At 5:30 a. m., Allen raps on the door. I know that there will be people at the ramp when I finish today, so I rummage around in my overnight bag and, like the Johnny Cash song "Sunday Morning Coming Down," I pick out my "cleanest dirty shirt."
While I'm getting ready to go, I hear "Little Jim" Murray drive up. He's called "Little Jim" because his dad is a great big fellow that everyone calls "Big Jim." I've known and fished against his dad for years and watched Little Jim grow up to be a fine fisherman and person.
Allen shows up with a bacon-and-egg sandwich for me from the restaurant, and it made for a very good breakfast. Jim and I throw our stuff in Dumarse an hour later and head out into the lake with Allen and Butch following in his boat. We run up Spring Creek and take the Silver Lake run over to Wingate's on the Flint River. Jim goes inside to tell them to turn the gas pump on, and I fill the front tank plus put two more gallons in the rear tank.
We don't know exactly what the mileage is to Albany, but estimate it to be somewhere around 120 miles. I'm out of sandwich supplies so I buy a couple packs of cheese crackers. The closest thing they have to granola bars is Payday candy bars. I buy a couple and think, how many years has it been since I've eaten one of those?
Jack Wingate is sitting in his customary rocking chair and asks if we are catching any fish. I tell I'm just passing through today on my way from Minneapolis to Albany, Ga. and get this blank look, then he says, "Say what?" I tell him a little about my trip, and he walks out and looks at my boat and just shakes his head. Later in the week, he mentions it in his weekly newspaper column and adds, "I hope he makes it."
He also misspelled my name, but that's nothing new. I've been fishing tournaments out of Wingate's for years and Jack never has spelled my name right, even when I did well. In fact, I think Jack invented phonetic spelling, he just never sold it on TV.
We idle out of the cut at Wingate's and turn upriver. Jim has already cautioned me, "When you get in the shallow, rocky part of the river, the worst thing you can do is let off the gas." The reason being when the boat is running up on plane, the tip of the skeg under the propeller is about 15 inches below the boat, and when you slow down, it sinks another 12-18 inches deeper. Not good if you are running in two feet of water, which we frequently were.
The sun is directly in our faces the first hour, making it difficult to see, but the river twists and turns enough that we are not always looking directly into it. We pass under the bridge at Bainbridge, Ga., and slow down just before entering the shallow rocks and rapids on this part of the river.
I text family and friends, "Thirty miles upstream. Rocks, rapids ahead. Fun part begins." Jim's instructions were simple. "I'll point, you steer where I'm pointing, and don't let off the gas." And for the next 60 miles we did just that. The photo gallery will give you a far better picture of what the Flint River is like to run than I ever could with words.
Soon we cross Hell's Gate, one of the more notorious rapids on the entire river for tearing up boats. The water pours over rocks that extend all the way across the river. There's about a four-foot-wide gap in the rapids in the middle of the river that has just enough depth to allow you to run through it. You then have to take a hard left, run across a narrow trough just above the rocks almost to the left bank, then a hard right upstream. It's too tense a moment to take pictures, and there are many more "Hell's Gates" in the next 50 miles.
We slow down to take a break and I text a progress report, "56 miles upstream. Halfway. What a ride." The phone starts lighting up with "Go!" messages.
We take another needed break. It's been a continuous white-knuckle ride, at least for me, for a solid hour. The depth changes constantly : we rode over a hole in the river and the depth went to 50 feet, then a hundred yards upstream we were in 2-3 feet of water. The river narrows between islands, and there are 200-400 yard stretches where the current rips through narrow chutes then widens and our path leads us over either rocky or sandy shoals.
Jim takes pictures with one hand and points with the other. I steer with one hand and keep a firm grip on the side of the boat with my other. The time and miles are flying by. Before getting back on plane I text, "Passing under bridge at Newton, Ga., 65 miles upstream, 37 to go."
Just before noon, it's another tense stretch but the rapids and really bad shoals are farther apart. I call Scott and tell him we think we will be at the ramp around 1:00 p.m. We eat a pack of crackers and Jim tells me the most dangerous part of running the Flint is not the rapids. He explains further that most of us can see bulges in the water ahead and we know there's a rock underneath pushing the water up.
The dangerous part is the flat, shallow water between rapids that may have rocks inches under the surface, with flat tops that don't cause a ripple or bulge. You absolutely have to know where those places are. Jim apparently knows every one of them, because in 96 miles I felt one tiny bump that Jim later said was probably a sunken tree limb with a branch sticking up. A thunderstorm is forming just ahead of us and before we resume, rain starts pouring. We idle another mile upstream and the rain lets up.
By 12:50, neither of us know exactly where the ramp is, but we have passed the Ft. Mitchell power plant some five miles south of Albany and then Radium Spring, an old casino/resort, just inside the city limits of Albany. We know we're close. I look up ahead and see three guys standing on the point of a tiny cut, looking downstream, and know that has got to be the ramp.
They turn out to be close friends my neighbor Jack Thompson with his son Jessie, and Marvin Waddell. We shove the nose up on the bank and shake hands, then I sit back down and text family and friends "Dream lived. Journey complete. My heartfelt thanks to all." In a few minutes my wife, daughter and grandson arrive with hand-held "Welcome Home" signs.
A minute or so later, I look up and Scott is backing the trailer down the long ramp. I run the boat up on the trailer and Scott pulls me a short way up the ramp. The phone is continually beeping with text messages, and I'm trying to talk to everybody at once when the phone rings and I see it's Mike. I had to tell everybody this is a call I have to answer. Mike tells me congratulations and says how much he regrets not being there with me.
Jim had asked me a few miles downstream, "What do you feel?" I didn't really have an answer and still don't. "Mixed emotions" is probably the best description. A little excitement at completing the trip and seeing my family and friends, a little sadness that it's over, and a little amazement that I was able to do it. The entire trip I had this fear that something was going to happen to end the trip. A lot of things happened that could have ended the trip, but the Man Upstairs guided me safely and a lot of people, by their words and actions, helped push me along when I needed it.
96 miles today. 2,107 miles total for the trip. $3,000.00 donated to Children of Fallen Heroes charity.