14 Sep Exploring the Hooch ~First Impressions of the Chattahoochee Valley Blueway
Early on a Saturday morning I woke up near Atlanta, Georgia. The sun had not yet risen and I lay there in the dark hotel room searching in vain for an excuse not to go. Scheduled to do a presentation at the Decatur Book Festival in just a few hours paddling the Chattahoochee River should have been the last thing on my mind. But once again circumstances had conspired to create just the right window of opportunity to get there and back with time to spare. In fact the slim margin of error added an element of risk that would only enhance the experience. What’s an adventure without a little danger?
Like most people I often talk myself out of spending time in nature. When it comes to playing outside we always seem to find something to do that’s more important. And in our fast-paced world of high-speed internet and the slow progress of commuter traffic on the interstate it’s easy to find excuses to do almost anything else. Deadlines and commitments persuade our rational minds to err on the side of caution and opt instead for that second cup of coffee and hours of web surfing across the bandwidth of free Wi-Fi. I might have easily rolled over and fallen back to sleep to dream of a delicious breakfast featuring thick slices of bacon and probably grits.
It didn’t take long for me to realize though that my purpose in life is provide a better example. On detached assignment through the Trust For Public Land my invitation to visit the Hooch, as it is so loving called, was as much work as play. My task was do a short reconnaissance trip to explore the prospects of creating a paddling trail two hours south of Atlanta that would be called the Chattahoochee Valley Blueway. Determined now I cast off the covers to find my shorts on floor and begin another day on the job as an environmental journalist.
I made it to the town of West Point, GA without incident. But once on the scene I received a text message from my guide. “Had a problem with the boats,” it read. “We’ll be there in about 20 minutes.” Annoyed to find myself behind schedule I took these spare moments to enjoy a better than average microwave sausage & egg biscuit and a slightly more passable cup of coffee at a gas station. Thinking ahead I took that opportunity as well to fill the tank on the rental car, just in case.
When we finally met at the put-in I was pleased to make the acquaintance of a pleasant young man in his late 20s named Adam Sanders. With a broad smile he greeted me with the practiced ease of a professional outfitter accustomed to conveying confidence to his clients. With the help his capable assistant who introduced himself as Hamilton Harp, we set two open cockpit kayaks into the river. The younger guide, his friend call him Hammy, projected the casually formal manner of his southern heritage.“Your weapon sir,” Hammy said as he smiled and handed me a paddle.
Two quick scoots of my butt release the kayak from the gravel beach and just like that we were off on our journey. The wide waterway flowed gently at first between tree-lined banks on either side that teamed with life. Blue egrets and white herons stood patiently along the shores on single stilts hunting for fish. In the swirl of each paddle stroke we set into motion a flurry of fins beneath the surface as bass and bluegills scurried out-of-the-way. Dozens of turtles splashed from the shade of fallen tree trunks to swim with uncanny speed in defiance of their slow reputation.
On this clear sunny day, though forecast called for rain, Adam and I paddled with the natural cadence of this thriving ecosystem now under the protection of the Trust For Public Land. In partnership with the guide company Whitewater Express where Adam is program manager, the TPL aims to construct spots for better access to Hooch for canoes and kayaks from West Point to Columbus. The 52-mile paddle trail will create about 50 jobs and contribute $3 million dollars a year to the local economy.
After the first hour of our journey I stopped looking at my watch. I was resigned now to allow the flow of the river set our pace as we portaged over dams and spillways to where Hammy waited with the truck and trailer. Along the way Adam pointed out potential sites for rustic camp sites and his favorite places to fish as he shared his personal vision for what the river might one day become. With a once mighty mining industry now depleted the engine of a new economy could be fueled by tourism. And with a 10-year license to manage the guiding concession on the Blueway in both Georgia and Alabama the owners of Whitewater Express are excited by the prospects of making their stretch of the river a major destination for the joy of outdoor adventure. Encouraged perhaps by my descriptions in words and pictures of what one might encounter on these beautiful waters hopefully visitors from Metro Atlanta and surrounding communities will find the time to explore this region just as I did.
Conscience of my tight schedule Adam left the boats with Hammy at the take-out and shuttled me back to my rented car in the truck. With a quick but sincere thank you for a wonderful trip I shook his hand, promising to come back for a longer visit. Just 90 minutes later I was showered and changed for the day’s remaining events. A small audience of almost 200 readers had gathered at the Decatur Public Library to hear my presentation on book The Adventure Gap. I smiled to myself as stood at the lectern, my KEEN sandals still wet and squishy from paddling. At the portion of my talk when I detail my many trips into the field I said with no small measure of pride, “This picture was taken just this morning on the Chattahoochee River. Adventure can be found right here in your own backyard,” I said. “You just have to venture out to discover it.”
The Joy Trip Project is made possible in part with the support of the Trust For Public Land