Archive for June, 2019


Ken Swift lifts off on a back flip from a high perch above the Withlacoochee.

Cheating death. As I watched our Paddle Georgia Navy venture down the Withlacoochee and Suwannee rivers for a week, swinging from rope swings, leaping from cliffs, running rapids and swimming beneath limestone bridges at Charles and Lafayette Blue springs, I ruminated on that phrase.

Sure, all of these endeavors were low risk-high reward activities for adrenalin junkies young and old. None of us were truly cheating death, but the adventures sure got our hearts thumping. That thrill of adventure is what drives us to wild rivers.

I also thought of Joe Kidd, a long-time Paddle Georgia participant who died June 13. At 77 on Paddle Georgia 2017, Joe was still jumping off cliffs and swinging from rope swings…much to my dismay. Try as I might, I could not talk the stubborn old cuss off a high cliff once he got there. A leap for him (and the endeavor to reach the high riverside plateau) was, in fact, high risk for the equilibrium-challenged senior.


Joe Kidd runs a rapid on the Etowah River during Paddle Georgia 2017.

He did not die the way he probably would have liked…paddling down a river. Dementia took him in a hospital bed.

Joe’s life paralleled the plight of Georgia’s rivers, and in his relationship to those rivers, we find a road map for us all.

A native of Newnan, he learned to swim at Hilly Mill Creek Falls near the banks of the Chattahoochee. He played in that creek and fished the river throughout his youth until upstream pollution drove him and his friends away.

During Paddle Georgia 2014, when we ventured on the Chattahoochee, he returned to the river of his youth and witnessed first hand its revival. A river that was once so fouled you couldn’t fish in it was once again an inviting destination. Between 1970 and 2014, citizens essentially demanded that the pollution be stopped, and by and large, it has been. Sure, there’s still work to be done, but now, Georgia River Network and others are working to establish a water trail on reaches of the Chattahoochee downstream from Atlanta that at one time was written off as a cesspool.


Maddox Swift leaps into the wind-rippled blackwater of the Suwannee.

Joe was a part of this change. During his later years as he got involved in paddling the state’s rivers, he was a frequent volunteer for local watershed groups and gave generously of his time and money. Upon his death, family members requested donations to Chattahoochee Riverkeeper in lieu of flowers.

Fresh on the heels of the news of Joe’s death, I came to the Withlacoochee with an intense sense of gratitude born from the realization that I was one of the lucky ones. In addition to Joe, we lost other Paddle Georgia veterans during the past year. Blue-shirted John Councilman from Columbus and the burly medic John Gugino from the Athens area will never paddle with us again. And each year, it seems one of our family misses the journey due to health issues. During this year’s trip we all sent well wishes to Mitt Connerly who is undergoing treatment for leukemia.

As we leapt from high places into the Withlacoochee and Suwannee’s blackwater, we might have felt invincible when we bobbed to the surface, but we know that life is fleeting.

We will pass on, but the rivers will ceaselessly flow. And, there lies our responsibility.

Our rivers can flow full and healthy or they can flow depleted and polluted. We determine their future. To insure that our children and our children’s children have access to the same “life-cheating” experiences we enjoyed during Paddle Georgia 2019, we must commit not only to “suck all the marrow” out of life (as Joe Kidd did)—but also to protect those rivers until we can cheat death no more.

Joe Cook

June 26, 2019

P.S.  A picture is worth a thousand words. Look below to see if it’s true!


Shay Ammons takes a dive in Madison Blue Spring. Shay was among eight youth who participated in Paddle Georgia through a partnership between Georgia River Network and Camp Horizon. Camp Horizon provides mentoring programs for Metro Atlanta at-risk youth in the state’s foster care system.


A young Suwannee bass eyes Paula Jeffers…or is it the other way around. Thanks to fish specialist Camm Swift, Paddle Georgia participants had the opportunity to seine for–and view–many of the river’s native fish species.


As always…the water battles were epic. Rule of Engagement No. 1: Never bring a squirt gun to a water cannon fight.


