Experience Pierce County, Georgia

Satilla Riverkeeper – Laura Early

Tucked away in on the western edge of Georgia’s Coast region, there’s more than meets the eye in Pierce County, Georgia. The outlying areas past the city limits of the quaint county seat of Blackshear offer several one-of-a-kind outdoor experiences that attract visitors from around the state and beyond.

In June 2019, Discover Georgia Outdoors spent time with the folks on the ground who make Pierce County an appealing stop on any South Georgia adventure. Read on to uncover the meandering Satilla River, meet the Georgia Grown blueberry wine producers at Rabbiteye Winery and hear the story behind one of the largest dog training facilities in the South, Mossy Pond Retrievers.

Paddle the Satilla River

On a warm June morning, Laura Early brings her kayak to the river’s edge and looks across the flowing water. Early, who leads environmental advocacy efforts, including river appreciation and stewardship activities, throughout the watershed in her role as the Satilla Riverkeeper, says the water is a little low for this time of year, but deep enough for us to experience what the river has to offer.  

The sandy shores of the Satilla River have been inviting South Georgia residents since the area was settled in the early 19th century. Emanating in Ben Hill County near Fitzgerald, the freshwater river touches nine Georgia counties before reaching the tidal marshes separating Glynn and Camden counties along the coast.

As the meandering blackwater follows the path of least resistance to the Atlantic Ocean, it passes along the southern edge of Pierce County, which boasts some of the most peaceful and picturesque sections of the river. The GA-121 Landing is on the Pierce County side of the river; it is one of the county’s two main entries to the river and arguably the most popular in the area. Both are part of the Satilla River Water Trail, an amenity that spans several counties, facilitating paddling and other river recreation activities.

River houses dot the banks in certain sections, but most of the land along the waterway is undeveloped, providing a quiet and peaceful paddle filled with the sights and sounds of nature. As you move, your paddle dips in and out of water the color of sweet tea. In the coastal plain’s slow-moving rivers, tannins leach out of decomposing leaves and pine needles giving the water the deep color characteristic commonly referred to as “blackwater.” In shallow water, though, the tannin-stained water is clear enough to see to the ripples in the sugar-sand riverbed.

Heading west and upstream from the GA-121 Landing at the southern border of Pierce County, the rumbling of vehicles along the two-lane overpass fades quickly. In short order, we’re fully immersed in a forest of cypress and skinny pines which provide dappled shade from the warming sun.

In times of lower water, navigating upriver from GA-121 Landing is short-lived. Higher water periods, like winter and spring, will allow paddlers to meander through the cypress forest down blackwater alleys. 

As we turn back east and pass the landing, the canopy above opens to display the full view of the river and the sandy outcroppings that line the banks. Water bugs dance across the surface as we casually cut through the seemingly still water.

Early notes the main obstacles along the waterway are typically fallen trees known as strainers and, of course, the sandbars, which can remain hidden just inches below the surface.

Since the sandy riverbed is playable, the river can be reshaped rather quickly. Sandbars will shift from waterflow as sediment collects on the inside edge of the S-curves of the river, and oxbow lakes have been known to form, being cut off from the main channel as the river changes course over time. When the water levels rise, adventurous paddles might discover an oxbow lake adjacent to the main channel by paddling through the trees for a short while.

Sandbars, however, are integral to the public use of the river, serving often as campsites and hangout spots for paddlers along the journey. Accurately called “sugar sand” for its grainy texture and white color, the sand is left over from prehistoric times when Georgia’s lowlands were under the Atlantic Ocean.

The sandbars are hallmark of the Satilla and are commonly used for overnight camping or daytime relaxing. No Pierce County paddle would be complete without at least one jaunt onto the white mounds.

“Make sure when you are planning a multi-day paddle trip that you pay attention to the river level,” Early recommends as we pass a wide sandbar. “It’s a flashy system and the water levels can change significantly in a few days.”

