One Tank Trip: Donkeys, Stallings Island & the Savannah River
Imagine a secluded island thick with palmettos, pine, and hardwoods accessible only by kayak or canoe. In spring, it’s a stopover for Canada geese, in summer a home for ruby-throated humming birds and yellow-billed cuckoo. Year-round the island is haven for egrets, heron, and river otter. And donkeys. Donkeys live here, and if you’re lucky—and bring treats—they’ll eagerly bray and meet you as you come paddling ashore.
This place exists. It’s called Stallings Island in the Savannah River, a little over two hours north of the Hostess City. The island and its donkeys are part of the region’s Serene 18 paddling trail, the emerald in the crown of Georgia’s bucolic, Columbia County.
Full disclosure: had it not been for social media and its frighteningly all-knowing algorithms, I would not have found the island nor Serene 18 trail. But there it was—and maybe you’ve seen it, too, scrolling in your feed—a guy in a kayak, one hand outstretched feeding a donkey, the other clutching a paddle for balance, amidst a backdrop of deep summer green. It’s everything. And I immediately wanted to do that, paddle to an island and feed donkeys from my boat. I mean, really, who wouldn’t?
I clicked the ad, which took me to a Facebook page where I found a phone number connecting me to the Columbia County Convention and Visitors Bureau. A kind woman there directed me to Savannah Rapids Kayak Rentals where I could pick up a boat, $25 all day. A couple clicks on their website, and bam, it was reserved.
Stallings Island is for more than donkeys and adventurers. It’s one of the oldest documented places of human habitation in the South East. Here, human presence dates back as much as 5,000 years.
In the 1850s, a multitude of shell mounds, or middens, caught the attention of archeologists who a decade later deemed
the island a site of significance. Middens, waste piles of human-consumed shellfish, can remain in place for thousands of years. Since important molecular structures within the shells also stay intact, these piles make for great markers in understanding the timeline of human history in a given area.
In 1929, a team of Harvard archeologists found 84 burial sites that were eventually determined to be between 3,000 and 3,500 years old. Further excavation yielded the Island’s most prized artifact. Stallings Island is home to the oldest pottery shards in all of North America.
Around 2888 B.C.E.—almost 500 years ahead of cultures in the South West—people living around the Savannah River at Stallings Island began making pottery, which also predated agriculture in the area by neatly 700 years. Scientists hypothesize that the island functioned as an important semi-permanent gathering spot for a range of sophisticated hunter-gatherers over thousands of years.
When the Archeological Conservancy began its stewardship of Stallings in the late 1990s, it was overgrown, and looters were digging up and making off with key pieces of history. The conservancy brought in goats in 2008 to tackle the bramble, which wiped out hiding spots for looters, but introduced a new problem. Coyotes saw the goats as food. To protect them, the conservancy then introduced donkeys to ward off the coyotes. Currently, four donkeys help protect a small herd of goats that continue to keep the island trim.
To get to Stallings in a kayak, you’ll set out just above the Augusta Canal Headgates, and from there paddle upriver a little over a mile. Depending on the current, it could be challenging. The morning I set out, the flow was just under four-miles-per-hour and required some oomph to get going.
I was the only paddler making my way upstream through a series of finger-like islands, each slowly waking in their bright spring greens, cotton ball clouds chasing a bright blue sky above.
A “No Trespassing” sign posted on a tree came into focus—Stallings Island. An important note: To visit the donkeys, you have to stay in your boat. You cannot set foot on the island. I mean, to even be able to paddle to a place with human history potentially older than the Egyptian pyramids, staying in your boat to feed the donkeys is the very least show of respect to offer such a special place.
A series of brays issued from a row of palmettos, and within moments they emerged, ears up, tails twitching. They knew. And they waited patiently as I nosed my boat to shore, fumbling the only apple I had. Without a knife, I bit out chunks and shared them as equally as I could with each animal.
They put their heads in my boat and used their lips and mouth to feel my legs and arms. I flinched, recalling times when horses had suddenly nipped, but then I sensed they were trying to understand me, or maybe taste the salt on my skin. I relaxed. They were curious, gentle, methodical, and their breath warm.
When the apple was gone they stood anticipating another, but when I didn’t produce one, the donkeys ambled back into the island single file and disappeared behind the fronds. The whole exchange lasted maybe 10 minutes. It seemed much longer and worth every moment.
I paddled around the rest of Stallings and explored the shorelines of two other islands before returning, the current so strong I barely had to paddle back to the boat launch.
The Stallings Island trip is one of five paddling adventures that make up the Serene 18 paddle trail series. If you complete all five, you can snag a cool tee shirt. The next one I’m definitely game for is the seven-mile Augusta Canal paddle trail. It ends in downtown Augusta where you can find tasty bites and brews. Savannah Rapids Kayak Rentals will even come and pick up you and your boat at the end of your adventure.