paddle Georgia

Paddle Georgia youth group leader Alicia Evans (in straw hat) navigates a shoreline of willow as other youth participants follow.

By Joe Cook

On June 17, three days prior the beginning of Paddle Georgia 2015, a short 100 miles from the starting point of the 7-day journey in coastal Georgia, a 21-year-old man shot and killed nine people at Charleston, South Carolina's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The shocking murders were racially motivated. The killer was white; all the victims were black.

On June 27, the day we finished our 95-mile journey, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage.

Immersed in the Ogeechee River and disconnected from most media outlets for a full week, the 300 paddlers that traveled all seven days of Paddle Georgia 2015 returned Saturday and Sunday to TV, newspaper and online media filled with stories from a divided nation.

paddle Georgia

Corky Ackerson of Athens leads a row of floaters past an Ogeechee River sandbar.

The Confederate battle flag came under fire (photos surfaced of the Charleston killer wrapped in the flag), arsonists set fire to black churches across the south; some religious leaders decried the Supreme Court ruling; gay rights advocates counterattacked.

From the peace and quiet of the Ogeechee we emerged into a nationwide shouting match. The change was shocking.

For the past week, 300 people from diverse walks of life—liberals and conservatives (I know this because I see their posts on Facebook) black and white, young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight—had endured common trials and celebrated common joys. They ate together, slept together (in school gymnasiums natural disaster refugee-style) and showered together (men and women separately, of course).

They also endured every Ogeechee strainer, often helping one another over, under and around these obstacles; they paddled against the same tidal current in the trip's final miles as we neared the coast. They slathered on sunscreen to shield themselves from the same sun and jumped in the same river to cool themselves.

paddle Georgia

Taylor Morris, left, of Peachtree City, Georgia, and Chris Thompson of Lilburn, Georgia lend a hand to get a kayak over a cross-river strainer.

They shared a common experience. The result: empathy and understanding for fellow sojourners and the willingness to lend a hand to a stranger.

paddle Georgia

Cate Blackburn, daughter of Steve Blackburn of Decatur, Georgia, shows off a freshwater mussel found on an Ogeechee River sandbar.

The river itself facilitated the interaction. Bob Bourne, a Georgia Adopt-A-Stream volunteer and veteran of many Paddle Georgia events, made the keen observation that the narrow and winding Ogeechee made people interact. "On a big river, you might paddle past someone on the opposite side, but that's not possible here. It almost forces you to interact with one another."

And, so it was. There were more water battles, more rope swing congregations, more group lounges on sandbars. This intimate, willow and cypress-shaded river delivered a new level of intimacy.

I was personally "baptized" by "Hopper the Baptist," the nickname given to Audrey Grice, one of ten students from Atlanta's Camp Creek Middle School, who participated in the trip (she took to baptizing her fellow paddlers in the Ogeechee's tea-colored water). In camp, I tented next to traditional families and lesbian couples.

paddle Georgia

Audrey Grice, “Hopper the Baptist,” a student at Camp Creek Middle School in Atlanta, “baptizes” the author in the Ogeechee River. Grice was one of 12 students and teachers from the school that participated in all seven days of Paddle Georgia.

On this journey, it mattered not a wit your sexual orientation, your religious beliefs or the color of your skin. We all traveled the same path.

Perhaps that is what is missing in our society—the recognition that ultimately, we all travel the same path. Each of us wants to live life freely and enjoy it to its fullest.

To be sure, a large group paddle trip down a wild river is not the cure for all that ails society, but there are lessons to be learned in multi-day, group adventures. There is power in shared experiences.

paddle Georgia

A paddler slips beneath willow and moss in one of the many places where the Ogeechee narrows to a shaded, intimate path.

The Ogeechee, flowing through the heart of the Deep South, is like most southern rivers. At fish camps and riverside dwellings, it is not uncommon to see the Confederate battle flag waving in the breeze. Those that come to these fish camps couldn't be more different than the average paddler that ventures on these waters in a kayak or canoe. It is a clash of cultures we've recognized since Jack Dickey penned his novel Deliverance and the bluegrass standard "Dueling Banjos" became synonymous with cultural conflict.

What we too often fail to realize is that the riverfront rebel and Hopper the Baptist dip their toes in the same river. If we wish to heal our national discord, we'd be wise to acknowledge these common experiences and seek ways to share more of them.

A wild river is as good a place to start as any.

–Read more about Paddle Georgia and other long-distance group paddle trips–

–Read another dispatch from Paddle Georgia by Joe Cook