Today I registered the boys and I for Paddle Georgia 2014, the 10th anniversary trip for the Georgia River Network and the fourth consecutive year of participation for the boys and me. This year’s trip will pass within a couple hundred yards of our house on its run down the Chattahoochee River from Buford Dam to Franklin, GA.

7 days, 115 miles, 1 great time.

There’ll be plenty to say about the trip later, but for now I’ll take the opportunity to post a poem about our 2012 trip down the Altamaha written by my older son, Will, last year in 5th grade:


The little Amazon

Egret flies,

its great wings spread,

covered in feathers,

from wing to head.

Spanish Moss hangs,

swaying in the wind,

Covering the trees,

almost pinned.

Current flows,

gentle and slow,

leaves float,

to receive water’s tow.

Drift wood sits,

on the bank all tangled,

  lying untouched,

scarcely handled.

Bluffs tower,

cliffs old,

and weathered,

towering high,

too tall to be measured.

Mussels lay,

 on the river floor,

abandoned shells,

washed ashore.

—Will Meyer


The boys and I and the Meyer family canoe (over 1000 river miles now) on the Altamaha, June 2012

We’ll be back in river mode soon enough.

facing the danger

Earlier this week, in the media build-up to the one-year anniversary of the tragic school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick wrote a thought-provoking column in which she offers a long tally of incidents from the previous week when schools in America went into lockdown to ensure the safety of the students. A few of these lockdowns occurred in response to legitimate causes for concern, but, in hindsight many of them, maybe even most of them, were overreactions to marginal threats. A domestic dispute in a nearby residence. A bank robbery in the local area. Likewise, writer Lenore Skenazy, on her wonderful Free Range Kids blog, reported last year about a school that went into terrifying lockdown in the days after Sandy Hook because some boys using an umbrella as a prop in a video project about the immune system were thought to be acting suspiciously.

At my school we have gone into lockdown twice that I can think of in the past couple of years. My understanding is that both were prompted by police chases in the general area. And once we evacuated the building because something was making noises in a locker.

Dahlia Lithwick levels the following charge at this lockdown culture:

We routinely terrify and traumatize kids to spare them terror and trauma.

I don’t know that any of my students were alarmed in the least during any of these incidents except for those who needed to go to the bathroom, but Lithwick raises an important point, that there are often unexamined costs to our attempts as educators and parents to make our kids safe. To prevent the abnormal tragedy of school shootings, we’ve normalized turning our school routine upside down on a surprisingly regular basis. Based on the extremely small chance that they might be abducted by a stranger, we make it 100% certain that our kids will miss out on the physical and psychological benefits of walking to school on their own. We no longer allow kids the independence of roaming the neighborhood with their friends, telling them “just be home for dinner.”

I’m not saying that schools shouldn’t be prepared. Lithwick writes, “Let’s agree from the get-go that doing nothing in the face of lethal school shootings is not an option.” When the Atlanta Police Department calls our school switchboard to warn that a suspect in a police chase is headed towards campus, I agree that erring on the side of caution and locking everything down is probably the right thing to do. And I’ve written before about how hard it is as a parent to imagine letting my kids explore the neighborhood woods on their own like I did growing up. When it comes to keeping our kids safe, we may not examine these costs as carefully as we should, but that doesn’t mean these costs are too high. We’ll do anything for our kids.

And yet.

When I read Lithwick’s column, I thought immediately back to a passage in A Natural Sense of Wonder, by Rick Van Noy, where he wonders about the threat of climate change to our kids’ futures:

As a society, we have been good about preparing kids for other kinds of dangers. We have “red alert” days in school when the kids have to duck down and crowd in the coatroom. When I was young, we hid under desks in case of a bomb or a tornado. The principal and teachers are worried about strangers coming in, the man in a dark van driving near the school, but about this heat-trapping blanket in the sky we say very little. Kids study maps and geography, but if sea levels rise as predicted, because of ice melt and heat expansion, the maps would need to be rewritten. The man in the van has been out there all along.

We say very little, indeed. We earnestly guard against tragedies that thankfully have almost no chance of happening to our kids—I have been in faculty meetings where we have had discussion about which classroom wall is best to cower against in a Code Red situation (bullets will pass right through sheetrock, you know)—but don’t talk at all about how to prepare them for the much higher likelihood of serious climate disruption.

