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Chattahoochee, Chapter 5  Trapped in a Swamp (continued)

...By 2006, barge traffic on the Chattahoochee had expired.

As soon as I had noticed the Walter F. George Dam on my map, I began worrying about it and asking people about the policy of letting boats through it. I knew it had a lock, and my informants told me that the dam operator did put motorboats through, but no one could tell me whether Corps of Engineers policy respected the needs of a kayaker.

I had reason to worry. On my trip down the Columbia River in 2002, I discovered that on the lower Columbia, where the dams have locks for barge traffic, the Corps has a policy of not allowing non-motorized craft in the locks. If the Corps applied the same rule here, I would be facing all the unknowns of getting myself around the dam on my own steam. Among other things, the dam afforded no ramp or landing spot; the nearest place to get off the water stood several miles up the lake.

I reached the dam at mid-morning, under a bright sparkling sun. To ingratiate myself with bureaucracy and to feign a rule-observant personality, I put on my life jacket for the first time in the journey. A stiff north wind blowing down the lake created worrisome two-foot waves against the high concrete walls at the entrance to the lock. I finally spotted what I was looking for, the sign that said “Pull Rope for Lock Operator.” It took me several passes in the pitching waves to get close enough to snag the slender cord dangling down the concrete face. I gave it a hard pull. At first, nothing happened, and I wondered if it was connected to anything. But then, after a delay of several seconds, a mighty, mellow trombone note sounded all up and down the valley, a note so deep and strong that a lockkeeper even in deepest slumber had to hear it.

A portly black man came out of the building and made an elaborate wave, using body English, to indicate that I should approach the lock gates. With delight, I realized I was to be put through in my little kayak, all by myself! The massive gates swung slowly open and I quickly slipped between them. The lock extended nearly a football field long and over 80 feet wide. I paddled to the middle of this area of water to await the descent, but the operator shouted to me and pointed, yelling something about a “buoy.” I concluded that they had a rule that all craft must tie up to the floating bollards that slide down tracks in the wall. I paddled over to one and grabbed hold.

The giant gates eased shut behind me, and soon the water level started to drop, about an inch a second. That may seem fast, but with 88 feet to descend, it took over 15 minutes for the lock to empty. The light faded, sounds of spilling water echoed off the slimy concrete walls. Eventually the water level stopped dropping and several minutes of quiet waiting at the bottom ensued. Sitting in the depths of the cavernous lock, I marveled at the forces that had been marshaled on behalf of one twelve-foot, faded red canvas kayak. I had in mind not just the millions of gallons of water that had been spilled past the hydroelectric turbines on my behalf, but the millions of federal dollars it took to maintain and operate the lock. Because commercial traffic has disappeared on this waterway, all this expenditure is devoted to the convenience of a handful of pleasure boaters like me. As I glided through the slowly opening gates into the sunshine of the open river below the dam, I thought, Thank you, American taxpayers. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

The next day, 29 miles farther down the river, I went through the lock at the George W. Andrews Dam, another delightful federal boondoggle—which I again enjoyed all by myself. Below this dam, the river flowed in a rather narrow channel for the first few miles with a current of two to three miles an hour. The water’s energy motivated me to add to it, and I cranked up my speed to the maximum. With paddle blades flailing, I flew down the river, slaloming around jutting tree stumps, flashing under overhanging branches. I kept track of my velocity with the GPS propped in my lap; my top speed reached 8.2 mph. The water soon slowed as it entered Lake Seminole, a 40-mile lake backed up behind another dam named after another pork-barrel politician, Jim Woodruff. I found a camping spot at the edge of an empty field that stood five feet above the river. The crop had been harvested, and the parched brown earth provided fine snake-less, ant-less ground to pitch my tent.

The following day, I faced the most daunting camping challenge of the entire trip. The underlying cause of the crisis was the full pool level of Lake Seminole. Its waters backed up into brush, leaving nothing but swamps along the edges, and I could find no dry, unobstructed natural land for camping. To sleep, I had to reach a man-made clearing of some kind—a boat launch area, a marina, or a park. In the early afternoon, I stopped for lunch at a boat ramp and picnic area on the Alabama side, a perfectly good camping spot. A cautious, apprehensive traveler would have set up camp there. But it was only 2:00 p.m. and I hated the idea of wasting the rest of the day pacing back and forth among the mosquitoes.

