Generation after Generation
On a map of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, a thin, nationally protected line runs through a strip of green trees just north of Atlanta. As the winding curves pass water through a worn path in the Atlanta bedrock, it puddles at points and looks much like a vein, with its deformities and natural eccentricities, weaving its way around the terrain to find the path of least resistance. From its mouth at the Buford Dam, which is supplied by the northern Chattahoochee and the Chestatee rivers, it gulps the water that the turbines release during generation. The water is merely a trickle compared to what Lake Sydney Lanier has to offer, but the river continues to take all the water it is rationed.
The alarm sounds and echoes off the nearby trees and the massive concrete dam. All of the fly-fishermen and the screaming, splashing children, who enrage the sportsmen with their Trout scaring ways, disappear into the tree line as the dam releases rushing water. When the Buford Dam finally became operational in 1959, the waters within the manmade lake filled to the magnificent potential of 105,000 kilowatts, which is used for both power and to control the flooding of the river. Within minutes of the alarm, the shaped and dynamite blasted granite walls fill with this chilling, churning offering from the bottom of the lake and the water rises over ten feet. The clay colored, sandy beaches disappear under feet of brown water, along with the tall grasses surrounding the boardwalk, which sits safely above the rising levels. After the generating settles to a calm flow, at its new level, the coldness of the river eerily chills the air and sends a shiver down the spine, allowing the body to adjust to this new temperature. Before long, a dense fog settles in the valley of the dam, and the water’s temperature reacts with the condensing air, hiding the Chattahoochee under this blanket of smoky vapor.
During each generation, the water shoves its way through the dam, like passengers in city train station kept on time with the precisely calculated clockwork of the hydroelectric schedule. The dark water turns frothy as it churns its way into the accepting river, and comes out around fifty degrees Fahrenheit. This water has the ability to rage at an unforgiving 8,000-9,000 cubic feet per second. To truly realize the magnitude of this, picture a box that is able to snuggly contain a basketball, and think of it tumbling down a flight of stairs. Obviously, this image is nothing by which to be frightened. Now, picture 8,000 of these boxes rushing by in one second. This is the power of the dam and the waters it contains.
Nearly half a century after the dam’s first generation, I met the beautiful, manmade headwaters. Introduced, at seventeen, by some rowdy, boyhood friends, I began to spend afternoons casting lines for the beautiful pink and green Rainbow Trout. The river was illegally populated with these trout by my father’s father in 1961. By this transgression; he ended up a Chattahoochee hero. One night, my father told me the abridged story, after I came home from the river with friends and a fresh catch. “Your Grandpa and his friends thought it would be a terrific idea to introduce an invasive species in an unnatural habitat. Fortunately, they knew what they were doing and knew the water from the bottom of Lake Lanier would be cold enough for the trout. Still, he is so lucky he didn’t get in trouble,” he added with a breath of relief. Luckily, the area was not nationally protected by Jimmy Carter until 1978, or my grandpa would probably still be paying off fines, or constantly reminiscing on the prison sentence he would have undoubtedly received. My grandfather helped to make this river what it is today, and I didn’t even know it until I found the river for myself, as if I was supposed to find this river. This river flows in my blood and I didn’t know it until I was seventeen.
My grandfather has always been an aloof character in my life. When my older brother was born, grandpa showed up long enough to say, “Cute kid.” By the time I was born, my Grandma Carolyn managed to make him stay for a couple hours, before heading home to Ellijay, in the north Georgia mountains. As a young boy, he would tell stories that I was far too young to understand. I would sit on the wood floor of the cabin and play with vintage toy cars and rusty cap guns. My mother, who was born the same year Grandpa stocked the river, and father would break into smiles after Grandpa’s life stories, which were inevitably a product of his mischievousness or wayward friends. After the punch line, Grandpa continued laughing till his face turned as red as a tomato.
