It is Sept. 19, and along with April Ingle, Ben Emanuel and others, I’ve now paddled some 30 miles of the Oconee River in preparation for Paddle Georgia 2011.
To clarify, this is the Oco-KNEE of middle Georgia, not the Oco-EEE of S0utheastern Tennessee. The Oco-EEE is famed for Class IV rapids and even has an Olympic venue built upon it–the legacy of the 1996 games. The Oco-EEE hosts tens of thousands of thrillseekers each year on its challenging whitewater.
A blossoming canoe/kayak rental business catering to Athens’ college populace notwithstanding, the Oco-KNEE seems a forgotten river. It is small, quiet and lightly used.
From the circa-1900 dams at Tallassee, Whitehall and Barnett Shoals to the remains of mills at Princeton and Scull Shoals, the Oconee seems touched by an earlier time–and not touched much since.
Even the detritus gives off clues. In other rivers, modern plastic soda bottles comprise the bulk of the litter washed up on sandbars. On the Oconee’s sandy bottom, the most notable relics are the sturdy tops of aluminum soda and beer cans–circa 1970s–their thinner aluminum bodies long since worn away by the river. The relative dearth of 21st century trash gives the impression that no one is using this river anymore.
With the exception of a handful of paddlers taking advantage of the services of Big Dog on the River in Athens, in 30 miles of paddling we saw almost no one. The Oconee is the antithesis to the Ocoee and its throngs of paddlers serviced by dozens of commercial outfitters.
Indeed, its character might best be revealed in what it is not. It is NOT a destination river. And, that, perhaps is the best reason to paddle it. It is like a tome of classic literature collecting dust on a library shelf–a great read but discovered only by those scholars curious enough to turn its pages.
Here’s a bit of what we found when we blew off the dust of the Oconee:
The dam at Whitehall Forest–near the confluence of the North and Middle forks of the Oconee. Once a generator of electricity; today it is now just a river obstruction, but one that gives a window to the river’s critical role in the history of nearby Athens.
Ben Burton Park in Athens–yet another location where early industrialists harnessed the river. The hydro-power plant was built here in 1896 and operated until the 1960s when the Georgia Power Co. donated the property to Clarke County. Remnants of the old facility remain–along with the river’s only substantial shoals.
Barnett Shoals Dam–this lowhead dam dating from the early 1900s gives the impression of Niagara Falls. At the time of its construction it powered nearby textile mills and the associated mill village. Currently, the dam produces no electricity and the land that once held the mill village has gone back to forest.
Scull Shoals in Greene County–tucked away in what is now the Oconee National Forest, in the mid-1800s Scull Shoals Mill Village was home to some 600 workers who converted the cotton of nearby fields into yarn and cloth. The mill was powered by water diverted from the Oconee, and production rose and fell with the river. During times of drought, the mill shut down for lack of power. In times of rain, the mill shut down for floodwater in the spindle rooms.
Today, the still-standing brick walls of the company store and a stone pillar of the old covered bridge are among the evidence of this era.
For all its industrial history, the Oconee corridor is a place where nature is reclaiming its own. In one bend we spooked a rafter of turkeys; twelve of them lighted across the river–graceful in flight despite their bulk.
At another spot, a trio of fawns spotted us from their sandbar perch and darted into hiding in the floodplain forest.
For a mile or more we (and a murder of crows) chased a bald eagle down river. Every time the eagle took flight, the crows followed it loudly.
Below the surface, we captured an oddity–a three-footed river cooter. It’s right hind leg was missing, either by birth defect or accident. The disability didn’t seem to slow the turtle. It scooted to deep water as soon as we released it.
In our journeys, we also took great pleasure in nature’s harvest. Muscadines were heavy on the vine, hanging over the water along river’s edge. Their sweet smell would clue us and we’d hone in the source.
Mind you, collecting muscadines drooping from vines 20 to 40 feet up a river birch takes persistence. Some can be plucked by standing in the canoe and pulling down vines to within reach; the rest remain tantalizingly out of reach.
Tugging on the vines and shaking vigorously results in a hailstorm of falling grapes (and spiders), but the river claims most of them. They sink straightaway and are lost. After all, a single canoe is a narrow “basket”
We ultimately settled on a two-canoe catching technique–position two canoes beneath a crop, shake, cover your head and hope for the best. We collected them by the hands full and dined on ‘dines as we stroked down river, A bag is chilling in my fridge as I type.
Today, we were likely the only souls paddling the Oco-KNEE while perhaps thousands rafted down the Oco-EEE in Tennessee.
The Oco-EEE paddlers got the latest Dan Brown thriller–a good read that everyone’s talking about.
We Oco-KNEE paddlers dusted off a classic today. It’s no best-selling thriller, but it’s a good read nonetheless–a standard of Georgia river literature–and one worth curling up with on a summer day.
Sept. 19, 2010