Joe Kidd is 74 this year, and one of the senior members of the Paddle Georgia
Navy. He is appropriately named for at 74, he still acts like a kid.
Jacory O’Neal is 12 this year and experienced Paddle Georgia for this first time. A student at Atlanta’s Woodland Middle School, he participated on youth scholarship and was part of a team of 11 other students led by Alicia Evans and Joey Giunta.
I am 47 this year and grew up on the Chattahoochee—a river lover born of the infamous Ramblin’ Raft Race and summer weekends spent playing in its shoals and jumping from its cliffs.
We are three generations on the Chattahoochee. Kidd learned to swim at the base of Hilly Mill Falls (one of our most memorable stops during this year’s journey) and grew up fishing the Chattahoochee in Coweta and Heard counties…until in the mid-1950s when it became so polluted no one wanted to visit it.
That polluted, sewage-filled river was the one I remember from my youth in the 1970s. While we rafted the river and jumped from the rocks upstream of Atlanta’s largest sewage plants, we knew not to venture downstream of Peachtree Creek. We called that river the “Chattamanasty.”
Jacory was born just four years after Chattahoochee Riverkeeper settled its
Clean Water Act lawsuit against the city of Atlanta in 1998, forcing the city toinvest billions to clean up its sewage.
When all three of us ventured on to this river last week, 99 percent of the City of Atlanta’s illegal sewage discharges into the river had been eliminated, and Jacory’s first trip on the Chattahoochee showed off not just the beauty of the Palisades so familiar in my youth, but the resilient beauty of the river downstream of the city’s big sewage plants.
We camped at a reclaimed industrial site on the banks of the river just three miles downstream from Atlanta’s R.M. Clayton Wastewater Treatment Plant, what was once one of the most notorious sewage plants in the Southeast. The campsite, Riverview Landing, will soon become a residential/retail development…at a place where three decades ago you had to hold your nose to tolerate the river.
We paddled past the site of the soon-to-be established Moore’s Bridge Park in Carroll County, stopped at the new Chattahoochee Bend State Park in Coweta County and enjoyed the trip’s highlight—Hilly Mill Falls—in Heard County. That river that Joe Kidd once loved, then left–because it had an odor problem–welcomed him home again.
The destruction and then restoration of the Chattahoochee’s recreational waters in the course of one man’s life is astounding—and a testament to what can be accomplished when communities start caring for their rivers.
Perhaps when Jacory reflects on his youth and the Chattahoochee, he will remember it not as the “Chattamanasty” but simply as the “Chattahoochee”—a place that lives up to its lyrical Creek name which translates to “flowered rock.”
Revival of a Resource
Continuing on the theme of a river revived…at Chattahoochee Bend State Park, the Friends of the Bend and Rep. Lynn Smith (R-Newnan) welcomed us to the state’s newest park with cold drinks and watermelon. Rep. Smith told me that during the early 1990s as Coweta County inventoried its “resources,” community planners wrote off the Chattahoochee as too polluted to be considered an “asset.” Two decades later, the park opened, representing a significant investment by the county and state to develop the same resource they’d once dismissed. Clean water makes a difference.
Golf Balls & Trash
On the second day of the journey when we encouraged participants to scour the river bottom for golf balls (there’s lots of golf courses in North Fulton), we never imagined the dividends it would pay. At the end of the day, 1,160 balls were recovered from a 15-mile section of river. Charlie White and Marco Newman won the contest, collecting 137; a close second were Ramsey Cook and Jessa Goldman with 136. Paddle Georgia participant Larry Castillo, who deals in used golf balls, shipped the balls to a recycling facility and sent a check to Georgia River Network for $82…the going rate for wholesale used golf balls: 7 cents a ball.
Likewise, our trash pick up day was a success. Our volunteers pulled more than 2,500 pounds of debris from a 10-mile run of river. Among the stranger items collected were a three-foot tall Bart Simpson doll, a seat from a camp toilet and a “message in a bottle” dating from the 1970s. Chattahoochee Riverkeeper provided motorized support for the clean up, and local Atlanta TV CBS 46 filed a report on the event which can be viewed by clicking here.
On Diving Rocks & Rope Swings
Put 450 people on a river and they will find a way to take a plunge into the water. For many the highlight of the trip was the “Diving Rock,” a historic launching site within the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area’s Palisades Unit. This site was the focal point of the annual Ramblin’ Raft Races in the 1970s.
To this day, a jump from the Diving Rock never fails to transport me back to my youth and that heart-pumping, knee-trembling feeling of plunging into the river’s ice-cold water. For a few seconds, at least, I am 16 again.
It should be noted that if not for the efforts of a dedicated group of “river rats” that mobilized public support for saving this place in the 1970s, there would now be a Fulton County sewer line running atop these very rocks. Yes, a small group of motivated citizens can change the course of history, giving today’s youth memories that will last until they are old, gray and no longer able to make that plunge.
