On the first day, I pick my way down the wide, shallow, moss-carpeted rocks of Flat Shoals. On Day Two, I squeeze down the cracks of a dozen unnamed ledges that cut like hardened scars through the time-softened canyon of Sprewell Bluff. I'm lucky. Recent rains have lifted the flow above the sharp rocks. For years, the Flint has been too thin even for canoes.
A few hours before dark, I near Yellow Jacket Shoals, where the river drops 50 feet in less than a mile. I'm nervous, especially after dumping in the tamer Smith Island Rapid on the first day of the trip.
Just above the shoals, Jim McDaniel waits at a boat ramp beside his rambling Flint River Outdoor Center. I tie up to a root bulging from the muddy bank, and McDaniel asks me where I'm heading. I tell him the Gulf of Mexico. He offers to feed me spaghetti and let me stay the night. I politely refuse, saying I might head on down and get past Yellow Jacket tonight. "What, you don't like spaghetti?" he responds. McDaniel backs the golf cart down the ramp, hooks my bow with a rope, and drags the canoe, gear included, up a track covered in AstroTurf to dry land beside his lodge's ample porch.
After watching the local weather—a menacing red band of tornado-laced thunderstorms brushing over New Orleans and continuing eastward—McDaniel tells me how he and his wife built the lodge, the bar, the liquor store, the RV campground, and the canoe and raft guiding business over the last 30 years. Like most boaters, he flinches at the idea of dams plugging a free-flowing river, but he needs consistent river flows to keep his business alive. A dam on the upper Flint would provide that, so McDaniel has begrudgingly become an advocate of damming the river. I begin to understand the creep of helplessness the farther I go downriver. Does stubbornly protecting a free-flowing river matter if all that's left to those downstream is an inconsistent trickle?
I tuck into my sleeping bag on McDaniel's living room couch while his wife watches midnight TV across the room. I think about Carter's fight against the Flint dam in the '70s. It was not just an aesthetic battle to save the natural river valley. Scientists also knew that evaporation from a reservoir's vast surface area, especially during hot droughts, robs the overall system of its water. Unfortunately, few people outside of vocal organizations such as the Chattahoochee and Flint Riverkeepers are talking seriously about conservation and modernizing infrastructure in Atlanta's leaky water system. Dams are the reflex solution, a Band-Aid to engineer more water from an overtaxed system. Through the open window, above the TV din, I can barely make out the sound of the Flint, a slight rumble as it falls toward the coastal plain.
In the morning, I get through Yellow Jacket after an hour of conservative paddling down the bank-side sneaks and a few awkward drags between tight, bony chutes. Below the Fall Line, the river enters a new world. Cypress trees dangle moss-bearded branches over the banks. Vines twist into chaotic, dark forests. The river seems to move faster without the shoal-pool routine of higher up. The rain-swollen flow pulls me around sharp bends, past logjams and long tongues of sand.
The thunderstorms we'd watched on television the night before catch me just before dusk as I near the GA Road 137 overpass, the only solid structure for 12 river miles. I reach the bridge just as the rain turns sideways and lightning breaks the gray twilight. From my tent setup on a dry patch beside a graffitied, trash-strewn bridge rampart, I pour a whiskey and call Michael. He too is in the thick of the storm, hunkered under a campground shelter 50 miles west, near Columbus. I can hear the tornado sirens through the phone. Our dad has been relaying weather updates to us from home in Atlanta. He used to sit proudly in the stands at baseball games, cheering for his sons in the routine of a normal suburban family. Before our cell service cuts out, Michael and I laugh, wondering if our parents ever imagined their grown sons would be simultaneously huddled beside two separate rivers somewhere in the middle of a Georgia tornado.
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