Rediscovering the Chattahoochee: Former riverkeeper Sally Bethea looks back in a new memoir

“Awe is not just in the Grand Canyons of the world; it’s in the small, amazing things and learning about them," she says

Sally Bethea
Sally Bethea

Photograph by Brad Wrisley

Sally Bethea is still getting to know the river she’s devoted much of her life to. Hired as founding director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper in 1994, she spent 20 years protecting and restoring the neglected waterway. But “being a mom and running a small business, which a nonprofit is, you rush from one thing to another,” she says. “You’re getting big stuff done and moving on.” In her new memoir, Keeping the Chattahoochee, she writes that retirement has provided “a chance to finally slow down and more closely examine the world around me.”

Inspired by The Forest Unseen—in which biologist David George Haskell visits a patch of forest almost daily for a year—Bethea chose a space of her own to frequent: a trail in the East Palisades unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. “It took repetitiveness, through the seasons, to grasp things that made me go ‘Wow, I haven’t seen it like that before’—the colors, the reflections on the water, a particular flower,” she says. “Awe is not just in the Grand Canyons of the world; it’s in the small, amazing things and learning about them. Who knew there were 22,000 kinds of moss?”

Here’s where Bethea found awe along the river—and where you might search for your own:

East Palisades
River otters, known for their playfulness, are often seen “frolicking in the water, sliding, diving, and enjoying a crayfish meal,” Bethea writes. For a sighting, try the rocks and shoals along the Whitewater Creek trail, where “you can often see families of otters feeding on crayfish right after sunrise,” Bethea says. Or check out “the banks of the same unit, accessed by the Indian Trail parking area on the ridge. Go early in the morning or in the evening when there are fewer people and the critters are out and about.”

Upper Chattahoochee River Water Trail
“There are places you can find remoteness above Lake Lanier, where the river is free-flowing,” Bethea says, describing one such place in her book as “a green cathedral with dappled light entering from high windows: the few open spaces in the tree canopy.” Bethea suggests renting a kayak, canoe, or raft from Cleveland’s Wildwood Outfitters. “But get information before you go,” she warns. “Depending on water levels, it can have class II and III rapids. I have flipped at one place—twice.”

McIntosh Reserve
Long off-limits due to pollution, this park, an hour’s drive from downtown, has “turned around,” Bethea says. “You can paddle along”—rent a canoe or kayak from local outfitters—“and the birds seem like they’re leading you downstream: an osprey, an eagle, a kingfisher. It’s almost like it’s a secret.” It was here, she writes, that a fisherman Bethea was with caught a bass and, before he released it, opened its mouth and told her to feel the sandpaper-like tooth patch on the back of its tongue, which is used to grip prey. “It was a powerful connection with nature,” she says. “Sometimes to experience awe, you have to take well-considered risks.”

This article appears in our July 2023 issue.