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Staff file photo by Robin Rudd / Paddlers and rafts line the pool above the put-in on the Ocoee River. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee visited the Ocoee River, on June 4, 2021, to celebrate the impact of tourism and also in celebration of the state's 225th birthday.

Tennessee State Parks and 23 Ocoee River outfitters have joined forces again this year to offer military veterans a free rafting trip on the Fourth of July, and for the first time, their families can get half-off rates, too.

The idea is to give veterans a day of recognition at a time of year they can take in all the natural beauty and excitement the Ocoee River and Polk County, Tennessee, have to offer, according to the man who founded Rafting 4 Freedom in 2018.

"It's been called Rafting 4 Freedom since it began five years ago," Park Manager Angelo Giansante said Friday in a phone interview. "This is our fifth one."

Giansante said the pandemic has dealt a blow to participation in the event since 2020, but this year organizers are bumping up the fun for an Independence Day event now expanded to include veterans' families. The offer applies to any veteran or active-duty soldier.

"We want to show our appreciation for our armed services," Giansante said. "Our veterans have given so much for our country, and the Ocoee community would like to give a little back."

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Rafting 4 Freedom

Veterans interested in taking a rafting trip may contact any outfitter they wish and schedule a trip, he said. Ocoee's outfitters may also be found at timetoraft.com, he said.

Monday, rafting veterans and their families can enjoy the scenic views of the Cherokee National Forest on the cheap and create lifelong memories in a special place, according to State Parks spokesperson Eric Ward. The internationally recognized park is well known for its beauty and other recreational opportunities, he said.

"From the outfitters' side, we want to support our veterans and our active-duty military," Ryan Cooke, president of the Ocoee River Outfitters Association and owner of Ocoee Rafting and the Lake Ocoee Inn and Marina said Friday in a phone interview. "We want them to know we're thinking about them on this Independence Day holiday."

Cooke said his business has had about the same level of interest so far as in past years, but he expects the addition of half-off rates for families to make rafting more fun for everyone and busier for Ocoee's outfitters.

"It's something that's easy for everyone to get behind," he said.

Patriotism among outfitters and residents across the region combined with Polk County's natural beauty are the reasons Giansante, a Nashville native and veteran himself, found his home there, he said.

"I was a sergeant in the Army Reserves, and I was there for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and 2004," Giansante said. "That's what actually led me to be a park ranger; while I was there I was fascinated with the outdoors and everything you could see at night, the stars, it was amazing."

The veteran's outdoor appetite was whetted and his future would take a new course.

"When I got home I camped out a lot and I fell in love with this one particular campground, and when I would go there and camp and I would show everybody where the waterfalls were and stuff and one of the rangers is like, 'Hey, man, you can get paid to do that, you know?' and I said, 'Oh, yeah?' and he said, 'It's called being a park ranger, you should look it up.'

"That's how I became a park ranger," he said of his new career that began 15 years ago. The Hiwassee/Ocoee State Park was recommended as the place to be a park ranger in a high-adventure park, and Giansante had a home for life.

"It's been 15 years, and I just love this place, and I've done my best to explore every inch of it, and I'm still not done," he said. "And Polk County is one of the most patriotic counties I've ever been to."

Polk County's people and the rafting community made him feel so at home it became his place to stay, he said. Veterans can find a place and people there that appreciate them and the sacrifice they made in serving.

"When you talk to many veterans, they all kind of miss the service," he said. "What they really miss is the camaraderie, they miss that adventure, they miss the feeling that we're all in a different environment and of 'What are we going to get into?'"

Rafting the Ocoee provides a familiar experience, he said.

"The coolest thing about rafting is it kind of simulates that," he said. "Here we are together on this raft, and you get to work with your friends and your family, and we're all working together on this big adventure, pushing for the same goal."

That experience is why Giansante and others thrive in the Ocoee River Gorge's whitewater, he said.

"I sit out every year with Kool-Aid and every veteran gets a glass, and I'll be there on Monday," he said. "You get to meet the manager, too, if you go down the river on the Fourth."

Veterans who have physical challenges can contact Giansante for information and appropriate outfitter contacts, he said. The park ranger's office can be reached at 423-263-0050.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

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