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Paddlers hit rivers for adventure
Upper Coosawattee
Kayakers paddle a portion of the Upper Coosawattee in 2009. - photo by Submitted
Bill Avra is gearing up to take his “dream vacation” for the sixth year in a row.

He’ll be kayaking and canoeing 82 miles of Georgia rivers in a weeklong journey called Paddle Georgia.

This year’s event will take paddlers from Franklin Springs to Augusta, traveling down the Broad and Savannah rivers.

Avra, 51, is one of eight county residents taking part in the seven-day trip, which runs from June 19-25.

His wife and son will complete Paddle Georgia Lite, the shortened weekend version of the excursion.

The trip reached its full capacity again in its sixth year, drawing 350 people from 13 states.

Organizers said the journey attracts participants ages 4 to 74 and several families.

“We’ve had people come on this trip that have never paddled before and now they are lifelong paddlers,” said coordinator Joe Cook. “This is an adventure that changes people’s lives.”

The trip also serves as a fundraiser for local watershed groups and sponsoring organization the Georgia River Network, a nonprofit that works to ensure a clean water legacy.

“It’s a very unique opportunity to actually be able to go the length of the river,” Avra said. “You can literally day by day see the topography change.”

He said the way the trip is set up makes easy the details that would otherwise be difficult to work out.

Through the organization’s annual excursion, paddlers have set locations to stop each night for camping, food and facilities.

Road transportation to and from each camp site is also provided.

Avra lamented the fact that his children won’t be able to take the full trip this year, but said the group of paddlers has grown close over the years.

“It’s like summer camp for adults,” he said. “You go back and see all the people that you’ve met.”

County resident Doc Stephens, 54, said he has made many friends through the annual paddling extravaganza and he gets to see them each June.

“I think the river brings out the best in people,” he said. “If the whole world was like Paddle Georgia, it’d be a much better place because everyone’s so nice and helpful.”

Stephens jumped in a kayak for the first time in 15 years after reading about the initial Paddle Georgia trip and has since become an enthusiast.

He now owns a kayak and two canoes, noting that “people that canoe tend to accumulate boats.”

Stephens often paddles Lake Lanier in his free time, but enjoys the weeklong group paddle the most.

“It’s an affordable week away from the crowds and civilization,” he said. “I hope I can always go on [the trip] and always help.”

Phil Cooper and his wife, Sheilah, are anticipating a more enjoyable Paddle Georgia experience this year.

The county residents spent a weekend on the trip two years ago. But due to the then drought conditions, there wasn’t enough river.

“We’re looking forward to high water this year,” he said.

Cooper, 70, said he and his wife regularly kayak about 7 miles on Lanier, so an 82-mile journey spread across a week shouldn’t be too difficult.

“It’s a wonderful form of exercise,” he said. “It just feels good to do it.”

Avra agreed that the distance of the trip can seem daunting, though it is not as demanding as his experience with Bicycle Ride Across Georgia, an event after which Paddle Georgia is modeled.

Paddlers can travel at their own pace, take side trips or swim if they want.

The flowing river is also much friendlier than pavement.

“If you get tired, you just stop paddling,” Avra said.