The Satilla River is worth reading about. Most citizens are aware it marks Pierce County’s boundaries with Ware and Brantley County. Most are likely unaware the river fixes a maze of legal rights and restrictions beyond consideration, here. Irrespective, fishermen, hunters, boaters, kayakers, naturalists, botanists – more recently environmentalists – from the county, the state and beyond, descend on the river year after year in significant numbers. Like rivers the world over it manifests mysteries and pleasures and draws people to it. “A river,” wrote the poet, “is a vein on the surface of the earth.” The Satilla is no exception. Even casual observers often see in its dark, slow-moving currents a living force implanted in nature – at daybreak, in particular, when silent white mists spiral upward from its waters.
Spreading from the coast to the fall line, the Coastal Plain is Georgia’s largest geographic province, and the Satilla lies exclusively within it. It is the largest blackwater river situated entirely within Georgia. The term ‘blackwater’ refers to the Satilla’s coffee-colored stream, caused by tannins and natural leachates common along its course. Additional additives are humic material from the flood plain swamps of cypress and black gum. However, dip in and bring up a cup. The water takes on a clear iced tea color that starkly contrasts to the numerous “sugar-sand” bars along the river’s lengthy reach.
The Satilla rises from an elevation of 350 feet near Fitzgerald in Ben Hill County. From there it winds in a mostly easterly direction for 235 miles. All rivers, as the saying goes, run to the sea. So does the Satilla. It empties into Saint Andrews Sound ten miles south of Brunswick, thus forming a salt water estuary with the barrier islands. Unlike the Mississippi that deepens sharply and narrows at its mouth, the Satilla widens at the coast and deepens very little. On average it flows at the rate of 85 cubic meters per second. The Atlantic’s twice-a-day tidal surge traveling over the oceans – pulled by the gravity of the moon and the sun – affects the river’s currents sixty-six miles upstream from its mouth.
It has but two fresh water tributaries, the Little Satilla and the Alapaha, neither of which is more than thirty miles in length. The three streams drain four-thousand square miles of a river basin that includes all or part of 15 Georgia counties. The watershed is home to 120,000 people. The river – its tributaries and the terrestrial watershed – are ecologically unique. It’s the home of 52 species of fish, including a famous largemouth bass fishery and its renowned red breast sunfish. Bird life, including the barn owl, is especially abundant nearer the coast.
The age of the river is an unsettled subject. Georgia’s lower Coastal Plain was formed by the monumental forces of melting glaciers and the rise and fall of sea levels, both in the former epochs of geologic time. At some point amidst those earthly convulsions the Satilla began to flow. What is known – to the surprise of many – is that paleontologists working in lower regions along the river have discovered fossil evidence of a fantastic array of extinct creatures that once roamed there: the giant ground sloth, box tortoise, mastodon, buffalo, horse, camel and giant beaver.
The discovery of the Satilla is also a debatable fact. The river got its name from a Spanish officer name Saint Illa. In time that became Satilla. In all probability, he and others from Spanish settlements along the coast were the first white men to wander through and see it, but no document has yet been found.
From all accounts, the Creek Indian Nation once maintained a transportation and subsistence network on the river, before being driven west from Georgia in 1812. In the early 1950s, workmen at Rattlesnake Ridge landing uncovered an archaic camp fire. Among the embers were six flint hand axes. An expert on such matters testified they were made by early natives and were 600 years old; further evidence red men were first on the river. The landing at Burnt Fort, 51 miles above the mouth, is believed to have been the site of a fort in the pre-revolutionary war period.
In later times timber, naval stores, and commercial fisheries flourished in the Satilla Basin. Saw logs were once floated from as far upstream as Waycross. In its original condition, ocean going steamers were active as far upstream as Owens Ferry, 30 miles above the mouth. River steamers made it to Burnt Fort.
From 1826 and continuing, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has maintained interests in the Satilla. It has conducted studies, surveys, measurements, and probes – at first for a canal between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, later for the cost of widening and deepening the stream. Neither objective was pursued. The Corps reported the river’s dimensions vary. At its mouth it is 1.5 miles wide and 16 feet deep. Upstream at mile 7 it narrows to one-fourth of a mile in width. At Waycross say the Corps, “the river is a narrow winding stream with an average width of about 150 feet and a depth of 1 foot.”
Those close to the river detect distinct changes in its hydrograph (ups and downs). Floods are quicker to exhibit themselves, spike higher for a given amount of time, then fall off quickly. The stream appears to reflect droughts that deepen and last longer.
Environmental degradation on the river is not the threat it is on many American waterways. However, starting in 2014 Satilla Riverkeeper reports 16,000 pounds of trash were removed from the river. Invasion of the non-native flathead catfish poses a major threat to the redbreast fishery. Sewage seepage, though limited, is reported at intervals in some habitats. Poll after poll of public opinion reveals strong support for protection and preservation of the nation’s streams and rivers. The Satilla Riverkeeper was formed in 2014 for that very purpose: to protect, restore, and educate regarding the Satilla. See satillariverkeeper.org.
•Retired attorney Jim Thomas lives in Atlanta. He is a former Pierce County resident.