Cameron Shook

Walking the Catawba

Cameron Shook
Walking the Catawba

Over the past few years kayaking the Catawba River has gained in popularity so that it’s more rare to go on a weekend paddle and not see anyone than it is to have the river to yourself anymore. Part of the reason is that Duke Power began scheduled recreational releases from the Lake Wylie Dam every weekend, removing some of the guess work and sheer luck when trying to paddle the river. The bad news is that with the potential for drought Duke has now reduced the releases to 10am-1:30pm on the weekends, and even that may be reduced to no releases if the drought worsens. This is bad news if you were planning on kayaking the Catawba, but it’s actually good news if you don’t mind hiking in sandals.

I know for a fact that if you’re a good enough paddler, you can go from the Dam to River Park at the lowest possible flow without having to get out of your boat once; I’ve seen it done in a 17’ sea kayak which utterly boggled my mind until I found out the woman paddling was a Bunny Johns, world champion paddler and ex-president of the Nantahala Outdoor Center. For the rest of us mere mortals, essentially that’s impossible. At low flow, you’ll see more rocks than water and your boat will probably touch more rocks than water depending on how good you can read the water to find where rocks lurk beneath the shallow water. You’ll either try to scootch your boat over the rocks or will get out of your boat and drag it 10’ to the next stretch of navigable water, getting more tired, frustrated, and annoyed because what was supposed to be a leisurely float down the river turned into a death march down the Catawba.

On persons nightmare is another person’s adventure, and usually the only difference comes down to preparation. If you have the right gear, a nightmare is actually a fun day out; it’s the difference between skiing in your swimming trunks or going down the same mountain with heated socks. So with that in mind, prepare your gear for a soggy hike down the Catawba and get a different perspective of the entire river.

Everything changes when the water level drops, and there are plenty of reasons to make the effort. If fishing is your passion, low water helps you narrow down where the fish are hiding quite easily and puts lots of hungry fish into close quarters. Shallow water warms up easier which can make the fish less likely to feed, but it also makes them lazy allowing you to paddle up next to some of the monsters that hide in our waters. Once while out at low water, I witnessed the largest fish I’ve ever seen outside of an aquarium. While fish stories grow with time, I was within 20’ feet of the fish and from the dorsal fin to the tail fin measured 4-5’. Whether it was a giant catfish, a gar of unusual size, or a sturgeon that shouldn’t exist in these regions, I have no idea. I just know that I was very fortunate to be guiding a CN2 crew that day and they captured it briefly on video.

With the drop in water level, it also exposes more of the banks of the river and you’ll see muskrats, beavers, otters, and even foxes and raccoons making their way down to the waters edge to drink and also gather mussels left high and dry. An unfortunate side effect is it also exposes all of the garbage and debris scattered along the bottom of the river and while some of it is worth finding (like that cannon I’ve been hunting for years), it also shows tires, refrigerators, and if you’re lucky a john boat. Some much older remains can also be found more easily at the Native American fishing weir on the back of the island before you reach I77. I would suggest entering from the bottom of the island, because at low water there’s no chance of you making it through the weir without getting hung up at least once.

If this sounds better than binge-watching Netflix, start getting your gear in order for the trip. First off, I would highly suggest shoes that offer good ankle support and excellent draining abilities. A combination of neoprene socks and sandals work great because the neoprene seals out the small rocks and mud while the sandals drain instantly; the only downside is that orthopedic shoes are sexy in comparison. Just make sure that whatever shoes you pick will actually stay on your feet in case you step into a mud hole because limping down the river bed is a miserable experience. Resist the temptation to use your paddle as a walking stick because more than likely you’ll break the blade in half. Bring along an actual hiking stick to give yourself some extra balance.

If you have a quiver of kayaks to choose from, choose the shortest length that you have and if possible, a sit on top is preferable to a sit in. Getting in and out of a sit on top is much easier than any sit in, and the short length allows better maneuverability to weave in the narrow stretches of water. I’d also suggest to not bring a kayak at low water that you don’t want scratched, beaten, and given a well-used look.  A 6-10’ length of rope off the front of the kayak will make it easier to tow the boat behind you, and also comes in handy if you decide to stop and fish and want to tie it off to a tree; at no point would I clip or secure this to you as that is an enormous safety hazard. So is not taking or wearing a PFD, so always have one on you.

With all of your gear ready to go, I’d suggest arriving at the dam early with plenty of water and food; this isn’t going to set any new speed records so take your time and enjoy it. The most difficult section is the first mile, as at low water you’re probably going to be dragging your kayak more than paddling it. If you’re going to be paddling, learning to read the water becomes essential and without it you’ll be scooting across rocks for the rest of the day. The best way to describe how to read the water, is avoid any kind of disturbances on the waters surface, and as you paddle downstream avoid the points of any “V”s were the point is towards you. When a V points upstream, there’s a rock hiding at the very tip. If, instead the V is pointing downstream, aim for the tip because this is caused by 2 rocks funneling the water to a point and you want to try and squeeze between the two of them. It takes a long time to get the hang of it, but once you do it’s pretty straightforward. And if you find it difficult on the Catawba, don’t feel bad: the Catawba is unique in the fault line that follows the river allows the rocks to break off at 90 degree angles which makes the disturbances in the water less predictable.

It’s not often that you hear of anything good coming from a drought, and with our wet spring I’m surprised it took us as long as it did to have river slowed to a trickle. The good news is that the adventure doesn’t have to stop, it just turns into a different adventure.

Amish in the sense that, at one point, my family helped others raise barns.
Now I build websites to help others build their businesses.