Story + Photography by Michele Roldán-Shaw
George L. Smith State Park
I normally don’t paddle blackwater environments in summer — too many dangerous reptiles, even for me. But a freakish cool spell had me thinkin’ it was April again, and a friend in Augusta wanted to meet halfway for adventure, so the George L. Smith State Park looked right.
“I feel like this is really good for my nervous system,” she remarked as we slipped our boats onto the glassy mill pond and felt a physical peace descend. Wizened cypress trees stubbed out of the blue-black waters, their mossy snag-arms reaching like a grandma’s hug. A big sky full of summertime clouds reflected under us. It was so quiet — far from Savannah, very far from Atlanta, removed even from the dull roar of the interstate. With its historic mill house, endangered gopher tortoises and indigo snakes, and an air of country peace, the park is a remnant of bygone eras.
Once upon a time this was just a lil’ ol’ creek in Georgia, until an entrepreneur of the day got a gleam in his eye and bought 200 acres around it. In 1880 he dammed 15-Mile Creek and built a saw mill, grist mill and cotton gin, which was also a covered bridge so folks from three counties could drive right through it with their crops.
An engineering marvel of its time, hand-built from trees felled on the spot, it ran for two centuries and can still grind 200 pounds of corn in an hour-long demonstration today.
But we didn’t necessarily come for the history. We came to picnic in quietude (a little gazebo served nicely when afternoon thundershowers rolled in), to hike the woodland trails (no gopher tortoises, but not because we didn’t look), and to paddle a serene reptile haven. One detail about my friend: she has a primal fear of alligators. “They’re out here, Shelly, I can smell them,” she warned as I paddled away from open water toward the swampy, crawly edge choked with tree trunks harboring who-knew-what.
“What do they smell like?” I asked curiously.
“Like fresh rain on pavement mixed with a sewer,” she replied in a description so aptly poetic that I couldn’t believe she’d thought of it on the spot.
But we never saw any gators. The day heated up, and suddenly snakes were everywhere. Cottonmouths sunned on logs looking fat and sinister, but they never moved a muscle. A lithe, nonvenomous water snake started up a tree where a moccasin was already wedged in, then thought better of it and swam to the next trunk over. His little round eye watched me as I eased in for the close-up: a banded squiggly line up cypress bark.
“I wouldn’t mind coming back here,” my friend concluded as we wrapped up our happy day away. In a world of noise and nonsense, this place was a respite — more tranquil than majestic, suitable for modest awe. Maybe next time we’ll check out the campsites right on the water … but if we catch a whiff of fresh rain on pavement mixed with a sewer, we’ll know to put the chicken away.
How to get there
Twin City, Georgia
Mode of transportation
Foot and kayak
From I-16 West, take exit 104 in Metter and turn right onto GA-121 N/GA-23 N. Continue about 15 miles, following signs for the park, then turn right onto George L. Smith State Park Road.
If you go
Relax and explore! There’s no way to get lost on the 412-acre man-made lake, unlike natural swamps which may extend for many confusing miles in all directions.