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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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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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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.

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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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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.

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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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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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