A movement is underway to make Georgia’s rivers more accessible for recreation. A week-long event gets hundreds of paddlers out on a different river in the state each year, and it’s opening up those waters to more people year round.
This sandy beach along the Oconee River in Athens has probably never had as many canoes and kayaks leave its shore at once.
This hot June morning, the long stretch of brown sand between the river and a forest of oaks and sycamores is marked with the footprints of over three hundred people anxious to get off on the first leg of a 106 mile water ride down to Dublin.
They’ll paddle under overpasses, by waste water treatment plants, and even carry their boats portage around a dam along the way.
And they’ll camp each night in school gymnasiums and on football fields…just to see so much of the river and play in it too, including water fights.
For some, the annual event called Paddle Georgia is the only way they would ever have such an intimate experience with the river. Stan Sewell from Atlanta brought along his wife and two middle school girls --it’s his seventh trip.
"A trip like this… the logistics prevent us from doing more of it," says Sewell. "With this you know someone has scouted it out, you know it’s accessible. We probably wouldn’t undertake something like this… we could do shorter trips sections of the river, but not a long paddle like this."
Access is the biggest problem for even veteran organizers like April Ingle with the Georgia River Network. Further downstream in Milledgeville. She was shocked paddlers didn’t have permission to move from the public sandbar on the river along a private dirt road to a school bus taking them to their campsite. And so was the landowner who said they were trespassing. Ingle thought she cleared the group with a local company which said it owned the land.
But Ingle says even for a lone paddler, it can be just as difficult:
"A lot times when people go paddling right now they have to go to a bridge crossing, pull over the side of the road, get out, scramble down a river bank next to a highway bridge."
That's not the ideal family adventures. Alan Toole of Sugar Hill.
"You usually feel little intimidated when you come in … you feel like 'what am I going to run into his time," says Alan Toole of Sugar Hill. He’s taking a pit stop with a canoe of toddlers and his eight year old son.
"Out in the white water river," says Toole, "someone is usually standing around saying I’ll guard your car for a couple bucks. Or they'll take your wheels off your car if you don’t."
River enthusiasts are working for better access. Paddle Georgia has raised thousands of dollars for boat ramps and launches. And communities and the state are creating more water trails. Overall, there are 30 of them in the works.
And with access comes business opportunities says Adam Heagy, the manager of Oconee Outfitters in Milledgeville. He says a new public walkway around the river has doubled his business:
"One thing we fell short on last year was civic clubs, church groups and scout groups called us up to rent boats and we couldn’t meet the demand. So this year we doubled the size of the fleet. Next year, we’ll increase that."
And the more people on the rivers, the better says Paddle Georgia’s founder Joe Cook. As the river keeper of the Coosa basin in north Georgia, he has another motive:
"When you get people out there, they develop relationships with rivers. It’s like any relationship you have. In order to really get to know something or someone, you have to spend time with it. And when they develop a relationship, they’re a lot more prone to want to work to protect that river."
Next year’s Paddle Georgia, hundreds of people will put in downstream of the Oconee after it meets the Ocmulgee and pours into the Altamaha River.