Patrick McGahee will never forget the summer several years ago that he and a friend decided to spend a few days kayaking down the Savannah River all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
“It’s a very surreal trip,” McGahee said, laughing. “It is so quiet. The further down you get, you are literally in the middle of nowhere. It’s like another world.”
McGahee and his friend decided to make the journey down the Savannah during the summer of 2009.
Back then, he had worked for a couple of years at American Wilderness Outfitters Ltd. and had always enjoyed kayaking in general, but he had never made the trip to the Savannah Harbor.
“I’ve always like being outdoors and it was just something we really wanted to do,” McGahee said. “I actually ended up going into the Army about a year after our trip for five years and I now work for the Richmond County Probation Office. But I’ll never forget that trip down the river. There are so many things that you would never run across again. Just the river lifestyle, the wildlife and the environment were unforgettable.”
“It was next to some highway in the middle of nowhere,” McGahee said, chuckling. “We put in there and we paddled from that spot all the way down to River Street in downtown Savannah. I think it was four days and three nights. It was awesome. We took a tent and camped out on sandbars along the way. We just took cases of bottled water, soups and basically things that could survive in the heat that you don’t really have to cook, like ramen noodles. It was very primitive. I definitely would like to do it again.”
The trip is filled with unspoiled vistas and swampy floodplains that seem completely untouched by the modern world, McGahee said.
“We took bags of oranges to eat along the way and the current would get so fast once you get further down the river that you could just enjoy the view. Those are some of my fondest memories of that trip,” McGahee said. “You’d stop and you would put your feet in the water and peel an orange and the next thing you’d know you were already about a mile down the river. We had 15-foot kayaks, so they stayed on a straight path pretty easily and I remember that the water was just perfect.”
Occasionally, McGahee said, they would encounter a few guys on bass boats or people grilling along the sandbar, but that was about all the human contact they had for more than three days on the river.
“There is really nothing down there. It’s hard for people to imagine,” McGahee said. “I’ll never forget one guy that we ran across who was floating down the river on some pool noodles. We pulled up next to him and we were chatting with him. This guy was quite a character, too. He had lots of teeth missing and several tattoos, but he told us he was on some news station for saving his dog’s life from being attacked by an alligator. I don’t know how far down this was, but, sure enough, when we got back home, we ran across the news clip that was on YouTube of the same guy. Apparently, he was throwing a stick into the river for his German Shepherd to swim and go fetch, but all of a sudden the dog got attacked by the gator, so this man jumped in and wrestled the dog away from the gator and saved his dog’s life.”
While McGahee didn’t have a lot of human interaction during his trip down the Savannah, he saw quite a bit of wildlife during his adventure.
“We saw roughly 30 to 40 gators during the trip,” McGahee said. “People were really surprised by the number of alligators we saw, but I wasn’t really. I knew they’d be there and they are not that scary. In fact, when you get up to them, they just swim away. None of them wanted anything to do with us.”
McGahee also saw a variety of other animals on the trip, including herons, egrets and even some dolphins.
“When we got further down towards Savannah and it was still freshwater, we ran across a group of dolphins in the river. I couldn’t believe it,” McGahee said. “It was wild because it was freshwater, so I don’t know how long or how far up they can go, but they were definitely up in the river down by Savannah.”
After days of being surrounded by nothing but nature, McGahee said it was a real shock to enter the Savannah Harbor at the end of their journey.
“When we got down to River Street, where all of those cargo ships are, it’s like you are trying to basically play Frogger to go across the river. Those ships don’t stop for anybody,” McGahee said, laughing. “It is pretty breathtaking when you get up next to one of those ships. You just realize how small you really are.”
Once McGahee and his friend climbed out of their kayaks and walked into a restaurant on River Street, their entire trip felt surreal.
“When we got down to River Street and walked straight up to the bars and restaurants, I just remember it being so loud because for the past four days we hadn’t heard anything. The river is so peaceful and quiet,” McGahee said. “But when you walk into restaurant, it is just so loud and busy. It really is a whole different world on the river. It was pretty breathtaking. All I can say is, it was a very good trip and I would recommend it to anybody.”
A Family Tradition
David Hargrove of Waynesboro completely understands how people like McGahee instantly fall in love with the Savannah River.
“Ever since a Father’s Day trip down the Savannah back in 1984, I’ve been twice a year every year since then,” said Hargrove, whose family owns property directly across from Plant Vogtle in Burke County. “My dad took me on a trip down the Savannah in the late 1950s back when he had a boat.”
That river trip began Hargrove’s fascination with the Savannah River, he said.
“My dad was wealthy back then for a little short period of his life before he had five boys,” Hargrove said, chuckling. “Well, my dad was a member of the boat club that put together that first Father’s Day trip down the Savannah River in 1954. I don’t know how many boats were there that first year, but it has become a tradition every year now. At the high-water mark of our trip, we had 106 boats that went on Father’s Day one year. That was a huge crowd. It has whittled down to about 25 or 30 boats at the most. But we go every year. In fact, my children started going with me in 1985. I have two daughters and they haven’t missed a trip since 1985.”
Enjoying the natural beauty of the Savannah has become a family tradition for the Hargroves over the past several decades, he said.
“In 1956, my dad bought the place that we have on the river adjacent to Plant Vogtle,” Hargrove said. “Shortly after that, the next year or two, he built a cabin on the river. Then, me and my brother, Henry, and some of my friends began going down every weekend. We would hunt and fish. We really grew up on the river adjacent to Vogtle.”
Twice a year, Hargrove says his friends and family really look forward to traveling down the Savannah River on their powerboats.
“We go from 30 to 40 mph, so a 30 mph trip will take you about five and a half hours of actual driving time, but we stop along the way,” Hargrove said, adding that their trip is a wonderful social occasion. “My rule thumb is, everybody puts in at my place now at our cabin and I usually leave around 10 a.m. or thereabouts and we make several stops along the way. The first stop after people leave my place is about a mile and a half below the Highway 301 bridge in Screven County. It is about a 37-mile run down there. There is a pretty sandbar on the Carolina side and we just stop there.”
That first stop is where the weekend’s fun officially begins, Hargrove said.
“It’s kind of like a big luncheon,” Hargrove said. “Everybody pulls out their favorite recipes they’ve made. My friend who owns T’s restaurant, Garrett Fulcher, he always has something really good for us to eat, like some kind of dips or salad or shrimp. And my wife makes pickled shrimp so that’s kind of big deal for me. That’s what we bring.”
All of a sudden a quiet sandbar turns into an incredible buffet for friends and family to enjoy, Hargrove said.
“Walter Clay, back when he was working at the French Market Grille, he went on a few trips and I remember he brought a big bag of crawfish one year,” Hargrove said. “So you have an assortment of different kinds of food and it is just a big social time. You walk around for 45 minutes to an hour and visit with folks that you might not see but once or twice a year.”
People take their time and enjoy visiting with friends, then people break off into smaller groups of usually about three or four boats.
“It is a comfortable ride with just that many boats. If you get many more than that, the water will get chopped up pretty bad and you can’t seem to get the bounce out of it,” Hargrove said. “Then, we run down to a place called Poor Robin Landing in Screven County. Usually that is the next stop. And then people will stop kind of along the way to go to the bathroom or whatever if they see a sandbar. Then, the last stop is what we call the Smokestack. It is in Effingham County about a mile or a mile and a half below the Ebenezer landing. We stop there and from there we do maybe a 35-mile run on into the harbor in Savannah.”
It is tradition for all the friends and family to stay at the Hyatt Regency Savannah on River Street.
“Once we arrive on River Street, the wives and the children get out and one or two of the guys stay in the boat and take the boat on over to Thunderbolt Marine and dock them at Thunderbolt,” he said. “Then, the guys will group up and three or four of them will catch a cab back over to the hotel.”
After the long journey down the Savannah River, Hargrove said his friends and family generally make a long weekend out of the trip.
“If we go down on Friday, we will either run up to Hilton Head and eat lunch and have a few drinks there on Saturday or go over to Daufuskie Island,” Hargrove said. “They have a really nice outdoor bar over there and always have a good band playing there in the afternoons. A lot of the local people go there, so that’s where we will hang out on Saturday.”
But Hargrove didn’t always use a powerboat to navigate the Savannah River, he said.
“When I was a younger person, I went to a camp, which it is closed now, but it was called Burt Maxwell Camp down in Burke County,” Hargrove said. “It was a two-week, YMCA camp on Highway 23 and a lot of folks from Augusta came down there. Well, one of the highlights of the camp was a trip down the Savannah River.”
The camp would begin its trip at the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, which was established back in 1937.
“From there, we would paddle down to my family’s place, the cabin we had and we would stay at the cabin. That would be a 35-mile run. We would make that in one day and then the next day we would paddle down to 301,” Hargrove said. “The day after that, we would paddle into Poor Robin Landing and camp out there. Then, we would go on into Ebenezer and stay at Ebenezer because at that point, you are reaching the tidal influence. The tides are coming and going and if you catch an incoming tide, you just have got to wait until it turns. But that trip was always a highlight of the camp.”
Besides Father’s Day, Hargrove also always schedules a trip later this month.
“Our second trip will be Aug. 11, 12 and 13 to enjoy the end of summer,” Hargrove said. “Sometimes I have made the trip in October because a group of guys will want to go down. The wives usually don’t want to have any part in that one because it is a little cooler in October. But a group of us will get together and have a weekend in Savannah.”
Depending on the season, you’ll see a variety of different wildlife on the river, he said.
“You will see some gators, wild hogs, deer, plenty of turtles and a lot of birds like herons, wood storks and lots of doves and some mallards,” Hargrove said. “And you will see some snakes, occasionally.”
The best advice that Hargrove has for newcomers to the river is to plan ahead and make sure you carry enough fuel for the entire trip because there are no gas stations available along the way.
“That is probably the biggest shortfall of people who make that trip. They don’t think that through too much and they will come up a little short on gas,” Hargrove said. “For instance, I will take 12 extra gallons with me and we may need five or six of it, but we never need the whole 12. However, we take it just in case and we have given gas to people before. Generally speaking, if you are going to take a powerboat, you will need in the neighborhood of 50 gallons to go down.”
You will need about the same amount, maybe a little bit more, on the return trip, he said.
“Running against the current, it may take you another gallon or so, but it is not a big difference,” Hargrove said. “Also, people should know you definitely drop a few dollars on fuel for this trip because when you buy it down in Savannah, it is up to four or five dollars a gallon on the dock.”
Another good rule of thumb is not to travel alone and take at least two boats on the trip, Hargrove said.
“Make sure the boats are in good condition and they have been checked out. You want to make sure the water pumps are functioning well and haven’t had any problems,” Hargrove said. “Also, I would generally recommend a newer model motor.”
“Some people try to go with boats with motors that are 15 to 20 years old. That is almost always a sure sign that somebody is going to have some problems. And take an extra propeller with you.”
As far as navigating the river, Hargrove wanted to remind people that the Savannah River isn’t very deep.
“My advice is to just run the middle of the river and keep a keen eye out for snags that are just below the water. You can generally see those,” he said. “And when you get to a wide curve in the river, stick to the outside of that curve as far as you can because that is always a sign that there is real shallow water to the inside.”
But, overall, Hargrove said it is a smooth and enjoyable trip as long as boaters respect the river and pay attention when they enter the Savannah Harbor.
“There is plenty of room in the port, so the big ships really aren’t a problem,” Hargrove said. “The ones that make the biggest wake are the tugboats and that’s what you have to watch out for. It is not going to sink you or swamp your boat, but if you meet a tug in the river, they are generally plowing through the water at a pretty high speed. When they do that, they will create a wake that is probably four or five feet high.”
Therefore, boaters just need to be aware and cautious of the tugboat’s wake, he said.
“You just slow down. When you see it, you can learn to expect it and slow down,” Hargrove said, explaining that if you approach the wakes at a slow speed you can easily ride over them, one at a time. “But I have seen people don’t take the time to slow down, so that can be a pretty wild ride for them, especially right at the end of the trip.”
On the Fast Track
But not all locals traveling down the Savannah River choose to go by powerboat or kayak.
James Beltz and his wife, Judy, have been enjoying their trips down the Savannah River on jet skis almost every year since 2006.
“This all evolved out of employees from John Deere in Grovetown,” Beltz said. “One of our engineers, Eric Miller, came up with the annual John Deere River Run back in 2006 as a team building project. With the exception of three years, we have continued it every year since around June. But Eric conceived this. This is really his baby.”
Over the years, those involved in the John Deere River Run have been introduced to Hargrove, who agreed to allow them to use his private dock to begin their adventures.
“Typically, we will leave Friday morning and we will try to get on the river before 9 a.m.,” Beltz said. “That way we’ll get down to Savannah by 4 or 5 p.m. We stay Friday and Saturday nights. We go out to the ocean on jet skis on Saturday and we’ll come back up the river to Augusta on Sunday.”
“We had a pontoon go with us originally, but we’ve had a jet boat go with us lately,” he said. “We’ve had probably as low as seven skis go down and as many as 16 jet skis go down and come back.”
Using jet skis on this trip takes a little more preparation and planning for possible roadside assistance, Beltz said.
“With that amount of distance that we’re traveling, we have a support truck or trucks that we have certain meeting places along the river,” Beltz said. “We pick just public docks that we meet with the skis and everyone can gas up since there is absolutely no place at all to refuel. And if there are any problems with the skis, we take a trailer so that we can take the broken ski out of the water and we can just trailer it.”
Very rarely do all of the jet skis on the trip make it down to Savannah without any problems, Beltz said.
“As a matter of fact, this was the first year that we made it down and back without any skis breaking down. Typically, we lose one and, in years past, we lost two. They just get hauled back on the trailer,” Beltz said. “But the trip is a lot of fun. To be honest with you, there’s a little more logistics to it than I would like, but it is worth it when you get on the river. It is a good time.”
Traveling down to Savannah, Beltz said you really appreciate what the river has to offer.
“For the most part, until you get down in the Savannah and the marsh area, there are trees on both sides of the river and you can’t see anything past all those trees,” Beltz said. “Right now, the river is a lot nicer than all of the lakes because other than the wakes caused by the other skis, it is glass smooth. So it is really an enjoyable way to spend the weekend.”
When Beltz and his wife first began traveling down the Savannah River, they would share a jet ski and his wife would take photos of all the wildlife. These days, they both have a jet ski for the journey.
“This year we saw more alligators than we had ever seen before,” Judy Beltz said. “We saw 17 going down and more than 20 coming back.”
Occasionally, people on the trip are surprised at the size of some of the alligators, James Beltz said.
“Most of the gators are anywhere from 3 to 6 feet, but we’ve seen them easily pushing 12 to 13 feet, so there are definitely some big boys out there,” James Beltz said, laughing.
“There are always a lot of river birds like ospreys, egrets and blue herons on the river. I’ve also seen a river otter as well as coyotes, foxes and deer swimming across the river.”
While everyone generally has a great experience on the trip, accidents can definitely happen, so people need to be cautious and prepared, James Beltz warned.
“The worst thing that happened to us was about four years ago,” James Beltz said. “My wife and I were riding on my jet ski that year and my son was riding the other one behind us. Well, she was taking pictures of him coming up behind us and without thinking, I decided to give him a little spray.”
All of a sudden, James Beltz’s joke became no laughing matter.
“I accidentally threw my wife off the jet ski going 50 mph,” James Beltz said. “She cracked eight ribs, so we spent that weekend and a full week down in the Savannah hospital trauma room. That was the worst accident anybody has had on one of our trips.”
Fortunately for the Beltz family, the group managed to still have cellular phone service and help wasn’t too far away for Judy Beltz.
“We were probably still another 15 miles from a take-out point, but we did have cell coverage there and we called 911,” James Beltz said. “They came in an ambulance and actually pulled up the same time we got there with a boat. We were able to put her in a boat and meet the ambulance and they took us on into Savannah. So we were really lucky there because there are miles and miles of no cellular phone coverage on the river.”
The best advice that James Beltz has for anyone considering taking the trip down the Savannah is make sure you have additional support in place.
“They definitely need to have some kind of road-based support system,” James Beltz said. “The newer skis that we have are pretty gas efficient, but there is nobody that can make it without having a support system. We are close now. We can carry an additional 10 gallons of gas on the skis, but, even with that, you still end up about 30 miles short of being able to make it down to Savannah without additional gas support, so support would probably be the most important thing.”
Those traveling along the river should also take the adventure very seriously, he said.
“Treat it more as a trip than just tearing around the lake and splashing people and stuff,” James Beltz said. “Because it is no fun to get soaking wet and then have eight hours on the river riding, so think about that before you head out. And, remember, it is easy to get sunburned because you are traveling 35 to 40 mph and you have a good wind, so you really don’t feel the heat, but the sun is actually just baking down on you.”
“Something that we’ve learned is plan for the unexpected,” Judy Beltz said. “We have this rain gear called Frogg Toggs that we use because we have hit several different rain events over the years. This last one coming back was thunder and lightning and heavy rains almost the whole way back. So without those Frogg Toggs and good face protection, there is nowhere to go. You are just out on the river.”
Respecting the Savannah
There is no doubt about it, people are definitely fascinated with traveling down the Savannah River, said Tonya Bonitatibus, the executive director of the Savannah Riverkeeper.
“The biggest thing that people need to understand is that it’s a 200-mile trip. Most people don’t get that,” Bonitatibus said. “In fact, we get calls to our office on a weekly basis of people saying, ‘We are going to try to go to Savannah this weekend,’ and we have to tell people, ‘Nah. I don’t think you should do that.’ There are a lot of rescues that happen in the Allendale area because people will try to take off on a motor boat and won’t make it down. They find out that there isn’t gasoline available and they get stuck.”
Bonitatibus recommends people plan for a four-day trip by motor boat and a six or seven-day trip by canoe or kayak in order to thoroughly enjoy your journey.