It’s not something we talk about as parents and educators. And someday our kids will ask us why.

oh for crying out loud

Five Christmas shopping seasons ago, I said the following in a post:

I can’t help but think that the people who contrive and then market crap like Power Rangers Jungle Fury Sound Fury Battle Claws or the Hannah Montana Malibu Beach House Playset are really only one step removed from the parasites who used to market cigarettes to minors.

But I may have been too kind. A special award for despicableness goes to Toys “R” Us for this ad, which has been drawing a lot of (well deserved) negative attention online:

Hydroclimatologist Peter Gleick frames the issue perfectly with his rhetorical question: Is This the Most Anti-Science, Anti-Environmental TV Ad Ever?

Well, I guess it’s one of the most honest.

Future generations, trying to work out how we got it so wrong, will have this short clip enshrined in a Hall of Shame right next to Mitt Romney’s “help you and your family” quip.

This is awful, and I don’t think it will change. What now?

Well at least we can laugh. Thank you, Stephen Colbert:

I want to give a big tip-of-the-hat to Toys “R” Us for reminding our kids that nature sucks. This commercial shows kids the great outdoors is nothing compared to the majesty of a strip mall . . . Nature is boring. I played in it once. There was nothing to buy. It sucked.

the dark side of hope

Some nights my heart pounds so hard in anger that in the morning when I wake up it is sore, as if it has been rubbing against my ribs—as if it has worn a place in them as smooth as the stones beneath a waterfall . . . I’m trying to get there—to peace, and it’s powers—but I just don’t seem able to. The river keeps falling.

The sound of it, in my ears.

—Rick Bass, The Book of Yaak

Thursday night, at a fine dinner in a nice restaurant, I found myself drawn into talking passionately about climate change, a topic more deadly to polite conversation than politics or religion. To be fair, this was with a group of young conservatives who get together regularly for the express purpose of discussing politics, and the discussion leader, looking to ignite a new discussion thread as the meal was winding down, specifically prompted me to talk about global warming and to share some details about how I have used environmental topics in my classroom. I wasn’t about to go there on my own, but, given the opening, go there I did.

I hope I behaved well. This was a great group of people who were genuinely interested in discussing ideas, open to other viewpoints and articulate about their own, but I was there as a mere tag-a-long, my wife being the legitimate guest-of-honor at this gathering. I thought we had a spirited discussion, found it mentally stimulating, but did I take too much of the floor? Get too inconvenient? I didn’t look at Belinda once I hit full flow, but I imagine she was staring blankly into her lap, thinking “there he goes again.” We adroitly ignored the subject in the car on the way home.

I’d like to think I did some good, that I came across as carefully informed and thoughtful on the subject and ultimately persuasive (albeit on an issue I would gladly be flat-dead wrong about). God knows we need conservatives (speaking broadly here, not pointing fingers at this group) to drop their stance of tribalistic culture-war denial on the issue and join the search for solutions. It gave me hope, made me feel less alone, that Thursday night’s conversation could even happen.

But all day Friday I felt emotionally hung-over. Here’s the problem . . . the flip side to hope is worry. Allowing yourself to feel hope opens yourself to a world of worry. And despair. In terms of our environment, if hope is the belief that tomorrow can be better than today, then hope is a sure road to despair. And so I had lately thought I have abandoned hope, had thought that I have simply accepted the bleak inevitability of our outlandish trajectory (really, the science could not be clearer) and accepted that no amount of earnest caring and response on my part was ever going to do anything more than make me miserable. Letting go of hope has been strangely liberating, has allowed me to get on with my life, enjoy the blessings at hand. Psychologist Daniel Gottlieb recently wrote about the importance of this moment and the power of two words—”what now?”:

After loss or trauma, most of us wish that tomorrow would look the same as yesterday did before all of these difficulties. If we are lucky, we give up hope and say the words that open us to resilience and creativity: “This is awful, and I don’t think it will change. What now?”

Of course, “What now?” is a wide-open question. My answer for many months now has been withdrawal, a conscious decision to live in the moment and enjoy the world that most people around me manage to enjoy. Even if it means sticking my head in the sand, too. You can see it in my lack of blog output over the past year.

But I’m not sure that’s the best answer. It’s certainly the most selfish.

I’m sorry, boys.

