Another Paddle Georgia has come and gone–building now on six years of memories, more than 600 miles of rivers, some 1800 smiling faces and more than $85,000 for river protection in Georgia.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words so this year’s post Paddle Georgia blog post is just that–pictures that prompt words. The first Paddle Georgia in 2005, back in the day when I was still shooting film cameras, I didn’t get to see images from the trip until a week later. Now, in the digital age, I re-lived these photographic memories each night of the trip. I suppose the advantage is that I’ve had ample time to ruminate on the images and the stories they tell.
I’ve done no study of this, but I’ll hazard a guess that Paddle Georgia is among the most documented canoe and kayak trips in the country.
This year we were without our videographer, Bob Selwyn, (who is on a motorcycle ride to Alaska!), but there was no lack of Bob Selwyn imitators. The photos and videos are now cropping up across the internet.
The success of Paddle Georgia has spawned similar events in our neighboring states. Bill Richards, second from left in this photo, started Paddle Florida after joining an earlier Paddle Georgia. This year he brought with him a host of gators from the Sunshine State, readily identified on the water each day by their gator hats. When I returned to Northwest Georgia I found Paddle Weiss Lake in full swing across the Alabama state line. The idea of long-distance, group paddle trips is nothing new, but it is refreshing to see the concept taking hold in the Deep South with its hundreds of thousands of beautiful streams.
Some have described Paddle Georgia as summer camp for grown ups. On one day of the trip I was pummeled, nay, nearly drowned by a barrage from water cannons blasted from the hands of babes. That is to say I laughed so hard I nearly drowned. If it is summer camp for grown ups, it’s all because of the water. What is it about this liquid, be it tinged brown by the Piedmont’s clay or clear and cold issuing forth from a mammoth dam, that turns even the most cynical old cuss into a kid again? Ponce de Leon never found the fountain of youth in Georgia, but it was under his nose the whole time–it was flowing in the 70,000-plus miles of streams that criss-cross this state.
The Food Chain
Dave Goldman found this fish struggling for its life in the shallows along a Broad River sandbar. It was a reminder of the life and death struggle played out in nature all around us each day. The fish apparently escaped as osprey attack, but its wounds were nevertheless fatal. Rather than going quickly in the clutches of the bird’s talons, it’s death was slow. It would become turkey vulture or bald eagle food not long after we encountered it. We did see many ospreys on our journey and below Clarks Hill Dam on the Savannah a bald eagle strafed our Navy.
A Suitable Rock
If water makes you feel like a kid again, jumping off high places into water makes you feel like a teenager again.
Rick Higganbotham, our consummate host and prinicipal/bus driver at Elbert County High School told us the story of “The Rock” on Clarks Hill Lake. “That’s the place where all the boys in Elberton go to become men,” he told us as we sped down Ga. 79 headed for camp.
“Or loose their manhood,” I replied.
“As a matter of fact,” he said, “we did have to take one boy to the hospital to find some things he lost.” The upshot of this conversation was that, indeed, on our journey across Clarks Hill Lake the following day we did slide beneath The Rock and it beckoned to us like a siren, promising a thrill not found on any amusement park ride. And, jump we did. The drop from the 30-foot cliff took me back 28 years to the Chattahoochee and the famed Diving Rock where as a young boy I first experienced the thrill of plunging into water from high places. For a few brief seconds I felt 16 and invincible again.
But alas, on this day I was the designated “lead boat”–responsible for charting the course across the lake so that no one would get lost. As I took my second jump from the cliff, I saw paddlers headed down lake before me and I knew my fun would be cut short.
For the record, I make a lousy lead boat. Either the speedsters at the front of the pack need to slow down and jump more or I need to take up permanent position just a few strokes in front of the “Grim Sweeper.”
The Rock and the deep water at is base provided many a thrill that day. It will be one of my favorite memories of Paddle Georgia 2010.
Safety, Safety, Safety
Paddle Georgia 2010 included routes down six Class II rapids. And, at every rapid Georgia Canoe Association members guided the Navy through the waves. The trip was not without its spills, but our safety boaters and fellow paddlers helped us gather ourselves and our gear and sent us on down river. No other Paddle Georgia journey has offered up more whitewater.
Street Dancing in Elberton
Who knew paddlers had such moves on the dance floor?
The City of Elberton played grand host to Paddle Georgia for three days. We visited granite quarries, granite monument companies, the granite Georgia Guidestones and a granite museum, and on one fine Monday night we visited downtown where a DJ spun tunes and our paddlers performed the Electric Slide, the Macarena and the Hokie Pokie. We also knocked out several gallons of homemade ice cream. Thanks to Phyllis Brooks and the Elbert County Chamber of Commerce for making this fine street party a reality. It was a highlight of the trip.
1 Portage too Many
Our journey down the Savannah involved three portages–a 60-mile trailer-aided jump around Clarks Hill Lake, a short carry around Stevens Creek Dam and an arduous tote through the Augusta Canal Dam area. Any one of these would be one too many. Portage is something you do on trips in New England–jumping from lake to lake; it’s not something one should do on rivers in Georgia–except that we like electricity and frown on floods through downtown business districts so we have dams–lots of them. Moving 200-plus boats without the aid of water is a daunting task, but thankfully a host of volunteers and contracted movers made the task tolerable. Jim Stringer from AWOL Outfitters in Augusta provided a 20-stack canoe trailer and a fleet of other vehicles while Tammy Bates and Bonnie Putney with Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Harold Harbert with Georgia Adopt-A-Stream, Pat Kelly with Broad River Watershed Association, Bryan Nuse with Georgia River Network and Doc Stephens also pitched in with transport around Clarks Hill. The U.S. Army would have been impressed with the logistics. In fact, at the Clarks Hill Dam end of the portage, soldiers from nearby Ft. Stewart (courtesy of Savannah Riverkeeper)
assisted in unloading the trailers. They liked the name of Jim’s business “AWOL Outfitters” and lamented the fact that they had to return to base rather than go down river with us.
Though the portages were difficult, they are the only way to touch the rich history that surrounds our rivers. The dams are there for much the same reason that we find 3000-year-old artifacts on the islands between the Savannah River dams. These are places where humans have gathered and built civilizations for thousands of years. Our small gathering at these places–if only for a brief moment–is a continuation of that history.
One of my fondest memories of the original Paddle Georgia on the Chattahoochee was the scene at Hilly Mill Creek on the trip’s final day. Beneath the beautiful falls on this creek the Paddle Georgia throng splashed, played and communed. It was to my way of thinking a little slice of heaven here on earth–a vision of what an afterlife might hold for us–a place where people of all walks of life gather in peaceful bliss. Since that time at Hilly Mill Creek, similar scenes have played out on every Paddle Georgia. This year was no different. On Day 6, the mouth of Uchee Creek was crowded with our paddlers when I drifted through. Young and old swung from a rope swing; a line of tired paddlers soaked in the shoals, children splashed in the shallows–smiling, laughing; the world–for a moment–was at peace. I don’t think anyone wanted to leave that place. It was heaven on earth.
Ironically, who should come break up the party…none other than our “Grim Sweeper.” If there is a lesson I’ve learned from six Paddle Georgias, itis this: we don’t need to wait until the Grim Reeper calls to find heaven; it is within our reach everyday–especially on our rivers.
The following day, I paddled upon a similar scene–this time at the
Savannah River shoals where spider lilies bloomed, creating a beautiful garden–a Garden of Eden, if you will–where Satterfield’s smoked turkey salad sandwiches provided the sustenance. We perched on the rocks, eating our lunches, breathing in the sweet scent of the lilies, listening to the water ripple across the shoals. The smiles on the faces of Anna & Rachel Sewell were every bit as beautiful as the lilies. We left the lilies for Hammond Shoals and the last Class II rapid of our trip; found one last rope swing and stroked into downtown Augusta where a water battle of epic proportions in sued. It was a good day on the water.
“The Most Awesome Thing I’ve Ever Done”
I heard these words as a boy surfaced from his plunge into the river from a rope swing. These are the “most awesome words I’ve ever heard.” Here’s why:
During Paddle Georgia 2010 we paused to hear what candidates for Governor had to say about our rivers and our environment at a Georgia Water Coalition-sponsored candidates forum. Carl Cammon, Dubose Porter and David Poythress talked of interbasin transfers and water conservation. Our hope is that Georgia’s next Governor will lead us in meeting our water needs without forfeiting the health of our rivers. It is a time in our state’s history when we are all looking to the future, and when it comes to our water, we’re staring at the future with much anxiety.
Breath easy folks. We have children jumping off rope swings, yelling “that’s the most awesome thing I’ve ever done.” Because of that, I’m hopeful, if not confident, that our rivers’ healthy future is secured.
After six years of Paddle Georgia, we’ve watched many children grow up. In essence, the journey has become something of a family reunion as long-time participants return year after year. In fact, this year some of the youth who were with us the first five years were absent–gone off to college and jobs. These same young men and women that are now entering adult society have five years of rope swings and water battles under their belts. They have a relationship with our rivers, and thus, they’re prepared to make the right decisions for our rivers.
In November, we will cast votes for leaders that will shape the future of our state and our rivers. When we enter the ballot booth, my hope is that the sound of Savannah rolling over Hammond Shoals will echo in our minds and we’ll remember some of the “most awesome things we’ve ever done.”
Paddle Georgia 2011 is set for June 18-24 for the Oconee River. We’ll chart a course somewhere from Athens to Dublin. More info. to come later.
Thanks to all the 350-plus participants and support personnel that made Paddle Georgia 2010 possible. I think it was the most awesome thing I’ve ever done.
July 2, 2010