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Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Pimento Cheese?


Have an appetite for baseball? Then sandwich in these two special nights with the GreenJackets into your summer schedule.

Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament are known for their pimento cheese. For two nights in August, the Augusta GreenJackets also will be known for their pimento cheese — on their uniforms. Yes, the Augusta GreenJackets will compete as the Augusta Pimento Cheese.

The team will sport its new uniform against the Lakewood BlueClaws (Philadelphia Phillies) on Friday, August 2 and on Saturday, August 3 against the Hickory Crawdads (Texas Rangers).

“We knew that if we wanted to represent the CSRA in a food-related promotion that pimento cheese was the only way to go,” says General Manager Brandon Greene.

The two-night-only re-brand features a Pimento Cheese logo and custom Pimento Cheese uniforms. Pimento Cheese merchandise, which includes baseball caps, T-shirts and more, is available at the Hive Pro Shop and online at pimentocheesebaseball.com.

Game nights will offer different pimento cheese food selections and pimento cheese-based, in-game promotions. On Saturday the GreenJackets will hold a Pimento Cheese player jersey auction, and proceeds will benefit Walton Options for Independent Living.

Fans are encouraged to share their Pimento Cheese merchandise on social media using #AUGPimentoCheese for a chance to be highlighted on the videoboard during the Pimento Cheese weekend. They also can be entered to win a Pimento Cheese prize pack, which includes four tickets to one of the Pimento Cheese games.


Don’t Miss the Boat


Augusta University art professor Brian Rust isn’t afraid to rock the boat. He recently created a 50-foot-long granite sculpture, Stone Boat, at Augusta Canal National Heritage Area’s Mill Village Trailhead behind the Kroc Center. The Augusta Canal Authority chose Rust’s boat concept from more than two dozen submissions. Inspired by Petersburg boats, he sculpted the large-scale, site-specific, interactive piece out of granite curbstones along the canal that once lined the streets of Augusta.

“I like working with materials that have a history to them,” says Rust. “And I like working with logs or stone or something that has some sort of other purpose, so this was perfect.”

Recursion by Blake Crouch

Literary Loop

Memory makes reality. That’s what New York City cop Barry Sutton is learning as he investigates the devastating phenomenon the media has dubbed False Memory Syndrome — a mysterious affliction that drives its victims mad with memories of a life they never lived. Inexplicably, friends and family of the afflicted also remember portions of the false lives.

Neuroscientist Helena Smith already understands the power of memory. It’s why she’s dedicated her life to creating a technology that will let us preserve our most precious moments of our pasts. If she succeeds, anyone will be able to re-experience a first kiss, the birth of a child, the final moment with a dying parent. 

As Barry searches for the truth, he comes face-to-face with an opponent more terrifying than any disease — a force that attacks not just our minds but the very fabric of the past. And as its effects begin to unmake the world as we know it, only he and Helena, working together, will stand a chance at defeating it.

But how can they make a stand when reality itself is shifting and crumbling all around them? 

“Cutting-edge science drives this intelligent, mind-bending thriller,” says Publishers Weekly. “Michael Crichton’s fans won’t want to miss this one.”

Renegade — Dylan LeBlanc

Listen To This

Singer songwriter Dylan LeBlanc is 29 years old and four records into a lush career that takes most artists 29 years to achieve. LeBlanc, who channels a style and groove reminiscent of a heyday Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac love child, made a significant splash on the Americana scene in 2016 with his buttery-glider record, Cautionary Tale. He has perfectly matured this sound on his latest release, Renegade.

Gathering experiences from being a rebellious and displaced post-Hurricane Katrina adolescent from Shreveport, Louisiana, Leblanc has filtered the torrents of a wayward existence into a pure and concentrated formula of sonic genius.

Renegade is a compact 37-minute stream of swirling, jangle-strum tones and perfectly layered vocals that blanket powerful grooves with the primitive hums of a live session. Find a front porch, rocking chair, hand fan and ice-cold glass of your favorite libation to best absorb this album. Each pass richer than the last. File under: Hot Summer Night Jams.