In about an hour, the boys and I will load in the car and drive south, and by tomorrow morning we’ll be launching our canoe into the Flint River just below Lake Blackshear as part of the Paddle Georgia 2013 armada.



Alas, our canoe has sat about as idle as my blog since last summer.

paddle to the sea

I had sort of forgotten about it, but I’ve had footage from our Altamaha trip earlier this summer languishing in my camera, waiting to be downloaded and shared with the world. So here it is (two months overdue):

These shots came from the morning of Day 6 of Paddle Georgia 2012 and give a good sense of the swampy feel of the lower river.  Around lunch time that day, however, my camera ran out of juice, and I’m absolutely kicking myself that I hadn’t remembered to recharge it the night before. I’m especially bummed not to have have footage from the final stretches on Day 7 as we entered tidal waters.

The obvious development in this video is that we managed to pick up another boat for the final two days, courtesy of a Paddle Georgia volunteer who was not paddling to the end so she could spend time in Darien preparing for the river’s end celebration. She overheard the boys pining for boats of their own and claimed that we would be doing her a favor if we took her boat all the way to the end, and justlikethat my labor force in the canoe was halved. The boys loved the freedom that the little blue kayak afforded, but they also learned in a hurry that being solo in a boat means no one else will do your paddling for you. The Altamaha grows to be quite wide as it nears the sea, and the sea breezes can be relentless, so it didn’t take too long for Andrew to generously cede his kayak time to his brother and just stay in the canoe. For a short while on the morning of the last day, when both the wind and the tide were against us, I got frustrated enough that I put both boys in the canoe and towed the kayak behind for a while. Nonetheless, I have to give kudos to Will—watching him struggle to make the last mile and a half into Darien (as the trees gave way to low marshes offering no protection from the wind and as the outgoing tide slowed) was one of my prouder moments as a dad. I wish I had that on camera.

The other moment I wish I had on camera: Andrew trying repeatedly to catch a fiddler crab. As the river merged into the marshes, the mud banks exposed by the retreating tide were home to carpets of fiddler crabs who would scuttle away in great waves as we approached, crabs by the billions, it seemed. Andrew was bound and determined to catch one and kept having me steer the canoe closer to the banks so he could make a grab. I pointed out that crabs have claws that ostensibly can pinch, and he said “I don’t care; I want one.” And indeed he was very persistent, making dozens of failed attempts (“Those suckers are fast!”) before flipping one onto his shoulder and momentarily panicking as it ran across his chest and down the opposite arm, coming to rest on his right elbow.

I should and could have written more about our trip, but alas, summer seems long past now. Thankfully, I can point you to a far better retrospective on the Altamaha adventure than I’m likely to have written: Joe Cook’s blog post looking back on Paddle Georgia 2012.

what we found

Rayonier was indeed discharging their wastewater into the Altamaha today, but those who know the river well or have paddled it before say that the conditions were far better than what is usually encountered. Presumably the mill was releasing at a much lower volume; in fact the upstream discharge pipe (there are two) didn’t seem to be releasing at all. Nonetheless, what we found was bad enough:

What the video can’t capture, of course, is the acrid smell. Just downstream from the release point, the acrid odor was enough to make your eyes water. And for fifteen miles or more, the smell stayed with us; it was particularly noticeable in the sour breezes blowing across the water or after a passing motorboat had churned the river in its wake.

As expected, we had no interest in swimming or water fights today; I was reluctant even to soak my hat in the river to cool off. Made for a tough day, but I think we’re also better for the experience. It’s too easy for debates about environmental policy to be made in the abstract. Paddling twenty-plus miles on a polluted river brings it all home in a very concrete way.

We have only two days left on our odyssey, and we’re excited to be heading back into cleaner stretches of this great river. I won’t have internet access again until after we finish in Darien, so it will be Saturday at the earliest before I can post again.

Day four down the Altamaha was predictably terrific. We swam, we laughed, we lounged, we paddled, we ambushed trip leader Joe Cook’s canoe with a perfectly planned and executed water cannon sneak attack. We look at the daily map less and less, no longer so concerned with how far it is to the take-out.

But we go to bed tonight with a bit of worry about tomorrow. For starters, the daily mileage takes a big jump upward—we’re looking at a 22 mile day. That in itself isn’t a big deal (today’s fifteen miles was almost casual), but sadly we won’t be paddling the same river: two miles below tomorrow’s put-in, this beautiful river becomes a sewer, accepting 50 million gallons a day of wastewater from the Rayonier Pulp Mill in Jesup.

