You don’t have to be on the water to spot a kayak. Just take a look around the next time you’re in traffic; vehicles topped with kayaks and paddleboards are becoming a common sight in our area. Paddle sports have surged in popularity in the past few years, offering active residents fitness opportunities that are as diverse as the enthusiasts who enjoy them.

A New Challenge

Dorothy Williams, Michelle Murphree and Elizabeth Hundt have found a common ground—or more accurately, common water. What started out as a casual invitation has turned into a weekly fitness commitment, sparking an unlikely bond filled with mutual respect and a wee bit of competition.

Being active is nothing new for Williams, but following a career shift last year, she took a sabbatical with her exercise routine as well—until Murphree invited her to go kayaking last summer. Williams then asked Hundt, a college student from her sailing club, to join them. The years separating the women faded away and a group of workout buddies emerged. “The first time I went, I was so tired, I came home and took a nap,” remembers Williams. 

Initially, she felt her younger companions were holding back so she could keep up. But by the end of summer, she noticed marked improvement in her skill; she learned a lot from watching her friends. “There’s a technique to it. When you see the two of them paddling, it looks like there’s no effort being taken, but they’re really moving,” she says.

Out of the three, Murphree is the most experienced. She has kayaked regularly since a friend took her out on the Savannah River nearly three years ago. “It’s invigorating, but relaxing at the same time,” she says. Besides taking part in the Benderdinker and Paddlefest events locally, she’s traversed rivers around the Southeast, including the Nantahala, the Broad and the Olympic whitewater course on the Ocoee in North Georgia. 

The group’s usual goal is to complete 500 continuous paddles. “People think, ‘Oh that’s nothing.’ But when you get to a hundred, you start feeling it in your core and legs, by the time you reach 500, you’re like, ‘Whoa,’” says Murphree. The workouts vary from easy sightseeing paddles to intense timed workouts. Sometimes they’ll kayak for half a mile, pull over, play Frisbee, take a nap or have a picnic. And friends are always welcomed. “I’m the organizer; I’ll look at the forecast and then send an email out and whoever’s interested comes along,” says Williams. 

water 2Augusta offers a rare option: two routes side by side…the canal as “a special little slow moving river.” For the more daring, the Savannah awaits…

Most of their paddles are at Betty’s Branch, a six-mile loop beginning at Riverside Park in Columbia County, winding around Champion’s Retreat island, opening onto the Savannah River, returning around the island to bring them back to their starting point. The trip takes about three hours.

Consider experience, goals and locale before buying. A heavier kayak is difficult to carry and slower in the water. Most importantly, a good paddle is worth every penny. Although Williams made an admittedly hasty purchase last year, the next time she’ll go to a specialty store. “It was stable, but heavy; if I’m going to keep up with 20 and 30 year olds, I need as much advantage as I can get,” she laughs. For now, she borrows her favorite kayak of Murphree’s, but her friend refuses to lend her the better paddle. “We’ll give her the good kayak and the bad paddle. She can’t have them both,” says Murphree laughing.

Hundt credits Williams with keeping them motivated, like any good exercise buddy would do. “I don’t pay attention to the age thing. We really open up and I enjoy the closeness of it,” says Hundt. Adds Williams, “You’re in nature, watching the water flow along the kayak and the paddle; it just makes me feel alive. You’re out there with friends sharing this experience. I just absolutely love it.”

First Timers

One of the most popular places to kayak is the Augusta Canal, which also happens to be where many have their first experience with the sport. For two years, Steve and Leslie Wright have owned a kayak rental business at the Savannah Rapids Park. “We’ve been playing on this river for 40 years. We’ve tubed it, gone down on air mattresses, boats, canoes, everything under the sun,” says Steve, a retired high school teacher. “We get all ages, from retirement communities to scouting groups to families just wanting to try it out.” 

New kayakers are given instructions and a map and then suited up with a life jacket, handed a paddle, seated in an ocean kayak and pushed out into the canal. “Our number one concern is that everyone have a good experience,” says Leslie. Although many are apprehensive about tipping over, the “sit on tops,” also known as ocean kayaks, are very stable. 

Augusta offers a rare option: two routes side by side. Steve fondly describes the canal as “a special little slow moving river.” For the more daring, the Savannah awaits, but even its class-one rapids are manageable for beginners. The canal water level is constant, but the river runs high and low, depending on conditions. The two-and-a-half-hour canal route is an easy paddle ending at Lake Olmstead or the 13th Street Petersburg Boat landing. For the more adventurous, the three-hour river route will give you a couple of rapids and ends in North Augusta at the Hammond’s Ferry dock. A fearless few go all the way to the Boathouse in Augusta, which is a four-hour paddle.