– Chris Rucker

On the Trail


Officials break ground on a multi-use greenway system
Construction is underway on phase I of the Euchee Creek Greenway, a 4.3-mile trail that will connect Canterbury Farms with Patriots Park. The Greenway is a series of off-street bikeways, walkways and trails that will connect neighborhoods, parks, schools and communities across the county and the region.

Funding for the design and construction of phase I is part of the general obligation bond that was approved by voters in 2016. Construction is expected to take a year to complete.

“The second phase will have to be based on funding. Hopefully, we can put it in T-SPLOST,” Doug Duncan, chairman of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, said at a groundbreaking ceremony in June.

Upon completion, the multi-phase project will cover 26.5 miles from the city of Grovetown to the south to the Savannah River to the north. Depending on the topography of the area, trail types will include shared-use paths, sidewalks, boardwalks and bridges. The multi-use path will travel through native wetlands, lowland forests, rolling hills and along creek banks where users can experience the various ecosystems and natural resources of Columbia County.

In addition, the Greenway will improve connections between neighborhoods such as Riverwood Plantation, Villages of Greenbrier, Bartram Trail and Knob Hill. The system ultimately will feature public art, environmental education opportunities, wayfinding signs and on-trail amenities as well.

For more information visit www.ecgreenway.com.

By the Book


Go behind the crime scene tape with a GBI special agent as he investigates a local murder in a true-life homicide case

Retired GBI special agent Doug Parker always knew he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue a career in law enforcement – from the time he was shot at as a 13-year-old when he tagged along with his father to track down moonshiners.

Parker and his father, who was chief of the Clayton County Police Department, escaped the bullets that went flying in their direction, and the young teen’s future vocational path was set. During his 30-year career, Parker investigated more than 250 death cases.

However, one of them in particular – the 1997 murder of 25-year-old Kristia Anderson, who was ambushed and shot to death on Highway 25 in Burke County as she drove home from work late one night – stuck with him. In his new book, A Killher Plan, Parker takes readers beyond the crime scene tape for an inside look at the two-and-a-half-year investigation.

“It was one of the more interesting cases that I worked,” Parker says. “It had a lot of twists and turns.”

Pursuit of Justice
For Parker, there was little mystery as to who was responsible for Kristia’s death. The challenge was proving it.

He knew just where to start the investigation, though. Although Kristia’s husband, Ken, had called local authorities to see if any accidents had been reported when she didn’t come home on time, Parker noticed at the crime scene that Anderson leaned aloofly against his pickup truck with his arms and feet crossed. He asked no questions and showed no interest in seeing his wife.

“He had no feelings, no emotion,” says Parker. “Nothing really bothered him. Ken always tried to blame everybody else.”

In the book the former GBI special agent, who retired in 2012, takes readers through the investigation from interviewing witnesses and suspects and setting up polygraph tests to conducting records searches and collecting evidence.

He describes the attempts to find the murder weapons, which took 18 months to discover, and the legal proceedings of the case. Ultimately, Anderson, and the two men he hired to kill Kristia, Charles DeWayne Reeves and Bernard Edward Meadows, were brought to justice.

Reeves and Meadows entered guilty pleas and agreed to testify against Anderson. They are serving life in prison without parole. Anderson also pleaded guilty and is serving a life sentence without parole.

“Kristia was a good person,” says Parker. “She didn’t meet a stranger.”

Because of the strong rapport he developed with Kristia’s mother, Patricia Kehr, Parker admits that the Anderson case “softened me up a little bit” and made him more sympathetic to the needs of surviving family members.

“Families have a lot of feelings that at first I probably didn’t pay as much attention to as I should have,” he says.

Nevertheless, he says, investigators need to remain detached to do their jobs. “You have to remove yourself. You see so much stuff,” says Parker. “People get killed in so many different ways.”

Larger Purpose
He hopes the book will help other crime victims and surviving family members in homicide cases understand the hows and whys of criminal investigations and what happens at trial.

