Though their parents and grandparents may have know the Conasauga and Oostanaula as a dumping ground for industrial and municipal waste, after a week on the river, this generation will remember the rivers a wet amusement ride.
Another Paddle Georgia is in the books, and as a resident of Rome where the trip ended, I can say that the event put an exclamation mark on my community’s renewed embrace of river recreation.
What Rome has experienced during the past two decades is a generational paradigm shift in how local residents perceive the three rivers flowing through the heart of their community.
Let me explain…
From the end of the Coosa’s steamboat era in the early 1900s through the 1950s, Rome’s rivers remained a focal point for local residents—a readily available recreational escape.
During the “Roaring 20s” there were motorboat races at the confluence of the Oostanaula and Etowah and Boy Scout excursions on paddlewheel houseboats up the Oostanaula. Into the 1950s, families camped regularly on the Oostanaula’s Whitmore Island, spending days fishing and living off the river.
A line of paddlers makes their way down the narrow and winding Conasauga during Paddle Georgia 2016.
But, those activities went out of style in the 1960s as the river became fouled by effluent from Dalton’s burgeoning carpet mills. The Conasauga and Oostanaula became so polluted that Romans turned their backs to them. Those residents that came of age along these rivers between 1960 and 1990 learned that they were unfit for swimming and fishing.
In a column by Roger Aycock published in the Jan. 6, 1974 issue of the Rome News-Tribune, the local historian wrote: “Pollution from civic and industrial sources have largely destroyed the once idyllic pursuit of river fishing and camping…Still, the old potential for sport and pleasure remains. With the completion of sewage disposal projects…some portion of that pleasure in our outdoor life may be available again—if not to our generation, which has permitted its decline, then perhaps to our children, who may restore it.”
Aycock’s words were prophetic. The Clean Water Act forced change. Municipal and industrial facilities cleaned up their sewage and wastewater. Citizen advocates formed groups like the Coosa River Basin Initiative.
Jessie Morris of Peachtree City has a close encounter with a southern pocketbook mussel on the Conasauga River.
As we have on so many of our recent Paddle Georgia adventures, we discovered a river revived.
Briana Smith, a participant from Rome and recipient of one of Georgia River Network’s educator scholarships, told us her parents warned her away from the Oostanaula as a child, but after several days on the river, she said she wouldn’t hesitate to bring her students on the river.
Russ Delozier, a Paddle Lite participant from Dalton, was similarly effected. Though he’s lived in area for years, it was his first excursion on the Conasauga. He wrote to us after the trip, saying, “Here in Dalton and Chatsworth, we’ve been blessed with fabulous water resources. But due to, in some cases, unawareness and in others ignorance or even indifference, the communities as a whole have taken those precious (and limited) resources for granted. So I’m glad to say, your well organized efforts in the Paddle Georgia program have had a needed impact on me.”
For decades, the Conasauga in Dalton was known as the dumping ground for the city’s economic engine—not a place to visit for fun on the water. In fact, it wasn’t until the last five years that the first developed access to the river was established, and even today, there are only two public boat launches along the river’s entire 93-mile length.
Taylor Harrison of Carrollton drifts down the Oostanaula. There was as much swimming and drifting as there was paddling during Paddle Georgia 2016.
What we discovered on our journey was that the Conasauga and Oostanaula are places worthy of our paddles, fishing poles and swimming trunks, and those who live in Chatsworth, Dalton, Calhoun and Rome took notice.
A day after our journey ended in Rome, a headline in the Rome News-Tribune announced, “Rome’s Rivers Growing in Popularity.”
This river revival has been decades in the making. The children of Roger Aycock’s generation have, in fact, restored our rivers, and Paddle Georgia’s journey through the upper Coosa River basin, has emphatically announced to Coosa River communities: “Welcome back to our rivers!”
Joe Cook, Paddle Georgia Coordinator
June 29, 2016
And, a few additional parting shots…
Carol McNavish of Houston, Texas gives a peck to an Alabama hogsucker held by Upper Coosa Riverkeeper Amos Tuck. The hogsucker did not turn into Prince Charming; he was released back to the Oostanaula without further incident.
Ben Owens of Rome gets a “back massage” during a break along the Conasauga River.
The river that once carried carpet waste now cools paddlers. Chris Lewis, Ellen Cardin, Amos Tuck, Barbara Lamb and Chad Johnfroe luxuriate in a Conasauga River shoal.
Refugees crossing the river to the promised land or Paddle Georgia participants reaching a take out location? Thanks to the dozens–nay hundreds–of volunteers who pitched in to aid fellow paddlers, move boats, load gear trucks, etc. You are what makes Paddle Georgia so special!