Somewhere between the back-to-nature craze, San Francisco-style psychedelia and Southern rock 'n' roll, Atlantans invented the movable wet party.
Every summer weekend in the late 1970s, thousands of people rented cheap rafts from stands in front of gas stations near I-285 and the Chattahoochee River. They'd string the rafts, like big yellow balloons, on top of their cars, load up with beer, and head for a put-in behind a parking lot at Powers Ferry Landing.
Most people who even remember those days seem to think the old Ramblin' Raft Race was the high point of the floating party. Few realize, however, that the precise apogee -- the high-water mark for bacchanalia on the Hooch -- was reached early in the summer of 1976, the day my high school buddies and I partied with three naked women and their husbands on the banks of the river.
Now, things are -- how can a put it? -- a bit tighter. Certainly when compared to the days you pretty much did what you wanted from the time you put your raft, canoe or kayak in the water until you took it out at a dirt lot just before the Highway 41 bridge.
Today, you'd tempt fate (or maybe a park ranger) if you yelled, "Hey, Ted: You and Susan bring rolling papers to the Party Spot," over the crowd to your buddies on shore. But that's what Randy yelled that day as he, Jam, Fred and I launched our canoes through a maze of rafts at the put-in (the names have been changed, to protect the guilty).
We were snobs. Unlike the drunks in the rafts, we actually knew what we were doing with our paddles. Most weekends, we went canoe camping with some of the best boaters in Georgia. Some of us even guided rafts professionally on the Chattooga River. And since we attended the Downtown Learning Center -- an independent study school for wannabe hippies -- we got to pretty much take every afternoon off on the Chattahoochee to hone our paddling skills.
We'd lash our beat-up aluminum boats to the top of my dad's Dodge Dart or Ted's mom's Buick Skylark. We'd head up to the river with friends we'd made at the DLC, and we'd basically teach them our strokes on the piddly rapids of the Mighty Hooch.
If I recall this particular trip correctly, I was 17 years old, school had just let out for the year, and our weekend canoe trip had been canceled. So we were in a familiar place during an unfamiliar time: the Chattahoochee on a summer weekend.
So much for wood ducks and great blue herons. The Hooch was so packed with yellow dingies and inner tubes that anyone who mustered the energy might have hopscotched across the whole river without getting wet. Except for the spilled beer.
It felt as if our semi-wilderness retreat had turned into a floating Charlie Daniels concert.
We headed down toward the left channel of the first rapid and tried to do what we usually did: show off. Either Jam or Randy was in my bow. I angled the canoe sideways as we slipped over the first drop, and Jam (or Randy) executed a perfect cross-draw. The bow dropped into an eddy -- a calmer spot behind a rock -- which normally would cause the canoe to spin effortlessly around, setting us up to push in one smooth move back upstream into the current, where we could take a nice ride on a wave.
But this time the river was too crowded. We plowed right into a spongy raft that was stuck on a rock. Another raft bumped us from behind, toward the bobbing heads of partiers from the first raft, who apparently had decided they might as well swim since their raft wasn't moving.
This wasn't our river anymore. It was packed with strangers, bank-to-bank and put-in-to-take-out. The mellow, natural scene had been smothered by hootin' and hollerin', by boom boxes blaring Marshall Tucker and Led Zeppelin, by idiots screaming "Watch this!" as they took cranium-cracking dives into shallow water.
Forget paddling. The most entertaining thing to do today was people watch.
On most runs down the Hooch, we'd stop about a mile in at a place called Diving Rock.
It's actually an interesting spot geologically. The river turns sharply right when it hits a high ridge formed by something called the Brevard Fault. Just after the turn, outcrops along the ridge form dramatic cliffs. Two of the lowest of those outcrops form the diving rocks, one about 10 feet above the water, the other maybe 15 feet.
From that point, the water flows southwest along the fault line, all the way down to the Alabama border, where it breaks through the ridge and turns directly south again, toward the Gulf of Mexico.
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