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I love social media; I hate social media.

I love a good laugh: What weight does one tele-evangelist have with God? One billigram.

I hate when strangers argue in all capital letters in sentences laced with grammatical errors. It’s your opinion, folks, not you’re opinion!

I love pictures of gigantic dogs doing things yip-yip dogs do…like perching atop the back of a sofa.  

I hate photo-shopped images aimed at providing social commentary.  

I love learning about the giant fish a friend caught.

I hate learning about that same friend’s politics. If I’d wanted to talk politics, I would have gone fishing with him.

You get the idea. If you’ve scrolled, you know of what I speak. In truth, I enjoy reading diverse opinions about the events of our days and relish civil, well-reasoned online discussions.

But still, what are we to do with the close friend, family member or business associate who thinks (and posts) so differently than us?

In these most divisive of times, I offer this triumphant story of bipartisanism that has largely been lost in the rhetoric of distrust and anger that has dominated discourse in our communities for the past two months.

On Nov. 3, Georgia voters approved Constitutional Amendment No. 1. 3.8 million people voted yes—that’s 82 percent of Georgians who cast a vote on this issue, or about 1.4 million more votes than either presidential candidate garnered. Despite our stark differences, on this, it seems, we collectively agreed.

Demonstrators put the finishing touches on the “Scrapitol,” a replica of the state capitol made from 500 scrap tires at Liberty Plaza. The event helped raise awareness of the need for Constitutional Amendment #1 which was adopted by voters overwhelmningly

Georgia River Network and others within the Georgia Water Coalition spent years trying to get this amendment on the ballot. It allows legislators to “dedicate” fees when they pass legislation. “Dedication” is important because it means that if legislators pass a bill that collects money from taxpayers for a specific purpose and those fees are “dedicated,” then that money must be used for that purpose. 

The adopted amendment is the first step to ensuring that fees collected for environmental cleanups and clean community programs are actually used for those purposes.

Why did this measure pass so overwhelmingly? First and foremost, everyone agreed on the facts.

There was no debating the fact that since the 1990s when the state started collecting money from citizens to address hazardous waste sites and illegal tire dumps, more than $200 million of the $500 million collected had been diverted for use elsewhere in the state budget. There was little argument that this “bait and switch” funding was unethical and deceived taxpayers. In fact, there wasn’t a single social media meme alledging foreign interference or touting conspiracy theories of any kind.

In this debate, no one spread lies; no one twisted the facts.

The late Chairman Jay Powell (R-Camilla) speaks before the Georgia Water Coalition about the state’s environmental trust funds. Chairman Powell was a long-time advocate of Amendment #1. He died suddenly in December 2019.

When we know and agree upon the facts, reasoned and fair discussion can be had.

Next, we compromised. Those working for this amendment wanted funds for environmental programs to be put in lockbox and used only for those purposes, but budget writers wanted flexibility to move the money around. This conflict—and this conflict alone–stalled this legislation for years.

When we are willing to compromise, progress, small though it may be, is possible. In a diverse state, with competing perspectives, this is how we govern.

Finally, we worked together. Republican legislators introduced the measure with support from the other side of the aisle. A coalition of interests—both left and right leaning—lobbied heavily for it passage.

When we work together, meaningful change is possible.

But the thrill of the overwhelming support for this amendment was tempered by the divisiveness and disinformation that flowed in the wake of Joe Biden’s razor-thin victory in Georgia.

As I scrolled through my Facebook feed, I saw good friends with whom I have shared many good times, angrily spouting positions diametrically opposed to my own. So many times my anger boiled in response.

My pinky finger hovered over the caps lock button, ready to fire off a pithy missive and then I caught myself. These were the same people who voted for Amendment 1. In fact, they didn’t just vote for it; they put real sweat equity into getting it passed.

When we built the Scrapitol (a replica of the state capital made from 500 scrap tires) on the capitol grounds to raise awareness of the issue, they helped stack the tires. When we rolled a giant tire around the state capital for 24 hours straight, they were there at five in the morning. When we ambushed gubernatorial candidates at campaign events, they were there peppering the candidates with questions about environmental trust funds. When we needed citizens to talk to news media about the issue, they boldy spoke the truth.

Megan Desrosiers of One Hundred Miles and Georgia River Network Paddle Georgia veteran Stan Sewell roll a tire around the Georgia State Capitol in the wee hours of the morning in a stunt that brought attention to the diversion of money from the state’s hazardous waste and solid waste trust funds. A couple dozen volunteers rolled the tire around the capitol for 24 hours.

Without their advocacy, Amendment No. 1 would still be on the capital cutting room floor.

Every time my pinky finger hovers over the caps lock button, I remember this: though we may disagree strongly and often on some issues, on others we find common ground. Burning bridges prevents everyone from crossing the river. Despite our differences, we still have more in common than not. We must learn to live together in community—be it digital or face to face—acknowledging that we need both sides of the political divide to accomplish anything lasting.  

Thus, when we can agree on the facts (and this becomes increasingly difficult with the conspiracy theories and misinformation prevalent in the digital world), when we are willing to compromise and when we work together, we can, in fact, create positive change.

In the midst of our national turmoil, the success of Amendment No. 1 is a beacon of hope. It beat both Biden and Trump by 1.4 million votes.

Remember this, and put that pinky finger at rest. We are in this together. ALL CAPS are not necessary.

Joe Cook

Paddle Georgia Coordinator

Jan. 15, 2021

This is a confessional. As a native son of Georgia, I have sinned against my home state’s natural wonders. It is a sin of omission. The Okefenokee Swamp has been at my doorstep my whole life, but until recently, I’d never plied the water of the Okefenokee’s 120 miles of wilderness canoe trails.

