By Alvin Richardson
In 1971 Lake Oconee was just a gleam in the eye of the Georgia Power Company. There were, however rumors out there that the river was on its way to semi-extinction and that a big dead lake would take its place. The Greater Rutledge Sportsman’s Club, a loosely affiliated group of miscreants, scoundrels, reprobates and un-convicted felons (of which I was the junior member) took the news badly. This band of brothers fancied themselves outdoorsmen, and so, for old times sake, voted to take one last rafting trip down the river. The deciding factor in the balloting was that this was an excellent opportunity to go fishing and sip on a few tasty beverages.
The organization and planning arm of the club was given responsibility for putting the expedition together. This assemblage of high school dropouts were renowned for their attention to detail and so it was decided five minutes after the voting was over to pile a small armada of boats, fishing equipment, and sleeping bags into various vehicles and head for the river. A mandatory stop at the local convenience store was necessary in order to procure enough beanie weenies and malt drinks to insure that the group would not get hungry or thirsty over the weekend. The overall preparations were impressive (logistically speaking) and would have made a United States Army Quartermaster proud.
Enthusiasm was high and we were eager to begin but we did have enough foresight to leave a car at the take out point downriver. In retrospect that idea was not thoroughly considered because we left only my Ford Mustang at the landing and there were roughly a dozen people in our entourage but as it turned out that didn’t really matter.
After a successful launching of the fleet we started merrily down the serene river. I did notice that the water level was somewhat higher and muddier than normal but thought no more about it until later.
Our objective was to reach Goat Island where we would beach our vessels and then disembark the fishing equipment, sleeping bags, food and drink in order to set up camp. That went smoothly and fishing soon commenced along with thirst quenching activities. Things couldn’t have been better but there was something nagging me about our situation.
By midnight it became obvious to me that Goat Island had shrunk. The water level of the Oconee River was rising at a brisk pace. My cohorts were completely ignorant of this fact. They blissfully fished (and sipped) on and eventually fell into an induced slumber but I did not sleep well that night.
By morning the river was raging and Goat Island was a pinpoint of land in a sea of white water. The members of the Greater Rutledge Sportsman’s Club awoke to this dire situation and immediately called a meeting of their Emergency Management Branch. That group of unflappable customers was charged with the job of formulating an evacuation plan. Two panicked minutes later the meeting was adjourned after it was unanimously decided to begin an urgent departure procedure. I think the words, “Let’s get the heck out of Dodge,” was the operative phrase and thus all the equipment was hastily loaded.
It became readily apparent that our small crafts were badly overloaded for this type of white water exercise and within moments of commencing our down-river run every boat was overturned. Into the drink went fishing gear, sleeping bags, coolers (empty), and about a dozen hung over swimmers. Significantly all boat paddles were also lost in the maelstrom.
It was every man for himself and I vaguely recall grabbing onto an aluminum boat and hanging on for dear life. There was no reason to climb aboard because steering the vessel was impossible without paddles. I just clung to the stern and kicked my feet in a feeble effort to control the direction but mostly to keep my head above water. We were several hours from the take out point but I can safely say that, based on the last sighting, our coolers, tackle boxes and sleeping apparel were nearly to the Atlantic Ocean.
The river rushed things along at a vigorous pace and we bounced roughly over rocks and around floating tree trunks. Although we were half drowned, cold and miserable there was a quiet confidence (after the initial screaming had stopped) among the Club members that we might actually make it home alive.
There were a couple more obstacles to overcome down the home stretch. A pair of oversized snakes crossed our path leading to some unseemly squealing by the brave outdoorsmen and we also had trouble identifying and getting to the landing area where my car was parked but we fought our way through both problems.
One minor difficulty arose after we waded to shore. My car keys were somewhere in the Oconee River and in 1971 there were no cell phones. It was a long, embarrassing hike home.
The Greater Rutledge Sportsman’s Club was doomed in the aftermath of this debacle and never formally met again. Goat Island is now covered by Lake Oconee but the story lives on.