Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Ramblin' Raft Race Part II

 Ramblin'? I'd say...

This is the second in a two parter about my trek down the Chattahoochee in 1972, with my high school friends, so if you didn't read the first one, you might wanna. Or not. :)

Gloria and I arrived very early Saturday morning, as it was still dark, to Morgan Falls Landing, which is right next to Morgan Falls Dam. Ya think?

We found our fellow raftees -- George, Brad, Bill, Jonathan, Darlene, and Pam -- and tried to orient ourselves to the task at hand -- getting the raft into the water.

They had all spent the night in a tent on site to guard the raft and watch the spectacle that must have been the other competition. I know that they told some stories about not “sleeping a wink” and “strangers stumbling into wrong tents” --  and other tales of a less than quiet night. Perhaps another reason why my parents thought it better than I spend the night at home. *grins*

BTW: :The term “race” for this adventure is a misnomer -- there was  no race, not really. In some ways, I think the purpose of the raft race was to join 4,000 people on the river -- to have a collective memory, a rite of passage, or establish some kind Atlanta tradition.  The challenge lies in the journey?  When completed, it’s an experience to tell the grandchildren [in my case grand ‘phews and news] like Woodstock or having to use a rotary dial on a telephone.

Regardless, we had to get the raft to and into the water, travel the approximate six miles down river, with all parts of the raft intact, make it to the finish, and then file the experience somewhere in the environs of memory and bragging rights. Race?




The Chattahoochee River is not exactly a teeming, churning frightening body of water. It’s relatively placid as it works its way through the northern suburbs of Atlanta, passed the boom towns south of the metropolis like Columbus and Fort Benning, and then meanders along to merge with other water to empty "down yonder" into the Gulf of Mexico.

The name Chattahoochee, yes, I looked it up, actually means “rock painted” as in there are rocks all along its banks, but it’s not the Colorado or the Missouri with rolling rapids and precarious sections. It’s not Big Water. It’s primarily known for being cold all the time as floating down the “Hooch” on blistering, hot summer days is still a pastime. Scary water? No. Cold water? Yes.

Despite the thought out raft design by Frank, our engineer, but alas not part of the crew, we suffered greatly as we put that humongous raft into the river [as I remember other rafting contestants to the river that day actually helped us heave ho that thing to the water], scurried aboard like the rats we were, and put ourselves in the precarious position as novice sailors.

I dressed pretty stupidly for the odyssey. The morning was cool, so I donned jeans, a flannel shirt, and wore a bikini top underneath the flannel. Only in the 70s would that be attire that no one looked at you like you were nuts. In fact, all of us girls had on jeans. There had to be some reason? It was the era of jeans? We thought we were hippies?

It was May, not a hot day by any means, and the water in the Chattahoochee never warms up -- at best, it maintains a cool 50 degrees. Perhaps those are the reasons for the fashion ensemble I chose?


At the beginning of the “race” [eh. voyage?] we floated pretty aimlessly along, avoiding the other entries, and steering wide of the tubers and rubber rafters. The day warmed up, and I shed my flannel and sat pensively on one of the barrels and looked at the crazy scene before me: thousands of young people, some of the young men shirtless, drifted lazily on the brownish green surface checking each other out -- especially admiring or comparing our contraption with the other “showboats,” the homemade hopeful floaters built in  backyards, garages, and fraternity houses around Atlanta. The river was crowded, kind of like a traffic jam on one of the Atlanta highways, and I’m sure navigation was paramount. I wasn’t in charge of that part -- perhaps I saw myself as a type of Cleopatra or some kind of Naiad -- ha.

At one point, I remember that Pam stretched herself out on the front of the raft like the senior wife of a sultan on a yacht. I wasn't quite as carefree as she since, you know, I was privy to the building process. I was a little more clingy. Bwha.

In our fecklessness, we passed the early time of the venture exchanging comments back and forth with the other participants: “Nice looking rubber” or “You wanna drag?”

As we covered the first 3 or 4 miles on “flat water,” we sat prettily for a while ---  until we were about a quarter of a mile from a place known in the seventies as a “swinging singles” compound, aptly titled Riverbend.  It actually had a more notorious name, but that name is unsuitable for this “family” oriented blog. :)

The term “Riverbend” means what it designates -- the river bends, and what was up ahead well -- it was just as well we were not aware of what was coming.

Note: None of us had done a “trial” run down the river, you know, to scout the trek.

Feckless? I'd say.

At Riverbend, and on both sides of the river, young singles of Atlanta had gathered with their coolers, mesh lawn chairs, and staked out viewing venues to watch this “event.”  Waving at us from apartment balconies and the shore, applauding our derring -do, I guess, they cheered us on our journey. Perhaps these denizens of the river knew what was about to happen and were there to watch the "fun"?

And  -- it was at Riverbend that things began to go south. No pun intended.

“Look out!” became the words of the moment. Not only on our raft, but all around us.

We encountered rapids and hit them with a jolt. We bobbled headed our way through. Frank’s well-engineered raft began its disintegration barrel by barrel as the wet rope split apart and the impact of slamming against the rocks loosened them from the boards. The barrels threatened to float away, and with their loss, well, let’s just say we were not ’river” worthy.

The guys struggled to control the raft, the girls grabbed and held onto the barrels, and the guys also held onto us, by the feet as I recall, to keep us afloat. For the next mile or so, it was a harrowing experience as we were not the only ones with rafts coming apart and the denizens of said floaters struggling to keep afloat and the pieces together. It was a crazy ride---- like crack bumper cars on a river --- and fast and furious.

Plus, we were merely a "little ways" from having to get these river beasts to shore. It was crazy as we jammed up against each other, fighting to hold tight, and struggling to steer these unwieldy things to the right.

Event planners on shore did have the forethought to bring heavy ropes to throw at the raftees whose river experience bordered on none or whose raft chose these moments to shatter like toys.

We came to the finish line at Powers Landing, and we held onto the raft parts as some burly guys, and some serious frowning adults, strained to pull us by rope close enough for us to wade ashore and pull our wreck to dry land.  We frantically dove for and went after barrels and boards that threatened to float away.

It was a chaotic few minutes as we gathered the raft scraps from the river and piled them in a place until we could haul them off - --

When I got home, I soaked in the tub till I feel asleep. I remember that my mother woke me, made me eat crackers, and then sent me to bed where I slept for the next 18 hours.

I have never been so tired or so filthy again.

The Ramblin’ Raft Race was an experience, and not one that I wanted to have again -- and you know what? I didn’t. 

ETA: I don't have any new photos to share :). How could I improve on these?


  1. Why do I keep hearing, "Ride the raft! Ride the raft!" in my brain?

  2. Wow Harriett! What a time we had. I was one of the lucky (!?*)ones who spent the night with the raft. It was a wild nite with the GaTech vs GA thing going on all night. You know that is how the race got it's start. Did not get much sleep, how we made it still amazes me. At times thrilling and scary all in the same breath. Memories I will treasure. That's me sitting to your left with my hand waving at the helicopter. You wanna do it again? :)