"You'll want to look out for the crocodiles," naturalist Jerry Hightower "warns" the dozen high school students assembled before him at the edge of the Chattahoochee River, near the I-285 bridge at Powers Island.
Crocodiles? In the 'Hooch? The 10th-graders from Centennial High School in Roswell look a little nervous. They are about to float down the river in rubber rafts, and they want no close encounters with fierce reptiles.
But Hightower, wearing the official green and gray uniform of the National Park Service, flashes a grin through his gray-tinged beard. The students quickly realize that he is pulling their legs. There are no crocs in the Chattahoochee, he says.
Even so, he says with utmost sincerity, they are in one of the most remarkable places in the country - the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Its 15 park-like units, covering 5,050 acres of land, stretch 48 miles along the river like a necklace of sparkling emeralds, from Buford Dam on Lake Lanier to the river's confluence with Peachtree Creek inside Atlanta's city limits.
The park, he says, harbors some 900 species of vascular plants - more trees, shrubs, wildflowers, grasses and ferns than are found within the entire boundaries of some countries. The wildflower species that bloom here in spring and fall are too numerous to mention. More than 100 species of butterflies flutter about the park, and more dragonfly species live here than within the Great Smoky Mountains, which is 100 times larger in land size than the Chattahoochee recreation area.
In large part, the rich diversity is due to the park's variety of natural habitats - old growth hardwood forests, wetlands, floodplains, old fields, steep ravines, gentle hills, spectacular cliffs. The diversity is wonderful for birds and birders who love to watch them. Woodpeckers and warblers thrive in the old
growth woods and wet habitats along the river. Indigo buntings, gray catbirds and yellow-breasted chats flit about the open fields.
You also can catch rainbow and brown trout here - the southernmost habitat for the highly prized fish, which require cool water for survival. As Lake Lanier's water gushes through Buford Dam and spews into the Chattahoochee, it is chilled to temperatures pleasing to trout, Hightower explains.
As he speaks on a brilliant autumn morning, traffic whizzes by in a blur over the I-285 bridge only a few hundred yards away - thousands of cars, trucks and tractor-trailer rigs roaring by every hour, driven by people in a hurry to get somewhere.
And that is another remarkable thing about the Chattahoochee recreation area. This place of serenity, sheer natural splendor, diverse wildlife habitats - a sanctuary where one can enjoy a near-wilderness experience - exists in the heart of Metro Atlanta, one of the nation's biggest, busiest, fastest-growing urban areas.
Perhaps then-President Jimmy Carter said it best in August 1978, when he signed the federal bill creating the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area: "It's a rare occasion when within the city limits of one of our major cities, one can find pure water and trout and free canoeing and rapids and the seclusion of the Earth the way God made it. But the Chattahoochee River is this kind of place."
Keeping it that way, however, has been a struggle. Since Carter signed the legislation, Metro Atlanta's population has skyrocketed from about 1.8 million to 4 million today. Farmland, woodlands, meadows, fields in Metro Atlanta have been bulldozed, roofed, paved over - about 28 acres a day, says a University of Georgia study - for new roads, houses, shopping centers and office parks.
There seems no end to the growth. (Congress in 1999 approved an expansion of the park to 10,000 acres, provided that money and willing land sellers are available. Given the pace of development, chances are slim that the park will reach its full potential.)
More asphalt, concrete and roofs means more storm runoff. More runoff means more flooding, pollution, erosion and life-choking sediment. On rainy days, the river turns the color of butterscotch because of high silt loads. More pollution forces metro governments to spend millions more dollars to make the Chattahoochee's water fit for the 2 million-plus people who drink it.
But local governments also contribute to the problem. Under easement agreements, a network of city and county sewer pipes runs through the recreation area. Many times, the conduits spring leaks, especially where they cross small streams.
The runoff and leaking sewers are major reasons why a 12-mile stretch of the river at the park's southern end, between Morgan Falls Dam and Peachtree Creek, is occasionally sullied - especially after a rainstorm - with high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. When that happens, health warning signs are posted in the park. Because of the pollution, that segment of the river is on the Georgia Environmental Protection Division's list of streams not fully meeting federal Clean Water Act goals - that streams be clean enough for fishing and swimming.
Yet, despite the abuses, the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area is hailed as one of America's premier urban greenways. For Atlanta, it is a priceless, natural asset that helps make the bustling region one of the country's most desirable places to live, as national surveys indicate. Its
greenspaces have become Atlanta's first-line defense in protecting drinking water. Though the river is sometimes tainted, its water most of the time is surprisingly clean for a stream winding through a dense urban area.
It's hard to imagine Atlanta today without the park. It attracts some 3 million visitors annually, most of them repeat users who come several times a week to jog stroll or walk their dogs.
