The Great Oconee River Raft Race
Back in 1974 some folks got together and started a small waterboard event on the Oconee River in East Dublin, Georgia. The idea took off and it became the second largest raft race in Georgia.
The event has been going on ever since, though over the years attendance has risen and fallen, much like the river the race is held on. It has also been shut down a few times over insurance issues.
In 2015, Shannon Hammond, a self-described “crazy local paddler” came up with the idea of a Tribute Paddle to try and revitalize the race. She blasted it on Facebook, mostly to kayak groups, and had roughly 100 people show up. She did the same in 2016 with about the same number of folks showing up. Both of these events were basically just a bunch of “paddlers” getting together, but Shannon wanted more. She wanted to bring the event back to life with sponsors and awards and insurance. She kept searching and finally found Jen Hilburn, with Altamaha Riverkeeper.
Enter Altamaha Riverkeeper
Altamaha Riverkeeper is a grassroots organization dedicated to the protection, defense, and restoration of Georgia’s biggest river – the Altamaha – including its tributaries the Ocmulgee, the Oconee and the Ohoopee. Jen Hilburn bears the official title “Riverkeeper” and is the Executive Director of the Georgia non-profit. She and Shannon got together, Jen was able to get insurance and put Kaitlin Warren, the Oconee Watershed Manager to work on the project. She and Shannon put it together in less than a month.
Peachtree NORML Steps Up
Being from the area, I was familiar with the race. As a matter of fact, my family and I built a raft and entered the race back in 2001. We won the “Best Design” award that year. I’m also familiar with the history of the Oconee and Altamaha Rivers and their importance in the early development of trade in Georgia. Timber was cut along the Oconee and lashed together (most likely with Hemp rope) into rafts, which would be floated down the river to its confluence with the Ocmulgee River, where the two form the Altamaha. The timber rafts would continue down the Altamaha to coastal markets around Darien, Ga. All along these journeys, the rafts would stop at settlements and landings to buy and trade goods. Hemp was widely grown in Georgia in its early history and many of the products that were produced from Hemp would have been traded and bought along the rivers. Since Hemp is one of the three pieces of the marijuana pie in Georgia, it seemed only fitting that Peachtree NORML buy a sponsorship.
When I spoke with Kaitlyn Warren about co-sponsoring the event and entering a raft, she welcomed the idea, so we cut them a check and got to work building a raft.
I have to admit, I was a little concerned about what type of reception we’d get from the other participants. The concern was unwarranted. When we rolled into the parking lot, we got a lot of looks, but they weren’t looks of condemnation or disdain. Instead, there were smiles, even some applause. As we installed the canopy and flags some folks walked over and started talking. We met some veterans, both young and aging, who thanked us for what we’re doing here in Georgia. We met folks with various medical conditions who wanted information on upcoming legislation. We met a lot of folks who talked about wishing they didn’t have to hide their usage. I talked to them about that upcoming legislation.
I know reform is happening in Georgia, but change is slow in the Bible Belt. After the launch, as we meandered down the Oconee, chatting back and forth with kayakers, canoeists, and floaters, I was encouraged to think that the old “stoner” stigma is finally starting to fade here. We weren’t shunned, we weren’t criticized. Hop McIntosh, a North Georgia canoeist, friend, and member of Peachtree NORML drove down to paddle with us. He was as impressed with the reception as I was and said “The part that thrilled me the most was the acceptance. We weren’t the pot smokers – we were the reformers“.
Sine Die Georgia Patients
Sine Die [Latin, Without day.] Without day; without assigning a day for a further meeting or hearing.
Angela Simons is a friend and supports Peachtree NORML’s efforts in the reform of Medical Marijuana Laws in Georgia. She is Illegally Healed. When I met her a couple of years ago, she had one foot in the grave. Angie is a medically retired VA nurse. She’s a hero of Hurricane Katrina if her story is told, and it cost her dearly. Her Autoimmune System was compromised due to exposure to toxins in the floodwaters. She developed COPD, Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis and a plethora of other conditions as a result. She was prescribed pharmaceutical after pharmaceutical, many of them to combat the side effects of other pharmaceuticals.
She did her research on cannabinoid medicine and decided (in her words) “Come hell or high water, I’m going to try this”. It’s a long story, but the short of it is her lungs have improved to the point she’s off steroids and rescue inhalers, her Lupus is in remission, and she’s even taking Zumba classes. She is a living testimonial that cannabis cures!
Angie is a fighter, and she’s told her story in hearings before legislative committees. When Georgia failed to add autoimmune conditions to its last CBD/low-THC legislation, she formed Sine Die Georgia Patients as a statement that, often times, when the legislature reaches Sine Die and doesn’t act, many patients are indeed, “Without Day”.
Angie and her crew also built and entered a raft in the race. They were riding low and won a couple of awards.
The Awards Ceremony
At the end of the race, we all gathered back at the launch point for hamburgers, hot dogs, cold drinks, and fellowship. Peachtree NORML was recognized for our sponsorship and was awarded the “Best Design By An Organization” Award. Hop McIntosh was awarded the “Most Helpful” Award. Our friends in the Sine Die Georgia Patients group were awarded the Best Homemade Raft Award and the “Max Capacity” Award. We were all loudly cheered and applauded and it was just a perfect ending to a great experience.
More and more, folks are realizing we’ve been lied to about marijuana. It’s estimated that 1 in 8 Americans uses it regularly. More than that have tried it. If you think about that, it means that everyone in the U.S. most likely has a cannabis user in their family. Just a little something to ponder.
All in all, this event rates as one of the best times I’ve ever had, and Peachtree NORML is looking forward to being involved again in 2018. Protecting our rivers. Going Green. Yeah, we support that.
On a personal note, I want to thank my sons, Ron and Jerry Downard, who put a lot of work into this project just for the love of their Mom and their “old man”. Love ya, boys.