Ben Thompson plies the “Pink Trail” en route to Monkey Lake in the Okefenokee Swamp.

In mid-November, I set out with friends Ben Thompson and Barry O’Neill to track some 16 miles through the easternmost portion of the swamp. After just a day in this watery wilderness, I’m confident that I’ll be taken to task on judgment day for this 54-year-old sin of omission.

“I gave you this beauty to enjoy,” God might say. “What took you so long?”

 I can only plead forgiveness…and tell the almighty I tried to save it (but more on that later).

I’ve paddled thousands of miles on Georgia’s rivers; nothing compares to the Okefenokee. It is vast, magical and beautiful. Of course, such words don’t do it justice. They’re like calling the Empire State Building a shack.

The swamp covers 438,000 acres. If you plopped all the land inside Atlanta’s perimeter highway atop the swamp, you’d still have 200-square miles of wilderness spreading around the edges.

They say there’s 200 species of birds in the swamp. On our short journey, Thompson, a noted birder, spotted 41 species.

Pitcher plants with beggarticks in bloom in the Okefenokee Swamp.

If it’s birder’s paradise; then it’s a photographer’s nirvana. I’m a photographer. At every bend of the paddle path, something caught my eye. A tiny rose begonia orchid here, a lounging gator there, lily pads everywhere.  More than a thousand digital frames in, I lagged behind my paddling companions. They waited patiently for me at our take out site.

A day after that initial excursion, I ran into 90-year-old Al Griffis at the fish camp he operates along the Suwannee River on the western edge of the swamp.

He’s the second generation of Griffises to operate the camp ($8 per person to tent). By the time he was 14, he was guiding trips into the swamp. He sat in his camp office surrounded by walls displaying trophy bass and bucks along with Native American artifacts and newspaper clippings and photographs—the ones with the young boys struggling to hold up massive stringers of fish beneath camp signs that read “Welcome fisherman, hunters and other liars.”

Rose begonia orchid.

“A lot of people around here consider it a bog hole with briars in it,” Griffis said of the swamp. But Griffis, like others who have entered its heart, know the swamp for  much more than that. That bog hole attracts 600,000 visitors annually. It’s the reason the hamlets of Folkston and Fargo advertise themselves as the “gateways” to the Okefenokee, and why on Friday nights, Ware County High’s Gators play football in a stadium they call “The Swamp.” Though shallow in depth, the waters of the swamp run deep in the region’s cultural identity.

That’s why for the past two years locals and swamp lovers from across the globe have become so alarmed over a proposed titanium mine adjacent to the vast wilderness. As proposed, the operation would dig 50-foot deep pits along Trail Ridge, the low rise of land on the swamp’s eastern boundary that acts as a natural dam, helping regulate water levels within the swamp.

Hydrologists—those not working for the mining company—have expressed grave concerns about the mine’s potential impacts, warning of irreparable harm.  

Their fears have only heightened since federal regulators were released from any environmental oversight of the project. The Trump Administration’s weakening of Clean Water Act rules saw to that. Now, all that stands in the way of mining on Trail Ridge is a handful of environmental permits that the mining company must secure from Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division.  

A young alligator peers out between lily pads.

Extractive industries are nothing new for this part of Georgia. Al Griffis reminded me of that. He told stories from his childhood when he could earn up to six dollars a day taping turpentine from the tall pines on the outskirts of the swamp. Indeed, now sleepy Fargo was once a bustling town dotted with turpentine stills and lumber mills that converted the region’s natural bounty into capital. 

The forests of longleaf pine–like the naval stores industry that they supported—disappeared long ago. Of the 90 million acres of longleaf forests that once covered the southeast, less than three percent remains. Gone with the stills and sawmills are many of the animals that once called the forest home.

Indigo snakes and red cockaded woodpeckers are but two of more than 30 threatened and endangered species that still depend on the greatly diminished longleaf habitat. Within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge land managers are attempting to restore some of this primeval forest.

Given this history, what then are we to do with this proposed new extractive industry on the swamp’s outskirts in a region starved for economic development?

Titanium, it could be argued, is a kind of pine tree for the 21st century, used to make everything from surgical tools to military equipment. But, like the pines that still grow across large swaths of Georgia, it’s a commonly found mineral, abundant elsewhere. In fact, the titanium dug from Trail Ridge on the swamp’s east side is more likely to end up as a pigment in paint, plastic or even toothpaste.

Lily pads, clouds and blackwater.

Just guessing, but I think there will never come a time when the billboards in Folkston announce the city as the “gateway to the nation’s titanium mines.”

I’ve now seen the beauty of the swamp.  I wouldn’t trade it for white toothpaste.

Locally, the swamp is one of Georgia’s seven natural wonders. Globally, it is so significant that it may soon become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This is not the sort of place you tinker with to extract something you can easily find elsewhere. Don’t be fooled. That “bog hole with briars” is something special. It deserves a visit, and it deserves our protection.

To learn more about the swamp and send Gov. Brian Kemp a message urging him to save the swamp, visit www.protectokefenokee.org

To join Georgia River Network for a swamp excursion in 2021, visit https://garivers.org/grn-events/

Joe Cook, Paddle Georgia Coordinator

Dec. 2020

A rainbow spans across the Okefenokee’s western boundary at sunset.
Cypress trees reflect in the Suwannee Canal.

Lubie Jeter. Say his name.

I’ve said that name for the past 40 years. It’s an unusual name, and all these years, it has stuck with me.

Lubie Jeter and I were contemporaries, both born in 1966. In 1981, I was a freshman at Campbell High in Atlanta’s white suburbs. Lubie was a freshman at J.C. Murphy High; he lived in black East Atlanta.

