River Song: A Journey down the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers

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Editorial Reviews

Booknews
Freelance photographers Joe and Monica Cook present a record of a source-to-sea river adventure that makes a compelling argument for the preservation of one of the country's most beautiful, but threatened, waterways. In following their 100-day adventure through every bend of the river system, the reader is introduced to the river itself and to the stories of those who live and work along the river's edge. The text and color images combine to portray the river's social and cultural history and the environmental troubles that threaten its survival. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780817310349
  • Publisher: University of Alabama Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2000
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 10.50 (w) x 12.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

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Chapter One


CHATTAHOOCHEE DREAMING


It was April 2, 1995, and the second day of our source-to-sea journey on the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers. We had some 535 miles ahead of us to reach the river's mouth on the Gulf of Mexico, and the better part of three months set aside to accomplish the feat. Burdened with full packs, we bushwhacked along the young Chattahoochee's course as it winds its way through the Chattahoochee National Forest of north Georgia. It would be another day and a half of foot travel before the river grew large enough to float our canoe.

    Already, the journey was surprising us. We didn't expect such rugged terrain or the tremendous waterfalls that we cautiously stepped through, around, and over. It wasn't long before we began to question the wisdom of our journey.

    Rounding one wild bend where we had to shout over the roar of the water to hear each other, we ran into a pair of fishermen. We asked them if the river's course got gentler further downstream, and they looked at us bewildered.

    "I went in there once," said one fisherman as he pointed to the deepening gorge. "I fell on a rock and busted my knee cap. It took me seven hours to get out to a hospital. I can give you a ride to the other side. My truck's just at the top of the hill."

    Still determined to follow the river, we replied, "No thanks, we'd rather walk."

    "Ooooooooh," he said, seemingly enlightened about our grand endeavor. "You're into that Blue Highway crap, that WalkAcross America stuff."

    Monica and I just looked at each other and laughed. We'd read both of the adventure travel novels the fisherman was referring to when we were impressionable college students. No doubt those exciting tales of long-distance journeys had influenced us and helped bring us to this wild spot along the river on an adventure of our own. Had we not been in a hurry to get through the gorge, we would have told our full story to the insightful fisherman.

    This journey really has its beginnings in our childhoods. We grew up children of Atlanta's suburbs, sustained by Chattahoochee River water. We were raised in its watershed. We played in it and its tributaries, we picnicked at its shores, we soaked up its beauty and its cool water.

    Yet the bond with the river was hardly confined to aesthetics. It was, very literally, our life support. It came through the pipes in our suburban homes, cleaned our bodies as infants, quenched our thirsts on summer nights spent playing kick-the-can, and watered the lawn that we begrudgingly mowed as teenagers.

    But even in our childhood there existed a peculiar dichotomy about this river. The river was our inspiration and our sustenance, but at times it had a repulsive nature. For instance, Monica's first memories of the river are of family picnics at the relatively pristine and picturesque Jones Bridge Park in the far northern reaches of Atlanta's suburbs. But my earliest memories of the river revolve around the distinct aroma of raw sewage and river water that emanated from the river in south Metro Atlanta. The church my family attended sat just a stone's throw from the river and from two of Atlanta's largest wastewater treatment plants. On thick-aired summer days, the smell of stewing sewage would occasionally seep into our church's sanctuary. Because of this unpleasant pall, my family and friends began to call the river "Chattamanasty."

    In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the nickname fit. Raw sewage was regularly dumped into the river. In 1965, more than 20 million gallons of untreated sewage were released to the river each day from Atlanta's main treatment facility. The extent of the pollution was alarming.

    By 1972, Georgia's legendary U.S. senator Herman Talmadge was telling reporters, "If we are to save the Chattahoochee from meeting the same ugly fate as most of the nation's other major rivers, then we must act now to evaluate the situation."

    Jimmy Carter, at the time governor of Georgia, witnessing the tremendous land development threatening the river in north Atlanta, said, "This is a fight to protect our right and the right of future generations to enjoy the beauty of the river. That beauty can be destroyed just as easily with beer cans and garbage as with office parks and apartments, and it will be destroyed unless each individual who comes to enjoy the Chattahoochee is willing to make a personal effort to preserve what has been entrusted to him."

    This is the backdrop that shaped our relationship with the Chattahoochee. In fact the dream of following the river was born during that era as I played on a Chattahoochee tributary that my family called Snake Creek. On it I built my first dam, caught my first crawfish and spooked my first snake. It was the only wilderness available in our suburb.

    One day my creeking buddy, Andrew Groover, and I set out to follow the stream. We had a vague idea of where it led, but we'd never ventured far on this natural path. It was an all-day affair—or at least that's the way I remember it. The creek widened and passed from home lot to woods to pasture and finally it reached the Chattahoochee. By the time we reached our destination, we were muddy and wet but thrilled with the adventure. In those moments of the late afternoon, as we squeaked back home in wet sneakers, my mind began to wander downriver to adventures yet remaining.

