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Archive for June, 2011

Paddlers drift pass the mouth of the North Oconee River on Day 2.

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:

Portages are hard as anyone who volunteered at Barnett Shoals Dam can attest.

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…

There's more that one way to ride a kayak...floating toward Barnett Shoals Dam.

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.

Navigating the shoals at Ben Burton Park.

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.

Pirates after a triple belly flop into the Redneck Games' mud pit.

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.

12 tires, two paddlers, one canoe

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.

An Altamaha Pocketbook mussel.

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

Canoes: Not made for water skiing.

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 found on the river bank.

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

A bird's nest at water's edge in an overhanging tree.

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.

A bite of pear and cool water in paradise for Florence White.

“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.

The site of clearing along the river to make way for a riverside cabin.

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.

Playing in kaolin.

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.

Checking out darters, minnows and shiners on the Middle Oconee in Athens.

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.

Letting fly from a rope swing in paradise.

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.

Joe Cook

June 26, 2011

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Calling the Dove

by Dorinda G. Dallmeyer

My grandfather taught me how to call doves. Growing up in south Alabama, he developed a repertoire of skills, some to earn money, like bricklaying or rafting pine timber all the way to Mobile. Others put food on the table. Doves could be called by imitating their round note. If you were good at it, the males would come to chase off the interloper they heard. If you could call and shoot, that was the start toward a meal. To sharpen his marksmanship, in his youth he learned to pick off bullbats – what you know as nighthawks – darting in the evening sky. Unthinkable as it is to me now – the grandchild who has raised catbirds and blue jays and mockingbirds lost from their nests – I have to admire his skill in pure observation. He watched nighthawks to learn their pattern of wing-beats as they sweep the sky for insects: flap-flap-glide, flap-flap-glide – a waltz of predation in the dusk. If they are going to swerve, they do it on the flap, not the glide, so you shoot them on the follow-through.

But that was his youth. By the time I knew him, his forays with gun in hand were strictly for the table, squirrels mostly, but mostly just walking the fields. One time he passed up the opportunity to shoot a cottontail he nearly stepped on before he saw it, cowering in hopeful camouflage. There was no skill in blundering into a rabbit. It never crossed his mind to raise his gun; he just told the rabbit to go on home.

He taught me how to call doves and doves have been on my mind a lot lately. At home mourning doves frequent our feeders although they prefer to feed on the ground. The pairs whistle in on squeaky wings, dressed in subtle pearl-tones, the male rosier in the breast, both teetering on absurdly small feet atop the feeder roof. They pad around anxiously, unsure just how to make the transition from eave to platform as if, once landed, they forgot they could fly if they fell.

Their nests seem tentative as well, the eggs clearly visible through a minimalist lattice of sticks and straw, a Zen nest on a fan of pine. But if they were that flimsy, we’d have no doves. Although the male makes dramatic beelines to present the female with nesting material item after item, he knows when to stop and she knows what’s enough: that the flex and bend of the bough requires a supple nest, not a massive one.

Pity the doves, who come freighted with more symbolism than their narrow shoulders seem capable of bearing, much less delivering on. The dove of peace, the dove returning with the olive branch to signify God’s reconciliation with man after the Flood, the billing and cooing of courtship, doves released at weddings to symbolize marital harmony. What could they have done to deserve this?

And why have their cousins fared so much worse? The rock doves, “street pigeons,” reviled and persecuted because they squat on the statues of our ancestors, the same people who brought them here in the first place. The homing pigeons, so nurtured and bonded to a place, then dragged off hundreds of miles and released despite weather and predators just to see if they can make it home. To me it’s the equivalent of cockfighting at altitude.