The winter of 1981, I watched as our high school basketball team ascended to the state championship. Lube Jeter was murdered that winter, one of 28 victims in a string of crimes that came to be known as Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered Children.

The murders terrified Atlanta—black Atlanta—for all the victims were black. In our northern suburbs, my friends and I didn’t fear being abducted. We were busy watching basketball. What we feared was finding the body of one of the missing children in the Chattahoochee River where we spent countless summer days tubing and rafting.

Fast forward 39 years. In 2020, I’m still playing on rivers and writing guidebooks to those very rivers. Earlier this summer, I was putting the finishing touches on the Ocmulgee River User’s Guide to be published next spring. Among those finishing touches was settling on a cover photo.

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Atlanta Outdoor Afro on the South River…a rare sighting of black paddlers on a Georgia river.

The publisher, the University of Georgia Press, suggested that the cover feature someone other than an old white guy. “Can we show some diversity?” they asked.

A great idea, I thought, but there’s a problem. People of color rarely paddle our rivers. I called upon one of the few black paddlers I knew: Steven Cousins, an avid outdoor adventurer, veteran of multiple Georgia River Network river trips and former board member with the organization.

We met on an early morning in August at the Yellow River’s Cedar Shoals in Porterdale and got the shot we needed. I’ll venture out on a limb and guess that Steven will be the first African American to grace the cover of a paddling guide.

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Steven Cousins on the Yellow River in Porterdale. Steven may be among the first black paddlers to grace the cover of a paddling guidebook.

After the shoot, I asked Steven why we don’t see more black paddlers. In short, his answer was that most African Americans don’t consider our rivers “safe space.” Not because of a fear of snakes or gators or the wild (those fears are almost universal), but for fear that they will encounter someone “who doesn’t want me there.”

“So you wouldn’t go on a canoe camping trip by yourself on Georgia river because of the color of your skin?” I asked, somewhat incredulously.

“Yes.”

And, then I recalled all my solo trips down the Flint, Ocmulgee and Oconee. The one thing that is almost as ubiquitous as snakes and gators on those rivers: riverside fish camps flying the Confederate flag.

Every river traveler worries about what or whom they might encounter on the river. The ghosts of Deliverance still haunt us in the “Paddle Faster, I Hear Banjo Music” bumper stickers. But for black men and women, that worry is colored by the color of their skin.

That. Is. Not. Right.

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Riverside fish camps flying the Confederate flag are as ubiquitous on Georgia rivers as are snakes and gators.

Unfortunately, for those that care about rivers–and getting everyone on them–that’s the painful legacy of 200 years of slavery, another three decades of the prison lease system in Georgia-a perhaps more sinister subjugation of black men and women than slavery itself; and another 60 years of Jim Crow. Debt slavery persisted in Georgia into the 1950s. Disproportionate imprisonment of black Americans in our penal system continues to this day.

Rivers, for all their beauty and their siren calls of adventure, have always been a place where bad things happen, especially to black men and women.

In 1921, five black men were chained, weighted and forced off bridges on the South, Yellow and Alcovy rivers by a Jasper County plantation owner in an attempt to cover up the debt slavery in which he was keeping the men.

In 1930, S.S. Mincey, a black leader in the Republican Party and voting rights advocate in Mt. Vernon, was abducted and taken to a landing on the Altamaha River where he was beaten, whipped and left to die.

In 1946, four young African Americans were lynched near Moore’s Ford Bridge over the Aplachee River. One was a veteran of the recent World War; another was seven months pregnant.

In 1964, Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn, another World War II veteran, was shot and killed on a bridge over the Broad River by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

And, in 1981 during the Atlanta’s missing and murdered children crisis, the bodies of black children turned up on multiple occasions in the Chattahoochee and South rivers.

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Mann’s Bridge on the South River in Newton County: In 1921, Harry Price, a black man kept in debt slavery by Jasper County plantation owner John Williams was chained, weighted and forced off this bridge to his death. Williams was later convicted of the murder as well as the murders of 10 other black me he was holding in debt slavery.

One need not wonder why we don’t see many black paddlers, and one need not wonder why the field of river advocacy is…well, white water. The largest river protection movement in the country—the Waterkeeper Alliance—boasts of 180 local riverkeepers. Only one is black.

A few weeks after my photo shoot with Steven, Georgia River Network partnered with Outdoor Afro Atlanta on a paddle trip on Atlanta’s South River. Outdoor Afro is an organization that gets African Americans in the woods and on rivers. Their tagline: “Where Black People and Nature Meet.”

In coordinating logistics for the trip, Outdoor Afro’s Janina Edwards fretted over the use of undeveloped access points on the South River and phoned me to explain her worries: “I don’t want an encounter with the police.”

She was worried about police; I was worried about broken ankles descending steep river banks. Had any police officers shown up I would have given them a lesson in the right of passage on navigable rivers. And, yet again the white and black experience of rivers diverges.

We cannot erase our history that shades the black experience so differently than the white experience, but we can acknowledge that history. And in acknowledging it, we may find some empathy.

Empathy that might lead to change.

At Georgia River Network, we work to improve access to the state’s rivers for everyone, but for a portion of our population, shiny, new boat launches aren’t enough. There’s nagging, deep-seated, systemic cultural barriers that we’ve yet to overcome.

It will take a continuing cultural shift to overcome those barriers. First steps? Inviting a friend of color to paddle a river is simple enough. Bringing down that Confederate flag flying at the fish camp wouldn’t hurt either.

In 1981, as a 14-year-old I floated the Chattahoochee and dreamed of following it to its end, Lubie Jeter feared he would end up dead in that same river. He never reached adulthood. By age 30, I’d followed the Chattahoochee all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. That adventure has colored the rest of my very blessed life.