    In some way the journey made me aware for the first time that I was part of a bigger picture. My world as a twelve-year-old was small, about the size of Snake Creek's drainage basin, but in making our grand adventure, the mud and water moving about our feet taught us a lesson. Like the water before us, we were hurtling toward life's mainstream. Though we seemed insignificant at the time, the creek showed us we might some day make mighty movements like so many tiny creeks creating a surging river.

    It was not a traditionally significant moment like one's first little league game or first kiss, but today, I remember it as well as that awkward kiss on the top bleachers in the middle school gym.

    Some fifteen years later, in the spring of 1992, Monica and I camped at Chattahoochee Gap along the Appalachian Trail in north Georgia where a spring first gives life to the Chattahoochee.

    We were on the fifth day of a thousand mile backpacking trip that would take us to Pennsylvania, where we had stopped the previous year on our southbound journey from the Trail's other end at Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Just ten days before this night at the Gap we had been married, and we were filled with the excitement and optimism that comes with being honeymooners.

    As we talked over dinner, I recalled my childhood dream of following the river's course, and Monica suggested, "If a person can hike 2,000 miles on the Appalachian Trail, surely we could hike and canoe 500 miles on the Chattahoochee."

    "I suppose so," I said, but my mind was still on the 1,000 miles ahead of us on the Trail. We slept soundly that night and still remember it as the best night's sleep we've ever enjoyed on the Trail. A grouse thumped in the early morning, searching for a mate, and in our deep slumber we must have dreamed of the river.

    Several days later we escaped the mountains for a shower and warm bed at Rainbow Springs Campground in North Carolina where we ran into Lisa Pirkle a short, spirited woman who was vacationing with her two boys in the cabin next door. When we mentioned our night at Chattahoochee Gap, she immediately produced a sheaf of literature about the river and its many troubles. It was one of those serendipitous moments that Appalachian Trail hikers refer to as "trail magic." The dream of following the river might well have been permanently filed in the big mental folder labeled "future plans," had it not been for this chance encounter with a vacationing environmental activist from Atlanta. Immediately we saw a purpose in a source-to-sea expedition aside from fulfilling a childhood dream. We realized that we could use the trip to promote the river's preservation. Being nature/landscape photographers by profession, it was also the perfect opportunity to spend time in our favorite office.

    In winter 1994, with the Appalachian Trail adventure under our belts, we began studying the river and planning the journey. Our hope was to connect with nonprofit organizations working to protect the river and turn the journey into a fundraiser, as well as a public relations tool, for these groups.

    We set a departure date of April 1, 1995 (three years after our original encampment at Chattahoochee Gap), and began rifling through every book on the river we could find. We tracked down newspaper and magazine articles, searched for maps, and contacted individuals familiar with the river.

    When we described our project, the responses ranged from outright incredulity to guarded enthusiasm. Margaret Zachry, the downtown development coordinator for the town of West Point, practically yelled into the phone: "People die down here on the river! Are you sure you want to do this?"

    Sally Bethea, director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Fund in Atlanta, was more encouraging. She told us later, "I immediately thought this was the adventure that could help tell the river's story." Sally's enthusiasm proved essential to making the project a reality. She helped us form a partnership with her organization, as well as with the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell and the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper in Columbus. With this support, we began seeking sponsorship from businesses that could turn a pair of financially challenged, beginning canoeists into a well-outfitted expedition.

    Dagger Canoe Company in Harriman, Tennessee, pitched in with a seventeen-foot canoe, and by March 1995, ten more businesses had agreed to sponsor us through donations or discounts on products ranging from hummus mix to fishing lures.

    While we prepared for our journey, the river rolled on to the Gulf, accepting the insults of pollution and abuse and, as we would soon discover, still maintaining its proud beauty.

    The river's source, as we knew from our honeymoon trip, is a mountain spring in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Union County, from which the stream flows some 540 miles to the Florida Panhandle and Apalachicola Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. At 436 miles, the Chattahoochee is Georgia's longest river, and when the Flint River joins it at the Florida state line and its name changes to Apalachicola, it becomes Florida's largest river. Draining a river basin of 19,600 square miles, it pumps an average of 16 billion gallons of freshwater into Apalachicola Bay daily and ranks as the eleventh largest river in the United States.

    Fifteen dams block its course to the sea, beginning with tiny Nora Mill Dam near Helen. Its final man-made obstacle is the mammoth Jim Woodruff Lock and Dam at the Florida/Georgia state line. Along the fall line that separates piedmont from coastal plain between West Point and Columbus, nine dams span the river. Of its 540 miles, nearly 200 lie on man-made still water behind these many dams.

    Where our creations of concrete and steel have not confined the river in the mountains and piedmont, the Chattahoochee alternately runs through shallow rocky shoals and deep sandy pools. Its biggest rapids scarcely challenge experienced canoeists and kayakers but can quickly humble the novice.

