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A hidden Georgia gem: George L. Smith State Park


June 14, 2016

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    I first experienced Statesboro when I came down for a campus tour back in 2013, and I made the terrible decision to visit in the summer. That was my initial idea of what to expect from South Georgia in late June, which in my mind roughly translated to “1,001 degrees Fahrenheit.” 
    I decided to move here anyway. 
    Last summer, looking for ways to beat the heat, some of my friends and I visited what has become one of my favorite places in this area. It’s not Tybee, or Savannah or Hilton Head. It’s the 412-acre lake right in Statesboro’s back yard.
    It’s called Watson Mill Pond, but don’t let that fool you — it’s a decent-sized body of water. You could spend all day exploring by boat, kayak or paddleboard, or trekking down the 7 miles of hiking trails. Just a 40-minute drive from downtown Statesboro, George L. Smith State Park a hidden gem. And I do mean hidden: 15 minutes into the drive it feels like you’re headed for the middle of nowhere. You turn off of Highway 25 and onto a two-lane road that winds through miles and miles of fields.
    The first time we went there, a four-car caravan loaded down with kayaks rented from the RAC, I wasn’t convinced that we weren’t lost. Eventually, we turned into the park and drove down the long entrance road, passing trails and campsites — but there was no lake in sight. Finally we reached the main park office, a cluster of buildings where you can rent kayaks, paddleboards and jon boats at a rate of $25 for four hours. All of our MacGyver-esque bungee cording and ratchet straps had been unnecessary, but we didn’t know that then. 
    We parked by the boat ramp and crossed the road to the picnic tables, pulling food out of the cooler and creating a make-your-own-sandwich buffet. The lake shone behind us like a sheet of glass, reflecting the nearly cloudless sky like a mirror. Shortly, smelling strongly of bug spray and tasting sunscreen on our lips, we unloaded and set off into the lake. 
    At first, it’s fairly open water with a few cypress trees scattered around, but the further back you go the thicker the trees get, until some places are even too thick to fit a kayak through. At that point, it becomes a game of "I Spy" to find the red, blue or yellow trail markers. 
    The most distinctive thing about the lake is its stillness. The water is calm and dark and the lake is so large that you’ll rarely see other people. Just a short way into the trees, your voices start to echo, bouncing back to you out of the distance, occasionally accompanied by the sounds of songbirds or woodpeckers. The lake is a haven for fish and birds, including endangered species like the osprey. A pair nests every year in the open part of the lake, watching passers-by carefully. As you file one-by-one through the trees, dodging low-hanging clumps of Spanish moss and watching turtles slip silently into the water, you get the paradoxical sense that you belong here somehow, an accepted part of this ecosystem, but also that you are here as an observer only, quietly intruding on another world. My friend likened it to something out of Jurassic Park (and she’s not completely wrong, as a small alligator may glide by), but I would argue that this park is significantly more relaxing. 
    I’ve been back to George L. Smith a few times now since that first trip, and I’m never disappointed in its beauty. There are always new paths to take, more challenges to skillfully (or not so skillfully) maneuver around, and plenty of plants and animals to enjoy. So when Statesboro gets a little too warm, take a drive out of town and get out on the water. You might just see me there.


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