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Let me admit it now. When you return from a seven-day paddle trip on a beautiful Georgia river, your family is expecting you to recount stories of breathtaking encounters with nature, but those are not the first stories I told to my wife after more than 100 miles on the Flint River.

Georgia River Network board members Tammy Griffin, Terry Pate and Carol McNavish take a dip in one of the Flint River’s crystal-clear blue hole springs during Paddle Georgia 2021.

No. On this scaled-down, more intimate pandemic edition of Georgia River Network’s Paddle Georgia with just 36 total participants, I came back with stories of the people with whom I travelled. In recent memory I cannot remember laughing as hard as I did on this trip.

Throughout the week, we shared “little known facts” about ourselves during our evening program. We learned that as a teenager, Jim Potter performed on stage with a famous Italian ballet troupe. Now decidedly not of the ballet physique, Jim recounted passing the prima ballerina overhead and remembered, “For a prima ballerina, she had a surprisingly mushy tush.”

This hilarity was followed by Bonny Putney revealing that when she was a teenager and part of an exchange program visiting the Soviet Union, she was severely disciplined by a red soldier when she cracked a laugh during a tour of Vladamir Lenin’s tomb. Imagine, Bonny cracking a laugh…hard to believe.

And, then there were the “Oh, son, I don’t know if I would have told that” stories. Stacy Dounias recalled her first experience peeing in the wilderness–an affair that saw her rolling head over heels down a steep hill. And, then there was Charles Lewis, the Navy pilot veteran who, despite successfully launching and landing his jet on aircraft carriers dozens of times, nevertheless, “shot” down his own experimental paraplane–a story that involved a large American flag and a brick. He safely landed in a cornfield. Next time you see him, request the story. It’s a hoot and Charles can spin a tale…and a joke or two.

Stacy Dounias, Kathy Vaughn and Georgia Ritchie drift down the Flint River during Paddle Georgia 2021.

Speaking of jokes…the Paddle Georgia animal joke tradition continued. Started in 2007 on the Ocmulgee when we adopted the robust redhorse fish as our trip mascot and proceeded to tell jokes and puns about the rare creature (What do you call a redhorse that was arrested? A robusted redhorse), Paddle Georgia animal jokes have been told for more than 13 years with varying degrees of success. Most of the jokes are so lame they rarely even rise to the level of “dad jokes.”

This year, the federally protected gopher tortoise–a keystone reptile of the southeast–was the subject of our humor, and Mike McCarthy supplied at least one knee-slapper that belongs in the Paddle Georgia animal joke hall of fame. The survival of the gopher tortoise hinges on the survival of the long-leaf pine habitat–a habitat that has been decimated during the past 200 years–but they are further hampered because it is difficult for them to reproduce. They simply aren’t terribly successful and few of their offspring survive to maturity. Mike explained that scientists have closely studied the gopher tortoises’ reproductive efforts and, in fact, have ferreted out the problem: “e-reptile dysfunction.”

On the river, the fun continued. A few highlights…

Aviva Peiken with green tree frog at Mitchell County Landing on the Flint River.

Aviva Peiken, daughter of Georgia River Network water trails and outreach director, Gwyneth Moody, made fast friends with frogs of all kinds–more than one of which found a perch on the six-year-old’s nose.

The aforemention Charles Lewis defied his 70-plus years, performing an almost flawless back flip off a limestone bluff.

Leslie Raymer, a professional archaeologist, pointed us to shards of flint, potsherds and fossils on a sandbar–a reminder of just how much history flows along the Flint.

At the Jones Center at Ichauway, aquatic biologist Steve Golloday welcomed us to the 30,000-acre ecological research facility by showing off a infant gar fish seined from the river that morning–a beautiful creature not two inches long that may some day grow into a 3-foot-long, long-nosed, sharp-toothed, armor-scaled predator.

Out of our boats, our small group enjoyed the pleasures of riverside camping. The call of the bobwhite quail–Georgia’s state game bird–echoed through the open forest at Red Oak Plantation as we broke camp.

The haunting howls of coyotes and hoots of barred owls stirred us through the night at Covey Rise Plantation while the full moon arched across the sky.

At Mitchell County Landing, the clouds broke long enough to reveal Venus, bright behind the pink-red sunset, shining in the western sky.

At Reynolds Sandbar, a magical sunset prompted a photographic feeding frenzy.

These delightful sights and sounds were a welcomed counterpoint to the swarming gnats and almost daily rain. But, truth be told we didn’t rough it too much.

The Paddle Georgia 2021 Navy gathers for a group photo at the Bainbridge Boat Basin. The group ended the seven-day, 100-mile journey with a fish fry meal provided by Flint Riverkeeper. Bonny Putney, Dee Stone and Charles Lewis were recognized as among the paddlers who have participated in every Paddle Georgia event since its inception in 2005.

