Monthly Archives: March 2021

Stroke of Luck

People

Photos courtesy of Paul Lester

Being in the right place at the right time (along with considerable talent) has given an Evans photographer the good fortune of building a successful career on the links and behind the lens.

There’s nothing that Evans resident Paul Lester enjoys more than making a good golf shot. Sure, it’s nice to do it with a club in hand. But with a camera? Even better.

For 50 years, Lester has photographed the world’s best golfers at tournaments, pro-ams, charity events and after-hours parties. He always has been happy to share his work with the subjects of his photographs. He also has compiled some of his favorite shots from years past in a book, Beyond the Fairway, so the rest of us can get a glimpse inside his world as well.

“I wanted it to be a book of older photos. I didn’t want any from nowadays,” Lester says. “The old photos are the ones I like. I could never get those pictures again. The access I had then, nobody has now.”

With a little help from some of his longtime friends, he put the book together in about four months. CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz, who has anchored the network’s Masters Tournament coverage since 1989, wrote the forward for the book.

“He has a gift to make every member of his universe feel important, to bring kindness and joy to everyone he touches. . .. He was born with an enormous talent,” Nantz writes. “Through his prism, he has captured many of the most candid and glorious snapshots you’ll ever see.”

Barbara Nicklaus wrote the introduction. “Paul’s approach is a mixture of art and documentary. Every time he picks up a camera, he discovers something new,” she writes.

In fact, a comment she made about one of his pictures was the motivating force behind the book.

In 1988, Lester snapped a photo of Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan together as Nicklaus was coming off the course at the Centennial of Golf Pro-Am in New York City. “I took that picture, and I kept it for quite a while,” Lester says.

About 30 years later, he sent two 8×10 prints to the Nicklauses, and Barbara Nicklaus commented that she never had seen the photo – a rare shot of the two golf icons together.

“I thought, ‘If they really like this photo, I have a lot of these kinds of photos,’” Lester says.

Inside the Ropes
His career started in 1970 when, three years out of high school, he went to a prep football game on a November Friday night in Woodland Hills, California. The football coach needed someone to take film footage and asked him to cover the game.

There was just one catch – and it wasn’t on the football field. It was above it. Lester had to climb up a 50-foot pole at midfield to get footage of the entire game. Perched in a metal basket at the top of the pole, he got to work for the sum of $75.

He must have done a good job because he became the go-to cameraman for the high school team, shooting 8-milimeter film. This was how he honed his craft, learning to shoot and frame a shot and compose a picture.

His father, Buddy Lester, a standup comedian and actor whose film credits included the original Ocean’s 11, helped him make connections. An avid golfer, the elder Lester played in many celebrity charity events and encouraged his son to photograph the outings.

At that time Lester was focused on the camera. As a 20-year-old with big dreams, his ambition was to work as a cameraman in the entertainment industry. Instead, though, his first job in “show business” was as a construction worker at Universal Studios. Not exactly what he had in mind.

Taking photos at charity golf events, Lester thought there might be a better way to make a living. At the fundraisers, he photographed foursomes, which included a celebrity and his playing partners, on the tee. He charged each golfer $5 for a 5×7 print and mailed it to them.

“I always liked golf. My dad liked golf a lot,” says Lester. “He told me to bring my camera to tournaments. I was lucky to know people who needed helpers and took over when people couldn’t do it anymore. I just learned as I went.”

He soon found himself photographing many events in Southern California. He also got a referral to work for Golf Illustrated magazine to take pictures of pro players at the events, earning $10 a roll.

Al Geiberger, the first professional to shoot a 59 in competition, befriended and encouraged Lester when the magazine sent him on assignment to do a story about the golfer.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Lester started photographing PGA Tour events for Stan Wood, the former University of Southern California golf coach who had started his own public relations firm for the pro tour. He also started shooting for the LPGA, and he has fond memories of photographing the likes of Nancy Lopez, Patty Sheehan and Pat Bradley.

“The LPGA is where most of us got our start,” says Lester, who still shoots LPGA events. “It was the best tour in the 1970s. The LPGA players will give you a lot more emotion. They were fantastic. They looked fantastic. They dressed fantastic.”

However, when he started shooting the made-for-television Skins Game events in the mid-1980s, he met many key people and sponsors in the industry. An unofficial money event on the PGA Tour from 1983 to 2008, the Skins Game took place in November or December each year after the official PGA Tour season ended.