In my perfect world, the dream of following a river to seek its end will equally stir the imagination of black and white children. I doubt I will see that world in my lifetime, but if, indeed, we work to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice, perhaps my daughter will.

Joe Cook

Sept. 1, 2020

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In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgia Ritchie’s paddling companion “Pink Floyd” promotes safe paddling practices…a facemask and a life jacket. Ramsey Cook practices safe skin care too before embarking on the Flint near Woodbury.

Normally, at this time of year, I am knee-deep in traveling 100 miles down a Georgia river with Georgia River Network and 300-plus river loving friends during Paddle Georgia, but alas, the COVID-19 pandemic put a kabash to large group trips this summer.

Instead, we’ve been encouraging everyone to plan their own river adventures through Paddle Georgia 2020 Pandemic Edition. In seeing the posts on social media, receiving the the texts and e-mails and embarking on my own “pandemic paddle,” I’m reminded of the virtues of solitudinous river travel and nights camped alongside roaring shoals and perched above peaceful water on white sandbars.

Barry Oneill texted me a long list of the critters he encountered on a journey down the Savannah with family and friends. Ibises, bald eagles, swallow-tailed kites, gators…what he didn’t see a lot of was other bipeds. “Perfect trip…only saw 7 people in 5 days. Awesome.”

Philip and Liliana Barkes sent me photos of their epic family camping adventure on the Oconee River (epic because the Barkes have 7 children!). Wrote Philip: “Last week I asked my kids what type of camping trip they liked better, Paddle GA or family canoe camping.  They like family camping but they like Paddle GA a lot more.” Their photos of three canoes loaded with camping gear for nine and the ingenious sandbar cooking canopy were inspirational. 

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Georgia Ritchie checks out Dripping Rocks, a waterfall along the Flint River and our Paddle Georgia 2021 route! It’s a great, natural outdoor shower stall!

This week to celebrate what would be the beginning of this year’s Paddle Georgia on the Flint, my daughter, Ramsey, and I embarked on four days of paddling on the intended Paddle Georgia route between Woodbury and Oglethorpe, accompanied on parts by Georgia Ritchie and Cary Baxter (the ever intrepid Perry, GA-based accountant and Paddle Georgia lead boat).

Like Barry, we were struck by the wildlife we encountered. While you certainly encounter wildlife on large group trips like Paddle Georgia, the likelihood of sneaking up on an unsuspecting alligator or a rafter of wild turkeys is greatly enhanced when you paddle small and quiet.

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A cooperative water moccasin struck a proper pose before slithering into the Flint’s riverside depths.

We checked off the most-feared animals of the lower Flint–a water moccasin and several alligators and delighted at the clumsiness of soft-shelled turtles on sandbars, coming to the rescue of one who, upon seeing our approach, flipped on its back in its panicked escape down a steep sandbar slope.  Bald eagles, ospreys, Mississippi kites and night herons made appearances. Barred owls sang us to sleep…or prevented slumber. We even came upon copulating box turtles…their embarrassment seemed obvious to me, but Georgia and Ramsey weren’t so sure.

But, the highlight was sandbar camping…something we just don’t get on Paddle Georgia.

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Ramsey Cook cooks up dinner on a Flint River sandbar during our Paddle Georgia 2020 Pandemic Edition adventure.

Watching the sun go down on the river in the wild with sand between your toes is good for the soul. The light reflects on the water; you reflect on yourself…or whatever else might come to mind.

For three nights I unplugged from social media and the swirl of news documenting our national social unrest and divisiveness. That, in itself, brought some peace, but when it comes to sandbar camping…as the classic Old Milwaukee beer commercials claim, “It just don’t get any better than this.” 

On the evening of Father’s Day, a rumbling storm threatened as we set up camp on a bar near Miona Ferry, but never dropped any rain. Instead, it brought in cool air and sent the infernal gnats elsewhere. Ramsey and I sat in the sand, watching the river flow and talked of future adventures and dreams. As Father’s Day gifts go, well, it just don’t get any better.

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One of the silver linings of pandemic paddling…watching the sun go down on the Flint in solitude.

Georgia River Network’s Paddle Georgia 2020 Pandemic Edition continues through Aug. 5 so grab someone you love and get out there. If you are so inclined, I’d highly recommend some riverside camping. It’s one of the silver linings in the age of social distancing.

If you’d rather a day trip with a group, we’ve got ’em planned. Check out our Paddle-Bike Hidden Gems coming on the Etowah, Toccoa, Tugaloo and Ocmulgee later this summer!

And, don’t forget, on Aug. 6, we’ll celebrate our summer of river adventures with a live facebook event: Livestream for Healthy Rivers. The event will feature live music from Rob Jordan, kayak raffles from The Outside World and Vibe Kayak, recognition of our top fundraisers in Canoe-a-thon, river trivia and some classic Paddle Georgia bad animal jokes. Tune in on the GRN facebook page beginning at 7 p.m.

Joe Cook

Paddle Georgia Coordinator

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Cary Baxter takes the lead early morning on the Flint River. The other joy of sandbar camping is hitting the water when the light is special and the water is calm.

 

 

 

 

 

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The stars here represent the various places along Peachtree Creek that have played a role in the life of Rena Ann Peck, Georgia River Network executive director. (map from David Kauffman’s book about Peachtree Creek: Peachtree Creek: A Natural and Unnatural History of Atlanta’s Watershed)

Mapping out my river origin brought to light that I truly hail from Peachtree Creek.  I was born at Piedmont Hospital at the top of  Peachtree Road and the Peachtree Road Race’s infamous “Cardiac Hill.” Rain falling on that hill drains directly to the creek, and the little creek’s drainage is where I was raised and where I birthed and raised my children.

