A five-week trip was more than a pleasure cruise for Joanne Steele, her son Jesse and their friend Bob Brooksher.
The trio began a trek March 8, floating down the Chattooga and Savannah rivers to call attention to the condition of the river system and to the dangers it potentially faces.
“We’ve connected with groups all along the way and individuals who are concerned about the health of the river system and the watershed,” said Joanne Steele, a singer-songwriter and environmental activist.
Their trip started at Whiteside Mountain in North Carolina, at the headwaters of the Chattooga River. The Chattooga, after joining with the Tugaloo and Seneca rivers, becomes the Savannah River south of Lake Hartwell. It also has a designation as a wild and scenic river.
Their trek started with a kickoff party, attended by family, friends and several interested groups.
Environment Georgia Research and Policy Center released a report last year calling the Savannah River the third-most toxic in the U.S.
“That hit us hard,” said Jesse Steele, “because the branch of the Savannah we know is the Chattooga, which is as close to pristine as a river of that size can be in the Southeast. It’s a beautiful, clean protected waterway. It was shocking for us to learn this. We knew there was pollution downstream, but we didn’t realize that this river we see as probably the cleanest in our area becomes one of the top three most-polluted rivers by the time it gets down here.”
Brooksher said he dreamed of doing a trip from the headwaters of the Chattooga, “which I fell in love with many years ago,” to the sea for about 10 years.
“I’ve been dreaming about that but never done it,” he said. “I had put it off every year until Joanne came up with her plan and approached me about making it this happen this past summer. That was the genesis of this.”
Joanne’s husband did a five-week canoe trip when he turned 60. She turned 60 this year, so she figured it was her turn. It is also the 70th anniversary of the Atomic Age, when the first atomic bombs were exploded. Steele has been involved in nuclear issues since her high school days, when she turned her concern to the mining and milling of uranium on native lands.
A member of Nuclear Watch South, Steele also called attention to the number of nuclear power facilities along the Savannah River and the ones that are coming.
“We have five reactors, two new ones being built — the first two new ones since Three Mile Island — and we have the Savannah River Site and Barnwell, a supposedly low-level radioactive waste (dump), all on this river system,” she said.
Surprises along the way
The trio encountered class 5 rapids around the Chattooga, but didn’t run into any kind of rapids again until they got near the fall line.
“That provided some obstacles that had to be dealt with,” Jesse Steele said.
Brooksher’s 40-year-old canoe hit a rock, in a spot that already had been damaged. Armed with duct tape, they “had to do a little ‘MacGyver’ work” to get back on the water, Jesse Steele added.
Nature shined on them for the majority of the trip, aside from the tangle with the rocks. Even the volatile and unpredictable conditions of a Georgia late winter/early spring didn’t interfere with their journey.
“We’ve been incredibly blessed with good weather for the majority,” Jesse Steele said. “We were prepared for much worse. We’ve only had a handful of days where it’s rained on us.”
Said Brooksher: “No lightning, no tornadoes, no ice storms.”
Not that the sailing was always smooth, especially during the upper stretches of the river. They paddled 138 miles on lakes above Augusta, from Tugaloo down to Clarks Hill.
“And that was tough,” Brooksher said. “No current and a lot of headwinds.”
During their trip down the Savannah, which included a short excursion along the Ebenezer Creek last week, Brooksher and the Steeles saw fish jumping out of the water, bald eagles, bears, hogs and split-tailed kites.
“There’s such beautiful diversity along this river. But from Augusta to just south of the Savannah River Site, there wasn’t much,” Joanne Steele said.
That could be a result of a couple of factors, she noted, including the water’s turbulence from dam releases and possible pollutants being put into the water.
“You get a little further down, it’s beautiful again,” she said. “The river seems to have a way of healing itself, if we just leave it alone.”
Brooksher said he expected to be impressed with the areas around Silver Bluff and Shell Bluff on the South Carolina side. But the river around Clyo held a hidden charm for the group.
“This section, we were surprised by the beauty around Clyo and the bluffs there were really beautiful with the springs emerging and dripping,” he said. “The plant life was really diverse. That was a pleasant surprise.”
Brooksher has paddled down the Ebenezer twice before and has been “amazed” by its beauty, he said.
The last time he came down the Ebenezer, he was taken aback by what he saw.
“I was shocked to see a giant clear-cut that came right to the river’s edge and I’m happy that folks are working to prevent that from happening again,” he said alluding to the city of Springfield’s work to preserve much of the Ebenezer and Ebenezer Crossing.
One of the most surprising aspects of the trip has been the people they’ve encountered, both on the water and on dry land.
“We’ve made a lot of connections,” Jesse Steele said.
The support shown to the group and the mission also has been a boost to their morale and spirits, including those whose livelihoods depend on industries that have an impact on the river.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at across economic and political lines that everyone we’ve spoken with holds the health of the rivers and streams in very high importance,” Jesse Steele said. “Some of the major threats to the river are also sizable economic forces in some of the areas we’re coming through, and I was concerned about encountering polarization over that. But everyone we have spoken to — and we’ve met people on the river, so obviously they love the river — but everyone seems to place protection of the river above even supporting their company, at least verbally. And I didn’t not expect that.”
He also said their mission has garnered more support in light of the proposed Palmetto Pipeline, “partially because of the threats to the river and private property with the pipeline.
“I wasn’t sure how our mission would be received,” Steele said, “but it’s been nothing but warm and welcoming and encouraging by people all down the river, which is very hopeful and encouraging for us.”
Said Brooksher: “For me, it’s the people, how they have been so supportive and helpful and friendly and helping us out in so many ways. So many great folks we’ve met.”
More to the mission
Among their tasks was delivering a letter from Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis to Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson. Davis also issued a proclamation for the trio, and the letter dealt with the protection of the river and its importance, Brooksher said.
In addition to frequent blogs on the trip — when they had access to the Internet — there also is a documentary being made to chronicle the events and the trip was scheduled to end with a river cleanup on Tybee Island. But the Steeles and Brooksher both said the river’s future needs to be protected and monitored.
One of the dangers to the river, they said, is the entities that withdraw water from the river can do so even during a drought. That magnifies the impact of any pollutants in the stream, Jesse Steele said.
“We hate to use the term ‘point of no return,’” he said. “But the concern is that not only does the waste level remain the same but unless methods or practices change, population increases, the amount of water diluting everything becomes less and less and possibly what’s going in becomes more and more.”
“A lot of these industries and power plants are sucking out their allotment, even in a drought, and it adversely affects the river much more in a drought,” Brooksher said.
Another problem, Joanne Steele said, was the nuclear power plants withdraw water from the river but only return about a one-third of what they take. The rest is turned to steam, she said.
The trio also had a banner they carried along the trip, with supporters signing it whenever and wherever they could.
“People all along the river are signing this banner,” Brooksher said, “and it’s filled.”
Source to Sea
For more, visit www.Sourcetoseasavannah.com or find them on Facebook at Source to Sea: Savannah River Pilgrimage.