Jonathan Nichols can't count how many times he has floated down the Catawba River during the past 20 years.
You better believe he'll be counting from now on.
Nichols, along with his uncle and aunt, Jerry and Jan Brown, recently launched Catawba River Expeditions, a shuttle and kayak rental service serving the Catawba River. They're joining an industry brimming with optimism about the potential for catching cash out of the Catawba.
"I've been out here pretty much all my life," said Nichols, 27. "We played in Landsford Canal growing up."
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Now, Nichols and his family are renting kayaks and shuttling paddlers up and down the river. They launch patrons from all the public access areas in York and Chester counties, including the Lake Wylie dam, River Park, Landsford Canal State Park and the S.C. 9 bridge, and they use an old church van to shuttle them back to their cars after the trek is finished.
"Everybody's been telling the guys for years they need to do this," said Jan Brown, an accomplished paddler, too. "Not that many people have been able to get out here, and it's a shame because it's so beautiful."
Kayak sales increasing
David Shope, owner of downtown Rock Hill's Old Town Outfitters, believes Catawba River Expeditions will be a big hit and hopes it will influence sales at his outdoors store.
"Any time people go out on the Catawba River it benefits us," Shope said. He sold Nichols the kayaks he needed to start his business and said overall kayak sales at his store this summer have nearly tripled from last year. Shope attributes the spike to more awareness of his store among local paddling enthusiasts and the improved condition of the river.
Shope said Duke Energy's 2006 relicensing agreement for its management of the river includes timed releases of water from the Lake Wylie dam, meaning water levels will remain steady. The agreement also calls for improved access areas along the river.
"People aren't worried about being left high and dry anymore," Shope said, adding the Catawba for years had a reputation for being too shallow if not enough water were released from the dam. "It's really promoted the whole industry."
Tourism package in works
Bennish Brown, director of the York County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he sees potential to include kayaking trips and services in packages the bureau is developing for tourists. Brown said "nature" is one of the five Villages of York County, a marketing plan to showcase all the attractions in the county. He said Lake Wylie always has been a popular destination, but until now opportunities on the Catawba River have been limited.
"This (river rentals and shuttles) will fill a piece of the puzzle we've been missing," Brown said. "We know there's interest for recreation on the water. Once you're on the river, it's one of the most unspoiled views of York County."
Catawba River Expeditions isn't the first company to try its hand at river rentals. Shope said a similar venture took a stab at the idea a few years ago but didn't find success.
And Lancaster-based Carolina Paddling offers guided tours of the Landsford Canal area. Owner Sam Cranston, a retired engineer, said he's glad to see more people taking interest in the hobby and industry it supports. He agreed the potential for success is growing but cautioned the logistics of transporting customers up and down the river can be a challenge.
But Nichols and the Browns aren't biting off too much too fast, they said. While Nichols hopes to offer guided fishing trips to more remote destinations in the future, for now the operation is home-based and rents kayaks, canoes, life vests and paddles or just offers the shuttle service to customers who already own equipment.
"It's truly a family business right now. Grandparents help answer the phone, and the kids wash off the boats," Jan Brown said. "We're so pleased and surprised at the interest our little venture is receiving, and hope that it's God's way of saying we might be heading in the right direction."
AT A GLANCE
• What: Catawba River Expeditions
• What they do: Guided and unguided kayak trips on the Catawba River, kayak and canoe rentals and shuttle service
• Where: Lake Wylie Dam, River Park, Landsford Canal and more
• Phone: 327-9335
• On the Web: www.catawba-river-expeditions.com