Claude Terry championed Georgia rivers

Played a role in protecting Chattahoochee, Chattooga
Claude Terry played a role in the making of the movie ‘Deliverance,’ and went on to become a nationally known conservationist, having a hand in efforts such as the creation of the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area, used by thousands of metro Atlantans for recreation.

Claude Terry played a role in the making of the movie ‘Deliverance,’ and went on to become a nationally known conservationist, having a hand in efforts such as the creation of the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area, used by thousands of metro Atlantans for recreation.

In 1974, Emory University professor Claude Terry took then-Gov. Jimmy Carter along for what is thought to be the first tandem canoe descent of Bull Sluice Rapid on the Chattooga River in northeast Georgia.

It has lasting implications for the country.

Bull Sluice is the jolting climax of a series of rapids that end in a double waterfall, both with roughly five-foot drops. Decades later Carter would tell an interviewer that "was the first time I risked my life, I would say, coming down a wild river."

Terry had been a paddling virtuoso who served as a consultant and stunt double for actor Jon Voight in the 1972 film “Deliverance,” filmed in Georgia. All told, he and Carter took three trips covering the river’s 57 miles via canoe, kayak or raft. These would influence Carter to help get the Chattooga included in the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, protecting it from dams, roads, houses and other development, and also influenced Carter’s later decisions protecting rivers across the U.S.

“Terry adopted me as one of his students,” Carter told Outside Online in a 2017 interview. “[Riding the Chattooga] opened my eyes to the relationship between a human being and a wild river that I never had contemplated before that. When I got to be president I was very conversant with the altercations that existed (between developers and environmentalists). I vetoed 16 different dam projects, I think, all over the United States which aroused a great deal of animosity and condemnation.”

Carter and Terry remained close, if intellectually combative comrades for 38 years. Terry was by far the more liberal. The two were both patients in Emory hospital late last month, though Terry was too sick for the friends to meet a final time.

Claude Emory Terry, 82, died Nov. 20 of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was cremated, with the family planning to spread his ashes over various rivers.

A celebration of life is scheduled for 2 p.m., Dec. 15 at the Miller-Ward Alumni House, 815 Houston Mill Road NE at Emory University.

He was born August 12, 1937 in Cumming, the only child of May and Claude Terry Sr. The elder Claude was a hard-drinking World War I vet who became Forsyth County’s Justice of the Peace, but also abstained from all alcohol after marrying May. She was an electrifying Pentecostal preacher leading revivals and camp meetings throughout the Southeast. Though possessing his mother’s fire and brimstone temperament, Terry rejected her fundamentalist theology. He earned a dual Ph.D. in micro and molecular biology and eventually landed at Emory, where he taught in the medical, dental and nursing schools.

In a 2015 oral history Terry said his mother’s sermons generally focused on “hell fire,” and that they clashed over religion beginning when he was nine. When she once told him he needed to confess his sins; young Claude countered that he didn’t have any.

Terry begin whitewater rafting and canoeing in the mid 1960s. For decades, protecting wild rivers from development, particularly the Chattooga and the Chattahoochee, became his principal avocation.

In 1969 he met veteran paddler Doug Woodward, and the two became the technical advisers for “Deliverance,” whose canoe scenes were shot in 1971 on the Chattooga and in Tallulah Gorge. Recreational paddling was still in its infancy, but that changed with the film’s box office success as tourists flocked to northeast Georgia wanting to experience both the river and the region.

“People would show up with a couple of rafts they bought at K-Mart,” Woodward said, “one for them and one to hold a cooler of beer.” Nineteen people were killed on the Chattooga in the three years after the film.

Terry and Woodward had purchased the rafts Warner Brothers used in filming and bought 19 acres near the river that was once a country music park, subsequently opening Southeastern Expeditions, one of the Southeast’s first whitewater outposts, giving paddling lessons and guided trips down the Chattooga.

His son Michael Terry said once an ex-college wrestler applied for a job there.

“Dad told him, ‘if you want to work here you have to wrestle me.’ The guy was just out of school and Dad was in his early 60s. The guy told me later, ‘I’d be flattering myself to say it was a draw.’ “

The elder Terry was a prodigious sportsman, tackling rock climbing, scuba diving, tennis, racquetball and handball, though he had a particular zest for boxing and wrestling. Late in life he was also nationally ranked in the ancient Native American art of spear throwing, called “atlatl.”

Claude quit his Emory job and started full time career in environmental advocacy, including founding American Rivers, a principal U.S. conservation group. For the next 30 years he specialized in environmental projects involving rivers and wetlands and later, when he became a board-certified toxicologist, he developed an expertise in hazardous waste cleanups.

His wife Linda Terry believes Claude was especially proud of his work regarding the still-ongoing cleanup of the Woolfolk Chemical Works site in Fort Valley that began in the late 1980s. Starting in 1910 several companies produced, packaged and stored herbicides and pesticides that ultimately contaminated groundwater, soil and the air. Terry represented Fort Valley residents as a technical assistance consultant and liaison with the Environmental Protections Agency.

In recalling his Dad, Michael believes his love of teaching, as evidenced by Fort Valley and numerous other instances, mostly outweighed everything else within his complex personality, including his unsparing competitiveness.

“Sometimes he became conflicted,” said Michael, who himself is a competitive kayak racer. “I remember one time beating him at tennis which was very rare. For a few minutes there he was truly excited for me, the son who’d beaten the father, the pupil who’d beaten his mentor. But after a few minutes he looked at me very seriously and said, ‘that won’t happen again.’ “

Claude Terry is survived by his wife Linda Terry, as well as three children, Claude E. Terry III (Katherine), Michael B. Terry and Denise T. Wardlow (Ben Wardlow), along with 13 grandchildren and two great grandchildren and his half sister Winona Drummond Ricks.