Crack, crack, crack, kapow, boom, crack, crack, crack, pow!!!!
It sounded like kids setting off giant firecrackers in the distance when about 55 paddlers from all over the state drove up to unload kayaks and canoes at the Savannah Rapids Pavilion in Augusta, Georgia on Saturday September 7th.
Were people shooting at the V formation of geese and ducks flying over the river or was there something more sinister going on?
One of the River Keeper water guides assured us that it was just a local quartz quarry setting off dynamite in a mine, as if that was actually reassuring... traveling down a long and twisting river with someone fooling around with dynamite. Someone asked if they could hear banjos playing and those old enough to get the joke (think Deliverance and Burt Reynolds) laughed knowingly.
When a sparse group of elderly adults pulled up to the put in for the Savannah River Keepers Hidden Gems paddle, the sun was just beginning to rise and there was a slight mist in the chilly air. Dew covered the bridge railings and grass making everything you touched or brushed against transfer their damp chilliness directly to your skin and clothing. Many pondered wearing jackets and long pants, but were assured that once the sun rose, they would be glad to be in shorts and sweat wicking T-shirts, so not to worry.
A short time later more vehicles pulled up as a younger adults and families began piling out of SUVs and setting up their equipment on the grassy area next to the road race to avoid getting in the way of runners.
As the first group unloaded kayaks and canoes, they were met with a pleasant surprise; a table loaded with breakfast goodies; cookies, breads, popcorn, fruit, peanut butter and pastries as well as T-Shirts and two women dresses as princesses. What a nice way to send off a paddle!
Unfortunately it turned out that the group was actually there for a road race and not the paddle, and while it was fun to watch the runners come in, the scheduled 8 a.m. departure of the paddle was put off until nearly after 10 in order to let all the runners pass the finish line which was located dead on target at the spot where the kayakers had to take their boats across the bridge to the launch site!!!
The nearly two hour wait afforded a brief tour of the Augusta dam and picnic areas surround the river. On one side was a canal that was built to allow shipping traffic into the river area, avoiding the boulders and shallow, but swift moving current of the Savannah River in an area known as the shoals.
Augusta is the second largest city in Georgia and also the second oldest, next to Savannah. If you travel down the outskirts of the town you will find all sorts of historic buildings, some of which look like castles as well as a huge school that looks like a city unto itself with GRU plastered all over the buildings, making one think perhaps the minions had landed.
It turns out that GRU stands for Georgia Regents University with over 100 programs in nine colleges with some modern looking buildings that will take your eyes off the road and make you want to pull over and tour the campus, even if you don't plan to go to school there.
Getting into Augusta can be complicated. From Savannah to Augusta, the highway system is mostly farms and small towns with few places to stop for gas, food or restroom breaks. It's about a three hour drive from Savannah, yet like Savannah, Georgia, Augusta, Georgia is located less than twenty minutes away from the South Carolina border and the Savannah River in these parts runs directly down the common shared state line so that if you paddle on the right hand side of the river, headed toward the city of Savannah, you will be on the Georgia side of the border, but if you travel on the right hand side of the river you will be on the South Carolina side!
If you travel in the middle you can actually be in both states at the same time or go from one to the other and back again. but both sides are equally appealing with some beautiful houses, including one of the South Carolina side built on a high rock outcrop with huge white pillars on an outside porch with a waterfall coming out beneath the house and falling down into the river itself as if the house was actually built on top of a natural waterfall.
Our guide assures us this is not the case and that the owner is a wealthy jeweler who had special pipes installed to siphon water from the river and run it up through the rock structure to cascade down again, but it is definitely impressive, but hard to photograph from the water as it passes through a series of rocky rapids that requires the full attention of paddlers to make it over safely into a wider part of the river which is deep enough to accommodate motor powered vehicles.
There are numerous bird sightings and we later learn the shots are actually those of hunters shooting geese further up the river. While this may seem cruel, we see hundreds of Canadian geese flying in formation along with several flocks of ducks flying too high too fully identify.
The Hidden Gems tour is more than a paddle as many naturalists in the area give talks along the route, with a lunch stop to learn about invasive species and how they harm the native wildlife.
Boaters are shown skulls of wild hogs and given a talk on the native spider lily that grows in the area as well as water plants which have become so invasive that they actually pull at the boater's paddles and catch their boats in the narrow currents, waving like living Medusa's locks.
No snakes fall in the boats and no alligators are seen. No one is shot and no blasts of rocks fall from the skies and surprisingly no one gets turned over in the rapids, with only one canoe tipping over at the very end of the tour when the owner was acting silly and waiving at the event coordinator and he and his wife went in, laughing as they sputtered and pulled the boat into shore.
"We went all that way, through all those rapids and fell out in calm water," said the canoe's owner in good spirits. It was a tale he was sure to repeat and ended the day on a humorous note as cars and trucks ignored warnings not to block the boat ramp in order to haul water logged kayaks up a steep hill on the return trip home.
The Hidden Gems paddle was just one of many that allows boaters to go on a guided group trip down a little known waterway, learning the history and seeing the beauty of the surrounding area in the hopes that these rivers and streams will remain protected and kept clean as the national treasures they are.
The shoals in Augusta are one of the few remaining in the area with most being dammed into lakes or dredged for deeper channels for cargo ships.
The Savannah River Keepers plans one last paddle on the Altamaha River on November 16, which could be a little chilly depending on the weather.
For more information, visit www.garivers.org.