While the average flow of the river is around 700 cubic feet per second (CFS), the river toggles between 30 CFS and 16,000 CFS throughout the year. The Satilla’s flow rate is tied directly to its water level, which fluctuates by season, ranging from 2 to 5 feet deep in the dry summer and upward of 15 feet in the rainy fall and winter.

Although it rarely falls below 5 feet, there are times when the waterway is only navigable by kayak or canoe. During times of higher water levels, johnboats and small watercraft are common along with kayaks and canoes. Before you paddle, it’s recommended that you check the Satilla Riverkeeper’s website which provides updated water levels and navigability through a series of gauges on the river.

It’s nearly impossible to get through a paddle without at least a little bit of a workout. Even if you’re traveling with the current, it typically isn’t strong enough to push you the entire way.

Once you slide away from any landing, one of the first things you’ll notice is the silence. The sounds of civilization give way to the cacophony of birds who roost and nest in flourishing avian ecosystem. Chirps, tweets and screeches fill the air as smaller birds, like swallows, dash just above the water, snagging insects along the way. Barred owls perched atop branches scan for prey, while red-tailed hawks and kite can be seen patrolling the area from the skies above.

Mammals that call the riverside home include deer, hogs, and beaver. Alligators are spotted from time to time but seeing their tracks is the more common occurrence. Several species of snakes rest on the forested banks, while redbreast sunfish, redear sunfish, bluegill, largemouth bass and catfish enjoy the confines of the blackwater. 

Parking is permitted at the GA-121 Landing and most paddlers prefer to make round trips back to their load-in spot and parked vehicle. The low flow and limited current make westerly paddles along the easterly flowing river manageable.

A great turnaround spot is Altman Ferry Landing, which sits on the Brantley County side of the Satilla. Just 4 miles downriver, an 8-mile roundtrip is manageable for most paddlers of moderate fitness and experience when the flow is lower.

FFA Camp Landing

A 10-mile one-way paddle may be a better plan if the flow is higher. An ideal pickup area would be the FFA Camp Landing. Its wide banks and sturdy ramp make exiting and loading a breeze.

To find out how to make the most of your Satilla River paddle through Pierce County, check out our Discover Georgia Outdoors Trail Description and visit the Satilla River Water Trail website. For more information on how you can support the Satilla River Keeper, visit www.satillariverkeeper.org.

Sip Away at Rabbiteye Winery
The Tasting Room at Rabbiteye Winery

Bell Farms and its owners are about as unassuming as it gets. Just off GA-32 in Bristol sits the farm, which is home to Rabbiteye Winery and the Bells. It may look like an ordinary blueberry farm from the outside, but once you step foot inside, you’ll see how modern technology, at-home science, trial and error, and a big dose of hard work have come together to create some of the most flavorful wine produced in the state.

Sporting a handlebar mustache, ballcap and an appropriately blue collared shirt, the Bell patriarch, Rusty, is quick to greet guests. Not far behind is Tarren Bell, the matriarch whose gregarious nature makes her ideal for customer interaction. Their blueberry-stained hands are a dead giveaway of how close they are to the operations of their business.

It’s the middle of picking season when we arrive, so the farm is awash with activity. Crews work the massive diesel-powered picking machines in the fields, while others load and work the infrared sorter, which weeds out berries that are too red, too green or too soft for consumption.

Workers sort the best blueberries in the 2019 harvest

Presently, about 10 percent of the annual harvest is allocated to their prized wine, which the Bells began selling in 2016, while the remaining 90 percent is sorted, packed, frozen and shipped around the globe.

A quick lap of the facilities ends with Rusty running off to check on a machine, which means it’s time for wine tasting. Tarren leads us to a wood-paneled room where the four vintages of blueberry wine await.

In the tasting room, Tarren is in her element, taking the time to tell the story of her family’s farm, how each variety of blueberries dictate the sweetness and how each variation of the certified Georgia Grown product was developed.

