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Rollin' on the river
Paddle Georgia 2015 brings hundreds to Ogeechee
Paddlers in kayaks and canoes take in the sights of the Ogeechee River during Paddle Georgia 2015's weeklong trip down the river this past week. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

    “There is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
         While this quote comes from the Water Rat in Kenneth Graham’s children’s book, “The Wind in the Willows,” you would be hard-pressed to find a group that agreed with the sentiment more than the participants of this year’s Paddle Georgia event, who spent last week rowing, paddling and drifting down the Ogeechee River in a motley caravan of kayaks and canoes.
    Last Saturday, June 20, about 400 people set off from a boat ramp in Rocky Ford to begin a seven-day sojourn down the Ogeechee, the region’s 95-mile stretch of blackwater running through 22 counties and a river basin covering a 5,500-square-mile area. About 300 people continued after the two-day “lite paddle,” ending their trip Friday at Love’s Seafood in Savannah for a “Journey’s End Feast” and celebration.  
    Since 2005, Paddle Georgia, organized by the Georgia River Network, has partnered with local water protection groups for the weeklong guided trip down a different river each year. This year, they joined efforts with Ogeechee Riverkeeper for the eleventh annual paddle journey, featuring the Ogeechee for the first time ever and after being postponed due to drought conditions and the 2011 fish kill several years ago.
    The event consistently draws several hundred rowers, from outdoor enthusiasts to relative newcomers, from
children as young as 5 to adults in their 80s, and from states all over the Southeast as far away as Virginia and Kentucky.  The paddlers describe themselves as a diverse group coming from many different careers and backgrounds, and while each year has a fresh crop of first-timers, most of the participants are repeat paddlers who recognize each other from year to year.
    “It’s a big, floating, roaming community,” said John Branch, a producer at CNN in Atlanta. Branch took his first Paddle Georgia trip in 2008 down the Flint River and has not missed one since.  Like many other Paddle Georgia participants, he said the trip introduced him to friends throughout the state that he enjoys reconnecting with each year. Two of those friends include Jim and Debbie Fountain of Lula, Georgia, who also experienced their first Paddle Georgia on the Flint River; and Larry Castillo, one of the “originals” who took the first Paddle Georgia trip in 2005.
    “There are a few of us who are the diehards,” said Castillo, who has raced boats all over the world as part of the U.S. men’s national rowing team. He joked, “Now it’s a matter of who is going to outlast who. But you develop a lot of friendships along the way.”

    A day on the water
    Each morning of the trip, the Paddle Georgia group ate an early breakfast so they could launch their boats by 8:30 a.m. After paddling for up to 17 miles, depending on which leg of the trip they tackled that day, paddlers would disembark at a river landing and catch the Paddle Georgia shuttle to their “campsite” — usually, a local high school that had opened its doors (and its floors) to the paddlers. Tours of local attractions, including Georgia Southern University’s Garden of the Coastal Plain and Hunter Cattle, took place earlier in the day, while the evenings were taken up by educational sessions and entertaining group games. Saturday, June 20, participants enjoyed a street party at the downtown Statesboro F1rst Friday “Staycation” celebration.
    For most, however, the real draw of the trip was the hours spent out on the water, getting to know a new river. Several participants said this year’s paddle was more challenging than past trips, with many “strainers” and “sweepers” — that is, downed trees — posing obstacles to be navigated. Mostly, though, it was smooth sailing, enjoying the wildlife and nature the river had to offer. Paddlers could often be seen hopping out of their boats for a swim or taking a turn on the many rope swings hanging along the riverbank. Water battles are a frequent occurrence, though this year they helped people to beat the heat.
    “This trip is so cool because you get to be a kid for a week,” Jim Fountain said, whose biggest piece of advice to new paddlers is to come armed with a good squirt gun. “All you have to worry about is getting up, going to eat and going to play, going to eat and going to bed. That’s life.”

    Paddle Georgia also offers several educational opportunities and scholarships, allowing students and teachers to travel the river for free and take their experience back to their classrooms. This year’s paddling group included 10 girls from Camp Creek Middle School in Atlanta’s College Park area, whose trips were fully funded by the Georgia River Network. The 2015 recipient of the Paddle Georgia Educators Scholarship is first-timer Suzanne Pitz, who teaches fifth grade environmental science in Cumming and brought along her two sons—Bennet, 10, and Eagle Scout Davis, 15 — for the ride.
    Pitz applied so she could give her students a firsthand account, through a blog, photographs and social media, of her journey through the blackwater environments they studied in her science classes. Though initially she was nervous about getting in the water, Pitz said the experience is “more wonderful than I ever thought it was going to be.”
    “Seeing the variety of plants and animals that create this amazing ecosystem is really and truly my favorite part, and being able to share it with my children,” she said. She called the physical environment “a visual feast,” and the Paddle Georgia environment one of “friendship, gratitude and generosity.”
    “I’m definitely hooked,” she said. “No question.”

The health of the river now
    Emily Markesteyn, the executive director of Ogeechee Riverkeeper, has never rowed in a Paddle Georgia trip, but she spent most of this year’s event managing transportation and logistics off the water. She joined ORK in 2011 a month before King America Finishing, a textile processing facility in Sylvania, left about 38,000 fish dead as a result of their wastewater discharge. Having spent the last four years raising awareness about the importance of keeping the river healthy, she said that the Ogeechee has bounced back well.
    Camm Swift, a retired fishing biologist from Cumming, Georgia, reported similar findings. Swift has a scientific collecting permit from the Department of Natural Resources, which allows him to take up samples and compile reports on the health of America’s waterways. With the help of his son, Kenneth, and grandson, Maddox — both of Covington, Georgia — Swift used a net to collect American eel, mosquito fish, bass, gar, spotted suckers and several species of minnows and sunfish, among other fish species.
    “In general terms, we’re getting lots of kinds of fish and lots of baby fish, so that means there is a lot of successful reproduction, so the population seems to be fairly healthy just in general,” Swift said. As for the overall health of the river itself, he said it appeared to be “in better shape” than either the Flint or the Chattahoochee, the two other rivers he has paddled with Paddle Georgia.
    Markesteyn said she loved getting to Paddle Georgia participants interacting with the waters she and other Riverkeeper staff members spend so much time to protect.
    “Before the fish kill, not a lot of people had heard about the Ogeechee River,” Markesteyn said. “I’m really glad now that people all around the state and area can experience what we experience all the time, and have a love for it too.”

    Brittani Howell can be reached at (912) 489-9405.

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