Stays at Rocky Bend Flint River Retreat with its riverfront cabins and Covey Rise Plantation with its luxury lodge rooms were a welcomed respite. Rocky Bend was so civilized many of us caught a thrilling game seven of the Atlanta Hawks-Philadephia 76ers series on TV, and at Covey Rise we dined sumptuously, feasting on fried quail and homemade pecan pie among other delights.

We finished the trip in Bainbridge with a traditional fish fry meal hosted by Flint Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers and his staff. Their involvement was a reminder of why Georgia River Network organizes these journeys–to connect people with the rivers we are trying to protect.

Together, the 36 Paddle Georgia participants raised more than $44,000 for river protection and water trail development through our Canoe-a-thon, and along the way discovered–or rediscovered–the beautiful Flint River.

That said, if you encounter a Paddle Georgia 2021 participant, don’t be surprised if they recall an anecdote about a fellow traveler before they tell you about the river itself. As we learned on this journey, the Paddle Georgia family is a cast with many a tall tale to be told.

Joe Cook, Paddle Georgia Coordinator

June 2021

P.S. Here’s a few more worthy images from the journey…

Anne Ledbetter, Karen Hill and Sarah Topper strike a Charlie’s Angels pose during a sunset photo feeding frenzy at Reynolds Sandbar.
It wasn’t all rain and gnats. Paddle Georgia participants luxuriate in recliners at Covey Rise Plantation. The plantation, which normally hosts quail hunters in its upscale lodge, played host to Paddle Georgia for one night of the journey.
Leslie Raymer snaps a photo of a young gar at the Jones Center at Ichauway. Members of the Center’s research team met Paddle Georgia participants at the river to show off the Flint’s aquatic diversity and the long-leaf pine forests along the Center’s riverfront property.
Carol McNavish emerges from one of the Flint’s blue hole springs during Paddle Georgia 2021.

By Sarah Taylor, GRN Communications Coordinator

“When we save a river, we save a major part of an ecosystem, and we save ourselves as well because of our dependence — physical, economic, spiritual — on the water and its community of life.” —Tim Palmer

Day 6 of Paddle Georgia 2021 was highly anticipated as this 13-mile stretch promises the best of the lower Flint River’s blue hole springs, including Bovine, Hog Parlor and Westrick. To begin the day, all basked in a much-needed lazy morning at Covey Rise (at this point, we were 89 miles into our 112 mile journey and we could feel it!). The staff spoiled us rotten with a huge breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, grits, biscuits and fruit, and helped us pack up equally mouth-watering lunches of overflowing, gourmet sandwiches, sides and slices of bunion cake.

We shuttled to the put-in, located a short distance away on private property, and folks helped each other carry boats down to the launch before pushing off the bank for another day-long adventure around 10 a.m. (I told you it was a lazy morning!). The river was still high, a slight let-down for those of us anxious to see the springs, but we held out hope and let the current carry us past pretty islands of tall trees and around beautiful bends with blue and green vistas stretching out before us. When we weren’t paddling, we could hear every bird, buzzing insects and water whispering its way through strainers and around trees. 

Not even a mile in, the families I was with pulled off onto an inviting beach where we searched for, and found, an array of fossils, unique rocks, mussel and clam shells and even a sea urchin. I spent my time with the families’ children (Aviva, Jazzy and Ellie), who emphatically said, “Look!” each time they carefully placed a new rock, shell or piece of wood in my hands. I had so much fun slowing down and discussing the differences between the different treasures they found and answering their questions, like how a tree transports water to its leaves. 

It was starting to get pretty hot, but we decided to go a bit further downriver before enjoying our first swim of the day — and a good thing we did, too! Pretty soon on river left, a large and pristine sandbar stuck out from the bank, with a couple boats already stopped there. What began as an innocent swim spot quickly became the site of a kayak sledding competition. One by one, paddlers dragged their boats to the top of the sandbar’s steep slope, climbed in, and slid down the 30 foot sand hill into the water — many even managed to successfully stay upright after hitting the water, but not without filling their boats half-way with water.  

Paddling on, we discovered first Bovine and then the Hog Parlor springs submerged below water. The Adopt-a-Stream team was testing water at Bovine as I passed and I saw one team member dive down to try and capture a sample of pure spring water without any river water contamination. At this point, I seemed to be one of the few hopeful that Westrick Spring, truly the gem of the trip, would be visible.

Next, we found a limestone bluff perfect for jumping and a couple of us took turns scrambling up the rock before returning to the refreshing river with a “woohoo” and a splash. When we got our fill, we continued winding our way down the Flint towards Westrick.

