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Georgia River Paddle

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Hank Brooks | Tampa Bay Sea Kayakers
Published Monday, October 01, 2007

Each year the Paddle Georgia group selects a different Georgia River to paddle. The distance for a one-week paddle is about 120 miles, with daily down river paddles ranging from 14 to 22 miles. This year the paddle was held on the Ocmulgee River from Monticello, GA to Hawkinsville, GA. For the geographically challenged, the river is located close to Macon, south of Atlanta.

Group Leaders
TBSKers Everett White and Pat Krezel had been to the 2005 and 2006 Georgia River paddles and encouraged many club members to come to the 2007 paddle held this June. We had about 10 TBSKers paddle this year. Some paddled the entire seven days, while I only paddled for the weekend.

This was my first Paddle Georgia. After having a chance to look back at this experience, I can say that it is something between a "boy scout jamboree" and a "light" outward bound course. There were about 300 people at this paddle. There was a wide spectrum of experience. Some families had brought children as young as 8 years, several disadvantaged youth groups of about 20 each had more enthusiasm than experience and then there were the few who had been there and done that.

Since Everett & Pat had "been there", we followed their lead and left on Thursday to stay at a motel. On Friday, most of us put our boats on the truck which would take them to the "put in" and boarded the shuttle bus, leaving our cars at the last take-out. On Friday afternoon we arrived at Monticello, at a high school gym, where we checked in at the registration table, got our meal tickets (for a small price they supply the meals) and set up our tents.

On the first evening before we had been on the river, everyone was chatting, meeting old friends & making new ones. Our supper in the school cafeteria must have been prepared by the same people who made lunch when I was in grade school because the food tasted the same. OK, at my age maybe it was made by the descendents of those cafeteria workers or perhaps it was the same food warmed over. As we settled down to try and sleep, the chatter continued.

Because of some security lights on the outside of the school, I noticed some silhouettes on the side of my tent. A man and a woman. Were they hugging and embracing, like in that song - "Two Silhouettes on a Shade"?

The next morning everyone was "up and at them", eating a quick breakfast in the cafeteria, getting their kayak stuff together and getting in line for the shuttle bus to take us to the river. The shuttle buses held about 50 people and left every 1/2 hour.

Launching Boats
So for many of us it was "hurry up and wait". When we got to the river our boats had been unloaded into neat rows. We had to find out boats, pick up our lunches prepared by those some cafeteria workers and launch our boats. The good news was that Paddle Georgia had some "experts" at the critical points on the river and everyone was most helpful if you needed help or got in trouble.

The bad news was that within several hours they unleashed 300 paddlers on the river - about an equal number of canoes and kayaks. This worked well until we reached a "choke point" on the river. The first one was a tricky "S" turn with about a six foot drop in several stages, followed by a brutal portage of about 40 yards over some very large, slippery rocks, thru a steep gully, up a short hill and then down to the river on the over side of the hill. With all the new paddlers, they were wisely waiting until each paddler cleared the turn before sending the next one.

Otherwise, the paddlers would all pile into one another, making for a very unsafe mess. We waited about an hour in the sun, sitting in our boats, before we could get thru the bottle neck. As I went through the tight "S" turn, it was quite evident that my 16.5 ft sea kayak was not designed for this. I made it, but only with a lot of effort. A much shorter boat would have been much more appropriate for this part of the river.

After the portage, it was time to see what the "cafeteria workers" had prepared for me. I had ordered a peanut butter sandwich. I searched the bag and found a small plastic bag which said "Smucker's Peanut Butter". It was one of those machine made sandwiches with peanut butter and jelly inserted into a type of small pie. Not bad, but not what I was expecting. The banana and cookie were excellent. After lunch, it was then time for some more small rapids.

As we paddled, the depth of the water varied from several inches to ten feet. There were few dangerous hydraulics in which you could get pinned in your boat and were in danger of drowning.. The water was shallow because of the lack of rain in Georgia. Many of the rapids were easy to pick a way thru the rocks by simply following the water flow. But a good number of them looked like a "mine field" of rocks with no clear water path.

We sent our best pathfinders out first, Pat and Everett, to find the best route thru. Another method was to watch other kayakers pick their way thru and see who got thru and who got "hung up". A path often involved winding back and forth across the river in large "S" turns as we weaved our way down the river. In many cases you wanted to have some speed to go over rocks if you got "hung up" but not too much speed to lose control.

Avoiding Hidden Rocks
I can't tell you the number of times I used my "rock brace" to steady myself as I went through a rapid. You could watch how a paddler successfully negotiated a path and attempt to emulate them. However, because there were so many hidden rocks, your path could be off by only six inches and you would get "hung up" while the other paddle sailed thru.

