Near Varnell, Georgia--For the past three days, I have slowly made my way through and along one of the Southeast’s greatest treasures—the Conasauga River.
Starting at the confluence of the Jacks and Conasauga Rivers in the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, I hiked along the river and at strategic locations, I snorkeled, giving me a chance to see the river above and below the water’s surface.
The Conasauga actually begins in Georgia, but flows off the north flank of the Cohutta Mountains and into Tennessee before it turns south back into Georgia.
Thus, the Upper Coosa River Basin which stretches into Alabama, spans three states. The river here consists of a network of shoals created by exposed bedrock and boulders. From the river bank, you can see how the river’s rock gardens mimic the surrounding mountains. The boulders, which stick above the water’s surface, are like the real mountains rising above the river itself.
Below the surface, those boulders, like the mountains, are covered with a thick forest—but it’s a forest of riverweed instead of poplar, oak and pine.
This underwater world is to the fish and other river creatures what the terrestrial forests are to the squirrels and bears. Between the shoals, the river forms pools that are often deeper than they appear. The locals call these pools “blue holes” and they offer an allure and magic that a swimming pool could never duplicate.
They also harbor a lot of fish. In a very short time of casting with my spinning reel, I caught five species of fish. Here, the river is about as close to pristine as a river gets in the Southeast, draining mostly national forest lands protected as the Cohutta Wilderness.
They say that all our rivers once flowed this clear, before we dramatically changed the land with farming, logging, mining, roads and development.
Viewing the clear water, it is hard to believe the Coosa in Rome once looked like this.
But the Conasauga’s clear waters give us a glimpse of what once was. Combined with the incredible fish diversity, it is the ideal place for freshwater snorkeling—a place where you can still discover the river’s wonderful secrets.
For me that is the allure of snorkeling. Donning my mask and snorkel I entered an underwater world that was so full of life that I half expected a Conasauga Crayfish to bust out in a reggae number of “Under the River” similar to that of the one from Disney’s The Little Mermaid.
Of the 76 species of fish known in the Conasauga, I observed more than 25, including the the federally endangered Conasauga Logperch--found only in a very small stretch of the river.
I watched as it exhibited its trademark rock-flipping behavior. Using its pointed nose, it flips rocks and sticks on the river bottom searching for its next meal.
During my travels, I met Mathew and Braxton Botts.
The father and son decided to try out their own masks to see what I was seeing. Hours later Braxton was pleading with his father to stay out late on a school night so that they could explore more of the underwater world. They were hooked.
They discovered what more and more are discovering--that freshwater snorkeling is one of the best recreational experiences a river has to offer.
If you have not seen the Conasauga Snorkel Hole, hopefully these photos will convince you to plan a visit.
Click here to read the previous story about Amos Tuck's journey.