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I know this river story has already been written. Over and over it has been told: an assemblage of people, usually men, load boats with food and fishing equipment and booze, and they step unsteadily into those boats and point their prows downstream. People see them off, and people are waiting for them at their destinations, and the people waiting will hear stories of what happened and witness the emotions on the faces of the adventurers, but those who were not transported by water will never know what really transpired.

—Janisse Ray, Drifting into Darien: A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River

I’ve been well out of the blogging habit for months now (as is my habit during the high school soccer season), but I made the 11th hour decision to drag the laptop along again this year as the boys and I participate in the 2012 iteration of Paddle Georgia. Maybe this time I’ll do a better job of posting along the way. (At this point last year, the end of first day of Paddle Georgia 2011, I was so completely worn out that I climbed right into my sleeping bag after dinner, so I’m already ahead of the curve.)

Anyway, we’ve had a great first day, settling into the flow of this trip like we had never reached the 2011 takeout and were still heading downstream. Literally within minutes of arriving last night at base camp, the boys had already reconnected with some of last summer’s river friends.

Geographically speaking, we are, in essence, picking up where we left off. A short way below last year’s take-out in Dublin, the Oconee merges with the Ocmulgee to form the Altamaha River, also known as the “Little Amazon” for its sizeable flow, its largely undeveloped corridor of swampland forests, and its surpassing biodiversity. We’ll be paddling most of the length of the Altamaha, starting just below the Oconee/Ocmulgee confluence and ending in the salt marshes at the head of the estuary in Darien—105 miles over the course of seven days.

Quick hits from Day One:

  • The Altamaha is much bigger river than what we paddled last year (blindingly obvious given that we’re further downstream). Wider, stronger (even at relatively low flow), majestic rather than intimate. At times very windy—for a short while before lunch, we had to plow through ripples that were uniting into small swells. Surely at some time in my life, somewhere, I have paddled with the wind at my back, but I can’t think of when that might have been.
  • Don’t get me wrong, I am not in any way complaining about the weather. I was prepared for late June in South Georgia to make the average sauna feel tepid by comparison, but we’ve had real Chamber of Commerce weather—a high in the mid 80’s relatively low humidity, a nice breeze. That said . . .
  • Gnats are gnot gnice. Thankfully, they’re nonexistent on the water, and they’re far more tolerable than mosquitoes, but still.
  • How can you tell a South Georgian from someone from metro Atlanta? Stand at the boat landing and look for people waving their arms around in annoyance as they wait for a shuttle bus . . . those are the Atlantans. A South Georgian will merely stick his bottom lip out slightly and blow a little puff of air upward on occasion to clear away those gnasty gnats, even in mid sentence, and not miss a beat (hat tip to April Ingle for this observation).
  • There is nothing more relaxing than floating on your back in a warm, slow moving river while wearing a PFD. I could nap like that. Effortless. I’m tempted to take my PFD and look like a total dork next time I have to take the boys to the pool.
  • Will and Andrew are actually paddling this year, contributing to forward progress. Will likes to attack the water and try to beat it senseless with his paddle and actually creates more steering and steadying work for me in the back, but I applaud this development.
  • Good day for birds, particularly Mississippi Kite circling and soaring overhead by the dozens. But I wish I could identify insect sounds like I can bird song, as a fascinatingly varied and interesting wall of insect noise emanates from the forest on both banks at all times. Surely somewhere in this crowd there must be a naturalist with this skill set.

Okay, enough for now. I thought I’d share some raw video from today, but evidently Tatnall County High School (our home for the first three nights on this trip) has blocked YouTube access on its network. Bummer.

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With the new academic year right around the corner, we’ve had Apple training sessions at school this past week as part of our changeover to Macintosh, so I took advantage of this time to edit together more of the video I’ve been sitting on from our summer adventures.

