OUTDOORS COLUMN: Rivers of the tides

On the southern Atlantic coast the tidal mood changes are drastic.

Bob Kornegay

Bob Kornegay

They are rivers or pieces of rivers that almost defy human logic. In them, water flows both upstream and down, dependent upon moon and tide. On the southern Atlantic coast the tidal mood changes are drastic. The rivers, in turn, inundate the marshes or drain them almost dry. Along the northern Gulf the lunar alterations are subtle, often imperceptible.

The tidal streams of southeast Georgia and north Florida flow languidly through broad expanses of salt marsh and piney scrub habitat, where sawgrass and its kin profusely thrive and trees and shrubs cling precariously to life. The waterways plague human visitors with hordes of voracious mosquitoes, yellowflies and damnable no-see-ums. Their changing moods and reversals play hell with one’s kayaking and casting. They can make exploration uncomfortable and fishing quite difficult.

Despite these foibles, I am drawn to these streams. I can’t help it. They pull at me, inexorably, just as lunar gravity pulls their fickle waters back and forth between tidal swamp and open ocean. I am even apt to lust over them. They are painted women and I a naïve farm boy on a first visit to the big city.

The rivers are beautiful and beautifully named: Sapelo, Ochlockonee, Sopchoppy, Choctawhatchee, Apalachicola. Naked red men once tapped their bounty and armor-clad Spaniards vied with other interlopers for their possession. Today they remain sources of sustenance and profit, feeding teeming, brackish estuaries and nourishing and nurturing the shrimps, the oysters, the crabs, the redfish, the seatrout. They are lifeblood, flowing through the veins of Nature’s vastest nursery.

They are anomaly and enigma, vexing and mysterious. No one finds them so more than those who fish them. We cast our offerings into their waters and are rewarded, in turn, with species of vastly distinct physiologies, fishes supremely adapted to thrive in a “melting pot” of waters, an eerie alchemy of salt and fresh. One cast fools the hefty red drum or weakfish. The next tempts a largemouth bass, perhaps even a crappie or bluegill. Or nothing. The angling, too, depends upon tidal mood. When water moves here, so do its denizens. When it doesn’t, all is at a standstill. Anglers must know their charts. The tidal streams give up their bounty only grudgingly. Boaters, too, must pay heed lest they find themselves stranded up some shallow slough at low tide.

Like the fauna sustained by their witches’-brew “broth,” these low-country aquatic ribbons play host to varied human life forms as well. They stoically suffer at once the intrusions of water skiers, pleasure boaters, and fishermen who exploit their waters for both sport and profit. They lure also those who seek only to walk their banks, seeking to escape the workaday world and attune themselves once again to a more primordial existence. All deserve the privilege.

Not, however, without condition.

Man, whatever his walk of life and whatever his reason for exploit, must take into account one vital fact. Tidal streams and the transitional habitats they have infused and sustained for eons are delicate things. Their very existence is by nature precarious. They rank among the most precious of Earth’s ecosystems and could quite likely be the most fragile. We must know this and realize, when it’s all said and done, we are the one organism on the planet that can either preserve or destroy it. And it takes far less than oil spills or ill-advised factories to accomplish the latter.

Smarter men and more eloquent writers could say it much better, of course. I can only speak with the oversimplified voice of one who has been there. With that voice I say, when you go there, to these places where river meets sea, pause for a moment. Look around you. Listen to the music of the marsh. Smell the richness of the air and the earth. Feel the breeze on your face as it wafts through the sawgrass. Taste the palpable, moisture-laden air of the estuary on your tongue.

Do this. And tread lightly.