On June 17, three days prior the beginning of Paddle Georgia 2015, a short 100 miles from the starting point of the 7-day journey in coastal Georgia, a 21-year-old man shot and killed nine people at Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The shocking murders were racially motivated. The killer was white; all the victims were black.
On June 27, the day we finished our 95-mile journey, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage.
Immersed in the Ogeechee River and disconnected from most media outlets for a full week, we returned Saturday and Sunday to TV, newspaper and online media filled with stories from a divided nation.
The Confederate battle flag came under fire (photos surfaced of the Charleston killer wrapped in the flag), arsonists set fire to black churches across the south; some religious leaders decried the Supreme Court ruling; gay rights advocates counterattacked.
From the peace and quiet of the Ogeechee we emerged into a nationwide shouting match. The change was shocking.
For the past week, 300 people from diverse walks of life—liberals and conservatives, black and white, young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight—had endured common trials and celebrated common joys. We ate together, slept together (in school gymnasiums natural disaster refugee-style) and showered together (men and women separately, of course).
We also endured every Ogeechee strainer, often helping one another over, under and around these obstacles; we paddled against the same tidal current in the trip’s final miles as we neared the coast. We slathered on sunscreen to shield ourselves from the same sun and jumped in the same river to cool ourselves.
We shared a common experience. The result: empathy and understanding for fellow sojourners and the willingness to lend a hand to a stranger.
The river itself facilitated the interaction. Bob Bourne, a Georgia Adopt-A-Stream volunteer and veteran of many Paddle Georgia events, made the keen observation that the narrow and winding Ogeechee made people interact. “On a big river, you might paddle past someone on the opposite side, but that’s not possible here. It almost forces you to interact with one another.”
And, so it was. There were more water battles, more rope swing congregations, more group lounges on sandbars. This intimate, willow and cypress-shaded river delivered a new level of intimacy.
I was personally “baptized” by “Hopper the Baptist,” the nickname given to Audrey Grice, one of ten students from Atlanta’s Camp Creek Middle School, who participated in the trip (she took to baptizing her fellow paddlers in the Ogeechee’s tea-colored water). In camp, I tented next to traditional families and lesbian couples.
On this journey, it mattered not a wit your sexual orientation, your religious beliefs or the color of your skin. We all traveled the same path.
Perhaps that is what is missing in our society—the recognition that ultimately, we all travel the same path. Each of us wants to live life freely and enjoy it to its fullest.
To be sure, a large group paddle trip down a wild river is not the cure for all that ails society, but there are lessons to be learned in multi-day, group adventures. There is power in common-shared experiences.
The Ogeechee, flowing through the heart of the Deep South, is like most southern rivers. At fish camps and riverside dwellings, it is not uncommon to see the Confederate battle flag waving in the breeze. Those that come to these fish camps couldn’t be more different than the average paddler that ventures on these waters in a kayak or canoe. It is a clash of cultures we’ve recognized since James Dickey penned his novel Deliverance and the bluegrass standard “Dueling Banjos” became synonymous with cultural conflict.
What we too often fail to realize is that the riverfront rebel and Hopper the Baptist dip their toes in the same river. If we wish to heal our national discord, we’d be wise to acknowledge these common experiences and seek ways to share more of them.
A wild river is as good a place to start as any.
Next year’s trip is tentatively set for the Conasauga-Oostanaula-Coosa Rivers in Northwest Georgia June 18-24. We hope to see you there!
And finally a few parting shots…
THE OGEECHEE IS BACK!
This young chain pickerel, caught by fisheries biologist Camm Swift in a kick seine net, was one of the many species of fish that turned up in Swift’s net during the week of Paddle Georgia. The abundance of young fish indicated that fish were reproducing successfully and Swift gave a thumbs up to the river’s health. Likewise, testing conducted by Georgia Adopt-A-Stream staff and volunteers pointed to a healthy river. Four years after a disastrous fish kill caused by releases from a Screven County textile plant, the river is on the road to recovery.
BEST “NUDE BEACH PHOTO” THAT CAN BE PUBLISHED ONLINE
The “Nude Beach Photo Contest” provided some of the biggest laughs of the week. Contestants posed “nude,” creatively concealing critical body parts. Some were more revealing than others, and thus, the Georgia RIver Network staff decided it best not to publish these images for the world to see. This tastefully done pose is courtesy of Patty Leighton, Jake Sandlin and Nicole De Lisle. It should be noted that no clothes were removed in the making of “Nude Beach” photos.
IT’S PADDLE GEORGIA 2015 ON THE OGEECHEE. WHO YA’ GONNA CALL? STRAINERBUSTERS!
The hero of Paddle Georgia 2015 is Georgia Canoe Association volunteer and GRN board member Vincent Payne and his crew of safety boaters and strainer busters. Vincent, along with Rob Garber, Keith & Lisa Haskell, Bonny Putney, Mike McCarthy and a host of other volunteers from the Paddle Georgia navy scouted the river in advance of the main body of paddlers strategically trimming strainers and sweepers to make a safe passage. Meanwhile, dozens of paddlers volunteered on the spot to safely move their comrades through the most difficult obstacles. This level of volunteerism gave us a glimpse of heaven in the face of what could have evolved into hellish situations.
THEY NEVER MET A ROPE SWING THEY DIDN’T LIKE AWARD GOES TOO…
In their young lives, Evan and Marco (pictured above) Newman, the sons of Donald Newman and Daniela Di lorio may have launched themselves off more rope swings on more different Georgia rivers than anyone in the state of Georgia. On the Ogeechee, they continued their quest.
THE PERSEVERANCE AWARD GOES TO…
Camp Creek Middle School’s team of 12 teachers and youth led by Joey Guinta and Alicia Evans. This group, most of whom had never paddled a canoe on a river, endured a Day 2 paddle that was the most challenging day of Paddle Georgia since 2008 when paddlers were forced to walk much of the Flint River after two years of drought. Other novices would have thrown in the towel, but this group stayed the course and before the trip’s end had mastered paddling strokes and were enjoying the rewards of the river. It was a truly inspirational group of youth.
BIGGEST ACT OF BRAVERY ON THE JOURNEY…
No one wrestled alligators or fished a water moccasin from their vessel during the river journey, but back at camp Anne Ledbetter agreed to hold a roll of paper in her hand to help Richard Aunspaugh demonstrate his talents with his bull whip. We are considering recruiting Richard as assistant sweep boat for Paddle Georgia 2016.