It was a Wednesday and we wanted to ease the stress of the work week with a little catch and release action: we were going fishing. Rebecca and I had our gear and had been riding from pond to pond for a half hour striking off our usual haunts because: “Access to that one is too muddy right now.” “The lily pads are covering the whole pond.” “We’ve barely caught any fish in that one, and they were all little.” It was time to call an audible.
In recent months we’ve spent most of our Sundays on public lands, and as a precursor to such romps, we usually talk about where we’re going the week before, giving us time to do a little research to familiarize ourselves with the target location. We had talked about visiting Chickasawhatchee Wildlife Management Area, but we weren’t planning on it being that soon, we hadn’t done any research, and we were already on the way.
It started something like: “I’m sure there’s a pond out there, wanna try it?” Her sarcastic agreement was license enough to head out of town. She didn’t notice right away; I had mentioned a few other possible fishing locations that were out on the southwest end of town. But as I encouraged her to look up maps of the site, she realized I was serious—by then we were leaving Albany. And racing the sunset.
Gillionville road lead to Eight Mile road, Eight Mile took us to Pretoria, and from Pretoria we took Highway 62 toward Leary—and twelve miles southwest of Albany, is the 19,700-acre property called Chickasawhatchee. There are several roads leading into the property, and at the time, I only knew of one – at the Mike Commander Firing Range. As we turned onto the dirt road, we were filled with dread. We could see a closed gate and traffic barrels—we pulled up to the gate and found that the firing range was being renovated.
We sat in silence for a moment while I hurriedly scoured the internet for information about the closure. “Surely there’s another way in,” I thought while skimming articles and web searches for more information. As it would turn out there was… But first, dear reader, let me tell you about the Mike Commander Firing Range and the larger story of what’s happening there and at firing ranges throughout Georgia.
Mike Commander is one of 7 Firing Ranges in the state that are being renovated with the help of grant funding from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Three of the improvement projects were completed in 2019, the renovations at Mike Commander are expected to be completed in March of 2021, and three other renovation projects are planned. The renovations provide updates and amenities throughout the facilities and vary by site. Updates include things like improved or new shooting pavilions made with sound dampening materials, hot/cold indicator systems, PA systems, expanded ADA accesses, rebuilt or improved berms and backstops, increased capacities in terms of lanes, distances, and/or type of firearm, as well as the addition of hunter development classrooms and restrooms.
A close examination of the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division’s maps revealed 2 more roads leading into the property from Highway 62. We returned to the highway and headed further west until we found Chickasawhatchee Road. Turning south again, we were pleased to have some remaining daylight to explore with. An early fork leads to the first information kiosk just outside the campgrounds and game station. Chickasawhatchee WMA hosts one large primitive campground on the north end of the property, and the grassy clearing has room for RV’s and tents between a multitude of tall pine trees. As we continued south, we caught the song of a passing bird, prompting us to pause at the fork and take photos. Our review of the photos revealed that the tawny yellow bird that had called for our attention was a female Summer Tanager, a bird we had been eagerly seeking for several months.
Whenever we cruise the wild, we turn off the radio and roll the windows down. It gives us the opportunity to take in the forest air and listen for the songs of nearby birds. On the evening in question we were doing exactly that, and among the varied songs we heard one stood out as new to us. We would hear it call, stop the car, seek out the singing bird, and spot it right as it flew away. I was so vexed by this pattern that I began referring to them as “yellow-bellied run-away birds.”
Chickasawhatchee Road leads south and veers west through a swamp, before turning back south along a field of soybeans—we followed the road until we reached a second information kiosk where it intersects with Mount Pleasant Church Road. Glimpses of the sunset through the wood line bordering the field told us it was time to head home. Another quick review of the map revealed taking the fork past Chickasawhatchee Road would put us on Seven-Bridges Road, which crosses the northern width of the WMA from west to east and emerges on Highway 62 at the western reach of the property.
As we drove west across the property, the sun set. And in the dwindling light, the forests and swamps we crossed took on a different wildness as the darkness deepened. The sounds of the forest quickly transitioned from twilight bird calls to evening insect choruses. The nocturnal predator/prey relationship is much different than that of the day. Any wayward humans who find themselves in a south Georgia forest at night should be mindful of feral hogs, alligators, panthers, coyotes, various snakes, and other nocturnal predators.
On that night in the wild—we stayed in the car, the clouds in the distance flashed with heat lightning and shadows of trees danced around our small SUV. The scattered light cast the inky darkness with suspicion of something shifting and full of danger. It reminded me of something from pre-history. We pressed on through curves, over causeways and culverts, until we reached the highway and began the ride home. We were glad to have such an awesome place this close to home, where we could visit it often, and stay out late.
More information, photos, and details of the series of visits we made to Chickasawhatchee Wildlife Management Area will become available in the weeks ahead. Keep your eyes open for updates!