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What is a River Trail—Sunday on Paddle Georgia, and a well executed put in on the Withlacoochee River gave a perfect example of why we need water trails. What is a water trail? A section of river with (1) safe public access to a boat ramp or launch site for paddlers, most often known as Landing, (2) signs on the public road or highway near the access with the name of the Landing, (3) safety and informational signs at the public river access along the river, and (4) a partnership between local governments, organizations, businesses, and a non-profit (often a Riverkeeper or river protection NPO) to promote the water trail. Today, our access was on private land, with gracious permission from the landowner (Thank You), at the old Spook Bridge, so today’s path to the river was not part of the Withlacoochee water trail—no public access– although we were on that river’s water trail.  

P6150015n.jpgAnd, the toughest access in 15 years of Paddle Georgia—a 12 foot bank required a team to lower and raise boats onto the river by rope, and another team to safely help our boaters down to the river along a temporary set of steps cut in the sandy bank, and help them into their boats at the slippery clay marl at the river’s edge. Cooperation, coordination, and patience helped close to 300 paddlers get down to and on the river in just a few hours. But still, this access was easier than from the public highway just upstream.

P6160060n.jpgAnd what a beautiful day on the river it was. Adventure, wildlife, water fights galore. Folks from age two to two score and forty enjoying a day of paddling, swimming, exploring and learning about the river, echoed by the gleeful screams of children and adults, and the staccato ack ack ack of the kingfishers who led us down the river past beautiful huge moss-draped cypress and oak and tupelo trees shading the river’s edge.  Wildlife included deer, osprey, leatherback turtle, snowy egret. The beautiful pink and lavender flower spikes along the banks are cleome, also called cats whiskers, or skunkweed by some for its pungent odor.

Some of us saw a pontoon boat hauling reclaimed logs back up the river—it takes two to six months to get a permit to reclaim the submerged logs. A 19th-century sawmill at the confluence of the Suwanee and Withlacoochee Rivers near Ellaville was the source for the sunken logs and for the wealth of the sawmill owner who later became governor of Florida and built a mansion nearby from the lumber. The logs are valuable because of the quality of the timber from a long ago and less industrial age. Removing the logs disturbs the river bottom, causing increased turbidity and disturbing the aquatic habitat in the area, an issue addressed by the Georgia Legislature a few years back when it passed a bill permitting harvesting of the submerged logs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt our evening program, Suwanee Riverkeeper John Quarterman revealed the new Withlacoochee River Water Trail signs, the final element that qualifies the Withlacoochee as a recognized water trail. John explained some of the history and geography of the Withlacoochee and Suwannee Rivers. This area is underlain by the Floridan aquifer, a vast underground sea of fresh water flowing through caves and cavities in the limestone and karst areas of the region.  Nearby McIntyre Springs is one of two 2nd magnitude springs in Georgia. A local cave diver in the 1970s discovered 4000 feet of caves flowing into the spring. The interaction between groundwater and the aquifer has been complicated by modern agriculture and increased water use. The impact is not just from increased water use impacting the spring flows but from algae contamination of the springs and their water caused by fertilizer leaching through the ground.

DSC_2377n.jpgThis is what we do on Paddle Georgia—a fundraiser for the Georgia River Network, a statewide nonprofit based in Athens Georgia that promotes the protection of our rivers by informing, empowering and educating people about the importance of our rivers, and the ways we can help preserve and protect them.  When we help more people get on our rivers, they learn to love and appreciate—and help protect—our rivers from the threat of unwise and overly exploitive use.  #paddlega2019

~Victor Johnson (Former Board Member)

As the sun rose on Grassy Pond, the dew glistened on blades of grass and the morning air was crisp and cool. The first day of Paddle Georgia 2019 was off and running with campers rising to ready themselves for the 11-mile journey down the Withlacoochee River. With a short bus ride to the river, we geared up, lathered up, and slowly made our way down the river. All waded in the water as the flotilla of boats made their way downstream to explore parts unknown. From Spring Creek that fed into the river to the Tupelo trees with knobby knees, no one could deny this pick of a river was something special.

