventually paddle so far down river that you realize you must have passed it. You find a spot to get out, leave your canoe where you can get back to it, and walk back up the bank through trees and thickets to where you think your vehicle should be. It can add hours to your excursion.

Maryann’s tight schedule upped the stakes of finding the take out on the first try. With daylight fading, we studied the left bank as we rounded each bend hoping for a glimpse of the Bullard Landing boat ramp. We had been on the river in excess of 10 hours as the dim light of dusk completely faded.

Joe had been apologizing for an hour when Maryann finally broke.

“SHUT UP, JOE!” she yelled at him, unable to contain her frustration.

He wisely held his tongue as we kept paddling in the dark, getting as close to the left bank as possible risking getting hung up in a fallen tree.

Just when I gave up all hope, I heard the sound of a boat motor in the distance behind us. As it grew louder, I turned to look over my shoulder to see the beam of a spotlight scanning the shoreline. Their light hit our canoe, and they called out to us.

“Hey, y’all know where the Bullard Landing boat ramp is?” a friendly male voice called from behind the light.

“We think so. We’ve been trying to get to it,” Joe answered.

“Y’all need some help?”

“Yes! Please!” Maryann answered.

Illuminated by a lantern and the spotlight, our saviors appeared to be two guys in a jon boat. Whether they were fishermen who had been caught on the river by the darkness or deer hunters looking to do some illegal “shining,” we did not know… or care.

They threw us a rope, which Maryann tied to the front of our canoe. They continued sweeping the bank for the boat ramp as they gently accelerated, pulling us safely behind them. Joe followed, pushing his tired arms and shoulders well past exhaustion.

In just a few minutes, they spotted the ramp. When the light reflected off Maryann’s Pathfinder, I exhaled in relief.

Such was life on the river. For the eight months it took us to paddle the Ocmulgee, I experienced an array of feelings: the ecstasy of seeing nature’s beauty, exhaustion from effort, fear of noises in the night, inconvenience of logistical mistakes and accomplishment when each stretch was completed. We had other mishaps. I even turned over our canoe one more time on a more southerly segment when we took a high water cut through and got pinned against a tree trunk. But that night in the darkness, searching desperately for Bullard Landing, I was rescued and I was grateful.

The only clue I have to the identity of our rescuers is a scrap of paper torn from the small manilla envelopes Telegraph photographers used to put their film in for processing. It bears the names “Rusty Evans” and “Dave” in ballpoint pen. There’s a phone number, and the words “coon hunter” and “airboat Bullard’s Landing” written under them.

Rusty and Dave didn’t make it into my story that ran over two successive weekends in The Telegraph June 12 and June 19, 1994. But their rescue has been forever imprinted in my memory.