The planned paddle route this year was 92 miles, but thanks to a snafu of navigation and an interesting dose of group think, some amongst our 300 strong paddling posse logged an additional four miles of paddling, and that episode probably rendered the week’s best lesson, but more on that later…
A day after packing everyone home from Ellijay and Rome, it’s time to reminisce and celebrate what we’ve accomplished.
The numbers we will document. Years from now that will be the “official record” of the trip. Some 350 paddlers participated, including almost 300 that paddled all seven days. The most successful Paddle Georgia to date, paddlers generated more than $16,000 for Georgia River Network, Coosawattee Watershed Alliance and New Echota Rivers Alliance through our Canoe-a-thon.
But these numbers can’t tell the rest of the story. They’ll never account for the experiences logged, the lives changed, the friendships made, the lessons learned.
Leaps of Faith
My goal for the week was to find something to jump from every day–a rope swing, a cliff, a tree–anything that would make me feel like the 16-year-old boy jumping from the Palisades on the Chattahoochee where I first learned to love a river. Thankfully, the Coosawattee and Oostanaula did not disappoint.
There is something primal about jumping from high places into water. It is more than just a simple rush of adrenalin. It’s leaping back to where we came from–water–and leaping into an uncertain future–trusting that something bigger than us will land us safely whereever we go. Every leap is a lesson in the proper prosecution of life.
Amidst the shoals and rapids of the Upper Coosawattee, we found a deep hole with a rope swing and tree. I couldn’t pass it up, and soon, my daughter Ramsey, and her friend, Jessa, followed. They hesitated on the bark-covered brink of the leap, “This is so scary. I can’t do it.” But, with coaxing and faith in their fathers that the landing would be safe, they jumped, emerging from the surface of the river yelling, “that was so much fun. Can we do it again?”
And, that is how life is supposed to be lived. We cannot experience joy and exhiliration without first overcoming our fear. Nothing worthy of our time and attention comes without that leap of faith.
Among those on the trip this year was my friend, Alan Crawford, who I have come to know through his volunteerism at the Coosa River Basin Initiative. Alan grew into something of a rock star on the trip, interviewed by countless media types wanting to tell his story. Alan became the first paraplegic to participate in Paddle Georgia. On the river, you wouldn’t know Alan is a wheelchair user–the river levels the playing field for paras.
That said, the consequences of a spill in whitewater are amplified for paras. Able-bodied paddlers are told to get their feet up in the event of a capsize in rushing water to avoid a dangerous foot entrapment, but that simple manuver is difficult to apply to paras. As Alan joked, “If I capsize, you can change my name to “Bob””
Throw in the challenges of getting on and off our shuttle buses, launching his kayak from less-than-desireable locations, and taking care of rudimentary daily chores in unfamiliar surroundings, and you have enough ingredients of the unknown to bake a pound cake of fear.
But, Alan, with the determination of a 10-year-old staring at a 15-foot plunge into the murky waters of the Coosawattee, leapt.
In his plunge, he found his own fortitude–stroking through the whitewater without a spill and paddling all 92 miles of the trip. He found friends like Rob Garber and Josh Noe–helping to lift him on to buses each morning and evening. He found a river–welcoming him with its refreshing water indifferent to his ailment. He even found some dance moves–joining the heel-kicking throngs of paddlers with his spins and turns during the Contra dance. He found fish and hooked them, and, seven days later, I think he’d overcome fear and found a little joy.
Funny how a man that cannot leap showed us how to do it properly.
Lessons for the Directionally Challenged
Day 2 of our trip dawned bright and clear, guaranteeing a steamy day of paddling across Carters Lake. A first for Paddle Georgia, the prospect of lake paddling had me concerned about motorboat traffic, strong winds and lightning storms. I never would have envisioned what proved to be the biggest challenge of the day.
We shoved off from the cove which most of our floatilla had paddled into the previous day and headed for the main river channel determined to lick the lake before the mid-day heat sapped us and afternoon thunderstorms arrived.
I had paddled this same course just a week earlier and knew it well–hang a right at the main channel, paddle around the next corner and enter the main body of the lake. Simple. But when we arrived at the main channel the entourage of canoes and kayaks was moving steadily east–to the left–not to the right.
I did a double take–looked right and for a split second thought I was entirely lost. Why was everyone headed into the sun? Did I miss something in my previous scouting trips? I inspected at my map again, and confirmed the unthinkable–dozens of boats were headed in the wrong direction. How many? And, had they reached the rapids where the river spills into the lake yet?
I yelled at the top of my lungs, “You’re going the wrong way!!!!” A few heads turned, the message was relayed up river and those within earshot righted their wayward wanderings. As I passed them paddling up river to collect everyone, the bleating of sheep and jokes about lemmings jumping off of cliffs rang from the vessels along with grumblings about maps, the lack of distance markers and the deficiency of directions.
Carol McNavish, in a speedy touring kayak, paddled nearly three miles up river turning back the tide of wrong-way paddlers. I followed in hot pursuit in my lumbering canoe. Together, we collected dozens of misguided adventurers.
In their defense, the lead boats in this snafu did not paddle this section of river the previous day, opting to use the six-mile take out on Day1. Having not seen the terrain the previous day, it’s easy to see how they strayed. The same cannot be said for the boats that followed:
“We argued about it. I thought we were going the wrong way.”
“We looked at the map, but everyone else was heading that way so we just followed.”
“I was just following the herd. I figued they knew where they were going.”
At the front the leaders shrugged, “We weren’t sure if we were going right, but when we saw everyone follow us, we figured we were on the right path.”
And, from this came the trip’s most poignant lesson.
Watching the paddlers trudge back across water they were seeing now for the third time, I was reminded of a nugget of wisdom attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “If everyone is thinking alike then no one is thinking.” In fact, world history is wrought with stories of charismatic leaders leading whole countries to ruin–see Adolf Hitler.
Of course, there are also stories of “group think” leading in more postive directions. In fact, the experts will tell you if you want to illicit certain behavior in people, the most effective way to achieve your goal is to show them other people doing the same.
Want people to recycle?–show them a neighbor taking his to the curb.
Want people to conserve water?–show them a friend installing a low flow toilet.
Want to clean up a river?–let your neighbors hear you on in the six o’clock news telling a legislator to pass a law protecting our rivers.
Change begins with individuals. Just as two wayward kayaks led an entire Navy astray so too can two strong voices change the course of our communites or our rivers.
This is a lesson that will sustain our efforts to keep Georgia’s rivers flowing clear and clean long after Paddle Georgia’s Canoe-a-thon money is spent on projects to clean up the Coosawattee and Oostanaula rivers.
Thanks to all of you who participated in Paddle Georgia 2009. I hope you return to your homes determined to make a difference in your community and in your watershed. Generally, all it requires is thinking and leaping.
And, mark your calendars for Paddle Georgia 2010 June 19-25 on the Broad and Savannah rivers.
June 28, 2009
And, now a parting shot…
GRN Executive Director Eaten by Kayak-Car Amalgam