Angela Reinhardt / Photo
Kayakers floating down the Etowah River for Mountain Conservation Trust’s Earth Day on the Etowah Paddle.
It was around 10 a.m. the Saturday before Earth Day. Kayaks and canoes in a kaleidoscope of colors poured into the takeout site at Kelly Bridge in Dawson County, where they would soon be loaded onto shuttles and sent upstream with their owners/renters.
The weather was shaping up to show off mother nature at its finest, an ideal scenario for Mountain Conservation Trust of Georgia’s Earth Day on the Etowah Paddle that would take participants nearly 10 miles through Dawson Forest’s Wildlife Management Area. It was sunny, and despite it being a brisk 40 in the morning temps would get into the 70s by afternoon. The land trust’s director George Kimberly was busy checking people in when my party of three arrived. He told me attendance was up an impressive 300 percent, from 10 participants last year - the first year the event was held - to over 30.
After boats were stacked and secured on trailers, we got a rundown of what to expect from the Appalachian Outfitters shuttle service rep, followed by a safety lesson from a couple there as guides.
Main concerns along this most frequently paddled stretch of the Etowah were “strainers and sweepers,” they told us. I was relieved to hear the route was Class I, or suitable for beginners like me, and relieved that they explained what “strainers and sweepers” are - obstructions like fallen or low hanging trees.
After the briefing, we loaded into three vans and were hauled up the road to Etowah River Park where we would launch and spend the next four hours travelling along the water through the secluded, serene, and beautiful Dawson Forest.
River legs and a tipped canoe
My party, which included my pregnant sister and a friend (both of whom are more experienced kayakers than me) were nearly last in our group to launch. I was thankful because although the river wasn’t moving quickly it took me at least a mile to get a general feel for navigating. (“Why is my boat going in the opposite direction I want it to?”) For guidance, I paid attention to the gentle motion kayakers in front of me made with their paddles, a back and forth that seemed effortless and was pleasant to watch.
It was about this time that I rounded a bend and saw two women (also beginners) fall out of their canoe in a shallow section of the river. The boat started to take on water, and by the time I reached them it was submerged. The land trust director, who patrolled the group throughout the day to make sure everyone was okay, beached his boat and held the canoe to keep it from floating downstream. I felt bad my novice skill level kept me from helping (and hoped that wouldn’t happen to me farther down the river), but MCT Director George Kimberly and my friend, who had turned around to assist, had the women back on the water in no time.
After the excitement of the toppled canoe, and once I got some semblance of river legs (like sea legs, only on a river), I was able to focus less on technique and more on my surroundings, which have a rich history and weighty ecological significance.
Why the Etowah?
The Etowah River is one of the most biologically diverse rivers in the United States. Seventy-six native fish species live there, including the federally-endangered Etowah and Amber darters, as well as one federally threatened fish, the Cherokee darter. Kimberly of the Mountain Conservation Trust said it is a perfect venue for their Earth Day celebration because of this ecological significance, but also because protection of the Etowah, which flows near the increasingly urbanized cities like Ball Ground, Canton, Cartersville and Rome, is a top priority for the Jasper-based non-profit. The Etowah is a also source of drinking water for residents in Bartow, Cherokee, Cobb, Forsyth and Paulding counties, as well as home to numerous aquatic habitats.
“Protection of land and natural resources in the Etowah basin that will improve water quality and quantity has long been a focus of Mountain Conservation Trust’s conservation efforts,” Kimberly said in an email sent to participants leading up to the event. “Drawing attention to the Etowah is part of MCT’s overall effort to connect land, water and community; and our Earth Day paddle provides a great opportunity for just that.”
This nine-mile leg of the Etowah was selected because it’s close to home, easy to paddle, and runs through the beautiful 10,000-acre section of the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area, one of 133 of such areas managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The Dawson Forest WMA is of particular importance to the local land trust because they worked with the DNR to permanently conserve nearly 680 acres in the area. That tract of land, currently owned by the city of Atlanta, also has a particularly interesting past.
I was taken with how little trash I saw along the 10 miles we paddled that day. Just one tire and a single can. The clear water revealed river rocks along the bottom, and other than the first couple of miles where shots were heard from a nearby gun range, the trip was free from sounds like passing vehicles. Talking remained minimal among paddlers, who seemed more interested in soaking in the peaceful scene that soaking up conversation.
Dense forests along the river banks did, however, give a few stark clues to the land’s intriguing past, when from 1956 to 1971 government contractors built the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory and used it to work on a top-secret project to build a nuclear-powered airplane. Paddlers pass by the somewhat eerie remains of a water intake structure and abandoned bridge piers where roads and a railroad systems once connected facilities like a nuclear reactor, a cooling site, and a hot-cell building, according to a description on www.etowahwatertrail.org.
A map of the Dawson Forest paddle displayed at a kiosk at the launch site shows other points of interest along the trip – an abandoned bridge, a waterfall, the confluence of Amicalola Creek, a towering rock bluff, and the aptly titled “Radioactive Rapid.” Kimberly circled back at one point and told us that last year they had pulled off and walked to the waterfall for lunch and social time, but the area was too crowded that day. He looked for another location down the river, but with the size of the group and recent rains that raised the water level and covered up banks there was nowhere for such a large group to go.
“The rain is good for the river, but it makes it hard to find a spot to pull off,” he said.
I was perfectly fine continuing without stopping. I’d gotten into a groove and was enjoying the scenery. As the trip went on the river widened, and with most of the group a good bit ahead it felt like I had the place to myself at times. I stopped paddling on several occasions and just floated, like many of the others in the group. I’d never given much thought to rivers as modes of travel, but that day I paddled the same distance as it is from my house to my office. I thought about ferry boats on the Mississippi and pioneers who travelled hundreds of miles on the Amazon River through the rainforest.
The crux of the trip was the Radioactive Rapid, the most significant rapid along the paddle. Upon approaching, I saw that the guide couple had pulled their canoe off on a rock island where water was flowing to its left and the right. The woman had her paddle up in the air signaling us to go to the right. I tailed a canoe in front of me and made it through with no problems.
Over the next few miles we passed the Amicalola Creek convergence and the stunning rock bluff before reaching the Kelly Bridge takeout. An easy pull off and we were done, ready to load our boats in the back of the truck and head home feeling accomplished, peaceful, and more centered than we felt before the trip.
An annual affair
If my experience is any indicator, Mountain Conservation Trust accomplished exactly what they set out to for Earth Day. My sister and friend were also highly complementary of the trip and Kimberly said feedback from other paddlers was positive, too. Only about a third of the participants were either members or volunteers with MCT. The director said he believes participation increased this year in part because of better publicity and good recruitment from members and supporters, but also because “folks really enjoyed the paddle last year.”
If you missed the trip this time around don’t fret, the non-profit plans on hosting a paddle every Earth Day so you’ll get another chance. If you can’t wait until next April you can check out the paddle for yourself any time of year. There is plenty of detailed information about it and other paddles along the Etowah River Trail at www.etowahrivertrail.org.
Mountain Conservation Trust is an accredited land trust dedicated to the permanent conservation of the natural resources and scenic beauty of the north Georgia mountains and foothills. Learn more about them at www.mctga.org.