Aug. 28 Near Varnell, Georgia-
This morning I left the mountains and began paddling through the valley. The river and the land surrounding it have changed drastically. The valley is flat and full of farmland. I peeked through the riverside trees to see the seemingly endless cornfields with mountains outlining the background. Though quite different, the Conasauga is as beautiful as ever.
Many times during today’s seven-mile paddle I had to walk the canoe through low water and around trees. This was not unexpected and I quite enjoyed the change of pace. Water willow, a common aquatic plant, spread across the river, resembling the corn fields on shore. Islands were frequent, breaking the river into many braids, leaving me to choose my path.
The short journey took me much longer than I expected, but only because I spent so much time watching the wildlife. To my fish list, I added longnose gar, common carp, buffalo and gizzard shad — fish associated the calmer waters of the Conasauga’s valley.
I saw white-tailed deer grazing on an island. I scared an eastern cottontail out of a bush. Green Herons, Great Blue Herons, Belted Kingfishers, and Wood Ducks flew downstream, keeping a safe distance from my canoe. A muskrat swam across the river in front of me.
And I had close encounters with common snapping turtles. Seeing a log that looked like a turtle head, I investigated to find that the log was, in reality, a large snapping turtle. Later what I thought was a giant boulder turned out to be the largest snapping turtle I have ever seen. When they reach this size, they have no natural predators. Thus, they can live long lives — 75 years are more. There is no telling how many years that walking boulder has seen.
I frequently saw large river critters, a common water turtle, on the river bed. The shells of the cooters were full of beautiful orange markings that looked like Egyptian hieroglyphics. I stumbled on a Northern Water Snake with a fresh catch of channel catfish still fighting in its mouth.
But, the best wildlife encounter of the day occurred while I was fishing. I kept hearing a coughing noise that sounded like my dog’s pre-bark “ruff” when she senses someone at the door. I looked over a log to see an otter inspecting me. The curious otter kept diving and popping up in new places to get a better view of me. Finally, it decided I had come too close, grabbed its meal (a freshwater drum I might have caught!) and dragged it away. With such a great welcoming from the Conasauga’s fauna, I cannot wait to see what’s in store downstream.
Want to see some of this fauna up close and in person? Join CRBI this Sunday, Sept. 2, for an 8-mile paddle trip on the Conasauga with University of Georgia fisheries specialist, Mary Freeman. Details at www.coosa.org
And, don’t forget to visit my fundraising site. Donations of $35 or more receive a year’s membership in CRBI and five raffle tickets to win a new Wilderness Systems Tarpon 100 Kayak from Cedar Creek Park in Cave Spring. Help us reach our goal of raising $5000 during this Odyssey! Details at www.coosa.org