As a child selling peaches by my Rivers Road house in Atlanta, July’s prickly heat from the peach fuzz would send me searching for cool relief, hiking Peachtree Creek from Peachtree Battle’s little neighborhood brooks to Peachtree Creek’s mainstem at Peachtree Battle Circle where I lived as a teen, riding a tire swing to jump into the rusty water.

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Lawson Stricker, Rena Ann’s son, cast for fish in Peachtree Creek. These days both mom and son escape to the urban stream.

Peachtree Creek was my “river” to explore. We sloughed through piped tributaries under roads; slid down algae ramps under bridges; and crossed through cave culverts in the dark to secret backyard gardens hunting salamanders under rocks, (and sometimes golf balls to sell at the nearby Cross Creek course).

Many weekend nights, I’d join friends at not-so-secret tailgates under the railroad tracks at Peachtree Creek’s largest tributary, Tanyard Creek, and at Bobby Jones Golf Course on Peachtree Creek’s mainstem.

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A bronze frog tadpole from Peachtree Creek.

After leaving Atlanta for 10 years residing out in the country on nature preserves, I returned home to the city as a single mother to Cross Creek.

I raised my children on Springlake playing in the headwater creek of the Civil War Battle of the Ravine.  Now I live in Peachtree Hills, creek hiking with my adult son fishing and looking for tadpoles to grow bronze frogs that sound like banjo twangs in my own Peachtree Creek secret garden.

Rena Ann Peck

Executive Director

I call nature my constant, the thread that is present in every part of my life as far back as I can remember. And there is a river or stream in each of those memories.

My parents grew up in Ohio and Maryland, fishing and boating on the Potomac and Tred-Avon Rivers. My dad remembers catching catfish, perch and bass in the Monocacy and taking them home for my grandmother to fry up in hog fat. My grandfather rode a mule that pulled the barge on the Cheasepeake & Ohio Canal that carried coal and agricultural products to Washington, DC. My grandmother’s brother was the Lock Keeper on Lock #25 and also ran a small store. My mother spent time on the lakes on their farms as well as on their boat on the Chesapeake and Tred-Avon River where the oldest continuous ferry in the US is still in operation.

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The author, Dana Skelton, feeding ducks in her family’s backyard along Conodoguinet Creek in Pennsylvania., circa 1975.  

I was born April 22, 1971 in Silver Spring, Maryland on the one year anniversary of the first Earth Day which was originally organized as a nationwide teach-in and is now celebrated in over 193 countries around the world. The town, named for the mica flecked spring, lies inside the Capital Line Beltway surrounding Washington DC and was the final home of Rachel Carson, author of A Silent Spring, a book that brought widespread attention to the adverse affects of indiscriminate pesticide use in 1962.

My very earliest memories are not of Silver Spring, but rather of growing up on Conodoguinet Creek, a tributary to the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. My dad kept a silver metal trashcan in the backyard full of corn for feeding the ducks that lived on the river. We also had an old blue metal canoe tied up to the split rail fence that separated the back yard from the river.

It swayed back-and-forth against the bank with the current. My first pet was an adopted orange barn cat named Hugger, and Hugger would jump into the canoe when it hit the bank and nestle in for a nap in the sun during the day. That same split rail fence was used to keep in our St. Bernard dog, Max, who accompanied us on family paddling trips in the canoe down the river. Staying upright in a canoe with a large dog standing in the boat and occasionally leaning over to drink was one of my first lessons in balance – in a physical sense. When we weren’t using the canoe, it was tied to the tree next to our rope swing.

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Dana Skelton and Hugger, the cat, by Conodoguinet Creek. 

Our house was flooded twice in the early 70’s when the hurricanes came. The Susquehanna would rise, backing up the creeks and sending water way out of the banks. My brother and I made a jungle gym out of the furniture that was stacked in the garage away from the approaching flood water. I remember seeing the water fill the basement and start to come up the staircase. The table in my dining room didn’t make it out in time and is still discolored from the water damage 48 years ago.

I remember my dad canoeing around the house to check things out and an emergency visit from the fire department when our furnace was still running underwater. We later moved to Louisiana where I played in small creeks and roadside ditches near Lake Pontchartrain. My brother and I fished for minnows and made mud pies. I remember seeing my first snake in one of these creeks.

Later we came to Roswell where I grew up along the Chattahoochee. I got involved in river work after seeing Joe Cook’s inspirational slide show about his journey down the Chattahoochee. I volunteered for Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and began my career in environmental protection.

Today, I walk in the woods most everyday. My favorite trails are all adjacent to creeks and rivers, and I love to take photos of the flowers and animals that I see on my walks and continue to learn more about the rhythms and patterns in nature.

Dana Skelton

May 2020

In Georgia, there are said to be 70,150 miles of rivers and streams. They stretch across our landscape like tentacles and into our lives, coursing through our neighborhoods, cities, farms, industrial parks—even beneath our world renowned airport.

Where ever we turn, they touch us. If we are native-born Georgians (the census tells us that’s about six million of us), they flow especially deep into our past, feeding our roots and shaping our collective and personal history.

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The Diving Rock on the Chattahoochee River at Palisades. 

I was born at Piedmont Hospital on Peachtree Road in Atlanta Nov. 4, 1966. My first bath that day was in water piped from the Chattahoochee River. Four days after my birth, to the everlasting embarrassment of many modern-day Georgians, segregationist Lester Maddox was elected governor (for the record, I was unable to vote).

Nevertheless, my bath in the Chattahoochee was essentially the same ritual the original inhabitants of the Chattahoochee Valley carried out with their newborns long before our forebearers arrived on the scene…except the Creek Indians didn’t employ pipes. They just plunged the newborns in the river.

