A Night at River Creek

A Night at River Creek

During our recent dive into the history of River Creek, we discovered that it’s one of the best examples of a Longleaf Pine/Wiregrass Ecosystem, and that in recent years efforts have been made to repopulate Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers in the area. These were the leading factors in our decision to get to know River Creek a little better. Since our first visit, we had invested time studying online resources and maps, so we knew where we wanted to hike and what we hoped to see. All we needed was time to do it…

…and that’s where it always gets tricky.

Our weekends have always been in high demand, but in recent months Saturday has become the busiest day of our week. We prepare breakfast with Urban Missions, Inc., a local non-profit group that seeks to comfort and feed people who are down on their luck. The group began meeting in downtown Albany in the mid-eighties and has a long history there. They incorporated as Urban Missions, Inc. around a decade ago, and Rebecca and I began volunteering our time in the spring of 2019.

Since the onset of CoVid, the group has shifted from the long-standing tradition of grits, sausage biscuits, pastries, coffee, and Gatorade—to sack breakfasts that we prepare and pack at home, then deliver around 9:00 AM.

In the later summer, I complicated the day even more when I began setting up a booth at the Tift Community Market with the goal of selling wildlife prints and spreading the word about our Adventure Journalism blog.

The Tift Community Market takes place in Albany’s Tift Park each Saturday during the spring, summer, and early fall. It is coordinated by a friendly group of vendors and artisans that sell everything from live plants and vegetables, to home décor and stoneware, to greeting cards and doggie treats. The outdoor event respects social distancing and mask use, which are currently important considerations in our lives. The Market is open on Saturdays from 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM during the warmer seasons.

It seemed like the perfect test market for our wildlife prints, and after several successes, we’ve decided to open an Etsy Store to make prints available online—we’re working on the finishing touches and hope to launch by the end of the year.

The timing and pace of these weekly events means that we’re on our feet by 6:00 AM and we hit the ground running. Rebecca and I, and Buck (my father), prepare breakfast sandwiches and pack bags—I help until 8:30 AM, when I leave to set up in Tift Park. After breakfast has been served, they come sit with me for a time. All of this means that, while Rebecca and I wanted a weekend away for camping—we would only be able to make a night of it.

After they finished handing out breakfast, Rebecca and Buck joined me at Tift Park—we discussed our plan to spend the night at River Creek and how Hurricane Eta may have a say on the matter. The morning had been windy with a constant threat of rain, but Rebecca and I were resolved for the journey. We decided that whatever the night offered—we were going to take it in stride. Still, we left late in the afternoon, hoping to wait out any scattered showers Eta could throw our way.

Our gambit worked—by arriving after dark we had managed to evade any rains, and the overnight weather looked nice, though windy.

When we reached the campground at River Creek, we were a little disappointed: A major point of despair was that the campground was so close to the highway. The periodic roar of passing cars and trucks could be heard. Our second fear was that the trees were so far apart that hammock camping would be uncomfortable—this is a common issue with campgrounds everywhere. Campground curators: Please plant more trees within 15 feet of each other in the campgrounds. Feeling discouraged by the road noises and the potential difficulty of suspending a hammock from trees that are over 25 feet apart—we left to see if there were any alternative campsites.

We followed the road to the information kiosk, noting favorable hammock trees along the shoulder outside of the designated camping area. At the information kiosk we found that Lake Alexandra Lane was open and took the opportunity to explore the route that we intended to hike the following day. The road was well maintained and passed several farmhouses, farm buildings, and venerable oak trees reminiscent of their plantation origin; the effect was a little spooky in the night.

We turned around when we reached Lake Alexandra, and as we headed back towards the campsite we debated our options. We knew that we were supposed to sleep in the designated camping area, but we longed to be in the wild and away from the din of nearby traffic. After much ado, we stopped and hung our hammocks from trees along the road shoulder just a few hundred yards further from the highway than the campgrounds. We were not committed to camping there—but we were testing the waters.

I was nervous about breaking the rules, but we relaxed in our hammocks, pleased that the sounds of the highway were muffled by forest around us. As we settled into the darkness, our conversation drifted over how much our lives had changed in the past few years and about the possibilities of further changes on the horizon. One of the changes we suspected that night has been confirmed: Rebecca and I will be adding an adventurer to the roster next year! We’re expecting our new arrival near mid-summer and we’re extremely excited to meet him or her. Child rearing, I’ve always considered one of the great adventures of life, and since I met her Rebecca has proven time and again that she is the best co-adventurer I’ve even known.

We were musing about the possibility and how to best move forward when Rebecca said she thought someone was walking down the road. I didn’t see anyone, but she insisted that she heard voices in the dark. I reached for my flashlight and clicked the rubberized button to illuminate the night—a voice cried out “FREEZE! Hands in the air!” and more than a dozen tactical flashlights blazed to life in the darkened forest.

I shot Rebecca a sideways glance and wondered if this was standard enforcement for camping violations as I lifted my hands overhead. The men moved quickly, braking into groups with some circling us in our hammocks and the others moving to investigate our SUV. We bade our breath be still as the men in body armor went about their work. A few moments passed and one called out, “It’s not them.” And as they lowered their weapons, we relaxed a little, despite being alone in the forest surrounded by a squad of heavily armed men in tactical gear. 

“Is everything all right?” we asked. They identified themselves as law enforcement officers working with the Thomas County Sheriff’s Department and explained that individuals in a white SUV had opened fire on deputies earlier that evening. Our white SUV was reported entering the WMA. When deputies discovered that our vehicle was still inside the WMA, they rallied Georgia State Patrol and Georgia Department of Natural Resources officers to help locate us.

We apologized for raising suspicions and they apologized for disrupting our evening with a tactical maneuver—asking us to excuse their extreme caution considering the situation and directed us to move on to the campgrounds.  After a few jokes about the multi-agency sting that came to break up our illegal campsite—we went to the campgrounds and settled in for the evening.

The night was brisk, but nice—even against the howl of the wind and the roar of passing cars. When morning came, we shook off the cold, dressed for the day, and made our way to Lake Alexandra. We took frequent pauses to inspect the pine forests along the way. Tall Pines and lush undergrowth constantly draw our attention these days—finding an area of longleaf pine/wiregrass forest to explore has become principal among our goals.

Here at River Creek, we know that the longleaf forests are where we’ll be most likely to find Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers. Once again, we found several hollows—but not the woodpeckers. Becoming familiar with the space helps though, and we’re looking forward to returning in the spring equipped to wait them out.

We reached Lake Alexandra and hiked a loop around its western bank, through the dove field, and back toward the plantation house—taking time to enjoy the flights of numerous bird species, deer sign, and more Red-Cockaded nest hollows along the way. Though our hike was somewhat brief, it was nice to hike more of the space and we’re looking forward to more exploratory trips in the months ahead. For now, deer season is upon us and we don’t want to spoil anyone’s hunt so we’re keeping to short treks along main roads and planning for next year!

-JCM

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