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Archive for March, 2020

I recently ran across an online magazine soliciting contributions encouraging writers to share their family’s outdoor passions, experiences and goals in 700 words or less.

This is a story about how the outdoors wrecked my family…and opened new doors to the outdoors for me and hundreds of other families.

In the winter of 2003 at Blue Springs State Park in Florida on a family visit to canoe with the manatees, Monica, my wife of 11 years, awoke in our tent opposite me and over our sleeping four-year-old daughter, squared me in the eye and proclaimed, “I hate camping, and I am never going to do it again.”

It was apparently a restless night. This is the same woman with whom I’d spent the past decade hiking large portions of the Appalachian Trail and tackling some 700 miles of rivers on long-distance canoe camping adventures.

Our seminal outdoor adventure as a family was a month-long canoe trip on north Georgia’s Etowah River. Our daughter, Ramsey, just potty-trained when we set out, learned the angry cackle of the kingfisher and the haunting call of the barred owl. She held spawning carp and discovered where to find crayfish. A budding river philosopher by journey’s end, above each rapid she instructed her parents: “just go with the flow”—apt advice for what was ultimately to befall our family.

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An April 1, 2002 issue of the Rome News-Tribune documented our impending month-long journey down the Etowah River.

The trip was everything a family outdoor adventure should be. Together 24 hours a day—always in the space of a 17-foot canoe or a riverside campsite–it bred a closeness and intimacy not available at home, even in the smartphone-less world of the early 2000s.

But within two years of that epic family adventure, we were divorced, painfully but amicably, and got on with that peculiar modern-day task of co-parenting.

I continued backpacking and paddling and camping, and on occasion, gave slide presentations about that Etowah journey—a task that was always bittersweet—and challenging. Before the days of power point and digital projectors, you really needed two people to smoothly juggle an old-school two-projector set up and script.

At a 2004 show in Athens hosted by Georgia River Network (GRN), someone asked about the idea of a long-distance group paddle trip—an idea I’d kicked around for years, but never acted upon. That night over dinner with GRN’s April Ingle and Dana Skelton, a plan was hatched to create what we initially called Canoe Ride Across Georgia fashioned after the popular Bicycle Ride Across Georgia.

Over the next several months of planning, Dana thankfully suggested the less unwieldy name of Paddle Georgia and the next year, we opened registration for a week-long, 115-mile journey on the Chattahoochee River. We hoped 100 people would register; we got 300.

My 6-year-old daughter Ramsey—and some of her cousins—joined me for that first trip;

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Ramsey rowing on the Georgia Tech women’s crew team.

her mother intrepidly served as the caterer for the crowd…though she DID NOT camp!

Fifteen years later, a 21-year-old Ramsey has covered more than 1500 miles of Georgia rivers, most of it on our annual Paddle Georgia journeys. She’s an environmental engineering student at Georgia Tech, a militant composter, recycler, pescatarian and member of the institute’s club rowing team that trains each morning on the Chattahoochee—the same misty stretch she explored in 2005 on that first Paddle Georgia. She proudly wears calluses and blisters on her hands and she loves being on the river.

She’s not the only Paddle Georgia alum to feel that way. Some 5000 people have participated in the trips over the years, including many like Ramsey who grew up coming on the annual week-long summer river pilgrimages. Best described as summer camp for grownups and families, the parent-child memories that have been spawned are countless.

Owing to the difficulty of coordinating two paddlers, the tandem canoe is commonly referred to as the divorce boat. That was never an issue for Monica and me. It was navigating life off the river that was troublesome, but neither of us would trade our Etowah adventure and the fond memories we created. It helped make a young woman who I believe will always be tied spiritually, if not occupationally, to Georgia’s rivers.

Likewise, the roots of Paddle Georgia can be traced to that Etowah epoch and the subsequent divorce. What would have become of us had we remained a traditional family, I know not, but for certain our split launched all three of us down new paths.

Along the way, we fought the current for sure, but ultimately, the river takes us where we need to go. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow.

Joe Cook, Paddle Georgia Coordinator, April 2020

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Ramsey and her Paddle Georgia paddling partner, Jessa Goldman, on the Ocmulgee River in 2018.

 

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