Life in Southeast Georgia is full of community events and interesting people, but those who just need to get away from life’s hustle and bustle and enjoy some quiet time in nature are in luck. The Ogeechee River is just the place for peace and relaxation, and local organization Ogeechee Riverkeeper is keeping watch to make sure it remains so.
“The river itself, it is a hidden gem,” said Emily Markesteyn, executive director of the local nonprofit. “The river is hidden, quiet and isolated. It’s not a busy river. It’s a beautiful place where people can go to find solace, peace and quiet, whether it is boating, kayaking, fishing or swimming. It’s almost like a refuge. That’s what makes it special.”
Markesteyn said she thinks it’s important for people to connect to the river through personal experience, getting out and exploring, fishing or taking a guided paddle tour.
The 245-mile Ogeechee River begins in Green County, south of Athens, and flows southeast all the way down to the Atlantic Ocean, coming out at Fort McAllister into Ossabaw Sound, which is south of Richmond Hill. The Canoochee River is the major tributary that flows into the Ogeechee. It runs through Swainsboro and Claxton and meets with the Ogeechee at I-95. Both rivers are considered blackwater, or freshwater, rivers.
Though the public owns the river, private landowners own most of the land along the banks of the Ogeechee, Markesteyn said. A lot of the private land has been passed down from generation to generation. Some areas of the river are restricted from the public. Fort Stewart backs up to the Canoochee River, so there are closed sections there. Otherwise, there are only two industries and a couple of municipality wastewater-treatment facilities on the river.
“The river is important because it brings fresh water down to meet the ocean, and in that special zone there’s a really big nursery habitat for babies of fish or birds. It’s really important as part of the eco-system,” Markesteyn said.
The river is known for redbreast fish, catfish, snakes and water birds. Wildlife changes as the river moves from freshwater to saltwater to marshes. Manatees and sea turtles live in the coastal areas.
Markesteyn said there are several public landings along the river, but many are not clearly marked. “It’s hard for new people to get involved with the river. We are hoping as an organization to bridge that gap,” she said.
“We are looking to making the river more accessible to people, dressing up the public landings to make them inviting to people. We are in the process of making a whole user-friendly map that would include public landings and different spots along the river, and a place for people to get information,” she continued.
Markesteyn said that although cell phones work well along the river, she doesn’t recommend people set out on waterway adventures alone.
“You always want to have a buddy go with you. Always have your life-vest and a pair of shoes on, and have a first aid kit and communication device,” she said.
She tells people to be respectful of the habitat and wildlife they may encounter while on the river, not only for nature’s sake, but for personal safety as well. Alligators, for instance, can be a threat if provoked.
“A lot of people find them scary, but I have found that the ones that live around certain communities, the people keep an eye on them like their pet,” Markesteyn said. “If you don’t mess with them, they won’t mess with you. You can watch them and appreciate them in the water or on the banks, but remember they are wild.”
Ogeechee Riverkeeper is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Markesteyn and the organization’s other full-time employee, Watershed Outreach Coordinator Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, provide three main programs to protect, preserve and improve the water quality in the Ogeechee, Canoochee and coastal waters in Georgia.
Watershed Watch provides monitors and investigates pollution issues, and also offers free training and certification for volunteers to perform water testing. Healthy Waters Agenda deals with the legislative and policy realm to promote statewide environmental policies. The Hometown Waters Education Program links the public to the river through community events and provides monthly paddling trips in the spring and summer.
“We will go through a different spot in the river and do a day paddle once a month,” Markesteyn said. “It’s a good way for people to get out and experience what we are trying to protect, to make the connection between the river and yourself.”
Paddle Trips start in March and continue through September. Trips are free for members who own their own canoes or kayaks. Anyone can register for a one-year membership for $35. The organization also rents kayaks and canoes to those who don’t own them.
For information, go to www.ogeecheeriverkeeper.org.