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Willow tunnels and moss-draped hardwoods greeted us each day of the trip. The schizophrenic Ogeechee can be wide and open in one bend and then provide just a narrow, single-file path in the next.

Willow tunnels and moss-draped hardwoods greeted us each day of the trip. The schizophrenic Ogeechee can be wide and open in one bend and then provide just a narrow, single-file path in the next.

On June 17, three days prior the beginning of Paddle Georgia 2015, a short 100 miles from the starting point of the 7-day journey in coastal Georgia, a 21-year-old man shot and killed nine people at Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The shocking murders were racially motivated. The killer was white; all the victims were black.

On June 27, the day we finished our 95-mile journey, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage.

Immersed in the Ogeechee River and disconnected from most media outlets for a full week, we returned Saturday and Sunday to TV, newspaper and online media filled with stories from a divided nation.

The Confederate battle flag came under fire (photos surfaced of the Charleston killer wrapped in the flag), arsonists set fire to black churches across the south; some religious leaders decried the Supreme Court ruling; gay rights advocates counterattacked.

From the peace and quiet of the Ogeechee we emerged into a nationwide shouting match. The change was shocking.

Taylor Morris and Chris Thompson lend a fellow paddler a lift over a cross-river strainer  during a grueling 17-mile paddle on day 2 of our journey.

Taylor Morris and Chris Thompson lend a fellow paddler a lift over a cross-river strainer during a grueling 17-mile paddle on day 2 of our journey.

For the past week, 300 people from diverse walks of life—liberals and conservatives, black and white, young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight—had endured common trials and celebrated common joys. We ate together, slept together (in school gymnasiums natural disaster refugee-style) and showered together (men and women separately, of course).

We also endured every Ogeechee strainer, often helping one another over, under and around these obstacles; we paddled against the same tidal current in the trip’s final miles as we neared the coast. We slathered on sunscreen to shield ourselves from the same sun and jumped in the same river to cool ourselves.

We shared a common experience. The result: empathy and understanding for fellow sojourners and the willingness to lend a hand to a stranger.

The river itself facilitated the interaction. Bob Bourne, a Georgia Adopt-A-Stream volunteer and veteran of many Paddle Georgia events, made the keen observation that the narrow and winding Ogeechee made people interact. “On a big river, you might paddle past someone on the opposite side, but that’s not possible here. It almost forces you to interact with one another.”

GRN Development Director Davin Welter attacks Georgia Adopt-A-Stream's Harold Harbert. The small, winding Ogeechee lent itself to stealth water cannon attacks.

GRN Development Director Davin Welter attacks Georgia Adopt-A-Stream’s Harold Harbert. The small, winding Ogeechee lent itself to stealth water cannon attacks.

And, so it was. There were more water battles, more rope swing congregations, more group lounges on sandbars. This intimate, willow and cypress-shaded river delivered a new level of intimacy.

I was personally “baptized” by “Hopper the Baptist,” the nickname given to Audrey Grice, one of ten students from Atlanta’s Camp Creek Middle School, who participated in the trip (she took to baptizing her fellow paddlers in the Ogeechee’s tea-colored water). In camp, I tented next to traditional families and lesbian couples.

On this journey, it mattered not a wit your sexual orientation, your religious beliefs or the color of your skin. We all traveled the same path.

Perhaps that is what is missing in our society—the recognition that ultimately, we all travel the same path. Each of us wants to live life freely and enjoy it to its fullest.

To be sure, a large group paddle trip down a wild river is not the cure for all that ails society, but there are lessons to be learned in multi-day, group adventures. There is power in common-shared experiences.

A riverside fish camp along the Ogeechee.

A riverside fish camp along the Ogeechee.

The Ogeechee, flowing through the heart of the Deep South, is like most southern rivers. At fish camps and riverside dwellings, it is not uncommon to see the Confederate battle flag waving in the breeze. Those that come to these fish camps couldn’t be more different than the average paddler that ventures on these waters in a kayak or canoe. It is a clash of cultures we’ve recognized since James Dickey penned his novel Deliverance and the bluegrass standard “Dueling Banjos” became synonymous with cultural conflict.

What we too often fail to realize is that the riverfront rebel and Hopper the Baptist dip their toes in the same river. If we wish to heal our national discord, we’d be wise to acknowledge these common experiences and seek ways to share more of them.

A wild river is as good a place to start as any.

Next year’s trip is tentatively set for the Conasauga-Oostanaula-Coosa Rivers in Northwest Georgia June 18-24. We hope to see you there!

