By James Malphrus, writer of JCM Adventure Journals. Featured image: Pines reaching to the sky. Photo credit: James Malphrus

River Creek, the Ralph and Alexandra Kauka Wildlife Management Area is a mouthful. The name stands out in a list because of, well, the names. Despite the curiosity, we delayed visiting River Creek, in much the same way as we avoided Chickasawhatchee WMA. Since our initial strategy for selecting WMAs had been to visit those farther from home, we were saving the closer ones for later. The thought was that places farther from home would be more interesting to us—we were wrong.

Photo credit: James Malphrus

We had fallen in love with Doerun Pitcherplant Bog in May: its tall pines, lush grasses, and diverse wildlife had drawn us in and brought the longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem into our minds. I had been aware of the subject but had grossly underestimated its value prior to that visit. Between our visit and my meager information, Rebecca was intrigued—she sought out guides, read books, and researched the matter online. As she learned more, she developed a desire to experience it firsthand. Then about a month ago, while we were returning from a day hike, she began lamenting that even if we found an old growth forest, we wouldn’t be able to visit it.

 “Old-growth” is a term given to ecosystems and there is some contention about the specifics of the term, but Rebecca knew what she was looking for: “a forest that has attained great age without significant disturbance.” The information she collected indicates that the decline of the old-growth longleaf pine/wiregrass forests began during the 18th century, but transportation was difficult and so much of the deforestation was limited to narrow tracts along waterways until the rise of steam power in the 19th century which significantly hastened their decline.

After logging peaked, the slower-growing longleaf pine forests were supplanted by faster-growing slash and loblolly pines. Recent estimates suggest that less than 3.3 million acres of longleaf pine forests remain in the Southern United States—where an estimated 88 million acres once stood. Specifics about how much old growth forest remains is elusive, because of efforts to protect the pristine ecosystems from human interaction. I understood her dismay, but disagreed with the assertion, and as luck would have it—fate disagreed as well.

Pipevine swallowtail and praying mantis. Photo credit: James Malphrus

I asked her where she wanted to explore next, to change to subject. We were nearly home when we settled on River Creek. I knew very little of the place, but the lengthy name and proximity intrigued me. I urged her to investigate it as we drove through the night. She searched the internet and I drove—I could hear the excitement in her voice as she started to tell me about the property.

River Creek was originally organized by Thurman T. Scott, who ran Fiction House: a publishing company that gave rise to countless pulp magazines and comic books throughout the mid-twentieth century. River Creek was organized as a plantation and vacation home for Scott and his wife in the 1930s. In addition to establishing several notable comic tropes and characters, Scott established a love for conservation and River Creek is now heralded as one of the best examples of the longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem with roughly 500 acres of unspoiled forest within its 2500-acre footprint.

The property was purchased by Rolf and Alexandra Kauka in the 1980s. The Kaukas continued to curate the property with an interest in conservation and even helped the State of Georgia organize funds to purchase the property in 2005. A primary driver of the state’s interest in making the purchase was the longleaf pine/wiregrass forest and the many imperiled species that this type of forest can harbor such as the gopher tortoise, indigo snake, Bachman’s sparrow, and red-cockaded woodpecker.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources recently has been working to reintroduce red-cockaded woodpecker family groups into the River Creek area and have experienced some success with six families of birds currently living in the area.

Red-cockaded woodpecker nest cavity. Photo credit: James Malphrus.

When Sunday came, Rebecca and I drove down to the old plantation outside of Thomasville, arriving just before dawn. We set out quietly on our hike, watching the forest slowly come alive with the rising sun. We were humbled by the beauty of this majestic forest – and we felt very small. Though our first visit was short, we’re looking forward to another visit quite soon.