The seventh edition of Paddle Georgia is now in the books. Sleep-deprived, sun-kissed, stiff-muscled, mud-caked, we have returned home.
Today at church friends asked me what “spiritual” lessons were learned from the week on the Oconee for which I readily had an answer…but that’s to come later in this blog.
Here’s a few of the practical lessons I learned during 106 miles on the Oconee:
Garbage bags don’t protect sleeping bags and clothes from downpours…next time invest in a good dry bag
There’s not a water shoe on the market that keeps out the sand…the only solution for sand in your shoes is to empty them regularly.
Gymnasium floors are hard…those massive air mattresses that some brought are looking more and more inviting with each passing year.
Never bring a squirt gun to a water cannon fight…You can never have too many water weapons in your canoe.
Portages are a lot of work…300 paddlers would gladly take out defunct dams one brick at a time if given the chance (there were three such dams on this trip)
Programmed sprinkler and lighting systems at schools are convenient for regularly scheduled programs…Paddle Georgia is anything but “regular.” For those that were sprinkled in Milledgeville and awoken in Dublin, our apologies. Despite our best efforts, we could not override the programs. We are controlled by our creations.
If you have any to add to this list, please make a comment!
A few other tidbits…
Our Canoe-a-thon participants raised about $20,000 for river protection! Those funds will be used by Georgia River Network, Upper Oconee Watershed Network, Lake Oconee Water Watch and the Oconee River Project of the Altamaha Riverkeeper to protect the Oconee and promote development of water trails on Georgia rivers. In seven years, Paddle Georgia has generated more than $100,000 for river protection in Georgia!
Some 350 people participated in the event, bringing our seven year total to more than 2100 paddlers.
The oldest participant was Aggie Calder, 81, who paddled her solo kayak all 106 miles.
The youngest participant was Kavan Toole, 3, who canoed the distance with his sister, Kiera, 5, and dad, Allan Toole as well as mom Debbie and brother, Ian, in kayaks.
These individuals and families were an inspiration to all during the trip.
A few memorable moments from the journey…
Ben Burton Shoals–this was our only real whitewater on the trip, but it came just a mile into the affair. Low water levels made picking a path through these shoals tricky and novice paddlers were thrown to the proverbial wolves. All persevered, however.
Rope Swings & Mud Pits–At our River’s End Celebration, I asked one of our youngest paddlers what his favorite parts of the trip were. He replied: “The rope swings and the mud pit.” This proves that I have the mind of a seven-year-old for these were two of my favorite parts of the trip as well.
Rain on the River–Day 6 brought torrential downpours (and not a little thunder and lightning). Generally, paddlers as a group avoid day trips in the rain, and thus we rarely experience the beauty of rain rippling the river’s surface. If it was a bit frightening being chased by the thunderstorms, the reward was the cooling wind and rain and the thrill of tasting nature’s fury without the protection of four walls.
River Clean Up–Day 4 was to be a leisurely eight-mile paddle and clean up. The Paddle Georgia Navy is perhaps the only group of paddlers that could turn an eight-mile drift into a nine-hour marathon. When Bonny Putney gave the “OK” on retrieving tires from the river, the battle was on to see who could bring in the most. A solo sea kayak came in loaded with 11 tires; a tandem canoe topped that at 12. It was a “tireless” display, but to be sure, the Oconee through Milledgeville is a tad cleaner now.
Mussels–Granted, this is a highlight only for musselheads like me. Hailing from the Coosa River Basin–a hotbed of mussel diversity–I was muscled over by the mussels on the Oconee. At places, you could barely step without putting a foot on an Altamaha slabshell (a common but endemic mussel found only in the Altamaha basin). Then our trip naturalist and Georgia College & State University professor, Chris Skelton, introduced us to the Georgia Elephant Ear, the Altamaha Pocketbook and the dangerously-named Rayed Pink Fatmucket (be careful discussing this mussel in the company of children!) Sure, they are easily mistaken for rocks on the river bottom, but when we looked closely, we saw their little mouths (for lack of better words) open to the river’s flow, sucking in the river and its nutrients, keeping the water flowing clear and clean. Dare I say it…they were downright cute…in a bi-valve sort of way. Ramsey, Jessa and I wound up with a canoe full of shells, and their beautiful iridescent purple, orange and pink nacres (the inner part of the shell) are now shining on my kitchen counter after a thorough cleaning and oiling.
Satterfield’s Cole Slaw, Turkey Salad Sandwiches & Kettle Chips–For my taste buds the cole slaw and turkey salad is almost enough to warrant a special trip to Macon to dine at Satterfields. Thanks
to Ron, Willie and John for keeping us well fed during the journey. Kettle Chips–one of our sponsors–donates chips for the week. They are perhaps the best chips ever made; I never go on the river without them.
