Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Canoeing the Chattahoochee

On the lovely but brisk autumn morning of Saturday, October 18th, fourteen of us set out down the Chattahoochee River, from near the South Fulton Parkway Bridge southwest down to the Whitesburg Bridge. Amongst our group was Dr. Christopher Tabit, aquatic ecologist from the University of West Georgia (http://www.westga.edu/~biology/faculty/Tabit.html), and Steve Lawrence, scientist with the US and director of the Chattahoochee River BacteriAlert program (http://ga2.er.usgs.gov/bacteria/default.cfm). Both scientists had regaled our group with background on water quality issues along the Chattahoochee in a previous evening presentation, on Thursday, October 9th.

My plans for the day had been shaped by an earlier run down the river. Ben Simms (outing leader) and I had completed a scouting run on a warmer but windier day a couple of weeks earlier. It had not rained in ages, and the river was quite low, with abundant rocks lurking in the shoals. We made it through without incident, though for a considerable portion of the trip we faced headwinds great enough to turn my canoe and almost push me back upstream through a stretch of rapids. It took us five hours to run the approximately ten miles. Ben, accomplished river runner, glimpsed all sorts of wildlife, including an otter; I contented myself with several great blue herons (or was it the same heron that we kept chasing downstream?).

Anyway, Saturday's run was different. It had rained all day the previous day, and the river had risen over a foot from our earlier trip. The wind had abated, and we raced downstream with very little effort. The few morning clouds quickly lifted, and the sun shone brilliantly in a clear blue sky.

We zipped downstream, quickly (and unknowingly) passing the spot where we had planned to pull out for lunch. We were so early in the day that it had not yet been flagged for us -- we later calculated that the flagging must have been put up within five or ten minutes of our passage. Meanwhile, I kept my canoe as close to the Fulton County bank as I could -- balancing that against my wife Valerie's requests from the front of the canoe that we keep to the sunnier middle of the river. As we glided along, we passed by a dramatic example of bank collapse, in which a huge chunk of riverbank, trees and all, had sluffed off into the river. It made me think of our current economic woes and other failing banks....

Eventually I came to the unavoidable conclusion that we had missed our lunch stop, though it was scarcely eleven in the morning at that point. I also realized that I had neglected to bring the cell phone number of the person who had generously offered to provide lunch at his own land along the river. I remembered, though, that the cell phone number was in an email; but how to access my Hotmail account midstream? I called my in-laws in Westchester, New York, figuring they would probably be inside at the computer. While my father-in-law went online and looked for the right post, my mother-in-law chatted with me, remarking that she did not think she had ever spoken on the telephone with someone in a canoe before. Finally, my father-in-law located the number and relieved, I dialed it quickly. It rang and rang. What to do?
Meanwhile, the moments raced by, and we arrived at the first bridge. The old Whitesburg bridge had been closed, and local residents had robbed the bridge of much of its material. The remaining I-beams were in various states of disrepair. Several of them dangled midair above the river, warranting the alternative name of "eye-beams". We kept to the other side of the central concrete pylon. I paused the canoe while Valerie photographed the dilapidated bridge, which evoked a massive modern art sculpture by its size and the precariousness of its dangling steel beams.
Shortly before noon, we arrived at the pull-out point alongside the Whitesburg Bridge. We took out the canoes, then drove in caravan to the access road to the spot where we were going to have lunch. In 4-wheel-drive vehicles, we travelled a series of rutted jeep trails to the stream edge, where tables draped with white tablecloths awaited us. Our host, who had recently turned his cell phone on and received my message, was elated to see our group. We had a marvelous and very filling meal of sandwiches and potato salad and chocolate-chip cookies. Afterwards, we strolled the cleared riverbank, admiring the view.