A story on the river


Rivers are special places. They can play as grand themes of historical drama or peaceful backdrops for the simplest of stories. They are great places to learn and grow, and they will test you. If you spend any time at all in, on, or around a river, you will come to understand the disposition and the soul of it. A river will tell you things about yourself you might not know. It will provide advice on how to live your life, and it will throw in a little philosophy and maybe some preaching as well. But it's up to you to listen. The thing about a river is, if you aren't listening, things can get unpleasant in a hurry. During a weekend in May, 1971, I saw a river teach a lesson.

The Chattahoochee River runs right through Atlanta. Its not a huge river, but it has some nice broad runs and some shoals, and even a little white water. From 1969 through 1980, in the month of May there was a unique event held every year on that river that I could best describe as a combination of four various books: Tom Sawyer, Lord of the Flies, Deliverance and Mutiny on the Bounty. It was also called Woodstock on the river. If you are old enough to know what that means, then you understand. But the proper name of the party was The Great Chattahoochee River Raft Race. Eight of my college buddies and I had built a 10 x 20 wooden raft and carried it from Athens, Georgia to a huge field on the banks of the Chattahoochee right outside Atlanta to enter it in the race. So had about a thousand other people of all ages and descriptions. That collection of people and their"unidentified floating objects" was scary, and it was clear that the river didn't much like it.

That night before the race, things got even scarier. The big field turned into a giant campground. The weather got colder and campfires started blazing as far as you could see. We expected to see Sherman come riding over the hill to burn Atlanta down one more time. The evening's celebrations became protracted as the hour grew late and the race contestants repeatedly and repeatedly toasted each other's nautical skill and tribal dance stylings. Glaringly absent was any mention of any connection established, advice received, or otherwise notice taken of the river. And it was clear the river wasn't happy.

When a foggy dawn broke Saturday morning, it hung low over an incredible sight. There were hundreds more rafts of all shapes and sizes and more people with more headaches than Bayer's got aspirin all planning to start that race. The event officials had strung a big heavy cable across the river as the starting gate. That was a bad idea. The Chattahoochee is not normally a fast river, but on that day, it was high and strong. It was going to teach a lesson. We watched as raft after raft launched into the current, went under the cable, and swept everybody right off. Finally, the cable was taken down, and all the rafts went in at one time. We thought we had seen the breakdown of society the night before, but when all those nautical concoctions and dry-land sailors got underway, it was worse than ice hockey on 285. Rafts were banging into each other, and people were being thrown into the water and run over by other rafts everywhere you looked. Folks were good about helping others, and I never heard of any serious injuries. The run down the river was around 8 miles, and by the time we finished, it was late afternoon. Our raft had lost about half of its barrels, and we ended up with six rescued folks on board. It was great fun, but it was the river's day, and the river ended up happy.

That was a whole lifetime ago. Looking back, those old stories may sound foolhardy and careless. But in a way, it was a much safer, easier time back then without the obtrusive world of rules and regulations and laws to "protect" us that we find ourselves living with today. Somehow, since that time, we have wound up with bigger and bigger government that has made our lives seem smaller. Let's hope the 21-year- old’s of today, don't feel that way 50 years from now.