Rena Peck Stricker wants you to get out on the river. And soon.

The Buckhead resident and ecologist is the new executive director of the Georgia River Network, an Athens-based nonprofit that protects the state’s rivers, promotes water trails in communities across Georgia and advocates for rivers at the statewide level.

“That’s my piece, on the nature/spiritual connection part. I think we all need (it),” Stricker said in a May 7 interview before taking a reporter and a group of six individuals connected to the network on a paddle down the Chattahoochee River via Azalea Park in Roswell. “The nature deficit disorder is so huge for at-risk kids as well as prep school kids in Buckhead. So I think it’s more about access, giving them access to the river, to connect to the river, to transform. You’re transforming away from being inside 95% of the time and on a computer to seeing our natural world and connecting with that to help connect you to your true self and the universe and God and Mother Nature.”

Bonny Putney, who lives on Lake Lanier and is the network board’s vice president, could not agree more.

“Why is promoting the rivers and water so important?” she said. “I’ve seen it through my whole life. I see it on the river especially. People don’t get it until they get it, and in order to get it, you have to get in the river or in the lake or whatever body of water it happens to be. In the case of the Chattahoochee River, the closer you are to the river, the more you get it, and kayaks and canoes put you very close to the river, and once you’re in there and you start paddling, you see how magnificent and beautiful it is.

“You also see how fragile and imperiled it is by trash and by inflow and by too many people and disrespect of property and all kinds of things. So it makes you want to do something, because you want to be able to keep doing this for generations and you want to see it get better and better and even give you a better experience.”

Stricker, who was hired in March, said getting on the river is “really transformative.”

“That’s my little acronym, ACT: access, connect, transform,” she said. “And for kids who have been through trauma like folks in the foster care system and at-risk children of color from our toughest neighborhoods, it really is transformative. Paddle to challenge yourself, to build that self-confidence and self-sufficiency. That is transformative.

“In a way we’re transforming the river into an outdoor adventure — turning the river into a water trail that is accessible for fully experiencing our waters and wildlife. And we’re transforming people who like to fish and paddle to stewards of the river where they want to come adopt a boat (launch) ramp or do a river cleanup or advocate for river protection and the establishment of more camping parks around rivers.”

Stricker said the network has guidebooks – it’s creating one for each of the state’s 14 river basins – that are similar to the AAA TripTiks map books, and it’s working to digitize all of that information and load it into a river guide mobile app.

It will have info on the state’s 15 water trails, including parks where you can launch your boat and take it out of the water, where local outfitters are located in case you wanted to rent a boat or equipment, information on each river’s cultural and natural history and the flora and fauna, she said.

“It’s great for safety as well,” Stricker said. “The water trail isn’t a trail along the side of the river but is actually the river itself. So it’s a great return on investment. You don’t have to build a trail. You just have to get access to it and have a local water group like the 30 we work with steward it.”

She also said the network is working with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources on establishing a water trail system statewide, adding nature is big business in the state.

“The outdoor industry in Georgia is a lot bigger than you think,” she said. “We are No. 8 in the nation for outdoor industry recreation spending, so that’s just a great return on investment, too.”

The network’s largest annual event, Paddle Georgia, is coming June 15 through 19 on the Withlacoochee and Suwannee rivers in southeast Georgia.

Registration fees range from $120 for adults, $70 for children 8 to 17 and $10 for kids 7 and under for two days on the trip to $425, $230 and $30 for the three age groups for all seven days. Discounts are available for event sponsors and other industry groups, and scholarships are also available once one qualifies. Registration closes May 31.

Putney got involved with the network in 2005 during the first Paddle Georgia, which was held on the Chattahoochee. She found out about it from Dana Skelton, who Stricker replaced as executive director but still works for the network as its director of advocacy and operations.

“(She) and I were on the same board together with Rivers Alive, and she started to tell me, ‘You know, we’re going to do this paddle thing and we’re trying to get people to go,’” Putney said. “She told me about it and I said, ‘How much is it?’ And I went up to my car and wrote a check – immediately – because I wanted to do it. I’ve been paddling ever since.”

Now it’s your turn.

For more information on the network or Paddle Georgia, or to register, visit www.garivers.org or www.garivers.org/paddle-georgia.

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