Some 32 years later on the sixth day of 1999, my daughter, entered the world at the same hospital and got the same bath. Thank you, Chattahoochee. Before she would turn three years old, Georgians would elect Sonny Perdue, their first Republican governor since Reconstruction. The election pivoted largely on backlash from Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes’ decision to remove the Confederate stars and bars from the state flag during his first term.

For all that has changed in nearly three centuries of Georgia history, some things remain the same. Yes–our state’s long struggle with racial equality and reconciliation is a continuous thread, but more importantly, for the purposes of this discussion, is our inextricable bond to the streams and rivers that flow through each of us.

In 1733, Georgia’s rivers invited Gen. James Oglethorpe and his colonists into their mouths, giving rise to Savannah. From there the rivers became the primary means by which Europeans settled the interior of the state. In 1800, the state’s third largest city was –to the surprise of many–Petersburg—a hamlet at the confluence of the Broad and Savannah rivers nearly 200 miles upriver from Savannah that no longer exists.

So important were our rivers that the state gave grist mill operators the power of eminent domain, for local communities depended on flour and meal ground by the power of the river. Later in the 1800s, rivers ushered in the industrial revolution, turning spindles and looms at cotton mills. In the 20th century, they brought electric light to rural Georgians (my mother and her family in Newton County were among the first to benefit from hydro-power dams on the South River).

I’ll hazard a bet here. Dig around in the sand, mud and cobble of any Georgia river—ply into its natural and cultural history, flip through the pages of your family history—and you will find a piece of your Garden of Eden, a sliver of your origin story.

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Completed in 1904, power from Morgan Falls Dam powered Atlanta’s street car system. 

I present mine—courtesy of the Georgia Power Company.

Shortly after World War I, Joe Hall Cook, a young man from Ellenwood still suffering the effects of mustard gas in the trenches of Europe, met Passie Mae Hubbard, an unfortunately-named woman from Chamblee at Atlanta’s Grant Park. The cyclorama, the epic painting and diorama memorializing the Battle of Atlanta in 1864, had recently found a permanent home in the park and it was a destination.

Though the Chattahoochee River did not flow near either of their homes, it nonetheless brought the pair from far-flung rural outposts on opposite ends of the city together. It powered the street cars they rode to the park—electricity generated from Georgia Power’s Morgan Falls Dam near Roswell.

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Atlanta’s street cars brought together Joe Hall Cook and Passie Mae Hubbard, the author’s grandparents. 

That initial meeting blossomed into a “street car romance” with each date choreographed around the comings and goings of Atlanta’s street car system. “Meet me at the streetcar” was a line oft-repeated in their early correspondence.

The rest is, as they say, history. Joe Hall and Passie Mae begat James Herbert Cook who married Ann Hull Ramsey of Newton County who begat Joseph Ramsey Cook.

It pains me to say it for I’ve never met a dam I truly liked, but truth be told, my life begins at Morgan Falls Dam and the Chattahoochee River—an ironic Garden of Eden for a lover of free-flowing rivers.

That’s my story. What river flows through your past?

Joe Cook

April 2020

I recently ran across an online magazine soliciting contributions encouraging writers to share their family’s outdoor passions, experiences and goals in 700 words or less.

This is a story about how the outdoors wrecked my family…and opened new doors to the outdoors for me and hundreds of other families.

In the winter of 2003 at Blue Springs State Park in Florida on a family visit to canoe with the manatees, Monica, my wife of 11 years, awoke in our tent opposite me and over our sleeping four-year-old daughter, squared me in the eye and proclaimed, “I hate camping, and I am never going to do it again.”

It was apparently a restless night. This is the same woman with whom I’d spent the past decade hiking large portions of the Appalachian Trail and tackling some 700 miles of rivers on long-distance canoe camping adventures.

Our seminal outdoor adventure as a family was a month-long canoe trip on north Georgia’s Etowah River. Our daughter, Ramsey, just potty-trained when we set out, learned the angry cackle of the kingfisher and the haunting call of the barred owl. She held spawning carp and discovered where to find crayfish. A budding river philosopher by journey’s end, above each rapid she instructed her parents: “just go with the flow”—apt advice for what was ultimately to befall our family.

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An April 1, 2002 issue of the Rome News-Tribune documented our impending month-long journey down the Etowah River.

The trip was everything a family outdoor adventure should be. Together 24 hours a day—always in the space of a 17-foot canoe or a riverside campsite–it bred a closeness and intimacy not available at home, even in the smartphone-less world of the early 2000s.

But within two years of that epic family adventure, we were divorced, painfully but amicably, and got on with that peculiar modern-day task of co-parenting.

I continued backpacking and paddling and camping, and on occasion, gave slide presentations about that Etowah journey—a task that was always bittersweet—and challenging. Before the days of power point and digital projectors, you really needed two people to smoothly juggle an old-school two-projector set up and script.

At a 2004 show in Athens hosted by Georgia River Network (GRN), someone asked about the idea of a long-distance group paddle trip—an idea I’d kicked around for years, but never acted upon. That night over dinner with GRN’s April Ingle and Dana Skelton, a plan was hatched to create what we initially called Canoe Ride Across Georgia fashioned after the popular Bicycle Ride Across Georgia.

Over the next several months of planning, Dana thankfully suggested the less unwieldy name of Paddle Georgia and the next year, we opened registration for a week-long, 115-mile journey on the Chattahoochee River. We hoped 100 people would register; we got 300.

My 6-year-old daughter Ramsey—and some of her cousins—joined me for that first trip;

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Ramsey rowing on the Georgia Tech women’s crew team.

her mother intrepidly served as the caterer for the crowd…though she DID NOT camp!

