JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – From all over Georgia, they came. From Alabama, Florida, Tennessee and Texas, they came. From California, Nevada, Washington and Oregon, people came to participate in the breathtaking canoe and kayak trip 110 miles down the Chattahoochee from Suwanee to Franklin, which is in Heard County, population about 1,000.
It was the 10th anniversary of Paddle Georgia, the annual seven-day canoe and kayak trip down one of Georgia’s rivers organized by the Georgia River Network. This trip was a re-creation of the first Paddle Georgia, which debuted on the ’Hooch and drew 450 paddlers.
The youngest looked to be about 6 or 7. The oldest was 84. Why do they come? The answer is always the same. They love the river, all rivers.
Phil and Sheliah Cooper are from Cumming. They said they would not miss this trip.
“It’s fantastic,” said Phil.
Sheliah is just as enthusiastic.
“It’s great from the first day; it always is. This is our sixth time on Paddle Georgia. I keep a diary so I can experience it all over again,” she said.
Phil said, “It’s an adventure, and it’s different every time. It’s wholesome. It’s spiritual to be here with nature. And when we come here, it’s like a family reunion at Disney. Two-thirds of the people here we know well that we see once a year.”
Half the trip seems to be sharing the experience with 450 friends who love it as much as you do.
Pete and Cheryl Smith hail from Flowery Branch, and Pete has done this three years now. Cheryl said she had to come and see what it was all about.
“It’s beautiful and a little sad – when you pass a lot of trash on the banks. You wonder what makes people do that,” she said.
Pete said, “Morgan Falls is the most fragile. I like it that you don’t see many homes.”
Joe Cook is with Georgia River Network and one of the organizers of Paddle Georgia. He says GRN is a statewide river advocacy group that wants to protect Georgia’s rivers and streams.
“We decided 10 years ago the best way to do that is to get people on those state rivers and streams,” Cook said. “When people have a relationship with the river, people take better care of it. People come on this trip; it combines an awareness of the river with the natural beauty that surrounds it.
“Some people have never held a paddle before,” he said. “Some have been doing it for years. There are families, college students, kids, retirees and they all come away with a new respect for the rivers.”
The group landed Saturday morning at the Jones Bridge Unit of the National Parks Recreation Area. A little tired and beat, those who did not have friends to take them home climbed on buses to spend the night at Lambert High School and made new friends while volunteers slept out with the boats.
At 7:30 a.m., they were bused back to the river to get back at it. The river greeted them with a fine mist and a good run through some shoals. That got their hearts beating.
One of those was Mikael Woodliff of Alpharetta. He’s been paddling 20 years.
“I used to play in the rapids here when I was a teenager,” he said pointing at the river. “I heard about Paddle Georgia from friends and this is my first trip. It’s been beautiful. The river is fabulous.”
Dee Stone said she made the first Paddle Georgia trip 10 years ago, so she had to make this one.
“I will have paddled 1,200 miles by the end of the week. This is my most favorite thing to do all year,” said Stone. “It’s so beautiful. You never see the river like it is unless you’re in a boat.”
The memories last a lifetime, she said. The wildlife is amazing too. Just in the first day, she saw herons, an osprey and a huge trout. Turtles you see “by the ton” sunning themselves.
“I love to listen to the calls of the birds even though I don’t know what they mean. Kayaking is hiking for lazy people,” Stone said. “I encourage the dragonflies and butterflies to land on my boat.”
There are a lot of seniors on the river this day, but at 82 years old, Aggie Calder is special. She says she’s been kayaking for four years now. She was asked if she likes canoeing best.
“It depends on where you’re going and what you’re doing,” Aggie said. “Canoes are best if you’re on the Oconee and camping on the sandbars. We get on Highway 280 to Darien landing, it’s about 45 miles. We do it in four days.
“We canoe ’til about three, then we camp and enjoy life,” she said.
Well, I guess it doesn’t get any better than that.
All Paddle Georgia community events are free (except for a few extras), open to the public and held outdoors. Details on all Paddle Georgia community events can be found at http://www.garivers.org/paddle_georgia/index.html.
In the event’s first nine years, GRN has introduced more than 2,800 paddlers to more than 900 miles of water trails including the Chattahoochee, Etowah, Ocmulgee, Flint, Coosawattee, Oostanaula, Broad, Savannah, Oconee and Altamaha rivers. Along the way, the event has generated more than $200,000 for river protection.