Five days after the storm, snow remains in shady spots, like this swamp in the Altamaha floodplain.
South Georgia Snowstorm, 2018
Most people are familiar with pine cones. But those are the woody, female cones. Not everyone would recognize this herbaceous bloom as the male cone, but it’s a beautiful thing in its own right. The longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) was once the dominant tree of the South, covering 92 million acres throughout the region. Today, it survives on just 3 million scattered acres. Responsible landowners have begun to plant them in an effort to restore habitat and state agencies throughout the South manage them on public lands. For a beautiful illustrated work on the subject, check out Longleaf, Far as the Eye Can See, from the University of North Carolina Press. For a volume that speaks lyrically of the ecology of our wonderful South Georgia forests and the human culture they’ve always supported, read my friend Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.
Much of the land surrounding the upper reaches of the Alapaha River is characterized by sandy soils, dunes and scrub oaks. They’re most often encountered by hunters and fishermen but they’re a magnificent ecosystem, worthy of exploring when you can get access. Several endangered species call these scrublands home.
The Alapaha originates in southern Dooly County and flows southerly through or along the borders of Crisp, Wilcox, Turner, Ben Hill, Irwin, Tift, Berrien, Atkinson, Lanier, Lowndes, and Echols in Georgia and Hamilton County in Florida. The Willacoochee and Alapahoochee Rivers are its two main tributaries. It flows into the Suwanee River 1o miles south of Jasper, Florida.
Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is ubiquitous.
The remains of a weather-damaged oak lie beside the banks of a man-made canal near the river.
The Alapaha isn’t widely known beyond the counties it embraces except by a few kayakers and canoeists, yet it courses 202 miles from its headwaters to its confluence with the Suwanee. Its levels are increasingly strained by modern agricultural practices in a region considered to harbor some of the most productive farmland in the state. It’s particularly important to me as it’s where I first went fishing in a boat with my father as a very young boy. I may be foolish to think so, but I believe people who live near the river will always have a strong desire to protect it.
Old timers in South Georgia called wild pears (Pyrus pyraster) “hog” pears because the hard fruit takes so long to ripen that the only creature said to eat it is a hog. They are often seen as a first sign of springtime in the Deep South. They were once to be found on every farm in South Georgia; my great-grandmother made wonderful fried pear tarts when they ripened, usually in late summer or early autumn.
Grand Bay is located within a 13,000-acre wetlands system which is said to be the second largest natural blackwater wetland in the state, after the Okefenokee Swamp. It is of the type of land features known as “Carolina bays” which, according to one theory were created by meteor showers. Dudley’s Hammock, a rare example of a mature broadleaf-evergreen hammock community, is found in the area. Strolling leisurely along the boardwalk which provides easy access to the wetland, one of the most beautiful plants likely to be encountered in late spring and summer is the Button Bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), as pictured below.
At the end of the half-mile boardwalk is the 54-foot Kinderlou Tower, which served as a fire lookout in nearby Kinderlou Forest from 1939-1993. It was donated to the state by Harley Langdale, Jr., a prominent Valdosta businessman. Be advised in summer that the walk up the tower can be exhausting and that numerous red wasps nest on the structure. The view from the top, though, is worth the effort.
To reach Grand Bay WMA from Valdosta take U. S. Highway 221 North approximately 10 miles and turn left on Knight’s Academy Road. Go 1.5 miles to the entrance sign on the right. The entrance road leads 1 mile north to a “T”. The boardwalk is to your left, the interpretive center and canoe trail entrance to your right. A Georgia Outdoor Recreation Pass, or GORP, is now required for access; for more information, call the Georgia DNR Wildlife Resources Division at 229-426-5267.
An aside: My good friend Jan Stokes, who had a long career with DNR at Bowens Mill, pointed out to me in an email just how difficult a task it was to build the boardwalk in 100-degree and freezing weather over several years, battling snakes and alligators at every turn. Their dedication to the project mirrored the enthusiasm of Tip Hon, who was the guiding force behind the state’s vision for Grand Bay WMA.