Dear reader, there are no words to describe the magic of a blue hole spring, especially after being worried that you would not be able to see it due to recent rains. 

The clear and cool blue flow of Westrick spring greeted us on river left and shone in stark contrast to the warm, murky river water beneath our boats. I felt a grin stretch across my face as I followed a group of 10 or so kayaks single-file up the narrow spring run, watching the water become clearer and bluer and feeling the temperature become cooler around me the further we paddled. The run opened up onto a scene of snorkelers, swimmers and some bystanders gathered with their boats on the grassy ledge lining a bright blue pool. 

With no hesitation, I grabbed my goggles and dove into the breathtaking (in more ways than one) water. We must have swam there for more than an hour, diving down as deep as we could toward the deep blue hole, the source of the spring, before bursting lungs or popping ears made us push off the limestone boulders back up to the surface. Eventually, the cold forced me back to land, but as promised, this was the perfect capstone to an amazing week. 

Although it was now late afternoon, we knew we were only just more than mile from our takeout site, so a small group of us stayed behind, chatting and enjoying the immature bass circling beneath our boats.

When we eventually pulled up to Reynolds Sandbar, some were busy setting up tents along the river edge and others were up at the Reynolds’ family cabin, setting up camp. With everyone still buzzing with excitement from Westrick Spring, we lined up at 6:30 p.m. to enjoy a catered dinner of pork, salmon or vegetarian lasagna with a variety of side selections including mashed potatoes, salad, vegetable medley and roll. For tonight’s program, Joe’s good friend Steve, who has been involved in the Tri-State Water Wars since the 1970s, spoke to the group about the issue from the Floridian perspective. His expertise is in simulation models of rivers, which helps one understand the capacity of and what you can do and can’t do with a river system. 

The evening ended with with fun and games on the sandbar. Joe showed off his photography skills by taking beautiful long-exposure photos of friends before a pink and purple sunset backdrop, perfectly mirrored on the surface of the Flint River. Some played a game of corn hole while others stood beneath the stars, naming constellations as they waited for the full moon to rise. When we settled into our tents for the night, more than any other campsite, we could hear the wildlife awake around us, singing us to sleep. 

We awoke on Day 7 with the bittersweet taste of having arrived at the final day of our weeklong Paddle Georgia adventure. After our 6:30 a.m. breakfast, we packed up camp and set out on the day’s brief 9-mile paddle, influenced by the backwaters of Lake Seminole, to Bainbridge Boat Basin Park. On this stretch, backwater sloughs begin appearing and the river widens as it approaches Bainbridge with its historic steamboat landings.

Along the way, we spotted a pair of black and white winged ducks, perching on and poking their heads into the holes of a tall, dead tree. I had never seen a duck perched in a tree before! Next, we explored a few sloughs (I was desperate to spot a gator, but no luck) and stopped to admire the purple blooms of water hyacinth, tall grasses, and elephant ear.

As we entered Bainbridge we passed under three bridges, two of which were crowned by a huge Osprey nest. In the second, we spotted a few juveniles and the parents, feeding and talking to each other. 

When we arrived at the boat basin we were met by the cheers of friends who had arrived before us. All gathered to enjoy a final program and a traditional fish fry lunch feast cooked by Flint Riverkeeper staff. Some of the fried fish were brim and and bass from Gordon Rogers’ own backyard pond! It was the perfect ending to a wonderful week. 

If you’d like to join Georgia River Network on an upcoming paddle trip, or learn more about next year’s Paddle Georgia 2022 trip on the Upper Flint, click here

By: Sarah Taylor, GRN Communications Coordinator

“The first river you paddle runs through the rest of your life. It bubbles up in pools and eddies to remind you who you are.” — Lynn Noel

Today we enjoyed a slower morning highlighted by a filling egg, biscuit, sausage and grit breakfast catered by Main St. Cafe before loading up the trailer and setting out on our 18-mile journey down the Flint River. A little ways down the river five scientists from The Jones Center at Ichauway met us at Fourth of July Beach (normally a large sandbar, but today was submerged) to teach us about the flora and fauna all around us. The Jones Center’s mission is to understand, demonstrate and promote excellence in natural resource management and conservation. They “understand” by performing research, they “demonstrate” through conservation work and they “promote” through their education and outreach programs. 

Today’s educational offerings included a nature walk with a botanist, catching and identifying fish and watching a water testing demonstration by the Adopt-a-Stream team. On the nature walk, I learned ways to identify plants beyond their flowers/fruits or leaf shape. We stopped at a Mulberry tree, and the expert plucked off a leaf at the base of its stem, squeezed and showed the group its milky sap. Then she held it up to the sun and explained that often, she will use the venation of a leaf, rather than its shape, as an identifier. 

