Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s glass-bottom Chota Princess II, which each year ferries 5,000 kid scientists around Lake Lanier, will have a new home this year: River Forks Park on Keith Bridge Road.
Program organizers Elachee Nature Science Center and Chattahoochee Riverkeeper worked with Hall County Parks and Leisure to relocate the vessel and the extremely popular Lake Lanier Aquatic Learning Center from Aqualand Marina to River Forks Park.
The move was made official on Thursday when the Hall County Board of Commissioners approved an agreement with the two organizations to house the catamaran and its new boathouse at the park near Gainesville. Elachee and Chattahoochee Riverkeeper were alerted in April 2017 that the program would have to relocate after Aqualand Marina was sold.
“We really wanted to keep this program in Hall County,” Andrea Timpone, president and CEO of Elachee, said Monday.
The marina in Flowery Branch was the third home for the 18-year-old program, which in its lifetime has been host to about 60,000 students. Elachee provides the instructors and Chattahoochee Riverkeeper owns and maintains the vessel, a Corinthian catamaran built in Florida, and hires its captains.
“It’s just become such a popular program and an important part of what we do as a nature center,” said Peter Gordon, director of education for Elachee, who has been with the center for 26 years and watched the program grow from its inception in 2000.
The vessel began by operating from the boathouse at Clarks Bridge Park but has spent the past 15 years at Aqualand Marina. And for those years, more than 100 students each day take a ride on the Chota Princess II around Lake Lanier, learning about the science of water quality and nature from the staff at the Elachee Nature Center.
The name of the catamaran itself is tied to the history of the area.
“‘Chota’ is what the Native Americans called the Chattahoochee River coming out of Helen,” Jason Ulseth, head of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said Monday. “They thought the stem coming out of Chattahoochee was the Soque River, and they called Chattahoochee coming out of Helen ‘the Chota.’”
The 40-foot vessel can fit about 50 people at a time, but the staff at Elachee try to keep the count to about 30 to give students plenty of room to learn. That means the Chota Princess II is making multiple trips out each day.
Aboard the vessel, students trawl for plankton — to trawl, a fine-mesh net is set from the boat to catch the microscopic life scuttling around the water of the lake — collect water samples to test for oxygen levels and turbidity, according to Gordon.
Middle and high school students do “a battery of nine different tests” to determine water quality, Gordon said, to make the day out a bit more challenging.
Many of those same tests are done by water quality experts studying Lake Lanier.
“What we’re doing parallels that,” Gordon said. “It’s real-life stuff, and we let the kids know there are professionals in the field doing this on regular basis. That makes an impact on the kids.”
They’ve also developed a classroom exercise called “We’re All Downstream,” in which Elachee staff travel to a classroom and explore the area around the school, showing students the creeks and waterways around their building.
The intent is to show students “what’s going on in that particular watershed and what things are impacting it, and then we follow up with a Lake Lanier cruise and talk about some of the same issues that we talked about in the classroom to show them that their little watershed where their school is, that small thing, is part of a bigger watershed,” Gordon said.
Counties throughout North Georgia use the program every year, as do local colleges, church groups and private schools. The Lake Lanier Aquatic Learning Center is funded by donations.
To keep it running after word that they would have to relocate, the two nonprofit groups reached out to Hall County for the site at River Forks Park, which as the parking, restrooms, security and space to accommodate the large number of students and instructors involved.
“This park had everything except for a dock that could house the vessel,” Ulseth said.
So one is being built. Ulseth said his organization is lining up the donors needed to build a two-slip dock to be moored at the existing pier in the park.
Enough people have already signed onto the project that work on the dock will begin by Marine Specialties next week in preparation for the March 1 launch of the Lake Lanier Aquatic Learning Center’s 2018 season.
And with the new space established in the park, eyes in the future will be on how to expand the program.
“At some point in the future, we hope to explore options to increase our ability to serve additional children,” Ulseth said.