“The top players in the world were there, and they were at the best places with the best competition,” says Lester.

He started spending a lot of time inside the ropes, and often he was the only golf photographer at banquets for the top pros and celebrities. At the nighttime events, he met the golfers’ wives and children, and he often sent them photos.

“I tried to be friends with them first,” says Lester. “I approached it as a friendly thing rather than as a journalistic photographer. I was part of the show. We were part of the circus that came to town for that week.”

Secret to Success
That friendly approach has been fruitful, and Lester says people have told him he has the right personality to be a photographer.

“You need to know when to talk and when not to talk. You need to know when to listen,” Lester says. “I always laid back a little. I have to shoot what I see. I became more than just a photographer to these guys. I would talk about personal things to develop a personal relationship.”

He enjoys being in the thick of the tournament action in the daytime, and he loves working at pro-ams and charity events because he can set up shots and yell out to players to “give me something.”

“I like it when they’re laughing,” says Lester. “It shows that they’re good human beings.”

Hall of Fame golfer Amy Alcott and Johnny Bench, Hall of Fame baseball catcher, struck a pose for him – hats on backward, of course – during a break at a Dinah Shore Winners Circle Tournament. Bench got down in his catcher’s crouch, and Alcott stood behind him like a home plate umpire.

At a Skins Game, Fred Funk needed no prompting. Lester got a shot of him paying up on a bet that Annika Sorenstam couldn’t outdrive him. After she drove her ball past his on the fifth hole, Funk unzipped his golf bag and slipped into a pink-flowered skirt.

A photo of John Daly, with cigarette and beer in hand at the opening party of his first Skins Game in 1991, is one of his favorites. “It’s a classic,” Lester says. “It’s vintage John Daly.”

In another shot, Nicklaus is resting his head on Lee Trevino’s shoulder. “I knew that they knew that I was there,” says Lester.

Riviera Country Club is one of his favorite places to shoot because he knows the venue so well, and he also enjoys photographing the Ryder Cup.

“The emotion is just nonstop,” Lester says. “It’s a whole different deal because it’s not an individual thing. The thing is huge – the press, the parties. It is very special.”

He tries to take photos quickly, and oftentimes he knows the shot he wants beforehand.

“I could get the pictures that no one else can do,” he says. “Anyone in that book would do anything I asked them to do. I knew I could shoot it and light it very well, but I had the relationships.”

From the daytime golf to the nighttime events, it’s not unusual for him to work 10-hour days.

“I do a lot of corporate, charity and celebrity events. I enjoy them all. I’d better be pumped up and excited for every job,” says Lester, who divides his time between Evans and Los Angeles. “The people that you’re doing it for, that might be the only event they do a year.”

He shot his first Masters in 1995. He missed the following tournament, but he has been a regular since 1997. During the Masters, Lester typically shoots private parties, where tour players and celebrities often make appearances, in the evenings. “I probably do four houses a night,” he says.

Being in position helps him get the image he wants.

“The secret is being ready. In golf, it’s all luck,” says Lester. “Are you at the right spot? Can you get the right angle? When you’re a still photographer, all you can hope for is that you’re there. The challenge is getting in the correct spot without getting in trouble.”

It’s also tricky to get a shot that’s different from everyone else’s.

“When looking through the lens and the shot is over, a lot of people pull the camera down,” says the 71-year-old Lester. “I try and leave it up as much as I can because you never know what the reaction will be. Don’t take your eyes off of the lens thinking that it’s over because you’re going to miss the shot.”

50 Years and Counting
Even though Lester got his start filming high school football games and occasionally shoots other sports, he has specialized in golf.

“The people that I know are in golf,” he says. “If I shot everything, I wouldn’t have the relationships that I have with the golf community.”

In his half-century career, he has traveled the world recording key moments and images in golf. His work has been featured in Golf Digest, Sports Illustrated and ESPN, the Magazine.

“I’ve been so lucky to cover golf for 50 years,” Lester says.

We’re lucky he has covered golf so well for so long, too. The book is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and beyondthefairway.square.site. To purchase any of Lester’s photos, visit paullester.zenfolio.com and click on Portfolio.

By Betsy Gilliland

 

Finding His Voice

People

From performing comedy sketches to opining on the latest news, an Evans podcaster ranks No. 17 in Sweden, No. 24 in Italy and No. 81 in the U.K.

