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Archive for April, 2021

This is a story about water trails inspired by a recent journey down South Chickamauga Creek, but it begins in 1983 when, with newly minted drivers licenses, a high school buddy and I cruised Smyrna, making the rounds of South Cobb Drive, home of the Dairy Queen and Miracle Theater, and Cobb Parkway, where Cumberland Mall and Akers Mill Theater loomed over the landscape. The two roads that defined the parameters of our cruising territory were connected by I-285, the perimeter highway that likewise defined Atlanta’s suburbs.

The Tennessee River lies just 32.43 miles from Ringgold on South Chickamauga Creek.

Coming north on I-285 that night, headed for Cobb Parkway, we saw the highway signs pointing to I-285 east and Greenville, South Carolina. Buoyed by our recently found mobility, we mused about bypassing our designated exit and just motoring on to South Carolina. “We could do it, you know.”

“Yeah, but there’d be hell to pay.” So, we went to the midnight movie instead.

But, that wunderlust never left. With the freedom of wheels, road signs displaying mileage to Greenville and Chattanooga made those places seem not so far off. They beckoned and held new meaning. I-285 went round and round, but its spokes provided endless possibilities. Those folding highway maps (a relic lost to the smartphone world) became passports to adventure.

There was a time, before interstates and before railroads, when rivers and streams called to us in the same way. They led–either upstream or downstream–to a larger world and grand adventures (think Lewis and Clark). They were mind expanding.

So, it was with much delight when I arrived at Ringgold’s Dragging Canoe Memorial Launch on South Chickamauga Creek and read the directional sign pointing downstream: “TENNESSEE RIVER 32.43 MILES” My companion, a neighbor in Rome and veteran of many Georgia River Network paddle trips, Sheila Cox, noticed it as well: “Hmmm, we could go right on to Chattanooga,” she mused.

Indeed, once to Chattanooga, we could keep on going, a few hundred miles to the Ohio River, thence down to the Mississippi and on to New Orleans. Epic.

“We could do it,” I thought silently, “But there would be hell to pay.” I had a dinner date with my wife at 6:30 that evening.

Just the knowing is enough, though. That is the marvel of water trails. Like roads leading to distant horizons, each kayak launch holds endless possibilities for adventure. In Georgia, there’s more than 18,000 miles of state highways and more than 1,200 miles of interstates, but there’s more than 70,000 miles of streams and rivers…and be they large–like the Chattahoochee–or small like South Chickamauga Creek, they beckon to some place…other.

Our day on South Chickamauga Creek didn’t disappoint.

Having spent much of the winter months exploring South Georgia rivers, I’d forgotten about the grandeur of North Georgia streams. Soon, we found ourselves dwarfed by soaring limestone bluffs, paddling into cave-like recesses beneath their sheltering shelves.

Paddling beneath one of South Chickamauga Creek’s limestone bluffs.

At one such bluff, a portion of the creek’s flow simply disappeared underground beneath the limestone, the gurgling rush of water echoing from an unknowable cavern below. Two miles downstream, on the other side of a looping oxbow, the flow rejoined the creek, gushing from cracks and fissures and holes in the limestone. Such is the nature of northwest Georgia’s geology where the karst formations give rise to caves and sinks and unpredictable underground flow patterns.

Near the Elsie Holmes Nature Park, a bald eagle passed overhead; a short while later an otter appeared and quickly disappeared; ubiquitous river cooters basked on logs and a queen snake perched on a limb. We searched for the rare Chickamauga crayfish (found only in the Chickamauga Creek drainages) and came up with only one non-descript crustacean, hiding beneath a rock and looking for its next meal. Mussel shells littered sandbars. Every where, signs of the circle of life endlessly played out in this stream whose water would ultimately touch not just Chattanooga, but Florence, Alabama; Paducah, Kentucky; Memphis, Tennessee and finally, New Orleans.

It makes not just Chickamauga Creek seem small.

Sheila Cox of Rome shoots one of the South Chickamauga Creek’s many shoals and ledges.

Our boats kept pace with the water, sometimes slow on long reaches of flatwater, but more often than not, flowing swiftly around gravel bars while falling over just enough limestone ledges to keep the senses keen and the heart racing.

I’d never paddled South Chickamauga Creek before; I’m glad I did. It is a spectacular little creek. And, I’m glad communities along its length–from Ringgold to Chattanooga–are investing in making it accessible. We arrived at the Graysville Bridge Canoe Launch tired from the 13-mile adventure, reminiscing about the beauty we’d encountered and longing to see what awaited downstream.

But alas, that itch could not be scratched this day. “There would be hell to pay.” We hustled back south to Rome along I-75 and I arrived at the restaurant with not a minute to spare.

But, South Chick, I know you are there now. That’s enough and some day I might follow your path on more journeys of discovery, maybe all the way to New Orleans. That is the glory of the water trails that Georgia River Network and communities across Georgia are trying to establish. So, water trail builders, we salute you! You’re not just building a boat ramp; you are building portals to limitless possibilities.

Georgia River Network will paddle South Chickamauga Creek May 15 as part of the organization’s Pedal-Paddle River Adventure series. It is one of 15 paddle trips planned by Georgia River Network this year, including adventures in each of Georgia’s 14 major river basins. Learn more at www.garivers.org/events.

Joe Cook

April 16, 2021

And, a few more images from South Chickamauga Creek…

A limestone ledge along South Chickamauga Creek in Catoosa County. The creek is home to numerous Class I-II shoals and ledges.
South Chickamauga Creek is highlighted by numerous soaring bluffs.
A queen snake perches on a creekside limb.

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