By Katie McKy
Imagine paddling with 400 of your nearest and dearest friends in a Skittles-colored fleet. This is the tenth year of Paddle Georgia, a 7-day, 115-mile journey on Georgia's longest river, the Chattahoochee. It's a river that's as fun to paddle as it to pronounce, with waterfalls, 100-foot granite cliffs, caves that once sheltered Native Americans, fish weirs that currently feed Native Americans, and misty, trouty stretches. It's also a hoot to glide through a mega-city rather than endure passage in a belching, hissing bus or a lurching cab.
So, how do you launch hundreds of kayaks and canoes?
Joe Cook, Paddle Georgia Coordinator, said, "We stagger the launchings over several miles of the river so no one gets crowded, but once we're on the water, we stretch out."
Of course, there are no campsites on the Chattahoochee with hundreds of tent pads, so Paddle Georgia parks at high schools and universities.
Cook said, "We sleep in the gym and in tents on the practice field. It's a little like a refugee camp, except it's a blast."
The river is also a blast. There are shoals that quicken the pace and whiten the water on the second, third, and seventh days.
Cook said, "Because of insurance, we don't do larger than Class II, but yesterday, we still had lots of flipping and swamping. We have safety boats and everyone got a good laugh out of it. Someone said, 'It's not fun if it's not a little scary!'"
The first two days, the paddlers also meander through parcels of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, which keeps the shorelines green. Day 3 also gives paddlers a duck's eye view of some of Atlanta's toniest architecture, the manses along that stretch of the Chattahoochee.
Of course, there are industrial stretches too, with Day 4 placing the paddlers between industry and more industry, but many participants find that they don't have to steel themselves for the industrial stretch, that it's an interesting shift from the trout dappling the water that came before it and the munching, crunching cows that come after it. Day 4 is also a day to make that stretch of the river less gritty and gray, as the paddlers devote some of that day to lugging old tires and other jetsam ashore and also meeting with Georgia's legislative leaders to lobby.
Day 5 has the paddlers easing out of Atlanta, past a Civil War battlefield and beneath bald eagles. Day 7 might be the best, the cake at the end of the 7-course feast, as the paddlers are treated to comely islands, tumbling waterfalls, and the longest stretch of shoal.
Seeing so many paddlers has been transformative for some of people who live on the Chattahoochee.
"We're lighting bulbs in these communities. They get involved and want to protect and create water trails such as the
Ocmuglee Water Trail. They see the benefit of public access points on their river."
It's also transformative for the paddlers.
"We want people to start a relationship with this river. That will lead to become involved in protecting our rivers. Protecting begins with relationships. We want people to fall in love with our relationships. Dee Stone had never kayaked before in her life before she paddled with us the first year. By her fourth day, she was hooked and now she's on the Georgia River Network Board. Her story is representative of the effect this trip has on people. Others on the Board began here at Paddle Georgia. We've raised over $44,000 on this canoe-a-thon and expect we'll top $50,000. Our ten-year total is over $200,000. People say, 'I never knew it was so beautiful out here and that this was in my backyard.'"
One of the paddlers walked proudly away with a different kind of impression.
"A kayaker had a gar jump onto his boat last year. It got stuck and started thrashing. He was afraid he might flip, so in trying to free it, its armor-like scales left an impression on his arm, which everyone wanted to see and touch."