By Joe Cook
On the bus from the river today, amidst the buzz over the day's rope swings, sandbars, water battles and wildlife sightings, Marilyn Meadows of Athens, Georgia, turned to her seat mate and said, "If there's anything close to heaven, this is it,” which may have been the oddest commentary ever uttered on a crowded school bus filled with smelly, sand-caked paddlers in the oppressive summer heat of South Georgia.
But such incongruous talk is common on Paddle Georgia, an annual paddling event sponsored by Georgia River Network that in 11 years has grown into the largest week-long group paddling event in the country.
Two days previous, Marilyn had spent nearly 11 hours with more than 300 other paddlers navigating a grueling 17-mile course through the strainer-choked Ogeechee River, a blackwater gem that empties into the Atlantic Ocean just south of Savannah. On that day there was very little banter on the bus back to camp—only weary and exhausted paddlers.
It was a day straight from paddling hell, but one where glimpses of heaven were revealed. On one occasion paddlers joined together to cut a portage path around one problematic cross-river log jam. At another jam, they took turns lifting one another over a partially submerged log; and at still another, a team of six, standing in knee-deep water, pushed and pulled nearly 300 boats across a a river-wide strainer.
In 11 years of organizing Paddle Georgia events, I've found that this kind of camaraderie is what makes group paddle trips so special. For one week, individuals from diverse walks of life come together for a common cause—to safely navigate a wild river and have a great time doing it. In our daily lives, we go different directions. On the river, we are all in the same boat, a status that breeds empathy, and thus, many a helping hand. Even hellish situations can become almost heavenly.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that we are paddling through paradise (one Ogeechee community is even called "Eden"). Overhead, swallow-tailed kites put on aerobatic displays; in riverside shrubs brilliantly-colored warblers flit from limb to limb, and in the water, gar and alligators break the surface to make their presence known. Where the river becomes braided, willows close in to make tunnels of green and when the river rejoins itself, ancient cypress reach to the sky anchored to the swampy ground with flying buttresses and six-foot high knees.
But, always it is the people that make the day. An entourage of graying baby boomers ambushes a group of paddling teens with water cannons at one bend. At the next, a five-year-old daughter rides her father's back as he swims through the water. He is her pony; the river is their express route to adventure. It is scenes like this that has prompted more than one paddler to call the trip "summer camp for grown ups."
This year the trip attracted Rob Hunt and Holly Neill, two Missouri environmental educators that came to study the event in hopes of duplicating it on Show-Me-State rivers. Already, Paddle Georgia has helped spawn similar paddling events in Florida and North Carolina.
That said, group paddle trips are not for everyone. There are long lines for dinner and showers in those high school locker rooms…in addition to the usual deprivations of any camping trip. But, participants get in return a trip free of logistical headaches (Can Vince's truck really carry all our boats when we finish?) and insured by safety in numbers (on river, boaters help one another and on land, event staff are on standby in event of emergency).
For the next three days, some 300 paddlers will finish the final 40 miles of Paddle Georgia. Adventures still await…and probably a few glimpses of heaven.
–Joe Cook is the Paddle Georgia Coordinator
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