ON THE HOOCH
By Chris McBeath


When people think of adventuring along the Chattahoochee River, they usually don’t set their sights high enough.  Most people think of what lies below Lake Lanier and the Buford Dam:  floating the gentle currents, kayaking along the shady shoreline or trout fishing – the Chattahoochee is one of the finest rivers in the state for trout. But if you think higher, just north of the lake, what you’ll find is an unfettered beauty of the river as it has always been.

This part of the Upper ‘hooch’ is a world unto itself, and in the hazy heat of a mid summer’s day, it’s one of the region’s most delightful away-from-it-all getaways.

During most of the year the bridge at Belton, the last bridge on the lake, marks the dividing point of the river. Look north, and the waters are a lively weave of currents, scurrying around large rocks, zipping either side of snags, and spreading thin over wide shoals. Look south, andthe currents ease into a slow-moving wider stretch that quickly morphs into Lake Lanier.

At this time of year, however, the river takes on a different tempo beneath the summer sun – an easy rhythm that bubbles over pebbles, glides around sandbars, and swirls beneath, up and over snarled logs that cast playful shadows across the sun dappled waters.

Because lake levels are lower in summer, which consequently lengthens the river’s approach to Lanier, the best put-in point for kayaks and canoes is at Clark’s Bridge.

From here, scooting up to Belton Bridge and back is an easy full day paddle. Most motorized craft, however, can’t maneuver the shallow waters so past this point, the winding river is wild, natural, and solitary.  Indeed, the waters are so shallow, that there is only one professional guide, Bill Vanderford, who has the boat and the know-how to match the challenge. Built with the strength of a Sherman tank, but without the weight, his boat has such a unique design it can easily ride in less than six inches of water.  “It includes an 82-inch beam made of 1/8th inch thick welded aluminum, along with a double hull made with two 4-inch aluminum beams on the inside, and four 2-inch runners welded on the outside”, Vanderford explains, “as well as enough internal flotation in sealed compartments to keep it afloat if a puncture occurs”.  What really makes this 18 foot boat rock, however, is its special 80 horsepower jet outboard that enables the experienced Vanderford to skim over obstacles and debris that are less than an inch below the water’s surface.

The results are eco-trips to parts of the Chattahoochee that few ever have the joy of experiencing, and river safaris that are second to none.

A natural high
 “The range of wildlife is extraordinary and a real tutorial of what ‘natural’ Georgia has to offer”, says Vanderford, whose quick eye has your head turning from one discovery to another: it could be a ground hog routing about the undergrowth, a white-tailed deer amidst the sycamore trees, a beaver’s dam in a side estuary, or a multi-colored wood duck among the many species of ducks and migratory birds that call the part of the river home. “There’s a small family of eagles up here that always take my breath away”, Vanderford continues as he points to an osprey soaring overhead.  Then to a snowy egret. And then, quite suddenly, he might stop the boat so that in the soft stillness of summer, you can watch a wading blue heron dive triumphantly for a sunfish.

Herons not withstanding, fishing is a Vanderford forte – he owns the oldest guiding service on Lake Lanier, so you can be sure his jet boat is always equipped with a rod or two.  While much of the river is rife with snags and structures that would challenge a novice angler, there are wider areas that invite a cast. Red breasts and blue gills are plentiful, and the chances of a Chattahoochee Grand Slam – a largemouth bass, spotted bass, and a rare shoal bass, are omnipresent.

“If we’re real lucky, we might even see a black bear”, he quietly enthuses, eyes searching the thickets of wild rhododendron before he slows the boat into a sharp bend in the river, and fuels your anticipation of what might be around the corner. Which is what adventuring up the upper hooch is all about.

As for tips for the road?  Be sure to bring a swimsuit, sunscreen, binoculars and camera. Include a picnic to enjoy on one of the many sandbars that you’ll traverse over or around during the trip. And bring your sense of wonder.  This part of the Chattahoochee is a must see. Bill Vanderford can be contacted at 770/289-1543.

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