By Joe Cook
On June 20, almost 400 paddlers will launch from a backroad's boat ramp deep in the wide and wild floodplain of South Georgia's Ogeechee River for what event organizers bill as 95 miles, 7 days and one great time.
The event, Paddle Georgia 2015, will be the 11th edition of this annual paddling pilgrimage that has grown into the largest week-long canoe and kayak adventure in the country.
It is one of many popular group paddling trips across the country planned by river advocacy and education groups each summer. In New York on June 20, the Delaware River Sojourn kicks off, and in August Paddle Oregon ventures down the Willamette River. Already this summer, paddlers have enjoyed group adventures on North Carolina's French Broad and Pennsylvania's Schuylkill.
The popularity of these trips is rooted in the thrill of adventure on wild rivers, tempered with the safety and convenience of paddling in large groups with event organizers that do the logistical legwork.
"Most families would be intimidated by the idea of planning a week-long paddle trip," said Dana Skelton, Interim Executive Director of Georgia River Network (GRN), the group that organizes Paddle Georgia. "We plan the launch sites, shuttles and campsites so paddlers don't have those headaches. It makes it possible for families and even first-time paddlers to experience a long-distance paddle trip."
And, trip organizers agree that long-distance voyages are among the best ways to truly experience rivers.
While day trippers will pick the most scenic or most thrilling sections of a river, on a multi-day voyage paddlers witness it all—from breathtaking beauty to sites flowing with cultural history to wastewater discharges from industrial facilities and sewage plants.
This year's Paddle Georgia on the Ogeechee flows past the discharge from a textile plant that in 2011 was responsible for killing some 38,000 fish, an incident that prompted lawsuits from riverfront landowners and the local Riverkeeper organization, leading to a $5 million settlement to clean up the river.
"Our journey on the Ogeechee provides us with an opportunity to educate people on the importance of protecting our rivers and the role that local watershed groups play," said Chris Manganiello, Policy Director at GRN. "This river is on the mend in large part because of a citizen-based river advocacy group.”
But, if you ask the participants what they enjoy most, you'll likely get this answer: "The people."
Over the period of several days, the common bond of journey and adventure creates a multi-cultural, multi-generational floating family united by the paddle.
"It's a unique experience," said Laura Catalano of the Schuykill River Heritage Area which organizes a seven-day sojourn on this historic Pennsylvania River (Valley Forge sits on its banks). "There's a lot of camaraderie and the camping is a big part of it."
Yet despite months of planning by organizers, it's the unexpected moments that create the lasting stories from these trips: the snake that falls into the boat, the fish that jumps into it, the thunderstorm that fills it with water, the rapid that flips it. In the end, whether its 400 people or four people, these are the stories that are told over campfires at the end of the day's paddle.
—Paddle Georgia runs June 20-26. To learn more and follow the journey through photos and videos, visit: http://www.garivers.org/paddle_georgia/index.html
—To read daily blogs from Paddle Georgia participants June 20-27, visit: https://garivernetwork.wordpress.com/
—To view images and video from the adventure, visit the Paddle Georgia facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/paddlegeorgia
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