📅19 July 2017, 22:18

While the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area—roughly the first fifty miles of the river below the Buford Dam—draws 3 million visitors a year, most local residents do not connect the river to the National Park Service, and in truth, it’s not really important that they do. After all, in addition to fifteen access areas owned by NPS, there are plenty of county parks and private lots along the river within the park boundary. Whether visiting the Chattahoochee River to fish, raft, canoe, or kayak, all that matters to people is getting to the water.

For many Georgia residents, the Chattahoochee has always been the river “you float down while drinking beer.” I can remember back in the 1970s that one of the local radio stations, WQXI, sponsored a yearly “Ramblin’ Raft Race,” though the only racing done was a race to down the most alcohol (alcohol consumption is and has always been legal on the river, just don’t bring glass bottles). The race was actually started by the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity at Georgia Tech in 1969, with the radio station being brought in from the get-go to help with promotion. Within two years the race had become an EVENT, taking up a spot on thousands of peoples’ social calendars every third Saturday in May for the next ten years.

I never participated because I was too young at the time, but I saw and read the news reports. A sea of rafts floated slowly down the river carrying the humanity of Atlanta. Topless chicks, drunks, Free Bird, beer, drugs…you name it, it was there. At its apex, the race drew 400,000 rafters and onlookers who lined the shores. The race even made the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest sporting event, though you’d REALLY have to have a skewed view of what a “sporting event” is to even remotely consider the Ramblin’ Raft Race to be one.

The last race took place 1980. A number of issues were behind the demise: public drunkenness, nudity, trash, drugs…Free Bird…and the fact that the event got so big that it became a safety hazard. The rafts were so dense that if somebody fell in he couldn’t come back up. It was like falling though a sheet of ice on a lake and getting trapped under the ice. One person drowned in 1980. However, the main reason for the end of the Rambin’ Raft Race was the creation of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in 1978. Up until this time, nobody was responsible for anything that happened during the race. Trash had to be picked up by the property owners and the local government, Fulton County. Once the NPS took over, it put up with the race for a couple years, even budgeting extra money and bringing in Rangers from around the country to help. After the 1980 event, the NPS told the sponsors of the race that if they wanted to keep it going that they were going to have to pay for security and clean up. Nobody wanted to pay, so the race ended.

Growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and I’m sure it is the same today, the summer wouldn’t be complete without at least one rafting trip down the river with a group of friends and a case or two of beer—and I’m talking high school and college days. Of course back then the drinking age was 18, though I doubt a higher legal age would have put much of a damper on our high school outings. We’d rent a raft at one of the local rental shops, load beer, food, and guys into the raft, float down the river to the take out point, and then get hauled back to the start by the rafting company van.

No bottles on the river...of course not everybody follows the rules. (August, 1983)

No bottles on the river…of course not everybody follows the rules. (August, 1983)

I also remember that the river was polluted back then, maybe more so than today, or at least that was the common conception of the river. You didn’t want to jump in for any longer than it took to cool off. This polluted water was key to one of my most fondest river memories. All of the beer was gone, so one of the guys filled a can with river water, then pretended it was unopened. “Who wants this last beer?” he asked. Everyone knew what was going on except for the one guy who would be the butt of the joke. “Me!” “Me!” shouted out various friends, all lunging for the beer. Of course our one very drunk friend wanted it as well, and wouldn’t you know it, he was the lucky recipient. The guy with the can pretended to open it, then handed it over. I remember my friend turning up that can and taking an enormous swig. Then, as his eyes widened, he spewed the river water from his mouth and all over everyone, just like you’d see in some comedy movie. I don’t know why I remember that, but I do.

As you drifted down the river you would inevitably come upon cliffs where people would be jumping off into the river. At the top of the cliff would be a sign stating that it was dangerous, but it didn’t do much to deter jumpers. The cliffs were popular stopping points and there would always be a gathering of rafts and other watercraft surrounding the area, either manned by jumpers or onlookers. On one trip my buddies and I stopped at a cliff. Dares were presented and before anybody knew it, two of our crew set out to climb to the top of the cliff and jump off. All turned out well.

Cliff jumping along the Chattahoochee River, August, 1983

Cliff jumping along the Chattahoochee River, August, 1983

But not everybody comes up. One time we came around a bend in the river where a jumping cliff was located. A helicopter hovered over the area, blowing rafts emptied of crew into the air, some rafts tumbling end to end across the river surface like plastic skipping stones, other blowing into the surrounding forest. A crazed man on the shore was screaming, “My brother’s in there! My brother’s in there!” as people held him back from jumping into the river. Divers appeared at the river’s surface, then disappeared back into the water. As a bystander, when you stumble upon an accident and somebody is dead, you don’t feel any empathy concerning the situation. The feeling is something between shock and fascination, which might be termed a morbid curiosity. I pictured the guy’s brother diving head first, slamming into the river bottom with such force that he was buried deep in the mud from head to torso with only his V-shaped legs still exposed. Many people have died over the years while cliff jumping. If the river was ever drained, I suspect that there might be dozens of legs sticking up out of the mud.

After college, I never went back to the river for any reason until just now, a 30-year gap between visits. The water is supposedly cleaner. Kayaks usurped canoe travel. But rafting and beer drinking are still there, though things have progressed in this department. You can now buy tiny rafts that hold beer coolers. You attach them to your own raft with a rope and voilà…more room for friends. Innovation never ceases to amaze me.

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