Riverkeeper’s Paddlefest offers competition, laughs and a clear route through the shoals
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to paddle a kayak down the Savannah River — or a canoe, or a standup paddleboard or even a homemade raft — Tonya Bonitatibus has a deal for you..
“So many people in Augusta only use the canal when it comes to canoeing and kayaking and paddleboarding,” she says. “That’s one of the strongest things about Paddlefest — it’s an excellent time to go out and learn the route through the river.”.
Bonitatibus runs the Savannah Riverkeeper, a nonprofit advocacy group whose sole purpose is to watch over the water quality of the Savannah River and to protect those who rely on that water. Paddlefest, which occurs Saturday, August 11, is its biggest fundraiser..
Part race, part lazy day on the water and part raucous outdoor celebration, it’s got something for everyone who enjoys the Augusta outdoors..
For the competitive, the canoe and kayak race starts at 8:30 a.m. at the Savannah Rapids Pavilion, while the standup paddleboard race begins at 10 a.m. at 5th Street..
The homemade raft race also begins at 10 a.m., though they start at Hammonds Ferry in North Augusta..
“Everybody ends up at the Boathouse, and after that there’s a big outdoor celebration,” Bonitatibus says..
The free festival runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with vendors demonstrating canoes, kayaks and standup paddleboards. There is also a horseshoe and bocce ball tournament, beer and food and music from Jam Sandwich, Allison Foster, Rambling Fevers and Funk You..
Bonitatibus hopes people will arrive early and cheer loudly, because the racers — there are 13 different classes — never seem to get that much attention, given everything else that’s going on..
The open event is a U.S. Canoe/Kayak sanctioned race, which means competitors travel to town in hopes of earning points nationally..
“Those are the guys who can make it all the way from the Savannah Rapids Pavilion to our office in less than an hour,” she says. “The trip takes an average person four.”.
While some recreational competitors also take the race seriously, many are content to spend a few hours on the water with like-minded people, which makes the event good for novices who are interested in exploring the river, but are intimidated to do it alone..
All participants get a map, and there will be buoys set up along the way indicating the route. Contrary to conventional wisdom and first glances, there is a way to make it through without dragging your boat. The route involves hugging the South Carolina shore until reaching what’s known as the Redneck Riviera..
“When you can see the Redneck Riviera, that’s when you cut across to the Georgia side,” she says..
From there, it’s another quick turn back to the South Carolina side, where boaters stay for the rest of the way down..
“It’s counterintuitive,” she says. “You want to go straight, but that’s just a really bad way to go.”.
According to Bonitatibus, the City of Augusta contacted the Savannah Riverkeeper six or seven years ago with the idea of bringing back the Great Savannah Raft Race, which at its peak in the 1960s and 1970s drew hundreds of competitors..
The race was dropped in the 1980s because it had become less about the boats than the drinking. Now, combined with the additional races, the homemade raft race draws between 35 and 40 rafts..
“Out of all the rest of them, that’s the one I want to grow the most,” she says. “Because it’s really such a cool team-building piece, not to mention it’s just hilarious.”.
In the past they’ve had everything from the Loch Ness monster with smoke coming out of its mouth to Viking ships to bicycles mounted onto paddlewheels that just sit there in the middle of the river, spinning..
Her favorite, she says, was from a lady who used to own a coffee shop in Augusta and was angry at the city for not allowing her to recycle her plastic containers..
“She kept them for a whole month and tied them together and wrapped yoga mats around them,” she says. “It was her way of showing how much waste there was.”.
Those who have participated before will notice a format change this year. Rather than costing $35 to participate, this year it will cost $25, though the fee no longer gets you the T-shirt and a meal. That doesn’t mean participants will walk away with just memories, however. Winners will receive a handmade paddle and all the other participants will receive a goodie bag with a year’s membership to the Riverkeeper, which itself is worth $35..
Rafts are $25 for the first two people and then $10 a person after that. And though the rafts are reserved for the not always handy DIY crowd (Bonitatibus stresses the rule of thumb that a five gallon bucket will hold 55 pounds), canoes, kayaks and standup paddleboards are available for rent by visiting the event’s website at paddlefestga.com..You Might Also Like: