Ocmulgee blueway plans will improve access points through midstate

HAWKINSVILLE — A concerted effort is under way to improve access and usability along Middle Georgia’s stretch of the Ocmulgee River.

Proponents hope for two beneficial side effects — the further development of conservancy among those enjoying the river and the exchange of undoubtedly damp dollars spent along the way.

While the project took root with one community’s focus on a single mile of tree-lined bank, the idea grew exponentially. The Ocmulgee River Blueway, a 54-mile stretch with seven access points in Twiggs, Houston, Bleckley and Pulaski counties, is envisioned as a joining link in a chain of river trails stretching all the way to the ocean.

An event planned this weekend will highlight the burgeoning trail. A group of paddlers will explore the Ocmulgee in Pulaski County, top to bottom. Basing from Mile Branch Boat Landing at Riverfront Park in Hawkinsville, the group will paddle the area south of Hawkinsville on Saturday, and north of the city Sunday. Local volunteers will provide shuttle service for the paddlers.

Camping is available at the park at no cost Friday and Saturday nights. The public is invited to join the group for either leg, or both, provided they attend the 9:30 a.m. safety meeting each day.

The weekend paddle was inspired by a presentation during Georgia River Network’s March workshop regarding Hawkinsville’s efforts to improve its stretch of the Ocmulgee. During the workshop, Karen Hunt, a member of the Hawkinsville-Pulaski Riverfront Park Advisory Council, offered an update on town and county efforts and how that work fit into the wider blueway effort.

Lamar Phillips, a member of the Georgia Canoeing Association, offered to help organize an event in support of the blueway.

“I was so impressed with the community getting involved, with all volunteer effort, that I offered to list a paddling trip on our Web site ... to promote their effort to develop the river,” Phillips wrote in an e-mail.

The larger effort

Assisted by the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program, the effort in Pulaski County has resulted in a revitalized county park primed to become an ideal take-out and put-in location for paddlers.

Primitive camping is already available, and the plan for the future includes permanent restrooms and an improved ramp specifically for canoes and kayaks, according to members of the advisory council. The park already includes a county-owned double boat ramp — Mile Branch Boat Landing — with hopes the state Department of Natural Resources will improve the existing access.

Charlotte Gillis, a landscape architect for the National Park Service who has worked closely with Hawkinsville on its riverfront effort, is the project coordinator for the Ocmulgee River Blueway. Her task is to turn existing resources into a cohesive trail.

“That’s the benefit of a blueway,” Gillis said. “In a lot of cases, you’re looking at a site where the city (or) county has already done work. A lot of times, you’re just connecting the dots.”

While it sounds deceivingly simple, “connecting the dots” can be a slow process. In some cases, the existing access point is unmarked, unsigned and generally unprepared for heavy use.

The seven access points intended for the Ocmulgee River Blueway are a mixed bag, according to Gillis.

The upper point, Bullard Landing in Twiggs County, features a DNR-maintained boat ramp. The next point, in Houston County under the Ga. 96 bridge, also features an existing landing and boat ramp.

The third point, back on the Twiggs County side of the river at West Lake, is a tough spot to find — in Gillis’ words, “the locals know about it.” But just a few miles downriver in Bleckley County, a DNR-maintained ramp and camping area is available at James Dykes Memorial Park.

The final three access points lie in Pulaski County. Uchee Shoals Boat Landing, also known as city boat landing, is located about a mile upriver from Mile Branch, below the Commerce Street bridge. No improvements or camping facilities are planned for this site. After Mile Branch, and just before exiting Pulaski County, Sandy Hammock Landing has a DNR ramp that lies at the end of a mile-and-a-half of dirt road.

However, even the maintained ramps can be tough to spot from the river, and those without local knowledge would find it difficult to guess their location on a longer trip without GPS help.

Gillis is coordinating with officials in each of the four counties to improve the facilities, make each easier and simpler for public use, and ensure safety.

“We need each county to feel good about the legal requirements,” Gillis said.

While Gillis was emphatic that the Ocmulgee River Blueway is still firmly in the development stages, the ultimate vision is grand. The blueway is intended to link to an existing blueway in Macon and provide a link to the Altamaha River Canoe Trail, which runs from Telfair County, just upstream of the confluence of the Ocmulgee and Oconee rivers, all the way to the Atlantic coast.

“The bigger idea for this whole thing is to connect to Macon,” Gillis said. “We just had to bite off a doable piece.”

Currently, the blueway is in Phase 1, which, according to a National Park Service handout, includes identifying the sites, determining existing conditions and developing a trail guide.

Hawkinsville’s part

In the early 1970s, then-Gov. Jimmy Carter deeded Hawkinsville State Park, a 19-acre plot of land with access to the Ocmulgee, back to Pulaski County.

The park became referred to off-hand as county park. In 1999, according to information provided by the Riverfront Park Advisory Council, Hawkinsville and Pulaski County officials began an effort to improve the riverfront.

“The park wasn’t in great shape,” said Karen Bailey, director of Hawkinsville Better Hometown for the city. “About three or four years ago, we really began working on it.”

The Riverfront Park Advisory Council was formed to oversee work along the waterfront. Working in conjunction with Gillis and the National Park Service since 2006, the group developed a plan that will serve Pulaski County residents and provide access for paddlers and boaters enjoying the river.

With the help of a number of groups and a crowd of volunteers, the park is rounding into shape. Privet and undergrowth has been cleared, a pair of renovated picnic shelters are crowned with shining metal roofs, and an informational kiosk has been built. Electric and water outlets are available.

While there is ample indication that more work remains, forward progress is obvious. A conceptual drawing envisions a parking area, amphitheater and an environmental education center.

The work force for the project consists almost entirely of volunteers.

“Between (Pulaski) Rivers Alive, the advisory committee, the middle school kids, our annual cleanup in October, there’s a great number (of volunteers),” Hunt said.

Hunt’s husband, Riverfront Park Advisory Council chairman Tom Hunt, echoed the sentiment.

“On the annual cleanup, depending on the weather, we’ll have 150 to 200 people down here, including members of 4-H and the FFA,” Tom Hunt said. “It’s amazing.”

Several people involved with the project and this weekend’s event gave extra credit to Chuck Southerland, chairman of Pulaski Rivers Alive and editor and publisher of the Hawkinsville Dispatch and News. Southerland was honored by Keep Georgia Beautiful in 2009 as its Man of the Year, largely based on his efforts along the Pulaski riverfront.

“It’s really a tribute to Chuck and his involvement,” said Tom Hunt.

“If (Southerland) needs people to volunteer, like this weekend to shuttle these people back and forth, he typically will have in just a short period of time all, and then some, of the volunteers that he needs to do that.”

The advisory council’s plan is to have a riverfront trail stretching the roughly one mile from the Uchee Shoals landing to Mile Branch, and perhaps farther if the county is able to purchase additional land to the south of Riverfront Park that is currently privately owned. A nature trail is in the works, and various informational signs are being created with the help of the Middle Georgia Regional Commission.

Ultimately, the blueway and Hawkinsville’s role in its development are aimed at three key objectives, Gillis said.

“It’s all about recreation, conservation and economic development.”