Six months ago, Evans resident Finnish Warren knew nothing about podcasting. Minor detail. In October he launched his aptly named podcast, “You’re Not From Around Here With Finnish Warren.”

Finnish moved to Evans from the mountains of his native Southern California in February 2020 with his wife, Jodie, and their 13-year-old son because of her job. (Irony lives. Her employer wanted his wife to spend more time in the office. You can guess how that has turned out so far.)

“My wife said I needed to do a podcast,” says Finnish, who formerly worked in television post-production. “I had never listened to a podcast.”

She must have been on to something. Available on Apple, Spotify, Buzzsprout and Google, the comedy variety podcast with more than 30,000 downloads has been compared to “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “Kids in the Hall” and “Little Britain.”

A Taste of Home
The comedy sketches feature goofy, recurring characters that appeal to a worldwide audience, and Finnish believes the podcast is popular in Europe because of its dry British humor. This season he is focusing on Scandinavian-centric and Canadian themes.

“There’s a whole lot of countries in the world that are picking up the show now. I get messages from homesick people,” says Finnish, a stage name he adopted to honor his Finnish relatives. “A lot of ex-pats listen to the show. During the pandemic, they can get a little taste of home.”

He also interviews recording artists such as Nick Camryn, the Moore Brothers, Scott Collins, Scott Milligan, Grammy nominee Angela McCluskey and classical violinist Jennifer Frautchi.

The podcast has a cast of seven people that includes his sister, Tina Hammarström, aka Swedish Nora, and his childhood friend, Darren Reagan, a Realtor in Chicago.

At the beginning of the year, his former co-worker, Bridget G., a political Instagram influencer, started writing and co-producing the show with him. “We went from zero sketches to six sketches a show,” Finnish says.

He does a podcast, which lasts 40 minutes to an hour, every Friday at noon. Typically, it includes sketches, a monologue, a guest interview and music. “Nothing that we do is complex,” says Finnish.

Calling All Nerds
Despite the podcast’s popularity in Europe, 87% of the audience lives in the United States. “We went from 100 listeners to more than 5,000 an episode overnight,” Finnish says. “The thing about podcasts is you don’t have to listen to them live.”

He enjoys the freedom and creativity of producing podcasts and the connection he makes with his listeners. “I’m a nerd, and every person who listens to the show is a nerd,” he says.

And of course, Finnish, who did some standup comedy as well, loves to make people laugh. First, though, he seeks the approval of his toughest critic.

“I get my son to listen, and if he calls it funny, it’s good to go,” he says.

Wise man, that Finnish, who listens to his wife and son. And he would love for people, nerds or not, to lend him an ear, too. “When people who don’t know about the show give it chance, they like it,” he says.

Low-Carb Zucchini Pancakes

Side Dishes
  • 1 pound zucchini
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 medium scallions, minced
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons lemon pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 cup almond flour
  • 2 tablespoons coconut flour
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • Olive oil for frying

Grate zucchini and place in a colander. Season with salt and gently toss; let sit 5 minutes. Squeeze zucchini with your hands and place into a medium mixing bowl. Add eggs and scallions and mix together. In a separate small bowl, add remaining dry ingredients and stir together. Add to zucchini and mix thoroughly.

Heat a skillet over medium high heat. Add oil to cover bottom of pan. When hot, stir zucchini mixture and dip out 1/4 cup (level) of batter and pour into pan. With a spatula, gently shape into a pancake. Cook about 3 minutes, adjusting heat if needed. Flip and cook 3 more minutes, adding more oil to the pan as needed to prevent sticking. Drain on paper towel before serving. Makes 8 pancakes.

Test the Waters

Sports

Photos courtesy of Cole Watkins Tours

Welcome spring with a kayak tour of local waterways and you just might paddle past ancient shell mounds, glide along beneath osprey and herons, share a snack with wild donkeys and strike a pose at a whale of a boulder.

Don’t ever tell Martinez resident Cole Watkins that there’s nothing to do. Even when – or especially when – activities come to a halt because of a global pandemic.

Watkins, who owns kayak rental and tour business Cole Watkins Tours, had his best year yet in 2020 – despite shutting down operations in March and April due to covid-19.

“We actually doubled our sales from our best year ever,” he says.

