Back to the Ocmulgee

Back to the Ocmulgee
Words by Grace Cope

After graduating law school and spending years working at a computer science company, Kathleen O’Neal decided to ditch her 9-5 job to pursue a long-time passion––starting a business around kayaking the Ocmulgee River, which runs through Macon, Georgia

The Ocmulgee River, perfect for nature lovers, beginners, and thrill-seekers alike, is a beloved part of the city. Kathleen, an outdoor adventurer who grew up in Macon, holds the river close to her heart. “My father got me interested in white water rafting when I was in high school. I was also very involved with the canoe team while I was in college, and I loved going hiking, caving—all that kind of stuff,” said Kathleen. “I have to be outside every day. I really do.”

Before Kathleen opened up her business, Ocmulgee Outdoor Expeditions, there was actually a business already in place surrounding the river. Started by two brothers as a side-gig, their company helped locals and tourists enjoy the Ocmulgee River for around three years before closing. The job became too demanding to handle in addition to their full-time jobs and families. This is when Kathleen saw her chance.

With the help of the two brothers, Kathleen opened Ocmulgee Outdoor Expeditions full-time, dedicating her life to helping people explore the natural beauty and fun that Macon has to offer.

For many people, their trip on the Ocmulgee River is their first time kayaking or canoeing, and it can be a very intimidating and challenging activity. Kathleen comes from a long line of teachers, and she understands how important it is for these beginners to feel safe. “This river is really wonderful for beginner paddlers,” said Kathleen. “I know how scary it is to want to do something, but you don’t know how to get started,” she said. “It’s a new thing, so I make it easy for everyone. I provide the paddles, life jackets, helmets, and high quality boats. I spend a lot of time with people so that they understand what is going on.”

Despite any initial challenges beginners may face, the beauty of Macon’s forests and lush greenery makes it worth it. “You get on that river, and there is the Oconee National Forest on one side and private land on the other,” Kathleen said. “You can put your paddle down, and you don’t hear anything human—it’s just birds, and the river, the insects. You’re like, Okay, this is what it must have been like 400 years ago. It’s exquisite.”

For those who may not have been properly introduced to the outdoors before, or for those who have never made a connection to nature, Kathleen wants the Ocmulgee River to serve as that connection. “My goal is to have people invested in the river so that they say, ‘That’s important to me.’ It’s not just a body of water they cross when they go over the Spring Street bridge. Now they have personal history with that river,” said Kathleen passionately. “They’ve seen how beautiful it is. They have seen the ospreys that can be found along the Ocmulgee, or they’ve seen the bald eagle that hangs out a few miles north, or the great white herons. They see that this is a living organism.”

The people of Macon advocate for the Ocmulgee River with love and passion. Macon’s charm, along with its immense natural beauty, is what makes the community so special. “Macon is a beautiful town. It has a vibrant downtown, which is wonderful. It has a lot of forward-thinking people and organizations,” said Kathleen. “There’s just a lot to offer. Between how many opportunities the Ocmulgee River presents and everything Macon has going for it—yeah, it’s a good place to be.”

From Macon’s lively downtown to the peace of its outdoor spaces, the town has endless activities for everyone. You can’t help but become enveloped in the community, especially after kayaking the one and only Ocmulgee River.

As a local business owner, Kathleen has one main goal: teaching people the importance of the Ocmulgee River by encouraging people to find just as much passion for the outdoors as she has.