Drifting Into Darien

Author Janisse Ray finds escape and forgiveness on an 8-day paddle down the Altahama River


I know this river story has already been written. Over and over it has been told: an assemblage of people, usually men, load boats with food and fishing equipment and booze, and they step unsteadily into those boats and point their prows downstream. People see them off, and people are waiting for them at their destinations, and the people waiting will hear stories of what happened and witness the emotions on the faces of the adventurers, but those who were not transported by water will never know what really transpired.

This is just another camping-on-a-river story.

But we are different. This story includes women. I’m with my husband and a few friends and a few strangers. I’m on my favorite river in the entire world of rivers. The Altamaha (pronounced ALL-tuh-muh-HAW) is a river whose sections I have all my life swum, fished, water-skied, and floated. Except that we’re not on the Altamaha yet. The Altamaha proper is a river with unusual headwaters. It is already a giant when it starts. It begins at the confluence (a place called the Forks) of two distinct and also sizeable rivers, the Oconee and the Ocmulgee, where our journey begins. These twin rivers rise from trickles across middle Georgia and as far north as the Brevard Fault Zone, a geologic feature that cuts above Gainesville — seeps that become branches that become creeks that become seething torrents.

There is another reason this story is different from any other river journey. For the first time in four days, I am not scared. The river will take us away, to places roads do not go. Meanness travels roads, not rivers.

2. The journey begins

At Murdock McRae’s Landing, we wedge our double-edged paddles against the stippled shore and push away from the lineaments of the past. Hundreds of paddlers before us have done this. So have hundreds of rafthands.

“One hundred forty-five miles to go,” someone says. “One hundred forty-five miles minus one hundred feet.”

Dr. Delma Presley undebatably captains our group. He’s a genteel and literate man who taught history at Georgia Southern University, where he started a museum and from which he recently retired. Thirty or so years ago, he got the idea to construct a replica of the log rafts that wound downriver to Darien, the port on the Atlantic, from the 1870s to the 1920s, manned by poor flatwoods Crackers and black workers. Hundreds of logs, mostly of longleaf pine, journeyed to the coast lashed together. The pine was sold to buyers and dispatched worldwide for use in buildingng.

A timber raft is an assemblage of floating logs, secured together by cross-binder poles and wooden pegs. A raft was sometimes titanic, as much as 40 feet wide and 200 feet long. By the 1920s, railroads and highways had all but replaced the rivers as transportation. Sometime in the early 1930s, the very last raft of all tied up in Darien.

In 1982 Dr. Presley put together crews to build and sail a commemorative Last Raft. Dr. Presley’s flotilla paused at points along the way for river festivals that he organized.

The raft survived its heroic voyage to Darien. All of the original rafters are dead now, and what’s left of the Last Raft are photographs and memories and one other thing — a group called RAFTS, Rafthands of the Altamaha and Friends Together in Service. They made a 10-year reunion float trip.

Now, 20 years later, in 2002, I have joined RAFTS, also known simply as the Rafthands. I am helping memorialize the Last Raft, retracing its route, and honoring the entire river and our history on it.

Tonight we will camp at Towns Bluff, because there, this afternoon, the Rafthands will hold their 20th annual reunion. Besides Dr. Presley, two of the circa-1982 Rafthands are with us. One is John Crawford, called Crawfish, a biologist whose knowledge of Southeastern natural history is boundless.

The other original is Charlie Reeves. Charlie builds fine kayaks. In fact, Dr. Presley is riding in the Altamaha Drifter, a spectacular wooden kayak that Charlie designed and built for him.

If Crawfish is Lewis and Charlie is Clark, then I am Sacajawea. I was born 10 miles south of the river in the general hospital in Baxley. I was a baby on a boat my father built that sank in the river. Strapped to a life preserver, I washed up on one of its sandbars.

The other boaters, 20 or so, I haven’t met. Many of them will end their trip at the reunion later today. Eight of us will sail the river to its mouth, and by that point we will know each other as if we were family.

None of us talks much at first. We get accustomed to the murmuration of the paddles, water dripping off blades. We take in the indigo of the water, the chartreuse of spring leaves. It’s the third of May, and the floodplain is reborn. In an architecture this beautiful, the cypress needles new, religious conversions are possible. I am thinking, At last, I am far away and getting farther from all that is bad in the world.

I am newly married to Raven, six weeks now. I have moved from my grandmother’s farm near the Altamaha to live with him in his log home in Wakulla County, Fla. Raven is a letter carrier. In a way, this river trip is our honeymoon, although our heads are too confused to feel as if we are honeymooning. Earlier this week a law enforcement officer showed up at our door.

Someone had written a death threat to the governor of Florida. It was typed, one line, but one line is all that’s needed to disrupt a life, to crush a heart. Even now, I can hardly bear to write what the letter said.

The typed signature on the misspelled letter was my husband’s birth name, not the nickname he usually used.

At first the investigators had been intimidating, but they eventually admitted that the letter writing was obviously a hate crime not against the governor but against Raven himself. They changed tactics. Did he have any enemies?

