For more information on Paddle Georgia or to check for information on next year’s trip, visit www.garivers.org/paddle_georgia/
Earlier this month, hundreds of people armed with their kayaks or canoes waded into the waters of the Conasauga and Oostanaula Rivers in North Georgia for a 103-mile journey.
It was part of the Paddle Georgia trip, which took participants from Dawsonville to Rome.
While many people from all across the state of Georgia and beyond participated, several Hall County residents climbed into their kayaks and paddled along the waterways. Pete and Cheryl Smith of Flowery Branch were two of them.
Cheryl kayaked all seven days of the trip, while Pete joined Paddle Georgia Lite, participating in only the first two days.
“I will do every one I can for as long as I can,” Cheryl said, who loves going on the trip and has completed it five times.
Event organizers say about 425 people participated in Paddle Georgia, with approximately 300 traveling all seven days. The oldest paddler was 83 years old and the youngest was barely a year old, Cook said. The 1-year-old was the daughter of a Georgia River Network staff member.
“Basically it’s an educational adventure,” Paddle Georgia coordinator Joe Cook said. “The purpose is to engage people in relationships with our rivers. We believe that when people get out on the rivers, they begin to establish a relationship with those rivers and they’re much more likely to take action to protect those rivers.”
Each year, the Paddle Georgia route changes, allowing participants to see many different waterways. This year’s route took paddlers through Whitfield and Murray counties on the outskirts of Dalton and Chatsworth, through Gordon County and Calhoun and on to historic downtown Rome. On day one, the paddlers ended up in Beaverdale after paddling 14 miles followed by 14 more to Looper Bend on day two. On the third day, the trip ended in Tilton after 10 miles. Day four was across 12 miles on the Coosawattee River. On the fifth day, paddlers traveled 22 miles up the Coosawattee followed by 13 more on day six. The trip ended with 15 miles to Rome.
Georgia River Network’s Paddle Georgia is considered the largest weeklong canoe/kayak camping trip in the country, Cook said. More than 400 paddlers from Georgia and at least 12 from other states took part in this year’s event, which celebrated its 12th year. Since the event’s inception, Georgia River Network has introduced more then 3,600 paddlers to more than 1,100 miles of water trails on 12 Georgia Rivers.
The event has raised more than $300,000 for river protection efforts in its first 11 years. This year about $110,000 were raised, with $28,000 of that coming from the Canoe-A-Thon.
The Canoe-A-Thon works like a walk-a-thon. Prospective donors sponsor paddlers at a specific amount for each mile they paddle. Paddle Georgia participants who raise more than $850 in Canoe-A-Thon pledges may request to have their registration fees reimbursed.
The cost to participate in Paddle Georgia is $425 for adults, $230 for children and $30 for children ages 7 and younger. A food package including breakfast, lunch and dinner for seven days as well as the Kick Off Day Feast at the Journey’s End Feast costs $227.75. The cost to take part in the two-day Lite-Paddler trip is $120 for adults, $230 for children, and $15 for children ages 7 and younger.
And while the trip is an educational adventure that raises money, the participants describe it as a social scene.
Cheryl Smith said she’s gotten to know many people from paddling the past five years.
“A lot of the same people come back (each year). You get to know more people,” she said. “We’re always meeting new people. It’s like a reunion.”
The 61-year-old woman who kayaks in her spare time said Paddle Georgia is a good way to learn her way around new rivers. Smith said she learns where to put boats in and take them out when she’s with the group.
“I like to go on rivers, but I like to go on rivers I’ve been on before and go with people who have been on them before,” she said.
During the trips, Paddle Georgia aims to educated paddlers on the importance of the rivers in Georgia. Paddlers, who are given maps of the rivers and travel at their own pace, were introduced to the upper Coosa River basin this year. It is home to 28 endemic aquatic species. Select fish, mussels, snails and crayfish are found in the upper Coosa River basin and nowhere else on earth.
Cook said being on the river for several days at a time allows paddlers to see not just the most beautiful areas, but some of the more industrial areas.
Smith said some paddlers conduct a little community activism, picking up trash as they came across it. She even saw what she believes is a wagon wheel from the 1850s along the shore.
“It’s a great thing,” Smith said. “The rivers are kind of like our lifeline. They need to be cleaned, they need to be taken care of.”
But participants are not paddling all day. A pit stop was scheduled each day halfway down the route, allowing paddlers to eat and use the restroom.
When they are not on the rivers, travelers stay at nearby schools or other sites. This year participants spent four nights at Murray County High School, three nights at Calhoun High School, and one night at a park. Paddle Georgia shuttles them to and from the river.
Most of the facilities offered indoor or sheltered camping options, with tent camping at on-site lawns and athletic fields. Indoor shower and toilet facilities were available, according to the Paddle Georgia website, (www.garivers.org). Paddlers must bring their own tent and camping supplies.
For an additional fee, three meals a day are provided. This year dinners and sack lunches were catered by Johnny Mitchell’s Smokehouse in Cartersville. Breakfasts were provided by local school groups.
Each night after dinner, participants were invited to an educational program.
“That’s what Paddle Georgia is all about, helping people understand the ways we depend on our rivers, how we use them and the things we do to injure them,” Cook said. “Hopefully that awareness leads people to take action and protect our rivers.”
Jim Fountain, who participated in his eighth Paddle Georgia trip in nine years, said the adventure is a chance for him to act like a kid all week.
“You go eat at the school cafeteria, get on the school bus that takes you to the boat, go play all day, get on the school bus and go back,” he said. “It’s like being a kid all week, you get to play all day.”
The Lula man was joined by his wife, Debbie Fountain. The couple brought their 13-year-old niece Ava and 11-year-old nephew Jack on the trip this year.
The Fountains found out about Paddle Georgia after they started kayaking and thought it would be a great opportunity.
“We’re lucky we got the best stretch of river right here in Hall County,” he said.