As I’ve gotten older, we have grown closer, and have hunted Quail, Dove and Snipe together, while he recited the stories I could not understand as a child. His face still turns just as red as it did when I was a toddler. He tells stories about his entrepreneurial conquest, his wonderful hunting experiences, and the fishing which makes up so much of his passion. On winter break, during my eighth grade year, Grandpa took me hunting with my Uncle John. I was just a lazy kid with a new pair of boots and a shotgun, but Grandpa let nothing slide. He was never mean or spiteful; he just sent whispered shouts my way, so as not to alert the birds while getting his point across. He breathily hollered, “Keep up in case of a covey flush!” or, “You stand back there and accidently shoot someone, I’m not gonna be happy.” He was a good teacher and I constantly think of those pine forests and dirt roads in south Georgia, where I did so much growing up in only a few days. Since I’ve grown up, Mom sees so much of him in me, and tells me with increasing frequency. Still, I wish I knew him better.
I used to think of Grandpa while listening to the generation schedule, with my friends, on the way down the winding river-park roads. We used to listen so intently, onlookers would have thought it was our religion. For the only time that day, all of the teenage boys would silence themselves and take heed of the electronic woman’s voice by leaning close to the nearest car speaker, which delivered the news and told us whether we would fish in calm or cascading waters. After unpacking rods and tackle, we always trudged our way through a worn dirt trail and fished off a cove in the bank. Watching the dam generate was one of those experiences that reminded me of how small I really was, with complete disregard for my overblown teenage ego.
Other than the story of Grandpa’s trout, I can only recall one other story my father told me about the Chattahoochee. When he was young, his group of friends used to drive down to the river at night and misbehave. They would drink cases of beer, squeal the tires of their ‘60s and ‘70s cars, and stereotypically make out with girls in the back seats. Turns out Alan Jackson was telling the truth when he sang “Chattahoochee.” Unfortunately, this was the story my father chose to use in the explanation of the birds and the bees. What my father didn’t seem to understand was, I had already fogged up my fair share of windows and seventeen was simply too late for the sex talk from dad. I am my father’s son.
My father has always been my conscience, telling me “I’m proud of you, you’re the kind of guy that sticks up for the little guys.” He tells me this all the time, since I got in a fifth grade fight to stick up for a bullied friend. We differ infinitely and I argue with him on most every subject. He can fix anything he sets his hands on, and fixes engines the size of my Ford Ranger, at his Ammonia Refrigeration Service job, while I don’t know how to change the oil in my truck. I will never understand how he stays so level headed while my mother and I are so emotional, but he has always kept me on the path to being a better man. I do know, however, that I will never be half the good man my father is, and I am fine with that, because if I even come close to half I will be better than the majority.
Sometimes while watching the dam generate, fishing, swimming, or kayaking I think of the destruction of 14,000 acres of forest and the required relocation of thousands of people, which was planned and carried out to allow for the dam. I think of all the old buildings and memories trapped under Lake Lanier, after its flooding. I think of the sacrifices that were made for this river which I love so much. Still, this allowed the growth of a new and lasting system, which flourishes while it provides drinking water and Electricity to many Atlanta residents, my family included. I owe this river.
The Department of National Resources protects the CRNRA. Their green and gray uniforms populate the boat ramps and banks of the river, as they stand with watchful, darting eyes, hidden behind their calm dark sunglasses. One day, while fishing during my senior year of high school, one male officer and his female partner approached me, in a canoe, and asked for my fishing license. Upon being told that I did not have the correct stamp to fish the river, I began to apologetically pack my pole and tackle, knowing there could be a serious fine. The officer stopped me. “A teenage boy like you, on a Saturday afternoon, could be out drinking, smoking, and breaking a lot worse laws,” he explained. “Enjoy your day of fishing and get that stamp before you come back. Have a great day,” he said as he paddled away. I released the sigh that was building up during my conversation with the officer as I cast out my line and waited for a bite. I belong on this river.
The summer I turned twenty, my friend Walt gave me a job lifting rafts and kayaks for a Chattahoochee company based in Roswell. It was further southwest on the river than I had ever ventured, but it was a beautiful place to work, as the main location was a huge open expanse where the river slowed and the other location was a beautiful collection of rocky shoals, where the CRNRA ends its forty-eight mile trip at Peachtree Street and meets the water treatment facility just around the bend. Still, the pay was horrible, and the work was worse. Belligerent bosses and customers filled each day with some new form of irritation to conquer, which sent me to the edges of my sanity. People constantly raved about refunds for malfunctioning floats, which they often sabotaged on the last leg of the journeys just to get their money back. Employers pushed me to my wits end by creating nonexistent problems regarding the treatment and organization of tubes and rafts.
