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Gainesville residents tackle river on annual paddle trip
Families and individuals went on the 95-mile, seven-day excursion
Individuals and families alike paddled down the Chattahoochee River last summer during the annual Paddle Georgia trip. This year, more than 400 participants ranging in age from 4 to 85 years old paddled down the Ogeechee River in South Georgia including Gainesville retiree Joe Kidd and South Hall Middle School teacher Sarah Brookshire. - photo by For The Times

Paddle Georgia

What: A weeklong canoe and kayak trip down a Georgia river, benefitting local riverkeepers and areas on the Georgia River Network

When: June 18-24, 2016

Where: Oostanaula, Conasauga and Coosa Rivers

Requirements: Paddling experience is not required. Learn-to-paddle workshops will be conducted prior to the beginning of the 2016 trek. Registration begins in February 2016 and will close when the trip reaches 400 participants.

More info:

Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club lessons

What: Learn-to-paddle lessons for children and adults

When: July 13, 17, 20 and 24, 6-7:30 p.m. or Aug. 11, 13, 18 and 20, 6-7:30 p.m.

Where: Lake Lanier Olympic Venue, 3105 Clarks Bridge Road, Gainesville

Cost: $85 per class

More info:

As a child, Joe Kidd’s grandfather took him and his siblings out on the Chattahoochee River in a flat-bottomed boat his father made.

“We lived close to the river in Newnan, and my grandpa would hook up his buggy and take the kids to the waterfalls, and that’s where I learned to swim and paddle a boat,” said the man who has been paddling in some form of boat for 70-plus years.

But it was during those trips when Kidd’s passion for the water blossomed. Now, the 75-year-old shares his passion for paddling with 400 others every year during Paddle Georgia, a weeklong trip down one of Georgia’s rivers.

This year’s trek covered 95 miles down the Ogeechee River in South Georgia. It lasted from June 20-26.

“This is the largest event of its kind in the entire United States,” Kidd said. “It’s part of the Georgia River Network, which aims to preserve the rivers.”

The 2015 paddle was Kidd’s fifth trip with the organization, but Paddle Georgia took its first voyage 11 years ago down the Chattahoochee. The group this year ranged in age from 4 to 85 years old.

“It really is a family event,” Kidd said. “We take some kids from the city (who) have never been on a river and introduce them to canoes and kayaks and do some lessons before we get out on the river.”

Kidd encourages his own children and grandchildren to embark on the trip with him since they paddle on the lake in their spare time, but time and distance have prevented a family trip so far. But Kidd has his own “family” on the trip. It is made up of people who introduced him to Paddle Georgia as well as friends he made along the river voyage.

“I was paddling with an environmental group, the Coosa River Basin Initiative, and they told me about Paddle Georgia, and I immediately went and signed up,” Kidd said. “I also have some friends in Woodstock (who) I met on Paddle Georgia and paddle with now.”

The trip down the Ogeechee River encouraged group bonding because of obstacles along the way. The Ogeechee is narrow and has places with strainers, or protruding limbs and foliage, partially submerged. The hurdle could snag a boat and delay the journey.

“This was a more difficult one, because boats could get stuck,” said Sarah Brookshire, a South Hall Middle School teacher who has participated in Paddle Georgia for the past three years. “At one point there was a little pile up and a 45-minute delay getting down the river, but that’s when this group really comes together.”

The river trip takes teamwork since the group eats, sleeps and paddles together daily. The 400 members also have to break down and set up the campsite twice during the trip. Paddle Georgia camped at Portal High School and Effingham County High School this year.

“We put up our tents in the yard or sleep inside the school building,” Kidd said. “The schools make us breakfast and then a sandwich and chips to take with us down the river.”

Brookshire said the schools look “like a refugee camp” when paddlers arrive because of the tents, people and personal belongings everywhere.

“There are clothes hanging from everywhere to dry,” Brookshire said with a laugh. “It’s amazing that you can take 150 women on a trip and we only get four showers the entire time. I’m not sure Effingham County High has gotten the sand from everyone out yet.”

After eating breakfast, Brookshire liked to be one of the first ones on the river to beat the heat. The group launched boats as early as 7 a.m. and sometimes as late as 10 a.m. if a group had a special program on the itinerary.

“They have specialists like naturalists on the trip and different presentations,” Brookshire said. “One of the women I paddled with one day showed me what different kinds of birds were. At one point, we all spotted an owl and got quiet to stop and look at him.”

While some times on the Ogeechee were quiet and pensive, others were rambunctious and full of laughter. Kidd said the 2015 paddle was the most fun one he has been on because the group was lively, friendly and diverse.

“Grumpy people just don’t decide to go paddle down a river,” Kidd said.

At night, the group participated in street parties, team trivia and a cornhole tournament. During the day, however, any member of the group could come under attack from friendly fire.

“We had these big water guns, and we would hide until the next group came along and then we would just blast them away,” Kidd said.

Brookshire agreed the spirit on the river was one of the best memories she had from the trip.

“It wasn’t a good day unless there was at least one good water fight,” she said.

The pair noted the Ogeechee was especially good for sneak attacks because of its unique characteristics, such as curves and foliage to hide in. The river also has plenty of places to stop for a picnic or break.

“There’s really no geological explanation for how the Ogeechee flows,” Brookshire said. “It doesn’t go through any major towns, and it’s narrow and has a lot of branches and turns. There are plenty of sandy places to pull off and have lunch with people.”

The special education teacher enjoyed the challenges the rivers present every year because she has only been paddling in a kayak for four years. She took learn-to-kayak classes at the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club because she needed an exercise she could do sitting down.

“I’ve had 15 knee surgeries,” Brookshire said. “I had both knees replaced two summers ago.”

She learned about Paddle Georgia through the club and immediately signed up, despite her lack of experience.

“I needed to be active,” she said. “My first one was on the Flint River. I ended up knowing one person from the club, but I didn’t know she was on it until I heard her voice on the river one day.”

Brookshire noted her experience in a kayak didn’t hinder her because many styles of the boats are well-balanced. Therefore, she didn’t worry as much about capsizing. The veteran paddler now knows exactly what to expect for each trip.

“Our longest day this year was 17 miles,” she said. “I paddle around three to four miles per hour. I like rivers with a down current because I mostly paddle with my arms.”

Now that Brookshire is an experienced paddler, she hopes to get more involved with the group outside of the annual summer excursion.

“Now that I’ve met more people, I want to do more, such as their ‘Hidden Gems’ or other one-day paddles,” Brookshire said.

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