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Waterlogue: Lessons learned on a trip down the Chattahoochee

Times duo rolls down the river to learn more about people and lives it affects

POSTED: June 19, 2010 11:56 p.m.

Times reporter Ashley Fielding shows off a strawberry spinach salad with shrimp from The Loft in Columbus. Also pictured is homemade olive tapenade and hummus with pita bread.

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We traveled more than 1,300 miles, snapped more than 1,000 images and wrote countless pages of notes in order to bring you a story the river cannot tell on its own.

The Chattahoochee River is the main artery of our region. From its headwaters near Helen to its final exit in the Apalachicola Bay, the river is central to nearly every aspect of our lives.

But as much as we rely on it, revel in it and fight over who gets how much of the Chattahoochee, we don't really understand its needs - or the needs of our neighbors.

We live our lives so wrapped up in our own worlds, we forget to open our eyes and think about the needs of others.

A recreational boater on Lake Lanier may not ponder the plight of the oystermen in the Apalachicola Bay. And you might be hard pressed to find an Atlantan concerned about the ailing river ecosystem.

We thought it was time to put an end to such disregard.

So as we cranked up the Jeep, laid maps across our laps and hit the roads that run alongside the Chattahoochee, we kept that goal in mind.

We wanted to understand all life the river sustains.

And as we sought that understanding, we discovered so many different world views in one region.

We experienced the river from the depths of dams, from the height of bridges and the bows of boats — all so we could contribute a sense of perspective.

We met farmers, oystermen, entrepreneurs, environmentalists and visionaries. We approached complete strangers just to make sure we had not missed someone's story.

We frustrated fellow motorists as we corrected wrong turns, drove too slowly in sleep-deprived states and abruptly stopped to capture on camera some vista that words wouldn't have justified. We risked their upturned fingers and our safety in the name of breathtaking images.

We learned more than we ever imagined possible about power generation, pulpwood processing, cotton mills and river ecology.

We found some people who used the river as a source of production, others who sought its solace and many who talked about the Chattahoochee as if it were human.

And in each of them, we found understanding.

With each person we met, we began to see how the actions of every one of the river's beneficiaries affected the others.

No industry, man or mussel is an island in this river system, and we hope to pass that message on to you.

We got sunburns, and then we got smart, applying generous amounts of sunscreen to newly burned skin.
We endured stale hotel breakfasts, which advertised themselves as being "hot and fresh."

Some days we went without meals for fear of being late to an interview. And we crossed back and forth through time zones so often that we became confused on the correct hour. Somehow, we almost always arrived to our assignments on time.

And when we were late, we found mercy in those we were meeting.

We found the river's playful side in Helen, Columbus and Buford. We experienced the river's beauty as each day's sunset cast a warm, golden light onto its waters.

We ate the most deliciously fresh raw oysters and discovered some of the Southeast's finest human beings, people who made sure we safely got where we needed to be and suggested a good place to get some vittles and rest our weary heads.

For the next week, we will try to share all that we saw - all that we learned- with you.

And while we may not cover every inch of her reach in this eight-part series, we hope that by showing you everything we've found and introducing you to everyone we've met on our five-day jaunt, we might all understand, at least, a little more.


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