We point the nose of our three kayaks and two canoes downstream. The current takes hold.
There are three men and three women. Four are paddling solo and there's a couple in a tandem canoe. We are on a one-day outing on the upper Ocmulgee River with the Georgia Wilderness Society.
This 6-mile run from Jackson Lake to Wise Creek is also known as the historic seven island area. It was once a major trading hub for the Native American Creek Tribe.
The Ocmulgee begins at the confluence of the Alcovy and South rivers in the backwaters of Jackson Lake in Butts and Jasper County.
Being part of Georgia's Piedmont region the river is underlain by the same crystalline rocks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Instead of high hills it has rolling plains broken by narrow streams valleys. The Ocmulgee joins the Altamaha to flow across the Coastal Plain entering the Atlantic near St. Simons Island.
Except for the splash of an occasional paddle we glide silently on the clear cool water turned gold by the morning sun. The river is wide, smooth and deep, a mirage image of the sky. The calm water provides a tranquil setting but not for long.
The upper Ocmulgee falls steeply as it winds through the valley across rocky shoals for 43 miles to Macon.
We hug the shoreline flanked by sweet gum, hickory, red maple, black and white oak, beech and pine trees. Large rock outcroppings, ferns, vines and shrubs dot the shore.
A number of fisherman cast their lines as they wade among the rocks. Their boats are anchored nearby.
The current picks up. The low water makes the narrow drops and standing waves of the rapids more challenging. We have to concentrate to move rapidly from left to right among the funneling rock ledges, boiling currents and tree limbs. The biggest thrill is paddling down the center of large standing waves.
One of the boaters turns over when his kayak hits a tree limb. His capsized kayak is picked up by another boater when it slips down the rapid without him. Shaken he stands up in the rapid and wades gingerly to his water-filled kayak. After emptying his boat he smiles. Thumbs up, he's ready for the next rapid.
An osprey calls from a tree top. The bird follows us gliding from tree top to treetop. A few minutes later a majestic bald eagle swoops and glides in front of our boats it's white tail vivid against the blue sky.
After running more rapids we eat a picnic lunch on a grassy island under some sweet gum trees. We are nervous. The river at the ruined Lamar Mill on the Butts County side spills across the Ocmulgee's largest rapid, a long, tight series of ledges rated Class III. The choice at the Class III rapid is a huge five-foot drop in fast moving currents or navigating through a series of smaller cascading rapids.
Because we are less advanced boaters the gradual gradient and stronger current of the smaller falls left of the island is the better choice. The large pillowed rocks and tiny tongues drop swiftly into small reversal waves. Many of us enter the rapids wide-eyed. Some of us hold our breath during the white-water maneuvers and, at the end, hoop and holler in relief.
After running each rapid we are filled with the peace and euphoria that comes with pulse quickening paddling among picturesque waterfalls.
The Wise Creek take-out looks like Miami Beach. Families line the the Ocmulgee's pink beaches, boulders and rocks. Children float in the current on colorful red, blue and yellow inflatable tubes. A couple of families grill hamburger's and hot dogs in the shade near the parking lot.
There is nothing like a pristine paddle on the upper Ocmulgee's white-water section. It's breath-taking beauty, majesty, diversity, excitement and serenity is the perfect place to get away from it all. It clears the mind and is good for the soul.
Having just turned 60 this trip holds special significance. When I turned 50 I realized I was no longer a kid. At 60 I'm in the “old lady” category. Thank goodness I don't feel it. To celebrate I canoed the upper Ocmulgee. I was nervous. I'd not paddled white-water in awhile. Acing the rapids made me feel young again.