When we returned to the beach, folks were gathered around a tub of fish including damsel fly larvae, bream, shiner and wait for it, a very small gar fish. The gar fish sparked the telling of the legend of Bobby Marie, a veteran Paddle Georgia participant. The legend goes like this:

It was Paddle Georgia 2012 on the Altamaha and Bobby Marie was paddling along in his kayak, minding his own business, when a big gar flipped out of the water and into his lap. He wrapped his arms around that fish and tried to hold on for dear life, but that fish whipped its tail and escaped back into the water, leaving behind a mean, scale-shaped burn on Bobby Marie’s arm. 

So goes the legend of Bobby Marie. May it live on for eternity. 

The group of us who had signed up for the Adopt-a-Stream workshop stayed on the beach a bit longer to enjoy a water testing demonstration. First we tested for dissolved oxygen to see how much is available for fish to use (because they need to breathe too, y’all!). This test required a series of steps and after a list of chemicals I can’t pronounce were added to the water, it was determined that the dissolved oxygen was 5.7 or 5.8 mg per liter (it can range from 0-14.6; below 2 is hard for life to survive, an average of 5 and no less than 4 is the state standard). Next, we tested for conductivity which measures the ions in the water. Pure water will not conduct electricity, but if a water has “things” in it whether it be runoff from limestone or a sewage overflow, you can expect a higher conductivity. Today’s was 100 (the range is 0 – 1500). Last, we tested the pH of the water. This is important because like humans, river plants and animals have evolved to survive in a specific pH range. Today’s pH was 7, neutral, and within the state standard of 6 – 8.5. 

After our brains were full of new knowledge, we departed Fourth of July Beach to continue our float past partly submerged islands full of beautiful sycamore trees with limbs spilling up and out over the river. We were were speeding along unsuspectingly when we heard a holler from somewhere on river right. Leslie’s red boat showed through the trees and then we heard the voice again, “Hey Joe, come over here, there are mussels!”

We paddled over and spent the next hour puttering around a small spit of land that offered mussel shells, limestone rock fossils, flint, two hatched turtle nests and, easily our favorite, a rope swing. We each took turns climbing up the knots of a gnarled tree and bracing between a fork in the branches before swinging out over the water to land with a splash in its cool flow.

Reluctantly, we traveled on and after a few more hours of swimming at the couple exposed sandbars to cool off from the June Georgia sun, we arrived at the takeout on private land to be shuttled to our riverside campsite at Covey Rise Plantation. 

After part of the group set up tents and the other half checked into the comfortable, air-conditioned rooms of Covey Rise, the group gathered for a delicious, and I mean DELICIOUS, fried quail dinner complimented by dressing, green beans, black-eyed peas, sweet potato sweet pie and pecan pie. State Representative Joe Campbell, who represents the citizens of House District 171, joined the group for dinner, chatting with folks about a shared interest in water conservation.

Roger, the owner of Covey Rise Plantation, which is a commercial quail shooting preserve, generously offered his time to discuss quail, quail hunting and the economic impact of quail hunting while we finished licking our plates clean. He said, “quail hunting is not sitting in a stand and waiting for something to walk by…there’s something about having to take dogs, and going out to the woods to find birds that you shoot and the dogs bring back.” It is clear that the folks here care deeply about the work that they do and the services they provide visitors. If you’re a hunter, be sure to check out Covey Rise Plantation. They’re good people!

Before lights out, folks reclined in the comfy chairs in the lodge, played some poker and rocked out on the porch. Tomorrow, Day 6 of Paddle Georgia 2021 awaits.

By Sarah Taylor, GRN Communications Coordinator

“Every river has…its individuality, its great silent interest. Ever river has, moreover, its influence over the people who pass their live within sight of its waters.” – H.S. Merriman

We started the day laughing and honestly, haven’t really stopped. While packing up camp this morning, a group of us began to take down the large tarp shelter that provided shade during dinner the night before. Before a single fold had been made, Paddle Georgia Coordinator Joe Cook grabbed the dish soap and squirted it down the length of the tarp. It wasn’t until his shirt was off and he was diving head first at the tarp that I understood the morning’s new contest: slip & slide. 

With a bit of encouragement, and a bit more water and soap, a few more brave souls took their turn at sliding head-first, feet first or just simply slipping and falling down the tarp. It was a lot of good energy right at the start of a great day on the river.

Today’s journey was intended to be 22 miles of sand bars, springs and limestone bluffs, but due to the high-flow from rain earlier in the week (it was running at 6,000 cubic feet per second, normally its at 2,000) most were submerged beneath a few feet of extra river water. That didn’t mean we stopped looking for the springs though! The first stop of the day after launching from Mitchell County Landing was the Wall Spring, where I found Georgia Adopt-a-Stream staff diving down to collect water samples for testing. A group of four with Adopt-a-Stream are conducting both field tests and collecting samples to be tested offsite at key spots along our route (more on them tomorrow or Friday because they’re doing a workshop for those interested!). As predicted, we could not see the clear blue water bubbling up, however you could feel the cooler temperature of the water compared to the rest of the river, which inspired the feeling that what you were looking for was just beyond your fingertips. 