Lotem Kol shows off his rope swinging style on the Withlacoochee. Lotem, his brother Morry and father Roman, were selected as our Volunteers of the Week. Dozens of Paddle Georgia participants chipped in as volunteers during the week, helping make this year’s event one of our most successful ever! Thank you paddlers for participating and volunteering!

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Day 7: Springing into Summer

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur last day of Paddle Georgia 2019 was also the first day of summer, and wow: the Paddle Georgia Navy kicked off the season in style!  Days 5 and 6 were very rainy days on the river, but Day 7 brought loads of sunshine and fun.  Our 15-mile paddle was punctuated by many springs and we explored them all.  The more adventurous of us explored with snorkels and fins and even swam underneath the natural rock bridges that divided the pools at Charles Spring and Lafayette Blue Springs Park. DSC_2019.JPG

The river seemed to move a little slower today and was much wider than the Withlacoochee, where our journey began.  Still, the beauty was evident with every mile and we were very excited to see even more turtles than we had seen on earlier days.  The most exciting wildlife on this stretch of the trip was the chance to spot a Gulf Sturgeon leaping from the river- and leap they did!  DSC_2162Sometimes all you caught was the mighty splash out of the corner of your eye, but when you looked at the right time it was quite the sight to behold.  One of our participants, Pat, got a little closer than everyone else, and got hit by a sturgeon!  Not to worry, she was all smiles at dinnertime.

DSC_1893.JPGSpeaking of dinner, we were once again treated to quite a feast at our Rivers End Celebration!  Fried fish, hush puppies, coleslaw, and cheese grits made everyone full after a day of swimming, paddling, packing, and loading boats to go home.  Duck races were won, prizes were awarded, and shout-outs and awards were given out to recognize our amazing participants and volunteers.  DSC_2218Joe reminded us of why Paddle Georgia is so important, and that is to help the Georgia River Network protect the waterways that mean so much to us.  He also highlighted the younger paddlers on the trip and stressed their role as future protectors of our natural resources.  It’s a lesson we should never get tired of learning.

It’s been said that “you can never go home again,” but for Paddle Georgia, that’s simply not true.  Every June, for 15 years, has seen folks from all over come together to build a traveling community where we have the honor and pleasure of spending time with one of Georgia’s amazing aquatic treasures.  We make new friends, catch up with old ones, and realize just how special our rivers are.  We’ll see you on the river next year, Paddle Georgia Family!

~Michelle McClendon (Paddler, Teacher, Paper Clip Lady)


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Paddle Georgia 2019: Day 6

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday marked Day 6 on Paddle GA! This means my 7 teenagers know exactly what the 15-mile paddle on the Suwanee will hold. This is Camp Horizon’s 4th consecutive year of joining in on this incredible journey. Camp Horizon serves Atlanta’s children and youth who have been abused and neglected for over 35 years. This trip has two sets of siblings who have been adopted and two kids who are still in state care. I have known several of these youths since they were 8 years old at our summer camp. It’s been so special for me to take them on this trip.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe started the day off early and found the Ellaville Spring. While the spring has not been the biggest or the most striking, we still can’t get over how magical they are. We spend some time jumping and swimming until our friends tell us about another great spot.

We find the massive sand dune which we spend time rolling down and racing back up to the top. We were joined by our friend Camm Swift who is a “fish master”. We captured several varieties of fish that he was able to teach us more about. Our favorite was catching a dragonfly larva that buried itself back in the sand when we released it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The rest of the morning holds us paddling on the beautiful black water of the Suwanee in and out of the rainstorms. We see several sturgeons jump in and out of the water. We fight through the wind and the rain until we finally get to the next set of incredible springs. There are two, and they are stunning. We take a quick dip in the crystal-clear waters surrounded by limestone and head on down the river.

Our last trek of the day consisted of us paddling upstream a slough to Quarry Lake. We were told that the locals call it “Alligator Alley” but thankfully did not see any gators while we explored. We finished our day off strong pulling into Dowling Park and headed back to camp at the Advent Christian Village.