Fifteen years later, a 21-year-old Ramsey has covered more than 1500 miles of Georgia rivers, most of it on our annual Paddle Georgia journeys. She’s an environmental engineering student at Georgia Tech, a militant composter, recycler, pescatarian and member of the institute’s club rowing team that trains each morning on the Chattahoochee—the same misty stretch she explored in 2005 on that first Paddle Georgia. She proudly wears calluses and blisters on her hands and she loves being on the river.

She’s not the only Paddle Georgia alum to feel that way. Some 5000 people have participated in the trips over the years, including many like Ramsey who grew up coming on the annual week-long summer river pilgrimages. Best described as summer camp for grownups and families, the parent-child memories that have been spawned are countless.

Owing to the difficulty of coordinating two paddlers, the tandem canoe is commonly referred to as the divorce boat. That was never an issue for Monica and me. It was navigating life off the river that was troublesome, but neither of us would trade our Etowah adventure and the fond memories we created. It helped make a young woman who I believe will always be tied spiritually, if not occupationally, to Georgia’s rivers.

Likewise, the roots of Paddle Georgia can be traced to that Etowah epoch and the subsequent divorce. What would have become of us had we remained a traditional family, I know not, but for certain our split launched all three of us down new paths.

Along the way, we fought the current for sure, but ultimately, the river takes us where we need to go. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow.

Joe Cook, Paddle Georgia Coordinator, April 2020

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Ramsey and her Paddle Georgia paddling partner, Jessa Goldman, on the Ocmulgee River in 2018.

 

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The Flint River at Yellow Jacket Shoals is famous for its displays of shoals spider lilies.

In 2008, on the fourth Paddle Georgia adventure ever, Georgia River Network and a crowd of 300-plus paddlers ventured on the drought-stricken Flint River. It was a journey that lives on in the lore of Paddle Georgia. Such were the conditions that we spent nearly as much time walking our boats over shoals as we did paddling them. Some called it Puddle Georgia. It was an adventure we will never forget.

This year, we return to that same river. While the above description doesn’t seem a strong endorsement of a return to this river, it should be noted that 2008 was the tail end of a two-year drought. It was an anomaly–not the norm.

From where I sit in February, a massive front has just dumped several inches of rain across North and Central Georgia. Here’s hoping the steady rain continues through May!

During my first excursions on the Flint in 2008, I was gobsmacked by its beauty. In fact, there’s nothing quite like it in Georgia. It’s why the river as it winds through the Pine Mountain area and past Sprewell Bluff is a “bucket list trip” for Georgia river lovers.

Georgia’s southern-most ridges create a unique landscape–a perfect mix of mountains and water.

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Soaring vistas of Rockhouse Mountain, Pine Mountain and Sprewell Bluff highlight the first day of Paddle Georgia 2020 on the Flint River.

In North Georgia where rivers flow through the heart of the state’s mountainous terrain, they are generally small, narrow and enclosed by those same mountains. Sweeping vistas from the river of soaring mountains are rare. But, on the larger, more open Flint, you get those views. Pine Mountain, Rockhouse Mountain and Sprewell Bluff are all in plain and spectacular view from the seat of your kayak. It’s just one of the reasons, the Flint is perhaps my favorite river in the state.

Our Paddle Georgia route between Thomaston and Montezuma/Oglethorpe is also steeped in history.

Sprewell Bluff became the epicenter of an early battleground in Georgia’s environmental awakening of the 1970s. It was here that Gov. Jimmy Carter, spurned to action by thousands of concerned citizens, put a stop to a proposed hydropower dam that would have forever destroyed this scenic stretch of river.

As president he successfully continued efforts to save free-flowing rivers, including stopping two other proposed Flint River dams.

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The 99-mile course down the Flint set for Paddle Georgia 2020 includes numerous shoals during the first three days of the trip followed by four days of mostly flatwater paddling as the river winds through the Coastal Plain.

Downstream from Sprewell Bluff in Upson County along the banks of the river was one of the first “Indian Reservations” in the country–a one-mile square plot of land set aside in 1821 during the Treaty of Indian Springs. The lot was to be the property of Tustennugee Emathla, a Creek Indian who fought on the side of the U.S. and Georgia against hostile Native Americans.

Not far downstream is the ancestral home of Gen. John B. Gordon. A visage of him on horseback towers over the grounds of the Capitol building in Atlanta, and like the commemorative statue, he was a towering figure in antebellum Georgia. Like many of the state leaders enshrined in statue on the capitol grounds, there is much about his life that in hindsight causes embarrassment. An outspoken opponent of reconstruction and widely believed to be the leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia, his popularity vaulted him to the governor’s seat as well as the U.S. Senate.

In Crawford County–along our Paddle Georgia route–beginning in 1803 sat the U.S. Indian Agency headed by Benjamin Hawkins who toiled to keep the peace between the Georgia immigrants and the native people. Respected by both the Creek Indians and Georgia’s earliest settlers, he ultimately resigned from his post after U.S. troops razed Creek Indian towns during conflicts in 1813 and 1814.

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The Flint River near Miona Ferry. Once the Flint spills over the fall line and enters the Coastal Plain, oxbows, sandbars and cut banks begin to dominate the river’s course in stark contrast to the rocky shoal filled reaches of the Piedmont. 

Hawkins was a pragmatist who believed the only hope for the Creek Indians to remain on their land was for them to assimilate into the white man’s culture. To that end, he attempted to use his plantation as an example and tried to teach the Creeks the skills that Europeans brought to the New World. Moravian missionaries who lived for a time at the Indian Agency and tried to convert the native population to Christianity bristled at Hawkins emphasis on teaching skills and trades. Said one of the missionaries: “Col. Hawkins, with his fixed ideas on civilizing the Indians with arts and crafts, was no real patron of the preaching of the Gospel.”

