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Nov. 20, 2018
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New dock provides lake access for student scientists

By Jane Harrison
 
Little hands focused binoculars on an osprey tearing into a fish. They sunk secchi disks into a deep lake cove and injected indigo carmine into water samples to test for life-supporting oxygen. The citizen scientists explored a northern section of Lake Lanier and conducted experiments aboard a floating classroom launched from River Forks Park in Hall County.
 
The Chota Princess II, a 40 foot catamaran that’s carried more than 50,000 students for aquatic discoveries, recently moved to a specially-made dock at the Hall County park. Fourth graders from Myer’s Elementary School joined staff from Elachee Nature Science Center, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Hall County government, U.S Army Corps of Engineers, and dock builder Marine Specialties for the ribbon-cutting at the new dock Aug. 21.
 
Afterward, they strapped on life jackets, strode onto the shiny new dock and stepped into the Lake Lanier Aquatic Studies Program aboard the Chota Princess II.
 
The program has been a successful collaboration between Elachee and Chattahoochee Riverkeeper for 18 years. It serves K-12 schools throughout north Georgia, college and universities, church and civic organizations. Its operational costs are funded in part by charitable donations. Until last March, the floating classroom docked at Aqualand Marina on the busy south end of the lake.
 
When the opportunity came for a change, Riverkeeper, which owns the boat, sought a new location. With a go-ahead from Hall County Parks & Leisure and the Corps, work began on a new dock last December.
 
“The project priorities were that it had to be kid-friendly and kid-accessible with wheel-chair access,” said Marine Specialties Inc. owner Tom Child. The dock, which he said is larger than his usual project on Lake Lanier, “had to be as level as possible so every child can get on and off the boat safely.”

Project manager Kyle Davis said the design was tailored for the boat and the park. It features two 50 foot docks and a double door boathouse lit by sky lights. There is currently no electricity on-site.
 
Jason Ulseth, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, described River Forks Park as a perfect place to host the program. “It has everything we need,” he said, including nearby restrooms, a pavilion for onshore education, and easy access for schools around north Georgia. Plus, it offers more privacy than the former Aqualand site, where the marina bustled with expensive leisure boats and tourists.
 
“This move to River Forks Park adds Hall County Parks and Leisure Services to this educational endeavor and gives this important program an excellent home base,” said Andrea Timpone, Elachee CEO/President.  
 
She said the program connects children ­– many of whom have never been on a boat before – with the lake that provides water for much of Georgia. “Many of them, number one, didn’t know there was a lake here; number two, haven’t been on the lake; and number three, didn’t understand their drinking water comes from Lake Lanier.”
 
Departing from the dock after the ribbon-cutting, Chota Princess II captain Mike Tracy steered up the Chattahoochee River arm toward a quiet cove. En route, passengers spied two ospreys in a large pine, where one tore at a trophy striped bass. They viewed a great blue heron swoop down for a landing. Elachee Senior Naturalist Cindy Andrews led students in tests for dissolved oxygen while naturalist Callie Wheat and community relations manager Amy Bradford helped them evaluate lake turbidity, plankton content, and acidic levels.
 
Tracy, one of three Chota Princess II captains, praised the new dock site for its gateway to a quieter part of the lake, about halfway between Gainesville Marina and River Forks. He added that the nearby convergence of the Chattahoochee and Chestatee rivers may provide different water quality findings and wildlife viewings from the main body of the lake where students previously tested. He looked forward to finding a heron rookery near the marina and taking kids to see fledglings in the spring.

Teacher Ginny Barber deemed the experience “priceless” for the 19 gifted and high achieving kids in her class. “It puts them in touch with where their water comes from and how they can take care of it,” she said.
 
To learn more about the Lake Lanier Aquatic Learning Center at River Forks Park, visit www.chattahoochee.org. To schedule a LLALC program, contact Elachee at 770-535-1976, or visit www.elachee.org/school-programs or email elachee@elachee.org.

Posted online 8/31/18
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