“I don’t think there’s another book out there that goes into why law enforcement does certain things,” says Parker. “And I didn’t realize what a family goes through. This case gave me insight into what they’re dealing with.”

Parker says law enforcement officers are tight-lipped about what they have learned during an investigation for reasons that family members often don’t comprehend. “It’s intentional, but not mean-spirited,” he says. “They need to get proper confessions and submit evidence properly. They have to get to the truth.”

Throughout the book, Parker intersperses details from other cases to illustrate the techniques that homicide investigators use to solve cases. He also weaves in stories about his upbringing in a law enforcement family – including the infamous moonshine raid – and other aspects of his career such as major drug investigations, dignitary protection details, and the creation and implementation of security plans and training for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Currently, Parker has a consulting business. He works with families that have unanswered questions about cases; assists police officers who have been charged with crimes; provides active shooter training for businesses, school systems and churches; provides threat assessments and security plans for individuals and businesses; and reviews policies and procedures for law enforcement agencies.

He also has held several local book signings since A Killher Plan, which was five years in the making, was published. Invariably, someone will come up to him at one of the events and tell him something new about the 22-year-old case.

“A lot of people knew about it,” Parker says. “It was in the news every day when it happened.”

For more information or a schedule of upcoming book signings, visit akillherplan.com.

Flexing Her Muscles


Photos courtesy of Judy Jordan

Lincolnton resident Judy Jordan always led an active lifestyle. She owned a photography studio, raced sailboats and taught ballroom dancing. She also did interval training, shag dancing and Zumba. 

Then multiple orthopedic surgeries including three cervical, two knee, lower back and hip replacement operations piled up through the years. The surgeries – along with a colon cancer diagnosis in 2012 – left her in a state of depression and inactivity.

“For six years I didn’t do anything,” says Judy. “During the time I had cancer, I stopped exercising completely.” 

Her boyfriend tried to help her climb out of her funk by coaxing her to serve as a crew member on his boat during an Augusta Sailing Club race on Labor Day 2017. The experience turned out to be quite the wakeup call – but not the one she expected. She fell on deck, broke several ribs and landed in a rehab facility. “My doctor said I needed to get in better shape,” she says. “I started out slowly, and then my doctor said I needed to get a personal trainer.” 

Making Changes
Heeding her physician’s advice, Judy joined a gym in November 2017 and started doing cardio and weight training. She then decided she needed a little bit of internal motivation as well, so Judy, who turns 73 in July, took up bodybuilding.

At the urging of a friend, she entered her first bodybuilding competition, the Augusta Grand Prix Bodybuilding Championship, in August 2018 and placed fifth in the Masters Figure division.

“People think when they get injuries, they won’t be able to do anything again. And that’s not true. Life isn’t over because you’ve been dealt some bad things along the way,” says Judy. “Part of my journey is encouraging other people. They can change, but I just had to have that bigger goal to keep me on track.”

Judy started working with a personal trainer and nutrition coach in October 2018.

“My body has changed 100 percent. I started out at 146 pounds, and now I weigh 110 pounds,” she says. “My body is better now than it was when I was 20 years old. I have no pain in my joints, and I only take one medication.” Judy typically works out in the after-noons after she leaves her job as a special education paraprofessional at Greenbrier High School. Her work has been a large part of her healing process as well.

She had closed her photography studio when she underwent chemotherapy and radiation, but Judy found that during her recovery, she “couldn’t stand staying at home. It was depressing.” She started substitute teaching to get out of the house, and that led to her parapro position.

“I enjoy having something to do. Every day is not perfect, but there’s so much love. To see the students every day and what they’re dealing with – and still be happy and joyous – I realize I have no reason to complain,” says Judy. “Every day is a joy to get up and go to work with these kids. I need them just as much as they need me.”

Bodybuilding fulfills her need to fuel her competitive fire as well. Judy competes as part of a seven-member bodybuilding team. Her teammates range in age from their 30s to their 50s, and they often get together to practice their competition posing.

