Lake Norman & Mooresville

Kayaking for the Catawba

A small group of friends of the Catawba River have planned a weeklong kayak trip to raise awareness for the Catawba River.

The nonprofit foundation American Rivers in 2008 designated the Catawba as "the most endangered river in the United States," adding, "the Catawba is not currently the most-polluted river in the United States, but is most threatened by current trends of development and poor water management."

Development along the river and its lakes, the organization said, creates "more sediment runoff, more stormwater runoff and more sewage."

Nearly 2 million people, including those in the Lake Norman area, rely on water supplied by the river. The regional nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center listed the full river basin among the top 10 most-endangered places in the Southeast in 2010.

Catawba River Keeper Foundation members and advocates say a healthy river system is vital to the region and its economy.

A core group of four people has planned to travel 150 miles, Aug. 7-14, hiking through the river's headwaters and kayaking through a series of lakes and rivers to Lake Norman's Blythe Landing in Cornelius.

They're encouraging donations to the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation as they travel, and fellow river supporters plan to share information about their journey with others through social media and the foundation's website.

The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation advocates for the river, its lakes, tributaries and watershed. The 13-year-old Charlotte nonprofit has about 500 members that pay dues. It also has an active volunteer community of covekeepers and muddy-water watch participants on each lake in the river's system.

The foundation's major focus is to raise the quality of the area's drinking and recreational waters. Its volunteers share the goal of raising awareness about water quality issues throughout the region and keeping the Catawba River off those lists of threatened waters.

Kayaking for a cause

Jay Caldwell, who came up with the idea for the trip, is a summer youth kayak intern with the foundation. He and Tracy Tripp, the foundation's community coordinator, are leading the "Craaazzy Kayak Trip Water Basin Tour" effort.

The mother-and-son team, which recently started advocating for the river, will team with two other kayakers that will take on the entire trip. They are John Dettelbach and Tim Reaves, active volunteers for the past year.

Other interested community participants will join them for segments of the tour, and they will be supported by a logistical team of about a dozen volunteers associated with the foundation.

If all has gone according to plan, so far the group will have hiked Linville Gorge, paddled across Lake James and through the Upper Catawba River basin. Ken Teeter - a foundation member who lives on Lake Norman - organized the trek through the gorge.

According to planned itinerary, today, the kayakers should be in Lake Hickory, heading to Lake Norman. Once there, they will sail 34 miles across the lake, ending at N.C. Community Sailing & Rowing at Blythe Landing. A public welcome party is planned for the group around noon Aug. 14.

Will Paschal, 25, is the waterfront director/youth coach for N.C. Community Sailing & Rowing.

Paschal looks at the foundation as a partner that shares similar interests.

"They're watchdogs over the water, and our interests and our programs are directly affected by the water quality - and, really, everybody is," he said. "A lot of people aren't really aware of how important the river is to them. Bringing the public's attention to the lake and raising awareness about water quality on the Catawba is just a great cause, and it's a good opportunity for us to reach out to an organization that's promoting that."

Those involved in the trip simply consider themselves "crazy" about water quality in the watershed.

"It really is a big deal," said Tripp. "We just want to continue to raise awareness about water quality issues while raising money to clean up the river so we can stay off those lists."

Foundation members and advocates agree a few of the major threats to the area's water quality are stormwater runoff, coal ash issues and heavy metals, said Tripp.

To be continued...

Tripp also said the summer-adventure-turned-river-saving-mission will not only change the lives of the volunteers but also has the power to change the future of the river. Her son agrees.

"The kayakers are demonstrating to everyone that we all can be involved in the effort to achieve our goal of raising water-quality awareness," said Caldwell. "We represent local citizens that can and will continue to do something about our water quality."

The group plans to collect a water sample from the river's headwaters to save. They hope to continue the trip next year downriver to the ocean and pour the water sample into the sea.

"It will symbolically portray the changes of the river as it passes through all the cities of the basin," said Tripp. "The journey is personal and communal at once.

"It is a lot of mileage in a few short days, totally supported by volunteer efforts, and what we hope to get out of it is to bring top-of-mind awareness to the community of Catawba River water users while stressing the critical importance of water conservation and the cleanliness of the Catawba River's tributaries, creeks, streams and lakes."

How to get involved

Donations from businesses and individuals help make the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation what it is.

"Jay (Caldwell) credits that to our citizens' love of their lakes and streams, as well as them having an interest in their drinking water," said biologist and riverkeeper David Merryman, 27, who planned to travel a portion of the group's journey. "After all, it is our water. We depend on it and it depends on us."

Merryman has been with the foundation for nearly three years. Aside from providing an on-the-water presence for the protection of the Catawba River, he also investigates buffer clearings, sewage spills and fish kills. He then reports and documents his findings and helps ensure enforcement of environmental laws.

"This trip is a wonderful way to experience our river's journey from its pristine mountains to the developed Piedmont," he said. "Showing the public examples of increased sediment, developed shorelines and more human impact will, hopefully, encourage people to support their river, their drinking water and an organization solely focused on protecting it."