Teenage romance is a fickle thing, especially when you fall in love with a river. 11 years ago on a warm June morning, I took my first trip down the Catawba River in a kayak as part of the “Extreme Teens” camp that Rock Hill PRT was running that summer. In youthful optimism (also interchangeable with ignorance), I brought my own personal kayak: a Perception Whiplash that 4 months of cutting grass finally bought it off my next door neighbor. For those not familiar with the model, it was a hair under 9’ and was the perfect beginner whitewater boat. It was not the perfect boat when I showed up at River Park at 8am on the first day of camp for our 18 mile trip to Landsford Canal; this was the first time they’d ever had this camp and thought “Hey! These kids are up for an adventure! Let’s give them one!” and proceeded to drag us on the Bataan Death Paddle for the next 8 hours. Despite the misery of paddling that far on flat water in a whitewater boat, I fell in love with that section of the Catawba because along the way, we didn’t see another person and only saw a handful of houses. After getting off the water, I was enamored, and wouldn’t stop talking about her to anyone that’d stop and listen.
Over the following years, our relationship became more involved as I visited the river as a guide, as a racer, and even as the gear mule for a CN2 Cameraman. She started getting attention for all the reasons I fell in love with her and more and more people started enjoying the river, to the point where there were even kayak rental companies started to keep up with the demand. Despite all that though, the Catawba still felt it still made time for me to make me feel special; sure, I might see a handful of people on the 6 mile section from the Lake Wylie Dam down to River Park, but it was just me once I headed downstream towards Landsford in the long 18 miles from River Park.
Over the next 7 years, I did that 18 mile section over and over, visiting the small Rocky Shoal Spider Lily colony below Sugar Creek, and always looking for the elusive Cannon of the Catawba that I’d heard no less than 40 people claim to have seen but could never tell me where it was. (I’ve heard it’s location as far north as above River Park to as far south as right below Highway 5; I’ve looked and looked but still haven’t found it myself). The Catawba meant so much to me I even organized an event with York Technical College and a group of volunteers went down the entire 24 miles from the Lake Wylie Dam to Landsford cleaning the river of careless human waste, removing nearly 1.5 tons out of garbage from the river. But, when I moved away over 4 years ago, it stopped.
I didn’t stop loving the Catawba, but it became something that was no longer close and convenient; like that girlfriend you loved while she was close, but you easily drifted away from once you both went off to separate colleges, my relationship with the river was put on hold until I moved back to Rock Hill a little over a year ago. I’d heard things, about how she was busier than ever with even more people were discovering her for the first time Timidly, I avoided her until June when some friends, Chris and Lauren, asked if I’d be interested in going with them down the full 24 miles and camping overnight about halfway. My wife had never been down my favorite section below River Park, and it was unusually cool for June so I figured why not? Let’s get the awkward reunion over with.
A change I was extra thankful for was to be able to drive down almost to the river’s edge and unload our canoe and metric ton of gear, because camping in a canoe is camping in style. What surprised me though, was that on a rainy Saturday morning, we couldn’t even find a parking spot at the Lake Wylie Dam boat access. It was standing room only, with nearly 30 tubers puffing eagerly into their inflatable craft to hasten their ability to get drunk on the water. It just seemed so cheap…and dirty. “But hey”, I reminded myself, “She’s got her own thing going now up here. Just wait till we get back to where it was always quiet and just the two of us. It’ll be just like old times then”. I kept repeating my mantra while passing some 80 odd people already on the water in innertubes, kayaks, and canoes as we headed south.
We arrived at River Park a short hour and a half later, and stopped to eat a few snacks and hydrate before starting the longest section of the river. The crowds had thinned once we passed River Walk and the Catawba finally started behaving like the River I remembered once we set out from River Park. After 2 miles, the water cleared up from the run off of Manchester Creek and the river spread out. The sun finally burned through the early rain, so by noon it was warm and sunny, with a breeze that always seemed to be in our face no matter how many bends or turns we took.
Finally it felt like me and the Catawba were reconnecting, starting to have that silent, open conversation that happens when I’m in moving water and there’re no distractions. It lasted for about 5 miles before the Catawba decided to break my heart, because as we turned a bend we saw a group of kayakers paddling just like we were. Jealousy and simmering rage took over and I kept muttering to myself, “But it’s my river…this is my piece of it...what are you doing here”. I hoped to just pass them and get to the island below Sugar Creek where we planned to camp, but an even bigger shock came as we neared Sugar Creek the sound of construction equipment: backhoes, dump trucks, and graders was so loud you couldn’t hear the rush of the small set of rapids just above the island which marked the end of the day’s paddle. And the final kick after I was already broken came when I realized there were no less than 10-15 people already camping on the island, and there was no room for us at all.
Bewildered, I stopped paying attention and hit a rock which almost tipped our canoe in the middle of one rapid. We pulled over to river right where I knew of a small camp site tucked into the woods and found that it would fit our needs perfectly. It was only 2pm, but we decided to stop early to fish, hammock, and relax before setting off towards Landsford the following day. As I sat in the hammock, listening to the laughter of the campers on the island and the “BEEP….BEEP….BEEP” of the heavy equipment backing up, I realized that the Catawba I knew is a Catawba that will never be again and it hurt. John Muir mourned the loss of the pristine Hetch Hetchy valley being turned into a reservoir, but he mourned it no more than I mourned my dam controlled, muddy, and now filled with people Catawba.
Part of me was glad that the Catawba was enjoyed by so many people, it would be elitist and selfish to say they had no right to enjoy the river like I did, but it felt like I had been squeezed out; that there was no room left for me in it. Feeling sullen and a little depressed, I helped cook dinner over the BBQ grill that we had brought (I told you, canoe camping is camping in style) and sat with Lauren and Chris late into the night talking about wild places, places not filled with people like the Catawba. Because wildness is never in your backyard, it’s in places like Alaska, or Maine, or Mongolia. As we were talking about our big adventure plans, I heard the rustle of some leaves about 10 yards away into the pitch blackness of the night. I didn’t think much of it, but clapped my hands to scare off the deer and brought my flashlight towards the noise to scare it off. Chris and Lauren followed suit, all of us training our beams of light on something that definitely wasn’t a deer, something much shorter with shaggier fur. One of us, and no not Lauren, let out a shriek which turned into something akin to an Indian Warwhoop which scared the coyote into an ambling run as it noiselessly was swallowed back into the darkness.
As I sat back in my chair, heart pounding in my chest, I started counting all of the times I’d ever been that close to a wild carnivore while camping and the answer was…none. It was rare enough to see a deer while backpacking, but I’d never had an animal come into camp before. Maybe the Catawba still had something just for me after all.
The next morning was rainy and windy, with booming thunder, low water, and lots of paddling with no current to help us along. After passing the island, we didn’t see another soul until we reached Landsford Canal. There were no more construction noises, no loud campers, just the quiet of the still waters and the hum of cars when you passed under Highway 5. I don’t have the same relationship with the Catawba that I had before, but we’ve both grown up and the relationship is a good one again; better than I can say with ex-girlfriends that’s for sure.
Authors note: I am going to start making a concerted effort to find the cannon of the Catawba, and if found, ensure it is properly protected for its historical significance because depending on who you ask it’s either Revolutionary War, War of 1812, or Civil War in origin. If you have any stories of seeing it, or know where it is at the present time, please send me an email as I’d love to finally see it.
Amish in the sense that, at one point, my family helped others raise barns.
Now I build websites to help others build their businesses.