As we glided almost effortlessly in the fast current down toward the next spring, Leslie pointed out two barred owls perched in a tree just on the riverbank. They looked at us as we paddled up against the current, trying to keep them in our sights. They were stunning, especially against the white-washed coloring of the branches they sat upon. Before letting the current carry us away, Harold pointed out a loud buzzing noise and spotted a large hornets nest in the tree adjacent to the ‘owl’ tree. I was happy they were far away!

The fast current allowed for less paddling today, despite being a high-mileage day. This meant more conversations and more poking around discovering things on the shoreline you wouldn’t normally see when you have to book it to the takeout. One thing that struck me was how many of the participants have been coming back year after year, and in particular, how many of their kids grew up on Georgia’s rivers thanks to adventures like Georgia River Network’s Paddle Georgia. As a newcomer to the Georgia River Network team (I was hired on as Communications Coordinator in March of this year — yay!), it injects incredible meaning for me into the work that I’m doing, to meet our supporters in this way and to hear how their stories intertwine with Georgia River Network’s mission to connect people with Georgia’s rivers.

One of the highlights of today was navigating a variety of Cypress tree knees and other branches and stumps while paddling up Raccoon Creek in search of another spring. The water was unusually muddy, but the recent rainfall allowed us to paddle much further up the creek than you can normally get by boat, all the way to where the spring (Walton Spring, I think), is normally bubbling up. 

We parked the boats to look around. Joe and I climbed over roots and limestone rocks (some of which had shell fossils imprinted on them) to get a better look at the cypress knees poking out of rolling murky water. They created an almost eerie, almost enchanting feel about the place. As I scrambled about, I noticed clam shells sitting shattered at the edge of the creek and wondered what, if anything, had eaten them. After crossing the creek to look for more fossils in the limestone rocks, it hit me how rivers have this unique capacity to transport you to scenes like this, a space that is less traveled by humans because there are no hiking trails or roads leading to them. The aloneness, the immersion into the sound and feeling of the place, can make even a muddy creek mesmerizing. Before we headed on, Joe caught a beetle and shook it gently in his hands before taking a big whiff, expecting to smell green apple but coming away disappointed (apparently you need more than one beetle to get this effect). 

Further downstream, there were more limestone bluffs along the route like on Day 1, decorated by maiden hair and other ferns. A few fun pockets cut into the limestone bluffs were just large enough for a kayak to go in, make a 3-point turn, and exit. You better believe we all tried it, more than once, sometimes a few at a time (I told you at the beginning that we spent the day laughing, didn’t I?). 

With seven miles left of the 22, and feeling like we didn’t want to rush through the rest of the day, we stopped paddling and put our feet up for a bit. We allowed the current to carry us past large, voluminous trees standing tall in the hot sun. The end of some of their green branches sometimes dipped down into the water, creating small bridges that, when paddled under, offered a brief respite from the hot afternoon sun.

This section of the Flint River normally offers sandbar after sandbar, meaning it’s normally ripe with swimming opportunities. Today, we were lucky enough to find two. The laughter continued as we ping ponged jokes back and forth, discussed topics of interest and cooled off in the river. One person in our group said it was the hardest she’s laughed in a year and a half — yay, pandemic-edition Paddle Georgia for the win!

As we neared the takeout at Rocky Bend Flint River Retreat, the evening’s campsite, the dark clouds that had been growing quickly up ahead began to unleash great cracks of thunder. We were just crossing the river to the takeout when the rain droplets began to pelt us, but it didn’t even matter — today was perfect.

Everyone was in good spirits as we gathered in Rocky Bend’s air-conditioned pavilion for a dinner of fried fish and tasty southern classics. Following dinner, we enjoyed an educational talk by none other than Gordon Rogers of the Flint Riverkeeper, who has nearly 18 years of experience serving in riverkeeper groups for Georgia rivers. He discussed the infamous Tri-State Water Wars and the Flint Riverkeeper’s role in trying to improve the water flow problem, in particular the riverkeeper’s focus on continuing to improve agricultural irrigation technology, since agriculture plays such a large role in this issue. Please learn more about and support the Flint Riverkeeper for all that they do to keep the Flint healthy. 

After dinner, the program included gopher tortoise jokes, favorite moments on the river, little-known facts, volunteer prizes and thanks to our friend Georgia, some Flint River trivia! A huge thanks to Rocky Bend Flint River Retreat for hosting us tonight. Located right on the bank of the Flint River, Rocky Bend is a beautiful full-service campground with rental cabins available. Check them out!

