In 1970, the year James Dickey wrote the novel, "Deliverance," the Chattooga River was still so wild and remote only a few hundred people got close enough to wet their feet.
Three years later, after Burt Reynolds had starred in the movie version of the book about death and whitewater adventure on the river, 21,000 thrill seekers took the Chattooga plunge in canoes, kayaks and rubber rafts.
Most of them had a wonderful time. More than a few had to be carried out in body bags.
"We call it the 'Deliverance Syndrome,' " said Cliff Kinney, a rail-thin 30-year-old who grew up beside the Chattooga and now makes his living on it as a river guide. "Every macho guy within 500 miles came here to try to beat this river. One thing you never do is beat this river."
On the eighth, almost annual, great canoe meltdown, there was no presumption about beating the Chattooga. In fact, half the people who had flown into Atlanta from California, Texas, Pennsylvania and places between for this traditional foray weren't sure what river they were going to canoe on until the first night's campfire. By then it was too late to turn back.
"This river doesn't care whether you are on it, on top of it or under it," said Kinney, pausing in the flicker of flames for dramatic effect. "You just do what I tell you, go where I go, and hope for the best."
In years past, our paddling crew had learned to respect rivers. On the Guadalupe River in Texas one year, a fellow just a few hundred yards ahead of us drowned. On the Trinity River in California, it seemed for a few waterlogged hours as if one of us surely would.
We needed no one to tell us about the power of fast-moving water, particularly not about the Chattooga's. All of us had seen the movie. A few had read a recent National Geographic story that called the Chattooga, "The River of Nightmare," and stated, "There are hundreds of chances to turn a canoe into tinfoil on this river, and at least that many ways to die."
From its beginnings in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, the river rushes over ledges and falls and drops through high-walled gorges at a rate of 50 feet per mile. For most of its 50 miles, until it empties into Lake Tugaloo, the river serves as the state line between Georgia and South Carolina.
From dry land, the river looks postcard pretty, set with huge boulders and lined with mountain laurel, dogwood and rhododendron. From a canoe, rushing into rapids with names such as "Screaming Left Turn," "Bull Sluice" and "Roller Coaster," it becomes both exhilarating and fearsome.
Although at least a few people die on the river every year, the publicity has not slowed the rush of those who want to try it. The National Forest Service, which has had jurisdiction over the river since it was officially declared wild and scenic in 1974, estimates 50,000 will float some part of the Chattooga this year.
"I think every time a tragedy occurs, it just makes the river more challenging," said a forest ranger about 15 drownings ago.
Dickey, the poet, outdoorsman and novelist, agonized for years after the movie about what his share of responsibility was for the drownings. He once told a writer for Esquire, "It makes me feel like hell . . . I do regret it, but there's nothing I can do about it if people want to go into a situation that they are unprepared to handle."
"Deliverance" did more than put people on a dangerous river. It created a million-dollar whitewater rafting industry on both sides of the Chattooga, pushed local land values up from $150 an acre to $5,000 for choice spots and caused some emotional backlash.
In the book, four Atlanta business executives make a two-day canoe trip down the fictitious Cahulawassee River. Before the weekend is over, one of the men has been killed and another subjected to homosexual rape by inbred mountain men. It was not exactly flattering to the local residents.
"If they were not river people, they hated it with a purple passion," said Kinney, who grew up riding the Chattooga with friends in inner tubes before most of the river's rapids had names. It was just as dangerous then, said Kinney; there just wasn't as much publicity when someone drowned.
"I've swum every rapid on this river, every way possible," he told us by way of encouragement after we had taken some unscheduled swims.
The only time he seemed agitated beyond concern was just before we paddled into a rapid called Woodall Shoals. "Do not go to the left," he warned us a half-dozen times. "If you do, you drown. It's as simple as that."
After doing what we were told, more or less, we dragged the canoes and our bodies out of the water, looked back from whence we had come and decided that next year we would find a nice, slow-moving river for a float-fishing trip.