Georgia State Parks: Endangered Species!

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We decided to add kayaking to our skill set, partially because we attended a Georgia Conservancy/REI lecture on paddling the rivers of central Georgia and partially because a friend recommended Paddle Georgia to us as another adventure.  We knew that we would like to start this outdoor activity with a group, so we decided we needed to take a lesson before we burdened any group with a pair of absolute newbies. REI’s Outdoor School offered several classes on kayaking and since I have a tender shoulder and back, we thought kayaking might be easier than canoeing, so we signed up.

Our class was held at Ft. Yargo State Park, near Winder, Georgia.  We had never been to this state park, so we looked it up on their website and learned that they offer a wide variety of outdoor opportunities including camping, hiking and fishing.  We checked with the park and found that we could reserve a campsite on the lake in the park for the Friday night before our class as well as Saturday night after the class.  We chose a walk in campsite on the lake.  The view of the lake was beautiful, and although the location is only an hour from Atlanta and just off Georgia 316, it feels like you are in a wilderness.

Break of day camping in Ft. Yargo State Park

While setting up we encountered another camper who said he had spent a lot of time at the park, but that he had heard that the park was likely to shut down by 2015.  We decided not to take his word for it, so before we left on Sunday we decided to check with the ranger station and see if he was correct.

Before we got to talk to the ranger we found out a lot about the park ourselves.  You can get details from the link to their website in the text above, but here are a few of the notables.  Camping is cheap; the walk-in site with an improved tent site, fire ring and picnic table was $23 per night.  If you preferred an RV site or true tent car camping site, those were $29  and $25 per night and gave closer access to running water and electricity.  All the campsites were within a hundred yards of very nice toilet facilities, with flush toilets, lighting, hot and cold water and showers.  If you want to bring a family to the outdoors but don’t want to camp, there are six yurts on a point of land extending into the lake.  The view from the yurt balconies extending over the water is fabulous. Each yurt sleeps 6, has electricity, and a heater as well as a hardwood floor and its own canoe.  The yurts were renting for $70 per night while we were there.  There is a seven mile hiking trail around the lake that goes through the campgrounds; parts of the hiking trail is shared with a 12 mile mountain bike trail around the lake.   There’s a beach with a large picnic area and a rental office  that rents kayaks, canoes, paddle-boats, jon boats, and paddle boards.  There are a lot more treasures, including an authentic 1793 log fort preserved on the grounds, that you can find by taking a visit, calling or checking their website.

By nine o’clock Saturday morning we were standing on the boat ramp inside access B to the state park, near the pier used by the University of Georgia crew teams when they come to the park to practice. The REI Outdoor School had unloaded half a dozen kayaks.  Instructors Carson and Jackie greeted us and put us through the ground school phase of the instruction, then we walked the one person kayaks down to the water and gingerly followed their instructions on getting into the boat.

One person kayaks for REI Outdoor School class

With our foot pegs properly adjusted and our thighs pressed against the hull of the little boats, we felt locked in and ready to go.  We managed to get in position to watch as Carson demonstrated the forward sweep stroke used to turn the boat, the draw stroke to move it sideways, and the forward  stroke and back stroke used to move the kayak along a line.  Jackie sacrificed herself for us demonstrating how to eject yourself from the kayak if you happen to tip over. (None of us did).  Throughout the morning we watched their demonstration of different strokes and tried to emulate them as we paddled across the lake and back, growing ever more confident that we could do this and that it could be a lot of fun.  After a short lunch/bathroom break we hit the water again for a tour of an arm of the lake and concluded our class.  We are eager to put what we learned to use on an adventure.  These two instructors were as good as any we have ever had in any class.  There was no BS and there was no ego of how good they were that overshadowed the instruction.  It was great and I highly recommend the class.   They agreed with us that REI ought to incorporate the overnight camping with the kayak class and make it a multitasking weekend adventure.

Later that afternoon we pulled the hybrid bikes off the rack and rode around the park, stopping at historic  Ft. Yargo and marveling at what our pioneer ancestors went through.  Then, Sunday morning we hiked the seven mile trail around the lake.  From a spot across the lake from the beach, we watched as a religious group baptized some of their members in the lake.  Trail runners and mountain bikes were few, but we encountered a couple and in each case the behavior was courteous and sharing.  It was a great walk in the woods by a lake.

Then it was time to pull up stakes and head home.  Another group of fellow travelers had stopped at our campsite to borrow our stove and a few other pieces of gear for a trip to Cataloochee, so the packing was lighter than usual.  Fearing the worst about this marvelous state park, we stopped at the welcome center just inside the main gate.  Park Manager Ray Smith, Jr. was sitting in his office just off the welcome area when he heard us ask the staff whether there was any truth to what we had been told.  With an upbeat air and an optimistic attitude, he told us that it was indeed true that there was a financial mandate from the legislature that each state park become at least 75% self sufficient by 2015 or else face some service cutbacks.  He then explained that the park revenue counted in this does not include the $5 per car daily fee because that money is automatically sent directly to the general fund.  Instead, the park has to reach the goal of paying its operating expenses out of such things as overnight camping rental, pavilion rentals, and other user fees that do not include the basic user entrance fee.  He said they were already understaffed and expected to make more changes to try to meet the mandate, but, that Ft. Yargo was in the same boat with all the Georgia State Parks, many of whom were not quite making to the needed 75% level.  We asked him how their situation would improve and he gave us a simple answer.  If more users come and stay overnight or rent pavilions or take advantage of the other revenue generating features, rather than viewing the park as a day-trip, they could make their budget needs.  They have the capacity, particularly during the week and during the cooler months.

So, here is the bottom line.  Georgia State Parks and the state parks of the other states are a great deal.  They provide tremendous value for the buck, but they are taxpayer supported and are on the block.  This is something each individual outdoor enthusiasts can do something about simply by choosing to incorporate the state parks into your annual events.  Make it a point to go to the state parks and learn what they have to offer and then take advantage of more than the entrance fee.  Go camping there, rent a boat, have a party at a pavilion, suggest a state park as a venue for a corporate outing, and tell your friends to do the same.  You don’t have to write a congressman, make a donation or do anything you wouldn’t enjoy doing.  All you have to do is choose to spend some time in a particular part of the great outdoors.

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