Explorer Dr. Ken Sulak has solved an Alapaha River rapids naming mystery. He recounts:
So in 1797, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a poem inspired by a dream.
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
Insert three ‘A” and the dreamscape river becomes the Alapaha, and appropriately so. Yesterday, I embarked on the foolish idea of a solo kayak journey up 3 miles of the Alapaha from Sasser Landing (just below the confluence of the Alapaha and the Alapahoochee rivers) to the site of the 1800s Roebucks Ferry and later Roebucks Bridge.
That crossing brought settlers and other travelers from Jacksonville and Fernandina along the GA/FL border across the Alapaha to Miccotown, the old Seminole Indian town in the triangle of land protected by the two flanking rivers. The road/trail (gone now on both sides) continued west across the Alapahoochee at the site of the early 1900s Beatty Bridge (undoubtedly preceded in the mid-1800s by an undocumented ferry), and on to Hickstown in Madison County and westward. Miccotown became the first county seat of Hamilton County as the settlers suppressed the Seminoles and the old Indian town faded into obscurity in 1839.
Daniel Bell was the first white settler to plunk down in Miccotown in 1827. George Jennings, originally from England, arrived by accident sometime in the 1830s. He left his homestead place in Cow Creek, GA, and headed down to Florida with his partner Joe Jenkins, aiming for the heart of ‘Alachua’, the big area of prime farm land between the Suwannee and the St. Johns River. It is not far from Cow Creek to the upper Alapaha, so the idea was to load all their goods onto a raft and drift down the river into Florida. Good plan all the way to the GA/FL border — not actually precisely fixed back then, and indeed not for another 50 years.
The problem was the two adventurers were surprised by the rocky shoals 2 miles south of the present-day border. The river is swift, narrow and deep—confined between steep rocky banks, indented by numerous hollows, caves and sinks.
The story goes that approaching the dangerous rapids, Jenkins wisely jumped overboard. Jennings toughed it out until he also punted just before the raft got pulled down into the sink. They lost everything, dragged themselves up the bank and walked into Miccotown to be taken in by Mr. Bell.
When old Miccotown has worn out its usefulness, Jenning moved west and founded the town of Jennings, important for some decades as a railroad stop ‘Jennings Station’ along the Georgia Southern & Florida RR line (still in existence as part of the Seacoast Line and quite busy with freight trains).
The shoals where Jenkins and Jennings swamped is locally known as ‘Jennings’ Defeat’. Well, looking at the Jennings river gauge Tuesday and with the area just having gotten 2 inches of rain, I figured the Alapaha would rise enough so that the shoals would be submerged and I could paddle up to Roebuck’s crossing. Foolish boy. The river had come up 4 feet, from 62 to 66 ft at the gauge, but as I discovered not enough to cover the extensive stretch of rocks.
On the way up, I encountered a local family having a picnic and swim on a sandy point. Stopped to talk — and one fellow cautioned that “The Defeat” might get me upstream. Well, he was partly right. The Defeat did indeed defeat my plan. But I spent some time studying the possibilities. Too fast to paddle against on the right where the water was deepest. Too shallow to paddle mostly on the left where the flow was just a bit less powerful, except for right against the bank. Could have made it up there. Trouble was a tree had toppled over and hung low over the one promising spot. Get hung up going under that low tree trunk and I would have swamped in a second, repeating Jennings at the same spot. Had I been able to make it through there, then I could have walked the edge of the rock shelf, pulling the kayak along to the upper end of the shoals. But, I noted that there was in fact a strong pull to the rock wall bank on that side just below the shoals, with deep fast water. Could indeed be a swallet right there.
Not a wasted day however. The Alapaha is a beautiful blackwater river, about as black as any river gets — and confined between 25-30 ft high rugged vertical rock walls. Otherwise lined by flood-gnarled Ogeechee gums and river birches.
Surprisingly, I also encountered two small hemlock trees — have to be the southernmost such trees of the species. The dripping rock walls are now festooned with exotic vining Japanese ferns.
The scene is very much as it appeared in Coleridge’s dream of rock walls and greenery. A few more miles downriver it totally disappears into two Alapaha sinks and the Dead River sink. Locals call that long reach of dry riverbed (about 15 miles before it re-emerges) below Jennings Bluff the ‘Dead River’. In many years it is dry all the way to the Suwannee River where it emerges at the Alapaha Rise above Nobles Ferry.
On the drive back from Jennings through Jasper to White Springs, I passed a hundred-car freight train along the lunar landscape devastated by the Occidental Phosphate mine. About 80 of the cars were black tank cars labeled ‘molten sulfur’ or ‘phosphoric acid’. I got to thinking what a colossal environmental mess would result if that train derailed and rolled spilled several car-fulls of 50,000 gallons of hot sulfur and acid. That rail line crosses the Alapaha and the Suwannee over two vintage high trestles. I have walked the tracks to each bridge a few times and noticed a whole lot of raised spikes through the tie plates (they need to be sledged down to secure the rails). I stopped and walked the tracks for about 20 feet and picked up ten loose spikes that had come completely out and fallen to the side—and a loose rail cleat.
PS—This solo thing is good most of the time—but not when there is a challenging shoal to get over. I need a partner for a return trip—downriver from the Statenville Ramp to Sasser Ramp (about 10 miles), crossing Jennings Defeat. Interested???
WWALS paddled Statenville to Sasser Landing, 2019-07-06.
Also, on that trip two kayaks (including me) and a tandem canoe made it through Jennings Defeat.
These are more pictures Ken sent.
-jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®
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