By David Davis

The Chattahoochee is a river badly in need of a Labrador Retriever, sometimes referred to as “the patron saint of tennis balls.”

When I signed up to participate in the annual Chattahoochee River clean-up Saturday (Sept. 29), I expected to find the usual Styrofoam, plastic bottles and cups, shoes, flip flops and other trash. I didn’t expect all the balls: baseballs, footballs, basketballs, soccer balls and everywhere, tennis balls – tennis balls galore. Indeed, so many tennis balls, we lost count after scooping up hundreds between Morgan Falls and Johnson’s Ferry. There must have been thousands in total picked up by all the volunteers.

Clean-up Day (Sept. 29) was a beautiful day to be on the river. Just being there brought back great memories.

The first time I floated the river was in 1967. My good friend and gymnastics teammate from North Springs High School, Bill Hayn and I camped below the dam. In the morning, someone had this bright idea to cobble together from assorted debris a raft of sorts and float down river to Bill’s neighborhood in the Riverside community.

Our euphoria as we pushed from shore and stood on the deck of our raft ended rather abruptly as a half mile down stream our unwieldy vessel drifted toward the shore and under the trunk of a fallen tree dunking us both in the cold Chattahoochee. But despite that inauspicious baptism, we were hooked on the Hooch and continued to float the river at every opportunity throughout high school and college in our homemade rafts and inner tubes.

During the summers, we ruled the river, camped on its shores, fished from its banks and did gymnastics flips off the tree that once towered over the infamous diving rock below Powers Ferry.

So over 40 years later, Bill and I returned to Morgan Falls once again to float the river and pick up some trash. No makeshift rafts for us, this time we had a kayak and a canoe. My 11-year-old daughter Mae cautiously agreed to accompany us if I absolutely, positively promised we wouldn’t tip over. An enthusiastic Girl Scout and budding environmentalist, Mae ensured no trash (“Daddy, you missed a bottle”) was left behind and together the three of us filled five large trash bags in a few hours.

Georgia Power organized the start point at Morgan Falls and provided great support including breakfast and lunch. Linda Bain of the Sandy Springs Conservancy was on hand to enthusiastically encourage volunteers. City Councilwoman Karen Meinzen McEnerny, who has a well deserved reputation as a conservationist, shared Linda’s enthusiasm.

City Council District One Candidate Mark Thomas, recognizing the importance of the Chattahoochee to his home district, kicked off his campaign by showing up with gloves ready to work. The Boy Scouts were there in force and true to their motto, were prepared, and so were the Georgia Tech Canoe and Kayak Club and an honor sorority and fraternity. And like us, there were many others, unaffiliated with any group, but there because of their affection for the Chattahoochee and because they wanted to do something to restore its sparkle.

Restoring the sparkle brings me back full circle to the tennis balls. Those thousands of tennis balls floating in the river likely went missing from tennis courts and backyards all around Sandy Springs or far upriver. Washed into storm drains or streams, they inevitably end up in the river.

Tennis balls are a perfect metaphor for what is happening to the Hooch today. Those ubiquitous bobbing balls represent all the trash and waste that land on our streets, every chemical spread on a lawn, every drop of oil, every pollutant that spills on the land, every piece of Styrofoam, every “disposable” plastic bottle and yes, every lost tennis ball that inevitably ends up fouling our chief source of drinking water and recreation, the Chattahoochee.

In Sandy Springs, we are blessed to have fully 22 miles of Chattahoochee river bank running along our boundary. It should be one of our city’s most precious natural resources. There are ambitious plans for wonderful new parks providing greater access to the river. Hopefully those parks will foster greater affection and respect for the Chattahoochee.

Next year, the Sandy Springs Conservancy will help sponsor another river clean up day. My daughter Mae, Bill and I will be back. We’ll know we and the Sandy Springs Conservancy are making a difference if next year we see a lot more volunteers and less tennis balls.

David Davis is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel who lives in Sandy Springs with his wife, Donna and daughter Mae.