Brace Yourself

Professional paddling guide Steve Braden gets us into the cockpit and leads us down the trail to the real Georgia.

Photography by CHRISTINE HALL


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Back in the early 1990s, Savannah’s sea-kayaking community was small enough that you could identify most sea kayakers from a distance just by their kayaks. There just weren’t that many kayaks around then. By the end of the decade, however, that had changed.

Sea kayaking had entered its heyday in these waters, going mainstream. And, no wonder. The Georgia coast was then, as it is now, a beautiful place to paddle, having thousands of acres of maritime forest and salt marsh, and hundreds of miles of coastline, tidal creeks, tidal and black water rivers to explore.

Today there are even more paddlers and more kinds of paddlecraft—sleek and fast surf skis, slow but fun sit-on-tops, even slower rec boats, highly maneuverable surf kayaks, decked-out fishing kayaks and trendy stand-up paddleboards, along with the more familiar sea kayaks and canoes. An old-timer might reasonably be forgiven for not being able to recognize everyone’s boat these days.

With all of these vessels around, you might think there’s no place you can paddle here where you won’t run into a baker’s dozen of them every time you round a bend or go out to catch a wave. Sometimes you will, but you can also find places of your own where few people go and times of day when you are likely to have even popular spots to yourself.

Dawn, dusk, distance and difficulty are four D’s that will offer you and your group solitude. Leaving early, returning late, paddling far from the madding crowd, and in conditions that require skill and knowledge—try any or all of these to see the real coast of Georgia.

 

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Blue Water Trail

Of the four major barrier islands in Chatham County—Tybee, Little Tybee, Wassaw and Ossabaw—only Tybee is heavily developed. The other three are essentially wilderness in our backyard.

Little Tybee and Ossabaw are both State Heritage Preserves administered by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Wassaw is a National Wildlife Refuge, a unit of the Savannah Coastal Refuge System administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. All three are accessible only by boat.

Inland, try paddling Skidaway Narrows, which is that section of the Skidaway River skirting the west side of Skidaway Island. Paddle north from the highway bridge and you’ll have Wormsloe State Historic Site on your left and Skidaway Island State Park on your right. The former is the site of the oldest estate in Georgia dating from 1736, the latter a 588-acre state park with hiking trails, Civil War earthworks and the axed remains of stills from the Prohibition era. Side channels can take you deeper into each site—a favorite, but somewhat sketchy, channel brings you through marsh grass into a green room underneath a sprawling live oak swagged in Spanish moss (which is neither Spanish nor moss).

For fresh water, try Ebenezer Creek in adjacent Effingham County. Ebenezer is a quiet black water creek winding through buttressed bald cypress and tupelo-gum forests, one of the best preserved such forests in the region. If you happen to go when the water level is high, you can paddle not just the creek, but also the flooded forests on either side of the main channel.

On your way toward the Savannah River, a group of heavy pilings marking an old bridge site also marks the scene of a Civil War tragedy. Here, in the early morning hours of December 9, 1864, hundreds of freed slaves tagging along with the Union Army for protection were abandoned on the northern bank by order of the Union commander. Knowing they would be recaptured by the pursuing Confederate cavalry, many rushed the icy water in an attempt to cross; an unknown number, perhaps hundreds, drowned.

What You’ll See: In the miles of interlaced waterways to and from any of the islands, be prepared to paddle with dolphins and surprise sea turtles surfacing to reconnoiter. Watch a reddish egret in its drunken dance, which confuses fish until it’s too late to escape the egret’s sudden and quite sober strike. Sympathize with a springtime horde of male horseshoe crabs butting into your beached kayak, all of them crestfallen that it’s not a female.

Catch your first wave, and then come up spluttering in your first successful Eskimo roll. Or, just after a sudden summer downpour, you see a full rainbow arcing from horizon to horizon. Then you realize that if you hadn’t been paddling in the rain you would have missed the rainbow, and if you hadn’t paddled at all, you would have missed that and ten thousand other real things.

What You’ll Learn: The overlay of cultural history is found in most places you will paddle here or further afield in Georgia: a 4,000 year-old shell ring complex on Sapelo Island, a derelict mansion from the Gilded Age on Cumberland Island, or the plucky lighthouse on Cockspur Island that bore witness to the siege and reduction of Fort Pulaski. These are prominent cultural features and easy to find, but finding others less prominent may require increasing your store of local knowledge.

 

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Get In Gear

For fly fishing equipment, including rods, reels, backs and boxes:

Rivers and Glen, 24 Drayton St., 123-5555, riversandglen.com

For all-weather clothing, footwear, tents and bug spray:

Half-Moon Outfitters, 15 E. Broughton St., 201-9393, halfmoonoutfitters.com

For lessons, equipment and rentals:

Moon River Kayak Tours, Rodney J. Hall Boat Ramp and Park, 334-1310, moonriverkayak.com

North Island Surf and Kayak, 1C Old U.S Highway 80, Tybee Island, 786-4000, northislandkayak.com

Ogeechee River Canoe and Kayak Rentals, 663-0442, dotheogeechee.com

Savannah Canoe and Kayak, 414 Bonaventure Road, 341-9502, savannahcanoeandkayak.com

Sea Kayak Georgia, 1102 U.S Highway 80 Tybee Island, 786-8732, seakayakgeorgia.com

 

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 THE RIGHT STUFF

According to Nigel Law at Savannah Canoe and Kayak, Tybee waves are ideal for learning to surf kayak. You will need:

  • a short, sit-on-top style boat, 10 feet or less in length
  • a short, strong paddle, approximately 190 centimeters in length. American-made Werner Paddles has created a high-angle and hooked “Tybee” paddle, inspired by coastal Georgia waterways.
  • helmet
  • kayak leash
  • lifejacket
  • water shoes

 

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Did you know?

Geographically known as an Ebb Tidal Delta, the area of sandbars between Tybee and Little Tybee is commonly called “The Triangle.” On the rising tide, waves bend and refract around the bars creating a “washing machine” sea state. Paddlers come from all over the U.S. to train and play in this environment.

The Georgia coast is often listed among the Top 10 destinations for paddlesports in the U.S., along with the Florida Everglades, the Florida Keys, Appalachia, the Great Lakes and the Pacific Northwest. Warm shallow waters, summertime high-pressure systems, 14 primary barrier islands, 300,000 acres of marsh, and the second largest tidal variance on the east coast make for an ideal paddling environment.

—Nigel Law

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