By: Homer Hirt
Almost all of the rivers of the Southeastern United States are meanderers. Meandering is defined as (1)"following a winding or intricate course" or (2) wandering aimlessly or casually without urgent destination".
For some reason I like the latter definition. It reminds me of a tipsy sailor, happy in the fact that he is in port after a long sea voyage, and having had a few too many, wanders along, loose kneed and slack, checking out store windows, bars and, of course, the occasional lady with good legs and a short skirt.
Of course, each river must have a destination, and for many of the southeastern streams that is the Gulf of Mexico, or in some cases a larger river of which it is a tributary. Almost always flowing southerly, eventually reaching its destination. Most Southern schoolchildren of my generation learned Sidney Lanier’s "Song of the Chattahoochee"
"Out of the hills of Habersham
And down the valleys of Hall,
I hurry amain to reach the plain,
Run the rapid and leap the fall;
Split at the rock and together again,
And accept my bed, or narrow or wide,
With a lover’s pain to attain the plain,
Far from the hills of Habersham, far
From the valleys of Hall".
The only problem is that the Chattahoochee does not "attain the plain" but it links up with the Flint River and forms the Apalachicola River, and the waters flow into Florida and finally into the estuary 106 miles to the south.
Because the boundary of our new country in 1787 was described in part as being to "the west bank of the Chattahoochee" the three states are in a twenty year long dispute as to the rights of the use of the flow of the two upstream rivers.
But this draws me away from my original intent: to describe a meandering stream. The Chattahoochee tries to meander. It tries for well over a hundred miles, but it is not very successful. It has a lot of rocks (read the poem!), and rocks don’t allow for much meandering. If the stream "splits at the rock" it soon comes "together again". So meandering, while innocently intended, does not come about in any great detail.
And the Flint has about the same amount of success at meandering, only it is much shorter, and has another handicap: it rises just south of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which does not add much to its overall greatness as rivers go.
But the Apalachicola, a mere 107 miles long, really knows how to meander! In regular years (notice I don’t use the word normal) it manages to meander with the best of them, allowing for its size. Mile for mile I would put it up against any other meanderer anywhere.
It meanders from side to side, and out into the swamp, and cuts across points and then closes the channel up again to open it somewhere else. In the lower reaches of its trip to the gulf it not only has tributaries, but it has dis-tributaries. This word means what it says. Water from the main river wanders off between another stream’s banks and peters out in the swamp somewhere.
And then it gets to the estuary, and widens out into what most folks would not call a river at all. It is more like a fan of water, split up by clumps of trees and boats that are sunk and have been there for many, many years.
Perhaps the Apalachicola River should be renamed "The Drunken Sailor" River. (Senator John McCain once accused the Congress of spending money like a drunken sailor would spend it, if only he had an unlimited budget, like that august body).
Most of the meandering of the Apalachicola is fostered by the ebb and flow of Nature. The WeWa Wiggles have been there for centuries, and can be blamed on God or Nature, whichever suits you. Ocheesee Reach is both natural, and unusual. In most meandering streams, the current goes toward the bend, or the "pocket", and thereby not only hollows out the bank, but deepens the channel at that point. Old timers always steered for the "pocket". But not at Ocheesee Reach. At this spot the pocket of the bend is rock bottomed and has resisted the temptation to deepen. Many a propeller or outboard foot has been left there by the unsuspecting boat captain or fisherman.
The Chipola Cutoff also differs from the norm. The Cutoff was formed by hand labor (and probably some ground slides being pulled by mules). One story relates that the Confederates had placed logs helter-skelter in the main river channels to keep the Yankees from coming inland from the Gulf. This strategy worked well until they encountered their need to get the CSS Chattahoochee downstream to lift the Anaconda blockade at Apalachicola Bay, but couldn’t make it past the logs. So, using hand (and, one supposes, slaves) labor, a diversion was cut, and through the years the river has meandered through this cut until almost half of the usual flow goes down the Cutoff instead of the regular channel. Now, that’s a real unusual meander!
Meandering makes for interesting supposition. Mark Twain, in his Life on the Mississippi, marveled at how the Mississippi had shrunk over the years. Twain in his young years was first a "cub" and then a full fledged riverboat captain. After the War Between the States he took an excursion down the river, beginning in Illinois and riding all the way to New Orleans. He discovered that in certain sections the river was shorter. Some of the shrinkage could be charged up to disgruntled farmers that wanted to deprive their downstream neighbors of water, and would divert the river. Other diversions were caused by floods, and even earthquakes..
Twain noted that "in the space of one hundred and seventy six years, the Lower Mississippi had shortened itself two hundred and forty two miles…………….any person could see that seven hundred forty two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three quarters long, and Cairo (ILL) and New Orleans will have joined their streets together………and will have a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen".
Do you think that the meandering Apalachicola shares the same fate and that Sneads and the City of Apalachicola could one day have a common city election?
Just to relieve the tension, let me give you Mark Twain’s last quote on this shortening of the River: "There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact". For lasting memories, I suggest that you and your family spend some future weekend meandering down the meandering Apalachicola.