“We get folks from around the world—Japan, China, India, Russia, France, Britain, Australia, even Nepal,” says Steve. Many businesses, including Fort Gordon, use the kayaking experience for team building. Leslie, a middle school teacher, brings her students out to build their confidence. “It’s so rewarding seeing new people kayak for the first time and discovering what a treasure this canal is,” she says. “It’s simple, quiet and peaceful—and you don’t have to spend any money on gas,” says Steve.


Going for the Glide

It’s easy to explain why SUP is the fastest growing water sport in the world. Chuck Hardin, who introduced the Schwartzes to paddle boarding, describes it as “the good part of surfing without all the bad.” It’s not as physically difficult or dangerous as surfing and can be done inland on virtually any body of water.

When Hardin bought White Cap Sports 15 years ago it specialized in windsurfing, but expanded to include paddle boarding in 2007. SUP now makes up between 70 and 80 percent of his business, which specializes in equipment and group instruction. “I hear it all the time. ‘Golly, that looks hard!’” says Hardin. “My instruction—I use the term loosely—takes all of 15 minutes. Ten on land and five on water,” he says.

The gratification one gets from the experience comes from the human need for the glide, a term coined by surfers. “There’s something physically rewarding when our bodies are up and essentially stationary while we move across the water. It pings off of our nervous system and that’s a rewarding thing. Stand-up paddle boarding is just another way to get a glide,” says Hardin.

SUP can be a relaxing or challenging workout. “When you paddle aggressively, you’re using the leg muscles, the upper body and both sides of your core. And going upstream on a paddleboard is like peddling uphill on a bike,” he says. For those looking for a challenge, try Hardin’s yoga class—on the paddleboard.

Hardin particularly enjoys taking groups to the river area around downtown Augusta. “People who have lived here their whole lives are surprised by its beauty,” says Hardin. He feels the growth of paddle sports in our area can be attributed to an increased public awareness of the natural resources we have at our disposal. But nothing pleases him more than being able to share his passion for water sports with others. “There’s a sense of escapism, simplicity, joy, light, lightheartedness and a camaraderie on the water. I think that’s no small part of this at all,” says Hardin.

So the next time you’re out, look around and see if you can spot a toy on top of someone’s car—a kayak, a paddleboard. While Augusta can’t order up killer waves, kayaking and paddle boarding offer fitness enthusiasts a piece of that elusive thrill. It seems everyone is getting caught up in this sport that has something for everyone.

The Competitive Edge

Spend any amount of time with Polly and Richard Schwartz and you’ll be convinced there’s water flowing through their veins. When the weather cooperates, there’s hardly a day that goes by that doesn’t find them on the water. In the basement of their riverfront home, paddleboards are either displayed or being constructed, while outside, a boathouse is filled with—at last count—17 kayaks or paddleboards. “We’ve lived all over the country and we’re fortunate the Savannah River has some of the best paddling anywhere in the U.S. It’s absolutely beautiful and perfect for kayak training or touring,” says Richard. 

He should know. As a former member of the U.S. National Team for Flat-water Sprint Kayaking, Richard has trained and competed with some of the best in the world. His team placed seventh in the Junior World Championships in 1979 and he has won numerous U.S. National titles over the years. 

water 3Six years ago, the Schwartzes started stand-up paddle boarding, known as SUP for short. “We’d kayaked since college, so it was nice to have a challenge where we had to learn a whole new sport again,” says Polly. SUP offers a better view of wildlife in the water and requires more balance. It’s a whole body workout, appealing to all ages and fitness levels. “You can stay competitive and be very fast even in your 60s and 70s because it’s a fairly forgiving sport and has a lower injury rate than many sports,” explains Richard. “It’s funny, because when I go to paddleboard races, I see a lot of the same people I raced with 30 years ago. They’re still competitive, but now they’re paddle boarding.” 

Just as there are many sizes and kinds of kayaks (ocean, sprint, touring, white water), the same is true with paddleboards. Some include surf style, touring, racing and yoga boards. With board designs evolving in this relatively new sport, Richard likes the challenge of crafting his own. “His are very different looking, he tries to make them faster than anyone’s. He does a good job because he’s winning,” says Polly. Her birthday present—a 12-foot racing board—is displayed in the basement. She got hooked on racing after competing in the Augusta Paddlefest a couple of years ago. Last year, Polly took first place among women, besting many men with 14-foot boards. Richard won the men’s division. 

This active duo regularly competes in SUP races several times a month across the Southeast during race season. They paddle a lot in the Florida Keys, where they own property, but at home they paddle the river. “I go in the mornings and I just love all the birds; it’s amazing what you see out there,” says Polly. For Richard, it’s a great way to wind down at the end of the day. “I get home from work, go out and do a nice, hard workout. I paddle back and see the sun setting over the river. It’s just very beautiful and a good combination of the outdoors and a daily workout.”

This article appears in the January 2015 issue of Augusta Magazine.