A burly older man standing alongside his boat at the ramp told me about a camping area, one that even had a restaurant, farther down the river on the Georgia side. It stood about six or eight miles down the lake, he said. The prospect of cooked food fired my imagination, for I had been subsisting on energy bars, dried fruit and nuts for two days. I put the boat back into the water and paddled. And paddled. Four hours later I had traversed ten miles and seen no sign of campground or restaurant. Now past six, I started to worry as the sun dropped closer to the horizon. I spotted a couple fishing from a johnboat, gliding slowly under power of its trolling motor, and paddled over. They were quite young, wearing matching white-checked short-sleeve shirts.

“Do you know if there’s a campground or restaurant down this way?” I asked, pointing south.

“Oh, yes,” said the man. “As a matter of fact, it’s a resort called Trail’s End.” The woman nodded in agreement.

“How far is it?”

“About half a mile, I’d say,” said the man, turning to his partner. “Wouldn’t you, honey?” The woman nodded in agreement.

“Are you sure?” I asked, almost pleading.

“Yes, you’re practically there. It’s just around that bend,” he said pointing down the river. “As soon as you make that turn you’ll see it.”

I thanked them and, my spirits lifted, I paddled this half mile with a will. I rounded the bend he had pointed to, and saw . . . nothing but trees. I blinked in disbelief, staring ever more intently, hoping to discern a marina and restaurant somewhere in the wall of green foliage. I spotted another couple, an elderly pair sitting quietly with the motor off, fishing poles jutting from their boat. I pulled over to them. The man wore a broad-brimmed tan Stetson hat.

“Is there supposed to be a restaurant down this way?”

“Oh yes, he said cheerfully, confidently. “Just along the river.”

“How far?” I’m afraid a trace of skepticism had entered my tone by this time.

“It can’t be more than a mile,” the man said. “Just past the second bend you see down there,” he said, pointing.

I stared at him hard and carefully, but could detect no sign of a wink or sinister chuckle. He appeared to be giving honest information in good faith.

I left the pair and wearily resumed paddling. By this time, however, I had grown quite suspicious of fishermen’s estimates, a skepticism that proved fully justified when the mile came and went with no sign whatsoever of any habitation. I had apparently stumbled upon some kind of nautical law that powerboaters consistently underestimate distances on the water. Pondering the matter over subsequent days, I began to understand why. A motorboat driver never pays any significant penalty for underestimating distances. His boat gets him where he wants to go in a few minutes, effortlessly. If his estimate is off by a few miles, it doesn’t matter. He speeds along at 20 or 30 miles an hour, so it just takes a few more unnoticeable minutes to get there. And because correctly estimating distances is unimportant to them, boaters don’t use their GPS units to measure distances and check their estimates. Consequently, they never develop any skill in correctly estimating mileage from place to place along the water.

I, on the other hand, am an expert in gauging short distances on the water. I have to wrest each yard with slow, sweat-drenched effort, so I pay very close attention. I constantly consult my GPS to check distances, because my whole day revolves around them. If I underestimate the distance to my lunch spot by a mile, I suffer half an hour of hunger pains.

Once the whole episode was over and the actual distances known, I calculated how badly powerboaters underestimate distances. When the man at the Alabama boat ramp told me the marina was “6-8 miles” down the river it was actually 14. When the first couple on the water said it was “a half mile” it was actually 4½. And when the second pair said it was “one mile” it was actually 4. So, on average, the actual distance was 367% greater than estimated by the powerboaters.

Whatever the explanation for the blatantly wrong mileage estimates that afternoon, I was in trouble, with the sun disappearing behind the trees, swamp on both sides, and no sign of the long-sought-for marina/resort/restaurant. I had no alternative but to continue down the lake. The GPS map of the river showed that it made a long loop before coming back to the area where the marina probably lay (the map didn’t show campgrounds, boat ramps or other facilities). The screen also showed a channel through a swamp that would cut across this loop, saving me a mile of paddling. Pressured by the coming of night, I decided to take the short cut.

