Kayaking the Dawson Forest Wildlife Area

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Last year, my wife and friends joined me on a kayaking trip on the Yahoola Creek and Chestatee River.  It was great fun, and I’ve had intentions of returning sooner.   Our party now somewhat larger, we returned for Appalachian OutfittersDawson Forest Wildlife Management Area trip... “our longest and most remote river trip.”  


That equates to around 8.5 miles on a spacious river that is undeveloped along the length of the excursion.

We arrived for our 10:00 launch, to find that The Kelly Bridge Landing is actually the end point.  We soon boarded AO’s van to an upstream launch point, which makes sense as those boating can then leave whenever they return to Kelly Landing, rather than having to wait for a van to return to their vehicles.  The meeting area has a portable potty and a very basic structure for changing clothes afterwards. 


Before launch, we got the basics of river safety, a warning about snakes and spiders dropping into the boats from tree limbs (oh my!), and instructions about how to estimate the distance we’ve traveled down the Etowah.  The first is always helpful for new boaters, the second is remotely possible and the third is helpful but also a tease as river mileage markers are posted along the length.

We opted for the sit-on-top kayaks, while others joining us on the river chose canoes.  This included a father and daughter spending quality time and another group of four friends. 

This river trip is easy, and AO advertises it as “an excellent choice for even first time paddlers.”  “Easy” means it’s a wide, slow moving river with no rapids to cause a heartache.  But... you have to be able to steer.  There are rocks in the middle and fallen trees that encourage you to go around them.  And, if it’s your first time, you should probably avoid running into other things, like the banks.


This was possibly the first canoeing adventure for the four friends.  If you’ve never canoed, a few words of advice.  Practice a bit before you go far.  The person in the rear can generally use their paddle as a rudder to good advantage, absent any paddling even.   Secondly, no matter how romantic you’re feeling, don’t bring a guitar.  The wood doesn’t like to get wet. 

The canoes went first, and after we went perhaps 50 yards downstream, we asked the fellow with the guitar to play us a tune.   And, why not?  He had stopped, while his other friends were in the water trying to flip the canoe back over and climb in.   He happily serenades us with a verse of “Dueling Banjo’s.”  The guitar sounded in tune, and he played it well.  However, I don’t know if he kept his sense of humor as about 200 yards later, we looked back and saw that he was trying to get back into his canoe as well.  Hope everything worked out for them.  And his guitar.

Forrest, our AO rep who gave us the lay of the river, also encouraged us to walk up a small creek feeding in from the left at around mile 5 which would lead to Barefoot Falls.  Well, now we’re on a mission, to both enjoy the river and satisfy a quest.

There were a couple of non-creeks and wet ditches that we passed, but the creek’s size didn’t impress when we came to it.   The “rope swing” landmark that Forrest had mentioned had broken the previous week, but we found the remains to confirm that the little creek was indeed the creek.  We managed to pull out six kayaks in an area not particularly well suited for that...

... plus one canoe, as the father/daughter canoe team caught up to us, also volunteering to take and send pictures of us on the river and at the Falls.  Thanks, Jim! (And, yes, I tweaked the photos a bit).

From Barefoot Falls (bare feet not recommended in getting there), this is the creek that walked in, perhaps 50 yards from the river.  It looks simple, but it narrows and there are a few spots that will swallow a foot in the muck.


Turning around 180o, there it is.  I don’t think I’d climb these falls barefoot, at least without a very well padded rear end.  I would guess that kayaking is the best means of finding these falls.


Stepping back a bit... Jim provided us with the glamour shot.


... and I tweaked it for a tougher, grittier look like we worked hard for it:


It was a beautiful day on the river, not too hot and with an occasional breeze.  The river is frequently shaded, but I’d recommend a hat, sunscreen and insect repellent.    The trip took about 3 hours on the water, at an unhurried pace which includes the quest for the waterfall.  Oh yeah, bring a bottle of water.


Now, about that Cold War nuclear testing facility...

Also observable along the river were the remains of fairly non-substantial bridge trusses and concrete footings which previously held train tracks. 

In the 1960’s, Lockheed and the US Air Force operated the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory (AFP No. 67) at this site, which was closed in 1971 and acquired by the City of Atlanta for a possible future airport.

There’s ample reading out there on the subject, but the goal was to determine the possibility of nuclear powered aircraft, the radiation’s effects on aircraft parts, and, mentioned in a number of unofficial sites, possibly testing the effects of radiation on rats and the general environment to better understand what the effects of radiation would be without all the property damage.   An unshielded reactor is reported to have been used.

That inspires nothing but confidence that the area is safe, with, again noting these to be from unofficial sites, that the main testing area has an underground facility that was flooded and sealed.  I’m sure anything contaminated is strictly confined for eternity.  Here’s one site with pictures you can read if you like.

I’ve posted a video below about the endeavor, and at around the 3:00 minute mark is a pumping station that we observed which was rather creepy.  The river isn’t free from graffiti, either, as it was adorned with various musings including “Be Your Own God.” 

I gather the USAF and Lockheed tried that and failed.

(For anyone who knows our friend Gregg... he ventured bravely under a fallen tree only to find himself in the river, our only capsize of the day).

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