Paddle Georgia alumni and Gainesville resident Joe Kidd was born in 1940 in Coweta County. Like many from Coweta and Heard counties, Joe grew up swimming at Hilly Mill Falls about 300 yards from where Hilly Mill Creek meets the Chattahoochee.
In the heady days following World War II, Joe’s grandfather would load up his grandchildren in a horse-drawn buggy and make the rugged trip down dirt Enon Grove Road descending sharply to the creek and river.
Once there, the family outfitted young Joe in an inflatable donut-shaped hemorrhoid pillow (a cast off from an afflicted uncle) to keep him afloat in the deep water below the falls. A fishing trip on the nearby Chattahoochee usually rounded out the journey, and with any luck, a fish fry on the spit of land between the creek and river would follow. In 1946 for a six-year-old boy, this was a summer day well spent.
By 1958, Joe was a senior at Newnan High School and the boys, leaving the buggies of yesteryear behind, drove their automobiles to Hilly Mill and did what young men do. Country music star Alan Jackson, also a Coweta County native and frequent visitor to Hilly Mill in his youth, wrote a song about it, and surely, both Joe and Alan did, in fact, “learn a lot about livin’ and a little ’bout love” way down yonder on the Chattahoochee.
Sunday, my wife Leanne and I joined the now 74-year-old Joe for a journey down the Chattahoochee from Chattahoochee Bend State Park to Franklin. It was the first time he’d visited this stretch of river since his early adulthood.
“We stopped coming when it started to smell so nasty,” Joe said. “You’d see human waste floating down the river.”
Joe’s story is one that is heard often in Coweta and Heard counties where generations of families grew up fishing, trapping and hunting on the Chattahoochee downstream from Atlanta. But by the early 1960s, Atlanta’s population was overwhelming the city’s antiquated sewer system and untreated sewage streamed into the river. The exodus from the river in Coweta and Heard counties soon followed.
Joe’s face as he topped the rise and saw Hilly Mill Falls for this first time in several decades finished this story.
A wide-eyed, grinning native son returned to the promised land of his youth. The falls were as beautiful as ever; the river itself was once again a place worthy of visiting.
As we paddled to the mouth of Hilly Mill Creek, a bald eagle swung across the river in front of us. In a pine at the creek’s mouth, a fledgling bald eagle perched, and reluctantly launched into the air as we made land fall. The river itself, flowed clear and cool; muskrats foraged in the shoals, gar rested in the mouths of creeks, turtles periscoped at the water’s surface before ducking to the safety of the depths. On this Memorial Day weekend, tubers and kayakers lounged on rocks near Bushhead Shoals and anglers crowded Daniel Shoals. One showed off a hefty catfish.
Yes, trash from the big city still piles up at the head of Bushhead Shoals Islands in disturbing flotillas, and even 30 miles downstream from metro Atlanta’s wastewater treatment plants you still occasionally get a whiff of that septic laundry water scent.
But, a river that was once dead, has risen from the grave. The change has been remarkable–even in the last 20 years.
When I journeyed the length of the Chattahoochee in 1995, this much-abused section of river seemed largely abandoned. There were few homes, one public park (McIntosh Reserve) and the fish camps so ubiquitous in Joe’s childhood were few and far between.
Sunday we paddled by a row of fish camps–the property owner leases parcels along the riverfront. Our launch site, Chattahoochee Bend State Park in Coweta County, touts nearly six miles of river frontage, and a new Carroll County park with canoe and kayak launches is in the works. Houses are beginning to pop up too. In Coweta and Heard counties, they’re experiencing a river revival.
In large part this revival is owed to their upstream neighbors caring for the river again. Prompted by lawsuits filed by Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, the City of Atlanta has begun the long journey to fix its infrastructure. Georgia Power Co., a Paddle Georgia sponsor that operates three power plants dependent on the Chattahoochee, has significantly reduced its impact on the river, and a multi-year campaign by the Trust for Public Land and the Nature Conservancy begun in 1995 has protected some 75 miles of riverfront.
Joe Kidd returned to his youth Sunday. He returned via a new state park in a red kayak, paddling atop an inviting watery path. It was a journey far different from a horse-drawn buggy and far-removed from the “Dead River” days of Joe’s adulthood.
This happy ending brought to you by people caring for their river again.
May 27, 2014