“Posing is a big part of how you score. As a team, we encourage each other, and we compete against each other,” says Judy. “It’s about encouraging each other no matter where you place.”

Gaining Confidence
In addition to the Augusta Grand Prix, she has competed in two more International Natural Bodybuilding & Fitness Federation competitions – the Pro-Am Iron Eagle in Savannah in March and the South Carolina Bodybuilding Championship in Sumter, South Carolina in April.

She placed third in the Fit Body division in Savannah, and in Sumter she placed first in Masters Fit Body and second in Masters Figure. The Masters level is for competitors ages 45 and older.

Figure is a class of physique competition judged equally on symmetry, tone and beauty/stage presence, which includes the model walk, in three rounds. Judges are look-ing for women who have fit, toned physiques but are not necessarily proficient in gymnastics or another performance art.

In the Fit Body division, judges are look-ing for a more athletic physique without the muscle mass – think overly ripped or vascular shoulders or arms – of the Body-building division. Scoring is based on two rounds – symmetry, which is judged on balanced proportions where no one body part overpowers the rest of the physique, and muscle tone, which focuses on the overall conditioning of the body. “There’s a lot of pride to get up on stage at my age. Bodybuilding has made me feel more confident in myself, and I like the challenge,” says Judy. “I feel physically and mentally better. I have made a lot of friends. I enjoy the physical aspect of it and the support and friendships I’ve made.” 

Among the competitors, she has met doctors, lawyers, teachers, young mothers and other great-grandmothers like herself.

The spray-tanned bodybuilders wear custom-made, two-piece figure suits, which can be adorned with added effects such as rhinestones, sparkles and sequins, and high-heeled shoes. Jewelry is permitted as well.

“I never thought I would wear a bikini again,” Judy says. At the Sumter contest, she also bested about 100 competitors to win the Motivation Award.

“We had to write something about our motivation and what got us into bodybuilding,” she says. In her essay, she wrote, “This journey has taught me discipline and that hard work can improve anyone’s health at any age. So many times in life it is easier to take the path of least resistance. I plan to live my life as a healthy happy productive senior citizen sharing my journey with others of all ages.” Currently, she is in training for her next competition – a return to the Augusta Grand Prix Bodybuilding Championship in August. She normally does cardio for 25 minutes three times a week. At the end of July, how-ever, she will ramp up her cardio to 50 minutes five days a week to get leaner and to help her muscles show. “Competition isn’t for everybody, but anybody can get healthy and lose weight and get in that gym,” says Judy. “It takes a little dedication and determination, but it can change your whole life.” 

By Leigh Howard

Lake Therapy


Photography by Sally Kolar

Repairs and renovations to a Clarks Hill Lake property will help the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center provide therapeutic and recreational opportunities to veterans.

Programs to help veterans heal from physical and emotional wounds of battle are vital to their continued health and well-being. However, the surrounding environment can be as instrumental to their rehabilitation as the therapy itself.

Since 1995 the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center has leased a tranquil wooded property on Clarks Hill Lake in Modoc, South Carolina to provide therapeutic and recreational opportunities to veterans. However, the 32-acre campground and its facilities suffered significant damages in the ice storm of 2014. At the time, funding was unavailable for repairs and renovations.

Under the leadership of Robin Jackson, executive director of CNVAMC, and Bob Frasier, chief of voluntary service, however, the campground is becoming fully operational again.

“The goal is to make it a seamless part of care and an extension of the medical center,” says Jackson. “Community support is priceless, and that’s what really makes a difference.”

Listening to the Voice of Veterans
In the past couple of years, about 40 volunteers have spent 100 or so hours restoring the property with repairs, materials and man hours valued at about $25,000. They have replaced all of the decking on the dock, replaced the roofs on the dining hall and the restroom, and built trails. Volunteers have included groups from Greenbrier High School, Wesley United Methodist Church and the Masonic Service Association.

The VA also has a partnership with Project Healing Waters, which is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings.

“We’re looking forward to expanding our community partnerships with other organizations,” says Frasier. “This is a great military community. People want to help, but people outside the VA don’t know what we do.”