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We saw flying fish known as Gar and swimming turtles that popped their heads above the water line then quickly darted away. The highlight was seeing 2 solid white Swallowtail Kites flying overhead that foreshadowed one of the most perfect paddle days ever. Several shoals hadDSC_2151n to be mastered with paddle breaks at sandy shallows for infamous water war battles that are always a competitive distraction. The toughest part was the hauling of boats up a large hill by hoisting them with ropes up the riverbank for overnight storage at Spook Bridge. But the friendly competition of the Live Auction quickly kicked into gear as campers did their best to outbid each other for fabulous prizes as well as raise money for the youth program for next year. The Canoe-A-Thon exceeded our challenge of $30,000 with matching donations to reach $60,000 for Georgia Rivers. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe night ended with a new game where you toss rings around bottles of wine to win those bottles. Those with cornhole experience did quite well scoring some impressive bottles of wine. But just when you think it couldn’t get any better, a bid of $500 for a can of boiled peanuts brought the tent fellowship to an all-time high and the lucky winner walked away with a Jackson Kayak. As we all were falling asleep, the thoughts of a new day on the river filled our dreams and our imagination of what is yet to come!

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~Tammy Griffin (GRN Board Member)

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Well, it’s the best time of the year again—the annual Paddle Georgia trip! There’s nothing better than coming together with 350 other crazy paddlers for a 100+ mile journey down the Withlacoochee and Suwannee Rivers.

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Staff, interns, volunteers, and participants were BLOWN AWAY by the air-conditioned registration room at Grassy Pond Recreation Area. Some lucky paddlers even got a sneak peek at the critters we’ll be living with. Hopefully, the gruesome gators won’t scare away our first timers!

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Families were eager to unload their gear in the best spots and contribute to the notorious ‘Tent City’ consisting of over 100 homes.

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 After settling in, some early birds even spent some fun in the sun on the water and at the local pool. As if we won’t be outside enough this week! 

Following an exciting day of preparation, we were all ready for some good hot food! Old paddlers were seen reuniting and new paddlers mingling with friends from all across the Southeast (even Texas!) over a dinner of roasted chicken, potatoes, green beans, and my personal favorite—banana pudding.

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We then celebrated the introduction of our new Executive Director, Rena Stricker, as well as the few dedicated paddlers who have stuck around for ALL 15 YEARS and joined the 1500 mile club! 
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Now we are off to explore the beautiful system of rivers that the Georgia River Network fights so hard to establish, restore, and protect. Can’t wait for 8 more days of fun on one of nature’s greatest gifts!

Happy paddling!

~Terry Pate (GRN Board Member)

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Kit Carson slides through State Line Rapid on the Withlacoochee.

If you are under the impression that this year’s Paddle Georgia 2019 on the blackwater Withlacoochee and Suwannee rivers in South Georgia and North Florida will be a lazy float down a meandering river, you’d be badly mistaken.

This week, I was joined by intrepid Paddle Georgia veterans Kit Carson and Cary Baxter and my Rome buddy, Joel Megginson, on a marathon scouting adventure of the Withlacoochee’s shoals (we covered 65 miles in two days). You see, when we originally ran this river last August, it was flowing at 1000 cubic feet per second (cfs) and the river’s shoals were washed out–most barely detectable in the high water.

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State Line Rapid. The obstacle is a series of shoals and ledges that extends along about 600 feet of river along the Florida-Georgia state line.

This time the river flowed at 450 cfs and the excitement that was previously buried was revealed. Yes, the Withlacoochee–despite its home in the Coastal Plain flat lands–is home to regular shoals. It’s all about the rock. The Withlacoochee and Suwannee rivers flow through a land chock full of karst limestone. Outcroppings are numerous, as are soaring bluffs where the gnarled roots of sweet gum and oak twine through the holey limestone and inexplicably anchor their 50-foot-tall frames along the river banks. 

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The crystal clear water of Madison Blue Springs meets the blackwater of the Withlacoochee.

This same geology that creates challenging shoals at places like State Line Rapid also gives rise to one of the highlights of this year’s journey–a paradise of blue hole springs too clear and cold for the river’s gators to occupy. Hardee, Coffee, Madison Blue, Suwannacoochee, Lafayette line the river and wait to welcome hot and weary paddlers. A dip in these crystal clear holes is a religious experience, every bit as cleansing as an old-style baptism.

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Cary Baxter enters State Line Rapid cloaked in an early morning fog.

But, I digress. It’s the Withlacoochee Whitewater you’re hear to learn about! Don’t become too alarmed. The shoals are largely of the Class I variety–simple ledges or shoal fields that create swift moving water and an occasional good wave. But, at two locations–State Line Rapid–appropriately named for its location on the Florida-Georgia line–and the Withlacoochee’s last gasp about 3 miles above its confluence with the Suwannee there’s enough fall and flow to challenge your paddling skills and get the heart beating. So, brush up on your paddling strokes and get prepared. Meanwhile, our crack team of volunteer safety boaters will be preparing to direct you to the safest route and together, we’ll get through round side down and dry.

In short, there’s just enough shoals to keep the paddle route diverse and entertaining.

