The rain seems to have eased up a bit, and that’s got me thinking about taking my canoe out on the Chattahoochee. So I’m sitting on the sofa with a bunch of maps spread out on the coffee table. Ellie the Miniature Schnauzer is curled up next to me, and there’s a glass of cold chocolate milk (I do so love chocolate milk) within easy reach.
Life is good.
And that’s when, for some reason, it occurs to me that it’s been about 35 years since we found that body on the river.
Finding a body on a river is not something you soon forget. It was lodged in the branches of a tree about eight feet above the river.
But I’m getting ahead of the story, which happened something like this…
It was to be my very first canoe trip on the Chattahoochee, and my buddy Joe (a veteran of many Hooch floats) was to be the guide.
The night before we had loaded Joe’s blue canoe onto the top of his car and put the paddles in the back seat. The life jackets went in too
“I always wear a life jacket,” I remember him saying.
Nowadays, in fact, the law requires you to wear one from the dam down to the Ga. 20 bridge. But the smart paddler wears one all the time.
“You never want to float the Hooch without a life jacket,” Joe continued. “You may never need it, but if you do, you’re gonna need it in a hurry.”
The next morning, I was up early and met Joe at his house. Then I followed him to the takeout spot, left my car there, and then climbed into Joe’s car for the short drive upriver to the dam. Once there, we unloaded the boat and parked the car and grabbed the paddles and put on those life jackets. Then we eased the canoe into the water, gave a shove with the paddles, and were off.
Our plan was to run downriver a ways to the chosen takeout. I don’t remember exactly where that was. But I do remember that conditions were perfect. The weather was just right. There were no storms in the forecast. The river low and clear. It was a textbook day for a float.
It didn’t take long to cover the distance from the dam to Bowmans Island, and the run through the shoals on the right side of Bowmans was as much fun then as it is today. Below them, things calmed down a bit, and we knew they’d stay that way until we got to the big Class II rapid a few hundred yards above the Ga. 20 bridge.
We drifted along, talking about how to run that rapid, but for the moment we faced only smooth water. I had plenty of time to look around. I looked right and saw a heron looking for dinner in the shallows near shore. I looked downstream and saw a trio of ducks coming in for a landing.
I looked left and saw something odd perched up in a tree.
The thing in the tree caught my attention, and I squinted at it as we drifted closer. It looked vaguely like a pig.
But pigs don’t climb trees.
I looked again.
“Joe, do you see that?” I asked, pointing with my paddle.
“Yeah,” Joe said. “I do.”
Working the paddles, we maneuvered the boat toward the left bank for a better look.
There was no doubt about it. It was a body.
If you’ve never experienced it, you might not fully appreciate how finding a body in a tree can affect a day on the river.
In an instant, the tone of the trip changed from a leisurely day of paddling to “we need to get off the water and let someone know.”
The closest road access was the Ga. 20 bridge.
“We’ll take out there and climb the bank to the road,” Joe said.
The rapid was getting close now. Joe, in the back, swung the canoe toward river left and lined us up to make the run. The transit was fast.
And then there was the bridge. We pulled to shore and tied the boat off and clambered up the bank.
As it happened, a game warden’s truck was coming along at the very moment we exited the river. We flagged him down and told him what we’d seen. He took some notes and talked on his radio and helped us haul the boat up the bank. A few minutes later we heard sirens approaching, and not long after that a helicopter was on the scene too.
“I think this trip is done,” I said as we hitched a ride back to the car.
Later, back at Joe’s house, we grilled hamburgers and turned on the TV news.
“Two boaters discovered a body today on the Chattahoochee River,” the announcer was saying. The victim turned out to be a man who had drowned on the river a month or so before. Presumably the body had sunk into a deep spot, where it remained unseen until high water kicked it loose and, eventually, put it up in that tree.
He had not been wearing a life preserver.
Back to the present: We’re coming up on hot weather, and the siren song of the cool Chattahoochee will soon be irresistible. Lots of people will get out and enjoy the river. Most will be fine.
But statistics say that one or two will drown.
Please don’t be a statistic. Wear your life jacket when you float the Hooch – no matter where on the river you’re floating. Yes, actually wear the darned thing. Why? Because if you ever find yourself needing it, you’re going to need it right then. As in “immediately.” When you’re foundering in an ice-cold river, it is not the time to be looking for a life preserver and trying to put it on.
There’s one more reason to wear it too, and it’s a selfish one. Wear it, because I plan to float the river a lot this summer. I want those floats to be restful.
Finding one body in a tree is enough.