November 11, 2015

Popularity Brings Environmental Problems at 'Redneck Beach'

Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones

There is a once-little-known place on the southside of town that has been gaining in popularity over the last few years. Let’s say, for lack of a better term, it’s been “trending.”

News feeds, blogs and Instagram accounts have been filling up with pictures and tales of a new local hotspot. I’m referring to a place that in recent years has been branded by a rather strange name. I’m talking about Redneck Beach—an “underground” oasis for impromptu bonfires and sunbathing. Throw a rope swing and a waterfall into the mix, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a Classic City summer.

Sound too good to be true? Unfortunately, it is. The days of tan lines and belly flops are over on Redneck Beach—and I’m not just referring to the changing of the seasons. Vandalism and a host of problems have begun to plague the once peaceful area on McNutt Creek, and now the landowners and local law enforcement are making some changes.

At some point, most adventure-seekers and outdoor lovers who call Athens home are drawn to its rivers and waterways. Beautiful as they are, most of the waters flowing through Clarke County are polluted, and McNutt Creek is no different. The health, or lack thereof, of the water that runs over the falls at Redneck Beach is largely due to the increased amounts of litter that adorn the waterways, beaches and nearby highways. From Macon Highway all the way down to the water’s edge lie the trashy remains of river-goers and their wastefulness: PBR cans, dog feces, abandoned coolers and empty suntan-lotion bottles.

This has not gone unnoticed by the Environmental Protection Agency or local biologists. Ania Truszczynski, the education specialist at the Athens-Clarke County Stormwater Division, has studied the effects of litter and wastes on our local wildlife and ecosystems.

Litter can have a negative effect on ecosystems and stream ecology,” she says. “Glass, aluminum cans and styrofoam can all harm ecosystems. Some types of litter, such as cigarette butts and lead-acid batteries, may leach pollutants directly into our waters. Other types of litter, such as plastic bags, can be eaten by animal species, causing harm or even leading to death. If the litter does not harm the animal through ingestion, some forms of litter, like plastic six-pack rings or fishing line, can lead to strangulation.”

Fortunately for our waterways, many local individuals, organizations and conservationists have taken it upon themselves to become stewards for the area and clean up after all the litterers, through volunteer river clean-ups, educating the public about the hazards facing our waters, putting out trash cans and signs intended to curb litter and waste and sometimes even literally taking out the trash.

One possible explanation for the recent escalation in traffic and litter at Redneck Beach could be a Red & Black article last fall that described not only how to get to the secluded area, but also beckoned students to “go for a swim or get your tan on. Bring your dog! If you don’t have a dog, bring your roommate. No roommate, no problem… grab a six-pack.” (It was also featured in the movie The Spectacular Now.) Consequently, the number of beach bums and beer bottles on the shores has skyrocketed.

Redneck Beach has also seen an increase in criminal activity. Within the last year, the Puritan Cordage Mill went up in flames, there was a horrific suicide, police had numerous calls to come and escort people from the grounds, new graffiti has been popping up every week, and the area has been so affected by trash and pollution that Keep Athens-Clarke County Beautiful and ACC Stormwater are targeting it for immediate attention.

Redneck Beach is actually private property on both sides of the water. McNutt Creek divides Clarke and Oconee County, and it doesn’t matter which side of the falls you’re on, you’re trespassing. Both the ACC Police Department and the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office are cracking down on trespassers. “The owner sent us a letter notifying us that only family of the owners were allowed on the premises,” and the sheriff’s department will be “escorting violators off of the grounds and ticketing if necessary,” says Capt. Jimmy Williams, chief of communications for the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office.

While battling flames at the Puritan Cordage Mill, ACC Fire Department Assistant Chief Kyle Hendrix says he came across a local man who spends his days and nights looking after the old mill and creek and is a prominent figure in the fight to protect its legacy. I tracked down this steward of the mill, and he agreed to show me around the grounds.

I met Dennis Hale as he stood outside the old mill off of Macon Highway. He is the kind of guy who can rattle off a bunch of good stories one after the other and never miss a beat—a true storyteller with the uncanny ability to effortlessly recall dates and stories from the past in great detail. Hale’s extensive catalog of memories and stories from the area come from having spent his entire life living next door to the mill, and now, 63 years later, he has been given authority by the owners of the mill, who live out of state, to serve as its gatekeeper and warden.

He told me a number of tales about the mill and adjacent creek bed. Some were insightful, and some were just downright scary. He recalled times he had to chase off homeless people from the ruins of the mill, an instance where someone was stabbed on the beach and, most recently, the night the mill caught fire. Many of his tales were historical or from a simpler time during the mill’s heyday.

Hale is no stranger to helping law enforcement run people off of the grounds, and he actually had to do so several times during our conversation. He has been busy posting signs and towing cars from the premises and will continue to do so until people stop coming.

The signs don’t lie. If it says “Do Not Enter,” “No Trespassing” or “Do Not Litter,” you might want to rethink whatever plans you had to spend a day at Redneck Beach. If you still have the inclination to go outside and dip your toes in the water, there are lots of public access points to rivers and creeks that are equally as beautiful—without the potential threat of being arrested. The North Oconee River Greenway and Ben Burton Park are both free and have lots of space for you to get away from it all and spend a day on the water. Just remember, you can still get your tan on, invite a roommate and bring your dog, but don’t bring the six pack—all public parks are alcohol-free. Your liver and the environment will thank you later. Hopefully, once all the people and trash have been removed from Redneck Beach, we can rename the area something more fitting, and it can go back to being one of the hidden gems of our city.