Getting out of city, on Etowah River to become easier

Mike McCarthy's days hauling kayaks by rope up the slippery banks of the Etowah River are numbered.

A coalition of nonprofits and local governments with help from the National Park Service is working to build a series of canoe launches along the river, creating a 100-plus-mile, winding blue trail through northeast Georgia.

Paddlers like Marietta's McCarthy will be able to drop a boat in the Etowah near Dawsonville and float all the way to Rome with regular easy access points in parks, forestland and at bridges. The first new launch in Cherokee County could be finished by the end of the year. Others could take two or more years to complete, as a number of local governments and agencies are working on separate schedules.

Access is limited now, said McCarthy, who has slogged his way in and out of the river at some points like an Army Ranger attacking a moated fortress.

"A lot of people don't want it to be that hard. You have to climb up this rope and stuff to get out of the river. And it is a shame, because it is such a great resource," he said.

Building launches every 10 or so miles and designating a river as a blue trail can bring tourist dollars and speed the process up.

Matthew Pate, who has played a key role in the coalition as the outdoor programs coordinator for Forsyth County's Parks and Recreation Department, travels as far as North Carolina to paddle because it has created paddling trails.

"If it is a trail, then it becomes a destination," he said.

And that means more recreational opportunities, more visitors and public exposure, which helps teach residents about the importance of water as a resource, Pate said.

Forsyth's plans for 260 riverfront acres it recently bought include building an access road to the river and a launch site. The National Park Service is helping design the plans. County commissioners are scheduled to talk about the new park in coming months.

McCarthy bought kayaks about eight years ago because he wanted to have fun with his son. McCarthy has become a devoted paddler who loves the tree-canopied green stretches of river and the break from civilization the Etowah provides.

"I think more people would do it if there were more and better access," he said.

Organizations such as the Upper Etowah River Alliance, the Coosa River Basin Initiative and towns and counties from the river's upper reaches to the Alabama line are getting on board.

The city of Canton and Cherokee County are planning to build three launch sites in parks, with help and funding from the Upper Etowah River Alliance. Diane Minick, the alliance's director, said the organization has the money in hand, and planning is under way.

Below Cherokee County, the Coosa River Basin Initiative, an environmental nonprofit, is working with local governments to build launches along the 48-mile stretch of river from Lake Allatoona to Rome.

"Some things are beginning to happen, and it is very exciting," said Joe Cook, the nonprofit's executive director.

Bartow County and the city of Euharlee are developing plans for a new launch. It will be only the third public launch below Lake Allatoona, Cook said.

"I always compare the Etowah in Bartow and Floyd counties today to the Chattahoochee in north Fulton and Cobb counties in the early 1970s and 1980s," he said.

Its potential as a recreational resource became clear as people from metro Atlanta used the river and thought long term about preserving it and making it accessible. That movement eventually led to the idea for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

Cook said, "The Etowah is best for family paddling in North Georgia. ... It has little ripples and shoals. Pretty much anybody can go out and have a good time. But in 48 miles of river [below the dam], we only have two access points, so it is really underutilized right now."

River trips

If you don't want to go it alone, Appalachian Outfitters in Dahlonega (, the Coosa River Basin Initiative ( and the Georgia Canoeing Association (, among others, run trips.