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Jay Busbee is a novelist and journalist living in Atlanta. Click the links below and at right for more information on his novels, articles, and comics.


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Rollin’ On the River

An Ode to Atlanta’s Late, Lamented Chattahoochee Ramblin’ Raft Race

Atlanta Magazine, June 2005

            If you spy rafters drifting down the Chattahoochee on the first Saturday of this month, chances are they’re part of The Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s “Back to the Chattahoochee” race, which has grown in popularity every year since its inception in 2003. But for any Atlantan who lived here in the 1970s, there will always be only one real river event: the dearly departed Ramblin’ Raft Race.

            Atlanta in those days was a young, freewheeling city, full of twentysomethings living in post-collegiate/pre-carpool Never-Never Land. And for the entire decade, the Chattahoochee Ramblin’ Raft Race was their annual floating Woodstock, a beer-soaked, Southern-style summer kickoff.

            Each Memorial Day weekend, tens of thousands of Atlantans gathered at the river, gorged themselves on substances legal and illegal, and set off on an armada of rafts. They’d spend much of the day (and sometimes evening) floating from Sandy Springs to Vinings, drinking beer, listening to Skynyrd and Mother’s Finest, and violating as many of the Ten Commandments as humanly possible.

            “It started out as this very lighthearted little race,” says Jerry Hightower, a National Park Service ranger who’s been connected with the Chattahoochee since the days of the race. “But by the mid-1970s, it was a major international event. It’s amazing now to think how many people were out on the water.”

The race began in 1969 when Georgia Tech student Larry Patrick organized a fraternity outing. It quickly became the most popular spectator sporting event “in the world,” according to race organizers, drawing up to 300,000 people to the waters and banks of the Chattahoochee.

“People would come from everywhere to see these unbelievable rafts,” Hightower says. “Rafters would spend enormous amounts of money constructing these complex rafts, like this paddlewheel riverboat that came back year after year.” As at Mardi Gras, the showpiece rafts drew cheers from the throngs along the banks.

And with good reason—the rafts were manifestations of that peculiar Southern genius for spare-parts engineering. They ranged from inflatable versions of hamster wheels to Cuban-refugee-style floating cars. Some, like the perpetually half-sunk Titanic raft, were two-story, wood-and-rubber marvels; others floating archipelagoes of hundreds of inner tubes. Some of the inner tubes would hold coolers, while others—tethered to the main craft by a long rope--served as de facto outhouses. (Hey, all that beer had to go somewhere.)

Every race featured a thousand stories where a promising day went horribly, hysterically wrong. In one of Hightower’s favorite incidents, organizers once decided to stretch a rope across the entire river at the finish line. The theory was that rafters who reached the promised land could simply grab hold of the rope and reel themselves onto shore.

At first, the plan worked flawlessly; the riders of the tiny, two-to-four-person rafts that always led the procession arrived at the finish and grabbed hold of the rope. But they took their sweet time getting out of the river. Barreling down behind them, in the grips of a current that could take them straight to the Gulf of Mexico, came the “battleship” rafts. At the finish line, those behemoths bulldogged right over the little craft, strewing the water with coolers, beer, radios and rafters, and leaving the downstream banks looking like a redneck version of Lost.

By the late 70s, the race had grown into a legitimate national phenomenon. “Dan Rather mentioned it on CBS, and a French documentary on the river included clips of the race,” Hightower recalls. “We had people coming from literally all over the world to be a part of this.”

Of course, anyone who remembers Freaknik can guess that not everyone was pleased with the event. Property owners along the river despised it, and complaints of public drunkenness, drug and alcohol use and nudity became as much a raft race tradition as sunburns and hangovers.

In what must be deemed a minor miracle, there were few serious incidents arising from the race itself. One person drowned the day before the race in 1980, and there were countless drunk-and-disorderlies and trespassing violations, but overall the race was the public safety equivalent of falling down the stairs and landing on one’s feet. “From a sociological standpoint, the race set a terrible precedent,” Hightower says. “This isn’t Six Flags on the water—the river can be very unforgiving, and a lot of the people who had overindulged on chemical compounds [on race day] were very lucky they didn’t get hurt.”

            Surprisingly, Hightower discovered during studies for the Georgia Wildlife Foundation that the raft race itself wasn’t actually harming the river to any significant degree. “The cleanup wasn’t as bad as people might envision,” he says. “There was almost no intentional littering. The only mishaps came when people had overindulged and just forgotten to pick up after themselves.” Hightower laughs that the volunteer crew never had to buy beer, since there was no shortage of unopened cans collected during cleanup.

            The race’s spectators actually posed the larger environmental threat. “You had people trampling fragile vegetation along the banks,” says Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “There were no [restroom] facilities available. It was far too many people in a fragile environment, with not enough policing of behavior.”

Eventually, the race became a victim of its own success. By 1980, the race’s last year, the National Park Service had to budget an extra $50,000 to bring in rangers from as far away as Washington, D.C. to handle the crowds. Fulton County towed an estimated 4,000 cars. Following that race, the overextended park service informed race organizers that if they wanted the event to continue, the sponsors would have to pony up the cash to pay for security and cleanup. The sponsors balked, and the race vanished into history.

            “Rafting was a fad, much like backpacking was a fad,” Hightower says. “Its time is over. Things move a lot faster now. The idea of just sitting around on a raft all day drinking beer—that doesn’t appeal to as many people now as it used to.”

            So the next time you’re wandering Music Midtown angrily searching for your long-past-curfew teenager, just remember that it could be worse—those crazy kids could be out on the water.

 

 

 

All contents copyright © 2005 James Busbee. All Rights Reserved.
 

CURRENT ARTICLES

-Tom Cruise Breaks Out His 'A' Games, ESPN.com, July 2005

-Dream Another Dream (Hoop Dreams DVD review), Chicago Sports Review July 2005

-Rollin' On The River (Feature on the late, lamented Chattahoochee Raft Race in Atlanta), Atlanta, June 2005

-Fuzzy Yellow Bloodlust (column on my tennis temper), Atlanta, June 2005

For earlier works, click here.


CURRENT BOOKS

 

Sundown #3

Sundown: Arizona #3
Published by Arcana Studio
Art by Jason Ossman and Stefani Rennee, cover by Ryan Bodenheim

October 2005

Sundown #2

Sundown: Arizona #2
Published by Arcana Studio
Art by Jason Ossman and Stefani Rennee, cover by Ryan Bodenheim

September 2005

Sundown: Arizona #1
Published by Arcana Studio
Art by Ryan Bodenheim and Stefani Rennee

July 2005

Digital Webbing #23
Featuring "Fight Junkies"
Art by Reilly Brown
Published by Digital Webbing

Western Tales of Terror #1
Featuring "The Deserter"
Art by Jared Bivens

Published by Hoarse & Buggy

The Face of the River:
the debut novel
Click here for more info