The Piedmont Chronicles
~ est. 2010 ~
From TPC contributing writer J. Ellis Millsaps:
- Deliverance II: The Alcovy -
The year was 1987, the heart of darkness. Women wore long skirts and shoulder-pads. Ronald Reagan was president. He told us he would cut taxes for the rich, tax revenues would boom, and wealth would trickle down to we people on the pavement. Meanwhile the poor just got poorer, and the budget deficit soared into ?illions so high the names of the numbers were unfamiliar.
In whatever rung of purgatory Mr. Reagan is napping, he still wakes up laughing about how we fell for that one. I was an assistant district attorney that summer and I had a friend named Kevin Wheeler. Kevin claimed he’d graduated from law school with me two years earlier, and although I didn’t remember him, I would have taken his word for it even if he hadn’t had a diploma to prove it.
I’m not, my family can assure you, very observant. Kevin had a flat-bottomed aluminum fishing boat and I had this idea we could put it in at the bridge on 278 and fish our way down the Alcovy to the bridge at County Highway 213. Someone from the Sheriff’s Department -- I seem to recall Kevin saying it was Dell Reed -- claimed that my plan was not only feasible, but that he himself had once done it.
If it was indeed Wardell, he’s probably still chuckling like Ronald Reagan with a tax cut.
So, one Friday after work, while my wife and two small children were visiting her parents in Dothan, I parked my ’67 Datsun at the 213 bridge and rode with Kevin and his boat back to the other one. Our plan was to just float and paddle, but if hauling in too many fish slowed us down, Kevin figured, we could always crank up the outboard and putter out by sunset.
We put in around 5:30 for what we estimated to be, at most, a three hour cruise.
(A three hour cruise.) That would get us out an hour before sunset on what was near the longest day of the year, prime fishing time, but Kevin had a date and would need to clean up.
We probably should have taken the dead cottonmouth at our embarkation point as an omen, but we were no more attuned to Delphic mysticism than we were to common sense.
My only experience with river travel had been in inner tubes on icy, white-water streams in the mountains where I was raised, knowledge that would later that evening prove about as useful as my uncanny ability to conjure up and sing the theme song to almost any TV western ever made. Kevin, as far as I can recall, didn’t know much of anything, but I’m getting old and this was a long time ago.
I don’t remember how we got the boat in the water, but I do recall what it contained: a small tackle box containing fishing apparatus and nothing else, one oar, two life vests, a six pack of 16 oz. Budweisers, two large Hoya de Monterey Excalibur cigars, a Bic lighter that would later prove perversely inoperable when wet, and two over-educated idiots wearing shorts, T-shirts and tennis shoes.
Around the first bend of the river, a large fallen tree left about a foot and a half clearance between its trunk and the water’s surface. It may or may not have been a tupelo gum, a tree I was later to learn is found this far north in Georgia only on the section of this river into which my companion and I had ignorantly ventured, “tupelo,” it turns out, being a Creek Indian word meaning “swamp tree.”
Here the river was deep and wide, a beautiful spot for angling. Although I knew there was a house on Elks Club Road probably less than a hundred yards away, in my mind’s eye I recall no signs that man had been there before. We decided to deal with the tree-trunk barrier later, moored up, lit up our stogies, popped us a tall boy, and started to fish.
We didn’t catch any fish, not even a hornyhead. What we did catch, on almost every cast, was submerged wood necessitating a lot of maneuvering, swearing and loss of tackle. Even though it wasn’t until after the trip was over that we discovered that the little horizontal lines on the map surrounding our chosen section of the Alcovy indicated “swampland,” more sensible people would have, at this point, adding the large tree trunk blocking us immediately downstream to the submerged others we had snagged, enough information to know to turn back while that was still an option.
I wouldn’t, of course, be telling you this tale had we been those sensible other anglers.
“Kevin,” I did not say, “I think maybe this trip isn’t destined to be the leisurely paddle through the Piedmont which we had envisioned.” “You know, Ellis,” he did not reply or otherwise suggest, “I think we ought to crank up the motor, go back upstream, get out of this river and drink our tallboys somewhere else.”