He had the first inkling that people were anxious to get on the water in late April when he got a call from Andy Colbert of Outdoor Augusta Riverside to borrow several kayaks. (The two kayak rental companies, along with Savannah Rapids Kayak Rental, often loan each other kayaks when they have reservations for big groups.) “He said, ‘Every day is Saturday,’” Watkins says.

After all, kayaking is a great way to get outside and enjoy nature while social distancing.

The Basics
In his weekday job, Watkins works as the director of content strategy for Aggressor Adventures. He started CWT 10 years ago as a junior in college when he had a class assignment to build a business from the ground up.

“Kayaking is an easy hobby to pick up, especially on the flat-water routes,” Watkins says. “It’s great for all ages.”

He credits the pandemic and the Serene 18 Paddle Trail with boosting his business last year. Serene 18 is a Columbia County Convention and Visitors Bureau initiative in which paddling enthusiasts can explore 18 square miles on four of Georgia’s most serene water trails – Stallings Island and Betty’s Branch on the Savannah River, the Augusta Canal and Clarks Hill Lake. Paddlers receive a passport, which they get stamped when they finish a route, and earn a free T-shirt after completing all four water trails.

CWT offers kayak rentals and guided tours on four routes – Betty’s Branch, Stallings Island and the Dam Trip on the Savannah River and the Augusta Canal. Single and tandem kayaks are available for rent, and CWT drops off and picks up the vessels. The rentals also include life jackets, paddles and dry packs.

For safety purposes during the pandemic, paddlers must pre-pay over the phone by credit card or with an online payment app. CWT emails waivers to customers so they can print and fill out the forms before their trips. Start times between groups begin at 15-minute intervals, and all of the kayaks and equipment are sanitized at the end of each tour.

On group tours, CWT can accommodate up to 15 paddlers to Stallings Island and up to 25 paddlers on other routes. However, 10 is the average number per tour. A minimum of two people is required for a tour, and paddlers can rent kayaks or bring their own.

“Most of our tours are combined group tours,” Watkins says. “We have beginners’ routes for people who have never been kayaking. If we have combined groups of beginners and experienced paddlers, we will have two guides so we can split the groups if need be.”

One guide per seven people accompanies each group, and CWT has six guides, including Watkins. Before the tours get underway, guides give a brief tutorial on the proper paddle stroke and water placement and correct seating in tandems. Last year CWT did more guided tours than rentals.

Tours typically start at 9 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. During Daylight Saving Time, sunset trips beginning at 5:30 p.m. are available as well.

The Trails
Offering beautiful scenery and a good time, the water trails include:

Betty’s Branch:
A Savannah River tributary with minimal current, Betty’s Branch is CWT’s most popular route for rentals. The launch and finish are at the same boat ramp in Riverside Park, so there is no need to carpool or shuttle. It’s a good trail for newbies, and paddlers can choose one of two options on this route.

The first option is to paddle north until kayakers get tired and then return to the boat ramp. This 4-mile route takes about two hours.

The longer 6-mile option around Germany Island takes about 3 1/2 hours to complete. A small sandbar 30 minutes north of the boat ramp is great for picnics. The route is more secluded and shadier on the tributary side than the Savannah River side, and it is best to travel in the morning before water levels rise in the afternoon.

Wildlife is abundant on this water trail. The most common animals along the route are turtles, herons, osprey, deer, hawks, otters, raccoons, owls, beavers and foxes. Lucky paddlers might even spy a boar along the way. The trail also runs through Champions Retreat Golf Club.

Augusta Canal:
With its steady downstream current, the 5-mile Augusta Canal trip is ideal for groups with children. The route starts at Savannah Rapids Pavilion and ends at Lake Olmstead. (For Serene 18 purposes, the trail continues for another 2 miles to downtown Augusta’s 13th Street.) The trip takes 2 to 2 1/2 hours to complete, and swimming is not allowed. CWT does not offer shuttle services, so paddlers need to park a car at Lake Olmstead before meeting at Savannah Rapids.

Stallings Island:
The 2.7-mile Stallings Island tour, which follows a figure eight loop, covers the most secluded section of the Savannah River. This intermediate level, two-hour trip can have a steady current, so it’s best to have a little paddling experience.

“My company is known for the Stallings Island route,” says Watkins. “It’s the most popular trip for guided tours.”

