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Stalking Altie: Does Georgia have its own Loch Ness Monster?

Altie may not be real, but yeah, it's a thing

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An alligator spies on my family as we stand on a midden heap on a muddy bank of the South Altamaha River. Our flip-flops crunch on the jagged oyster shells and pottery shards cast off by Native Americans a couple of centuries ago. Our guide points out their importance to the history of coastal Georgia, but I can't pay proper attention. I've brought my family to Darien in search of a monster.

Squinting in the midday sun, I can see the alligator's eyes and snout protruding from the water about 50 yards away. Our guide, Danny Grissette, says it's 8 to 9 feet long, making it no match for my potential prey, an aquatic beast alleged to be at least 20 feet in length. Wait, could that be the creature's famed ridged hump? No, it's just a stump sticking out of the brown river water. What about that mysterious turbulence about 25 yards away? It could be the wake of an unseen ship or a school of fish. But can we prove that it's not the tell-tale sign of the legendary entity known as the Altamaha-ha?

The Altamaha-ha, known more casually as "Altie," defies scientific explanation. Even before European settlement, the Tama tribes people told stories of a giant, snake-like river animal that hissed and bellowed. Over the past century, fishermen, lumberjacks and boy scouts have reported sightings of a creature in the tributaries and marshes of the Altamaha River, which feeds one of the largest river basins on the Atlantic Coast. The eyewitness consensus holds that the Altamaha-ha has a dark, smooth hide, apart from the tire-tread-like ridges on its back, as well as a narrow neck, prominent snout and flat, porpoise-like tail.

Could it be a sturgeon on steroids? A throwback to marine reptiles like the toothy plesiosaur? Maybe the Loch Ness Monster's cousin from across the pond? I'm skeptical about cryptids, the kind of famous beings like Bigfoot unrecognized by the scientific establishment, but the Altamaha-ha called me with a siren song, despite the likelihood of a search turning into a snipe hunt. But even if the Altamaha-ha isn't real, it could still have significance.

I grew up in Georgia and totally dug on Leonard Nimoy's "In Search of...," The Legend of Boggy Creek, and Sasquatch's guest appearances on "The Six Million Dollar Man." Somehow, I missed the Weekly World News story from 1981, "Monster Serpent Lurks in Murky American River." I never dreamed that a monster reportedly lived in our backyard — or at least a five-hour drive from our backyard.

I first heard of the Altamaha-ha earlier this year, when my daughter checked out the library book Tales of the Cryptids: Mysterious Creatures That May or May Not Exist. There, alongside the likes of Bigfoot, Mothman and the Chupacabra, was Altamaha-ha. The "Reality Index" declares the native creature as "Leaning Toward Real," as opposed to being real, like the rediscovered prehistoric fish the coelacanth, or a hoax, like P.T. Barnum's Fiji Mermaid, which turned out to be a monkey's torso attached to a fish carcass.

Founded in 1736, Darien, population 1,719, turns out to be a nexus of Altamaha-ha hot spots. The relaxed little town, 30 miles north of Brunswick on the South Georgia coast, boasts considerable history as the state's second-oldest planned city and the location of Fort King George. During a visit in early May, I also found Altie's flippered likeness all over it. A dinosaur-like creature paddles gracefully across a billboard that reads, "Welcome to Darien & McIntosh County: A Certified Work Ready Community." In the business district, several large murals feature the familiar twisty sea monster unobtrusively among historical tableau and images of local flora and fauna.

Most prominently, the Darien welcome center boasts a model of the "life-sized" creature, alongside a sign that reads, "Photo opportunity. No rides." The 20-foot-long statue sports a Mona Lisa smile and friendly demeanor, possibly because a local leviathan with kraken-like hostility would be bad for tourism.

"Altie" loses a little of its mystique when you learn that a market research company contributed to its recent presence. Wally Orrel, president of the Darien Chamber of Commerce, says, "About two-and-a-half years ago, we moved the welcome center to the outlet mall and picked up some extra space. We hired a marketing company to research McIntosh County. I'd never heard of the Altamaha-ha, but they discovered sightings going back 250 years — and some of those people had not been drinking!"

Two years ago, the Darien Chamber hired Rick Spears, illustrator of Tales of the Cryptids, to build the life-size Altie model. Spears, an exhibit designer at the Fernbank Science Center, built a smaller, "immature" Altamaha-ha for the Eagle Rock 4-H Center in 2001, using eyewitness accounts as his source material.

Spears says he had to extrapolate the creature's appearance based on limited descriptions. "You don't have any hard evidence like fossils, which can indicate the placement of muscles. They say it undulates up and down, but fish and reptiles move from side to side, so it's mammalian," he says. "And some people say it breathes steam or warm air, which suggests that it has lungs. Things like that have a basis in reality."

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