Even the mourning doves we treat Janus-faced. My uncle with his purebred pointers, a man who called it “buhd huntin’,” was a chemist for a multinational clay company running an extensive mining operation in central Georgia. He was a man judicious and measured in life. But each fall the executives and major clients flew down from up North to take part in a Georgia dove shoot. No lawman questioned the baited fields, the birds shot by the hundreds; no one questioned that the doves were retrieved, plucked, and gutted by black men without guns; no one was rueful about the pitifully small carcasses packed into ice chests to be ready to fly (now with some assistance) back to New Jersey. Afterwards, my uncle would appear at my great-grandmother’s house with several dozen doves wrapped in newspaper. She would be gracious to his face but once he left, she had to pluck and clean them all herself, uttering mild oaths, knowing that each one would yield only a few tablespoons of meat most likely studded with birdshot. That kind of carnage took no skill. No one needed to know how to call doves.

Sometimes when I walk the deer paths in my woods, I spy on the doves drinking in the creek or worse, they flush from underfoot in a blast that trips my heart. The bird-lover’s rhetorical question “How could you shoot them?” merges with the hunter’s practical “How could you shoot them?” It reminds me that the dove of peace is a gambler who bets on surprise.

This year the doves are nesting somewhere in the woods away from my house so mostly I see them at the feeder and hear them call from deep in the woods. And I remember my grandfather smelling of Prince Albert pipe tobacco, the white stubble on his cheek scratching my ear, his flannel shirt warm against my back as he bent and encircled me with his arms and shaped my hands just so –- the fingers of the left hand bundled against themselves, cupped by the fingers of the right hand, hands pressed together to form a hollow, the thumbs parallel for the mouthpiece. Put your lips right here on the knuckles of the thumbs and blow. You’ll get it. Keep trying, he says. You’ll get it. And then I hear the round “whoo,” as round as your lips are now, emerge a bit breathy at first and then clear as the dove itself.

published in The Wildbranch Anthology, University of Utah Press 2010

as read at the Paddle Georgia 2011 talent show — June 23, 2011

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Tonight when Joe asked for a show of hands for who had seen a gator today, a good couple or few dozen hands went up: further proof, if any was needed, that we have descended into the vast bottomland swamps on the Oconee below Milledgeville.

Today was a long one – more than 20 miles – but our entire navy was valiant, and all made good time. Most got back to camp wet – as

Thank goodness, sunny skies at today's launch gave way to clouds and cooling showers in the afternoon.

much from rain as from the river – and all were smiling. The rain, after all, was a cool blessing on the day’s paddle. Joe and others kept talking this evening about how beautiful it was to be on the water with a light rain upsetting the river’s surface. (Yes, more than a light rain fell on the latter part of the paddling pack, but no one seemed to mind.) As Joe put it simply, “Rain is a good thing.”

Also a good thing: supper from Satterfield’s each night on Paddle Georgia. The teriyaki may have been the entrée tonight, but the macaroni stole the show. Fajita night was a standout this year, and the barbecue probably spoiled us by coming as early in the week as it did.

“I wish we had this kind of food at home!” I heard a young kid say to his friend tonight as they went back to the buffet for banana pudding and more macaroni. (What I was doing back at the buffet… is my business, okay?) My compliments to the caterers.

The same goes for the host committee here in Dublin, where they’ve rolled out the red carpet for us once again. The highlight of our royal treatment as guests in the community: the staff of the Courier-Herald newspaper shared with us a 7-minute movie about the great Oconee River Raft Race of the 1970s. Seeing and hearing the music and the hairdos – er, the river scenes at what was a phenomenal event for years on end – was literally boatloads of fun.

Other than gators and beautiful scenery, the river brought more Mississippi Kites soaring overhead in great numbers today, as well as a few large and majestic Wood Storks. And still we travel a landscape rich in human history. Ball’s Ferry, the day’s take-out, was the site of a ferry from the early decades of the 19th century on into the mid-20th.

In the first half of the day, we paddled under the railroad trestle that carries the Central of Georgia railroad (on a pre-Civil War route) across the swamps of the Oconee. In the center of the trestle was a huge, cylindrical brick-laid piling for what was once a pivot drawbridge that allowed steamboats to pass, loaded with cotton and other farm goods. At the evening’s talent show, we learned that paddler Dorinda Dallmeyer’s grandfather had been a brickmason for the Central of Georgia. He didn’t work on that bridge, Dorinda said, but her story reminded us all of our own connections to the country’s history and the ways that it is written in our rivers.