Speaking of Gray…
Paddle Georgia is a multi-generational event. This year, our journey included 81-year-old Carol Voss and his children and grandchildren and Aggie Calder, at 84-years-old the senior member of the Navy. On the last day of the journey, Aggie was seen loading boats on to our tractor trailer with participants half her age.
Then, of course, there were John and Hilda Daiber. Hilda confided in me as we drifted downstream together: “We live in an old folks home.” Six months prior to the journey, John suffered a fall, broke his hip and underwent hip replacement surgery. Two months after the surgery, he registered he and Hilda for a return journey on the Chattahoochee (they participated in the original Paddle Georgia in 2005). A dedicated physical therapy regimen got John ready, and his physician told him: “Go for it.”
They paddled all seven days, suffering three “out-of-boat experiences” in the shoals on the last day of the paddle. Safety boaters from the Georgia Canoe Association and other Paddle Georgia participants helped them right their well-used Grumman aluminum canoe, and they left with smiles on their faces.
Finally, there is Doug Matthews, a retiree from the University of Georgia, who brought his granddaughter, Eleanor Matthews. On a long bus ride to Chattahoochee Bend State Park, Doug regaled me with stories of cross-country bicycle adventures. After Paddle Georgia, he was headed for Washington state to begin a two-wheel journey back to Blowing Rock, North Carolina.
I can only hope that when I’m receiving the AARP magazine, I’ll have the fortitude of a John Daiber, the good health of Aggie Calder and the boldness of Doug Matthews to keep going and doing. These individuals are truly inspirational.
Leaving a Legacy
I first met April Ingle at a slide show in Athens, Georgia in 2004. She’d just been hired by Georgia River Network (GRN)—then a two-person shop trying to establish itself as a mover and shaker in Georgia’s river protection community.
That night the topic of a Bicycle-Ride-Across-Georgia-style trip on Georgia rivers was discussed, and April and Dana Skelton latched on to the idea. In a move no less bold and brash than John Daiber’s Paddle Georgia registration two month’s after major hip surgery, April and Dana said, “Lets Do This!”
And, thus, with initial—and substantial—support from Ronny Just at Georgia Power Company, Paddle Georgia was born (Dana gets credit for creating the name).
That first year, we thought we’d have a success if we could entice 100 people on the river for seven days; 350 people signed up. Our first journey on the Chattahoochee was a comedy of errors, undertaken by April, Dana and me, along with two volunteers loaned from Patagonia’s Atlanta store. We looked to Mark Twain for reassurance: “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.”
Ten years and 1000 miles later, more than 3200 people have participated, exploring 12 different Georgia rivers and raising more than $250,000 for river protection.
When April and Dana bought into to Paddle Georgia, their colleagues told them they were crazy and advised against it. Now, river groups across the country are copying Paddle Georgia.
But, April is bold individual. And, that’s why she’s now leaving GRN to strike out on her own, hoping to use her skills to help other non-profit organizations and businesses become more successful.
Her 11 years at GRN reflect so much of what makes Paddle Georgia special, for each individual that puts paddle to water is taking a bold step. Whether it’s Alan Crawford, a paraplegic participating in his fourth Paddle Georgia, or Marsha Keating, the mother of two autistic children seeking a river respite on her first Paddle Georgia, we are all doing something others might consider daunting, foolish, frivolous, ill-advised or impossible.
At the very least, we’re creating some lasting memories; at best, we’re changing the course of our lives and hopefully, in the process changing the future of our rivers.
This year, we saw a polluted river revived by the actions of citizens and Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, we witnessed personal stories of perseverance and determination and we said good bye to a bold visionary who started all this with simple words: “Lets do this!” It was an inspirational year on the river.
The German writer Goethe was right, boldness does have genius, power and magic in it.
Thanks to all our participants, volunteers and sponsors who created another great time on a beautiful Georgia river. See you next June 20-26 on the Ogeechee River!
And a Few Parting Shots…
Kudos to Friends of Chattahoochee Bend State Park, the City of Newnan and the Newnan High School Environmental Club for throwing one heck of a block party in downtown Newnan, including canoe tug-o-wars in the Cedar Creek Park & Outdoor Center pool, live music, great food and a film festival. Special thanks to Greg Hyde, Dean Jackson and Lindsey Key for making it all happen!
Georgia Water Coalition honored a number of legislators during Paddle Georgia’s encampment at Riverview Landing. Colleen Kiernan of the Georgia Sierra Club (pictured above with Sen. Vincent Forte (D-Atlanta) and Jennette Gayer with Environment Georgia led the program, giving participants a chance to mingle with legislators in an intimate setting. Other legislators joined in on the paddle, traveling 10 miles from Riverview Landing to Campbellton Road. Among those joining us were U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn and Georgia Department of Natural Resources Director Mark Williams.
Vincent Payne with the Georgia Canoe Association organized dozens of safety boat volunteers to ensure that all paddlers made it through rapids and other obstacles safely. These volunteers spent long hours stationed at critical locations and rescued more than a few paddlers who had “out-of-boat” experiences. Thanks Vincent and GCA for making this another safe Paddle Georgia!