Rockin’ on the River

Watercraft event draws hundreds from across nation to Geneva

The confluence of the Choctawhatchee and Pea rivers in Geneva attracts those who enjoy watersports and nature.

Water has always appealed to Trip Smith. He grew up along Big Creek in southern Houston County. He chose firefighting as a career, and his main hobby is kayaking.

Kayaking inspired Smith to take several trips across the Southeast, and it also led him on a journey he hadn’t anticipated. Smith is the chief organizer of RockaDock, a weeklong event that yearly attracts hundreds of kayakers and paddleboarders to Geneva’s Robert Fowler Memorial Park in early fall.

What started as a gathering of fewer than 100 folks a few years ago blossomed into an event that had about 300 participants this year. It receives full community support as businesses offer RockaDock attendees special discounts. The city also ensures the park is prepared for an onslaught of campers during the last weekend in September.

“For us, it was an easy choice,” says Shelby Danley, president of the Greater Geneva Area Chamber of Commerce. “We knew if we had all these people here, we saw it as an opportunity to boost the economy. RockaDock has given us a way to bring people in and help revitalize our town while they’re here.”

And it all started with Smith, a kayak, a camera, and some water.

The Big Trip

Smith began taking to area waterways in kayaks and canoes during his childhood, more than 20 years ago. On Jan. 15, 2015, he decided to film a three-day kayak trip that originated on the Choctawhatchee River in Dale County and ended in northwestern Florida.

Carter Splawn of Texas paddles his kayak down the Choctawhatchee River in Geneva during the RockaDock event.

Smith uploaded the video to a YouTube channel, then added videos of his other watercraft adventures. Powered by his bubbly personality, distinct Southern accent, and some skillful video work, he soon developed a major following that today numbers more than 65,000 subscribers. Many of those people expressed interest in joining Smith on the trips he took — too many for Smith to schedule during the course of a year.

The solution: create a watercraft event where everyone can meet Smith and take the same trips shown in his videos.

“I started planning and putting together an event that I would want to come to,” he says.

The first RockaDock occurred four years ago in Marianna, Florida, and the other three have been at Robert Fowler Memorial Park. Smith says the Geneva park offers several amenities perfect for conducting a large-scale event.

“It’s at the confluence of the Pea and Choctawhatchee rivers,” he says. “There’s some paddling there, but it’s also a good central location for a lot of the springs in the Florida Panhandle. The park is our hub. People come here, get a game plan going and come back here at the end of the day.”

The park features several spots with RV hookups, which fill up quickly. Attendees also camp in tents, and a community of hammock enthusiasts sleep in one of the tight groves of trees found inside the park.

While the watersports are the largest draw, Smith and his committee of trusted associates plan several different events to further build relationships at the campsite. In 2021, these included an ax-throwing competition, a potluck dinner, and a large breakfast.

“I’m just trying to grow the paddling community, whether that’s locally or people nursing paddling clubs wherever they’re from,” Smith says.

The approach works. Greg Martell, who lives near Fort Worth, Texas, comes every year. Other RockaDockers hail from such faraway places as Washington, Michigan, Illinois, and Pennsylvania.

“It’s the people,” Martell says. “You can walk up to anyone out here, and they’ll start talking to you like you’ve known them forever. You help each other.”

Growing Support

Since RockaDock started as a gathering between Smith and some friends, it flew under the radar of local business and city leaders. When the event drew about 200 paddlers in 2020, Danley made sure to mark her calendar for the 2021 event.

Benjamin Splawn, front, and Trip Smith, middle, carry a kayak up a boat ramp along the Choctawhatchee River.

“That’s what we love about this event, it’s so organic,” she says. “The first year, we didn’t know about it. The second year, we knew about it but didn’t have enough time to plan anything for it. The third year, we made sure we planned for it.”

The city of Geneva ensured the park was landscaped well and provided extra refuse bins for RockaDock 2021. City employees collected trash every day and saw to it that boating ramps were easily accessible.

Danley’s organization provided Rocka- Dockers with discount cards to local businesses, mainly restaurants. Through some funding that state Sen. Donnie Chesteen secured, the chamber also installed several portable showers to supplement the facilities already located at Robert Fowler Memorial Park.

“It’s a good way to let people know what we have here,” Danley says.

What Geneva has is a beautiful park, two major rivers, and warm, friendly people. Smith says people gave watermelons and boiled peanuts to RockaDock, and people even bought some items for the RockaDockers in local stores.

The welcoming attitude — and the natural features and beauty of the area — are also reasons Martell and others visit southern Alabama each year.

“I just like the town. It’s small, it’s old, it’s cool,” he says. “We usually just kayak around Dallas, Fort Worth, and all of the rivers up there, based on how much rain we get. This place is awesome compared to home. So much better.”