More than halfway through the week, I feel that this closing gives an appropriate status update for the group: 

We are peppered in mosquito, chigger and red ant bites and have blisters where the sandals we swore perfectly fit our feet are now rubbing them raw, but we are also oh, so happy. We are sunburnt and our tents still haven’t quite dried out from the rain, but we are also oh, so happy. We are traveling down 100 miles of the Flint River on a weeklong journey with old and new friends, who come from all over, but who share a love for Georgia’s rivers and for Georgia River Network. You want to know how we all feel about being here? We are oh, so very happy.

Hopefully that didn’t wax poetic too much for y’all. Goodnight!

We started the day singing, “rain, rain, go away, come again another day,” and within an hour the rain dissipated and was replaced with a pleasant, overcast sky. The morning forecast had projected nonstop showers for the rest of the day and into the night — meaning a wet camp site after a wet day of paddling — but just like that, mother nature reminded us that we really never know what to expect when we head outside. 

Before the sky cleared, we had a portage around the Flint River Hydro Dam. It’s true what they say, teamwork makes the dream work! Friends helped friends run their boats up a grassy hill before loading them onto a trailer to be shuttled a short distance to the other side of the dam. 

The speedy current was welcomed with open arms after the lake paddle day. I was lucky to paddle with a few folks I hadn’t paddled with yet and we chatted and got to know each other while moving at a speed of 3 mph (thank you, current!). This meant that it felt like a short 16 miles from the dam to Mitchell County Landing, our campsite for the evening. 

Perhaps my favorite part of today’s river journey were the class one shoals under the Broad Avenue Bridge. There were multiple routes to take and we had fun finding the perfect line. The first “stop” along the way was Radium Springs. When Paddle Georgia 2013 followed this route down the Flint River eight or so years ago, Radium Springs offered a refreshing, crystal clear swimming hole, but today, the springs were covered with plant-life. Luckily, due to the overcast weather and occasional drizzle, we weren’t itching to take a swim.

Further downstream we spotted a baby deer, osprey nest and a few great blue herons who seemed wholly unconcerned with us passing closely by them — what a treat! Right before the takeout, the river split into two fast-moving sections. We weren’t quite ready for the paddle to end, so we took a few rides on the lower part of one of the sections by paddling up the eddy and cutting across to ride the current until it spiraled and fizzled out in the eddies downstream.

All got in to camp hours before dinner, which allowed for a lazy camp set-up and some extra fun, including a corn hole tournament and special piñata in celebration of little Aviva’s birthday! Speaking of which, it’s time for me to go beat some folks in corn hole! Talk to y’all tomorrow!

By: Sarah Taylor, GRN Communications Coordinator

“Some journeys take you farther from where you come from, but closer to where you belong.” — Ron Franscell

Today’s paddle was perhaps the most physically challenging of the whole trip, but the pristine beauty was worth the effort. It began at Red Oaks Plantation and stretched for approximately 15 miles to Chehaw Park & Zoo, capping off with a five-mile lake paddle on Chehaw Lake and up Muckalee Creek to reach the campsite. Paddlers explored the final miles of the free-flowing Flint today before it widens behind the circa-1920 Flint River Hydro Dam (the dam is operated by a Paddle Georgia sponsor, Georgia Power Co.).

On the river, beauty abounded. Like on Day 1, an impressive list of fauna were spotted including a bald eagle, alligators, egrets, baby turtles and even a gar fish with another fish in its mouth. Breathtaking marsh prairies stole the show though, showing off blooming water hyacinths, lily pads and more. Throughout the day, paddlers stopped to swim and swap stories or jokes on sunny sandbars along the water trail. 

Today was also a river clean-up day. As paddlers came across trash stuck in an eddy or strainer, etc., they plucked it from the water and secured it safely in a bright red, mesh trash bag. In total, we filled more than 15 of these bags. It feels good to give back to a river that is offering the 36 of us so much this week.

The journey was bookended by a heavy rainstorm and some wind as Paddle Georgia adventurers made their way across the lake. It was a tough trek, but it did not overshadow the highlights from the first part of the day.

After a delicious taco dinner, participants enjoyed an educational program by a zookeeper from the Chehaw Zoo. He showed us a small variety of animals. First up, a baby alligator! The zookeeper explained how the American Alligator is a keystone species, meaning it has a very important role within its ecosystem. Alligators, in large part, determine the diversity of the smaller species in their ecosystem because they are predators to the mid-level species. They thrive in freshwater environments, can grow to be as long as 15 feet long, go through 3,000 or so teeth in a lifetime and most impressively, their bite can apply 3,000 lbs. of pressure per square inch (compared to the human 150-250 lbs./ sq. inch!). Not to mention, gators dig holes that can be as large as 60 x 10 feet, and in areas that dry out, can serve as a refuge for wetlands critters.

