By Brian Panowich
Photos courtesy of Lenny Birt

Lenny Birt began his love affair with the rapids as a fisherman. 

“I would go down to the shoals and fish, mainly for bass, and I would look around me and see this beautiful place that might be on people’s radar, but [it] is so much more than a lot of people know. I started to get more interested in what I was looking at, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to share,” Birt says. “I figured the more people knew about the habitats and the wildlife, the more prone they’d be to get involved.”

The North Augusta resident and engineer took his involvement one step further in 2017 when he started the Friends of the Rapids. The group was born on Instagram and open to anyone who’d like to participate. The vision was to open a few eyes and educate people about “the jewel we have right here in own backyard.” 

“[I want to make people aware of] … the jewel we have right here in our own backyard.

–Lenny Birt

In July 2022, the organization put together an event, or more a call to action, asking local kayakers and other visitors of the Savannah Rapids to pitch in and help keep the area clean. The idea was simple: If you see something that can be cleaned up, then help out. 

Since its inception, the group has garnered more than 500 members, including environmental advocates like State Representative Bill Hixon, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and even popular Chief Meteorologist Riley Hale from the news station WRDW. 

“I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the help I’ve received along the way in this effort,” Birt says. He has also taken several steps personally to educate the public.

 “We put up educational signs in a couple of high-traffic areas like the clearing by Interstate 20 and the Heritage Preserve on the South Carolina side. That way visitors could not only take in the beauty of the area but could also leave knowing a little bit more about what makes it that way,” he says.

Birt, being an avid fisherman and a fierce naturalist, even caught the attention of Clemson University. The university reached out for help on a study pertaining to the population and habits of the Bartram Bass, a fish native to the river’s shoals. Thanks in part to the work provided by Birt, the study was able to gather a significant amount of data to possibly increase the population of this rare fish. 

Birt also encourages local fishermen of the shoals to learn about the fish they catch and understand the different species — and as always, to practice catch and release. That way, the local community can pitch in to keep the shoals bursting with the resources that make it such a rich environment. 

Although Birt (and the Friends of the Rapids) has mainly existed as a vehicle for education, he hasn’t been afraid to get in the ring and advocate for the river that he loves so much. 

In March, Birt spoke with the Augusta Richmond County Commission about implementing wildlife protections on Riverwatch Parkway. The list of animals, plants and vegetation throughout the shoals can be pretty long and varied, ranging from the otters and osprey to the River Redhorse Suckerfish or the gorgeous and rare Rocky Shoal Spider Lily. Birt even encountered a partial albino deer that took his breath away.

“The area is just teeming with beauty, but it’s a beauty worth protecting. It’s a delicate ecosystem and the last area of its kind in the Savannah River Basin,” he cautions.

Next month, Birt and the Friends of the Rapids will again be getting the word out about their Help Clean The Rapids Month. By asking kayakers and other volunteers to be aware of anything harming the area, he and his organization hope to step up the care of one of the best natural wonders this town has to offer. 

To get involved, visit Instagram at @friendsoftherapids. Birt is also known to fill the site with facts and photography, making it definitely worth a look. 

As seen in the May 2023 issue of Augusta magazine.

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