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A typical Withlacoochee scene–limestone and oaks, cypress and tupelo festooned in Spanish moss. The only thing that is missing is you!

And, entertaining it is. The river corridor alternates between typical willow and sandbar-flanked river scenery (veterans of the Ogeechee River will find it familiar) to the high, bleached limestone bluffs that Flint River paddlers of southwest Georgia will recognize. And, then there’s the springs. We’ll mark them on your maps. You’ll not want to miss them. 

The river, of course, is teaming with wildlife. Highlights of our marathon include the sighting of two six-foot gators that crawled slowly from a sandbar on our approach and dipped beneath the black surface; an osprey with a hard-won fish in its talons pursued upriver by a young bald eagle bent on stealing the prey from the smaller predator; gatherings of swallow-tailed kites that swooped and soared on their forked tails and slender wings; mullet exploding from the river’s surface; ibis, anhingas, muskrats and more.

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Cary Baxter and Oconee, the scout dog and River User’s Guide cover girl, ready for another day on the Withlacoochee.

We’ve warned to expect the unexpected on this journey, though that’s true of any river journey. We can’t control water levels or weather. If it ceases to rain for a month, we will curse the Withlacoochee whitewater as we drag our boats across the dry shoals.

In the meantime, pray for regular rain and prepare yourself for what I expect will be one of the best river venues in Paddle Georgia’s 15 year history!

Consider this: with the completion of this year’s journey we will have traveled some 1500 miles of Georgia rivers together and along the way created positive change for every river system we’ve visited. The Georgia River Network staff and I look forward to sharing another grand adventure with you June 15-21.

–Joe Cook

 

 

Ordinarily at the end of each year’s Paddle Georgia, we announce the following year’s destination. We didn’t do that this year. Instead, we thought we’d let you decide.

The winner of our survey was the Withlacoochee and Suwannee rivers. Running a close second was the Upper Flint River. The Savannah, Oconee and St. Marys were distant 3rd, 4th and 5th runners up while the Satilla got the least votes.

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Kit Carson, Terry Pate and Chris Thompson drift down the Withlacoochee River near Valdosta. 

Thus, in our never-ending pursuit of river adventure (and solving the logistical challenges of finding campsites and transportation for 300-plus people for a week), we did what we always do. We hit the river.

In this case, we hit the Withlacoochee and Suwannee. Specifically, Paddle Georgia veterans and Georgia River Network board members Kit Carson and Terry Pate along with 1400-mile Paddle Georgia participant Chris Thompson and I surveyed about 90 miles of the rivers over four days.

First a note on river conditions: it being a wet summer, we were riding on about twice the average flows for the month of June. The river was full and moving and the river’s shoals (yes, there are shoals on the Withlacoochee) were mostly washed out.

Second, a note on next year’s destination: the river is still undetermined. Campsites, transportation and other logistics must be explored further, but the Withlacoochee and Suwannee made a strong case for themselves.

What they (our river adventurers) said: “A cross between the Ogeechee and the lower Flint.” “Class A Rating.” “Beautiful. The springs were worth the paddling.”

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Yes, the Withlacoochee has shoals. There’s lots of limestone and in several places the outcroppings create small shoals and rapids. 

Highlights of the four-day journey: surprising Withlacoochee shoals; wildlife including swallow-tailed kites, massive sturgeon leaping from the river and, yes, alligators (actually, only 2); and springs, springs and more springs.

The Withlacoochee does have small shoals, and in low water these can be impediments to progress, but at the right water levels they add an unexpected dimension to this blackwater river.

Did you see any alligators?  Yes, we saw one unfortunate critter who had his snout stuck in a fish basket. We ran into the owners of the trap shortly afterwards who reported that the 8-foot beast had been rescued and released…tired, but still living. We saw another on the last day of our journey. So, they are out there, but rarely seen. Oconee the Dog and her human companions swam and were not eaten. Fear not, ye fearers of gators, it is highly unlikely that you will be eaten by an alligator if you paddle the Withlacoochee.

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The Withlacoochee and Suwannee’s limestone bluffs are reminiscent of those found on the Flint River. It’s all the same limestone geology underpinning both watersheds of southwest Georgia and northwest Florida, giving rise to the numerous blue hole springs. 

The real aquatic star of the Withlacoochee and Suwannee, however, are gulf sturgeon. These prehistoric fish that can reach lengths of up to 8 feet and weights of more than 200 pounds can often be seen leaping from the water. We were lucky enough to view one full jump and see the splashes of many others. It is a sight to behold. It’s like seeing Russian weightlifters perform synchronized swimming–bulky, ugly muscular primeval creatures doing something wholly unexpected.

