As the heat climbs, more and more people are heading to the Catawba River to cool down. And as traffic on the river increases, so do the dangers.
C.C. Williams, an outdoor recreation coordinator for the city of Rock Hill, said people run into three dominant dangers on the river:
▪ They don’t know enough about the river.
▪ They don’t wear a life jacket.
▪ They drink alcoholic beverages.
Williams helps train the Rock Hill Fire Department in swift water rescues. Battalion Chief Trey Hovis said the department gets about 30 water rescue calls a year. He said some are true emergencies and some cases are simply helping stranded tubers or kayakers.
Chuck Haynes, York County emergency management director, said since April, there have been 11 calls for service on the Catawba River.
“I think a lot of it is people underestimating the water, underestimating the power of the river,” Hovis said.
Mitchell Monteith, a tuber, was at the Catawba River on a recent Friday. He said he goes on the river once or twice a month. While he’s never felt in danger, he said he’s seen several rescues.
“I’ve seen a few people get rescued because of the rapids when the dam is open,” he said.
Duke Energy releases water from the Lake Wylie Dam on the weekends. The higher water level makes the current faster, and the river better for recreation.
Monteith said he knows the water release schedule – and the river – so he’s not too worried about his safety.
Phillip Macdonald, an adventure guide at Camp Canaan, said knowing the dam schedule is important. The summer camp is on an island in the York County segment of the Catawba River.
“The biggest issue I’ve seen are people who don’t know the dam release schedule and are stuck on the river for longer than they want,” he said.
When the water is low, the river moves more slowly. He said that can cause people to underestimate how long they’ll be on the river.
“The more I work on the river, the more I learn to respect the river,” Macdonald said.
He said, anyone on the river should have a life jacket and a whistle – even when tubing. Williams said kayakers are required to bring a personal floatation device and noise maker – like a whistle – but tubers do not have those requirements.
Brian Welsh, owner of the Kayaking 4 H20 rental company, said tubing without a life jacket can be dangerous, especially when water levels are high.
“Let’s just say you’re in a tube and your tube pops, you can’t swim in a strong current like that,” he said.
Tubers also often bring alcohol on the water. Open containers are prohibited on city land, such as Riverwalk. However, there’s no law against drinking alcohol on the river, Williams said.
Hovis said when people drink on the river, the heat can compound the effects and further impair their judgment.
“It is a wild area,” Hovis said. “It is a river and it is a natural environment, so there’s a lot more risk than people identify.”
And on the Catawba, it’s never long before kayaks flip, or tubes burst or flip.
“The most common causes of accidents tend to be that people find themselves upside down and separated from their craft. That’s what’s going to happen on water,” Williams said. “I like to say ‘kayakers are all between swims.’ It’s not if you come out of your boat, it’s when you come out of your boat.”
Hannah Smoot: 803-329-4068