First, I put together a look back at Paddle Georgia 2011 which highlights the size and scope of the trip:

I knew from the Paddle Georgia website that some 350 people participate in this trip each year, but this number was little more than an abstraction for me until I pulled up at the initial put-in that first Saturday morning and saw the sea of waiting boats. To sit on the riverbank that week and watch us pass you’d probably have seen a steady stream of paddlers for at least three hours. At the midpoint of our open water Lake Oconee transit on day three, I could see our group stretching two miles in each direction, boats diminishing to specks in the distance. That this many people come together each year to love a Georgia river is nothing short of inspiring. And it’s a real testament to the good folks at Georgia River Network and the monumental organizing effort that must go into pulling off such a logistically complicated expedition.

The off-river footage I’m missing in documenting day six is that of dinner, “evening announcements,” and the annual Paddle Georgia Talent Show. It’s unfortunate in that I don’t quite capture the festive sense of community that surrounds the trip (though others do), a scene that was a little overwhelming at first for us newbies. I’m not sure what percentage of this year’s participants were Paddle Georgia veterans, but I’d bet it was more than half (a surprising number of boats sport a collection of Paddle Georgia stickers stretching back to the inaugural run in 2005.) We’re already looking forward to the Altamaha in 2012. (Worryingly, the boys are already plotting something for next year’s talent show.)

My second video in this post is something of a grab-bag from the rest of our summer, where we try to keep up the momentum and spend as much time as possible playing in our rivers:

I rather alarmed Belinda recently when I told her we need to build a boat barn in the backyard. My whitewater boat tucks away neatly enough in a corner of the garage, but now we’ve appropriated my brother’s canoe, and I agree with my nephew Matt that the family really needs one of those Jackson Duos. And then within a few years, the boys will (hopefully) want boats of their own.

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Earlier today, reading some lively back-and-forth comments on the blog written by my principal, I came across this statement by a chemistry-teaching colleague of mine:

At this age there’s a LOT of boring, fact based learning that needs to take place BEFORE deeper, more meaningful, creative learning and problem solving can take place.

Well, I strongly disagree (albeit respectfully, because I really like and respect this particular colleague). I don’t have any problem with his contention that a good education includes a lot of “fact-based learning”—even in an age of hyper-available information—but I disagree that this stage needs to come first or that it’s inevitably boring.

Perhaps the most powerful learning experience I ever had as a student was my original WMA Wilderness First Responder certification class back in 1993 at North Carolina Outward Bound School. From the very beginning of the course, we would start each new topic with a hands-on simulation, where “rescuers” would try (and fail) to make sense of what was going on with injured/sick “patients.” Only after struggling with a new problem—like a patient with abdominal bruising, elevated heart rate and respiration, and dropping blood pressure—would we start to learn the “boring” details of exactly how the circulatory and respiratory systems worked in tandem, or the implications of hypovolemic shock’s progressing from a compensated to decompensated stage. The basic learning sequence was exactly reversed from what my colleague maintains is necessary. Nonetheless, I’m pretty confident I learned far more “facts” in that week-long course than I could have in a whole semester of traditional lectures, and, in this context, none of them were boring. More to the point, nearly twenty years later I still remember most of what I learned. Vividly.

All the research about contextual and constructivist learning tells us something we should already know to be gut-level true, that new information is most readily assimilated when the learner has some sort of internal frame of reference, like prior knowledge (or lack of knowledge, a need-to-know), that gives it a place to stick. Starting with the “facts” before moving on to “meaningful, creative learning and problem solving” seems both woefully inefficient and, yes, boring.

So what does all this have to do with last week’s trip down the Oconee River with Paddle Georgia 2011? Well, I happened to come across this blogversation today as I was editing together some trip video with a focus on my boys’ river education. If you sat them down and asked them what they learned, they’d have plenty to say, I think, but I’ve been thinking a lot in terms of future dividends. Nothing creates a richer, more receptive frame of reference for future learning than direct experience and emotional connection:

For starters, esteemed chemistry colleague, Will and I both agree that we’re ready to learn just what’s going on at the molecular level when we learned how to test for dissolved oxygen in the Adopt-a-Stream training sessions.