The VA serves about 70 percent of the 80,000 veterans in the area, and now, Jackson says, “The VA has a new focus on modernization and whole health.”

As a key component of the Department of Veterans Affairs 2018-2024 Strategic Plan, the VA is shifting from a focus on episodic care to an emphasis on more continuous engagement with veterans throughout their lives.

This approach is important for veterans with complex conditions such as chronic pain and the invisible wounds of war, and the restored Clarks Hill Lake property will play a major role in the whole health and wellness approach to the care of local veterans.

“We listen to the voice of our veterans. They want that whole health experience,” says Jackson. “Whole health is more than medicine. It’s connecting with the environment and getting the whole wellness experience. We want to deliver the care that veterans want, and this is what they’ve been asking for.”

Heroes Taking Care of Heroes
At the campground, veterans can participate in water-related activities such as fishing, canoeing and kayaking. The restoration entails more than returning the property to its pre-ice storm condition, however.

With the improvements to the campground, the VA also will be able to offer programs such as music therapy wellness retreats, yoga, tai chi, outdoor creative arts, nature walks, therapeutic gardening and landscaping, adaptive fishing, cookouts and camping.

These opportunities will enable veterans and their families to regain physical skills and confidence while interacting with nature. Benefits of these activities include:

  • Increased physical activity;
  • Improved overall mood and quality of life;
  • Decreased depression, anxiety and stress symptoms;
  • Reconnection with positive emotions;
  • A renewed sense of awe and appreciation for nature;
  • New, adaptive approaches to old skills and increased capabilities to enjoy recreational activities as independently as possible;
  • Stress management by connecting with the sights and sounds found only in the outdoors;
  • Alleviation of fear, anger, isolation, loneliness and despair;
  • Strengthened interpersonal skills by joining in activities that nurture social relationships.

While the property is available to veterans who receive care at local VA facilities, future plans include expanding its use to staff members to promote their health and well-being as well.

“It takes heroes to take care of heroes, so we’re going to open it up to our employees,” says Frasier.

The VA also will have a whole health coordinator at the facility, and outings will be scheduled so that staff members will be onsite when veterans come to the facility.

“This is going to be a great addition to the services we offer,” Jackson says. “Just looking at that view is therapeutic in itself.”

There are still some campground projects left to do. If you would like to volunteer to help, contact Frasier at (706) 993-5174.

People also can make monetary contributions to improve the campground. Checks should be made payable to VA Medical Center and mailed to Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center, Attn: Voluntary Service (119U), 1 Freedom Way, Augusta, GA 30904. Write “Modoc Campground” in the memo section of the check.

“Donors should know that 100 percent – no overhead – of every contribution goes directly to benefit veterans and their families,” Frasier says.

By Sarah James

Tastes Like Chicken


Bugged by eating the same old things? Well, then. . . .
If you can get past the thought of eating something you normally would squash like, well, a bug, then you might want to sample a creepy, crawly critter or two.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says there are nearly 2,000 edible insect species in the world – and many of them are packed with protein, fiber, good fats and vital minerals. While many cultures around the globe regularly consume insects as part of their diets, Western countries tend to lag — and gag — at the idea.

David Horne, owner of Horne’s Pest Control, says he never has eaten bugs – intentionally, anyway – other than crickets contained in protein bars. “They say that the average person in their lifetime will eat about eight pounds of bugs, though,” he says. “The human body can digest proteins and nutrients in bugs more efficiently than those in beef.”

As the world population and the cost of food production continue to escalate, Horne says, “Americans aren’t going to be able to eat steak and pork chops forever. The trend of eating bugs is inevitable.”

