Ever Paddle the Length of a River?
Here was my justification ... weekend getaway, marginal paddling experience, tagging along with some good buds, always up for a micro-adventure.
That's how I joined Brandon Jones and Greg Nance of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation (CRF) on a 3-day self-supported expedition to kayak the entirety of the 75-mile Wateree River.
The idea was to paddle the most remote river section of the 5000-square mile Catawba-Wateree River Basin. Our goal was to document water quality, analyze navigability, understand the wildlife, and intimately experience the river firsthand which hadn’t been done by the organization, at this scale, in the last 10 years.
Brandon Jones is THE Riverkeeper for the CRF. He is laser focused on water quality, advocacy, and protection. Essentially, he is the science behind ensuring safe drinking water for 2.5 million people in the basin. If you live in the basin, you need to buy him a beer. A beer that has most likely been made from the water that he is keeping clean.
Greg Nance is a deeply verse waterman who has guided and managed literally thousands of river trips, owns his own rafting outfitter, and is the Engagement Manager for CRF. You should also buy him a beer. He has more river knowledge than entire historical societies.
I was in awe of their collective paddling experience, prowess, and authoritative river voices. Clearly, I was the weak link, but it made me feel better about those that are protecting our waterways on a daily basis.
Here's my build up to the trip:
By far, one of the sexiest parts of these types of trips is the last-minute logistical scramble. We met at 5am at The Boathouse, to pull straws on kayak selection and make final arrangements. Via headlamps, we exchanged trailer hitches and excitement as we loaded gear, boats, and good vibes.
We drove south a few hours into the depths of rural SC to set our take-out vehicle 2 miles upstream of the Congaree River on the banks of the Congaree National Park. We then yanked a 180-degree turn and drove my car an hour North to our put in location at the Wateree Dam. Stoke was high, excitement was rising, storms were building.
We arrived at the put-in and the proverbial gear dump ensued. After an intense 15-minute game of hide and go seek with everyone’s gear, the thunderstorm showed up to the party fashionably late. Turns out, I parked directly underneath powerlines that were anxiously awaiting the lightnings arrival as well.
Sparks were literally raining down all around us and some of the loudest thunder I’ve ever heard was booming fractions of seconds later. It was borderline outrageous. I’d like to consider myself a “grown-ass-man”, but in this moment, I felt small, scared, and utterly powerless.
With that being said, we had 75+ river miles ahead of us and our proverbial clock had started ticking many hours ago. Weather apps are great resources, but as we all know, it’s a bit of a gamble playing that game. We saw a gap on the radar, reminded ourselves of the importance of the trip.
Now was our chance to launch. I don’t remember who yelled it over the thundering booms, but “Go time boys!!” is all it took for us to mobilize and find ourselves on the water in a matter of moments.
The Wateree Dam was releasing at a steady 12,000cfs (cubic feet per second or roughly 2 MPH), well above average, so we knew we would have some current to our advantage. The disadvantage reared it’s ugly head when warm rain was met with cold river water resulting in heavy fog at our exact eye level. This meant our visibility was just slightly further than the bow (front) of our kayaks. Add the only shoals and rapids along the entire stretch of river and the intensity of the situation remained highly elevated.
Fortunately, after about 4 miles of paddling, the driving rain subdued, the fog began to lift, and the sun finally peaked through the clouds. We began to see the beginnings of what would keep us smiling from ear to ear for the rest of the trip. This beautiful stretch of river was now in full view and offered amazing landscapes around each oxbow turn.
I’ll let the pictures do most of the heavy lifting from here, as we were constantly spotting wildlife, potential campsites, landmarks, and amazing views over the next 70+ miles.
I think we can all agree that there is something pretty dang cool about accomplishing something to its fullest.
This feeling can come from non-physical victories like reading a book from cover to cover, planting, growing, and eating your own garden veggies, paying off your car or student loans.
Shockingly, I thrive on this feeling through physical accomplishments like climbing to the top of a mountain, covering Every Single Street of your city or neighborhood (exactly 1 year ago, to the day, of this trip), or in this case, paddled the length of river.
My point is, it doesn’t matter how big or small the victory is, and yes, there will be some less-than-ideal situations that inevitably occur (like a stolen catalytic converter out of Greg's truck ... story for another time), but the feeling you get from accomplishing something can and does stick with you well after the challenge has been completed.
Find what works for you, don't be afraid to get out of your comfort zone, just go do it. I'll cheers to that!
Final Trip Stats:
Journal - Ever Paddle the Length of a River?
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Adam Bratton is the Founder and Head Enabler at Human Powered Movement.
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