In the last three years, some 10,000 people have seen a new side of town. Thanks to Big Dog’s on the River, they’ve kayaked down the Middle Oconee, enjoying the water source that’s been vital to Athens since the city was founded.
For years, Terry Stephens had owned Big Dog’s Tires & Service and storage, an Atlanta Highway business with property that includes river frontage. One day in 2010 his son, T.J., Jr., was out back looking at the river when some students floated by on an air mattress.
“He told me we needed to get into kayaking,” said Stephens. “No one was doing it.”
So the Stephens family did. They bought kayaks and life preservers, fixed up a cabana at the back of the property in what were storage unit and made a walkway to the water. They had been in the limousine service, so they bought a used bus to transport kayakers and their equipment to the starting point.
Today, thanks to a family effort, the cabana has a tropical feel, and an expansion—with bathrooms—is in the works. There's a band stand, lights, seats and places to rinse off, picnic and relax.
Along the way, Stephens has become a tireless advocate for clearn rivers--as both a drinking water and a recreational resource. He has participated in cleanups of the Middle Oconee organized by the Rivers Alive, recounting how people pulled more than 100 tires out of the water. Which was okay, since he sells tires and could easily dispose of them.
The stretch of water from Vaughn Road to Big Dog’s is now “pristine,” Stephens says. His focus has turned to cleaning the section of river between Big Dog’s and the Macon Highway. It’s littered with old tires, ones with 2-inch whitewalls, and even a steel I-beam.
"It's incredible to me, the stuff we've hauled out of there," he says.
Stephens is also involved in the Upper Oconee Watershed Network and in advocating for a Blue Trail on the North Oconee with the Georgia River Network. On Friday, Kevin Kirsche of the UGA Office of Sustainability is bringing students out to Big Dog’s to pick up trash along the water.
"The river is just beautiful," Stephens says. "Until you're out there on the water, you have no idea how beautiful it is."