When we return to camp, we shower and play our favorite card games: spoons and Uno. We have a delicious Mexican fiesta before the “No Talent Show.” After the talent show, we will circle up for our campfire to discuss the highs and lows of the day. We read our letters from past counselors and volunteers from Camp Horizon to cheer us on for our last 15 miles!


At Paddle GA, we hear so much about river conservation- after all, that is what the Georgia River Network does best! I talk to the kids about what we can do as our part and why it is so important, but I often want to talk to the adults about WHO they are conserving these rivers for. Is it for their next generation or for ALL the next generation?DSC_1441.JPG

We must be aware that there is an actual “Adventure Gap”. This phrase coined by James Edward Mills that discusses the disproportionality between the people who enjoy outdoor recreation activities and people from a lower socioeconomic status and people from minorities. It is not enough to conserve the amazing rivers of Georgia if we are not equally creating opportunities for people from all walks of life to enjoy them!

This is why there is such a beautiful partnership between Camp Horizon and the Georgia River Network. It is more than paddling and swimming—it is an adventure of a lifetime that will impact these teens more than most will realize.

~Taylor Hunt (Camp Horizon of Georgia) OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


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DSC_0804I found it ironic we started our paddle today by passing the Nestle Deer Park water bottling plant on our way to the put in. It’s trash cleanup day on the Withlacoochee and Suwannee, an annual tradition of Paddle Georgia. We didn’t start cleaning the first year, in fact it took a couple years of people bringing trash back to the take-out with no dumpster, that a day dedicated to pick up trash on Paddle Georgia was born.

IMG_0089nCleaning up trash is one of the few things all of us can do to create change. It has become a fantastic way to get people involved with a watershed, support, and love a river. Georgia Department of Natural Resources supports Rivers Alive, which is the parent organization to hundreds of waterway cleanups all over Georgia.

In the past we have cleaned up many rivers, the biggest cleanup being the Chattahoochee River below Atlanta, with the smallest one today on the Withlacoochee. Yes, we came up with a few of the water bottles and cans, along with some weird stuff. But we expected much more of those water bottles and normal trash along a beautiful river with people living along the shoreline. If we picked up 300lbs I would be shocked. We had to look hard to find anything at all, and this whole trip has been a beautiful journey. It would be wonderful if every river was this free of trash. The Withlacoochee is my new favorite river.DSC_0855n

The journey today was short, 10 miles, but filled with much adventure. Lots of small springs to explore and play in. My favorite today was called Double Doors Spring, a small limestone cave with a spring flowing between 2 “doors” to the river. This section featured a huge tree with a ladder to a branch overhanging the river. Many brave paddlers climbed a lot higher than I would to jump into the river.

We also had one of the biggest shoals so far to navigate. Melvin Shoals was a long drop/wave train that we once again were guided through by the Georgia Canoe Association safety boaters. All of them have done a wonderful job of making sure all of us had a fun, safe time.


We also had to deal with a very big, noisy thunderstorm. The wind blew and the rain fell—lots of rain. Most of us kept on paddling but others took refuge at our rest stop, under rock ledges or on the shore with large trees. No one has ever figured out exactly what to do when you are caught in the middle of a thunderstorm. I don’t think there is a perfect answer but when in doubt keep on paddling is my answer.

The rest stop today was at a very nice private spring that was opened to Paddle Ga for the day. It was driving rain when I passed so I did not stop.  I kept on paddling wanting to get back to our end to help with getting trash up to the dumpster from the river and was pleasantly surprised to find very little trash was in the offering.

The end of the day found us leaving the Withlacoochee River and entering the Suwannee River and paddling upstream to the Suwannee River State Park.  I have stayed at this park before with Paddle Florida and their annual Suwannee River Music Festival so I know we will enjoy tomorrow and Friday’s paddle.