According to Joe and others who have run this stretch before, this effluent has to be seen (and smelled) to be believed—”it will seriously make you gag” is the common refrain—and the river doesn’t start to feel clean again for some twenty miles or so downstream. Last year, the Georgia Water Coalition ranked the Altamaha as #2 on its Dirty Dozen list of the most polluted or impacted Georgia rivers (topped only by 33,000 fish being killed after a spill last May on the nearby Ogeechee.). Take a look at these aerial photos from Riverkeeper James Holland to get a visual sense of just how bad the problem is:

I’m struck most by the “two miles upstream” and “two miles downstream” images right around the 2:00 mark. I don’t expect anyone will be swimming or engaging in water cannon wars tomorrow.

But then again, we’re not sure what to expect. Paddle Georgia’s route down the Altamaha has predictably turned up the pressure on this issue, and I imagine the folks at Rayonier are a little nervous to have some 350 river lovers getting a first-hand experience of their waste stream. Evidently we may have some television cameras coming with us tomorrow, and the general expectation is that Rayonier will find a way to take a one-day hiatus from fouling the river. What will we find? Will we still be able to see this river the same way in the days to come?

I have to mention that the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce has been wonderfully welcoming to all of the Paddle Georgia participants. Here at base camp they’ve got a hospitality tent set up, along with a big inflatable water slide/plunge pool combo that the boys have absolutely worn out.  At the last two take-outs, volunteers have helped us haul our boats away from the water, and today they gave out snacks and ice-cold water in reusable commemorative bottles as we came off the river. Rayonier, they have made sure to tell us, has been the chief sponsor of their hospitality efforts. It has made for an interesting dynamic. Will has really been wowed by these efforts, but Andrew evidently has a more cynical bent: “They’re trying to make us feel better about this smell,” he said this afternoon (we took out only about a mile from the mill). I guess I agree with both of them.

Joe Cook reminded us all after dinner tonight that the raison d’être for Paddle Georgia—beyond just having a good time—is to educate us about our rivers. Tomorrow will certainly be educational.

Flatwater paddling a river like the Altamaha is a quiet, reflective endeavor. There’s zero adrenaline involved, the scenery changes slowly, and the physical action is mostly mindless and repetitive. Occasionally I’ll get a little antsy, especially when I’m feeling saddle sore after a few hours of sitting. So I’ll admit that I’m surprised the boys handle the routine so well. Put them in the backseat of a car together for an hours’ drive and they’re either begging to play with my iPhone or bickering with each other. But we’ve been in the same small boat together for something like fifteen hours over the past three days, and I have yet to hear either of them complain about being bored. Bickering has been at a blissful minimum.

So we were talking about it today, and we started to come up with a list of reasons why, a list of things that never get old. Here’s what we have so far:

  • Drifting up silently on wading birds and watching them do their thing from close range.
  • Floating effortlessly downstream to the end of a sandbar with the extra buoyancy of a PFD, then getting up, walking to the upstream end, and doing it again.
  • Sitting in the water and feeling tiny fish nibble at your toes. (What are they hoping for, anyway?)
  • Water cannon attacks, preferably by surprise or misdirection.
  • Cypress trees and cypress knees.
  • Fish jumping (of any size)
  • The way the sweet-tea-colored water of tributary streams runs side by side with the muddy main flow of the Altamaha for a hundred yards or so before blending in.
  • Hearing the abusing-a-squeaky-toy cry of a Red-Shouldered hawk (a lot of them today).
  • Feeling around on the clean, sandy river bottom and coming up with a baseball-sized Elephant-Ear Mussel.

This morning, we packed our gear and loaded it on a truck before heading to the river and said goodbye to Tatnall County High School. This afternoon’s shuttle reunited us with our bags at Wayne County High School in Jesup, home for the next three nights (and a really nice school building, I must say). As promised, here’s some (mostly) raw video shot over the past couple of days:

Great day today. I will confess that I grimaced inwardly when Will said “80 more miles to go” as we got into the boat this morning. But as with last year’s trip, day three is the day when the shoulders suddenly seem less sore, the sun less intense, the miles shorter. The distance still to run no longer seems a chore but an opportunity.

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