“I can’t think of anyone,” Raven said.

We were filled beyond belief with sadness and fear that left us exhausted. Who could have done this terrible thing? What would happen to us? We examined all our relationships.

Meanwhile, detectives asked to test our manual typewriter, to compare its font with that in the letter, which washed in more fear. We commenced to locking doors. Somewhere we had an enemy. We could have canceled the river trip. Instead, we informed the investigators that we would be out of town for 10 days.

Our voyage began.

By midmorning we arrive at the confluence: the Forks.

The Forks is a dark vortex. The air zings with energy. The water is disgruntled. It no longer flows but roils and storms. With much grumbling and fighting, the waters finally merge and form a wide, slow, meandering body.

Raven and I lag behind the other paddlers. We bank and wander into the woods, like children, exploring deep in the slough, touching the trunks of huge tupelos and shiny-barked sycamores. A few cypress knees stand taller than we do. We find a turtle skeleton. Carolina chickadees hang like trapeze artists from Virginia creeper.

“I haven’t cried in 24 hours,” I say.

“Are you saying that because you’re happy, or because you need to?”

I burst into tears, and he puts his arms around me. We stand in holiness, in beauty, safe and sound. Here the Altamaha River starts. Here our journey begins, toward trust, toward forgiveness. In 137 river-miles, surely a tortured mind can find peace.

We bank at Towns Bluff and shift our attention toward the engulfing aromas of frying fish. Welcome to the 20th Rafthands Reunion. After cleanup, those of us continuing on climb back in boats and float a few miles downstream, to Half Moon Round, where we will camp.

Our sun sets on the first day. We have come 20 miles. Raven and I pitch our tent away from the others, our zip-lock door facing east, and we hold each other through a spring night wracked by the hoarse cries of nocturnal life.

3. Recalling journeys past

We embark around nine and face a burly headwind all morning. After Gray’s Landing, we are traveling toward the part of the river I know best. These waters of my home ground are drenched with memories, with stories. As I paddle I think of my paternal grandfather, Charley, a muscular, barrel-chested man not quite six feet tall.

He was a husband and a father of eight when his mental illness became unbearable, and my grandmother had him institutionalized in Milledgeville, in the state mental hospital. But one day he escaped. He got out a door and down to the Oconee River, and he jumped in the river and sank. He swam and swam.

For two months he made his way down the Oconee to the Forks, then down the Altamaha, headed home. For the kind of man my grandfather was — edgy, wild, violent, even dangerous — two months in the river floodplain was nothing. He was a survivor. He knew how to make it. When he got to one of the landings closest to Baxley he solicited a ride to town, spent one night there, and left for the orange groves of Florida.

As I drift along, paddling lazily, I imagine what he would have looked like swimming with the current, head out of the water, or shuffling like a bear along the bank, across black roots and blindingly white sandbars. I want the minutia. But the stories are gone, old stories forever gone.

* * *

The law had asked us to name our enemies.

We flip through mental catalogues of colleagues, trying to ferret out a suspect. Who has poor grammar? Who owns a manual typewriter with pica type? Have we held an environmental position that angered someone? Are we being targeted for supporting a political candidate? For lack of a known enemy, we begin to suspect nearly everybody.

On our second day in a week of days spent gathering armfuls of sun and river, we go to bed without anxiety. If we had known that a second letter had been mailed, we might not have rested.

4. The power of wonder

We are down to a group we christen the Hardcore Heavyweights, eight of us in eight boats. At dusk on the third day, we recline in our extraneous chairs on a sandbar somewhere near Old Fort James and watch five planets line up in the western sky, below a crescent moon. Jupiter is highest, then Saturn, Mars, bright Venus, and Mercury listing above the horizon.

“Anybody up for a little night paddle?” I ask.

“I’m happy to sit right here,” says Crawfish. So are the rest.

In darkness Raven and I scratch our kayaks across the beach to the water and turn upstream, hugging the bank. We glide softly, making as little noise as possible.

A river at night is magic. The feeling is of weightlessness, of floating not just horizontally but also vertically. Humans own the daylight, animals own night. A night paddle is about breaking biorhythms. It’s about becoming animal.

A year earlier, Raven and I took a full-moon paddle that I remember in glorious detail. We kayaked side by side through the darkness that precedes the rising of the refulgent moon.

Soon the moon was an arch being forged at the horizon. As I watched it rise I felt a moth tap against my shoulder, nothing unusual. Another brushed my arm. One fluttered briefly against the back of my neck.

I noticed more and more of them.

Moths constantly grazed my face, flew into my hair, alit on my hands.

A flashlight was flipped on and aimed upward. Moths were so thick they were like sparks from a house burning. Someone had called roll and all the nocturnal moths in south Georgia had answered. Along the river hundreds of thousands of them hit the water and lay there, drifting, surrendering to the mouths of fish. We must be out in a hatching, I thought. I had never seen so many, a burden of moths.