After dinner we awarded the much coveted “trash day awards” smelted flat engraved bottles. Everyone who picked up trash got a ticket and had a shot at winning a prize, but we also gave awards for some special trash.  Camp Horizon Camper Matthew climbed a huge tree to get a raft out of it. Melissa Ballard told a story about trash she found in the river. Jacob Webster pulled out metal, plastic sheeting and a plastic “Horses Ass”. He won the most unusual prize. Rivers Alive supplied T-Shirts to everyone who picked up trash.

IMG_7897[18353]The evening ended with a presentation from Doug, the owner of Camp Suwannee, about the history of the Christian Advent Village we are currently staying on. Following this, Mary Wooten, won the new Mardis Gras inspired Heads or Tails game earning an REI tent! The night ended with Bret Eady and Chuck Moody securing the Cornhole Championship! What a great day of Paddle Georgia!

~Bonny Putney (GRN Fundraising Chair)



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Paddle Georgia 2019: Day 4

Day four means move day, so I set my rooster alarm call for 5:45 to make sure I got packed and on the river before the last bus. 5am I was awakened by the sound of a cricket. I assume someone set that sound as their alarm. I go back to sleep but the cricket calls again. Did they hit their snooze? I finally succumb to the cricket and get up at 5:30 only to find the cricket inside my tent. 5:35 the Red-eyed Vireo starts his morning call. 6:03 the Wood Thrust chimes in. By this time, I’m fully up and off to another amazing day on Paddle GA.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACamp is busy with everyone running around, taking down tents, grabbing breakfast, early birds making their way to the first bus, and others loading the gear truck – many thanks to the volunteers on the gear truck!! I jump on the 3rd bus and find everyone excited about what today’s paddle will bring with much anticipation about the promised beauty of the Madison Blue Springs.

The launch site is buzzing. An easy slide down to the river. Everyone seems willing to lend a hand and with ease, both bus 2 and 3 are off and on their way. All is quiet until bus 4 arrives. Well, not quite, the Red-eyed vireo and Great Crested Flycatcher continue their song seeming unaware of the paddlers below.

My AAS canoe partner Bailey arrives and we are off. We are greeted on river left with the first Limpkin sighting of the day. Yesterday was a 3 Limpkin day! The weather is perfect and it’s a pure joy to be on this magnificent river. The forest canopy has changed from the dense Ogeechee Lime, Water Elm, and twisted cypress knees of the first two days to Live Oak, Water Hickory, and Sweetgum. Not to mention the amazing limestone bluffs. Today would be an 8 American Swallow-tailed Kite day.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEvery Paddle GA, GA Adopt-A-Stream joins along to monitor the rivers and offer volunteer training. I am part of the AAS team and today Bailey and I have 2 sites to monitor. We are off to find the first sight, Coffee Spring, 1.3 miles into the paddle. We arrive but instead of a fresh cold-water spring, it seems that the river is going into the spring. I find out later that that does actually happen sometime.

Off to the next site, the shoals just below mile 3. Today’s paddle treated us with a handful of short but super fun shoals. The safety boaters are there to help with a few of them. Always nice to have the experts guide you through the best path. From what I saw, everyone went through with ease.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJust after mile 4, we arrive at Hardee Spring. The water is cold and clear. Only a few folks are there when I arrive, and together we swim against the flow to the spring itself. Successful and worth the effort. Soon the spring is filled with lots of paddlers admiring the refreshing waters and views from on top of the 25-foot limestone banks.

Some 2 miles downstream from Hardee Spring is Sinking Stream. Sinking Stream is the total opposite of a spring. Water from the river flows down a stream twisting away from the river and ends in a pool where it flows into the ground. Much worth the hike to see.

By mile 8 we were hungry for lunch, so we stopped on some of the inviting limestone outcrops forming small islands on the river and waved to other paddlers as they passed. Before lunch was over, we discovered this was a favorite spot of a River Otter. It marked the highest spot on the rock with piles of poop.