This group of participants is both knowledgeable and very curious and it was a lot of fun learning alongside them. We all asked a million questions as the zookeeper brought out a corn snake, adult male Screech Owl and African Pancake Tortoise. Here are my favorite facts about each: the biggest threat to the corn snake species is fear-based killing because folks confuse them with copperheads; the fine feathers on a Screech Owl’s face transfer noise towards the ear slits on the side of its head; and the African Pancake Tortoise is the fastest tortoise in the world, so fast, in fact, that its first line of defense is to run rather than hide in its shell. 

To cap-off the evening, Joe Cook led everyone in a fish prints arts and craft project! A variety of aquatic life foam carvings were painted and then pressed into paper — they came out great!

A huge thank you to Chehaw Park & Zoo for hosting us, feeding us and providing a memorable education program! Chehaw Park is a full-service campground with rental cabins available and a zoo, BMX bike track, RC car track and more on site.

By: Sarah Taylor, GRN Communications Coordinator

Day 1 is a wrap! Today, we set out from Crisp County Power Dam for the first 18-mile stretch of a 7-day, 100 mile journey on the Flint River for Georgia River Network’s Paddle Georgia 2021.  

Being the first day, it’s only fitting to provide some background about the trip and some Paddle Georgia history, for those who may be unfamiliar. The trip began today, June 20, near Cordele and will cap-off with a delicious fish fry lunch with the Flint Riverkeeper on Saturday, June 26 in Bainbridge. 

In more than 15 years of annual Georgia River Network Paddle Georgia trips (the first one was in 2005), this year’s voyage is truly unique. We have about 30 paddlers in the group, but in a non-COVID year you could expect between 300 and 400 participants, ages ranging from 4 – 84. It is the largest paddle trip in the nation! Each year, the trip is held on a different Georgia river.

This year’s group is filled with veteran Paddle Georgia participants; two who have traveled from out of state and a few who have paddled every year since the very beginning, meaning they’ve paddled now more than 1500 miles on Paddle Georgia trips.

As promised, the Flint River did not disappoint, even with the challenging rain and wind for the first part of the day. This first stretch of the 100-mile journey offered beautiful limestone bluffs and shelves and a diverse array of wildlife. The way the maiden’s tale fern and other vegetation hung whimsically off the limestone was enough to make you stop and stare. And on occasion, a bright flower or two would pop out and add their own beautiful twist amongst the ferns, cypress trees and sycamore trees.

Some of the day’s animal spottings included alligators (one alive and one not so alive), an osprey with lunch caught and ready to eat, white-tailed deer, and a variety of turtles, birds and other critters. My favorite moment was towards the end of the paddle, when Joe Cook, Georgia River Network’s Paddle Georgia Coordinator, found a small turtle. After listening to these little guys plop off branches into the water and out of sight all day, it was amazing to hold one in my hands and see it up close!

The group arrived to Red Oaks Plantation, the evening’s campsite, in waves throughout the afternoon, and after 18 miles of paddling, we were ready to eat! The Canterbury Kitchen provided a delicious meal of chicken, stuffed mushrooms, beans, mashed potatoes and peach cobbler. Following dinner, paddlers enjoyed chatting with Jennifer King and her family about Red Oaks Plantation, which her father purchased back in 1994 to manage and provide hunting opportunities for family and friends. This 4,000 acre plus tract of land along the Flint River now, after years of careful cultivation, is home to trophy-sized whitetail dear. While hunting opportunities were previously limited to friends and family, the property is now open for business and has a beautiful Airbnb onsite that visitors can rent out. A huge thank you to Red Oaks Plantation for allowing a group of river enthusiasts to camp on their pristine land for the night!

This is a story about water trails inspired by a recent journey down South Chickamauga Creek, but it begins in 1983 when, with newly minted drivers licenses, a high school buddy and I cruised Smyrna, making the rounds of South Cobb Drive, home of the Dairy Queen and Miracle Theater, and Cobb Parkway, where Cumberland Mall and Akers Mill Theater loomed over the landscape. The two roads that defined the parameters of our cruising territory were connected by I-285, the perimeter highway that likewise defined Atlanta’s suburbs.

The Tennessee River lies just 32.43 miles from Ringgold on South Chickamauga Creek.

Coming north on I-285 that night, headed for Cobb Parkway, we saw the highway signs pointing to I-285 east and Greenville, South Carolina. Buoyed by our recently found mobility, we mused about bypassing our designated exit and just motoring on to South Carolina. “We could do it, you know.”

