Imagine a secluded island filled with palms, pines, and hardwoods accessible only by kayak or canoe.
In spring, it is a stopover for Canada geese, in summer a refuge for ruby-throated hummingbirds and yellow-billed cuckoos. Year-round, the island is a haven for egrets, herons and river otters. And donkeys. Donkeys live here, and if you’re lucky – and bring treats – they’ll bray eagerly and meet you as you paddle ashore.
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This place exists. It’s called Stallings Island in the Savannah River, just over two hours north of Hostess City. The island and its donkeys are part of the region’s Serene 18 Paddling Trail, the emerald in the bucolic crown of Georgia, Columbia County.
Full disclosure: If not for social media and their frighteningly omniscient algorithms, I wouldn’t have found the island or the Serene 18 trail. But it was there – and maybe you saw it too, scrolling your stream – a guy in a kayak, one hand outstretched feeding a donkey, the other holding a paddle for balance, amid deep summer green.
That’s all. And I immediately wanted to do this, paddle to an island and feed donkeys from my boat. I mean, really, who wouldn’t?
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I clicked on 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 nice lady directed me to Savannah Rapids Kayak Rentals where I could get a boat, $25 all day. A few clicks on their website, and bam, it was booked.
Stallings Island is for more than donkeys and adventurers. It is one of the oldest documented places of human habitation in the Southeast. Here, human presence dates back 5,000 years.
In the 1850s, a multitude of shell mounds, or shell middens, caught the attention of archaeologists who, a decade later, considered the island a site of significance. Trash heaps, heaps of waste shells consumed by humans, can remain in place for thousands of years.
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Since important molecular structures inside the shells also remain intact, these stacks make excellent markers for understanding the timeline of human history in a given area.
In 1929, a team of Harvard archaeologists discovered 84 burial sites that were ultimately determined to be between 3,000 and 3,500 years old. Further excavations have revealed the island’s most valuable artifact.
Stallings Island is home to the oldest pottery shards in all of North America.
Around 2888 BCE – nearly 500 years ahead of cultures in the Southwest – the people of the Savannah River on Stallings Island began making pottery, which also predated agriculture in the region by nearly 700 years old. Scientists speculate that the island functioned as an important semi-permanent gathering place for a range of sophisticated hunter-gatherers for thousands of years.
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When the Archeological Conservancy began its management of Stallings in the late 1990s, it was overgrown and looters were digging and fleeing with key story pieces. The reservation brought in goats in 2008 to fight brambles, which wiped out raider hideouts but introduced a new problem: Coyotes saw goats as food. To protect them, the conservancy then introduced donkeys to keep the coyotes away. Currently, four donkeys help protect a small herd of goats that continue to guard the island’s base.
To get to Stallings by kayak, you’ll start just above the entrance gates to the Augusta Canal, and from there paddle upstream for just over a mile. Depending on the current, this can be difficult. The morning I left, the flow was just under four miles per hour and it needed a bit of oomph to get started.
I was the only paddler upstream through a series of finger-shaped islands, each slowly waking up to their brilliant spring greens, clouds of cotton balls chasing a bright blue sky above .
A “No Trespassing” sign posted on a tree has been developed – Stallings Island.
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An important note: To visit the donkeys, you must stay in your boat. You cannot set foot on the island. I mean, even to be able to paddle to a place with potentially older human history than the Egyptian pyramids, staying in your boat to feed the donkeys is the least mark of respect for offering such a special place.
A series of brays emanated from a row of palm leaves, and in moments they emerged, ears pricked, tails wagging. They knew and they waited patiently as I steered my boat to shore, fumbling for the only apple I had. Without a knife, I bit off pieces and shared them as evenly as possible with each animal.
They put their head in my boat and used their lips and mouth to feel my legs and arms. I winced, remembering times when the horses had suddenly bitten, but then I felt they were trying to figure me out, 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 were waiting for another one, but since I didn’t produce any, the donkeys returned to the island in single file and disappeared behind the fronds. The whole exchange lasted maybe 10 minutes. It felt much longer and was worth every moment.
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I paddled around the rest of Stallings and explored the shores of two other islands before returning, the current so strong I barely had to paddle to the boat launch.
The Stallings Island trip is one of five paddling adventures that make up the Serene 18 series of paddling trails. If you complete all five, you can nab a cool tee. The next one I’m definitely up for is the Augusta Canal seven mile paddle trail. It ends in downtown Augusta where you can find delicious bites and beers. Savannah Rapids Kayak Rentals will even pick you and your boat up at the end of your adventure.