“We want to build a destination for people to visit and see the equipment and how it’s made,” Tarren says of the desire to turn the three-generation farm into an agritourism destination.

Named for the Rabbiteye blueberry (Vaccinium ashei), the farm grows several varieties including Brightwell, Premier, Climax, Tifblue and Powderblue. Some of their wines are solely one variety, while others are a blend of varieties. Currently they bottle four types of wine.

The Brightwell vintage is dry, with a strong scent and a tinge of toasted oak. The Powderblue is semi-sweet and is used to great effect in Rabbiteye’s renowned blueberry wine slushies. The Tifblue Sweet has just the right amount of sweetness according to many customers, while the Super Sweet blend bursts with a dessert-level sweetness and is best served chilled. You’ll simply have to taste them all to find out which one is your favorite.

Once the tasting is complete, we slide into Rusty’s “lab.” In short order, it’s abundantly clear he’s much more than a blueberry farmer. He’s an amalgam of professions including chemist, biologist, mechanic, vintner, supply chain manager and sommelier.

As the head of his own research and development department, Rusty works throughout the year to perform quality control testing and analysis for his products. As the batches work through the process, he’ll test for sulfur dioxide and acidity along with alcohol levels at the end of the run.

Rusty Bell explains the finer points of wine-making

It can take anywhere from six to 12 months to produce a batch, he says, and the variability is dependent on numerous factors. The initial product load of 520 gallons of blueberries produces 450 gallons of wine, which is equivalent to 180 cases or 2,160 individual bottles.

By leveraging computer systems and new technology, Rusty hopes to add efficiency and increase production while expanding the wine’s market footprint. The Bells make more profit per pound when they sell a bottle of wine than when they wholesale their blueberries outright, so it makes financial sense, too.

In addition to the on-site tasting room, the Bell’s maintain Rabbiteye Winery & Market, a tasting room and retail store in Historic Downtown Brunswick.

The store in Brunswick has helped popularize Rabbiteye blueberry wine slushies across the Golden Isles. There’s a near constant line of patrons flowing into the store on the city’s monthly First Friday celebration.

In the coming year, the Bells hope to increase their wine allocation to 20 percent, expand their tastings locations, and add a mobile tasting and slushie wagon.

“If people drink our wine, they’ll buy it,” Rusty says confidently. “If they just see it sitting on a shelf, it’s just another bottle of wine. Who knows if they’ll buy it?”

Come visit the farm and see where the award-winning Rabbiteye Wine is made. The adventure includes a free tasting and a tour of the winery and packing area. The tasting room is open Fridays and Saturdays from 1 to 5 p.m. with bottles available to purchase.

When you stop by, you’ll see that there is nothing ornate or self-aggrandizing in Rabbiteye’s process or presentation. The Bells are simply real people, making exceptional blueberry wine.

If you can’t make it quite yet and still want to get a taste, Rabbiteye Wines are sold at retailers throughout Georgia, from Savannah to Valdosta and Jekyll Island to Glennville. Look for the distinctive blue bottles with the cute red-eyed rabbit, an allusion to the berries that produce the vintage.

For more information on retail locations or to purchase their products directly, visit rabbiteyewine.com.

Mossy Pond Retrievers
Retriever in training

While anyone in the hunting dog training world already knows about Mossy Pond Retrievers, the average person would be surprised to find out that one of the largest dog training facilities in the South is in Patterson, Georgia.

Mossy Pond Retrievers was developed by owner Brad Arington in 2003 with, as he says, “a dog and a dream.” Now, 16 years later, Arington and his team manage 130-plus kennels and train dogs from all over the country year-round. Mossy Pond’s 1,200-acre Pierce County property, which includes a lodge, overnight accommodations, and hunting and shooting grounds, is popular for group events of all types, including weddings, corporate outings, and friends and family outings.

The Lodge can accommodate overnight guest and large groups

Although it’s easy to jump from Mossy Pond Retrievers’ humble beginning to present-day success, Arington still has the same drive and passion he had at the outset.