And finally a few parting shots…

THE OGEECHEE IS BACK!

DSC_9420This young chain pickerel, caught by fisheries biologist Camm Swift in a kick seine net, was one of the many species of fish that turned up in Swift’s net during the week of Paddle Georgia. The abundance of young fish indicated that fish were reproducing successfully and Swift gave a thumbs up to the river’s health. Likewise, testing conducted by Georgia Adopt-A-Stream staff and volunteers pointed to a healthy river. Four years after a disastrous fish kill caused by releases from a Screven County textile plant, the river is on the road to recovery.

BEST “NUDE BEACH PHOTO” THAT CAN BE PUBLISHED ONLINE

LEIGHTON

The “Nude Beach Photo Contest” provided some of the biggest laughs of the week. Contestants posed “nude,” creatively concealing critical body parts. Some were more revealing than others, and thus, the Georgia RIver Network staff decided it best not to publish these images for the world to see. This tastefully done pose is courtesy of Patty Leighton, Jake Sandlin and Nicole De Lisle. It should be noted that no clothes were removed in the making of “Nude Beach” photos.

IT’S PADDLE GEORGIA 2015 ON THE OGEECHEE. WHO YA’ GONNA CALL? STRAINERBUSTERS!

DSC_1112The hero of Paddle Georgia 2015 is Georgia Canoe Association volunteer and GRN board member Vincent Payne and his crew of safety boaters and strainer busters. Vincent, along with Rob Garber, Keith & Lisa Haskell, Bonny Putney, Mike McCarthy and a host of other volunteers from the Paddle Georgia navy scouted the river in advance of the main body of paddlers strategically trimming strainers and sweepers to make a safe passage. Meanwhile, dozens of paddlers volunteered on the spot to safely move their comrades through the most difficult obstacles. This level of volunteerism gave us a glimpse of heaven in the face of what could have evolved into hellish situations.

THEY NEVER MET A ROPE SWING THEY DIDN’T LIKE AWARD GOES TOO…

DSC_8866In their young lives, Evan and Marco (pictured above) Newman, the sons of Donald Newman and Daniela Di lorio may have launched themselves off more rope swings on more different Georgia rivers than anyone in the state of Georgia. On the Ogeechee, they continued their quest.

THE PERSEVERANCE AWARD GOES TO…

DSC_0527Camp Creek Middle School’s team of 12 teachers and youth led by Joey Guinta and Alicia Evans. This group, most of whom had never paddled a canoe on a river, endured a Day 2 paddle that was the most challenging day of Paddle Georgia since 2008 when paddlers were forced to walk much of the Flint River after two years of drought. Other novices would have thrown in the towel, but this group stayed the course and before the trip’s end had mastered paddling strokes and were enjoying the rewards of the river. It was a truly inspirational group of youth.

BIGGEST ACT OF BRAVERY ON THE JOURNEY…

DSC_1466No one wrestled alligators or fished a water moccasin from their vessel during the river journey, but back at camp Anne Ledbetter agreed to hold a roll of paper in her hand to help Richard Aunspaugh demonstrate his talents with his bull whip. We are considering recruiting Richard as assistant sweep boat for Paddle Georgia 2016.

Today was the final AM and pack out at Effingham High School who treated us very well.  One last load to the gear truck, one last breakfast of local farm fresh eggs and one last coffee at cafe campesino.  The Effingham County school staff and coaches and principal had taken very good care of us and we said our thank you’s getting off the bus riverside.

PG15-Day 7The 300+ paddlers settled into their boats, and headed down the river toward the historic Ogeechee Savannah canal, after hearing the history of the place at the previous night’s evening program by Dr. Hughes, who spoke of museums and footpaths where Sherman had walked on his way to Savannah over 150+ years ago.  The ancient bricks of the locks were clearly visible and Dr. Hughes was on site in his 18′ Grumman canoe to tell more history of the area and canal to paddlers.  The canal also served as a good halfway point for the 15 mile paddle an many of us used the boardwalk and benches for a great lunch site.

Along this stretch is also where many home owners had docks and pontoon boats and more than a few rope swings that Paddle GA participants took advanPG15-Day 7tage of. Paddlers also stopped to enjoy larger sandbars and calmer water to swim and cool off.  We watched swallow tail kites, herons, osprey and other birds along with other river critters such as small alligators, sturgeon, and mullet.