Let me say it again: nothing creates a richer, more receptive frame of reference for future learning than direct experience and emotional connection. Which is why I’m still a little skeptical about the headlong rush to embrace technology in education (while my school takes small steps towards more experiential and-place-based learning, we have moved with astonishing rapidity to provide every student with a MacBook).

Anyway, enough soap-boxing . . . let me make a couple of remarks about the video clips.

First, they capture budding naturalist Andrew’s eagerness to pick up critters. He never stopped trying to grab frogs, tadpoles, lizards, salamanders, dragonflies, grasshoppers, fish, water striders, unmentionable squiggly things on the bottoms of river rocks. At base camp in Milledgeville, he proudly informed me that earlier he had “caught something-that-looked-kinda-like-a-scorpion-but-wasn’t” but couldn’t find me to show it off and had to let it go. I’m wondering if I went wrong somewheres in my parenting duty.

Second, I should mention that the tire we barged out was only one of about 70 that Paddle Georgia folks removed on our designated clean-up day. One guy had something like 13 tires either stacked on the deck of his sea kayak or hanging off the sides like tugboat fenders.

Third, who knew kaolin was so cool?

And finally, the last clip is a hat-tip to colleague and educational über-blogger John Burk in the spirit of recognizing and celebrating failure.

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The first part of the video I’m uploading today gives you a taste of my view for hours on end these past three days. I’ll point out that Andrew isn’t paddling at all (though I’m sure he feels cool holding the paddle), and Will’s contributions are intermittent. Luckily, as the sun climbs higher and the day gets hotter, I can wrangle more work out of them in the interest of overtaking unsuspecting boats to blast them with our water cannon (and then speeding on ahead before anyone can retaliate).

Nonetheless, midway through our first leg, I was more than a little worried that I might have a mutiny on my hands before the week was out, five hours (or more) a day being a long time to sit in a canoe and get blasted by the sun and withered by the heat. I hope I don’t sour the boys on canoeing forever, I was thinking. When we reached the takeout that afternoon, I was shattered. I could be sitting on the couch watching television, I was thinking.

But the boys didn’t seem fazed at all (no surprise), and in fact they complained mightily when I had us set up camp that afternoon in the air-conditioned gym at Clarke Central, insisting we lay out our sleeping bags on the floor like natural-disaster refugees rather than pitch a tent out on the baseball field. I just had to. (They came to appreciate my wisdom when a huge thunderstorm that evening started blowing tents around like tumbleweeds, however.)

Then on day two, someone gently pointed out that I was using my fancy new bent-shaft canoe paddle backwards (which is what the salesman showed me, dammit). This advice probably saved my trip (and my back). But how embarrassing.

By any description, today’s paddle was brutal, all traces of river current vanishing almost from the start as we approached Lake Oconee, the second half of our twelve-mile route taking us across open waters. And yet we’ve all settled into a pretty good rhythm. I’m having more fun, and the boys are showing no signs of boredom as the novelty wears off.  It helps a lot that the swimming has been great and the sense of community is building (shared suffering will do that, I suppose).

But it also helps that it’s starting to feel like we’re really getting somewhere as the landscape changes, our intimate Piedmont river valley suddenly opening up today into wide wetlands at the head of the lake.  By tomorrow we’ll enter the Coastal Plain (our boats were portaged by tractor trailer around the rest of Lakes Oconee and Sinclair this afternoon), and before too long we’ll pass into the land of oxbow bends and cypress knees. Even after tomorrow, we’ll still have more than half of our miles yet to travel (the last two days each cover twenty-plus miles), but we can feel the lure of distant landscapes pulling us as surely as gravity is pulling the water. Tomorrow, according to the maps, we’ll have several sets of shoals to run, and the boys are beside themselves with anticipation.

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Squirt guns and swimming. What more could you ask?

It’s going to be hard to find good opportunities to write as we move on downstream, but I’ll see what I can do. When we get off the river in the afternoon, I can either blog or nap. So far that’s been an easy decision.

Right now, we’re two days in (five to go), and we’ve covered 27 river miles (79 to go). The boys are holding up better than I am.

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It’s been a good while since I’ve posted, this being the time of year when I’m completely consumed with high school soccer, but I thought I’d take a moment and announce Postcard from the Outback’s next adventure: Paddle Georgia 2011. During the week of June 18–24, the boys and I will be canoeing the Oconee River from Athens to Dublin.  We’re pretty excited—after our 10,000 mile road trip last year, we’re looking to scale back and stay closer to home this summer, and this trip feels more than adventurous and ambitious enough to be a worthy follow-up.

Step one: Liberate my brother’s canoe from my mom’s place. He bought it many years back for his solo journey down the Mississippi River, and it has to be hankering for more action than puddling around the pond behind her house. I hope it’s still in river-worthy shape!

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I had someone ask me about the new picture in the Postcards from the Outback header bar.  It’s a picture of Will and Andrew playing in the river left cascade at Bull Sluice on the Chattooga, taken in the interval between our return from Alaska and the beginning of school.

I began taking the boys there last summer on one of those scorching Atlanta days when the only outdoor activity that sounds bearable is swimming.  They would gladly have gone to the local pool every day, but I’m frankly bored by the totalitarian conformity of the concrete swimming pool and knew that we could do better.  A lot better.

Dad, how ’bout I go with those guys?  That looks like fun.

Bull Sluice at full throttle is a pretty fearsome rapid—one that has eaten my lunch more times than I’d care to admit—but as water levels fall and temperatures rise in the summer, the pool below it becomes a popular swimming hole (run this drop upside down in summertime and you’ll have quite an audience).  The meat of the main drop is still potentially deadly, a ledge sluiced with potholes to nowhere dropping onto a massive undercut rock affectionately named “Decap,”  but stay below all that and you’re golden.  It’s easy to get to, maybe too easy (kayaking author/artist William Nealy once wrote that the best thing about Bull Sluice is that you can drive ambulances almost right to it), and it can be quite crowded on weekends, but then so is the pool at our local Y.

For the boys, it has a little bit of everything.  They chase fish through the shallows, trying to scoop them up with their sun hats.  They search for lizards on the rocks.  They investigate little rock slides and plunge pools. They experiment with current.  They skip rocks and shovel sand.  They pause for the regular entertainment of kayak pods and raft armadas passing through, some successfully and others less so. (They’ve become connoisseurs of raft carnage—I’ve taught them well.)  And they can stay all day, protesting when I peel them away after six, seven hours of solid fun.

Will taking the plunge.

Will checks out a spot where you can lie in the current and breathe easily in the air pocket a good hat creates.  It looks a little alarming for the onlooker when you sit still, apparently submerged, for minutes at a time, but it’s an amazing sensation.

Needless to say, if Bull Sluice were closer, we’d be there nearly every day in the summer weeks when we aren’t traveling.  But alas, the nearly four-hour round trip is something of a deterrent.  Do I dare take them just down the street to frolic in the Chattahoochee?  For a while, the authorities posted daily e-coli levels, but I think they’ve stopped now due to budget cuts.  What a shame that urban kids are effectively sentenced to concrete tubs for neighborhood summer water play.  What’s worse, we seem largely content with that.

And so I have a request for my readers.  For relatively good water quality, accessibility, and a huge “fun factor,” Bull Sluice gets my vote as the BEST natural swimming hole in the (somewhat) local area, but maybe you’ve got better suggestions?  If you’re a reader from afar, what’s the best swimming hole in your local area?  The more candidates, the better—and then let us all take our children out to try them.  We may never settle on a winner, but then that’s not the point, is it?

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