“Early on it was ‘hard knocks’,” Arington says of the trial-and-error process during his first few years in business. “When something didn’t work, I learned from it and that taught me a lot. I was very motivated and said, ‘no matter how hard this is I’m going to figure it out’.”

By 2005, Arington had built a 12-stall kennel which filled and went to a waiting list almost immediately. As the demand continued to grow, another kennel was put on a 7-acre tract of family land. This 40-stall kennel was again filled, with a waiting list. By this time MPR had acquired 2 more trainers on staff. MPR began running in AKC and UKC sanctioned events where they found success. 

Up and running, Arington befriended Retriever Hall of Famer Hugh Arthur, who began mentoring Arginton and his team in 2012.

“I think I was a really good trainer and we’d run a lot of hunt test competitions before Mr. Hugh. We were the top in the country actually,” Arington says. “But when he came along, I think that set the program to the ‘great’ status. We felt, as trainers, there was nothing we couldn’t accomplish in this sport after he started helping.”

That confidence, along with Mossy Pond’s inherent traits of hard work and dedication, has translated to success in the retriever training and trials industry. Arington now has 23 employees, including nine trainers, each of whom work with 10-12 dogs at any given time. Mossy Pond has also opened another training and boarding facility in Marlboro, NY. 

Arington’s outfit is one of two Orvis-endorsed training camps in the country and he has four pros who travel from coast to coast 25-40 weekends per year participating in field trials and competitions.

Prospective trainers must work in an apprenticeship for a full year before earning the chance to join the Mossy Pond team. Once the year is completed and they pass an internal evaluation, Arington will hire the trainer or help set them up to open their own training business. According to Arington, the key to success is passion. 

“A lot of people think this is the most fun job in the world,” Arington says. “It’s about 16 hours day, six days a week. Even on Sundays, we don’t deal with customers, but the dogs need about 8 hours of our time.

“It has to be that employee that is just crazy passionate about dogs. If he’s not ate up with the desire to be around dogs and love on them 24/7, then he won’t make it in this game,” he adds.

Although they accept many breeds of dogs for a variety of training programs, Mossy Pond specializes in training gun dogs, dogs whose owners are interested in competing in AKC and UKC-sanctioned hunt tests and field trials, and the gentleman’s gun dog, trained to flush and retrieve.

MPR’s most popular training is an 8-month hunting and house program that provides domestic obedience training, plus field and hunting training. Some dogs, however, can be trained up to four years at Mossy Pond. 

While at MPR dogs are exposed to various environments, terrain and situations. MPR incorporates the use of bumpers, decoys and live birds – like ducks, quail, pigeons, and pheasants – throughout the training process. The use of natural environments and live game year-round prepares retrievers for all hunting situations, no matter where their owner hails from.

Arington believes what makes the Mossy Pond experience notable is that it’s not just a “pick your dog up when we’re done” proposition. When owners come to visit or pick up their dogs, they can fish, shoot skeet, learn how to work with their dog, and stay at the lodge – all on site. 

The facilities at Mossy Pond allow Brad and his team to simulate nearly every hunting environment as well as common domestic situations, like dinner time.

“We can set up dinner in the lodge and we’ll tell the dog ‘place’ during dinner. If the dog messes up or the handler doesn’t do it right, we’re there to correct it,” he says. “That goes for the fields as well, whether it’s the duck blinds, the corn fields, the peanut fields, the pit blinds or quail courses.

“Anything that a guy is going to see, I want to be able to simulate it here for him and his dog when we make that transfer,” Arington says. “That’s what I think sets us apart.”

Mossy Pond Retrievers has received national acclaim for its training program and Arington has been featured in numerous media outlets, including magazines and The Outdoor Channel program On the Edge.

For more information on venue rentals or dog training at Mossy Pond Retrievers visit, mossypondretrievers.com.

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