Matthew Thornton has been paddling since he was 6 years old. He did his first solo kayak float at age 8.
More than 30 years later, he’s still on the water, although these days you’re more likely to find him doing some “whitewater SUPing”— that is, running rapids on a stand-up paddleboard.
And his go-to place for it all? The Coosa River.
“I was pretty much born in it,” the Titus native said of the river just a short hop from his native stomping grounds. “It just feels like home.”
It’s also convenient that where Thornton lives — near Lake Jordan and Jordan Dam — is one of the best places in the region to catch some serious whitewater.
For years, Thornton has helped spread his love for paddling and whitewater as a member, and now president, of the Coosa River Paddling Club. The club hosts the annual Coosa River Whitewater Festival, which takes place on the Coosa between Wetumpka and Jordan Dam. On weekends during warm weather months, Alabama Power releases water from the dam for recreational purposes, creating the conditions that fuel paddlers of all stripes and abilities, as well as the annual festival.
Typically, the Coosa River Whitewater Festival runs for three days in June. This year, however, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a pause.
After careful consideration and consultation with its members, the paddling club is moving forward with a more low-key, two-day competition this weekend.
“This is one of the oldest paddling competitions in the South. And it may be one of the few that take place this year,” Thornton said.
The event July 18-19 will include extra precautions so people adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Giant crowds that would be an issue this year because of the pandemic have never been a problem at previous festivals, since attendees must paddle out to where the competition takes place. The shorter notice about this year’s festival is likely to reduce the number of paddlers and keep it more of a local event.
“We’re going to be doing everything we can, to the best of our ability” to maintain safe distancing, said Thornton, who is thrilled the club will be able to keep the long-running event alive in 2020. The first festival took place in 1985.
Proceeds from the festival typically go to local conservation efforts, including park improvements and nonprofits working to protect the environment and enhance outdoor recreation.
“Alabama Power has been very supportive and cooperative. They’ve really helped to keep it going over these many years,” Thornton said.
In addition to the summertime recreational flows on weekends, throughout the year Alabama Power maintains a minimum flow of water through Jordan Dam to support the health of the Coosa and wildlife that rely on the river.
One of the most important beneficiaries of the minimum flow has been the rare tulotoma snail, which was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1991. The damming of the Coosa, beginning nearly a century ago, helped electrify the region and improve the economy and quality of life in local communities. But it also was among the factors that contributed to the decline of the snail’s population. Over the past 20 years, however, efforts by Alabama Power and multiple government and community partners have resulted in a comeback for the snail. In 2011, it became the first North American mollusk species to be moved or “downlisted” from the endangered species list to the less-serious threatened list. Efforts continue to help the snail further recover.
The weekend recreational flows typically begin in mid-June and continue through the end of October, depending on the availability of water. Recreational flows also are provided on the Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day holidays. Alabama Power varies the recreational flows in a three-weekend rotation. The three levels of flow provide a gentler experience for novice paddlers on some weekends, while higher flows on other weekends draw more-seasoned whitewater enthusiasts. Information about scheduled releases is posted three days ahead on the Lake Jordan page on Alabama Power’s reservoir information website, www.apcshorelines.com, and on Alabama Power’s Smart Lakes app.
Chris Carter, owner of local outfitter Coosa River Adventures, is another great source of information about this stretch of the Coosa River and the best ways to enjoy it. He started his boat rental business 25 years ago with six canoes and a trailer. Today, he has 200 single-person and 50 two-person kayaks, and the demand is there to grow more.
It’s not only paddlers who are hitting the local waters in kayaks, he said. Anglers are increasingly inclined to drop a line from a kayak and avoid the big bass boats that ply surrounding lakes. He said the section of the Coosa below Jordan Dam offers some of the best spotted bass fishing around, an assertion affirmed by others who a few years ago proclaimed the Coosa as the only river (vs. a lake setting) worthy as a national top 10 fishing locale.
Carter said heavy rains this spring, more than COVID-19, dampened business for a time. But this summer, with outdoor recreation one of the best ways to exercise and stay safely apart, business is not suffering. “We are pretty much maxed out on the weekends,” he said.
Carter said the scheduled flows from Jordan Dam provide an advantage for those who want more predictable conditions for paddling and river pastimes. And with the Coosa being a warm-water river, that, too, can be more appealing for some people and families, compared to tackling cold-water rapids.
“I’m a lover of the river,” Carter said. “I love the fact that I get to look out my backyard and see the last fall line on the Coosa River.”
For more information about this year’s Coosa River Whitewater Festival, Thornton recommends sending a message from the festival’s Facebook page. Festival organizers will respond.