Aerial view of the Altamaha River in Georgia. Photo by Benjamin Galland
The River Nobody Knows: Discovering Georgia's Altamaha River
Although it's Georgia's largest river, the Altamaha is shrouded in mystery, making it a wildly enchanting waterway to explore.
“Georgia’s little Amazon”
“Where God comes to think”
Those are just some of the unofficial titles for the 137-mile waterway formed at the confluence of the Oconee and Ocmulgee rivers east of Lumber City, Georgia. Spilling out into the Atlantic Ocean near Brunswick, it meets its end in a glory of salt marshes and barrier islands, adding to the already impressive scale of biodiversity it supports. The river’s watershed, the largest in Georgia and third largest in the country, pumps 100,000 gallons of fresh water into the Atlantic each day.
Its real name? The Altamaha River.
Not that you’ve heard of it (most haven’t). But if you call Georgia home, or home-away-from-home, chances are you’ve passed by. Only five roadways intersect the river, but conveniently, one of them is I-95.
The lucky few who do make the stop join locals born and raised on the river’s beauty for fishing, hunting, kayaking, and, above all, marveling. Paddling the Altamaha is a chance to slow down the pace, feel small and experience only the river’s sights and sounds.
That’s a rarity Benjamin Galland, a Golden Isles native and area photographer, only came to appreciate as an adult after a lifetime of trips to the river.
“There are very few places I’ve found where you can really go and paddle for an entire day and never see another person,” he said.
The remoteness of the Altamaha is its greatest allure, a break from the prepackaged cruise line version of modern maritime vacations. Undammed and undisturbed, the little Amazon in our backyard begs the question, how many places do you know that are truly wild?
Preservation persists in the battle for legacy
Long before it was a site of recreation, the Altamaha River was a key source of fishing, hunting, transportation and trading for Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee Indians. Since then, both political and commercial interests have vied for dominance over the river. The Altamaha received new names from both Spanish conquistadors and French settlers in the 16th century. As early as 1740 and into the 1920s, loggers floated massive rafts of their wares as the river’s forests supported the timber boom.
For all its isolated wonder, one of the Altamaha’s more paddle-friendly routes is actually man-made and serves as a testament to the human struggles played out across the river over time. Dug by enslaved people in the 1820s to shorten the route from the Altamaha to a timber mill in Darien, Rifle Cut is a one-mile canal where you replace the steamboats for which it was built and reflect on history’s difficult imprint on the river.
Despite the Altamaha’s relatively quiet station in contemporary life, the fight for control over this important waterway has endured longer than you might expect. During World War II, Nazi U-boats unsuccessfully took aim at its delta. But true victory was won when a more recent series of local conservation efforts secured an unbroken 42 miles of protected land following the lower length of the Altamaha.
The river owes much of its protection to passionate Georgians like Jane Yarn, Altamaha Riverkeeper James Holland, and The Nature Conservancy’s Christi Lambert. Yarn purchased Egg Island in 1969 for preservation purposes and would later go on to acquire Wolf and Little Egg Islands. All three now form the Wolf Island National Wildlife Refuge at the mouth of the river. The estuary is a rest stop and shelter for migratory birds on their way to the Caribbean, including at-risk, threatened, and endangered species. Spanning 5,000 acres, the beach, marsh, and uplands are closed to visitors, but the area can be accessed by boat.
President Jimmy Carter also took measures to protect the area when he created the Georgia Heritage Trust in 1972. The trust’s first act was to purchase Lewis Island. The island is part of the Altamaha Wildlife Management Area, a freshwater labyrinth of tidal forests, sandbars and roaming alligators that’s situated southwest of Darien.
Lewis Island itself is home to an ancient forest of old-growth cypress deep enough in the swamp to have avoided the timber boom. Abandoned logging equipment still sits atop the island, covered in dried mud and facing its thousand-year-old prey, a standoff of commerce and nature frozen in time.
Holland and Lambert have since taken up the fight to protect the river’s forests from any further logging. With their help, the Nature Conservancy purchased 14,000 acres in 2010 and transferred them to the Department of Natural Resources, forming the Townsend Wildlife Management Area located between route 301 and Darien.
Chasing the Altamaha: mystery, story and myth
Thanks to the valiant efforts of conservationists, the Altamaha is yours to explore, but with fair warning: once you’ve paid a visit, be prepared to return. Galland finds himself coming back to the river to paddle, fish, take photographs, and keep exploring.
“It’s the vastness of it, and the remoteness of it, that has intrigued me to the point of continually wanting to go back – and yearning to go back for it,” he said.
Few can deny the spiritual pull of the river, which has spun a rich mythology over the years. That mythology even includes a river monster, Altamaha-ha, or “Altie” for short. Reported sightings date back to 1830. A river creature with a similar silhouette also makes repeated appearances in the works of Jaques Le Moyne de Marques, the first European artist to render the continental United States, including the river area. (Learn more – and see for yourself – in Miles Harvey’s "Painter in a Savage Land").
Altie’s rumored presence is no surprise, explained Galland, when you consider the expanse of the area coupled with the presence of alligators and Atlantic sturgeons. The latter is an endangered, prehistoric (and rather sizable) fish not seen on the average boat trip.
As the river winds, story becomes myth – a phenomenon perhaps best captured by Altie’s latest appearance in the zeitgeist. In March 2018, an odd-looking sea creature washed ashore in Darien, stirring speculation of Altie’s final unveiling while raising the skepticism of local marine biologists. But this wasn’t your average scam. It was a full-on art installation carried out by Zardulu, an elusive New York-based artist known for her viral animal hoaxes.
