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Kayak trip down the Chattahoochee an escape from the ordinary

Before taking a recent kayak trip down the Chattahoochee River, I had one important question for Ryan Wright of Up the River Outfitters in Buford.

"Are there alligators?" I asked.

Wright seemed a bit surprised by my question, but, luckily, he took me seriously. I am really, really afraid of alligators, and if there is even the slightest chance they might be nearby, I would like to know about it.

The water in the Chattahoochee is too cold for alligators, Wright assured me. So together, we closely read the waiver form that all customers at Up the River are required to sign before they begin paddling. It mentioned snakes, bees, wasps, poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac, but, thankfully, no alligators. I felt like I could handle the risks of the river, especially after seeing the 10-minute safety video at Up the River, so I signed the form.

The company, which opened for business in April, rents kayaks, canoes and inner tubes for trips down the Chattahoochee. For those without a lot of paddling experience, Wright recommends the two-person, sit-on-top kayak, which is hard to flip. He also likes the kayak paddle, which has a blade on both ends. Though I didn't feel that confident about it, we took a kayak to the river.

Getting started

Up the River offers three trips along the Chattahoochee. The shortest one is four and a half miles, another is eight miles and the longest is 13 miles. I didn't mention this to Wright, but I really wasn't sure I could paddle a kayak for even a few feet, much less for miles. As it turned out, though, paddling wasn't really that hard. In fact, once I had figured out what to do, I actually started having fun.

We went from the Buford Dam Park to Settles Bridge, the shortest route. It took about two hours, counting a quick stop for snacks and another to take some pictures.

Most of the company's trips start at the Buford Dam Park, the scenic spot where the river flows from Lake Lanier. Regular water releases from the dam can change the depth of the river by several feet, Wright said. A loud horn sounds before each water release to warn those on the river that the water level will soon change. We got started about an hour before the water release, while the river level was still low.

A boat ramp at the Buford Dam Park leads straight into the river, which made it easy for Wright and Rebecca LeHew of Up the River to put the kayak in the water. I'm not even going to pretend like I helped them. I was a little busy watching some fluffy baby geese follow their mother into the river.

When the kayak was ready, I got settled in front of it, while Wright sat in the back. LeHew took the van back to Up the River and came to pick us up when we finished paddling.

The trip down the Chattahoochee was my first time in a sit-on-top kayak, which is made of molded plastic with indentions for your bottom and legs. It felt a little weird and it took me more than a few minutes to get comfortable. I also ended up getting pretty wet about 10 minutes into our trip, but the water was only cold at first.

Mostly, I tried to concentrate on learning to paddle. You're supposed to paddle first on one side of the kayak, then the other by twisting your arms in just the right way. It took a while, but finally, I stopped thinking about every single stroke and took some time to look around.

Still waters

The Chattahoochee was amazing, with water that was much clearer than I expected it to be. Wright had told me that you could see all the way to the bottom, but I didn't believe him until I saw it for myself. The bottom of the river is filled with interesting rock formations and lots of smaller pebbles.

On the Chattahoochee, which is what's known as a recreational river, Wright said, the water is mostly calm. The river does have one Class Two rapid, though, which Wright was pretty excited about.

As we approached this rapid, he talked it up. As we paddled closer to the choppy water, he planned our route, right between these huge rocks. Before I really understood exactly what he had said, we were in the rapid.

There's something about the sound of rushing water and the feel of waves, though, that made me want to paddle harder. So I started paddling like crazy as a wave hit the boat and soaked parts of me that I hadn't even realized were dry. It reminded me of the log flume ride at Six Flags. In just a few seconds, though, we were through the moving water and back to the calm river.

So, I wouldn't call the Chattahoochee thrilling, but that's OK. To me, relaxing is much, much better. On the river, it feels like Gwinnett is a million miles away.

I really enjoyed kayaking. I'm already thinking about taking another trip down the Chattahoochee - as long as the river remains alligator free.

More info

Up the River Outfitters, located at 6144 Ga. Highway 20 in Buford, offers kayak, canoe and inner tube rental for trips down the Chattahoochee River. The company provides equipment, life jackets and shuttle service to and from the river. It will be open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. through October.

Costs vary according to trip length and equipment rented. Weekend rates for a four-and-a-half mile trip are $15 plus $15 deposit for an inner tube, $50 plus $50 deposit for a canoe and $60 plus $50 deposit for a two-person kayak. Rates for weekdays are less. Call 770-614-3322 or visit www.uptheriveroutfitters.com.