By Lauren Deal
Macon Community News
When Kathleen O’Neal invited me to join Ocmulgee Outdoor Expeditions for a trip down the Ocmulgee River in one of her kayaks, I was unexpectedly nervous.
I was active in the Girl Scout program from the time I started school until well after I graduated, and I spent almost every weekend camping, hiking, or volunteering. By the time I entered college, I had already been an assistant troop leader and a summer camp counselor. Along the way, I introduced many of my friends to outdoor living—even hosting a “sweet sixteen” camping trip instead of the traditional party.
But by the time Kathleen approached me, I hadn’t paddled on open water in almost 20 years. I had paddled down the Ogeechee River in Jefferson County, Georgia, in 2001, and I well-remembered that my partner and I had to portage our canoe around fallen trees that blocked the river. I didn’t know if I was physically up to the challenge of carrying even a small boat—and I hadn’t been in a kayak since I was 16 years old, and that was on lake water.
Frankly, I’ve aged into a woman who prefers my water sports be confined to a well-chlorinated pool. I just wasn’t sure I was up to a dunk in the muddy Ocmulgee.
Still, when I saw the beautiful river photography of Macon resident Cyndi Cheek, I wanted to give it a try. Cyndi is an avid kayaker who uses Ocmulgee Outdoor Expeditions to transport herself and her gear when she is going on the river.
“Kathleen is great,” Cyndi says. “She is willing to work with us and figure out how to fit everybody’s schedules together to get us all onto the river – sometimes making many runs in the same day.”
Kathleen is the owner and operator of Ocmulgee Outdoor Expeditions, and from the time the water warms up enough to put folks in it (usually in May) until the water gets too cold (generally around the middle or end of October), she runs her big blue bus up and down the road, transporting paddlers.
Her website, OcmulgeeOutdoorExpeditions.com, details the different options she offers for trips down the river. Ocmulgee Outdoor Expeditions provides floats for individuals, families, and large group events like conferences, youth groups, and parties. Kathleen provides one-person kayaks and two-person canoes, paddles, life preservers, and transportation for people and gear. For paddlers who own their own kayaks, Kathleen also provides transport services.
Reservations in advance are necessary for all of the options, and they can be made online in just moments at the website.
For the standard river floats, Ocmulgee Outdoor Expeditions offers two options, the Quick Float and the Half-Day Float. The Quick Float leaves from the Spring Street boat ramp at the Ocmulgee Heritage Park in downtown Macon. The big blue bus meets paddlers at 10:45 AM and 2:45 PM, and leaves the parking lot at 11:00 AM and 3:00 PM to transport paddlers to Amerson River Park. The Quick Float provides two hours to three and a half hours on the water, and it is perfect for beginners. Paddlers cover 4 miles of river during the Quick Float.
“When people approach me and ask about trips down the river, they often express concern that the Quick Float may be too short, but for many people, two hours is enough,” Kathleen says. “I want people to know that they won’t be in over their heads, and if there is any doubt, I encourage them to choose the Quick Float.”
Last summer, Kathleen put her mother and friends on the river for a Quick Float. “The youngest person in that group was 56 years old, and they had a great time,” she says.
The Half-Day Float meets at Amerson River Park at 8:30 AM. Fifteen minutes later, at 8:45 AM, the shuttle bus leaves to take paddlers and equipment to the Popes Ferry boat ramp in Monroe County. The Half-Day Float provides five hours to seven hours on the river, and the stretch of the Ocmulgee River from Popes Ferry back down to Amerson River Park covers 10 miles of river and includes a series of Class 1 rapids. At the start of the trip, Kathleen teaches paddlers how to recognize white water and move safely through it in their kayaks and canoes.
I opted to float from Amerson to Spring Street. When I boarded Kathleen’s big blue shuttle bus at the Spring Street boat ramp, I received a waterproof pouch for my cell phone and camera. The bags are clear so that you can take photographs without removing your electronics, but I found the water to be peaceful enough that I felt comfortable removing my phone and camera to take pictures.
By coincidence, Kathleen had several experienced paddlers accompanying me on my journey down the river, and I didn’t even have to help move my kayak to the water. At the moment, I am pleasantly plump; Ocmulgee Outdoor Expeditions offers a wide variety of life preservers that will accommodate almost any body type. Kathleen also provided my paddle, after explaining to me how to choose one in the correct length.
If you’ve never held a paddle for canoeing, kayaking, or whitewater rafting, have no fear because Kathleen will teach you everything you need to know to paddle your way down the river. If you’ve been in a canoe or whitewater raft, you may have to unlearn a little bit about what you know because a kayak paddle is used differently. Kathleen is patient and a good teacher, and I quickly felt comfortable that I mostly knew what I was doing with my paddle.
With additional instructions from Kathleen, I successfully sat aboard my kayak. Before she let me go, though, she made sure I felt safe to lean back and forth, rock the boat a little, so to speak. She really helped me feel comfortable that I wasn’t going to flip over first thing, and it was the reassurance that I needed.
“If I were to come up with a mission statement like we did back in the ’90s,” Kathleen explains, “my mission would be creating happy experiences on the water. I want people to say ‘yeah, that was fun!’”
Once I was loaded into my kayak and comfortable, Kathleen let me go, and I paddled out into the middle of the Ocmulgee River where the rest of my paddling crew awaited. We all paddled upstream a little bit so that we could try to float down as a group, more or less. In places, I could see the riverbed through the water, which surprised me because I always believed the river to be quite muddy. Up close, the water is fairly clear, although it has a lot of particulate matter.
“I only put people on the river when I am comfortable with the water levels,” Kathleen told me later. “Between 7 and 9 feet is optimal; if it gets much above that, I won’t put boats on. The current moves much swifter than most people realize.”
Kathleen uses the gauge at the Second Street bridge to judge the depth of the water. She also uses the website weather.water.gov to monitor weather and water conditions.
My float down the river was calm and relaxing. Although it was a hot day, I felt cool without ever getting into the water (nothing beyond my feet and ankles got wet when I boarded or disembarked my kayak, and I didn’t even wear a swimsuit). I had plenty of room in my kayak to sit back and relax with a water bottle and a bag of snacks. It was easy to alternate between paddling and floating, and once I was truly comfortable with my movements, I enjoyed paddling between various members of our floating crew to chat and take pictures. I am ready for a Half-Day Float, and I feel confident that I’m up to the challenge.
One of Ocmulgee Outdoor Expeditions’ most popular events is the Boats and Brews tour in conjunction with Piedmont Brewery and Kitchen. Two Boats and Brews events are scheduled for this summer, on Sunday, June 9, and Sunday, July 21. These events sell out quickly, and reservations must be made in advance online at www.OcmulgeeOutdoorExpeditions.com. The event begins at 10:00 AM on both Sundays at Piedmont Brewery and Kitchen, where participants will enjoy a delicious meal and a variety of local brews. Kathleen will pick everyone up at the restaurant and transport them to Amerson River Park for a Quick Float down the river, and she will transport everyone back to Piedmont Brewery and Kitchen around 3:00 PM after the float.
The weather is perfect for a trip down the Ocmulgee River. It’s a beautiful way to see Macon from the outside, and you don’t have to be in great physical shape to do it (I wasn’t sore at all the next day). It’s actually such a calm and relaxing trip that I felt refreshed after a day on the river.
For more information, visit Ocmulgee Outdoor Expeditions on Facebook or at their website, www.OcmulgeeOutdoorExpeditions.com.