PG15-Day 7As the week progressed, the layout of the river progressed. Every day the river seemed to have less tight spots, willow filled turns, and strainers, and more spacious, longer, wider sections of river.  On our final day, the river became widest. It was also the first day’s paddle that was close enough to the coast to be affected by the tide. It turned into a hot afternoon of paddling as we pushed on against the tidal current and wide river sections. PG15-Day 7We heard the whine of semi-trucks heading down Interstate 95 as we went underneath the bridge and saw our final takeout location just beyond the next bridge that came into sight – U.S. 17.

The early arriving paddlers settled into chairs river side with libations and cheered on the paddlers who arrived a little later.  A low country boil, cold beer, cornhole games and live music followed.  Much discussion of how this was the favorite Paddle Georgia river to date by a number of participants.

PG15-Day 7And Joe gave his final evening announcements.  Awards were given for Teva tans, youngest and oldest paddlers, etc.  And the always exciting final announcement of telling the group what river/watershed is planned a short 51 weeks away.

It was an amazing time full of making new friends and seeing old friends as well, but now it came to an end as everyone slowly scattered back to the their trucks, tents, hotel rooms and homes all sunburned, tired and smiling.PG15-Day 7

John Branch, GRN Board Member

What do legislators, trash and unicorns have in common?

Day 6 of Paddle Georgia finds the paddle participants on the river with invited professionals and Georgia legislators. This popular day had professionals from Sierra Club, PG15-Day 6100 Miles, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and Josh Findlay from US Reps Jody Hice’s office. The new “fresh” paddlers gave all of us an opportunity to share “our” river with them and talk about the beautiful journey we have been on this week.PG15-Day 6 Yes, it feels like we know this river. We have bumped and shimmied and danced around her trees. We have bathed in her cool, clear amber water. We have lounged on her many large, CLEAN, sugar sandbars. I think I can speak for many a paddler who is very sad to see this journey coming to the end and promise to come back.

CLEAN, yes in caps… the cleanest river IPG15-Day 6 have ever been on…period. Being the “Trash Queen” I guess I can be considered sort of an expert. Today, Thursday, is our Paddle Georgia river trash cleanup. I was so fortunate to have past PG participant Christine Kirkland from Effingham County Schools contact me and offer to help me with our cleanup months ago.PG15-Day 6 Not only did she and fellow teacher Lauren Osborne arrange for the dumpster, they also made sure we had a party! The generous people of Effingham County thanked the PG paddlers with food, cold drinks, T-shirts and much merriment. Even in this clean river we managed to bring in around 1,500lbs of river trash.

O yeah….Unicorns… yes unicorns. There has been a unicorn appearing on the side of the river on various paddling days. I included a picture, and just for the record I had absolutely nothing to do with this appearance.PG15-Day 6Lots of people have seen it, and yes it is alive, yes it is kind of silly, and maybe even a little weird. But when I first saw it, just for a split second, I believed it was magic. The Ogeechee can do that.

Bonny Putney, Georgia River Network Board Member

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.” – A.A. Milne.

On Paddle Georgia, one loses time. One loses touch with the world. One has difficulty accessing technology. Is this a bad thing? In fact, the Paddle Georgia experience is like uncovering a treasured archeological find beneath the dirt that we travel every day.PG15-Day 5

One connects with their inner child. One is reminded of the awe and wonder of the natural world and simple pleasures that surround us every day. There is laughter. There is camaraderie. All pitch in to help. We all connect deeply with each other. Conversations blossom with few distractions. Friendship are established. Intergenerational bonds are formed with wisdom passing in both directions.

This is what I saw on the river today:PG15-Day 5

About 30 participants and the Paddle Georgia Youth Program participated in the Adopt a Stream program learning to be citizen scientists and working to protect their watersheds.

Paddle Georgia Youth Program participants being thrilled by a soft-shell turtle caught by a Georgia River Network staff member.

Kids (and older kids like me) loving finding another rope swing on the next bend in the river.PG15-Day 5

A sign on a sand bar that says “Nude Beach” and paddlers taking pictures under this sign giving the impression that they might in fact be nude.PG15-Day 5

A team trivia game featuring river facts with exceeding competitive individuals.

This is what I heard on the river today:

A teacher, participating in the Project WET certification program, and her two kids calling a barred owl that they had found in a cypress tree.

A Youth Program participant telling me after she came off the river that she was excited to come back the next day and paddle again.

Legislators Alex Wood, William Ligon, Debbie Buckner being recognized for their hard work to protect the environment and then expressing their love for Georgia’s beautiful rivers.PG15-Day 5

Chris Manganiello, Policy Director of Georgia River Network, informing the crowd about our top issues in the 2015 legislative session.