So what do insects taste like? Better than you think, fans say. According to these munchers, many have distinctive flavors:

Ants: nuts and beef jerky

Termites: pineapple

Stinkbugs: apple

Spiders: nuts

Agave worms: sunflower seeds

Tree worms: pork rinds

Bee egg, larvae and pupal stages: bacon

Wasps: pine nuts

Grasshoppers: peanuts and chicken

Katydids: pistachio

Pond/water flies: duck and fish

Scorpions: beef jerky

Tarantula legs: chicken wings

Giant water bug: salted bananas

Chocolate-dipped, powdered, fried or dried, experts say edible insects are winging and crawling their way into America’s food chain and can give us a “leg up” on nutrition.

So this summer, when you’re swatting away those pesky bugs, you might want to think about adding them to your diet instead.

Bon appétit!

Road Trip Mixtape

Listen To This

The all-American road trip season has begun. Are you prepared? The frenzied crescendo of buttoning up work, overpacking for every possible wardrobe scenario, triple-checking the essentials list, piling up knickknacks to soothe attention spans, ensuring our homes will be standing when we return and the all-so-scientific Tetris game of squeezing what gets packed into the car vs. the car-top carrier. Reminds us of why our parents were in such a bad mood before any family vacation.

One of the most important and commonly overlooked staples is the road trip mixtape. This soundtrack that carries us across the highways, byways and sometimes longways to our final destination is an essential component to remedy the mood and prepare us for the moments we spent weeks counting down.

Here is a 10-pak of notable tracks to get you started:

“Holiday Road” – Lindsey Buckingham

“Ventura Highway” – America

“Low Rider” – War

“Radar Love” – Golden Earring

“Get on the Good Foot” – James Brown

“Sweet Emotion” – Aerosmith

“Strawberry Letter 23” – The Brothers Johnson

“Can you Feel It” – The Jacksons

“Life’s Been Good” – Joe Walsh

“Apache” – The Sugarhill Gang

Grab some snacks, don’t forget the sunscreen and enjoy!

For music streaming aficionados, check out the full mixtape on Spotify.

Handle: Skyrucker

Playlist: CHRISPIX // R O A D T R I P

– Chris Rucker

The Summer Guests by Mary Alice Monroe

Literary Loop

Late August is a beautiful time on the Southern coast — the peach trees are ripe, the ocean is warm, and the sweet tea is icy. A perfect time to enjoy the rocking chairs on the porch. But beneath the calm surface bubbles a threat: it’s also peak hurricane season.

When a hurricane threatens the coasts of Florida and South Carolina, an eclectic group of evacuees flees for the farm of their friends in North Carolina: the host’s daughter and her rescue dogs, a famed equestrian, a makeup artist, a horse breeder and her daughter, and an Isle of Palms resident who helps protect sea turtles.

They bring with them only the few treasured possessions they can fit in their vehicles. Strangers to all but their hosts, they must ride out the storm together.

During the course of one of the most challenging weeks of their lives, relationships are put to the test as the evacuees are forced to confront the unresolved issues they have with themselves and with each other.

But as the storm passes, they realize that what really matters isn’t what they brought with them to the mountains. Rather, it’s what they’ll take with them once they leave.

Ham It Up


Amateur radio operators will share their skills at an open house to demonstrate the importance of the communications network.

Amateur, or ham, radio is more than just a hobby, and Amateur Radio Field Day, which is held each June, demonstrates its value to the community and to the nation.

The Amateur Radio Club of Columbia County once again is participating in this year’s event, which was started in 1933 for ham radio operators across North America to establish temporary ham radio stations in public locations to demonstrate the science and skill of amateur radio.

“We are excited about this opportunity to partner with the EOC to practice emergency response capabilities, and to demonstrate amateur radio capabilities to the organizations that we serve during emergencies, as well as the general public,” says Dan Marshall, ARCCC president. “It combines public service, emergency preparedness, community outreach and technical skills all in a single event.”

Anyone can become a licensed amateur radio operator, and the United States has more than 725,000 licenses hams ranging in age from 9 to 100.