But, the real reason to paddle the Withlacoochee and Suwannee are the springs. Those who have paddled the lower Flint (Paddle Georgia 2013 and Fall Float on the Flint) know of what I speak. Like the Flint, the Withlacoochee flows through karst limestone and is fed primarily by springheads issuing forth 70-degree, crystal clear water. Madison Blue Springs, Morgan Springs, Lafayette Blue Springs and countless others line the rivers.

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Terry Pate explores Madison Blue Springs on the Withlacoochee River, a beautiful deep swimming hole of 70-degree crystal clear water. 

We snorkeled at Madison Blue Springs State Park to see schools of mullet and scores of turtles the size of large hubcaps. We paddled up the run at Morgan Springs to find a hole so deep blue in color that it looked more like a swimming pool that a natural body of water. The extensive decking and landscaping on the private property surrounding the pool added to the “civilized” feel. And, we explored unnamed and unmapped springs that were equally beautiful, regulating our body temperature in the summer heat with timely dips.

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One of many unnamed springs bubbling forth along the banks of the Withlacoochee. 

These grade A swimming holes put the Withlacoochee and Suwannee right up there among my favorite scouting trips. We’re now working to line up campsites and transportation. Hint: one possible campsite could provide you the opportunity to upgrade to a bunk and hostel-style accommodations for a nominal nightly fee (air-conditioned, real mattresses and showers and restrooms) or stay in a private hotel room for more…all at our main camp…which overlooks the Suwannee.

I, for one, am excited. For our 15th anniversary we could be doing something completely different–a journey down blackwater rivers, pocked with shoals and punctuated by unbelievably beautiful blue hole springs.  And, for the first time in Paddle Georgia history, we’d be venturing into a neighboring state!

But, lets not jump the gun. The Upper Flint has its charms as well, especially when it has enough water in it to float canoes and kayaks. We’d love to hear what you think. Leave a comment or post a comment on our facebook page!

Joe Cook

August 2018

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Kit Carson slices through the blackwater of the Suwannee. With its headwaters in the Okefenokee Swamp, the Suwannee is a true blackwater river. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can’t believe the last day of Paddle GA 2018 is here. The week has flown by.  I know this is going to be a great day… Sippin’ on a steaming cuppa Café Campesino Joe and THE BUSES ARE HERE!!!

Looks like Joe saved the best day to last. The river was wonderful. Great shoals with lots of sand bars to pull over and play. Cold water at the water plant.

After we all finish and take our boats out, the Duck Race is on. Susan Ray’s duck had the speed and agility to cross the finish line first. She won the $250 pot but graciously donated it back to GRN – Thank you Susan and thanks to all who participated.

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Next the low country boil provided by Satterfields was great and plenty of it.

After the delicious food the 2018 Canoeathon winners were announced. In all: 19 people raised $18, 347 and the top Ten Canoeathon Winners include:

  1. Terry Pate
  2. John Branch
  3. Jim and Debbie Fountain
  4. Leslie Raymer
  5. Tammy Griffin
  6. Karen HIll
  7. Cindy Leighton
  8. Tim Voss
  9. Doug Mathews
  10. Sarah Topper

 Top Prizes Provided by Nomadic Flow Outfitters, Tom Beman, Len Foote Hike Inn, Friends of GA State Parks, and Patagonia.

Final announcements were followed by the live and “LABEL” auction. Everyone had a lot of fun with the auction and helped raise money for Georgia River Network.

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As we say farewell to our “River Family” we are already looking forward to next year. See you then, and please bring some new friends.

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Terry Pate, Georgia River Network Board Member 

MANY THANKS to our Sponsors and Partners:

Sponsors

Hennessy Land Rover Centres; Cedar Creek RV & Outdoors; Cary Baxter, CPA; China Clay Producers Association; CYA Agency, Inc.; Oglethorpe Power; Storm Water Systems; Stream Techs; The Rain Barrel Depot; Terry Pate, PC, CPA; Nomadic Flow Outfitters; EarthShare of Georgia; Friends of Georgia State Parks; Len Foote Hike Inn; Patagonia

Partners

American Canoe Association, Café Campesino, Georgia Canoe Association, Georgia Adopt-A-Stream, Project Wet, Altamaha Riverkeeper, Yellow River Water Trail, Ocmulgee River Water Trail

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Mason Ballard shoots through Annistown Falls rapid on the Yellow River.

In the pantheon of Paddle Georgia lore, the 2018 edition of Georgia River Network’s excellent adventure might be remembered as the year the buses, as often as not, didn’t run—a first in 14 years.

