The bright green shoots of early spring fill the trees around with the promise of sunshine and warmth. Winter, as mild as it has been, is finished. The days are longer, the birds are chirping, and the river is flowing.
The current of the Oconee River as it rolls by is inviting.
In our piedmont rivers, rich with rocky shoals and sandy bottoms, highwater and a swift flow are what a paddler craves.
The heavy rains and high water levels in January and February swept away the vegetation that usually lines the banks here on this part of the river, clearing the view to the swift current. The water today is as clear as the Oconee gets, a green tinge rather than the Georgia mud-red that’s common on this river.
Who is Oconee Joe?
He’s a man who would rather be paddling the river than sitting here talking about it.
Perched on a wooden deck overlooking the river, he’s talking about a recent paddle with a group he guided down the river. This one is a repeat group – they’ve been on half a dozen trips with him.
“It was just about perfect,” he says. “A little muddier than it is today because we’d just had some rain.”
When he talks about his river expeditions, in describing the river, its history and its ecosystem, Oconee Joe uses words like passion, sanctity, intimacy, history.
The river is both natural and man-made. It is both raw and history.
A paddler might come across the wild and the untamed in a deer fording the river, river otters scampering on the bank, or a snake eating a fish or warming itself on rocks.
But there is also history here – mill and electric dams dating back a century or more, Indian mounds that predate recorded history, abandoned villages that date back to the first days of our nation. On the banks of the Oconee can be found the ruins of a once-thriving thread factory and also the town that was home to Georgia’s first paper mill.
For Oconee Joe, the history of the cultures that lived along these waters is as sacred as the life that thrives here today.
“I’m not anything special,” Oconee Joe says. “There were lots of people who came before me on these waterways, and there will be lots who come through here when I am gone.”
Who is Oconee Joe?
“I’m just your friendly neighborhood river guide,” Joe says.
Though he has been paddling the Oconee River and other streams in this area for 20 years – since he came to Athens for college in the 1990s – it’s just been in the last couple of years that a long-held idea began to take fruit.
He calls it a “recreational business concept,” an idea that had its beginnings 20 years ago when he and his brother thought about creating a business that would allow them to share the area’s little-explored and largely-forgotten forests and rivers.
That was before Oconee Joe’s brother moved away from the area and before Joe was married and had children. Over the years, though, the idea never left.
About two years ago the idea began to cement, and Oconee Joe started a guide service on the Oconee River.
Overnight, day-long, and half-day paddles down the river. Joe has a small fleet of sit-in kayaks. He typically limits his excursions to a half-dozen or so people.
“It preserves the sanctity of the river to run smaller trips,” Joe explains. “A group of six to 10 people has good group dynamics, and I feel it keeps the intimacy of the trips if there’s not so many people.”
Though he does offer over-night experiences, Oconee Joe typically runs half-day or full-day trips, anywhere from about four hours to eight hours on the river. The trips range from five miles to 12 miles and can be on one of about eight different sections of the Middle Oconee River, the North Oconee River or the Oconee River.
Joe deals with the logistics – finding the right spot to put in the river and take out, running shuttles so that vehicles are at the take out. He deals with the boats and all the “behind the scenes” work so that when his customers show up they can just get on the river and paddle.
“This guide service is all about sharing the water with these people who ordinarily wouldn’t be on the water,” Oconee Joe says. “We have here in this area the quintessential piedmont river system. You paddle through granite outcrops, bluffs, sandbars, shoals, and even a couple of drops.”
Some stretches of the river are completely flat water – no shoals or rapids. The worst trouble a paddler might have on these sections is low water that hangs them up on the sandy bottom.
Other stretches have small sections that reach Class II difficulty with small drops over rocky shoals. A paddler might get wedged up on a rock, but the water is not deep, and inexperienced paddlers can manage these runs.
The people taking advantage of Oconee Joe’s guide service typically fall into one of two demographics, he said.
Either they are adults older than 30 who do not have experience paddling but want to see the river, or they are children 10 to 16 who are just learning to paddle.