Wonder is a feeling that is endangered, which puts me in a luckless position, since I am perhaps addicted to it. I get to jonesing for wonder. I have measured my life in its moments, and I have defined the quality of my life by its presence. When it happens, I am. This evening there are moths, but not the murmurations of them we witnessed that August night a year ago. We turn and sail back. We close the moth door and draw our covers to our chins. I fall asleep and grow wings.

5. Can I get an amen?

On the seventh day, we leave the sandbar beach near Lower Sansavilla Bluff at 8:55 a.m., early for us, because we want to hit the tide. High tide will be at 9:30 a.m. in Darien. We paddle for an hour against the tide, then through the calm turgidity of high tide, until the waters turn and bear us coastward. The paddling is effortless. After a stop at Everett City, a small encampment of trailers and campsites centered on a store and a landing, we set out again and paddle through the beautifully surreal, new-green-of-cypress, wonderfully named Alligator Congress. I love all the river, but my favorite part, despite the bugs, is the delta, which we are entering. By midafternoon we enter Studhorse Creek. From Studhorse we turn up Lewis Creek, which leads past Lewis Island.

I never see Lewis Island without remembering a camping trip here with my friend Augustus, in his Carolina Skiff.

No one would climb the bank onto Lewis Island without first rustling the bushes for snakes with a paddle. Lewis Island smelled like snakes.

Deep swamp is a dark art, a low-down blues, inner demons with tight holds. Everything is root and mud and twist. At low tide roots lie like the skeleton of a thing exposed, suddenly glinting, hard and soft at the same time. Cypress knees stand in beauty against soft mud, like small people waiting, with no need to speak to each other. We made camp.

Sometime in the night I woke to a strange, loud, unsettling noise.

“What is that?” I whispered.

What I heard was an eerie sound of multiple voices, talking among themselves. It sounded as if one lectured and others would answer or echo, muttering agreement.

The sound was haunting.

“It’s people,” Augustus said, quietly and matter-of-factly and rather ominously.

“Can they be having church out here?” I asked. The clamor sounded like a church service, out in the wild wild wilderness.

Outside the tent, in the cool night, Augustus and I stood under a moonless sky obscured by the branches of trees, and we listened hard. Then I understood.

“Frogs,” I said, and slowly a grin spread across Augustus’s face.

It was a hallelujah chorus of frogs, an almighty uproar. Every kind of frog call imaginable was sounding at once and they made a holy din.

Hallelujah, hallelujah. Speak the gospel, sister. Loud and clear. Tell it, brother, tell it. Don’t hold back. Hallelujah.

The next day we got back in the motorboat and we spotted something swimming ahead of us across the river.

It was a wild hog, proof that hogs do swim. And believe me when I say frogs speak in tongues.

5. Journey draws to end

Saturday morning, the eighth day. Now we are close to the end. We solemnly eat our last breakfast together and break camp one final time. We drift quietly, separate, introspective, beneath Interstate 95. The roar of traffic is tremendous, and the bridge is a painful reminder of the uncivilization we are about to reenter.

If the Hardcore Heavyweights were to keep going, drifting, past the tabby buildings of the old town, out to the ocean, we would see more amazing things. In our kayaks, we won’t go all the way to the ocean. Our vehicles are in Darien, our jobs are waiting. From Darien, the river goes on without us.

Back among strangers, the memory of the crime returns. We have to go back and face all that happened. Raven will have to hook his fingers to a lie-detector machine and answer questions that people in uniform will ask. They will unhook the machine early and tell him they never believed he was the culprit. We will lock our doors. We will lie in bed, thinking of people we know, wondering.

A couple weeks later, Janisse will learn another threatening letter bearing her husband’s birth name was sent to President Bush.

The investigators will not find substantial evidence to charge anyone. No one confesses. And that will be the end of it.

But all that is in the future, straight ahead of us.

Many people have known far greater threats. Many have known greater terror. The event of the letter, wretched though it was and disruptive to our lives, was minor in the grand view. Raven and I had no control over the posting of a venomous letter; we could, however, control our response and by doing so, reclaim our personal power.

That’s where the river was vital. By the time we drifted into Darien, we had rebuilt ourselves into better people. For eight days we witnessed moment by moment that nature is incapable of premeditated badness. Or goodness, for that matter. A river can’t scheme.

Nor can a river forgive.

A river can’t forgive because it is only capable, in the first place, of love. A river loves the dumpers, the polluters, the slayers, the nest-thieves, the bird-killers, the dammers, the water-stealers. A river loves even the clear-cutters.

But I can forgive.

I am trying to be like the river.

The last few hundred yards on the Altamaha River we don’t paddle, we float, bows pointed eastward toward the ever-heating sun. We disembark near Darien’s shrimp docks and pull our boats under a shade tree. Slowly our friends depart. My parents arrive to shuttle us back to the Baxley farm, and the next day we will pick up our truck from Murdock McRae’s Landing, where our river odyssey began.

And that will be the end of it.

Except the river goes on.

O river. River of goodness. River of love.

Friend.

-- This excerpt of “Drifting Into Darien: A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River” is published courtesy of the University of Georgia Press.



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