Savannah's Ogeechee Riverkeeper

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To escape the bustle of city life, a day exploring Savannah’s Ogeechee or Canoochee rivers by kayak, canoe, or even stand-up paddleboard is hard to beat. The two prominent blackwater rivers flow to the coast of eastern Georgia and drain into the 5,540-square-mile Ogeechee Watershed, offering a serene sanctuary of maritime landscapes and marshlands, wetlands, oak and cypress groves, and abundant wildlife.

But this pristine environment doesn’t exist without plenty of effort, upkeep, and planning, namely by the Ogeechee Riverkeeper. The non-profit organization oversees the 294-mile long Ogeechee River, which flows from central eastern Georgia’s Piedmont region into the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the Ogeechee’s tributary, the 108-mile Canoochee River, which flows parallel and south. The rivers join 15 miles southwest of Savannah.

“The rivers provide an incredible tourist draw, even just for pure aesthetics,” says Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, the organization’s watershed outreach coordinator. “There is absolutely nothing like kayaking through a submerged forest of cypress trees with no evidence of human interference. These last remaining wild places can take us back to the same view that Native Americans would have seen from a dugout canoe.”

While paddlers find a mecca of opportunities for recreation on these two rivers, hundreds of Georgians rely on the watershed and their aqueducts for drinking water. The Ogeechee Riverkeeper’s mission is “to protect, preserve and improve the water quality of the Ogeechee River basin.” The 501(c)3 non-profit is run largely by the work of volunteers, who participate in river clean-ups and paddling trips and raise awareness of the rivers’ use and role in the community.

In 2004, the non-profit officially merged two organizations, the Canoochee Riverkeeper and Ogeechee Riverkeeper, and has grown significantly since. Two full-time staff members, executive director/riverkeeper Emily Markesteyn, and Demonbreun-Chapman, handle day-to-day operations, while more than 10,000 members offer volunteer support.

The Ogeechee Riverkeeper’s three main programs, Watershed Watch, Healthy Waters Agenda, and Hometown Waters Education, all help educate the community on the Ogeechee River basin. Watershed Watch identifies sources for pollution and monitors the health of the river water, while Hometown Waters Education brings together the community for hands-on education programs and stream clean-ups.

Some of the important current issues the Riverkeeper is working to lobby to the Georgia state government include marsh buffer protection, groundwater protection, and reinstating protection for the Floridian aquifer, as well as a proposed petroleum pipeline that would be harmful to sensitive environmental and historical areas.

To celebrate 10 years of advocacy and support, the Ogeechee Riverkeeper is leadingpaddle trips to one of four watersheds. These paddle trips are led by experienced guides and often feature a guest guide to share information on wildlife and plant species. Paddle trips last 3 to 4 hours and are free for Riverkeeper members, and $35 for the general public. On May 23, the trip will go from Scarboro Landing to Rocky Ford for a 7-mile downriver paddle. On July 25, you’ll have the opportunity to paddle and camp at George L. Smith State Park.

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