HomeArts & LitCelebrating a Wild and Scenic Georgia River

Celebrating a Wild and Scenic Georgia River

How “Deliverance” helped start the first Chattooga River Festival.
by Rebecca Lynn Aulph

If you find yourself canoeing down the Chattooga River June 22-24, and you happen to hear banjo music, don’t start paddling in the opposite direction. Instead, head toward the first annual Chattooga River Festival. Join a dueling banjos competition and other festivities centered on this year’s festival theme, the 40th anniversary of the release of the movie, “Deliverance.”

Filmed along the Chattooga River in the early 1970s and based on the novel by Atlanta-born James Dickey, “Deliverance” captures four Atlanta businessmen as they canoe down a river in the North Georgia wilderness. The movie opens with a banjo duel between one of the men and a local boy, depicted as abnormal and inbred, who refuses to shake hands with the city man. This, of course, foreshadows trouble to come.

During the canoe trip, hillbillies emerge from the woods and try to kill the men, one of whom gets sodomized and not all of whom survive. While the festival aims to kick off on a much lighter note, the controversy over the movie’s subject matter and its stereotypes – and the fact that many locals are still upset about the movie four decades later – isn’t lost on its founders.

Asked if the festival ever hesitated to celebrate the film, Executive Director Ken Sloan sets the story straight. “We are not celebrating the movie,” he says. “Our focus is on the river and environmental conservation. The theme of ‘Deliverance’ is a great way to kick off what we hope will be an annual event with annual themes.”

The idea for the festival actually started with a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Chattooga River’s “wild and scenic” designation by Congress, but when someone pointed out that it was still two years away, the “Deliverance” anniversary arose to save the day. “If there had not been a 40th anniversary of the movie, the Chattooga River Festival would not exist,” Sloan adds.

Still, if there had never been a movie, less need would exist for a conservation message. According to one of the festival’s event planners, Sarah Gillespie, “After the movie was released, usage of the river skyrocketed from less than 1,000 to over 20,000 between 1971 and 1974,” she says. “Regretfully, many of those new visitors had no awareness of safe boating practices and at least 19 drowned over the same four-year period. This became known as ‘Deliverance Syndrome.’”

The movie’s main filming location was Tallulah Gorge State Park in Tallulah Falls. Known for its 1,000-foot gorge , rapids and suspension bridge, the park offers hiking trails to several scenic overlooks, a mountain bike trail, swimming and fishing. One hundred visitors per day are allowed a permit to hike the gorge floor, except during water release, when the park becomes the only spot for whitewater kayaking.

Congress began a preservation study of the Chattooga River before “Deliverance”‘s debut, so publicity from the film only expedited a conservation decision. It took Congress a decade to give the river “wild and scenic” designation. (It took much longer – 26 years – for the Library of Congress to choose “Deliverance” for preservation in the National Film Registry, which names up to 25 “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films” each year.)

To reinforce the film’s symbiotic relationship with the Chattooga River, Warner Bros. will premiere its anniversary edition of the movie at the festival, and one of the original cast members, Ronny Cox, will be in attendance. Cox will also be promoting his book, “Dueling Banjos: the Deliverance of Drew,” and performing with his folk/bluegrass band on Friday night.

“These mutually beneficial relationships, with an actor from the movie and the company that filmed it, have helped all involved gain the publicity they need, while helping to get the festival off the ground in its first year,” Gillespie explains. Big names like Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds aside, many locals played a large part in the film’s production. Some even appeared on camera and will appear at the festival too, such as Billy Redden, the banjo dueling boy from the film’s opening scene. (A Dueling Banjo competition on Saturday will pay homage to his role.)

“This year, the only events that really deal with the movie are the Ronny Cox events and showing the movie in Rabun,” Sloan says. “Other than that, the events will have a local, cultural flavor with bluegrass music, local crafts and arts, plus river and forest conservation education. In the end, we want to develop a festival that will become recognized as a local cultural destination that you will not want to miss and will put on your calendar every summer.”

In addition to the movie being shown at a special premiere June 23 at the Rabun Civic Center and June 24 at the Tiger Drive-In, other scheduled activities include an art exhibit of works with the themes of deliverance, redemption and salvation at Timpson Creek Gallery on opening night, guided whitewater rafting and nature hikes, music on two stages Saturday, a storytelling session with locals who participated in the filming and more. See the full schedule here.

Activities take place in both Clayton, Georgia and Long Creek, South Carolina. Ten percent of  festival proceeds will be donated to one or more of the festival’s environmental partners. Primitive camping is available at Chattooga Belle Farm for $10 per tent. Call 864-647-9768 to reserve a spot.

Can’t make it to the festival but want to re-watch the movie at home? Warner Bros.’s anniversary edition comes out June 26 and is said to include commentary by Director John Boorman, a retrospective from cast members, four-part behind the scenes documentary and more special features. In addition, the Tiger Drive-In in Tiger, Georgia, will be showing the film June 24-30. To experience the Chattooga River yourself, visit Tallulah Gorge State Park or contact Wildwater Ltd. about rafting, kayaking and canopy tours.

Photo credits, from top: Painting of Tallulah Gorge by Libby Matthews, original cover for “Deliverance” from IMDB, Tallulah Gorge whitewater release from gastateparks.org, suspension bridge by Deep South, Ronny Cox by Dick Lantry and festival poster courtesy of Chattooga River Festival.

Rebecca Lynn Aulph is a Deep South intern who fell in love with her adopted hometown of Decatur, Georgia, upon moving there after graduating from Kalamazoo College in Michigan. Find out more about her in our Contributors section

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