Courtesy Georgia River Network

Water is magical. It’s not only a liquid that sustains all life, although that should certainly be far more than enough; the molecules of oxygen and hydrogen also inspire, energize, and soothe.

There’s a scientific reason why we love flowing, plunging, and spraying water—why being around moving water can improve our moods. It’s called negative ions. Molecules that have gained or lost an electrical charge are created in nature when air molecules break apart due to a variety of influences from sunlight to moving water.

The action of falling water and crashing waves (or even a bathroom shower) creates negative ions that bond with air particles. When we breathe in this charged air, the negative ions enter our bloodstream. They produce biochemical reactions that can relieve stress, boost energy, and reduce depression. By increasing the flow of oxygen to the brain, the negative ions can also enhance alertness.

As the Chattahoochee’s riverkeeper for more than twenty years, I benefited regularly from the stimulating negative ions at memorable waterfalls (Horse Trough, Hilly Mill, and Vickery Creek Falls) and shoals (Buck, Smith Island, Bush Head, and Daniel Shoals) in the watershed. In these places, I always felt fully alive, immersed in the moment. Blissful, yet energetic. 

The paddling life

I am not an expert kayaker, but I really love to be on, or near, flowing water. Usually, I can manage rapids of medium difficulty (Class II), unless my attention wanders to something interesting nearby and I collide with a rock. Rhythmically dipping my paddle into the water—left, right, and repeat—is a powerful and also relaxing movement. 

Paddling my kayak—just a few inches above the water’s surface—I am mesmerized by river currents, swirling eddies, and underwater rocks, logs, and aquatic plants. Agile dragonflies speed toward my boat, then turn away suddenly using their powerful, transparent wings. Kingfishers dart about, hunting for fish; I pretend that these small birds with their large heads and long bills are leading me downstream. Smells are suggestive of fish, small animals, flower blooms, muddy riverbanks, and decaying plants, when I take deep breaths of the cool, moist air.

In retirement, I have hiked far more miles than I have kayaked; however, these walks have regularly included water features: rocky streams plunging down steep slopes, lakes, canals, and ocean shorelines. We are drawn to water—the precious liquid that constitutes sixty percent of our bodies. 

This past spring, I joined friends to paddle on two iconic Georgia rivers: the Flint and the Etowah. On Mother’s Day, the nonprofit Flint Riverkeeper offered a six-mile trip through Yellow Jacket Shoals in Upson County to see the emerging blooms of the spectacular shoals spider-lilies. (We did not run the most difficult line through the challenging, Class III shoals; in fact, I dragged my boat around and over a few rocks.) The adventure was every bit as wonderful, as I had anticipated. Spanish moss, eel grass, clear water, shoal bass, forested riverbanks, and no trash! The Flint’s riverkeeper, Gordon Rogers, does a great job of protecting his river. 

A week later, I paddled nine miles on the Etowah River with a small group organized by my friend Alan Cressler—a federal scientist, intrepid adventurer, and outstanding photographer. Other participants were naturalists, birders, and hydrologists. The river was higher than usual on the beautiful, late spring day, so we had few shoals to navigate. Again, and as always, I finished the trip feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. I drove back to the city, thinking about my next kayaking and snorkeling adventure on the Conasauga River in late summer with Georgia River Network. 

New river guide app

Founded in 1998, Georgia River Network (GRN) works to empower everyone to enjoy, connect with, and advocate for clean, flowing rivers. The nonprofit offers day and multi-day paddle trips (including the annual Paddle Georgia event), water safety classes, a river user guidebook series, and advocacy action alerts. GRN has also supported local efforts to create water trails statewide for public access and enjoyment.

Recently, GRN released a free Georgia River Guide mobile app—a new tool to help people experience our state’s more than thirty water trails, totaling 2,500 miles of accessible waterways. It’s amazing! For each water trail, you can find outfitters, river access points, mileage, waterfalls, and other points of interest. Importantly, safety information is included, such as river difficulty, potential hazards, and rapids. Know before you go! 

In the works for many years prior to its release, the River Guide app was curated by river experts, water trail groups, riverkeepers, government agencies, and various publications. Teams of interns from the University of Georgia and other institutions supported the research.

 I downloaded the app—available in Apple and Google Play stores—and found it very easy to use, even for an oldster like myself. One of my favorite features is the gauge data, which provides a river flow range for recreation expressed in cubic feet per second (cfs), and a link to the gauge on the water trail with real-time data. It is not fun, or safe, to paddle a river that is extremely low or high. 

Paddling takes a mix of knowledge and skills and a bit (but not too much) of daring. GRN has helped thousands of people learn how to feel comfortable and safe on the water; their new app is making it even easier to plan your own trips. As Kenneth Grahame wrote long ago in The Wind and the Willows, “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”  

For more information, visit

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.