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Paddlers start 106-mile trip

bark at the Highway 32 boat ramp on the Flint River in Lee County Saturday after the first leg of their  journey which began at the Lake Blackshear dam outside Warwick. The paddlers 106-mile journey downriver will end in the backwaters of Lake Seminole at Bainbridge. (June 15, 2013)

bark at the Highway 32 boat ramp on the Flint River in Lee County Saturday after the first leg of their journey which began at the Lake Blackshear dam outside Warwick. The paddlers 106-mile journey downriver will end in the backwaters of Lake Seminole at Bainbridge. (June 15, 2013)

ALBANY, Ga. -- A handful at a time, happy paddlers trickled to the shore, slathered with sunscreen and peeling off their life vests. Yesterday, around 350 "river rats" completed the first leg of their journey down the Flint. At the end of their seven-day trek, they will have powered their canoes and kayaks some 106 miles from Lake Blackshear to Bainbridge and the backwaters of Lake Seminole, officials say.

Coming mostly from other parts of Georgia with some from as far away as Kentucky, Nevada and even Denmark, the water-riders hauled their crafts up the boat ramp at the river bridge on Highway 32.

All are participants of the 9th annual Paddle Georgia, a project of the Georgia River Network. According to officials, GRN is dedicated to the protection and restoration of rivers throughout the state. Proceeds of Paddle Georgia will benefit Georgia River Network, said Joe Cook, an organizer of the event.

"We do it for the joy," said Jim Nelson, a metal fabricator from West Point embarked on his ninth Paddle Georgia trip. "There's nothing like being out on the river paddling. I've been paddling the northern part of the flint for 30 years. We love the Flint."

Nelson's friend, Dean Crist agreed.

"You learn something new about the river every time you come," Crist said. You really come to appreciate that what we have in Georgia is very special."

According to April Lingle, executive director of the GRN, each year Paddle Georgia plans the trip for a segment of a different Georgia river. While the upper Flint has held the featured spot, it's a first for the lower part. Lingle said the official first day on the water went well, especially with the additional rainfall received recently.

"This section is regulated by the dam at Lake Blackshear," Lingle said. "They weren't releasing until about 11 o'clock this morning. I guess the people at the end of the day are getting a nice little boost to help them out."

Lingle said that many of the paddlers sighted an array of indigenous wildlife, including herons, osprey, turtles, deer, Mississippi kites and, of course, the South Georgia favorite -- alligators.

Lingle said the paddlers would camp at Chehaw Park, but before turning in would visit the Thronateeska Heritage Center and the Flint RiverQuarium. Today, paddlers will have a tour of Chehaw's Wild Animal Park.

Debbie Lynn Fountain and her husband, Jim, were looking forward to the zoo trip, as they missed the alligators on Saturday's river trip.

"I just hope we don't see them in our tent," said Debbie Fountain.

The Fountains are accountants and own an insurance business in Lula, where the Chattahoochie turns into Lake Lanier. Both are avid river people, owning five kayaks between them, they said. They were on the upper Flint in 2008 during drought conditions.

"There's a big difference this year," said Debbie Fountain. "The water was low and we had to carry our boats sometimes. It was not fun."

Michelle McClendon, a Coweta County teacher, finally convinced her mother, Wanda, of the joys of river kayaking. Now they've begun their sixth Paddle Georgia adventure.

"I never dreamed I would like this," Wanda McClendon said. "But (Michelle) went on a trip took all the picture from between her feet as she was going down. I saw that and I wanted to do it the next year. I was hooked."

Michelle McClendon said the campers got to listen in on wild animals at Chehaw Park Friday night as they tried to get some sleep.

"They sounded like children singing," Michelle McClendon said. "My first impression was go and yell at them."

Both mother and daughter prefer what they call the "cockpit" style of kayak, they said, which encloses the paddle's lower body. That way, they say, they aren't burned so much by the sun.

Most of the paddlers at the highway 32 bridge seemed to favor kayaks over canoes. One kayaker explained that kayaks tend to offer greater speed and stability on the water, while canoes are good for storage on overnight trips.

This morning, paddlers were to meet again at their stopping point on Highway 32 and proceed to Cromartie landing at Lake Chehaw. From there, further progress down the Flint requires portage around the Flint power dam, Lisa Ingle said.

From around 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Monday, the throng of paddlers will be seen slicing through the white water of the Albany Riverfront Park area on their way to Bainbridge, Ingle said.