Photos by Ben Sellers

Competitors from around the world converged last weekend in Columbus, Georgia, to attend the U.S. Freestyle Kayak Nationals. The second-annual Paddle South festival took place on the Chattahoochee River, which boasts one of the largest consistent play features in the Southeast. The man-made Waveshaper whitewater park regularly sees daily fluctuations between 800 cfs and 13,000 cfs as hydroelectric releases meet power demands. The result is a dynamic, high-volume play park that is becoming a regional favorite for freestyle kayakers.

Georgia Power and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers guaranteed to release ideal surfing flows of 9,000 cfs from upstream dams throughout the two-day event. Stephen Wright, who won the men’s K-1 finals Sunday, praised Good Wave, where the competition took place. “There are only a few places, really in the whole world, where you can plan event on a wave of this size and know you’re going to have water,” he said.

Local Columbus paddler Hunter Katich was the first in the men’s K-1 prelims on Saturday but slipped into second after Wright posted a 1000-point-plus ride Sunday evening.

[Related | If You Build It: Columbus, GA Whitewater Park]

Sage Donnelly, the 17-year-old rising whitewater star from Carson City, Nevada, won the women’s K-1 event after she topped Emily Jackson’s score in the final round of competition. Though Donnelly was still eligible to compete as a junior, she said she wanted to prepare for competing at the senior women’s level at the world championships next year.

Like most freestyle events, paddlers pushed themselves hard while also supporting each other. Many attendees wore t-shirts that said, “Live like Maria,” to commemorate the life of beloved Southeast paddler Maria Noakes whose unexpected passing in March is reverberating throughout the paddling community.

But unlike other national freestyle competitions, which have sometimes been insular affairs among kayakers, Paddle South brought in large crowds of spectators. The whitewater park’s location near Columbus’ historic downtown and a sold-out Paddle Party hosted by Omaha Brewing on Saturday night, added beer, food, and live music to the festivities.

All proceeds from the Paddle Party benefited Uptown Columbus, an organization that worked to remove two dams in 2012 in order to bring the whitewater park to the city.

Dan Gilbert, owner of local rafting company Whitewater Express, said it was great to see businesses and community members pitch in to make Paddle South possible. “It’s the most fun we have on the river,” he said. “We hope to have it come back many more years.”


Men’s K-1:
1. Stephen Wright
2. Hunter Katich
3. Tom Dolle

Women’s K-1:
1. Sage Donnelly
2. Emily Jackson
3. Adriene Levknecht

1. Jordan Poffenberger
2. Seth Chapelle
3. Landon Miller

Jr. Women’s K-1:
1. Oliva McGinnis
2. Ava Christensen
3. Katie Frankhouser

Jr. Men’s K-1:
1. Jacob McConnel (competed in a C-1)
2. Daly Kellogg
3. Kenny Kellogg

Cadet Men’s K-1:
1. Landon Miller
2. Mateo Williams
3. Cannon Miller

Cadet Women’s K-1:
1. Maddie Kimmel
2. Julia Frangenberg
3. Abby Holcombe

–Video: C&K visited Columbus in 2016 to hear how the city transformed a row of rundown riverside mills into a playboater’s paradise: