SECRET SPOT OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
Story + Photography by Michele Roldán-Shaw
It’s a world-class kayaking destination tucked away in backwater Georgia, one of the last remaining old-growth bald cypress swamps in the world. It’s an enchanting realm of deep shade, mirror-black water, giant bulbous tree trunks twisted into fantastical shapes, and cypress knees taller than a person. Fine-art photographers from Atlanta come down with their large-format cameras to make wet plate collodion images of Ebenezer, using the tannin-stained waters of the creek itself to give their prints a special patina that they sell to city folks at high prices. Meanwhile, locals stand around parked cars at the landing and smoke.
There’s a macabre bit of history here too — a tale of injustice, betrayal and tragedy: during the Civil War, a group of newly freed slaves was straggling behind a column of Union troops marching to Savannah with the Confederates close at their heels. When they reached Ebenezer Creek, the Union soldiers built a pontoon bridge and rushed across, then pulled it up before the freed people could follow. In the ensuing panic, hundreds of men, women and children drowned as they tried to cross the frigid waters, and those that didn’t were recaptured by Confederates. The trees, grand as they were even then, could do nothing but bear witness.
Today the creek is quiet, an ancient world away from modern chaos. Owls hoot from the dark interior. Gators cruise silently through sweet-tea-colored waters. Contingents of ibis feed in the wading shallows. Sunlight, filtered through a canopy of tupelo leaves and cypress fronds, is hot as it hits your neck in the boat. The sounds soothe you; the plant life soaks up your stress.
In such an unhurried place, there’s time to notice different things. I saw a bug towing a spider across the surface of the water, something I’d never seen and couldn’t explain. I chased a little green snake as it swam lightning quick across the creek before winding its way gracefully into a bush. I heard a noise like a sink drain and thought at first it was some unusual critter, but the noise was too consistent. I realized it was the nearly imperceptible current passing through some little suck that made a funny sound. Mostly I just looked at the trees in all their whimsical varieties. Four saplings grew out of one colossal, fluted trunk. A maple clung to a dead cypress stump as a platform on which to grow. One cypress had a base so huge it was an island unto itself, with a whole community of plants rooting and sprouting out of it. I marveled at the infinite variety of forms nature takes in its insistence upon thriving.
Back at the landing an old man was standing around staring at the stream, looking for someone to make conversation with. He had grown up around here and was amazed at how people came from all over to see something that seemed so commonplace to him. He told me how his grandfather used to plow and plant 60 acres with a mule not too far from here while he sat and played under a shade tree. When he got older, he ran up and down the creek in his boat, but now he only came to look at it. The other day he’d seen kids swimming off the rope swing here. When he pointed out a big gator headed in their direction, they just ignored him and kept playing.
A few weeks later I returned to Ebenezer with my sister and two-year-old niece for her first-ever kayak adventure. The locals hanging around the landing fawned over her with her tiny sun hat, life vest and paddle. I couldn’t wait to show her the magic and mystery of Ebenezer Creek — the crazy shaped trees with root systems like castles, the Spanish moss beards and little villages of cypress knees in the funny colored water. But after being lulled into an awestruck silence as we glided out, she promptly fell asleep between my knees. The spell of Ebenezer was cast! LL
If you go
Where: Effingham County, Georgia
Mode of transport: Kayak or canoe
How to get there: Put in at Tommy Long Boat Ramp in Rincon, Georgia. Take a right from the landing and paddle downstream to the Savannah River, or go left to explore the upper reaches of the creek.
Travel tips: Be aware that different water levels make for varying conditions, including portages over fallen logs upstream or dangerous currents in the Savannah River. Venturing away from the channel into trackless swamp may result in getting lost.
Steeped in history
Each December the Georgia Conservancy hosts a guided historical tour of Ebenezer Creek. Participants learn about the first settlers of Effingham County, the Georgia Salzburgers, and how they founded the settlement of Ebenezer. Learn more at georgiaconservancy.org.