The only factor that kept me from needing a padded cell and a strait jacket was that I spent that summer working with my girlfriend Kaleigh and our best friends Walt and Bridget, the couple that got us our jobs. My co-workers and I began sweating in the morning, the boats became heavy by the afternoon and the work didn’t cease until sundown. Still, I loved the time with them, near and in the water. Every day I stepped in the cold river and felt the calm of the water run against me. I spent the evenings diving across the rocks to rescue drunken middle-aged patrons and retrieving life jackets, which somehow managed to get away from the hands of tubers with increasing regularity. At night, we went to dinners with our best friends, smelling like sun burnt skin and river water. Between carbonated gulps of Fat Tire, Stella Artois, and Honey Brown we downed greasy, meaty bites of Fellini’s mushroom and pepperoni pizza or bacon and bleu cheese bison burgers from Cheyenne Grill in Buckhead.
Being that we worked for a rafting company, our only perks were the free trips down the river, which took my girlfriend and me the entire day. Putting our kayaks in the water, just beneath Holcomb Bridge, I found that Kaleigh had already applied her sun screen and failed to bring the bottle along. I figured my backpack of beer would numb the pain of the looming sunburn, since I had not applied a drop of sunblock to my skin before we shoved off the muddy bank. We spent the day paddling slow and laughing, while tossing beers and sandwiches from one boat to the other.
I wish I could remember the conversations we had that day, but I do remember that was the day Kaleigh fell in love with the river too, even though she flipped her kayak. After passing through some incredibly rocky shoals, I turned around to wait and saw her gracefully flip and awkwardly escape the mayhem of her sinking kayak and escaping paddle. I pulled up on a rock and snagged her paddle on my way to her. She simply sat there with a look of embarrassment and acceptance across her face. I looked at her and asked her if she was okay, as I drained the water from her overflowing kayak. “I’m okay, I just look like such an amateur right now,” she said with a sulk. I couldn’t help it and began to chuckle. She tried to be offended by my amusement, but broke into an unstoppable giggle, while the last few liters of water drained from her kayak.
The day was breezy, which allowed the sun to creep in and out of the cloud cover, providing us with cool relief as we baked atop the chilly water, yet the wind pushed us upriver at points and this slowed our eight mile trip, we welcomed the additional time this provided Kaleigh to dry her clothes on the top of her boat. By the time we arrived back at the boat ramp, my torso looked like a medium rare steak and Kaleigh felt awful for forgetting the sunscreen. That was the day realized why I put up with that job, why I dealt with the hard work, and why I enjoyed that summer so much. I love the river and so does my love.
After that summer, I decided I was growing up and I needed to make better money on my summers, between college years. So, the next year I took a job remodeling bathrooms at twice the pay, but I missed the river and I missed the calm. The work wasn’t as hard, the houses were air-conditioned, and the pay checks didn’t hurt either. yet, the money didn’t matter and my friends meant so much more to me. The river meant so much more to me. I need the river.
Lake Lanier is the heart of north Atlanta with the Buford Damn as its valve, pumping life to the lowlands at a prehistoric pace. It isn’t just a river for recreation or a resource for light switches and faucets. This river pulled me in and taught me so much. The river is not just a tie to the genes that made me; it is what shows me that I am tied to my Grandfather and Father through more than blood. Although they are these strong men, to whom I never see myself living up, I still have this in common with them. This river is a part of me as it is a part of them. We share this passion for a place and we found it individually. We came here over the years with our own groups and our own minds. We have our own memories of this place. Together we have seen the history of this river and how it grew. We know this river. We know its shoals, its trails, and its people. I did not know these men when they spent summer day at this river, in their youth. Yet, we are together here, generation after generation.
Piece by Shaun Scruggs, from Georgia Southern University. You may reach Mr. Scruggs at email@example.com