Travel: Kayaking the Yellow River
LILBURN — About an hour and a half’s drive from LaGrange, Gwinnett County’s Yellow River offers gentle, winding scenery, interspersed with thrashing, wild whitewater.
The river, which feeds in the Ocmulgee and eventually the Altamaha and Atlantic Ocean, offers kayakers with varying experience levels an opportunity to get their feet wet.
But before strapping your kayak to the roof of your car, make sure you know where you’re going, what you’re getting yourself into, and what you’ll need to bring.
There’s a stretch of the Yellow River that lasts about 5 miles and offers calm water paddling with the occasional whitewater feature. The stretch can be enjoyable for experienced kayakers, as well as beginners — but be sure you know which of those applies to you before hitting the water.
First, you’ll need at least two kayakers and two cars. Buy nylon straps at a store like Walmart or Lowe’s to secure the boats on top of your car. Drive the both cars to the put-in site in Lilburn. The easiest way to get there is to use your GPS and find “The Yellow River Game Ranch,” 4525 U.S. Highway 78, Lilburn, Ga., 30047.
Once you get there, you’ll find a grass parking lot. You’ll see the signs for the game ranch. At the entrance of the game ranch, you’ll see a concrete drainage ditch to your left. Take both your boats and carry them down the ditch all the way to the water; you’ll know you’re on the right track because there’s a highway bridge there.
Once your boats are stashed, both kayakers should head back to their cars. From there, drive one car to the take-out point, leave one car there, and ride back to the put-in.
The take-out point is Yellow River Park, 3232 Juhan Road SW, Stone Mountain, Ga., 30087. Again, use your GPS to get there. Park the second car and leave it there. Head back to the put-in spot at the game ranch.
Once you get back, grab your gear — maybe bring a cooler with some drinks or snacks — and head down to your put-in spot where your boats are waiting. Get in and go.
About a mile and a half of paddling, you’ll encounter your first whitewater feature. It’s not a biggie — probably a Class II, meaning it’s easy to navigate — but wait for it, you’re in for a treat soon.
About 2 miles down the river from the game ranch, you’ll start to hear rushing water as you turn a corner. You’re coming up on a solid 3 to 4 foot drop ahead.
If you’re not comfortable tackling it, you can pull your kayak up on the rock that juts out to your left. Hop out of the boat and lug your kayak over, then get back in. This is called “porting.”
If you’re adventurous, aim to the right of the rock and look for where the water flows smoothly over the falls. The smooth water is how you’ll be able to tell there aren’t any rocks underneath.
After you make it over that fall, you’re coming up on more. The water will pool briefly, and it might be a good time to stop for a swim.
On June 19, I did this same stretch and collected water quality samples. The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s office in LaGrange was kind enough to test the samples for me, and they found that at that waterfall on June 19, there were 75 colony forming units of E. Coli bacteria per sample. Now, 75 might sound like a lot, but consider this: a raw sewage spill can produce levels as high as 300,000 CFU.
Really, anything under 300 is safe, according to the Riverkeeper. In fact, a level of 75 CFU is extremely good. Another sample taken at the end of the paddle at the Yellow River Park — where a crowd of people were swimming — measure just 20 CFU.
OK, back to the paddle. You’ve made it over the first big whitewater feature, through the pool, and now ahead of you is an island that splits the river. To the right, the river is shallow and rocky, to the left, it’s heavier and more challenging.
You can pick your poison, but I went to the left, where the water was deeper. There are several whitewater features here, and they’re moderately challenging.
Before you head down them, pull your boat up on a rock, get out and scout them. Take a look and plan your route.
Despite my best effort, my boat was turned sideways by the whitewater and swamped. It happens. Just hop out, lug your boat to the nearest rock, pull the drain plug and stand it up. You’ll be back on the water in no time.
Once you make it through these two whitewater features, it’s smooth sailing for a while. Relax and enjoy the scenery. Keep and eye out for wildlife. Last month, I saw several river otters, a hawk, a wild fox and turtles.
Soon, though, you’ll hear that familiar rushing water again. Keep an ear out for it, because it’s coming and it comes fast. Up ahead, at the Anniston Road bridge, a hefty whitewater plunge awaits.
Don’t attempt to do this, unless you have life jackets, helmets and you consider yourself extremely capable.
The feature drops a good 5 to 6 feet and is surrounded by boulders and bridge pylons. It would be very easy to get swept up and thrown against one of them. The easiest thing here is to get out of your kayak and port it.
For the rest of the paddle, the water stays relatively calm. Some shallow spots emerge, and you might have to get out of your kayak and pull it along.
Soon, you’ll be reaching the Yellow River Park. You’ll know because you’ll see people swimming, along with wildlife viewing platforms. Don’t go too far, because you don’t want to miss your take-out point. Once you’re in the park, find a riverbank you can scurry up.
Pull your boats out of the water and head back to the park’s parking lot. Strap both the boats to the car you left (hope you brought your keys!) and head back to the game ranch.
John Buckner of Junction City paddles the Yellow River with his yellow dog, Oliver, on June 19. Oliver swam almost 5 miles of the river.
John Buckner of Junction City maneuvers a waterfall while kayaking the Yellow River on June 19.