And, while the trials and tribulations with bus transportation certainly made campsite headlines, that’s not what I remember most from this year’s journey.

I remember the sunrises at Danridge Farms and the soft bed of river weed that I sat in as I was massaged by the water flowing over the shoals of Lamar Mill Rapid. I’ll remember the rugged beauty of the Yellow River’s Annistown Falls and the cool, green flank of the Ocmulgee as it passed through the Oconee National Forest.

These beautiful sights I will store away and call upon sometime later when I need an escape, but what I will remember most—and the stories that I will recount to friends long from now—will not be about late buses or beautiful scenery. The stories I will tell will be of the people.

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Steve & Kate Blackburn splash through Gees Mill Road Rapid on the Yellow River. 

I’ll recall the sheer joy of Cameron Visel’s laughs as Jim and Debbie Fountain paddled her through the rapids at Annistown Falls. It was the 8-year-old’s first time participating in all seven days of Paddle Georgia, and grandfather, Alan Kendall, later wrote to us: “Her squeals of delight going through the rapids were priceless. She started lobbying for her own kayak during the week!”

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Lead safety boater Vincent Payne directs traffic on the Ocmulgee River.

I’ll remember the sure and steady work, and excellent humor, of Vincent Payne who directed our contingency of some 20 volunteer safety boaters from the Georgia Canoeing Association. Aside from directing boaters through our most challenging obstacles, this group helped us make the wise decision to bypass Cedar Shoals after the river rose nearly two feet overnight.

I’ll never forget the resilience of more than 160 paddlers who, when faced with that unexpected bypass and portage, pitched in to move every boat downstream. Pete Smith Melissa Ballard and Duane Beckett took up their vehicles and trailers to do the job, and everyone else stepped up to make the move seamless, despite the rugged terrain and odiferous surroundings at Newton County’s wastewater treatment plant.

I’ll tell again and again the story of those who turned the Cedar Creek Park RV & Outdoor Center tug-o-war pool into their wet and wild dance floor during our party in Porterdale. There are those among the Paddle Georgia Navy that have a joy for life that is contagious: Ellen & Brian Cardin, Cynthia Cox, Anne Ledbetter, Carolyn Morris, Sarah Topper, Ruth Mead, Terry Pate, Gwyneth Moody.

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Synchronized swimming…Paddle Georgia style with Brian Cardin, Sarah Topper, Ellen Cardin, Cynthia Cox, Carolyn Morris, Anne Ledbetter, Terry Pate and Ellie Harbert. 

And, I’ll recall the pride in the faces of the “yutes” from Camp Horizon as they expertly navigated a sizable shoal on Day 7 of our journey. In six short days, these kids had gone from beginners to competent, if not confident, paddlers. As they successfully shot the rapid cheers shot up from the crowd gathered below the shoals, who themselves were luxuriating in the cool water lapping a wide sandbar.

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Youth from Camp Horizon sail safely through a shoal on the Ocmulgee to the cheers of other Paddle Georgia participants during the last day of the journey.

It was the kind of scene I have seen played out on virtually every other Paddle Georgia —at some point along the route a pop up community forms at a shoal or sandbar to watch how others respond to the obstacle (or to simply ambush fellow participants with water canons). Inevitably, there is laughter and cries of joy. At these places, there is a strong sense of shared experience. The river unites and embraces us as we support and embrace one another.

It is, for a group of individuals from such disparate backgrounds, a little slice of heaven here on earth. If we could package it and sell it, we’d make a mint.

For all the beauty and fun that the Yellow and Ocmulgee served up during the week, the rivers taught us again that ultimately we are all on the same journey. Our needs are simple: we want to navigate the obstacles of life safely and have a great time doing it. Each of us is more successful when we support one another.

At least for seven days on the Yellow and Ocmulgee, we can declare mission accomplished.

Joe Cook

June 25, 2018

Here’s a few other favorite images from the journey:

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Ellie Harbert…butterfly whisperer at our Bert Adams Scout Camp take out. 

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Cindy Leighton runs Annistown Falls Rapid…backwards. She survived to paddle six more days. 

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Georgia Canoeing Association Safety Boater Larry Tomlinson gives a thumbs up to Chuck Moody as he slides through an Ocmulgee River shoal. 

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Ellie Harbert, Kate Blackburn and Cameron Visel squeal on the swing at Danridge Farms, our campsite for three nights near Monticello. 

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Sophie Greenleaf Peel, a reporter with Georgia Public Broadcasting in Macon, gets in on the Paddle Georgia fun by surfing through an Ocmulgee River shoal. 

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Leslie Raymer takes a break on the Ocmulgee River. 

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