One week ago 300 people settled their bums down into kayaks and canoes, shoved off from our put-in point in Ellijay, and tossed and bumped along the smooth rocks of the Coosawattee at the beginning of our 92+ mile journey. New paddlers, experienced river rats, lean bodies and chubby buddies, teachers, mechanics, fishermen—people of all sizes, shapes and personal hygiene standards spun out onto the water with the common goal of communing with the rivers. This morning I write from my usual spot in my sunroom, overlooking a very crispy flower bed. My garden and I both miss the water.
The personality of the rivers change from Ellijay to Rome, just as the personalities of our companions changed over the course of the week. The first day found people focused, fast, with a tinge of wariness. The Class II rapids along that section demand attention, and since this was our first day together people were concerned about embarrassing themselves or holding up the group. I know I felt that way. By the end of the run, paddlers leaned back a little in their boats, relaxed with the fast day behind them and miles of beautiful water ahead. We passed palatial spreads and vacation rental property, decks with hanging baskets overlooking the cool, quick water.
The Oostanala River coming into Rome works hard. As the bed widens, the banks grow steep and muddy. Cows blink lazy eyes and the sight of sunburned paddlers munching on potato chips. Blonde fronds of corn silk wave from just beyond the tree line along the river, and farmers run belching generators to pipe the Oostanaula up onto their crops. No more cedar decks cantilever out over the water for summer cocktail parties; instead, bare patches in the river cane offer spots for cinderblocks, a rusty pole, and an orange line down into the water. After a day of splashing, picnicking, Father’s Day fun on Carters Lake, the river gets to work.
This delineation between vacation river and working river surprised me the most on this trip. (Besides the condition of the girls’ locker rooms at Armuchee High School. Poor girls! Where is Title 9 when you need it? Any girl playing any sport for the Indians deserves extra cheers for where she has to rinse off after practice.) I overheard complaints about the rivers from others in our brigade; paddlers unfamiliar with the Rome area. Why can’t you see the bottom of the river, one paddler asked Husband, and does it ever clear up? No, Husband replied. But sometimes it gets worse.
For all her muddy waters, the Oostanaula is still a beautiful river. I think of her as possessing great character, and when you do take a dip (because it is perfectly safe to do so, fellow Romans), you come out sparkling with bits of mica and quartz silt like you’ve been dipped in gold. Gar still flop along the mouth of Armuchee Creek, and turtles stack like pancakes along the smooth limbs of driftwood logs. The river could be cleaner, yes, but generally she’s a healthy old girl. And as Husband and I sat on the bank in Heritage Park last night, our fingers greasy with fried catfish and our shoulders warm with late afternoon sun, we watched her flow by without her 300 recent fans. As good as it feels to be home, I think I could get back in the boat today and paddle a little farther, just to see what’s around the next bend of the Coosa. Leader Joe always says you never step in the same river twice. And isn’t that the best part?