It’s a dirty job keeping a river clean…

The beautiful Altamaha -- all photos by James Holland.

…but thank God, somebody’s doing it. And that somebody in Georgia for the past ten years was recently retired James Holland, the Altamaha Riverkeeper. The Altamaha Riverkeeper organization was founded in 1999 by Holland and a few other passionate river lovers committed to the protection, defense, and restoration of Georgia’s biggest river. And believe me, it’s a beauty.

The red-bellied woodpecker - a denizen of the river.

The Altamaha stretches for 470 miles entirely through the state of Georgia, with a 14,000 square mile watershed. Its waters feed the largest salt marsh on the east coast and its estuary (where fresh and salt water mix – remember junior high biology??) comprises 26 square miles of a beautiful pit stop for migratory shorebirds.

From the river to the reef, ARK is watching over the waters.

Along the banks of the Altamaha, 120 rare or endangered species find a home, as well as the only known examples of old-growth Long Leaf pines and some of the last remaining cypress swamps in the South. Because the river is still nearly in its natural state, it’s been designated as a bio-reserve, and its tributaries: the Oconee, Ocmulgee and Ohoopee sound like something right out of a Flannery O’Connor story.

Duckweed covers the river's surface.

Despite the fact that most of the Altamaha runs through sleepy, rural Georgia, it is always at risk of degradation – which is where Holland and ARK come to the river’s rescue.

The Riverkeeper, James Holland

James Holland grew up playing in the woods and on the water, and when he was 17, he joined the Marines. After serving, he became a blue crab fisherman and developed a love for the waters of Georgia – and a fury when he saw those waters being polluted, overdeveloped and destroyed. As Riverkeeper, Holland worked tirelessly to monitor polluters and pollution – by boat, water-sampling from the shoreline, and even from the air, as volunteer pilots took Holland on fly-by missions to identify polluters dumping toxins into the river.

Toxic spill near Athens, August 2010.

In classrooms, boardrooms, courtrooms, and the state capitol, Holland has advocated for water quality and environmental health of the river, repeating assiduously, “Our economic and environmental well-being are one and the same.”

Cypress trees and knees.

Holland is also a brilliant photographer, and on September 10 he will be leading a trip through the prehistoric swamp to see Georgia’s largest cypress tree and some glorious tupelos. If I weren’t going to be in New York City, I can tell you that I’d be down in Darien, at the mouth of the mighty Altamaha with Holland, possibly the only man in America who could make wading through a swamp sound like a good idea. To make your reservation, call 912-437-8164. Or to take the high (and scaredy-cat) road and contribute to ARK, click here.

To learn more about life in rural southern Georgia, read Janisse Ray’s beautiful, evocative and brilliant book: Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.