Fittingly enough, a group of Georgia Tech fraternity brothers originated the event. About 500 people participated in that first race, held 39 years ago. "The next year, we had over 1,000," said Larry Patrick, who now raises catfish on the Broad River in Kings Mountain, S.C.
The easygoing vibe began to change in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter signed a bill creating the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. New management took over, and before long the feds were openly fretting about controlling the "thousands of beer-swilling, dope-smoking rafters," as reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1980. Citations for drunk and disorderly behavior started to be issued. Then, a rafter drowned, the only fatality recorded in the festival's history.