Tomorrow is another 20-miler and then some. But we’ll paddle hard for one more day, because more fun and good hospitality await us at the River’s End Celebration and fish fry at Buckeye Park in East Dublin. Onward and downstream to the finish!

-Ben Emanuel

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Day 5: Into the Swamp

Just below where every major Georgia river crosses the Fall Line, it enters a looooong straightaway. They all do it: the Savannah, the Ocmulgee, the Flint, the Oconee… only the Oconee didn’t seem straight this morning. The river is so low right now that it winds within its banks, exposing sandbars on its sides, even in the long straightaway. And this is a good thing: if the straightaway appeared too straight, rather than just a little twisty-turny as it did, the head-game might have been a little too much for us, the destination appearing just too far away.

But that was just the morning. Before long, we were into the fascinating land of oxbow lakes and tight bends, a vast floodplain bottomland forest extending for miles on each side of the riverbank. And even though many of the bends were full of deadfall, strainers and snags, we were all amazed to see the power of the river at work: an abandoned oxbow off to the side holding only slack and stagnant water might have been the river itself just a year or two ago. The river channel is what a geologist would call “active” here, and it’s a fun thing to witness. One other good thing, in the words of veteran PG paddler Bobby Marie: “I just love the fact that on every bend there’s a sandbar, and I can get out and play if I want to.” Amen to that.

Joe Cook was right: this river is full of old beer cans with pull-tab tops. That’s in contrast to the modern day pop-tops. And while this is a fascinating point of history, your scribe assumes that Joe won his own contest, collecting more pull-tabs than anyone else. Not sure: we’ll confirm tomorrow. Will post some more photos tomorrow, too!

… And not to neglect the birds, we must note that there were many, many Mississipi Kites today, gliding over the river catching dragonflies and other bugs. Cool stuff. Here’s hoping we’ll see some Swallow-Tailed Kites as we descend toward Dublin.

-Ben Emanuel

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Day 4: Over the Fall Line

Vincent Payne and Doug Oetter, our heroes at the Buzzards Island Dam!

Good news! That ruined dam in Milledgeville that we had to negotiate today was a piece of cake. Thanks to Paddle Georgia veteran Doug Oetter, along with some of his students at Georgia College & State University and the staff of downtown Milledgeville’s Oconee Outfitters, all we had to do was hop out and walk 15 yards around a short, steep drop in the river while our safety boaters sent the canoes and kayaks by hand down the chute. A piece of cake!

Below this old dam at Buzzard’s Island was one of many sweet swimming spots that we had today in (relatively) cool, clear water below Sinclair Dam. There were a couple of good rope swings, and fortunately we had enough water in the river for those and for paddling, both. By the end of the day, the current had slackened a good deal as the river dropped, due to dam operation back at Sinclair. On an 8-mile day for Paddle Georgia, this only presented a problem for those paddlers who were particularly zealous about participating in our river clean-up day… and who loaded their boats down with anywhere from one to 12 tires pulled from the river. The tire pile at the take-out was quite a sight!

In other news, the Union-Recorder newspaper here in Milledgeville digs Paddle Georgia, which we appreciate. Check out their story and accompanying video here (partly starring yours truly with a one-day PG guest, Georgia Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Williams).

To sum up: we’re over the Fall Line, out of the Piedmont and its shoals, and fully into Georgia’s Coastal Plain. The river is changing dramatically with each day’s travel. Where today there were rocks and riffles, tomorrow there will be tight bends full of downed trees and snags. Best of all, no more dams!

We ended the day with a rousing round of canoe tug-of-wars at a pleasant Georgia Military College park on Lake Sinclair. In the end, it was a team led by paddler James Watson (a young man who got his start on Paddle Georgia and is now a member of the U.S. Junior National canoe team) that won the tourney.

