By David Hanson

The Flint River has always been a bit of a rebel. A rags to riches story. It gathers itself in a gutter beneath Hartsfield International Airport and emerges to sunlight determined to find a better course. For its first 220 miles the Flint flows without a dam, a rare distinction, due in large part to Flint Basin native Jimmy Carter, who rejected a dam proposal in the late 70s. So the Flint did not become an amenity in a real estate development. It continued to cut its way deeper into the quartzite granite of central Georgia.

Robin McInvale first started going to the Flint with her boyfriend. All he wanted to do in his free time was catch shoal bass hiding in granite bedrock shelves that staircase down the upper Flint. That was a half century ago. Not much has changed except that Robin and Mack married, had kids, bought a little riverside cabin, and baptized grandkids into their little river world.

Robin McInvale, at home on Georgia's Flint River.

Robin McInvale, at home on Georgia’s Flint River.

The Flint eventually leaves its youth in the rocky Piedmont, fanning out into an exuberant hoe-down of moss-padded slides and quartz-shiny ledges at Yellow Jacket Shoals. It's like the river's rumspringa. Afterward, the lower Flint mellows into a sinuating rhythm atop the Coastal Plain, the rock softened to sandy beaches. Limestone replaces granite, and the Flint begins to seep into the porous bedrock.

Jimmy Miller grew up swimming in blue holes. They emerge in cedar swamps surrounded by hardwood hammocks, some of the most bio-diverse habitats in the country. Jimmy knows the riverside bottomwoods that attract the biggest hogs. He dives in the shoals that house ancient Creek Indian artifacts like underwater museums.

Jimmy Miller on the Flint River.

Jimmy Miller on the Flint River.

By the time the Flint reaches its lower basin, the surface only tells half the story. The willful river has taken to the subterranean where the Floridan Aquifer flows underground all the way into central Florida. Farmers tap in for irrigation and the Flint can only handle so much. Droughts and upstream use threaten to turn rural communities into ghost towns. Conservationists, scientists, farmers and legislators wrestle with how to preserve the water. It's hard to understand a river that disappears beneath your feet.

Paul DeLoach knows the underground Flint better than most. Instead of tennis, DeLoach's hobby was cave diving. On the side of his career as an executive at Miller Brewing Company, DeLoach has logged over 3,000 cave dives, mostly in the Lower Flint and Floridan Aquifer. At age 69, DeLoach continues to dive the aquifer, his samples and mapping contributing to biological and hydrologic research and preservation of the confounding, threatened, rebellious Flint River.

Paul DeLoach prepares to dive into the Flint basin's underground labyrinth.

Paul DeLoach prepares to dive into the Flint basin’s underground labyrinth.

By the time the Flint arrives at Lake Seminole to meet the Chattahoochee River and flow to the Gulf of Mexico as the Apalachicola, its surface basin is home to the highest density of reptiles and amphibians in the US. It supplies water to a $2 billion-dollar-per-year agricultural breadbasket. Some of it disappears, preferring the dark labyrinths of the underworld. In a 1994 flood, the Flint rose 43 feet, flowing over the tops of its two dams like they were minor rock outcrops, as if to remind us of its stubborn, wild spirit.

— Read the C&K feature story about David and Michael Hanson’s source-to-sea descent of the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola river system.

— View David Hanson’s new film about the Atchafalaya River.