A River Runs Through It

The Yellow River serves as buoyant host to paddlers and fishermen who find a pleasant mix of relaxation, fun and adventure on its waters.

by David Roten

You may have caught a passing glimpse from I-20 when you zipped over it at 70 miles per hour. Though mostly hidden from view, it gently winds and at times boisterously cascades, mostly unnoticed, through Newton County. 

Debra Griffith calls the Yellow River “an absolutely wonderful natural resource right here in our own backyard.” A retired medical researcher, she serves as board chairman of the Yellow River Water Trail, Inc.—a non-profit group dedicated to protecting the river and promoting recreational opportunities on it. “There are so many people who live here their whole lives who don’t even know this is here.” 

Though some are simply unaware the river exists, others have seen and been turned off by its yellowish-brown color, assuming it to be an indication that the water is dirty. However, the color is a result of the high-sediment content of the water. 

“This river is clean, absolutely safe,” Griffith said, “from here all the way down.”

Keeping the river clean and making it accessible to water-sports enthusiasts is at the heart of what drives the YRWTI. The 53-mile-long Yellow River originates in suburban Gwinnett County and runs through portions of Dekalb, Rockdale and Newton counties before emptying into Jackson Lake. Each year, the river is the buoyant host to paddlers and fishermen who find a pleasant mix of relaxation, fun and adventure on its waters. 

“There are only three bridge crossings in seven miles. You’re isolated. You’re just out there in the wilderness enjoying a beautiful, peaceful, tranquil float trip down the Yellow River.”

Nomadic Flow Outfitters Owner Ryan Roth

In Newton County, the adventure often begins in historic Porterdale. Though paddlers are welcome to venture out into the water on their own, everyone from first-timers to seasoned veterans has a ready, local resource available to them in Nomadic Flow Outfitters. According to owner Ryan Roth, the store rents and sells all the equipment, gear and accessories necessary for a fun and safe float on the river. Guided tours and transportation upstream to an access or put-in point is also offered. The 31-year-old Roth, who also holds down a job as a firefighter, has been paddling on the Yellow River since he was a kid. He paid particular attention to what he called “the most popular section” of the river, located between the Mount Tabor access point and Porterdale Yellow River Park. 

“There are only three bridge crossings in seven miles,” he said. “You’re isolated. You’re just out there in the wilderness enjoying a beautiful, peaceful, tranquil float trip down the Yellow River.” 

Total travel time back to the park, depending on river levels and personal preference, ranges from one to four hours. Some paddlers choose to be dropped off at a put-in point like Mount Tabor and then paddle and float downriver to a take-out point like the park. For others, the park serves as a home base from which they can paddle to the dam nearby. When not in the water, visitors can enjoy the park itself. Amenities include picnic tables, grills, a frisbee disc golf course, a large grassy area perfect for playing catch and walking and nature trails—all at the river’s edge. 

It is not all about fun and games, however. Griffith and the Yellow River Water Trail, Inc., work to coordinate efforts by a small army of volunteers to keep the river clean and flowing freely. That involves regularly scheduled trash pickups and fostering a pack-it-in-pack-it-out mentality among river travelers. However, with plastic water bottles and sports balls being the largest contaminants, it is not those using the river who are causing the problem, for the most part, according to Griffith. 

“It’s not people riding down in boats throwing out their soccer balls,” she said with a smile and just a hint of sarcasm. “It comes from the streets. Anything that gets left on the street ends up in the sewer system [and] ends up in a river.”

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YRWTI also participates with Adopt-A-River to run monthly water tests at strategic points on the river to ensure it remains clean and healthy. The Yellow River Trash Bash, held annually in September, remains one of the organization’s largest organized efforts to remove trash. Thanks to the YRWTI, the Georgia River Network recognizes the Yellow River as an official water trail, one of 17 in the state at present. That means there will be publicly accessible access points along the river where paddlers can legally load and unload boats and park vehicles. Educational and informational kiosks are also required at each access point. To further expand that effort, the YRWTI will holds its Fifth Annual Yellow River Jam “Boats-Bands-Brews” on Saturday, Oct. 26, from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., at the Porter Memorial Gymnasium in Porterdale. Proceeds from the event, which is open to the public, will go toward developing other access points along the river in Newton County. The YRWIT at 2 p.m. will partner with the Georgia Conservancy for a paddle from Mount Tabor to the park, followed by the Jam at the gym. 

Roth, who has led and been a part of kayaking expeditions around the world, still enjoys his time on the Yellow River, where it all started for him: “It’s an awesome way to escape without ever leaving the city.” 

Click here to read more stories by David Roten.

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