Corn hole bags banging on their boards during the annual tournament.

Delightful shad jokes told by Charles Lewis, Cary Baxter, Jim Spotts, and Chris Peterson.

This is what I smelled on the river today:

On the bus back to camp, the odor of the paddlers was not all that pleasant and my word count is limited…so no need to go into that!PG15-Day 5

Davin Welter

Development Director, Georgia River Network

Today we completed our shortest day of the trip – about 10 miles. I can only describe this day as short and sweet – short days on the river leave time for fun, sun, and relaxation.Day 4-PG15 And the Ogeechee River delivered and delighted on all accounts. Well, except for maybe sun. Distant storm clouds treated us to cool temps and playful breezes. I must say it was one of the most enjoyable days I have had all my days of Paddle Georgia.
After sleeping in until about 6:15am I headed out to grab my daily Café Campesino, a must-have for an awesome day. Then, I sat down to enjoy Effingham County High School’s outstanding breakfast, which not only included a hot bar but also a selection of sweets. The Paddle Georgia Youth Program girls took full advantage of the doughnuts, sweet buns, and muffins to fuel up for the day. Day 4-PG15
The girls, all students at Camp Creek Middle School in Fulton County, make up our Paddle Georgia Youth Program. Each year, a group of underserved students receive scholarships to join the Paddle Georgia flotilla and I am fortunate to guide them down the river. All are “canoe-bies”, new to canoeing and camping and eager to learn. The Ogeechee’s waters have taught them to be fantastic paddlers and their skills improve daily – strategizing with their paddling partner to sneak through strainers, reading their maps to know what to expect ahead, and seeking out the best beaches for swimming.
Wildlife is always fun – we arrived at the put-in to find that a sneaky field mouse had made our canoe home for the night. A few miles into the day we spotted a water snake gorging itself on a fish. Our students snagged a live mussel out of the sand and peered into its shell to find it was still inside. We also spotted Swallow-tailed Kites, dragonflies galore, and even a darter.Day 4-PG15
The helpful current and low mileage left us lots of time to relax – a welcome break from the past few more challenging days. Water cannons locked and loaded, we ambushed some of our fellow paddlers in a friendly water war. Call me bias, but I think we had ‘em beat. We took a peek at our watches around mile 9 to see that it was only about 3pm, so we grabbed a beach and a cookie break and soaked in the river life, laughing with one another and coming up with river names for each other. Our crew now consists of “Nascar”, “Coach”, “Bacon”, “Fro”, “Little Dolphin Girl”….you get the idea. Don’t be surprised to hear someone say “Hey Tiki Torch!” as we banter across our boats to each other. Don’t be surprised to hear us singing, whistling, or trying to solve Mr. Joey’s (now affectionately named “Chilly”) latest riddle. With our crew, the fun never stops.
Speaking of fun, tonight’s evening programs were all about fun.

Day 4-PG15

All 300-some odd thru-paddlers obediently gathered for the annual group photo and then headed to dinner. As I type, the sounds of fun surround me – the rhythm of Cornhole bags hitting the boards during the very-popular Cornhole Tournament, Victor’s gameshow music echoes through the cafeteria during Game Show Night, and the folks with Adopt-a-Stream share their expertise with a group of around 35 people so that they too can keep watch over our waters. Day 4-PG15The Paddle Georgia Youth Program girls are all also on their way to becoming certified by AAS, I can’t wait to hear what they’ve learned.
Days like this make it easy to see why Paddle Georgia has captured my heart. The community, the advocacy, and for me, the tradition. Good people abound. It’s contagious. My hope is that our Youth Program participants catch the love of rivers and help us sustain our water resources for the future.
Alicia Evans, Georgia River Network Board of Directors

What’s better than a beautiful day on the primeval Ogeechee River?  Everyone’s been asking—GRN’s own Gwyneth Moody and her husband Daniel Peiken have a beautiful new baby girl, Aviva Zephyr Peiken, born this day as we paddled our way down the Ogeechee River.  Happy Birthday Aviva!

