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Splash! New waves of people flock to Catawba River in Rock Hill area

A family of tubers launches Saturday from the Lake Wylie dam.
A family of tubers launches Saturday from the Lake Wylie dam. tkimball@heraldonline.com

Editor’s note: Today The Herald begins a series of articles focusing on the boom in recreational activities along the Catawba River in York, Chester and Lancaster counties. You also will be able to read these articles online at heraldonline.com.

Overflowing trash bins filled with empty cans and snack bags, popped inner tubes spilling onto the ground, a parade of bright colored kayaks and tubes floating down the Catawba River are some signs that recreation life along the river is swiftly booming.

The river has been seeing record-breaking recreational use in less than a decade, according to York County recreation and tourism leaders. They say it started when people “rediscovered” the natural resource that flows 30 miles through York, Chester and Lancaster counties, and courses 200 miles through the Carolinas.

“It is a resource that not everybody has,” said Auvis Cole, interim executive director for the Rock Hill/York County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s good to see it being utilized and developed.”

Recreation jump

The recreational push started when developers of Riverwalk — a $600 million mixed-use development — demolished the ramshackle, abandoned Celanese industrial plant on 1,000 acres in Rock Hill along the river.

In 2010, Rock Hill opened the riverfront Piedmont Medical Trail in Riverwalk. The 3.35-mile trail is part of the city’s trails and greenways system, and the Carolina Thread Trail. Fronting the trail in the River District are newly-built apartments, restaurants, shops and parking spots, where joggers stretch and leashed dogs hustle down the path.

Tucked between the Pump House restaurant and the trail is a kayak and canoe access, where paddlers and tubers enter and exit the river.

The swishing of the water and the wobbling of a kayak replace the once-quiet, wooded natural river bank. Tubers settle in for a long drift to the next outtake at River Park — another Rock Hill riverfront park that spans 70 acres.

“Certainly with the addition of Riverwalk, I think, changed the access to the river,” said C.C. Williams, a outdoor recreation coordinator for Rock Hill’s Parks, Recreation & Tourism, which offers paddling clinics on the river through its Active Living and Learning Outdoors program. “Once the community here in Rock Hill rediscovered the Catawba, it started to change here pretty fast.”

PRT clinics range from introductory kayaking to whitewater paddling and swift-water rescue programs for local fire departments, Williams said.

“We do see people that have been in our class on the water,” he said. “And that is a great joy.”

In 2004, “we would bring a group down the river and see maybe one paddler other than us, and not much else,” said Williams, who teaches the classes. “Now you come out here on a Saturday or Sunday, and there’s hundreds of people.”

Recreation demand

Tubing requires little skill, but offers relaxation, sight-seeing and sunbathing.

“The tubing on the Catawba River has really just exploded,” Williams said.

The creation of Riverwalk access made a leisurely trip down the river more time-effective, he said.

“Having that access in the middle made it so you could get a shorter trip in,” Williams said. “It didn’t take all day.”

Williams credits the river rush to recreational supply and demand: more recreation is attracting business, which is attracting more recreation.

Nearly half a dozen outfitters that offer paddling and tubing are reeling in river consumers, Williams said.

Tubers can even float in large groups.

Another trip offered by outfitters starts at the Lake Wylie dam between Tega Cay and Fort Mill and ends more than 3 1/2 miles down the river at Riverwalk, or 6 1/2 miles at River Park.

“I think for the most part, there was a pent-up demand,” Williams said.

Paddlers and tubers are not the only ones navigating the Catawba. Fishing tournaments also are being lured to the river, Williams said.

Recreation growing

And while paddlers and tubers are on the river every day, the bulk of them flock to the outfitters Friday through Sunday when Duke Energy releases water for recreational use, Williams said. Duke — which manages the river and operates 13 hydroelectric stations and 11 reservoirs — releases 3,000 cubic feet per second on the weekends.

Water is released 73 days from April to October, said John Crutchfield, director of public safety and recreation planning strategy services for Duke.

Duke has seen an uptick in recreation this summer, but the company does not have recent site-use data, said company spokesperson Kim Crawford. Maintenance and site inspectors have noticed more visitors, she said.

Catawba River traffic will likely continue to increase.

Duke opened a new kayak and canoe access at the Catawba Indian Reservation in May, Crutchfield said.

Farther down the river, kayakers can access Landsford Canal State Park in Chester County and S.C. Highway 9 Landing in Lancaster County.

Tega Cay City Council in early 2016 approved plans for a 61-acre site, Catawba Park, which will include river access as well as baseball and softball fields, playgrounds and picnic areas.

The city of Rock Hill is planning an access point on Red River Road, near the railroad, with a 50-space parking lot and restrooms planned to open next year, Williams said.

“We are hoping that trail access in the middle will open up the middle section, because the farther you go in the trail, the less traffic there is,” he said. “It’s another way people can access a beautiful part of the river.”

Riverwalk developers are taking out a planned restaurant space near the river to create an amphitheater, said Riverwalk Marketing Director Tara Davidson.

The recreation boom has meant limited parking spaces, and the city having to add more trash and recycling bins, Williams said.

“We’re working through the challenges of increased demand for the river,” he said. “It’s a good problem to have.”

Tracy Kimball: 803-329-4072

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