I lost count of he number of times that I got "hung up" on hidden rocks. A local fisherman said that he had pulled many rocks out of the river, painted them the color of the water and then threw them back in. I also heard someone say that the rocks were moving underwater so that the boats would run into them - kind of a game with them. Of course you look for ripples on the water surface to find the submerged rocks.

One time I was following Everett paddling quietly along in calm water when all of a sudden he pirouetted around a single point, as if doing a strange kayak dance, and was facing back towards me. One of those hidden rocks had snuck up on him. I once I hit a hidden rock so hard that I thought that it would tear the bottom of my boat out as I rocked by boat to get off the rock. Getting out of the boat was not an option unless you wanted to capsize and then do a re-entry.

When we started out, Mary Cummings had told me that I probably would not get much time to take pictures. How right she was! Between concentrating very hard to find the "line" thru the rapids and not wanting to risk losing my camera overboard, I had to force myself to consciously stop to take pictures. I did get about 50 pictures, but only about 25 were usable ones.

Resting after the first day
I was glad when out first day's fourteen-mile paddle was done, because I was tired. However, I can also say that I had a great time. I have never kayaked in a river with rapids, yet felt safe with my companions and the Paddle Georgia people around me. We took out our kayaks, stacked them and took the shuttle bus back to our tents for a shower and supper. That night as I lay in my tent I was hoping for a cool Georgia breeze to help quench the hot, muggy night. Before I dozed off I noticed that all the nervous chatter from the night before had disappeared. With a paddle under our belts we were tired veterans of the Ocmulgee River.

The plan for my second day was similar to the first. Eat breakfast, gather our paddling gear, and take the shuttle to the river. We got a slightly earlier start on the second, getting on the water a little after 9 a.m.

Since this was Georgia, you could feel that the air was heavy with humidity. The temperature in the morning was about seventy-five degrees with it slowly warning up until about 10 a.m. At this time it seemed like someone turned on the furnace and the temperature shot up to close to ninety degrees with about 90% relative humidity. However, we were not in a race and maintained a fairly slow pace of from 2.5 to 3 mph.

I did everything I could think of to keep cool. I drank plenty of water, threw water on my back and shoulders and dipped my hat in the water and then placed it on my head. Within 15 minutes the hat was almost dry to the touch and had to be re-emerged.

As "Forrest Gump" might say, this river is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you are going to get around the next bend. We would paddle on smooth water with some hidden rocks, run a small rapid for about a mile, and then another half mile of relatively smooth water before the next rapid. As you paddled along, if you listened closely, you could hear the next approaching rapid.

After the Dam
Late in the morning we approached a large dam and our planned portage for the day. This was to be a much easier portage than the day before. We simply had to take our boats out of the water, put them onto a trailer, and the boat and ourselves would be portaged around the dam. This worked well in theory. However, there were 300 of us on the river, A lot were novice paddlers, with a good many arriving at the same time. After about one & half hours, we made it to the put-in on the low side of the dam.

It appeared that our method of operation was the same the second day, portage and then lunch. This time I had ordered a ham and cheese sandwich and was delighted to find bread, ham and cheese in a good ole American sandwich.

By the time that we had finished lunch, all the TBSKers were together on the river. We continued to pick our way through rapids, sometimes doing better than others. As I mentioned earlier, one way to find a good line thru a rapids was to watch others have problems.

We watched as one paddler got hung up on a rock, her kayak went under in a small hydraulic and many helpers were needed to get her out. We then found out that this person was TBSKer Mary Cummings.

As I write this story I'm not quite sure what happened. She said that when she tried to go thru the rapid, she did not realize that another boat had been sunk where she tried it and she ran into the sunken boat. I have asked her to write a separate story about her experience. In any event, she was safe, but quite tired from the ordeal.

Toward the end of the second day of paddling, there was a large rapid, which they allowed us to run. With lots of water it would have been a Class II rapid. It was a fairly short run of about 120 feet but had a drop of about 8 feet - in three stages. Some of us chose to run it and some chose to do the short portage around it. I can say that it got the blood going.

The first two days paddle on this river had many rapids. After that, the river leveled out and I was told that it was mostly flat-water paddling. As I took my boat out I knew that I was headed home while most of the other TBSKers had five more days of paddling on the Ocmulgee. I hope to get Mary Cummings to write a story about the last five days of their trip. I was pleased to enjoy the first two days.

One last story: Since I had been gone for about five days, I brought my wife home a package of Georgia chocolate peanut clusters. She looked at the package and said, "Someone opened my bag of peanut clusters." To which I replied, "A few clusters had to give their lives so that most could live." She retorted, "It looks like most gave their lives so that a few could live."

What could I say; it was a long trip home.

Last update Thursday, January 17, 2008

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