Fast forward to the 20th century and we find along the Flint, the root of one of the civil rights movement’s most controversial leaders–Malcolm X. His father, Earl Little, was born in Reynolds in 1890, the grandson of slaves that toiled on nearby plantations. Earl had six brothers, four of which were killed by white men, including one who was lynched. One doesn’t have to wonder about Malcolm X’s militancy given this family history.

Below Reynolds, during our journey, we will stop at Miona Ferry, the site of the last operating ferryboat in Georgia. It ceased operation in 1988, bringing to an end Georgia’s era of ferries that spanned more than 200 years of the state’s history. Nearby is Miona Springs, site of a health resort in the early 1900s that featured a 22-room hotel, cottages, a dance floor and a swimming pool. While the health benefits of the mineral springs were extolled, it was probably the ability to drink the pristine and untainted spring water that brought about the biggest improvements in health for visitors to the resort.

This is just a bit of the history that we’ll pass through during Paddle Georgia 2020. Join us as we make our won history on this river June 20-27! www.garivers.org/paddle-georgia

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The Flint River near Pobiddy Road. The Paddle Georgia 2020 route will cover 99 miles of the Flint, much of it on sections that would otherwise be reservoirs now if not for the advocacy of thousands of citizens and the leadership of President Jimmy Carter. 

 

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Ken Swift lifts off on a back flip from a high perch above the Withlacoochee.

Cheating death. As I watched our Paddle Georgia Navy venture down the Withlacoochee and Suwannee rivers for a week, swinging from rope swings, leaping from cliffs, running rapids and swimming beneath limestone bridges at Charles and Lafayette Blue springs, I ruminated on that phrase.

Sure, all of these endeavors were low risk-high reward activities for adrenalin junkies young and old. None of us were truly cheating death, but the adventures sure got our hearts thumping. That thrill of adventure is what drives us to wild rivers.

I also thought of Joe Kidd, a long-time Paddle Georgia participant who died June 13. At 77 on Paddle Georgia 2017, Joe was still jumping off cliffs and swinging from rope swings…much to my dismay. Try as I might, I could not talk the stubborn old cuss off a high cliff once he got there. A leap for him (and the endeavor to reach the high riverside plateau) was, in fact, high risk for the equilibrium-challenged senior.

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Joe Kidd runs a rapid on the Etowah River during Paddle Georgia 2017.

He did not die the way he probably would have liked…paddling down a river. Dementia took him in a hospital bed.

Joe’s life paralleled the plight of Georgia’s rivers, and in his relationship to those rivers, we find a road map for us all.

A native of Newnan, he learned to swim at Hilly Mill Creek Falls near the banks of the Chattahoochee. He played in that creek and fished the river throughout his youth until upstream pollution drove him and his friends away.

During Paddle Georgia 2014, when we ventured on the Chattahoochee, he returned to the river of his youth and witnessed first hand its revival. A river that was once so fouled you couldn’t fish in it was once again an inviting destination. Between 1970 and 2014, citizens essentially demanded that the pollution be stopped, and by and large, it has been. Sure, there’s still work to be done, but now, Georgia River Network and others are working to establish a water trail on reaches of the Chattahoochee downstream from Atlanta that at one time was written off as a cesspool.

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Maddox Swift leaps into the wind-rippled blackwater of the Suwannee.

Joe was a part of this change. During his later years as he got involved in paddling the state’s rivers, he was a frequent volunteer for local watershed groups and gave generously of his time and money. Upon his death, family members requested donations to Chattahoochee Riverkeeper in lieu of flowers.

Fresh on the heels of the news of Joe’s death, I came to the Withlacoochee with an intense sense of gratitude born from the realization that I was one of the lucky ones. In addition to Joe, we lost other Paddle Georgia veterans during the past year. Blue-shirted John Councilman from Columbus and the burly medic John Gugino from the Athens area will never paddle with us again. And each year, it seems one of our family misses the journey due to health issues. During this year’s trip we all sent well wishes to Mitt Connerly who is undergoing treatment for leukemia.

As we leapt from high places into the Withlacoochee and Suwannee’s blackwater, we might have felt invincible when we bobbed to the surface, but we know that life is fleeting.

We will pass on, but the rivers will ceaselessly flow. And, there lies our responsibility.

Our rivers can flow full and healthy or they can flow depleted and polluted. We determine their future. To insure that our children and our children’s children have access to the same “life-cheating” experiences we enjoyed during Paddle Georgia 2019, we must commit not only to “suck all the marrow” out of life (as Joe Kidd did)—but also to protect those rivers until we can cheat death no more.

Joe Cook

June 26, 2019

P.S.  A picture is worth a thousand words. Look below to see if it’s true!

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Shay Ammons takes a dive in Madison Blue Spring. Shay was among eight youth who participated in Paddle Georgia through a partnership between Georgia River Network and Camp Horizon. Camp Horizon provides mentoring programs for Metro Atlanta at-risk youth in the state’s foster care system.

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A young Suwannee bass eyes Paula Jeffers…or is it the other way around. Thanks to fish specialist Camm Swift, Paddle Georgia participants had the opportunity to seine for–and view–many of the river’s native fish species.

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As always…the water battles were epic. Rule of Engagement No. 1: Never bring a squirt gun to a water cannon fight.

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Lotem Kol shows off his rope swinging style on the Withlacoochee. Lotem, his brother Morry and father Roman, were selected as our Volunteers of the Week. Dozens of Paddle Georgia participants chipped in as volunteers during the week, helping make this year’s event one of our most successful ever! Thank you paddlers for participating and volunteering!

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