If You Go:
What: Amateur Radio Field Day

When: 2 p.m. – 8 p.m. Saturday, June 22

Where: Columbia County Emergency Operations Center, 650-B Ronald Reagan Drive, Evans

How Much: Free

More info: arccc.org

Let the Good Times Roll


Crawfish and craft beer headline this Cajun outdoor festival.
There’s no need to travel far for a festival featuring New Orleans-inspired fare. Just head to the eleventh annual Mudbugabeaux-N-Brew Crawfish Festival for a bite o’ bayou.

“This is a great way to kick off the summer and enjoy an outdoor festival before it gets too hot,” says Jim Beck, owner of French Market Grille West, which co-sponsors the event. “We’ll have good music, and if you’ve never tried crawfish before, well, this is the time to do it.”

At Mudbugabeaux-N-Brew, festival-goers can chow down on crawfish, shrimp and all of the Cajun fixin’s they can imagine. And of course, the best way to chase that fine festival food is with a cold craft beer.

No outside food, beverages or coolers will be allowed. And sorry, but pets must be left at home as well. Bring your own chairs. The event will be held rain or shine.

If You Go:
What: Mudbugabeaux-N-Brew Crawfish Festival

When: 3 p.m. – 9 p.m. Saturday, June 1

Where: Augusta Common, 836 Reynolds Street

More Info: (706) 855-5111 or eventbrite.com

Pinball Paddling


Stroke and squeeze your way through an arcade of cypress trees as you kayak in George L. Smith State Park.

“Let’s paddle closer to the alligator!”

As I hear myself say those words out loud, I laugh. I’m not one to ignore dangers of the wild. After all, they’re no game. But when spotting an alligator across an open clearing on Mill Pond while hosting a friend from Sweden on his first visit to Georgia, I’m willing to narrow the gap a few dozen yards so Hans can get a better look.

The creature’s eyes gaze back at us over the water’s dark surface as he glides from the open water toward a cluster of majestic cypress trees along the distant shore. We pause in our kayaks. None of us blink. He then slips from view.

“Incredible!” says Hans. Wild alligators can be spotted routinely in wet regions of southern Georgia—the state is home to about 200,000 of the 200-million-year-old species—but there are none in Sweden.

Choose Your Route
Though alligators swim in the 412-acre Mill Pond lake at George L. Smith State Park in Twin City, Georgia, it’s safe to boat in this water as long as you follow guidelines and use common sense — in fact, it’s part of the Georgia State Park’s Paddlers Club. And part of navigating the pond with common sense is relying on an experienced guide company such as Wesley Hendley’s Mill Pond Kayak tours, which weave through 10 miles of black water trails.

For nearly 10 years Hendley has made the experience easy and accessible, providing kayaks, paddles, floatation vests, instructions and guidance. He also snaps photos throughout the trip to share with his guests at no additional charge.

Paddling this otherworldly setting is a unique challenge of maneuvering between moss-draped cypress trees. It’s like a giant pinball game, and you’re the ball. Some areas are a tight squeeze — to fit you may need to lift the paddle over your head and swing it parallel with the kayak. But there’s no current or tide to worry about, and almost no other boat traffic, so the water is smooth and easy to master.

The lake has natural niches and alcoves with different tree density, lighting, moods. Shadows play on water, light juts between branches. Because the place is so serene and tranquil, it’s hard not to relax. If paddlers somehow are separated from the group (which is unlikely), it would be hard for them to actually get lost. “It’s a pond,” says Hendley. “So you can paddle to shore and then along the shoreline in any one direction and eventually will end up back at the dock.” Still, it’s comforting to explore with a guide who knows the best routes to navigate in two or three hours.

Each tour is paced to suit participants’ skills and interests, weather and conditions, as well as energy levels. “I basically see two types of groups,” says Hendley. “Some go slowly, so it’s quiet and serene to soak up the surrounding environment. Others, especially youth groups, want to get rowdy out there, playing, splashing and sometimes swimming. The experiences are totally different, but I enjoy both. I enjoy getting to know people.”

Paddlers can get the sort of experience they prefer – even a private one. Hendley schedules groups separately, and he won’t even pair up families without prior permission.

