The outdoors has always been a big part of Sarah Lydon’s life. Her father took the family hiking and camping. She even lived on a farm for a while.
Although the responsibilities of being a mom and having a career keep her inside a little more than she’d like, Lydon has recently returned to the outdoors through kayaking.
Dad got things started
“We were in the water as I was growing up in Florida and in Maine,” Lydon said. “My dad used to take us canoeing when we were little kids. He has countless stories about how he told me not to do something and I’d end up floating down the river in my life jacket.”
They were living in Georgia when they went on a Paddle Georgia trip. Paddle Georgia is an annual week-long trip organized by the Georgia River Network to raise awareness for Georgia’s waterways. The large groups — as many as 300 paddlers down the river all at the same time — camp and kayak down the river together.
“It was a really neat experience,” Lydon said, “and as a family we did it for about 10 years. That first one was 125 miles down the Chattahoochee, which was pretty amazing.”
Away from the water
Lydon and her family stopped kayaking for a couple of years, but she got back into it about two years ago. And Lydon’s now kayaking all over Georgia.
She’s been on the Chattahoochee River just below the dam, Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in Roswell and the Etowah, the Broad, the Savannah and the Flint Rivers as well.
She’s also enjoyed Parrish Mill and Pond at George L. Smith State Park in Twin City near Statesboro. “It’s almost like you’re winding through a river of trees,” she said. “All of it is just trees growing out of the water.”
The ways of kayaking
Lydon explained how she can kayak through a river of trees without getting lost.
“Like hiking paths have different colors,” she said, “on the lake they have different color paths you can choose that will help you wind your way through the trees. There are different hand signals and paddle signals as far as how you can communicate with your group if everything’s OK or if you’re going to go river right or river left.”
She usually is floating with someone who’s been down the river several times and knows it well. Other information resources are also available. Joe Cook of the Georgia River Network has written some excellent books about the state’s rivers.
Knowing what the water conditions are like before you get in is important too. Although whitewater kayakers might like to go down right after a big rainstorm, Lydon prefers calmer conditions, so she’ll check the current river flow through various websites.
Of course, too little flow can be a problem too.
Lydon remembers a trip on the Flint River where she and her father “would literally just manhandle our way through the rocks. We would be so sore by the end of the day because we didn’t want to get out and walk. Sometimes you get stubborn.”
Even though she considers herself a minimalist by kayaking standards, about her equipment Lydon says, “We have a lot. You’ll find that kayakers collect kayaks. Once you start buying them you apparently can’t stop.”
In addition to their regular kayaks, she and her family have a whitewater canoe, a whitewater sit-in kayak and a field and stream (fishing) kayak. They have the appropriate paddles and oars and, of course, helmets and personal flotation devices (PFD) for safety.
It turns out that the use of PFDs in calm waters can be a contentious topic among kayakers. Everyone agrees that they must be worn in rough water, but Lydon says, “There is a huge debate among kayakers because some lake paddlers tend to not want to wear a PFD all the time in calm water. But others are like, ‘You never know what’s going to happen.’ That can become a heated discussion within the kayaking world. They get very passionate.”
Favorite trip — so far
It didn’t take long for Lydon to decide what has been her favorite kayaking outing so far.
“I think my favorite has been the Etowah, up around Rome, Georgia. It was an easy river, but it was quick moving. It was really pretty.”
Last year on the Etowah, Lydon and group experienced going through an abandoned mining tunnel — thanks in large part to her daughter Lizzie, who was seven years old at that time.
“Every time I go on one of these Paddle Georgia trips,” she said, “I meet somebody that I really click with. I had met an agricultural scientist and we really hit it off. When we went to the Etowah, she was pointing out different animals and plants. It really was kind of educational.”
At one point on the river, they came upon the mining tunnel.
“We had decided we would go around it, like sane people would,” Lydon recalled. “But while we were sitting in front of it, we could see all the way through it. My daughter was in my lap — she kayaks with me all the time — and she said ‘No, Mom, let’s do it.’ I got talked into it by my seven-year-old. It was literally three minutes of pitch dark.
“I was just paddling as fast as I could. My paddles were scraping the walls of the tunnel. When we got out and looked back, you could see how jagged the walls were. But it was fun.”
Lydon is looking to expand outside of Georgia for some upcoming trips.
She’s planning to go to Burgess Falls State Park in Tennessee soon. “You can literally paddle right up to the waterfall,” Lydon explained.
And she wants to do some paddling in the swamps of Florida.
“I want to go down to the Okefenokee Swamp,” she told me. “You can get an outfitter down there to take you around and actually camp in the swamp. I definitely want to experience that.”
On the subject of alligators, Lydon said, “I do want to do that in a canoe because I think I would be better off with higher edges. Not as close to the water.”
Kayaking brings numerous benefits
Lydon gets lots of benefits from kayaking. Being outdoors. Family time. Community.
Experiencing nature has always been important to her. “I’ve always been rather outdoorsy. Coming back the last couple of years… it’s been a stress relief. Now it’s becoming a way of life.”
It also gives her a fresh perspective.
“We are part of this big, wide world and as we go through our days, we forget how much space is out there that we can experience in nature,” she said.
Lydon started enjoying the outdoors as a child with her father. Kayaking allows her to continue to do just that. And Lizzie has added a third generation to the fun.
“She enjoys it,” Lydon said. “She’s fearless. She just turned eight and I just bought her her own kayak.”
Another positive about the sport is the community that forms around it.
“I think Paddle Georgia and Kayak Georgia really bring people together. The sharing culture that seems to be there is just really amazing.”
“River people are really nice,” Lydon said. “Maybe it’s all the endorphins.”