    Despite the numerous dams and lakes along the fall line, periodic rapids continue all the way to Columbus where in two and a half miles, the river drops an amazing 150 feet. Below Columbus, the river widens and slows as it winds through the wooded, moss-draped shores of the coastal plain. Though the river is often referred to as muddy, sand is the predominate dirt on the Lower Chattahoochee. Sandbars lining the river there rival the beaches of the Gulf, and on the Apalachicola, some bars are as big as football fields.

    Formed when the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers meet in the southwest corner of Georgia, the Apalachicola winds some 106 miles through the Florida panhandle. As it nears its destination, the floodplain spreads into a six-mile-wide matrix of tupelo and cypress swamps, blackwater creeks and tidal marshlands above Apalachicola Bay. The Bay, a shallow, super productive estuary, catches the freshwater at the river's mouth, and a semicircle of islands—Dog, St. George, Little St. George and St. Vincent—keep the Gulf's briny water at a distance.

    In its journey to the sea, the Chattahoochee is threatened and tugged at from all sides. Campers and fishermen are loving its headwaters to death. Land development in north Georgia and Metro Atlanta fills the river with the piedmont's red clay, while toxins from city and suburban streets wash into its tributaries. As it has for decades, raw sewage still enters the river through Atlanta's antiquated and overburdened sewage system. Dams that permanently altered this once wild, wet ribbon have replaced spawning grounds with artificial fisheries. Dredging operations required for navigational use of the Lower Chattahoochee and Apalachicola continue to disturb potential habitat for threatened and endangered species.

    In 1996, American Rivers, the national river advocacy group, began including the Chattahoochee on its list of the country's ten most endangered waterways. The river also stands among the 40 percent of our nation's waterways that fail to meet water quality standards set by the 1972 Clean Water Act.

    Meanwhile, close to three million individuals living within the Chattahoochee's tristate watershed fight over this finite resource. In addition to supplying almost half of Georgia's population with drinking water, the Chattahoochee is harnessed for hydroelectric power, agriculture, recreation, navigation, and wastewater assimilation. At its estuarine end, the seafood industry of Apalachicola Bay also thrives on its steady flow.

    In 1990, quarrels over the allocation of river water came to a head when the states of Alabama and Florida filed a lawsuit against Georgia to prevent Metro Atlanta's suburbs from increasing their withdrawals from the river. Bureaucratic maneuvering prevented a prolonged court battle and resulted in a seven-year tristate water study. The study's purpose was to formulate a basin-wide water management plan to carry the river and its people into the twenty-first century. It remains unclear whether the parties involved will agree upon and abide by the study's findings. Though common in water-starved western states, battles over water quality and quantity were unheard of in the stream-crossed east until now. Clearly, the East Coast's first water war with its courtroom posturing sets an ominous precedent for other watersheds under stress as populations grow.

    The Chattahoochee stands at the forefront of this unsettling trend because of its geography. Metropolitan Atlanta, with its three million residents, lies a mere eighty miles from the mountain spring that gives birth to the river. Furthermore, the city sits atop a hard bed of igneous rock which supplies little groundwater. Atlantans consequently rely on the Chattahoochee's headwaters for their water supply. No other major metropolitan area in the country depends on a smaller drainage basin.

    Despite all of its problems, the river remains an enduring link to our native land, as I believe it does for many who were raised in its watershed. Coming of age in Atlanta's burgeoning suburbs, Monica and I watched as forests and farms around our homes yielded before bulldozers and backhoes. Land was little more than a building site, and no part of the landscape stayed the same for long. Today when we return to our childhood communities, we do not always recognize the places; but we always recognize the river. It remains constant—always beautiful, always flowing, and always providing life's essential element. When someone asks us where we grew up, we could say, "In Atlanta's suburbs." But a better answer would be, "On the Chattahoochee."

    This intimate relationship with the river is ultimately responsible for our source-to-sea journey. It is what made a young boy dream of great adventure.

    On July 9, 1995, we paddled at last across Apalachicola Bay, landed on St. George Island, and carried the canoe overland for a ceremonial plunging in Gulf waters. We had spent 100 days living out a dream on the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers. This book tells the story of our river adventure as well as the stories of the people like us who consider the river their home.

THE BATTLE-GROUND


By Ellen Glasgow

The UNIVERSITY of ALABAMA PRESS

Copyright © 2000 The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved.

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Table of Contents

CHATTAHOOCHEE DREAMING 5
HEADWATERS 15
NACOOCHEE 33
SIDNEY LANIER'S LEGACY 51
NORTH ATLANTA'S SPRAWL 71
LIFE ON "DEAD RIVER" 89
WATER OVER THE DAMS 109
PICKING ON ALABAMA 127
CRITTERS 147
FISHERMEN 167
NATIVE ROOTS 191
THE RIVER'S MAYBERRYS 211
SPIRITS OF STEAM 233
WATER IS FOR FIGHTING 253
UNFINISHED BUSINESS 275
Acknowledgments 285
Notes on Photographs 289
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