Arabia Alliance Supports Historic “Atlanta To The Atlantic” Journey

Two artists Rachel Parish and Sarah Cameron Sunde will paddle 450 miles from Georgia’s capital to the Atlantic Ocean to raise water awareness and create art installations for the South River.

At around noon on May 15, two environmental artists put their kayaks in the shallow waters of the South River by Browns Mill Golf Course in South Atlanta. With a small crowd of supporters watching through the drizzling rain, the two artists arduously pushed themselves over rocks and tires, slowly beginning a 450-mile expedition that only a few others have ever completed. Rachel Parson of Atlanta and Sarah Cameron Sunde of New York City have planned a five-week trip paddling from Georgia’s capital and largest city to the Atlantic Ocean. If successful, they will become the first recorded women team to make the journey.

“We’re not professional athletes or kayak enthusiasts,” laughed Rachel Parish. Having grown up in Georgia, Parish only became aware of the environmentally neglected South River in recent years. “We thought, let’s do a deep listening process of learning from how the water can guide us and get us lost, how it can navigate rocky terrain, how it can clean itself, and how the different communities that live along it find a way to live together and thrive together. And if we’re going to do that, let’s listen all the way from source to sea.”

Sunde (left) and Parish (right) address about 30 supporters at the Browns Mill Golf Course shortly before putting in at the South River.

The Artists’ Journey

In the background of Parish and Sunde’s long journey’s beginning, men in polos putted on the green and zoomed around in carts, the South River all but a forgotten landmark hidden behind a bank dense with trees. After placing their kayaks in along the 8th hole, the artistic pair began paddling away with little ceremony. “Sorry this isn’t more climatic,” joked Sunde to the onlookers on the bank above.

Their trip is the first step in a two-part ecological art project called “Atlanta to the Atlantic.” This Avant-garde idea evolved out of a partnership between the South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA), a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and protecting the South River, and the Atlanta-based public arts generator Flux Projects. The two organizations had a mutual desire to collaborate on a project about water in Atlanta, a city that’s had a complicated and sometimes careless relationship with its water supply. 

SRWA and Flux Projects tapped Parish and Sunde for their impressive oeuvre that centers on water, nature, impermanence, community design, and interdisciplinary and performance art. “As a whole, I shifted my practice toward the water in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City,” said Sunde. “I live in New York, and that was a very big wakeup call for me in terms of understanding how vulnerable we are as a people and as a city. Our cities are just as vulnerable as our individual bodies.”

Sunde shows off a waterproof quilt created by one of the Atlanta neighborhoods where she and Parish will place art installations.

The pair’s Southern Odyssey will serve as a kind of embodied research journey, documenting the trip along the way with videos, photographs, written observations, recorded sounds, oral histories, and even found objects. Some of this material will find its way into the second part of the “Atlanta to the Atlantic” project: creative, temporary art installations that Parish and Sunde will place in 3 Atlanta neighborhoods with South River tributaries: Arthur Langford, Jr. Park, Kirkwood Urban Forest, and Perkerson Park. 

“We want to bring people to the water and turn their attention to it even if they frequent these places,” said Parish. “So if we could focus people’s attention on the water that’s already in their neighborhoods and give them the opportunity to do passive recreation by engaging with these cool installations then that could raise awareness around the South River and its story.” 

Sunde nodded along, adding, “That’s part of the ethos of the work, that we’re dependent on community to help complete this.” Throughout the trip, Sunde and Parish will rely on a rotating set of experts and specialists with particular knowledge of the waterways. The project has also gathered a small cadre of dedicated co-sponsors and donors, including the Arabia Mountain Heritage Area Alliance. “We need a community to help us get through this instead of training and figuring everything out by ourselves. We’re going to put our bodies in the hands of the water and the people who are so generously offering their time, resources, and knowledge.”

Sunde and Parish had supporters write messages on their kayaks.

A River With History

Daylighting just north of the busiest airport in the world, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International, the South River slowly snakes its way from East Point through the Southeast’s largest metro area (more than six million and growing) before terminating at Jackson Lake 60 miles away. One of only two urban-origin rivers in the state, the South River and its watershed (approximately 544 square miles of creeks and streams) is a headwater of Georgia’s largest freshwater system, the Ocmulgee and Altamaha River basins, which flows to the Atlantic Ocean. 

The native Muscogee (or Creek) call the South River “Weelaunee,” meaning “green water” for the richness of surrounding forests. Today, most of those forests are gone, turned into sprawling developments and suburbs, and the waters of the Weelaunee have suffered decades of contamination from Atlanta’s combined sewer system and DeKalb’s unregulated sewage spills. 

Although water quality has improved greatly in recent years, thanks largely to SRWA, environmental threats to the river remain real, including copious amounts of trash and refuse washed downriver after rainstorms. In 2021, American Rivers ranked the South River as the fourth most endangered river in the nation. Flowing through predominantly diverse and lower-income communities, continued poor stewardship of the South River has become both a racial and environmental justice issue in the heart of Georgia.

“It’s these simple realizations about the environment that allow people to see what’s happening,” said Sunde. “So this very simple gesture of us getting in contact with the water in Atlanta and staying in contact with it all the way to the ocean, that’s a pretty profound thing for people to realize—that the water in their backyard connects to the ocean. If you put toxins in your backyard that affects everything downstream.”

Together, Parish and Sunde will spend five weeks traveling by kayak and camping on land, starting from the Weelaunee’s earliest navigable point and traveling on to stretches that include tire-and-trash shoals, fast-running rapids, and, later, swamplands populated with alligators and mists of mosquitos, all during the beginning of a sweltering Southern summer. The artistic duo plan to reach their endpoint, Sapelo Island, in late June. And they’re live streaming the entire expedition as well as recording their daily thoughts on Wave Farm Radio!

Sunde (left) and Parish (right) begin their journey on the Weelaunee just past the 8th hole at Browns Mill Golf Course.

Daunting Waters Ahead

On a drizzly Friday at a public golf course the journey of 450 miles began. Neither artist seemed daunted by the excursion ahead. Sunde has defined her career by inviting in the elements and making them part of her artistic process and work, such as her nine-year-long series “36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea,” which involves participants standing through coastal tidal cycles. And Parish is no stranger to a challenge either. She’s used her multidisciplinary skills to create new performance art in London, design creative placemaking programs in Atlanta, and even develop art-based compassion training with the NYPD’s Hostage Negotiation Team.

As for their “Atlanta to the Atlantic” art installations, which are scheduled to go up this fall, Parish and Sunde don’t know yet exactly what they’ll do. “We purposely haven’t solidified anything yet so we can see what emerges,” said Sunde. “I really like going into the unknown with my work. That’s what I do: I set up situations where I don’t quite know what’s going to happen.”

Only the water will tell.