Mill Pond Kayak welcomes people of all ages on its tours, which typically run March 1 through November 30. In September 2018, however, Mill Pond was drained in order to repair the dam. The lake will be restocked with fish and reopened, as weather permits, sometime this spring. “We’re at the mercy of the rainfall,” says Hendley.

The company also offers guided kayak trips on the nearby Ogeechee and Ohoopee rivers when water levels are favorable. As for the Mill Pond tour, though, “Anybody willing to give this a try can do this and enjoy it,” says Hendley, who counts infants, senior citizens and folks with a variety of special needs among his former guests. “I have tandem kayaks so people who can’t paddle can ride with me or someone else in the group. You don’t have to be physically able — I’ve had some people in their 80s and 90s paddle, which is impressive and inspiring to see.”

Some paddlers might favor the lower part of the lake where trees are more spaced out. On hot days, the shady upper part may rank as most appealing. “Some people prefer to avoid tree obstacles, some people really think they’re cool,” says Hendley. Whatever the route, you can take your time and appreciate the surrounding natural wonders.

Photos courtesy of Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Wesley Hendley Mill Pond Kayak

Mill Around with Mother Nature
And Mother Nature does not disappoint. Turtles line up on fallen branches. A white ibis nests overhead. Osprey, egret, heron and anhinga swoop in and out of view. Woodpeckers tap on trees. Ducks and non-venomous brown water snakes float around. Bream, crappie, redbreast and bass swim in the water. Occasionally, white tail deer walk the shoreline. The threatened gopher tortoise and eastern indigo snake live on the sand ridges surrounding the lake.

In addition to its natural wonders, George L. Smith State Park boasts the refurbished Parrish Mill, a combination grist mill, saw mill, covered bridge and dam built in 1880. One of only two grist mills in working order and in operation by the state of Georgia, it’s capable of grinding as much as 200 pounds of corn an hour (now limited to demonstrations only).

Reservoirs for water-powered mills, ponds like this one used to be common but have mostly disappeared as technology has changed. Before the state park was established, this pond was privately owned for about 100 years and has been referred to by locals as Parrish Pond and Watson Mill Pond for its previous owners. At the state park you can walk through the covered bridge and read placards to learn more. The park also offers 11 miles of hiking trails, though the mill and its pond are the park’s most stunning showpieces.

Kayakers could spend a few hours paddling and leave, but longer visits can be even more relaxing. George L. Smith State Park offers 25 tent, trailer and RV campsites, plus eight cottages. The cottages have been recently updated and are better appointed than some hotel rooms. They’re easy to share with a friend. Hans and I each snagged a private bedroom and bathroom while sharing a living room, screened porch and full-service kitchen. The cottage was clean, comfy and homey.

Reflecting on our experience, Hans says, “That was the best nature experience of my life!” High praise, considering how frequently he travels for outdoor treks. “The cypress’ fat, swollen root balls just above the waterline are truly wonderful,” he says. “Navigating the narrow, winding ways in between all the cypresses is so much fun.”

With such beautiful surroundings, it’s easy to envy the alligators who get to live in such a place.

More information is available from George L. Smith State Park at (478) 763-2759 or gastateparks.org/GeorgeLSmith or Mill Pond Kayak at (478) 299-6616 or millpondkayak.com.

By Hope S. Philbrick


Like a Hawk


Word on the street — or in the air — says that hawk sightings on the East Coast have increased recently. I.B. Parnell, Georgia Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist, says he has seen no data to indicate that their numbers have grown, but the birds always are around.

“We have resident and migrant populations of hawks,” he says. “They can cause some problems for folks with pets, but they prey primarily on squirrels, rats and mice.”

Animals that weigh less than 10 pounds could be at risk for being captured by hawks. “It happens, but I wouldn’t say it’s common,” says Parnell. “Hawks also might try to drive an animal away if they have a nest nearby and they think it’s a threat to the nest.”

Parnell recommends taking down bird- feeders that attract the squirrels, mice and rats that, in turn, attract hawks. In addition, he says owners of small pets should not let them outside without supervision — and when outside, watch them like a hawk.