Renewed from lunch we headed off to the last shoals of the day and the much awaited Madison Blue Spring. Its everything we hoped and more! Some paddlers boasted spending more than 2 hours in the freezy water. The oohs and aahs from each person as they emerged from their first dive into the deep blue hole filled the air with the pure joy of discovery. Back at the entrance to the spring, the tannic waters of the Withlacoochee seemed just as striking as the blue waters in the spring.

Pot Spring was next and though not as impressive as Madison Blue Spring, it is equally as beautiful. Some paddlers who didn’t get enough of the springs jumped into the clear waters from a tall Baldcypress on the bank. A beautiful end to an amazing day.

I arrived at the new base – Camp Suwannee, and quickly found an inviting spot for my tent and then off to dinner. Nicole Pollio from Florida Springs Institute provided the evening program and gave us new insight into the importance of these most valuable habitats. The night ended with a rousting corn hole tournament.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m here on Paddle GA with the scholarship teacher group. We started the trip at 10am Friday in a Project WET workshop (Water Education for Teachers). These teachers receive curriculum training throughout the paddle then take the experience back to inspire their students. I am honored to be part of the Paddle GA experience.

Respectfully submitted by:

Ruth Mead, Education Director at Phinizy Swamp Center for Water Sciences


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Day 3: What is a Water Trail?


What is a River Trail—Sunday on Paddle Georgia, and a well executed put in on the Withlacoochee River gave a perfect example of why we need water trails. What is a water trail? A section of river with (1) safe public access to a boat ramp or launch site for paddlers, most often known as Landing, (2) signs on the public road or highway near the access with the name of the Landing, (3) safety and informational signs at the public river access along the river, and (4) a partnership between local governments, organizations, businesses, and a non-profit (often a Riverkeeper or river protection NPO) to promote the water trail. Today, our access was on private land, with gracious permission from the landowner (Thank You), at the old Spook Bridge, so today’s path to the river was not part of the Withlacoochee water trail—no public access– although we were on that river’s water trail.  

P6150015n.jpgAnd, the toughest access in 15 years of Paddle Georgia—a 12 foot bank required a team to lower and raise boats onto the river by rope, and another team to safely help our boaters down to the river along a temporary set of steps cut in the sandy bank, and help them into their boats at the slippery clay marl at the river’s edge. Cooperation, coordination, and patience helped close to 300 paddlers get down to and on the river in just a few hours. But still, this access was easier than from the public highway just upstream.

P6160060n.jpgAnd what a beautiful day on the river it was. Adventure, wildlife, water fights galore. Folks from age two to two score and forty enjoying a day of paddling, swimming, exploring and learning about the river, echoed by the gleeful screams of children and adults, and the staccato ack ack ack of the kingfishers who led us down the river past beautiful huge moss-draped cypress and oak and tupelo trees shading the river’s edge.  Wildlife included deer, osprey, leatherback turtle, snowy egret. The beautiful pink and lavender flower spikes along the banks are cleome, also called cats whiskers, or skunkweed by some for its pungent odor.

Some of us saw a pontoon boat hauling reclaimed logs back up the river—it takes two to six months to get a permit to reclaim the submerged logs. A 19th-century sawmill at the confluence of the Suwanee and Withlacoochee Rivers near Ellaville was the source for the sunken logs and for the wealth of the sawmill owner who later became governor of Florida and built a mansion nearby from the lumber. The logs are valuable because of the quality of the timber from a long ago and less industrial age. Removing the logs disturbs the river bottom, causing increased turbidity and disturbing the aquatic habitat in the area, an issue addressed by the Georgia Legislature a few years back when it passed a bill permitting harvesting of the submerged logs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt our evening program, Suwanee Riverkeeper John Quarterman revealed the new Withlacoochee River Water Trail signs, the final element that qualifies the Withlacoochee as a recognized water trail. John explained some of the history and geography of the Withlacoochee and Suwannee Rivers. This area is underlain by the Floridan aquifer, a vast underground sea of fresh water flowing through caves and cavities in the limestone and karst areas of the region.  Nearby McIntyre Springs is one of two 2nd magnitude springs in Georgia. A local cave diver in the 1970s discovered 4000 feet of caves flowing into the spring. The interaction between groundwater and the aquifer has been complicated by modern agriculture and increased water use. The impact is not just from increased water use impacting the spring flows but from algae contamination of the springs and their water caused by fertilizer leaching through the ground.