Among the regulars are retirees Bette and Saul Codner, who live in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood. "We walk in Cochran Shoals two or three times a week," Bette says. "I don't know what we'd do without it. You can come here in the morning and see mothers with their children. In the afternoon you see the young folks jogging." Cochran Shoals, in fact, with its three-mile trail and 22 exercise stations, has become Atlanta's chic jogging spot, a prime place "to be seen."
Protecting The River
Park Superintendent Kevin Cheri says he's glad that so many people enjoy the national recreation area. But what would make him happier, he says, is if more people understood that one of the park's most important functions - some say the most important - is to protect the resource, the river.
"This greenspace is not just a place for people to hike and walk and view the river and enjoy the solitude," Cheri says. "It's also about protecting the watershed. I don't think people always understand that."
Although the words "recreation area" are attached to the park's name, it is not a place for soccer fields and tennis courts and baseball diamonds. Those types of recreation are more the responsibility of city and county parks. The kinds of activities that Congress had in mind for the national park were those more in line with conservation, such as nature observing, Cheri says.
"People want more places to walk their dogs, but they should be going to their city [officials] for that" he says. "That is not the responsibility of a national park, yet they think a national park should do that."
Congress's overall intent for national parks was spelled out in the 1916 National Park Service Organic Act, which created the service. According to the act, the fundamental purpose of national parks, national monuments, national battlefields and national recreation areas is "to conserve the scenery and the
natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
And therein lies the challenge. "This park is much more than a place to jog," Cheri says. "We want people to understand that. It is the struggle we face all the time."
Before Hightower launches his weathered Grumman canoe down the river, and the students shove off behind him in three yellow rafts, he gives them a history lesson.
Humans may have been living in the river corridor as early as 12,000 years ago, he says. In the 18th century, the river was a border between the Cherokee and Creek Indian nations. Today, archaeological sites within the park include 47 Native American villages, campsites and hamlets and 16 rock shelters.
Farms And Mills
Europeans established farms and built cotton mills and gristmills and other factories along the river and its tributaries to take advantage of hydropower. Many of the mills supplied goods to the Confederate Army, the reason Gen. William T. Sherman's troops set fire to them during the March on Atlanta in 1864.
The bones of several old mills are still within the park. The impressive remains of a burned-out paper factory can be seen along Sope Creek in the Cochran Shoals unit. The stone ruins of a 19th century gristmill still overlook Rottenwood Creek in the West Palisades.
Sherman's Army had to cross the Chattahoochee to enter Atlanta, and "one of those crossings took place right here at Powers Island in July 1864," says Hightower. The students listen, fascinated. "On that ridge behind you, the Confederates were entrenched to stop Sherman." Obviously, Sherman was not stopped.
After floating nearly an hour down the gently flowing river from Powers Island, Hightower and the students enter a rugged, rocky stretch called The Narrows in the park's Palisades section. They negotiate some rippling shoals known as the Devil's Race Course (named by river boatmen because the shoals were the "devil" to navigate). Hightower motions for them to pull up to a small, sandy beach on the river bank in the West Palisades.
As the young folks clamber out of their rafts, a red-tailed hawk soars overhead. A great blue heron flaps gracefully across the river. A flock of Canada geese paddles lazily in the water. The dense hardwood forest on each side of the river muffles the city noises. The only sounds are katydids calling, a red-eyed vireo and a Carolina wren singing and the river murmuring. It could be a scene from an unspoiled wilderness in North Georgia's mountains.
The first thing that catches the eye here is directly across the river in the East Palisades unit - a sheer granite rock cliff soaring high above the river. An overhanging boulder in the cliff is one of the recreation area's best-known features - the "diving rock," from which countless visitors have boldly plunged 20 feet into the cool river below.
"I've gone off that rock many times," Hightower says. The rock is a good introduction to the park's geology and ecology. The entire 48 miles of the recreation area, Hightower explains, lies in the Brevard Fault, the dividing line between Georgia's Appalachian and Piedmont regions. The fault is largely responsible for the park's superb scenery - scenic cliffs, palisades, shoals, ravines, hills and valleys.
The meeting of the two regions also is important botanically - plants common to both the mountains and the rolling Piedmont abound in the recreation area, making it one of the most species-rich national parks in the country. More than 30 of the species are on Georgia's protected plant list.
Hightower tells the students that this is a special place for another big reason: They are standing among some of Atlanta's most majestic oaks, tulip poplars, hickories - several of them more than two feet in diameter. The forest, he explains, is probably like the one that Native Americans were used to, before Europeans came. Now, it helps clean the air and water of a big city and refreshes the weary minds of its people.
He leaves the students with a sobering thought: "This park unit is about 300 acres. The [recent University of Georgia study] showed that Metro Atlanta is losing about 50 acres of tree cover per day to development. You do the math. This magnificent forest could be destroyed in six days."
Thank goodness, he says, that it will be here for future generations.