We got by the first fallen trunk fairly easily, by lying down flat in the boat and floating under, then using the oar as a lever to wedge the protruding motor through. It was probably twenty minutes before we were stopped by another tree, this one slightly submerged, which we cleared by balancing ourselves on the slippery log, one on each side of the hull, and lifting the ten-foot boat and finally it’s motor over the log, aided by the buoyancy of the water.
Of the at least fifty such barriers of deadwood we were to face, the ones presented in the previous two instances were the easy ones. The hard ones were the trees fallen over the river which weren’t submerged but didn’t leave enough space to float under. In those cases, we had to straddle the log, or stand on the bottom when we could, and lift the boat -- and don’t forget the motor -- out of the water and over the log.
We came to the first fork in the river just as it was getting dark. There hadn’t been any forks on the map. We decided that more water flowed in the left channel than the right and steered ourselves that way, thinking, hoping, that we’d see the 213 bridge any time now.
We’d long since given up any idea of fishing. After the river forked and the channel narrowed, it didn’t require such a big tree to fall from one bank to the other, so that horizontal trees appeared with much greater frequency, but at least for a while we could still see them coming, could still even use the oar to cut through spider webs and divert overhanging branches. When it got dark, it got really dark; there must have no moon. Pictured along with this tale, I hope, is a photograph taken in the area where we were, courtesy of Georgia Wildlife Federation. Please look at the photo. Now imagine being plopped down in that scene when it is so dark you can’t see your hand in front of our face. Isn’t that a little scary?
The log surmounting exercises previously described became maddeningly more difficult in absolute darkness.
Now an outboard motor is not a particularly heavy thing for two grown men to lift, but when you attach it to the end of a boat and attempt to lift it repeatedly while standing on a slimy log in pitch blackness, it is a particularly heavy thing. I’m sure I proposed more than once that we unhook the motor and let it sink to the bottom of the murk, but, to Kevin’s credit, he survived this saga with his boat and motor, if not his fishing rods, intact.
When the river forked again, which it did, more than once, we chose our route by the I Ching method, letting the current carry us where it would. After a while we got tired of seeing who could scream most girl-like when a web or leaves smothered our faces, and after a while, it became too much of an effort to even grunt when we lifted the boat; the only sounds came from unseen and unknown animals screeching in the night, or diving from the banks to see what they could find in the river.
Meanwhile, around midnight, back in civilization, Kevin’s girlfriend reported to the Sheriff’s Department that we had gone on this trip and not come out, because my Datsun was still parked at the 213 bridge. The deputy who took her report, when he found out who was missing, allowed as how from what he’d seen assistant district attorneys were a dime a dozen, and he personally thought she could do a lot better than Kevin, but anyway their wasn’t anything that could be done in the dark except to wait for us to come out, no helicopter with spotlight being available for such a low priority mission. At least the weather was warm.
At 2:00pm Saturday, we crawled out of the boat in Starrsville. Our hair was so coated with spider webs that we looked like cafeteria workers -- filthy unhygienic cafeteria workers -- but we were not snake bitten or otherwise seriously injured. I have since learned from people who have in fact done it that this section of the river is navigable, by canoe, in spring, when the water is high.
The author would like to thank the Georgia Wildlife Federation for its information on The Alcovy Greenway contained at its excellent website, www.gwf.org, and particularly its Director of Education, Mr. Jason J. Diem, for locating and supplying Mr. Ohme’s photograph. The Federation’s state headquarters are located on the edge of the swamp, near the Cornish Creek bridge on Hazelbrand Road.
J. Ellis Millsaps is an Attorney by trade and a true Southern Character. He used to write a weekly column for the Covington News. A Descendant of Scotch-Irish Appalachians, he is also a songwriter and a former Rock'n'Roll Band Manager. He leans left - and by that - we mean that he is an unabashed progressive liberal. He has impeccable musical tastes, is a Vodka enthusiast, and smokes non-filter cigarettes.