Whether from it falling constantly from the sky, the mud never drying out, or people constantly posting memes on Facebook the rain has been an ever present fact of life these last 6 months. Hikers have had to wear hip waders, mountain bikers have outfitted their bikes to use paddle wheels instead of tires, and whitewater kayakers have been the happiest they’ve been in ages. While York County’s roughly 20 miles of Catawba River is normally a placid, tranquil river with a few riffles, it’s been running an immense volume of water nearly every day for months. And at that level, not only is it dangerous to paddle but it will add to many hidden dangers for the coming spring and summer months.
First, what are “normal” flow rates for the Catawba and how can you tell? One of the most useful tools is the United States Geological Survey flow gauges that they have placed on almost every body of water too big to jump across. Available through their website, you can get near real-time updates on what the water level is. There are 2 flow gauges on our section of the river, one near Rock Hill and the other near Catawba which is useful because that gauge also takes into account all of the water coming down Sugar Creek which can be significant. For this discussion though, all of the flow ratings I’ll be discussing are from what’s measured at the Rock Hill gauge as the section from the Lake Wylie Dam to River Park is the most paddled section by far.
Median flow levels are around 4000 CFS (cubic feet per second) and that is the perfect level of water to paddle in my opinion. Deep enough to where you’re not dragging over rocks every few minutes, enough water flow so you can float down the river and not put in too much effort, and just enough flow to make the small rapids above Highway 77 and below US 21 fun. Anywhere from 3000 CFS to about 6000 CFS I’d put in this category, with the difference being at 3000 you’re going to bump into more rocks, and at 6000 the rapids will be a bit bigger and the water moving much faster which can turn into a problem if something goes wrong. Anything above 7000-8000 CFS, unless you have whitewater experience and equipment, I can’t recommend you paddling the river because the chances of something going wrong are so high. And as the water rises, even if the rapids smooth out, the danger rises exponentially as well.
Speaking of things going wrong, if you’ve never looked into basic river paddling safety, let me give you a very brief overview of what to do if things go sideways, or in the case of kayaks, upside down. First and foremost, don’t paddle alone. One good conk on your noggin, and if nobody else is near you, you’re in a bad way quick. Second, as a corollary to the conk on the noggin rendering you helpless, always wear a life jacket; always. Yes, I’m that crotchety old man (at 28 years old) who screams at people in 100 degree weather to wear their life jackets. If you’re hot, jump in the water while in said life jacket to cool off. If you paddle without a life jacket on, or tucked in the back of your boat or under your legs, I think less of you as a person.
If both of these tips seem like things you’ve heard a hundred times before, let’s add some stuff you may not have. If you come out of your boat in a set of rapids, and are wearing your life jacket like the awesome person your mother and I know you are, your first business is to hold on to your paddle, let go of your boat, face down stream and go feet first through the rest of the rapids. Don’t worry about your boat; it was built for floating and bouncing off rocks and you weren’t. Just meet up with it downstream, when hopefully a paddling buddy can help you empty it of water. While floating feet first, use your feet to push you around the worst of the rocks, absorbing the shock with your legs. Unless your butt is scraping across the rocks in this position do not stand up. Foot entrapments, where your foot gets stuck either in rocks or tree limbs, is one of the leading causes of drowning and it doesn’t have to happen in very deep water. If you’re up to your chest, and get a foot stuck, big water has enough force to push you face first into the water and you’re in for a very bad time.
Next month, we’ll discuss more dangers on the Catawba and why I think the current tubing craze is a bad idea for this river. Tune in this coming May, for what I think will be the first article I write to generate hate mail.
Amish in the sense that, at one point, my family helped others raise barns.
Now I build websites to help others build their businesses.