DSC_2377n.jpgThis is what we do on Paddle Georgia—a fundraiser for the Georgia River Network, a statewide nonprofit based in Athens Georgia that promotes the protection of our rivers by informing, empowering and educating people about the importance of our rivers, and the ways we can help preserve and protect them.  When we help more people get on our rivers, they learn to love and appreciate—and help protect—our rivers from the threat of unwise and overly exploitive use.  #paddlega2019

~Victor Johnson (Former Board Member)

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June 15: Troupville Trot

As the sun rose on Grassy Pond, the dew glistened on blades of grass and the morning air was crisp and cool. The first day of Paddle Georgia 2019 was off and running with campers rising to ready themselves for the 11-mile journey down the Withlacoochee River. With a short bus ride to the river, we geared up, lathered up, and slowly made our way down the river. All waded in the water as the flotilla of boats made their way downstream to explore parts unknown. From Spring Creek that fed into the river to the Tupelo trees with knobby knees, no one could deny this pick of a river was something special.


We saw flying fish known as Gar and swimming turtles that popped their heads above the water line then quickly darted away. The highlight was seeing 2 solid white Swallowtail Kites flying overhead that foreshadowed one of the most perfect paddle days ever. Several shoals hadDSC_2151n to be mastered with paddle breaks at sandy shallows for infamous water war battles that are always a competitive distraction. The toughest part was the hauling of boats up a large hill by hoisting them with ropes up the riverbank for overnight storage at Spook Bridge. But the friendly competition of the Live Auction quickly kicked into gear as campers did their best to outbid each other for fabulous prizes as well as raise money for the youth program for next year. The Canoe-A-Thon exceeded our challenge of $30,000 with matching donations to reach $60,000 for Georgia Rivers. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe night ended with a new game where you toss rings around bottles of wine to win those bottles. Those with cornhole experience did quite well scoring some impressive bottles of wine. But just when you think it couldn’t get any better, a bid of $500 for a can of boiled peanuts brought the tent fellowship to an all-time high and the lucky winner walked away with a Jackson Kayak. As we all were falling asleep, the thoughts of a new day on the river filled our dreams and our imagination of what is yet to come!

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~Tammy Griffin (GRN Board Member)

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Well, it’s the best time of the year again—the annual Paddle Georgia trip! There’s nothing better than coming together with 350 other crazy paddlers for a 100+ mile journey down the Withlacoochee and Suwannee Rivers.


Staff, interns, volunteers, and participants were BLOWN AWAY by the air-conditioned registration room at Grassy Pond Recreation Area. Some lucky paddlers even got a sneak peek at the critters we’ll be living with. Hopefully, the gruesome gators won’t scare away our first timers!


Families were eager to unload their gear in the best spots and contribute to the notorious ‘Tent City’ consisting of over 100 homes.


 After settling in, some early birds even spent some fun in the sun on the water and at the local pool. As if we won’t be outside enough this week! 

Following an exciting day of preparation, we were all ready for some good hot food! Old paddlers were seen reuniting and new paddlers mingling with friends from all across the Southeast (even Texas!) over a dinner of roasted chicken, potatoes, green beans, and my personal favorite—banana pudding.


We then celebrated the introduction of our new Executive Director, Rena Stricker, as well as the few dedicated paddlers who have stuck around for ALL 15 YEARS and joined the 1500 mile club! 

Now we are off to explore the beautiful system of rivers that the Georgia River Network fights so hard to establish, restore, and protect. Can’t wait for 8 more days of fun on one of nature’s greatest gifts!

Happy paddling!

~Terry Pate (GRN Board Member)

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