River business offers new view from Ocmulgee river

Kathleen O’Neal, the owner of Ocmulgee Outdoor Expeditions, LLC, (OOE) was working a desk job in 2013 when she made the decision to open a canoe and kayak rental business. “I was telecommuting to a software job in Maryland, and I dreaded every morning. I have a law degree from Mercer and thought about going back into practice, but I didn’t want to do that either. I wanted to do something I loved and the more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that opening OOE was the thing to do. So, I bought a shuttle bus, a canoe trailer, two canoes, eight kayaks and opened the business. Five years later I know it was the right decision. I have a huge shuttle bus now and many more canoes and kayaks. Most importantly, I love what I do and the people in Macon and Middle Georgia have been very good to me.”

Kathleen grew up in Macon and while in high school at Mount de Sales, she and her father took an introduction to whitewater canoeing class. The seed was sown. Soon she and her father were paddling not only the Ocmulgee, but also the Nantahala and rivers in Tennessee. College took her to Tennessee, and she learned to kayak while attending Sewanee: The University of the South. Sewanee had a canoe and kayak team, and she was a member. They won the intercollegiate championships, and she became a certified canoe instructor with the American Canoe Association. Summers were spent working as a raft guide on the Ocoee, Nantahala and Chattooga Rivers. “Guiding was great fun. I loved it, but unless you own a company, there’s no future in it long term, or that’s what I thought, so I decided to go to law school.”

3 men in kayaks - Ocmulgee River Expeditions
Ocmulgee Outdoor Expeditions provides high-end kayaks for floating downstream. Photo courtesy Kathleen O’Neal.

After a stint working for a firm, then for Mercer, followed by the State of Georgia and a software company, she opened OOE and finds it amusing that she’s come full circle. “I left the river business thinking my options were limited, and now I’m back running a river business. I don’t regret all the years in between though. I learned a lot, especially about business and also the importance of doing what you love. If you do what you love, that passion shows. I love getting folks out on the Ocmulgee and introducing them to the beauty that is there.”

Five years later, Kathleen has helped thousands discover the Ocmulgee River. Usually the season opens in April and ends in October, and trips are available seven days a week. She has two trips, the Quick Float and the Half Day, with the 2-3 hour Quick Float being the most popular. It’s a wonderful introduction to paddling as there are no rapids and the current carries the boats along the four miles of river. Paddlers enjoy a relaxing time as they alternate floating and paddling the river from Amerson River Park to the take out at the Spring Street Boat Ramp. Those wanting to spend more time on the river and enjoy the thrill of Class 1 rapids choose the Half Day trip. Taking five to seven hours, the Half Day covers ten miles of river, and the put in is at Popes Ferry in Monroe County, and the take out is Amerson River Park.

Full moon float - Ocmulgee Outdoor Expeditions
Macon resident Cyndi Cheek took this photo during the first full moon float on July 27, 2018. Photo courtesy Cyndi Cheek.

All customers meet at the take out point and are shuttled to the put in. There they’re matched with their kayak or canoe (chosen during the trip sign up), given a life jacket to wear, and matched with a properly sized paddle. After a safety talk and instructions on paddling, the paddlers push off on their adventure. Also provided are waterproof cell phone holders so the paddlers may document their fun with photos of the adventure. Each boat has ample room for a small cooler full of water and snacks. Besides bringing water and snacks, all paddlers should bring a hat, sunglasses, and bring plenty of sun screen and wear river shoes. Depending upon the water level, there may be sand bars or beaches that invite the paddler to pull over and get out of the boat and splash for a while.

The Quick Float is $40 for a kayak, or $45 (per person) for a canoe. All kayaks are solo kayaks and are made by Perception and are high end kayaks. The canoes will hold two adults, or one adult and two small children, or two adults and one small child, or two adults and a dog, or one adult, one small child and a dog. Children 9 and under go for free in a canoe with an adult, and all dogs are free. The Half Day trip is $60 for a kayak, or $65 (per person age 10 and over) for a canoe. There is a 10% discount for college students, military and seniors over the age of 65, while groups of ten or more that pay with one check or credit card receive a 15% discount. On weekends there is a set schedule of trips, but on weekdays different times may be arranged by calling 478-733-3386.

Many people already own canoes and kayaks and utilize Kathleen’s shuttle service. The most popular shuttle is to Popes Ferry in Monroe County every Saturday and Sunday. The cost is $20 per boat and the meeting point is the north launch at Amerson River Park. The bus leaves promptly at 8:45 a.m., so those who want the shuttle should arrive no later than 8:30 a.m. to have enough time to load their boats and gear and park their vehicles. Reservations aren’t required for the shuttle, but text Kathleen at 478-733-3386 by the night before and let her know how many boats you will be bringing. She will also shuttle boats from the Spring Street Boat Ramp to Amerson River Park’s north launch for $15 a boat. Again, text to make sure that shuttle is running and be at the boat ramp by 10:45 a.m. to load your boat. On weekdays, Ocmulgee Outdoor Expeditions will shuttle boats as far north as the Lloyd Shoals ramp just south of Lake Jackson or as far south as Abbeville. These shuttles must be arranged several days in advance.

Tucker in Pescador 7LJ - Ocmulgee Outdoor Expeditions
Macon resident Tucker Massey relaxing on the Ocmulgee River with OOE. Photo courtesy Kathleen O’Neal.

Another popular trip is the Full Moon Float. After festooning the boats with glow sticks, paddlers launch on the Ocmulgee from Amerson River Park just before the sun sets and the moon rises. Under the light of a full moon, paddlers enjoy an entirely different experience as they paddle to the take out at the Spring Street Boat Ramp. Everyone who has done this float marvels at how wonderful it is to experience the Ocmulgee at night. The first Full Moon Float was July 27th, but there are two more chances to experience the wonder on August 25th and September 23rd. These trips almost always sell out.

New this year is the River Hair, Don’t Care float for women only that is sponsored by The Creek FM100.9 and Ocmulgee Outdoor Expeditions. After several requests for a chance to float with their best girlfriends, The Creek and OOE decided to put this new trip together. The women will float from the Highway 83 bridge to Juliette in this four mile float that will take approximately two hours, and there will be some wonderful swag for all participants courtesy of The Creek FM100.9. This trip is August 18th.

The Macon Beer Festival is partnering with OOE to offer a special trip in conjunction with the festival on August 25th.

Attention to customer service and a passion for the Ocmulgee set Kathleen and Ocmulgee Outdoor Expeditions apart. By providing excellent customer service, she turns customers into friends and paddlers who in turn become advocates for the river. “I want everyone to love this river as much as I do,” she says. “When people love the river, they care about it, and that’s important to me. This business truly is my passion.”

OOE is open on Saturdays, Sundays, holidays and by appointment Monday through Friday. Prices are $40-$45 (excluding taxes and fees) for the Quick Float and $60-$65 (excluding taxes and fees) for the Half Day. Children under ten are free in a canoe with an adult and there are discounts available for military, college and seniors, as well as group discounts, although the discounts may not be combined. Well behaved dogs are welcome to float, too. www.ocmulgeeoutdoorexpeditions.com or 478-733-3386.

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