“Yeah, but there’d be hell to pay.” So, we went to the midnight movie instead.

But, that wunderlust never left. With the freedom of wheels, road signs displaying mileage to Greenville and Chattanooga made those places seem not so far off. They beckoned and held new meaning. I-285 went round and round, but its spokes provided endless possibilities. Those folding highway maps (a relic lost to the smartphone world) became passports to adventure.

There was a time, before interstates and before railroads, when rivers and streams called to us in the same way. They led–either upstream or downstream–to a larger world and grand adventures (think Lewis and Clark). They were mind expanding.

So, it was with much delight when I arrived at Ringgold’s Dragging Canoe Memorial Launch on South Chickamauga Creek and read the directional sign pointing downstream: “TENNESSEE RIVER 32.43 MILES” My companion, a neighbor in Rome and veteran of many Georgia River Network paddle trips, Sheila Cox, noticed it as well: “Hmmm, we could go right on to Chattanooga,” she mused.

Indeed, once to Chattanooga, we could keep on going, a few hundred miles to the Ohio River, thence down to the Mississippi and on to New Orleans. Epic.

“We could do it,” I thought silently, “But there would be hell to pay.” I had a dinner date with my wife at 6:30 that evening.

Just the knowing is enough, though. That is the marvel of water trails. Like roads leading to distant horizons, each kayak launch holds endless possibilities for adventure. In Georgia, there’s more than 18,000 miles of state highways and more than 1,200 miles of interstates, but there’s more than 70,000 miles of streams and rivers…and be they large–like the Chattahoochee–or small like South Chickamauga Creek, they beckon to some place…other.

Our day on South Chickamauga Creek didn’t disappoint.

Having spent much of the winter months exploring South Georgia rivers, I’d forgotten about the grandeur of North Georgia streams. Soon, we found ourselves dwarfed by soaring limestone bluffs, paddling into cave-like recesses beneath their sheltering shelves.

Paddling beneath one of South Chickamauga Creek’s limestone bluffs.

At one such bluff, a portion of the creek’s flow simply disappeared underground beneath the limestone, the gurgling rush of water echoing from an unknowable cavern below. Two miles downstream, on the other side of a looping oxbow, the flow rejoined the creek, gushing from cracks and fissures and holes in the limestone. Such is the nature of northwest Georgia’s geology where the karst formations give rise to caves and sinks and unpredictable underground flow patterns.

Near the Elsie Holmes Nature Park, a bald eagle passed overhead; a short while later an otter appeared and quickly disappeared; ubiquitous river cooters basked on logs and a queen snake perched on a limb. We searched for the rare Chickamauga crayfish (found only in the Chickamauga Creek drainages) and came up with only one non-descript crustacean, hiding beneath a rock and looking for its next meal. Mussel shells littered sandbars. Every where, signs of the circle of life endlessly played out in this stream whose water would ultimately touch not just Chattanooga, but Florence, Alabama; Paducah, Kentucky; Memphis, Tennessee and finally, New Orleans.

It makes not just Chickamauga Creek seem small.

Sheila Cox of Rome shoots one of the South Chickamauga Creek’s many shoals and ledges.

Our boats kept pace with the water, sometimes slow on long reaches of flatwater, but more often than not, flowing swiftly around gravel bars while falling over just enough limestone ledges to keep the senses keen and the heart racing.

I’d never paddled South Chickamauga Creek before; I’m glad I did. It is a spectacular little creek. And, I’m glad communities along its length–from Ringgold to Chattanooga–are investing in making it accessible. We arrived at the Graysville Bridge Canoe Launch tired from the 13-mile adventure, reminiscing about the beauty we’d encountered and longing to see what awaited downstream.

But alas, that itch could not be scratched this day. “There would be hell to pay.” We hustled back south to Rome along I-75 and I arrived at the restaurant with not a minute to spare.

But, South Chick, I know you are there now. That’s enough and some day I might follow your path on more journeys of discovery, maybe all the way to New Orleans. That is the glory of the water trails that Georgia River Network and communities across Georgia are trying to establish. So, water trail builders, we salute you! You’re not just building a boat ramp; you are building portals to limitless possibilities.

Georgia River Network will paddle South Chickamauga Creek May 15 as part of the organization’s Pedal-Paddle River Adventure series. It is one of 15 paddle trips planned by Georgia River Network this year, including adventures in each of Georgia’s 14 major river basins. Learn more at www.garivers.org/events.

Joe Cook

April 16, 2021

And, a few more images from South Chickamauga Creek…

A limestone ledge along South Chickamauga Creek in Catoosa County. The creek is home to numerous Class I-II shoals and ledges.
South Chickamauga Creek is highlighted by numerous soaring bluffs.
A queen snake perches on a creekside limb.

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.

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