It has been 11 years since the Etowah River was chosen as the site of Paddle Georgia's weeklong canoe and kayaking trip, and a lot has changed according to the event's creator and coordinator Joe Cook.
When the 2006 Paddle Georgia commenced, paddlers launched from the Etowah Water and Sewer Authority in Dawsonville. There were only three river access points on the Etowah at that time.
Now, Cook said, there are 13, including the River Park on Hwy. 9 South that the county built in 2008. It's from there that the 380 registered canoers and kayakers launched early Saturday morning, the start of their 125-mile trip to Rome.
Shuttles drove one by one through the gravel parking lot June 17, bringing participants from the previous night's campsite. Their watercrafts were waiting for them, stacked up in bright rows in the grass from where they had been dropped off the day before.
Some were quick to suit up and jump in, anxious to get the day started.
Some waited around, either on friends and family from other buses or to see a presentation by local Dawsonville Historian Gordon Pirkle.
Pirkle drove up around 8 a.m. with three racecars in tow and a sign from the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame. Many already in their life jackets and sandals gathered to hear the history of NASCAR and moonshine in Dawsonville.
"These race cars represent the real history of Dawson County..." Pirkle began.
This was just one of the many educational programs that Paddle Georgia coordinators had planned along the way. Along with launch point presentations such as Pirkle's and nightly educational programs, zip-locked maps of the river showed historical sites and landmarks for canoers and kayakers to look for along the trip.
The first 15-mile leg of the journey, playfully titled "Radioactive Rumba," took paddlers from the river park through the Dawson Forest to Eagle's Beak Park in Forsyth County.
Views along the way included the Etowah Water and Sewer Authority wastewater treatment facility, the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory water intake structure in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area, waterfalls, rapids, dilapidated bridges and more, all detailed in each paddler's itinerary.
Among those waiting to embark on the trip were Dawsonville resident Alan Kendall, 67, and his granddaughter Cameron Visel, 8.
This was Kendall's ninth trip, but the first attempt at a full ride for Visel. She participated in last year's Paddle Lite, which allowed her to travel alongside the "thru-paddlers" for just the first two days of the trip.
"After she did the first two days she wanted to stay the rest of the paddle," Kendall said.
Visel said her favorite part of the paddle is spending time with her grandpa, and Kendall said he loves Paddle Georgia because not only does he have friends he sees each year, but that they become a really cohesive group by the end of each trip.
"The thing I really like about it is everybody has the common bond of this experience," Kendall said. "You will meet the most interesting people from all kinds of areas of the country, all different kinds of professions, but the whole core of it that unites everyone together is the love of being on the river."
Kendall said another great thing about the trip is the flexibility.
"You can go at your own pace," Kendall said. "You paddle at whatever speed you want, you just have to be off the river at a certain time. The whole rhythm of it can accommodate early birds or late, it's got a lot of flexibility in how you experience it- and that really works well."
The day for the paddlers ended at Cagle Farm at Conns Creek in Canton. There they ate dinner and participated in evening educational programs. The next morning they would wake up to travel 17 miles into Cherokee County.
Near the end of the trek, a street party is planned in downtown Cartersville on June 22 and a River's End Celebration in Rome on June 23.
Returning to the river in 2017, Cook remarked on the changes he has seen along the Etowah since the inaugural trip. Along with Dawson's River Park, Forsyth County recently developed Eagle's Beak Park as part of the expansion of access points along the river.
"Local governments all along the river corridor have kind of recognized the benefits of opening up the river and making it where people can get on the river easily, and what we've seen is a tremendous growth in people using the river and then coming to visit these communities, spending money in convenience stores, spending money in restaurants... the river is really becoming an economic development tool," Cook said.
Businesses like Appalachian Outfitters and Outside World Outfitters have benefited from increased access to the river, and have joined nonprofits and local governments to form the Etowah River Trail Stakeholders Group.
Cook said the stakeholders together raise money to install information kiosks along the river. Currently there is one at River Park and one at Kelly Bridge, with one to follow at Eagle's Beak Park shortly.
The kiosks have maps of the river to show visitors where they are along the trail, along with a general description of what they can expect to see and suggestions for what to pack. Cook said he hopes that in the future, access points at Hwy. 136 and Hwy. 53 will be developed for locals to better use the river.
"Its exciting stuff," he said before rushing to help a paddler port their kayak over the bumpy ground to the Etowah.