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Trip opens paddlers' eyes to river
Some chosen to monitor waterways
Paddle Georgia participants make their way down 105 miles of the Altamaha River, taking a break along its banks to enjoy the water. The trip was attended by more than 350 people and is sponsored by the Georgia River Network, with the goal of educating people about the health of the state’s rivers.

Traveling 105 miles at a paddler’s pace can open your eyes.

Birds swooping over the river’s path, alligators submerged in its cool waters, otters swimming and scampering along the way, it was all part of a weeklong trip down the Altamaha River.

Paddle Georgia, attended by more than 350 people and sponsored by the Georgia River Network, took paddlers down the river starting in Baxley on June 16 and ending in Darien on June 22.

Vincent Tillirson, a Forsyth County resident, traveled down the river with his 12-year-old daughter, Emma.

“I definitely think it will be something she’ll remember for the rest of her life,” Tillirson said.

She had little experience with paddling before, though the elder Tillirson had some with whitewater kayaking. But he admitted his arms are still pretty sore from paddling.

The trip was designed to educate people and showcase Georgia’s river systems.

“It was a great opportunity for close encounters with nature,” said Joe Cook, Paddle Georgia coordinator. “You name it, we saw it.”

Since the annual trip began in 2005, some 2,100 paddlers have traveled down more than 700 miles of Georgia’s rivers.

All proceeds from the trip go to the Georgia River Network and the selected local watershed group. This year that was the Altamaha Riverkeeper. The funds can pay for water monitoring and education programs, advocacy efforts, developing boat and canoe ramps and other uses.

Cook said he hopes the paddlers will go home and get more involved with their local watershed groups or in the Adopt-a-Stream outreach program.

About 35 people were trained to become citizen water monitors by officials from the Environmental Protection Division.

Tillirson and his daughter were among those who learned to take water samples. He said he hopes they will be able to adopt a stream near their home.

Gwyneth Moody, Georgia River Network community programs coordinator, said the officials will be comparing the results of samples taken by officials and paddlers to be used in a study of the river.

“They learn how to take those samples and it’s pretty in depth, but it’s really fun at the same time,” Moody said.

During one portion of the trip, the paddlers were able to see and smell what industry can do to the environment.

Tillirson said the environmental impact of Rayonier Paper Mill in Jesup was evident.

“It’s not exactly attractive there,” Tillirson said. “(Emma) thought it stunk really bad; she was pretty disappointed on the impact of the river.”

Cook described that portion of the river as discolored and said the air had an unpleasant odor. He said through most of the trip people would play and swim in the water, but there was less of that near the mill.

“On a seven-day trip, you get to see the pretty scenes and the ugly scenes,” Cook said.

The paddlers averaged 15 miles a day. On the longest day, they paddled 23 miles. After a long day of paddling, a shuttle was waiting at checkpoints to take the paddlers to a local camping destination. Once there, the paddlers were shown the sights in the town.

Those who wanted could tour a nuclear power plant, several historic sites and forests, or they could attend nature presentations or learn to salsa dance. One night, the paddlers put on a talent show.

The next trip will take place in June 2013 on the Ogeechee River.

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