“If you are in a motor boat, you can put it in at New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam because the locks don’t work and you can stop around Jackson, S.C., for lunchtime,” Bonitatibus said. “Jackson has a brand new, beautiful boat ramp and you can stay somewhere around Plant Vogtle, which is Burke County. That’s about 40 miles away. The second day, you can stop for lunch at Little Hell Landing, which is an awesome artisan well that is the center of the community in Barnwell, S.C. It is the craziest thing in the world. You are just going down the river and it is nothing, nothing, nothing and then you turn into this little oxbow and there is this really cool spring that comes out of the ground and there are 50 people just hanging out.”
There are several spots along the river that are perfect resting places for travelers such as Burton’s Ferry by Highway 301, Cohen’s Bluff in Allendale County, Johnson’s Landing near Allendale, Poor Robin Landing in Sylvania, Stokes Bluff near Estill, Ebenezer Creek and Milestone Landing in Hardeeville, Bonitatibus said.
“The final stop is Houlihan Boat Landing, where our Savannah office is,” she said. “Now, that does not get you through the port and there is a reason for that. We try to convince everybody not to go through the port. It is incredibly scary. Those boats are terrifying.
I’m extremely cautious anytime I do any work in the port because those boats are bigger than the Empire State Building laying down and they cannot stop. And it is a 40-foot deep ocean port. It is not a recreational zone.”
Instead, if people want to continue out to Atlantic Ocean, Bonitatibus suggests they can take Back River and end up at Tybee Island.
Bonitatibus also has a few more safety tips when it comes to traveling down the Savannah River.
“The river is about three to four feet deep the whole way. That’s super important to know,” she said. “Cohen’s Bluff is actually the spot that eats a lot of boats. If you have a big boat, the sand bars will get you if you don’t pay attention.”
For those who plan on kayaking or canoeing down the river, Bonitatibus says you will see the river in ways others going 40 mph will never get to enjoy.
“It is a beautiful paddle because you actually see things that you don’t see things every day,” she said. “For example, if you put in at Augusta, and go directly to the South Carolina side, you will see a barge that was left there. Roy Simpkins’ family did the straightening of the river and that is one of their barges. So, if you go to the South Carolina side next to the barges as you are going along, you will start seeing railroad tracks down in the river. Those railroad tracks are part of the straightening.”
Visitors down the river should also know there can be a lot of contamination, so be careful, she said.
“I would put in about a mile below the paper plant because that is a pretty contaminated section of the river,” she said. “In fact, I don’t let my children walk on the sandbars that are the first couple ones because there is a lot of heavy metal left over.”
Bonitatibus also pointed out that people should be prepared to see wildlife along the river.
“There are, for sure, alligators, hogs and a lot of coyotes,” she said. “Having said that, after 11 years of working almost daily on the river, I have not had any problems with anything except the hogs. I don’t like hogs. They can be mean. Their eyesight is very, very bad, so by the time that you and the hog realize that you are in close proximity, it’s too late.”
But, to some people’s surprise, gators and wild hogs aren’t travelers’ biggest concerns.
“Any real river person knows that actually the most dangerous thing out on the river are not the animals, it’s the hornets,” she said. “They hang out in the trees that overhang the river. If you are in a canoe or kayak, you have to be really mindful of running underneath the trees and watching out because those hornets are gnarly.”
However, a trip down the Savannah River can be an extraordinary experience for the entire family, she said.
“This time of year there are manatees and sea turtles in the river,” Bonitatibus said. “You also see lots of sturgeons jumping out of the water. They are the most awesome and majestic fish ever.”
All visitors have to do is respect the Savannah River and be prepared for the journey, she said.
“People should look at this trip as if they were going on The Amazon,” Bonitatibus said. “I think oftentimes people tend to look at their back yard and not realize the risks that can come with it. This is not a place you can walk to the gas station. I don’t think most people realize there is less than 100 houses between Augusta and Savannah along the river. It is completely rustic. You are in the middle of nowhere, so you need someone with you who has outdoor experience and knowledge of ropes and boats.”
And, most importantly, be smart while on the river, she said.
“Make sure that you have plenty of water and not just beer. Beer doesn’t count,” Bonitatibus said. “Realize this is not Six Flags. The mosquitoes are real. The alligators are real. The hogs are real. The hornets are real. And it is a step back in time, so you just have to be prepared for it.”
For more information on planning a trip down the Savannah River, contact the Savannah Riverkeeper at 706-826-8991. And to rent gear for your adventure, contact Outdoor Augusta at 706-399-4037.