Tomorrow we head for swampy bottomlands… and maybe the trip’s first gator! More tires and a couple of rope swing pics below…

-Ben Emanuel

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A break from the hard work of the portage at Barnett Shoals

Dear Friends: You’ll forgive us scribes for the delay in reporting on Day Two. It was a busy one. As you saw in our last post, Day One ended with a fairly easy passage around-slash-through the trip’s first dam, in UGA’s Whitehall Forest.

Well… no sooner had we gotten underway on Day 2 when, just 4.5 miles from the put-in, we came to Dam Number Two: the impressive 40-foot cascade of river over the century-old Barnett Shoals Dam near Watkinsville. Some of the paddlers chose to carry their boats around the dam (a quarter-mile trek), the old fashioned way, while others took advantage of the help provided by some fantastic volunteers from Athens – a swarthy crew of guys who loaded the boats onto pickup trucks and utility trailers and pulled them around the dam in the noonday heat.

From there, we descended into the forested quietude that is the Oconee National Forest. Fifty or so of us stopped for a tour of a late-18th century fort site with local historians, and at day’s end many of us hopped out to see the sights at Scull Shoals, the famous ghost town of the Oconee. A thriving mill town in the mid-19th century, Scull Shoals met its doom as the land-use practices of the very cotton economy that fueled the town’s success eventually brought destructive floods and river sedimentation, ruining its usefulness as a mill site and bringing about its demise. Pretty fascinating stuff for a river trip!

Some days we all get a little tuckered out on the river...

Today, Day Three’s launch found us enjoying the sounds of birdsong as we continued downstream through the National Forest. Halfway through the day, we came to the backwaters of Lake Oconee. Around the midway point at a waterfowl area known as Dyar’s Pasture, the river lost its current – not the best river-scape to travel on a hot day, but nonetheless a change of scenery with fascinating wetlands and backwaters hosting egrets and White Ibis off to the sides of the river channel where upstream there had been just forest.

Beyond Dyar’s Pasture, our paddlers braved the “big water” of Lake Oconee – the top end of the lake, at least. On dead trees left standing in the water when the lake filled behind Wallace Dam in 1980, ospreys had built their nests, and one mama or daddy “fish hawk” was on its massive stick-built nest when many of us paddled by.

These two days of dams and lakes ended – for our paddlers, at least – at Redlands boat ramp on Lake Oconee near Greensboro. There, the canoes and kayaks were loaded onto an armada of trucks and trailers (including an 18-wheeler that made two round trips!) for the portage to the foot of Sinclair Dam near Milledgeville. This highway travel took the boats around two dams, Wallace and Sinclair, and as I write our flotilla waits patiently beside the Oconee for us to meet it again in the morning. From there, we’ve got a free-flowing river between us and Dublin (between here and the sea, actually), with the minor exception of a ruined dam near downtown Milledgeville which we hope presents no big problems.

Wish us luck…

On Paddle Georgia, smiles end even the longest, hottest days!

and cool weather!

-Ben Emanuel

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Paddle Georgia kicked-off in Athens Friday evening!  350 folks from all over the state – and the country – gathered for good times.   And, true to form, we launched the evening with jokes to honor our trip mascot.  This year we are celebrating the mighty Oconee Burrowing Crayfish…stay tuned for Joe’s and the paddlers’ high flying jokes!

On Saturday – Day 1, a.k.a. the Middle Oconee Merengue – we made our way down twelve river miles from Big Dogs on the River’s put-in to Whitehall Dam.  Some rain from the previous night added some cushion to a droughty river.  Just downstream from the put-in, paddlers enjoyed Ben Burton shoals, which used to host one of Athens’ first hydropower dams.

And a little further down, paddlers landed and explored Big Dog’s cabana and tiki lounge.  D.J. – the mastermind behind Big Dogs – said “what a wonderful sight to see all of these boats on the river at the same time.”   The day ended at Whitehall dam where a team of safety boaters and crew lined every empty boat through the defunct nineteenth century dam. More to come – stay tuned (and watch out for pirates)!

-Chris Manganiello & Ben Emanuel

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