“The adults who come on the river with me are there to see the history and see the ecology. They are there to experience the river, but they don’t have any experience paddling and don’t know how to do it for themselves. They don’t know where they can put in, they don’t know where the take-outs are. So they hire me to show them the river.”
The children, he said, usually come as part of an existing group – a Scout group or a church youth group.
“These are kids who are experiencing the river for the first time,” Oconee Joe says. “And what we’re doing with these kids is establishing the river history with them. This is one of the most important groups. It’s critical, to create a better river system, for young people to learn about the history and learn about the ecology.”
He does also sometimes get experienced paddlers from the Metro Atlanta area who just want to see a different river system and need help with the logistics.
Something else Oconee Joe does that he says has been a lot of fun is offering what he calls “pop up paddles.”
He announces these on his Facebook page, and he typically ends up with a group of strangers who show up as singles or in pairs for a quick paddle down the river. As these singles or pairs work their way down the river, they finish as a group of new friends, he says.
Who is Oconee Joe?
He’s both a teacher and a student of the history, wildlife, and ecology of the area’s river systems.
Oconee Joe says that before he started the guide service he knew his job would be more than just dropping kayaks in the river and leading the way downstream.
He studied the history of the area so that he can talk about the cultures that inhabited the area from the Native Americans before recorded history through Colonial times and up to today.
Along the Oconee there are numerous Native American sites as well as dams from the 1800s or early 20th Century. There are at least two once-thriving settlements on the river that are now completely abandoned.
Joe sometimes takes his guests to these sites, but only if they are on public property or if he has permission to be on private property.
He’s studied the ecology of the area, though he confesses there may still be some trees or plants out there that he cannot identify by sight. But if he doesn’t know, he’ll look it up when he gets back on dry land. He is both a teacher and a student.
Before starting the guide service, he spent countless hours paddling the Oconee and other nearby rivers to not only make himself proficient to guide other people, but also to have a stronger connection with the natural and historical aspects of the river.
“I knew I had to do my homework because I want to share all of this with the people who come on the water with me,” Oconee Joe says. “There is a connection between all the people who have lived on these shores throughout time because of the water.”
Oconee Joe is also a bit of an escape artist, and his specialty is helping other people escape the stress and troubles of modern life.
“All of us have a lot of things going on in our lives,” he says. “But you leave all of that behind on the shore when we shove off from the bank. You have to adopt a different kind of time scale when you’re on the river. When you’re on the river, everything becomes adapted to the river’s flow.”
Daily troubles have a way of shrinking on the river, Joe says.
“Your stress in life will still be waiting for you when you get off the river, I’m not saying it disappears or goes away,” he says. “But when you see the history and ecological aspects of the river, it reinforces that we are here just for a moment. Time is the river, and it gives you a different perspective, an appreciation, and I think the river teaches us to celebrate the moment we are here.”
Who is Oconee Joe?
As part of his marketing for his guide service, Oconee Joe erected a billboard on a busy corridor in Athens asking the question.
In answer, he sent motorists to his website, oconeejoe.com, and offered this: “I have lived on these waters for over 10,000 years… The River is my Mother, the Land my Father. Eons have flowed as faceless men and women not just lived but thrived on these Oconee waters.”
Calling himself Oconee Joe creates a mystique that has helped him to market the service.
“I still get texts all the time from people who say, ‘Who are you?’” he laughs.
But “Oconee Joe” is not just a marketing gimmick.
“If you have a passion, an interest, if you’ve paddled this river, then you are just the latest ‘Oconee Joe,’” he says. “I’m just one of the Oconee Joes who has lived on this river and paddled this water. It’s a sobering, humbling thought. My time on this water is passing. It’s just a brief time that I’m spending on this water. If you come out here and join me, we’re all Oconee Joe.”
If you are interested in learning more or booking a trip, you can visit oconeejoe.com or his Facebook page “Oconee Joe” or call 706-614-8928.