This history-rich route first leads paddlers through a chain of islands referred to as “99 Islands,” some of which are so close together that it feels like paddling through small creeks. Near the South Carolina side, kayakers pass two cypress trees known as the “hissing trees.”

“There’s a 90% chance you’ll see a snake in the trees,” says Watkins. “It’s optional for people to paddle over to them. We always have at least two guides on this route, so the lead guide can take people to the trees and the other one can hang back with everyone else.”

Nonpoisonous river snakes are spotted most commonly, but copperheads and cottonmouths have made an appearance as well. “They barely even move,” Watkins says.

With or without a closeup of the snakes, paddlers continue on Stallings Island, which was identified as an archaeological site in 1861. Designated as a national landmark, the island is maintained by the Archeological Conservancy.

Archaeologists speculate that the Stallings culture originated about 5,000 years ago, and it produced the oldest documented pottery in North America, the first local shell fishing and the region’s first settled communities.

Home to many shell mounds, the island was an apparent gathering spot for Indians who lived, grew crops and died there. A 1929 expedition by Harvard University’s Peabody Museum found 89 burial sites on the island.

“I tell people about Stallings Island, but I don’t want them to feel like they’re in a history class,” says Watkins.

No one is allowed on the island, but that doesn’t stop its current residents – wild donkeys and goats – from greeting visitors on the riverbanks. Guides are helpful because most people don’t know where to find the donkeys or how to get them to the water’s edge.

“I have a distinct whistle to call them,” says Watkins. “People can feed donkeys apples, carrots and veggies out of their hands.”

The goats keep island vegetation under control, he says, and the donkeys protect the goats from coyotes that swim to the site.

Currently, Stallings Island is home to three donkeys – Jenny, a mama donkey; her niece, Abigail, and a baby donkey, Buster Jr.

His father, Buster, a photogenic donkey that liked humans, was removed from the island last June because of his aggressive behavior toward other donkeys.

“There were reports that Buster bullied two small male donkeys to death, and Abigail was so beat up that she needed medical attention,” Watkins says.

Watkins, Colbert, Savannah Riverkeeper, the Archaeological Conservancy, Veterans for Clean Water and others collaborated to relocate Buster. The group put two life jackets around Buster’s neck and helped him swim about 300 feet between two jon boats connected by a stick to the South Carolina side of the river. A horse trailer was waiting to take him to an animal rescue facility, and Watkins says he has since been adopted by a farm family. (Video of Buster’s removal is posted on Cole Watkins Tours’ Facebook page.)

“It was quite an adventure to get him off the island. It was bittersweet for me. Buster was a baby when I first started going there, and he was like a pet to me,” says Watkins. “Hopefully, Abigail and Buster Jr. will mate to increase the donkey population.”

The eight to 12 goats on the island were led by a horned, black and brown goat called Bruiser until he died in February. Watkins doesn’t recommend feeding the goats because they just might decide to headbutt an unsuspecting guest. However, he says, the goats have become friendlier to people since Buster left.

Once the donkeys have been petted and fed, kayakers proceed to Stevens Creek Dam and a stop at Whale Rock for a photo op before returning to the starting point. “The boulder-sized rock looks like a whale coming out of the water,” says Watkins.

Strom Thurmond Dam:
The 7-mile downstream Dam Trip starts at the bottom of Clarks Hill Lake and ends at Riverside Park. Paddlers enter the Savannah River and get a view of the 1,100-foot wide, 200-foot tall J. Strom Thurmond Dam. Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1946-1954, the dam provides flood control, hydropower and downstream navigation.

While not difficult to navigate, this route is best paddled in the afternoon because of the current. As the longest tour, the water trail takes about four hours to complete.

“We always try to time the route around a dam release so we have current going down. It can feel pretty slow if there’s no current,” Watkins says.

The first half of the trip goes downstream on the main channel, and the second half travels through Betty’s Branch. CWT does not offer shuttle services, so kayakers need to park a car at Riverside Park before meeting at the starting point.

Warm Welcome
Watkins has lots of repeat customers, and he estimates that 40% of his clientele come from other Georgia cities and Southeastern states such as South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida. He also says Serene 18 has attracted a lot of out-of-town visitors.

“I have always enjoyed showing people hobbies that I love. I like to introduce them to the outdoors and kayaking,” says Watkins. “I’m a born and bred Columbia County kid. There’s so much to do here, and I’m always happy to show people everything Columbia County has to offer.”

By Todd Beck