Snakes in Boats–One of the biggest myths of paddling is that snakes fall into canoes when you paddle beneath overhanging trees. We’ve all heard these stories, but such encounters are so rare that when we polled the 300-strong Paddle Georgia Navy one night during the trip, only a handful admitted to experiencing such. Nevertheless, this is one of the beginning paddler’s greatest fears. On the first day of the trip, two first-time paddlers from Camp Best Friends had their fears realized. Within four miles of the launch site, a snake dropped into their boat. They quickly exited the same.
Potsherds, Pop Tops and Pop Bottles–The Oconee’s sandbars (and it’s eroding banks) held many treasures, spanning more than 1,000 years of the region’s cultural history–from potsherd remains of Native American pottery to circa 1960 pop tops and soda bottles. One wonders what our descendents will make of our detritus. Hopefully, 100 years hence, the river will not be the place to find today’s trash.
Pears & Possessing Paradise
On Day 4 of our journey, we left behind Milledgeville and the “urbanized” river and slipped into the Coastal Plain and its wild bottomland swamp forests. Mississippi kites greeted us from the air and wild hogs, deer and alligators lurked on the shore. It was a place of wild beauty where even the river seemed “alive,” cutting new paths and carving off oxbow lakes. Venturing into this place in the supportive company of the Paddle Georgia community, I felt as if I was entering paradise (granted, one that came with unstoppable heat and annoying horse flies, but paradise nonetheless)
At midday, we stopped for lunch along with others and I spotted 12-year-old Florence White, half submerged in the river’s current smacking on a pear. I pulled out my camera.
“Why are you taking a picture of me eating a pear?” Florence complained–a legitimate question and one that deserves an answer.
Fruits hold a special place in our cultural mythology. In Greek & Roman mythology, pears are sacred, and our portrayals of the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden are ripe with apples, pears and figs. Fruits are symbols of paradise.
Florence was playing the modern-day part of Hera, Juno, Aphrodite and Eve–gnawing on a pear while parked on the sandy bottom of the Oconee, escaping the heat during her lunch hour.
Not far down river, our paradise was interrupted by the sounds of heavy equipment–a bulldozer clearing land for some purpose–and clearing it all the way to the river, a violation of state stream buffer laws that protect the first 25 feet of vegetation along our rivers. The law is there to keep mud from washing into the river and to help prevent banks from eroding. You obey such laws to respect your neighbor and preserve the river for future generations. It was an ugly and abrupt end to our peaceful paradise.
Ben Emanuel, GRN staff member and head of the Oconee River project of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, confronted the operator of the dozer who explained that his employer wanted the land cleared to build a riverside cabin, and he was certain that the property owner had obtained the required permits for the project. A few calls to state authorities revealed that, in fact, no permits had been obtained and the work was in violation of state river protection laws. The case is pending.
We resumed our paddle and paradise returned. The kites flew; the gar broke the water’s surface. Later, we stopped at a kaolin bank and with much revelry we painted our bodies with the white clay. We left looking like a strange tribe. We staked our claim in paradise.
At the next bend, we left the river for the day on a wide sandbar occupied by a band of youth, reveling in the river much as we were…though their brand of revelry involved a loud four-wheeler and copious amounts of beer. The empties were tossed into the river. And, we learned that they were less than pleased with our presence. The sandbar was their “property”, they claimed, and this tribe of paddlers was not welcome.
In reality, arrangements to utilize the property had been made in advance between a third party and relatives of the rowdy youth. Nevertheless, the tension was palpable as the boys (and their father) confronted Georgia River Network staff. We loaded our buses and left with the harmony of our day broken.
On the ride back to Milledgeville, I thought about paradise and paddling and possession. They say the later is nine-tenths of the law. But, can you possess paradise? What drives us to want to possess it? And, what happens when you try to possess it?
Love of the river is the driving force. There’s little difference between our band of paddlers, the property owner building his cabin and the boys drinking beer on the sandbar. We’re all there because the river feeds us; we want to be near it.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a party at the river; nor is building a home with a view of flowing water a crime. We go wrong when we grab hold of paradise and proclaim it as our own–ours to do with as we please–the consequences for our neighbors and our offspring be damned.
We cannot possess paradise–even if we do own 1000 acres of bottomland along the Oconee. We are only temporary tenants, for time and nature know nothing of contracts and bills of sale. If the beauty of paradise and the joys of reveling in that place are to be known by our children, we must work to preserve it.
June 26, 2011