Paddle Georgia Celebrates the South's Rivers
The boats have spent all night under a Georgia State Highway bridge, resting cheek-to-jowl in the midsummer dew, supervised by an off-duty police officer. There are hundreds of them—kayaks and some canoes—patterning the banks of the Coosawattee River like a psychedelic parquet floor. At about 6:30 AM, a black Volkswagen pulls up and a bluff, sunburned redhead named April gets out, dismisses the cop and starts rummaging around in the trunk of her station wagon.[Canoes and kayaks await their riders at a Paddle Georgia launch site on the Etowah River in 2006. Photo: Joe Cook.]
Shortly, a school bus arrives, and people file out: surgeons, refrigerator salesmen, a shy German couple, inner city kids, cattle farmers, retired people with high-tech binoculars hanging from their necks, suburban families. They stumble and pick through the aggregate of candy-colored boats, and, finding their own craft, drag it down to the water. They lose their towel-camera-lunch-sunglasses, they shout questions over the heads of others that have to be repeated, they laugh giddily with a friend over a cup of coffee spilled down the front of a bathing suit, they find their towel-camera-lunch-sunglasses, they threaten their kids with the count of three to put on their PFDs and get in the canoe.
In the meantime, another school bus arrives, and eventually another, and another. During all of thise, April is checking peoples’ names before they get into their boats, and one by one they slide into the water and disappear behind a bend in the river. Today, there will be 15 . . .
. . . miles of daydreaming on sequined water; jumping off rope swings into deep, cool holes; and attacks by child pirates. Tomorrow, more of the same.
This is Paddle Georgia, an event put on by an environmental nonprofit called Georgia River Network, and sponsored in part by Patagonia. Georgia River Network believes that people can’t begin to protect our special places until we know them intimately. So, each year 350 people of all ages and walks of life show up to spend a week (and roughly 100 miles) on a different Georgia river, sleep in what amounts to a crazy gypsy camp on the floor of a high school basketball court (or out on the football field for those who want to rough it), eat together, laugh together and complain together about their sunburn, their sore shoulders, and the stench of the effluent discharge point at mile 13 of the day’s paddle. And they do it all with grins on their faces.
The Deep South is a part of the United States not particularly celebrated for its remote, wild places, but it has more rivers than any other place in the country. Though these rivers are not usually remote in the strictest sense of the word, they are full of the cacophony of human history, wild pigs, birdsong, the lush, tangled battlements of Georgia floodplains in midsummer, and of course there are always the child pirates. And as is true around the world, these rivers have troubles, which the proceeds of Paddle Georgia go toward alleviating. However, the deeper purpose of Paddle Georgia is to help people experience a river—not from their car windows—but as a place coursing with history, raucous wildlife, and a sweet, meditative slowness that only can be found in a watery place. This is what keeps people—all kinds of people—coming back to Paddle Georgia each year for a refreshing baptism on a hot week in June.
Summer may seem like a long way off, but if you want to experience Paddle Georgia for yourself, sign up soon. This year's Paddle runs June 19-25 on the Broad and Savannah Rivers. Learn more and register at: www.garivers.org.
[Above, right: The Paddle Georgia flotilla drifts down North Georgia's Coosawattee River during 2009's journey. Left: Paddle Georgia participants always find time for extracurricular activities. Photos: Joe Cook.]