One hot Thursday morning in June, Orlando Montoya, myself and eight other landlubbers gathered at Rodney Hall Boat Ramp at Skidaway Narrows (sometimes called Butterbean Beach) for a boat trip to Vanishing Georgia.
Our mission: to see the Vernon River, from the water, before the Truman Parkway cuts across it and changes it forever.
“Here’s this river that’s right here in my own backyard and I’ve never seen it,” said Montoya, our host and the idea man behind the boat ride, who took a stay–cation that week from his role as News Producer for Georgia Public Broadcasting.
“I drive past the Vernon River every single day on the way to work. It’s behind the houses that you can just sort of glimpse. I wanted to see it before it was altered.”
Earlier this year, construction began in earnest for the Truman Parkway’s fifth and final segment, connecting Whitfield Avenue to Abercorn Extension.
Most of this segment will consist of an elevated roadway, or a long bridge, across the Vernon River, one of the few remaining unbridged rivers in Chatham County, as well as its associated tidal creeks, hammocks and salt marsh. (Sticklers for detail will point out that Whitfield Avenue traverses a narrow feeder creek of the Vernon River about a half mile south of Montgomery Crossroad. Point taken.)
Our guides for the morning were Captain Michael Neal of Bull River Cruises and his co–captain Heidi Hays. After Neal’s safe boating briefing (“If Captain Heidi puts on her life vest, that’s a good time to put on your life vest,”) we chugged west/southwest along Skidaway Narrows toward the Vernon River.
Right away we passed Pigeon Island, the longtime home of a family of eagles in a high nest, pointed out to us by Neal and Hays.
From the water, the geography of many seemingly isolated Savannah/Chatham neighborhoods snapped together like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. On the right appeared the close-together docks and houses of Burnside Island. Swinging north around the point onto the Vernon River, Beaulieu’s ancient trees and expansive lawns came into view, then another collection of Burnside houses of more recent construction.
To the west, across the wide expanse of river and marsh, was a large land mass that appeared to be an undeveloped oasis.
“What’s that?” I asked Neal, confused by the absence of civilization in the midst of so much development.
“Rose Dhu Island,” said Neal.
Of course it was. In the 1970s, as a summer Girl Scout camper at rustic Camp Low on Rose Dhu, our sole contact with the Boy Scouts at Camp Strachan on Burnside Island was exchanging flashlight signals across this very river, with little understanding of how far across the water those boys really were. These days, Camp Low is as rustic as ever, but Camp Strachan was sold decades ago and developed into the established neighborhood we’d just observed.
After Rose Dhu came Coffee Bluff, White Bluff and Vernonburg on the west, and Montgomery on the east. Neal told us about the freed slave community of Nicholsonboro, still thriving in Coffee Bluff, and the sunken Water Witch, a lost Civil War era ship recently discovered under ten feet of mud in nearby waters.
On our journey we passed a rookery of endangered woodstorks; a working crabbing team pulling up traps; two shrimp boats with nets extended; a towering deep sea fishing boat; several dolphins; and two boats from the University of Georgia’s Marine Extension Service, loaded with school kids on an eco–adventure.
Thirty minutes after launch, we arrived at a wide spot in the river, flanked on each side by gaps in the treeline, the first signs of preparation for the Truman Parkway. We floated while the engine idled, and just looked around at the openness of the water and marsh, and the distance the bridge would soon cross. This was the place we had come to see.
”I didn’t want my first view of the river to be at 60 miles an hour,“ said Montoya. ”There’s something to be said for slowing down and seeing the way things were before they’ve happened. This is your last chance to see the river before it’s altered. I think what people are going to notice is this huge highway coming across.
“[The Truman] will help me get places faster. But at the same time you are losing this treasure and this view and this quiet. It’s a double edged sword.”