As Zardulu explained, the faux-Altamaha-ha, made from taxidermied shark and papier-mâché, played upon the human fear of, and fascination with, lurking sea creatures. The hoax, titled “Ketos Troias,” was inspired by the Greek myth of Ketos, a sea creature sliced open with a fish hook by Heracles. It would eventually appear at the TRANSFER Gallery in New York City along with Zardulu’s other artwork in the exhibition “Triconis Aeternis: Rites and Mysteries.”
Whether real or as imagined in works of fiction, rivers make powerful protagonists. They’re the perfect vessels to ask questions of life and art, powered by the unrelenting motivation to explore the mysterious twists and turns of life that surround them. The Altamaha yields new lessons with every visit, something novelist and coastal native Taylor Brown discovered during the research expeditions he took with Galland in preparation for "River of Kings," his award-winning novel set on the river.
After growing up just 30 minutes from the river delta, he found that he was only at the beginning of understanding the river’s intricate crossroads of stories past, present and future.
“It felt like we were unlocking this treasure trove that was right beneath our feet this whole time,” he said. “It felt like the river almost wrote the book.”
The river may also be rewriting history. In 2014, Fletcher Crowe and Anita Spring presented new evidence suggesting that the Altamaha, and not Jacksonville, Florida, was the site of Fort Caroline, the first known fortified European settlement in the States. Using maps from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, the researchers identified the mouth of the river as the location for the French fort built in 1564.
Have we been telling the story wrong? Did the river bear witness to the founding imprints of colonization, making Georgia the point of origin for American colonial history?
The potential oversight is fitting for an area so frequently glossed over despite its importance to national history, local ecology, and shared humanity. President Carter saw the Altamaha for the majesty it is and further recognized the way all rivers help keep us afloat:
“I was persuaded of the Altamaha’s importance not just because of its might and beauty, but because of the way I think about all rivers. [...] A lifetime of fishing, swimming and birding has helped me learn firsthand that all aspects of our lives are tied to the health of our free-flowing streams.”
There’s much to discover from the Altamaha – if you’re looking. Every visit is its own story, one only the Altamaha can tell. Whether you gaze at birds, cast a line or dip your paddle, the river’s waiting for you. The route may be a new one, but there’s an easy way to tell you’re in the right place: yours is the only reflection for miles.
The Altamaha River orginates at the confluence of the Ocmulgee River and Oconee River, at the boundary between Montgomery, Jeff Davis, and Wheeler counties. The Altamaha then flows eastward, and a little southward, for 137 miles to empty into the Atlantic Ocean near Darien, Georgia.
Ready to explore the Altamaha? Travel tips for getting started
The passion local conservationists feel toward the Altamaha echoes globally. The river has been designated as one of the “75 Last Great Places on Earth” by The Nature Conservancy for its rich wildlife, diverse plant base and massive scale. On your next trek to the Georgia coast, you should stop and pay a proper visit.
Read up before your visit
Start with "Drifting into Darien," a memoir by Janisse Ray set to the ins and outs of the winding Altamaha. And for the visual learners in the group, "Altamaha: A River and its Keeper" follows the journey of Altamaha Riverkeeper James Holland through his photography, with added narration by Ray and Dorinda G. Dallmeyer.
Grab a paddle
There’s no shortage of activities to keep you busy on the Altamaha, from deer and turkey hunting to fishing for trophy bass and catfish. But one of the best ways to experience the Altamaha? Grab a paddle. Whether by kayak, canoe, or SUP, you’ll make your way through a tapestry of cypress, lime tupelo, and pine forests (under a canopy of Spanish moss, of course).
The 18-mile route from Everett City to Darien is a good place to start. You’ll find access points at both locations, but for the most part, you’ll be on your own. Make a day trip of it – or pick a spot to set up camp along the way. And don’t worry if the fish miss your hook. When you arrive in Darien, check out Skippers’ Fish Camp or head to Mudcat Charlie’s, where there’s plenty of fried shrimp and grouper to go around.
If you prefer a more structured experience, local outfitters can help with boat rental and pre-planned excursions. For an extended adventure, try the Georgia Conservancy’s annual Altamaha River Weekend Paddle, held each spring. It follows the same 18-mile route, and thanks to high tide, the river will help you along in your efforts. Altamaha Coastal Tours offers several options for guided day trips along the river, its delta, and surrounding areas. Bringing the whole crew? Bond over 11- or 16-mile family paddles so everyone can join in on the fun.
Eyes to the sky
The Altamaha happens to be where avid birder, conservationist, and President Jimmy Carter added the lesser yellowlegs to his list of avian sightings. For you, it might be the purple gallinule, glossy ibis, oystercatcher, or a bald eagle.
One of your best bets for spotting new friends soaring in all their plumage is along the Georgia Colonial Coast Birding Trail at the Ansley Hodges M.A.R.S.H. Project (part of the Altamaha Wildlife Management Area). Sitting atop a former rice plantation, the impoundment offers prime viewing for birds of prey, shorebirds, songbirds, wading birds, waterfowl, and raptors.
Your adventure awaits
The Altamaha has something for everyone – and something new to discover with every visit. Don’t miss the wild, beautiful adventure of this hidden Georgia treasure. We hope to see you around the river.