Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Lubie Jeter. Say his name.

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

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

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

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

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

fullsizeoutput_7f78

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

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

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

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

fullsizeoutput_7f3c

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

That. Is. Not. Right.

DSC_6273

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC_3106

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empathy that might lead to change.

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

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

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

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

Joe Cook

Sept. 1, 2020

DSC_6266

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

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

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

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

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

DSC_6408

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

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

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

fullsizeoutput_7d1e

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

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

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

fullsizeoutput_7d1f

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

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

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

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

fullsizeoutput_7d20

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

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

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

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

Joe Cook

Paddle Georgia Coordinator

fullsizeoutput_7d21

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

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_5043

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

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

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

Ptree Creek angler son

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

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

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

Bronze frog tadpole

A bronze frog tadpole from Peachtree Creek.

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

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

Rena Ann Peck

Executive Director

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

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

Danaduckssept75

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

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

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

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

DanaHuggerSept1975

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

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

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

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

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

Dana Skelton

May 2020

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

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

14349413807_84978a2348_o

The Diving Rock on the Chattahoochee River at Palisades. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC_0622

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

I present mine—courtesy of the Georgia Power Company.

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

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

ahc1701531001_web-460x374

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Cook

April 2020

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

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

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

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

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

fullsizeoutput_7bfd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ramsey Crew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Cook, Paddle Georgia Coordinator, April 2020

DSC_0876

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

 

DSC_0028

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC_6933 (2)

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

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

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

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

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

DSC_6584 (1)

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

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

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

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

DSC_7711 (1)

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

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

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

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

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

DSC_6620 (1)

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

 

DSC_9902

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

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

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

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

DSC_3237

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

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

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

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

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

fullsizeoutput_6bc6

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Cook

June 26, 2019

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

DCIM100GOPROG1662868.

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

fullsizeoutput_60db

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

DSC_7321

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

fullsizeoutput_6218

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur last day of Paddle Georgia 2019 was also the first day of summer, and wow: the Paddle Georgia Navy kicked off the season in style!  Days 5 and 6 were very rainy days on the river, but Day 7 brought loads of sunshine and fun.  Our 15-mile paddle was punctuated by many springs and we explored them all.  The more adventurous of us explored with snorkels and fins and even swam underneath the natural rock bridges that divided the pools at Charles Spring and Lafayette Blue Springs Park. DSC_2019.JPG

The river seemed to move a little slower today and was much wider than the Withlacoochee, where our journey began.  Still, the beauty was evident with every mile and we were very excited to see even more turtles than we had seen on earlier days.  The most exciting wildlife on this stretch of the trip was the chance to spot a Gulf Sturgeon leaping from the river- and leap they did!  DSC_2162Sometimes all you caught was the mighty splash out of the corner of your eye, but when you looked at the right time it was quite the sight to behold.  One of our participants, Pat, got a little closer than everyone else, and got hit by a sturgeon!  Not to worry, she was all smiles at dinnertime.

DSC_1893.JPGSpeaking of dinner, we were once again treated to quite a feast at our Rivers End Celebration!  Fried fish, hush puppies, coleslaw, and cheese grits made everyone full after a day of swimming, paddling, packing, and loading boats to go home.  Duck races were won, prizes were awarded, and shout-outs and awards were given out to recognize our amazing participants and volunteers.  DSC_2218Joe reminded us of why Paddle Georgia is so important, and that is to help the Georgia River Network protect the waterways that mean so much to us.  He also highlighted the younger paddlers on the trip and stressed their role as future protectors of our natural resources.  It’s a lesson we should never get tired of learning.

It’s been said that “you can never go home again,” but for Paddle Georgia, that’s simply not true.  Every June, for 15 years, has seen folks from all over come together to build a traveling community where we have the honor and pleasure of spending time with one of Georgia’s amazing aquatic treasures.  We make new friends, catch up with old ones, and realize just how special our rivers are.  We’ll see you on the river next year, Paddle Georgia Family!

~Michelle McClendon (Paddler, Teacher, Paper Clip Lady)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday marked Day 6 on Paddle GA! This means my 7 teenagers know exactly what the 15-mile paddle on the Suwanee will hold. This is Camp Horizon’s 4th consecutive year of joining in on this incredible journey. Camp Horizon serves Atlanta’s children and youth who have been abused and neglected for over 35 years. This trip has two sets of siblings who have been adopted and two kids who are still in state care. I have known several of these youths since they were 8 years old at our summer camp. It’s been so special for me to take them on this trip.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe started the day off early and found the Ellaville Spring. While the spring has not been the biggest or the most striking, we still can’t get over how magical they are. We spend some time jumping and swimming until our friends tell us about another great spot.

We find the massive sand dune which we spend time rolling down and racing back up to the top. We were joined by our friend Camm Swift who is a “fish master”. We captured several varieties of fish that he was able to teach us more about. Our favorite was catching a dragonfly larva that buried itself back in the sand when we released it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The rest of the morning holds us paddling on the beautiful black water of the Suwanee in and out of the rainstorms. We see several sturgeons jump in and out of the water. We fight through the wind and the rain until we finally get to the next set of incredible springs. There are two, and they are stunning. We take a quick dip in the crystal-clear waters surrounded by limestone and head on down the river.

Our last trek of the day consisted of us paddling upstream a slough to Quarry Lake. We were told that the locals call it “Alligator Alley” but thankfully did not see any gators while we explored. We finished our day off strong pulling into Dowling Park and headed back to camp at the Advent Christian Village.

When we return to camp, we shower and play our favorite card games: spoons and Uno. We have a delicious Mexican fiesta before the “No Talent Show.” After the talent show, we will circle up for our campfire to discuss the highs and lows of the day. We read our letters from past counselors and volunteers from Camp Horizon to cheer us on for our last 15 miles!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At Paddle GA, we hear so much about river conservation- after all, that is what the Georgia River Network does best! I talk to the kids about what we can do as our part and why it is so important, but I often want to talk to the adults about WHO they are conserving these rivers for. Is it for their next generation or for ALL the next generation?DSC_1441.JPG

We must be aware that there is an actual “Adventure Gap”. This phrase coined by James Edward Mills that discusses the disproportionality between the people who enjoy outdoor recreation activities and people from a lower socioeconomic status and people from minorities. It is not enough to conserve the amazing rivers of Georgia if we are not equally creating opportunities for people from all walks of life to enjoy them!

This is why there is such a beautiful partnership between Camp Horizon and the Georgia River Network. It is more than paddling and swimming—it is an adventure of a lifetime that will impact these teens more than most will realize.

~Taylor Hunt (Camp Horizon of Georgia) OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

%d bloggers like this: