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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:

Altamaha

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

Image

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I did not have fun today. Or rather, I had a lot of fun until about 2:00 this afternoon when I suddenly got a real clanger of a debilitating headache to deal with for the last three miles of our day’s paddle. One minute I’m lounging around in the water, watching the boys swim and engage in their 51st epic water cannon battle of the day, and the next I’m standing up and striding over to the canoe to pull it off the sandbar and wondering seriously if I’m going to make it before my skull implodes. Too much sun? Too little water? Possibly, except that I drank nearly a gallon today and almost as much yesterday. At any rate, after a spectacular most-of-the-day on the water, the last ninety minutes to the take-out were agony; I would have gladly traded my sunglasses for a welder’s helmet to cut down on the glare, and I tried paddling as much as possible with my eyes closed. The boys very graciously agreed not to engage our boat in any pirate action, even as we passed richly deserving targets (we still have scores to settle going back to last year’s trip).

I understand that a lot of participants struggle during the first days of Paddle Georgia; the simple fact is that most of us don’t live lifestyles that prepare us for the kind of prolonged exertion and exposure this trip deals out. Last year I was absolutely shattered after the first two days, and in fact the family who had been our “buddy boat” up until that point packed it in and went home.  This time around I’ve felt much more psychologically prepared—and have been enjoying myself a lot more—but I seem to have hit a physical wall anyway. Bummer.

The good news is—and I know this from last year’s experience—that it gets easier. Not easy, but a lot easier. The long mileage days at the end of the trip that I was dreading after two days on the water last year turned out to be no big deal at all. This year I’m confident of the same, though for starters I’m making darn sure I remember to put the ibuprofen in my dry bag before we head out tomorrow morning.

We’re moving basecamp tomorrow to another local high school further down river. Hopefully they’ll have internet access and I can keep posting over the next couple of days. And if YouTube isn’t blocked I’ll download and embed some video from the past two days, including some masterful pirate action from earlier today.

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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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