The Ogeechee River—Unlike any other river yet on Paddle Georgia, is at times, a blast from the past, shaded byDay 3-PG15overhanging thickets of willows so dense you can hardly see a neon kayak on the bank a dozen feet away.  The Ogeechee River’s mostly clear to tannic waters are at times broad and calm; at times shaded by stately cypress and oak bearded with Spanish moss, longleaf pines peppered with woodpecker nest holes. It’s always changing.   Around the bend, the river turns from wide to narrow channels choked with trees that topple into the river from its banks as the river undercuts their roots.  These areas are a bit more technical, meaning more care is needed to safely navigate the fallen trees and branches that form strainers and sweepers that can entangle the less wary travelers, sometimes blocking the entire river.  Luckily, our safety boaters and volunteers scout each section a few days before us, cutting away branches and trees and marking areas for safer passage. Day 3-PG15Our helpers do an amazing job of helping all through the tighter stretches, even cutting away sections of new deadfall that were clear a few days ago. The Geechee has plenty of sand bars and sandy banks shaded by willow breaks to make ample spots for pausing to watch the other boats go by (and to cool them off with lots of water barrages).Day3-PG15

The evening festivities at Effingham High School, after another wonderful meal by Satterfield’s catering, showcased our canoe-a-thon fundraisers who brought in over $37,000 in donations for Georgia River Network and Ogeechee RIverkeeper. Terry Pate topped this list again, with $6415 in donations (Terry has raised $16,000 over the years for canoe-a-thon), followed by

  1. Jim & Debbie Fountain
  2. Alicia Evans (41 donors)
  3. Tim & James Watson
  4. Tom Beman
  5. John Branch
  6. Dee Stone
  7. Alan Crawford
  8. Leslie Raymer
  9. Chris PetersonDay3-PG15
  10. Tammy Griffith

The Ogeechee Riverkeeper, Emily Markestyn, presented about their good work on this beloved river.  She reviewed the accomplishments and victories of the Ogeechee Riverkeeper, in protecting, preserving, and improving the water quality of the Ogeechee River Basin.  The 2011 fish kill of 38,000 fish at the King America Finishing wastewater outfall over Memorial Day Weekend led a wake up call along the Ogeechee. Day3-PG15This tragedy caused by unpermitted discharge of fire retardant chemicals led to a $2.3 million dollar settlement when the O.R.K sued King America under the Clean Water Act, along with setting the precedent for better permit review and transparency.  The ORK is using those funds to update the land use plan for the Ogeechee Basin and to do a new macro-invertebrate study to compare changes in the river since the last study in the 1980s.Day3-PG15

Café Campesino has been perking us up with coffee and smoothies since the first paddle Georgia.  Since 2007, Dave, Jamie, Justin and their clan have kept us awake and happy with our coffee.

We do Paddle Georgia to get folks out on Georgia’s rivers and really connect with why clean rivers and the importance of ample drinking water supply. That’s why we support GRN and the many organizations like the Ogeechee Riverkeeper that benefit from the fundraising of Paddle Georgia.  The fun parts are up to you and those of us on the river.

-Victor Johnson, Georgia River Network Board of Directors

Broad River Watershed Association Board of Directors

Day 2-PG2015How did you celebrate Father’s Day? For Paddle Georgia participants, it was with a 17 mile float, making today our longest day. The many sweepers and strainers slowed the day down but brought us paddlers together on this long stretch of river. It’s easy to spread out along the water but the jams, after causing short frustration, spawned a new sense of comradery. Paddlers shared sunscreen and jokes referring to the hold up as “worse than Atlanta traffic”. With lots of strainers, miles, and boat traffic, a popular rope swing was a welcomed distraction from this hard paddle. Day 2-PG2015Paddlers challenged each other to see who could jump farthest or who could do the best back flip. We also kept cool with frequent and welcome water gun wars. There is nothing like a little rivalry to boast morale.

This hard paddle took time to tackle, causing the buses to pull us straight into an evening full of great food and riveting talks. Day 2-PG2015
Megan Desrosier, the Executive Director for 100 Miles, presented about Georgia coastal conservation and activism. Tim Echols from the Georgia Public Service Commission spoke on the rising electric car usage in Georgia.

Finally, it was time to retire after a long day. Paddlers went to back to a village of temporary homes, commonly known as Tent City. a unique site created by paddlers. Tents are huddled in the shade, leaving the football field wide open and the goal post to be used as a makeshift clothesline. A strong sense of community is created here, as people sit outside tents in circles sharing opinions and telling stories. Neighbors with portable fans are the most popular. When one woman was attacked by a hill of ants, her neighbors in Tent City came to the rescue with unique home remedies to fix the problem – one of the many instances of generosity and helpfulness exhibited in our temporary home. Other campers have chosen to stay inside the cool gym, turning it into a mattress lined “refugee camp”. Day 2-PG2015After a hard day of paddling, both Tent City and the cool gym are great places to conclude our successful Father’s Day on the Ogeechee River.

Amelia Lord and Jamie Rogers, Paddle Georgia Enthusiasts

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