I soon reached the mouth of the side channel, an entrance some 50 yards wide that made the passage seem quite substantial and navigable. I was taken aback, however, by seeing not one but two alligators guarding the entrance, their eyes and noses poking subtly above the surface of the water. I had learned to gauge the size of alligators by the distance between their eyes and nose. The formula works out to be about one foot of length for each inch of eye-to-nose distance. One of these alligators seemed a normal size with an eye-to-nose distance of about five inches, but the other must have been a monster, for his nose was 12 to14 inches from his protruding eyes. Both creatures sank stealthily under the water as I approached them, giving me an additional danger to worry about. I giggled nervously when it dawned on me that I was literally paddling in—as hyperbolic dime-store adventure novels put it—“alligator-infested waters.”

The first few hundred yards of the channel went well, but as I got deeper into the swamp, the waterway began to narrow, until it closed to only 20 yards wide. A strong smell of rot and algae hung over the closed-in waterway. It occurred to me that I may have placed too much confidence in the GPS rendition. After all, vegetation could have grown up and clogged the channel since the map data had been collected. Just as this thought crossed my mind, I came upon a dead tree trunk that had fallen across the channel. Fortunately, it had fallen at an angle, leaving a gap on one side where I could duck my head and paddle through. Soon the width of the channel narrowed to ten yards—just ten feet at a few spots—and it seemed almost inevitable that I would find a total blockage at some point and have to retrace my route back to the alligators.

With no moon—it was not due to rise for many hours—the darkness deepened and it became increasingly difficult to distinguish the channel in the surrounding blackness. I paddled cautiously, acutely aware of my vulnerability: a tiny speck of human protoplasm, totally alone, deep in the bowels of a Georgia swamp—almost trapped in this swamp, as a matter of fact. I grew keenly aware that my safety and survival depended entirely upon a twelve-foot scrap of canvas that, for the moment, kept my bottom just one inch above the water, but which in an instant might be ripped wide open with one snap of an alligator’s jaws.

About a mile into the channel, I thought I had come upon a final blockage, with the water running right up to a black wall of vegetation. I let the air out of my lungs in a sigh of hopelessness. Under better conditions, I would have turned around and paddled back to the entrance of the channel, but the darkness, and the danger of getting lost, and the thought of alligators’ teeth, led me to put off turning around. I paddled desultorily toward the wall of vegetation, and discovered, to my delight, that the channel made a sharp turn through a narrow opening and continued on.

Five minutes later, I came upon a similar, seemingly impassible blockage, but with the previous experience under my belt, I didn’t give up. I paddled right up to the bank of reeds seemingly blocking my way—and discovered a sharp dog-leg turn of the channel that brought me to open water and an open starry sky above! Far in the distance, I saw mercury vapor lights that had to be the resort. I gave a great sigh of relief. It was just a matter of time before I reached a place to camp—or so I thought.

I had covered a few hundred yards across this open water when I came upon another impediment: water lilies covered the surface as far as the eye could see. In the warm Georgia climate, these plants thrive, their pads over a foot in diameter. On a previous day, I had pulled myself through 20 feet of this vegetation, scrabbling against the leathery mass with my paddles, and I learned that it was very slow, hard work. It would take me all night to go 50 yards in this stuff, and here I faced hundreds of yards of it.

What a fix! Again, the only solution seemed to be to turn around and go back up the channel, but I feared I wouldn’t be able to find the entrance to it in the dark. I decided that, if necessary, I would simply slouch in the boat all night under God’s stars, and retrace my route in the morning when light returned. But before giving up, I decided to apply the lesson of perseverance, and paddle right up into the lilies to confirm that passage was impossible. As I got close, I saw what I had no right to expect: a narrow, meandering channel through the lily pads. Apparently, a boater had found his way blocked by the lilies, just as I was blocked, and he had used his engine’s horsepower to bull his way through to open water, cutting a channel for me in the process. His passage must have been quite recent, because in a few days the lilies would have grown back over the gap.

I followed his path, and after a quarter of a mile, gained the open water of the river again. Now it was just a matter of pulling toward the faraway lights, a paddling that became increasingly feeble in my exhausted state. I’d been on the water since 6:00 a.m., and I had to put down the paddle and rest every six or eight strokes. Also, a painful blister on my right hand made it necessary to hold the paddle with my fingertips, like an osprey clutching a fish.

It must have taken me a good hour to make the last two miles to the area with the street lights. I drew close, but I could not make out any channel, or marina, or boat ramp. I came upon some 40 houseboat-condominiums docked in a tight row. The decks of these houseboats stood six feet above the water, too high above me to allow me to land. Nearly all of these units were dark, but there were lights in the windows of one, and I paddled over to it. No sound came from it, but through the picture windows I saw people inside, about a dozen well-dressed men and women engaging in animated conversation, smoking, laughing and sipping drinks.

I felt desperate. I was hungry and exhausted, having just endured many hours of uncertainty and danger. I needed to find out where to moor my kayak and how to locate this long-heralded restaurant. I shouted. Nobody inside gave any indication of having heard. It occurred to me that music was probably playing inside, and since I couldn’t hear it, they probably couldn’t hear me. The luxurious air-conditioned unit was apparently soundproofed and well-insulated, with the windows tightly sealed shut against the heat and humidity. I drew myself to within a few feet of the white hull of the houseboat and used my paddle as a battering ram against it, hoping to attract attention: thud, thud, thud. The sound of the blows must have been deadened by insulation and carpeting, for my hammering had no effect on the party. The glitterati inside continued with their chattering and flirting, utterly unaware of me. I began to have an eerie feeling that the party was not real, but some kind of movie or holographic projection.

I gave up trying to attract their attention, and paddled along the row of houseboats, looking for a way to moor and reach land. Finally, I came to a gap between two houseboats, a gap wide enough to allow me to paddle to the continuous dock and boardwalk where all the houseboats were moored. I levered myself out of the boat that I had been trapped in for the past nine hours, and pulled myself to a standing position. I gave myself a giant stretch to get the blood flowing, immensely relieved at having surmounted so many obstacles to reach dry land.

I had been hoping to find an employee, or agent, or condo resident to make a deal about getting permission to stay the night on the property, but there wasn’t a soul about. The air conditioners on all the 40-odd condo/houseboat units were grinding away, but, except for a lit porch light at the door of each one, all the units were dark. I looked along the boardwalk for the houseboat with the cocktail party, but saw no sign of activity or extra lights. This reinforced the idea that I had imagined the whole thing. Indeed, upon thinking further about it, I found it hard to explain why cultivated urbanites would drive a hundred miles from Atlanta to drink cocktails in a sealed-up houseboat on the edge of a swamp.

I concluded it was time to turn myself into a commando camper, that is, a kayaker spending the night where he has no permission to be. I went back to the boat and moved it into the shadows, and extracted my food bag, tent and sleeping bag. With a forest Indian’s silent paces, I made my way down the gangplank, and pushed through the gate with a sign that declared, when I turned back to read it, “Positively No Admittance Except for Owners and Guests.” I continued down the ramp onto the sprawling, well-trimmed lawn of the resort. Off toward the edge of the property, I found a spot where the grass grew long, well out of the glare of the street lamps, and quietly set up my tent. I crawled in, zipped it closed against the mosquitoes, and enjoyed a snack of nuts and dates, which I washed down with my iodine-flavored drinking water. I was too tired to attempt to brush my teeth, or even feel guilty about not doing it. I flopped onto the sleeping bag and fell into an instant sleep.

The next morning, at first light, I broke down the tent, collected all my gear and slipped up the ramp past the “No Admittance” sign back to the kayak, still without seeing anyone. I loaded the kayak, climbed in, and paddled onto the lake. I went past the row of houseboats and soon located the entrance to the lagoon that led to the other buildings of the resort—it was a twisting, out-of-the-way channel that I never would have found in the dark. And, yes, at the end of it stood a restaurant—I had begun to wonder if it existed at all—and it served me a fine breakfast.

Munching away on my omelet, I listened to the patrons around me. The main topic of conversation here, as in just about all the bars and restaurants I visited during the trip, was football. A classic matchup between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the University of Florida Gators was slated for the coming weekend, and customers were making their boasts and predictions. “The only way they can keep Alabama from winning,” declared one, “is to stop the bus from getting there!” Everyone in the restaurant laughed at that.

I struck up a conversation with two fishermen whom I questioned about bait and lures, then talked with a real estate developer who had relocated his business to Alabama to escape burdensome land-use regulation in Washington state. I also visited with two tourists from Indiana who commiserated with me about how the rest of the country constantly confuses the postal abbreviations of our two states, ID and IN. In this way, for an hour I drank a healthy draught of precious human connection.

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